Date published: June 11, 2012
Journal code: WNFS
India: Meera Velayudhan: New Challenges, but Dreams Persist...
Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - Gender and Dalit Studies scholar, Meera Velayudhan's research has been centred around women's struggles and forms of organisation in varied historical contexts. She currently works as a policy analyst with the Centre for Environment & Social Concerns, Ahmedabad. Among the important influences in her life was that of her mother, Dakshayani Velayudhan, who was the first dalit woman graduate in India, a member of the Cochin Legislative Council, the Constituent Assembly and India's first Parliament. In this excerpt from 'Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India' (Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited), she recalls, among other incidents and developments, how her mother helped to initiate a national dalit women's forum.
From where did I draw my sense of justice? Myriad thoughts and images come to my mind - different points of history, of locations and identities. Although born and brought up in Delhi, my identity is deeply linked with Mulavukad, a small island offthe coast of Cochin where my mother, Dakshayani, lived, and Kocheril, in feudal Travancore, where my father, Velayudhan, grew up. As first generation educated dalits their lives were also part of the history of their communities in the region - they became the changing face of the community. There were many firsts in my mother's life - the first girl to wear an upper cloth, the first dalit woman graduate in India, a science graduate, a member of the Cochin Legislative Council and of the Constituent Assembly. Many assertions were also made, of not walking with shoulders bent nor making way for the upper castes when walking on the road. A staunch Gandhian, my mother stood by Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly debates on key principles underlying India's Constitution.
My father was given the opportunity to study in his landlord's school, the same landlord who would beat him mercilessly for little things and later give him sweets. His mother worked in the landlord's household. My parents were married at the Gandhi ashram in Wardha, with Gandhiji and Kasturba as witnesses and a leper standing in as a priest. Kasturba Gandhi also spun a white sari with a red border for my mother for the marriage ceremony. My father was among the first batch of masters students at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Bombay, with labour welfare as his specialisation. His political life arose from the Indian National Congress and the state people's movement in Travancore, but soon after his election to the first parliament from the Indian National Congress, he joined hands with his friend, the socialist leader, Rammanohar Lohia, on various issues. My father won two parliamentary elections from the non-reserved constituency of Quilon in Kerala, the latter with the support of the Left. His experience of working with the people never lefthim even as he became deeply involved in the refugee rehabilitation committee of parliament. The stories of Partition are many, and sometimes families were put up for a short time in the outhouse of our bungalow, too. One of them was an army officer and his wife, waiting for a pension; there was the ruler of Nabha who sought my father's help with his privy purse; and there was a large Muslim household which lived in our home for a long period. Several cousins, both maternal and paternal, also stayed in our home, studying or working. It was my mother who introduced my first cousin, K.R. Narayanan (later, President of India, my father and his were brothers) to Jawaharlal Nehru after he returned from the London School of Economics, which led to his joining the Indian Foreign Service.
I was inspired by many of my father's "side activities" - taking a delegation of shoeshine boys to a bank for a loan, or pressing for insurance for circus artistes. Both my parents travelled abroad in parliamentary delegation, giving us, their children, a sense of the histories of the different countries, in particular of China and Vietnam, and of non-aligned leaders like President Tito, Nasser, Chou en Lai, Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno and Nehru, all in our family's photo albums. It did not seem strange to me and my brothers that my parents belonged to different, if not opposing, political parties, yet they worked together. As the only daughter (I had four brothers) I was special for my parents, who sent me away to a boarding school to ensure that their social activities did not interrupt my schooling. My four brothers were not so privileged, they had to change schools many times. It was evident to me from childhood that I would have to make my own life. I think it must have been my father's influence because I always, in school too, considered myself a "political person". Both my parents encouraged me and my brothers to keep our eyes open to whatever was happening around us, to read, respond and express our opinions. However, my father passed away too early, in the mid-1970s. He was disappointed with the Leftin Kerala - wrote a book, Kerala, the Red Rain Land - did not feel comfortable with any political formation and was increasingly moving towards Buddhism, personally and intellectually. Was he also disappointed with the Nehruvian ethos? Perhaps. As always, he was ahead of his times.
Cut offcompletely from her roots in Kerala and even as she worked as an officer in the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) in Delhi to support the family, my mother, along with a few Ambedkarite middle class dalit women, initiated a national dalit women's forum, the Mahila Jagriti Parishad, by holding a conference in Delhi towards the end of the 1970s. I recall accompanying her and Kaushalya Baisantry (a participant in Babasaheb Ambedkar's women's meet in the 1940s in Maharashtra), visiting the houses of middle class dalits, mainly civil servants and professional, to collect donations for the event. I was disturbed to see that the younger generation, the second generation of educated dalits, were either uninterested or embarrassed by this. However, the lively conference, with over two hundred dalit women from different states participating, with their own stories, poems, speeches and songs, reflected their attempt to create a space of their own.
(Excerpted from 'Memoirs From The Women's Movement In India: Making A Difference', Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price: Rs 350/Softback.)
(© Women's Feature Service)