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Profile

Vina Mazumdar, the fighter

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CHANGEMAKER: Mazumdar hosted Prakash and Brinda Karat's wedding. She stays in touch with her former students, but she's cut off ties with Yashwant Sinha because

If you have lived a life like Vina Mazumdar has, events, places and personalities are bound to overlap - Kolkata, Oxford, Patna, Behrampur, Gandhi, Tagore, RC Mazumdar, Nurul Hasan, Lotika Sarkar, Leela Dube, Shankar Mazumdar, Benoy Choudhry, Yashwant Sinha, Sitaram Yechury, Prakash and Brinda Karat.

She still recalls vividly her dissenting note in1974, along with Lotika Sarkar, demanding women's reservation in the path-breaking report, 'Towards Equality', authored by the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI).

Thirty-six years later, when the Rajya Sabha has just passed the women's reservation bill, Mazumdar is only interested in celebrating it, hoping it'd get passed in the lower house of Parliament as well.

At 84, the grand old lady of women's movement in India, is still quite a conversationalist. Sitting in her bare room in the Centre for Women's Development Studies, nothing about her has changed except the trademark cigarette. She quit smoking a few years back. "My son quit smoking. And I told myself, if he can, why not me?"

Her memoir just out - Memories of a Rolling Stone - is a racy account of "a life well lived. " A liberal upbringing, an organic Kolkata of 1940s, activism and policy making of 60s and 70s, rebellious daughters, singer-husband Shankar and the creation of the iconic Centre for Women's Development Studies all find exciting residence in the book.

Her first battle was fought in the Oxford of 1940s. It involved the principal of St. Hughes College, where she was a student, and the Oxford University authorities. "I wanted to do history. But the university said I would have to take Latin too. But my principal was clear there was no need since I had already passed Latin during the entrance test. There was a takkar (fight) between the university and my college."

A compromise was stuck and Mazumdar ended up taking up modern greats. "I never regretted that. It helped me understand why there is a difference between constitutional guarantees to women and their real condition. Why it is that only a few like me, or Lotikadi or Leela Dube had freedom, while a large majority of women had none. By writing this book I also wanted to explain that Indian women's movement was not imitating the feminist movements of the West."

Mazumdar's first job was in Patna University, where she worked between 1951 to 1960, and got involved in the teacher's union. "Vice-chancellor VK Nandan Menon offered me the job without an interview and promised complete autonomy, " she says.

It was there that she had students like former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey, bureaucrat-turned-BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and many others. "Muchkund used to attend my class on international relations as he was preparing for civil services, " she says. "I don't keep in touch with Yashwant Sinha as he is in the BJP. I don't like the BJP, " she states, straight as ever.

Though close to the Left - Prakash and Brinda Karat got married in her house during the Emergency, and Sitaram Yechury is married to her daughter - Mazumdar never joined any political party. "My father told me an academician should not be affiliated to any party."

But at a time when women found it hard to move out of their homes, let alone fight protracted battles for freedom and dignity, who were her mentors, who prodded her on? There were quite a few, she says. Politician Benoy Choudhary, who encouraged her to organise tribal women so they could take on the arbitrary forest department in West Bengal, was one. Educationists DS Kothari and JP Naik, historian Nurul Hasan and Phulrenu Guha too shaped her perspective.

"I have feminist friends, all educated, who have very little contact with poor women. Thanks to Phulrenu, Lotika and I learnt to see the state from the perspective of dispossessed women. This pushed us into doing action-oriented research in places like Bankura and Medinipur, which is still on. But in these two places, the relationship was reversed. We went to teach them about their rights in the Constitution and ended up being their students. We learnt about farming, migration for work and their daily struggles. My whole perspective got turned upside down. It taught me humility. The poor and the weakest fight harder for survival, so they deserve more."

This field experience came in handy when Nurul Hasan roped her in as the member-secretary of CSWI. Her senior at Oxford, Hasan was president of Indian Majlis (association of Indian students) and Mazumdar its secretary. Finally, 'Towards Equality' was written, with Mazumdar literally moving house and home to the office. The report, a watershed in itself, debunked many myths. For instance, it proved that polygamy was more rampant among Hindus than among Muslims. Her arguments, shoring up the need for women's reservation, would become a template for women's organisations all over India.

During Emergency she hosted Prakash and Brinda Karat's wedding. "I am very fond of them, " she says. "They used to help in my campaign and lived in my house during the Emergency. It was a party marriage solemnised by AK Gopalan. (HS) Surjeet also came. "

Brinda, on her part, hasn't forgotten her days with Mazumdar. "I used to tell Vinadi that I am very jealous of her daughters who can go back home with her and continue the discussion. "

Mazumdar has no regrets, though. She now takes turns to live with her four children, all academics, and says she misses her husband whom she lost three years ago. Failing health of her two friends, Lotika and Leela, worries her, and though she herself is frail, she is happy and in control. It shows. Try lending her a helping hand as she gets up from her chair, and she tells you, "Thank you. I can take care of myself. " Like the other Rolling Stones, this one rocks too.

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