Explained: What Had Kamla Bhasin Got To Do With The Azadi Slogan?
Bhasin, who passed away on Saturday, first chanted the slogans of freedom in 1991 at Women's Studies Conference at Jadavpur University.
In February 2016, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University held an event where 'Azadi' slogans were raised. The government booked the organisers for various offences, including sedition. The slogan, usually linked to the separatist movement in Kashmir, came to be seen as an act of "anti-nationalism". The students and activists later clarified that they were chanting slogans of 'Azadi' (freedom) within India and not Azadi from India.
The credit for popularising the Azadi slogan in India goes to feminist icon Kamla Bhasin.
Bhasin, who passed away on Saturday, first chanted the slogans of freedom in 1991 at Women's Studies Conference at Kolkata's Jadavpur University. In an interview in 2019, Bhasin spoke about how she came across the feminist slogan.
Born in 1946, Bhasin was a prominent feminist activist, poet and a social scientist. Gender, development and education were her main areas of concern. In 2002, she left her job at the UN and started to work with feminist network Sangat. Using posters and plays, Bhasin worked extensively with underprivileged women to create awareness and community mobilisation.
When did Kamla Bhasin first hear the Azadi slogan?
It was in 1980s Pakistan, which was under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-haq. Bhasin happened to witness a programme organised by a feminist group in Lahore. The women had sought permission for a women's mela (carnival) because feminist gatherings, like other progressive meets, weren't allowed under Zia's rule.
On the outside, there were stalls for bangles and other things. But inside, Bhasin recounted in the interview, it was all about democracy and freedom. There, the chants of Azadi against patriarchy were raised. "Aurat ka nara Azadi, bacho ka naara Azadi," Bhasin heard it there for the first time.
Under President Zia-ul-Haq's regime, the Hudood Ordinance left women helpless by preventing them from pursuing their rights as equal members of a society under a strict interpretation of Islam. As the Dawn notes, "The Hudood Ordinances dealt with different crimes; rape, murder, adultery, alcohol, and theft. But in order to accuse a person of a crime under the Hudood Ordinance, the offence had to be proven by a testimony or witnessed by four Muslim male adults. In some cases, only two witnesses were needed. This left women helpless to make any criminal accusation against any person because their testimony was considered less than a mans'."
This led to women of Pakistan coming together to fight for women's rights-- one of the first was the Women's Action Forum. Protesting against the Hudood Ordinance was not easy-- the women had to suffer beatings from police officers and spent nights in jail.
How did the Azadi slogan find its way into India?
Kamla Bhasin then came back to India from Pakistan. She was in her early forties in 1991 when she used the lines from the slogan at the Women's Studies Conference. in Jadavpur University.
"Meri behane maange Azaadi, meri bachhi maange Azaadi, naari ka naara Azaadi … (My sisters want freedom, my daughter wants freedom, every woman's slogan is freedom)," Bhasin chanted in the University, in Kolkata.
In 2013, during 'One Billion Rising from South Asia' a campaign to end violence against women, Bhasin raised the Azadi slogan, again. The global campaign "by women, for women" was organised on Valentine's Day. The movement called for justice, gender equality and an end to violence. The one-day event on February 14 was a call for one billion women around the world to show collective strength.
With an injured foot, Bhasin sat on a wheelchair, chanting, "From patriarchy-Azadi/from hierarchy-Azadi/from endless violence-Azadi/from helpless silence-Azadi…for self-expression-Azadi/for celebration-Azadi...For dancing freely-Azadi/for singing loudly-Azadi..."
The swelling crowd screamed 'Azadi' with Bhasin.
But, Azadi slogan became an act of dissent after Kanhaiya Kumar's popular chanting, demanding 'Azadi' from discrimination, Brahminism, poverty. 'Azadi' -- which means freedom -- became a regular slogan at almost all student protests after the incident at JNU in 2016.
Then, in 2019, the Azadi slogan was penned down as a rap song in critically acclaimed film Gully Boy, starring Alia Bhat and Ranveer Singh.
The same year, Bhasin's Azadi slogan found a place in anti-CAA protests that started in December 2019. When hundreds of women gathered in Delhi's Shaheenbagh area to protest the citizenship act, the streets reverberated with the chants of freedom. From Delhi to Lucknow, to Pune and Hyderabad, the slogan became a central feature of the protests.
In January 2020, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath said those found chanting 'azadi slogan' during anti-CAA protests would be booked for sedition. "If anyone will raise slogans of 'Azadi' in the name of protest, it will amount to sedition and the government will take strict action. It can't be accepted. People cannot be allowed to conspire against India from Indian soil," he had said while addressing a pro-CAA rally in Kanpur.
"Kamla Bhasin, our dear friend, passed away around 3 am on September 25. This is a big setback for the women's movement in India and the South Asian region. She celebrated life whatever the adversity. Kamla you will always live in our hearts. In Sisterhood, which is in deep grief," activist Kavita Srivastava tweeted, announcing that the feminist icon — who did a lot many things besides bringing the Azadi slogan — is no more. Kamla Bhasin was 75.
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