« Back to articlePrint this article

'Today It Is Absolute Dictatorship'

January 10, 2023 11:54 IST

'If you persist in opposing the government, they set the ED or the NIA on you. And the courts have not given us much hope.'

IMAGE: Roop Rekha Verma at a protest showing solidarity with Gujarat rape victim Bilkis Bano. All Photographs: Kind courtesy Roop Rekha Verma.

In the concluding segment of A three-part interview, Lucknow's much-respected feminist and secularist, Roop Rekha Verma tells Jyoti Punwani why, despite feeling hopeless, she keeps fighting.


When did you start Saajhi Duniya?

My social involvement had started when I was in my late 20s, on a small scale. But full-bodied campaigning in the streets started in the late 80s, when the Babri Masjid hate campaign began. That scared me a lot. That's when I started working among the people single-handedly.

A couple of years later a group of half-a-dozen individuals got associated and we used the name 'Nagrik-Dharm Samaj' for our campaigns. By the mid-1990s this name was later changed to 'Saajhi Duniya'. We registered our organisation only in 2004.

You started working single-handedly? How?

I would go to areas with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims and talk to different sections about the Mandir-Masjid controversy and its repercussions on the well-being of society. I would talk to passers by, to traders... Sometimes the conversations would be with individuals, sometimes with groups; sometimes on the spur of the moment, at other times at pre-arranged meetings. Sometime these conversations would be accompanied by distribution of leaflets.

Did these activities affect your job?

My social work never got priority over my university duties. But as I became visible in public spaces, my colleagues started accusing me of not maintaining the dignity of a university teacher. But since I never neglected my professional duties, I didn't care about these comments.

IMAGE: At a protest march against communal hatred.

What kind of work does Saajhi Duniya do?

Saajhi Duniya started with anti-communalism work and advocacy for our composite culture. Gender issues got in later and these gradually became an independent focus area. Both communalism and gender issues have a deep connection as both are ultimately linked to democratic values, which we believe, are ultimate values.

We believe that each individual has the same rights as anyone else. Secondly, an individual must be seen as an independent individual, not only as a member of a collective. Both communalism and patriarchy see individuals as unequal and part of a collective only.

Saajhi Duniya does sensitisation through workshops, meeting people, bringing out pamphlets. We work with school students as well as with different kinds of communities in both urban and rural areas. We have also done textbook analyses. We take up cases of victims of violence and use both counseling and legal actions for remedy, combined with the tools of protests, memoranda, etc.

Regrettably, the space for such activities is diminishing fast. Government agencies seem to be totally unsympathetic to such work. One example is of a very successful organisation set up by the previous regime, Mahila Samakhya.

One of the early decisions of the central government in 2014 was to close the total network of Mahila Samakhya and stop its funding from the Centre. I was on its executive body in UP and had suggested to the state government to take it over, which was accepted.

Mahila Samakhya worked for women from the interiors of UP to its capital, spreading awareness of women's rights, specially Dalit and minority women, opening kanya vidyalayas. The impact of their work was visible. If you go to UP's villages, the women are so aware.

That's what this government is afraid of. They feed on the ignorance and backwardness of the public.

With the change of regime in UP in 2017, this scheme was abolished.

IMAGE: In conversation with women folk in a village.

Is the overall situation today vastly different?

Oh, there's a great difference. That's what makes me very disappointed. I hover between hopelessness and hope.

I never expected to see such lawlessness ---anyone can lynch, the police can hit you for no reason. You can't protest, you can't submit a memorandum, nobody in government will meet you.

We have fought some serious cases in the past. There was the 2005 Aashiana gangrape case which was fought for 11 years, leading to the conviction of all the 6 accused. Four of them were from influential families, close to the then government. But the government did not interfere with the process of justice. One by one, each boy was penalised.

We never had an ideal government, but if we came out to protest even without police permission, they'd manage us, walk with us, not bundle us into a vehicle and leave us somewhere far away. That much decency and democracy was there.

We could say harsh things and accuse the government and they would be on the defensive. I've had a lot of ugly discussions with police chiefs, but they never insulted me. There was space not just for your opinion, but also for accusations against the government and police.

Now, it's absolute dictatorship. If you persist in opposing the government, they set the ED or the NIA on you. And the courts have not given us much hope.

Personally I still feel privileged. I've not faced what Sudha Bharadwaj or Gautam Navlakha or Father Stan Swamy did.

IMAGE: Speaking at a protest against hate.

How has this affected Saajhi Duniya?

Till 2017 we didn't feel any change. We continued with our work freely. The communal discourse had increased even before 2014, we felt the challenges were sharper. But we could counter them, and people would listen to us quietly. Today they won't.

Today, there are very few occasions to talk face to face with people. Our space has been severely limited. We cannot go out on the streets. The kind of vocal opposition we used to do earlier is no longer possible. Our visibility has to be minimised.

Under this government, using a public space to make people aware is not allowed. As soon as the new regime came, the police stopped allowing us to gather in public.

If four of us stood together at a central place where a large number of people could notice us, say near the Gandhi statue, the police would immediately come and cite an old high court ban on gathering in public spaces.

But if ruling party supporters want to take over the streets, there's no problem.

I was put under house arrest twice, once during the anti-CAA movement days, and the second time during the protests against the Hathras rape.

We now focus on meeting people indoors, helping people, standing by them. We continue to conduct sensitisation workshops, but there's a big difference in our access to institutions. Earlier, when members of Saajhi Duniya would approach a school or college for workshops and tell them that I was the organisation's secretary, 90% would be very happy to welcome us. Now they say, "We'll get back to you" and hardly any do!

I can't blame them, they have to run their institutions. Who knows what this government would do to them!

We used to conduct many activities with other women's groups and secular organisations, but now a large number don't join hands with us.

IMAGE: At a candlelight vigil against CAA and NRC on Gandhi Jayanti.

Lucknow has always been known for its composite culture. Has that changed post 2014?

Lucknow's composite culture has been gradually destroyed ever since the Babri Masjid campaign. I remember in the 1980s when I had started campaigning on the streets, the then VC of Lucknow University called me and said "Suna hai bahut kaam kar rahi ho?" I thought he was praising me, so I shyly replied, "Itna zyada bhi nahi." He got furious and said: "Kya tamasha bana rakha hai? Aap ko malum nahin Musalmonon ne kya kiya hai is desh mein?"

People had already started talking openly against Muslims. My Muslim friends would narrate to me in tears how at social gatherings, suddenly the topic would turn towards the Babri Masjid and they would be asked: "Why don't you give it up?"

The hate was less widespread than today, but it was quite alarming then too. Cassettes of Sadhvi Rithambara's speeches were to be found in all families.

That atmosphere however, subsided after the UPA came to power, but has resurfaced now. Still I would say Lucknow has a substantial section of people who are secular and the communities' concern for each other is encouraging, compared to some other cities in UP. But people like us are in a much reduced minority than earlier.

Lucknow's composite culture can be traced back to the nawabi days, but it has sustained also because it was a centre for progressive literature, with writers like Yashpal and the activities of the Progressive Writers Association, including Sajjad Zaheer, Ram Lal and many others.

People talk about Mulayam Singh Yadav's reign as a period of lawlessness. Was that one reason they didn't vote for the SP?

When I was growing up, I heard the same discourse about Dalits that one hears about Muslims today: They are dirty, they don't want to work, they produce lots of children, their children are very cunning (chalaak). The only additional thing that's said about Muslims today is that they are kattar (fanatic).

These are perceptions made without verifying facts. These are spread when you want to degrade and frighten people about the dominance of one community. Under Mulayam Singh, Muslims were as neglected and deprived as they are today. It's because he had taken a stand on the Babri Masjid that these things were said about him.

IMAGE: Standing in solidarity with victims of Lakhimpur Kheri.

But didn't he patronise Muslim criminals?

Yes, he did a few and we publicly opposed each wrong committed by the regime then. Such patronages are unpardonable. But the gravity of such patronage was much smaller than what we are witnessing today.

Those who participated in lynchings are patronised. Hate mongers are rewarded with important positions. A lynching accused was cremated with the national flag draped around him. Can there be any greater insult to the national flag? Bilkis Bano's rapists, those accused in the Asifa rape case, Pragya Thakur, Kuldip Sengar... the list is endless. Sangeet Som and Sanjeev Balyan, whose names featured in the Muzaffarnagar riots, were also rewarded.

By that reckoning, Mulayam Singh is a much lesser evil.

IMAGE: Standing atop a car addressing an anti-CAA rally in 2019.

Yet his party lost. Do Hindus in general appreciate the use of bulldozers?

Those who do not reflect much over democratic moral values do, while those who respect Gandhian and Nehruvian values are very unhappy. They are not a miniscule number, but those who are happy have grown in number due to very distorted propaganda.

Truly speaking, there does not seem to be much hope. Specially after the assembly election results... We had authentic videos of empty chairs at BJP meetings, of speakers having to return. I have never seen such a wave in favour of the SP.

If in such conditions the BJP could win, it only means that the party enjoys vast public support, or there is some shady element in the election process. Such a wave for SP may never be repeated. I have no hopes from the EC. Hope from courts is also reduced.

Democracy survives because of the combined efforts of different sections. Now I feel everything is over. I'm terribly depressed. They can crush or purchase everyone. There's no door left to knock. It's not in our power to summon Allah or God. We can only turn to the court. That puts me in deep depression.

IMAGE: At an anti-war rally in Lucknow after Russia attacked Ukraine.

What then keeps you going?

In my heart of hearts, there remains some sort of stubbornness. That desire to change things is not gone, though the hope has gone.

You have to be honest to yourself. My childhood and teenage years were inspired by the values of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar despite having some questions for each. We valued democracy and felt riots must be avoided. How can I not be disturbed by what is happening today?

You feel restive, but you feel more restive if you doesn't continue with your work or don't speak out. Your hopelessness drives you to speak up, you know you will feel more hopeless if you don't. I carry on working to escape cynicism and madness. I feel I should at least try. You never know when the tables may turn.

One must work to justify one's existence.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/