By Alphonsa Kumari
Kolkata, Jan. 17, 2019: Basanti Soren is an Adivasi social activist, who has started “Nari Mukhti Chetana Sangathan” (‘Women’s Liberative Consciousness Movement.’). The movement is leaping out from Udayani (awakening), social action forum of Calcutta Jesuits.
Soren shared her life and activities with Alphonsa Kumari. Excerpts:
MATTERS INDIA: Tell us about your background. How and why did you become an activist?
BASANTI SOREN: I was born in 1972 in a Santal family at Kalna, in Burdwan district of West Bengal. My ancestors hailed from Jharkhand who migrated to West Bengal around 150 years ago in search of work. Since then we are permanent residents of Bengal.
I am the eldest of two boys and two girls. My sister was polio affected since childhood.
After my father, who was a laborer, passed away in 2015, my mother suffered a severe stroke that paralyed her right side and became bed ridden. My younger sister takes care of my ailing mother. My youngest brother, after completing his masters in Sanskrit, works as a receptionist at Tata Medical Hospital in Kolkata on a temproary basis. The other brother is a farm laborer.
Although my ws conservative and traditional my parents encouraged me to study. In 1994, I was recruited as a teacher under Integrated Child Development Scheme. I was only 19 years old and a ninth grader. I completed tenth grade from an open school after joining Udayani.
why did you join Udayani?
To answer that I have to mention about my social background and the influence of Jesuit missionaries on me.
Kalna, like any other rural pockets of West Bengal, was discriminatory toward women. Dalit and Adivasi women had to face discrimination at two levels—gender and ethnicity.
One can say that Adivasi women were liberated because most of them were sole bread earners in the family. They migrated to nearby districts to work as agricultural laborers. But their liberty was restricted by a male dominated society.
The women had to toil the whole day in the fields and in the evening tend to their family. At night they would be brutally trashed by their alcoholic husbands.
An alcoholic father, a helpless mother and a dysfunctional family would victimize the children. They often dropped out of schools and worked in the fields. The girls in search of love and affection would elope at an early age of 13 or 14. Seeing this, the Jesuit missionaries started Educational Centres for School Dropouts.
I met Jesuit Father Irudhaya Jothi (present director of Udayani Social Acton Forum) in 2003. Seeing the socio-economic background of our place, he asked me to run the educational center that catered to Dalit and tribal school dropout. This was the beginning of my journey. Slowly, the organization’s focus shifted from the children to women –organizing mothers to improve their socio-political and economic status.
Thus began Self-Help Groups (SHG) for women. In 2004, I formed the first SHG named ‘Susar Gauta’, (‘Uniting together’). The SHG members were the mothers of the students in the educational centers. Instead of paying tuition fees, they collectively invested 500 rupees in the group. The SHGs and the educational centers functioned simultaneously.
In 2005, I was made the supervisor of the centers at Kalna II. At this time, I started expanding the number of SHGs including other village women. Since, Udayani had adopted a rights-based approach I started sensitizing village women about their socio-political rights. I attended various trainings relating to SHGs and Food Rights. In 2006, I attended training on SHGs at Assam.
Through my interactions with the village people I realized that their fundamental rights were being violated. They were denied a dignified life, food security and the right to work. The situation of women was worse. They had to work through their pregnancy to earn a living for themselves and their child without any maternity benefits from the government. Seeing this I mobilized the women of Hatgacha Dangapara, Hatgacha Moirapara, Suye, Ekchaka and many other villages in Kalna Block. Vigorous protests and demonstrations were organised at the block, district and state levels in collaboration with Udayani and the Right to Food network.
Finally, we protested at the national level through ‘Thala Bajao Andolan’ where women continuously played their plates to force the administrations accept their demands. It was through these efforts that the National Food Security Act was passed in 2013. This has been a major achievement for me.
You have talked about your achievements, successes and transformations. How do you think that Udayani has helped in bringing about a transformation within you?
Before joining Udayani, I was a simple and shy ICDS teacher. I too shared the same Socio-political and the economic position as the other women and girls within the village. I was not aware of the basic fundamental rights enjoyed by people. I was unaware of the political scenario within the village or the state more so I was a common village girl bound by the stereotypes of society where women were considered to be inferior, weak, vulnerable, exposed and incapable of bringing about any form of transformation.
For me the typical role of women was to be a good daughter, a good wife and a good mother. This concept of mine simmered and shattered after my involvement with Udayani. Today, I am a confident woman capable of rocking the village panchayat or the Block Development Office of Singarkone, Klana to make the ends meet and to help people get their legitimate rights.
I have also motivated my women to become conscious of the power within them and to utilize their potentialities to the ultimate level. Today they are conscious and empowered to collectively fight against the injustices within the village. For instance, in Hatgacha Paschimpara we collectively fought against the local spurious county liquour seller and closed it altogether.
I have evolved from a shy village girl to a potent and confident leader who has started her own organisation, ‘Nari Mukti Chetna Sangathan.’ These transformations are not only visible in the context of my profession but also in the context of my family. Now my family is financially stable and I have been able to give a bright future to my siblings. It has been possible because of the motivation and encouragement that I received from the Jesuits.
Since you were talking about your organisation, tell us more about it and how does it feel to lead a new movement?
The name of my organisation is ‘Nari Mukti Chetana Sangathan,’ translated as ‘Women’s Liberative Consciousness Movement.’ There is a reason why we chose this name. Today there is a lot of hue and cry about women’s empowerment; people feel that women have been liberated enough. Just education and economic independence does not ensure absolute liberation of women. There are far more facets to it. Even today women are discriminated, they are violated and deprived. We as women’s organisations want to expose these facets before people so that they can understand the real meaning of liberation. We aim to attain the realization of Women’s liberation at two levels—one among the women themselves and second among the people within society.
Being the leader of a new movement, especially a women’s movement makes me proud and happy. It was a long-cherished dream which has attained a shape today, through the motivation of the Jesuit priests. I feel happy when people come to me with their problems.
In the month of December 2018, we received a case of a marriage dispute between newly married couples. Their parents and family members had urged our organisation to settle their dispute. This was a proud moment for me as I thought that people are placing their faith and trust in me and my organisation. Sometimes I do feel scared about handling the responsibilities and the faith that people have placed in me but then I remind myself that this is a game of courage and bravery and as long as I have the support of my women, I will be able to win against all odds.
Now when you look back at your journey, what has been your major turning point and who or what has motivated you to move on?
It was in 2015, I was extensively working with food rights. Meanwhile I was also appointed by the panchayat to monitor the form filling process for the digital ration card. I saw that all the other ‘sansads’ except Hatgacha Dangapara ‘Sansad’ had received the forms and the process was rolling. I mobilized the women in this village and asked them to enquire into the reasons of this delay. This behaviour of mine irritated the Sansad member of Hatgacha Dangapara and he threatened me saying, ‘I will chop off you head if you try to mobilize the village women against me.’ This came as a shock to me because I was fighting for the rights of the women and on the contrary, I was being threatened for it.
I was scared but I did not stop my fight I went to the Sub Divisional Officer and Panchayat Pradhan. Udayani constantly rendered it support during my tough times. Ultimately, the Panchayat member had to apologise to me. This has been a major turning point in my life, as this taught me that courage and sincerity will always pay back.
Fr. Irudhaya Jothi has been a constant inspiration and a support. He motivated me and taught me that people are our strength, energy; they are our refuge and support. Being social-workers we should have the ability to work for these people by becoming one with them. We should not differentiate our needs and problems from theirs. It is only then that we will be able to develop a strong people’s movement.
As a social activist how do you think that you have brought about a positive transformation among people?
As a social activist, I am glad that I have been able to bring about numerous transformations around me. Caste discrimination was a common issue in my area. I distinctly remember, in the year 2004, Susar Gauta SHG from Hatgacha Dangapara consisting of Dalit and Adivasi women had applied to cook in schools under the Midday Meal. But the higher caste women had objected to their involvement on the grounds that they would not allow their children to have meals cooked by lower caste women. Listening to this we organised a meeting with the Block level Sabhapati, Panchayat Pradhan and the Panchayat Sadasya (Member). After which they sanctioned the involvement of Dalit and Adivasi women in the Midday meal kitchens. I am glad that I have been able to diminish these caste differences and have been able to bring about positive transformation in the lives of 1000-1200 adivasi and dalit women and their families in my area.
The local administrative bodies like the Local Panchayat and the Block Development Officer often seek my help in various ways to get the some scheme reach villagers quickly. It is through the collective efforts and the cooperation of my women that I have been able to bring about these transformations within the villages and we shall continue to do dream heigher and bigger and beyod!
At times I wonder what would have happened to me if I never associated with Udayani! May be a good housewife and settled with the existing systems. Now a new horizon is opening in front of me! I thank the Lord, the Jesuits and my activist friends!