INDIA: A NATURAL FEMINIST, THIS SANTHAL TRIBAL WOMAN

The inspiring legend and everyday activism of this courageous leader

Purulia (women’s feature service)  Wherever we went in the predominantly tribal pockets of Purulia, in Bengal, we noticed that it was the women who were the backbone of the community. The hard labour involved in feeding families was in evidence everywhere. It was the women who were harvesting the rice, threshing it, parboiling, drying it — often by spreading it out on the roads — and it was women who were hauling home heavy loads of precious food grain from ration shops. They were the ones who were refurbishing the walls of their homes with fresh clay and performing the numerous, taken-for-granted but back-breaking chores like ferrying water or washing clothes by the pond side. But here was the paradox: while women were central to general well-being, their status was abysmal. For instance, female literacy in Purulia, when compared to levels in Bengal’s other 18 districts, was among the worst. 

It is in such an unlikely scenario that Kanaklata Murmu, a Santhal tribal, has emerged as a community leader. Not many Santhal women, living in the remote village of Kumari, in Purulia’s Manbazar II block, have been able to perceive the hypocrisies of their society with the clarity that this mother of two teenagers has. Kanaklata instinctively understands the feminist principle of the right to mobility and points out that keeping a woman tied to her home is like cutting off the wings of a bird.

“Everything is based on mobility, one’s whole development as a human being is based on one’s capacity to move from place to place. But women here are constantly facing restrictions, whether in their parents’ homes or their husbands’,” observed Kanaklata. She added wryly, “Even if they are beaten by their husbands, they need their permission to file a police complaint! Why are we then surprised that women get beaten up so frequently and receive no justice?”

What helped Kanaklata understand the world beyond her village was the activism of a local organisation, Jamboria Sevabrata (JS). Supported by ActionAid, JS built a network of the poorest and most marginalised in the district on the two central issues of right to food and employment, which came to be known as the Purulia Zilla Banchita Jana Jagaran Adhikar Samity (BJJAS), or the Society For Creating Awareness Among the Deprived People of Their Rights in Purulia district.

Recalled Kanaklata, “By 2006, BJJAS had been established and I joined as one of its first members. Through BJJAS we got a lot of information about various government programmes for poor people like us. The emphasis was on human rights for all, not just for some — and this included women.”

One of the tasks assigned to Kanaklata’s group was to supervise the mid day meal scheme at the local school and she quickly realised that a lot of food grain meant for the children was being siphoned off by a cabal headed by the president of the block. Unlike most others in her place, she decided to do something about it and complained to the Block Development Office. There was an immediate backlash. Pressure was put on her husband to rein her in.  But when he berated her angrily, something strange happened — local villagers intervened and told him that she was doing the right thing and should be allowed to continue her efforts.

From that point there was no stopping Kanaklata. She led protests and even confronted the president of the block directly on the issue. “I told him, ‘Sir, you get to sit on a chair for five years. I sit under a tree, and I will be around for much longer.’ Later, I was proved right. The man lost in the following panchayat election!” Kanaklata revealed.

Interestingly, when we asked the residents of Kumari why they considered her someone worthy enough to lead them, they replied that it is her own confidence that gave them the confidence. Explained Kasturi Devi, from an adjoining village, “She makes up her own mind. Whenever things go wrong for people here, they feel they can count on her to act independently, keeping their interests in mind and
not because of pressure from powerful interests.”

But how did a woman, who is a Class VIII drop out, become so independent? “People say I was always a rebel. In fact, I chose my own husband. He was a school teacher living right here in the village where I was born. So when I married him I did not have to leave my village like other women!”
said Kanaklata.

Having lived in Kumari all her life, she understood well the realities that women experience. She said, “Men drink, beat their wives and sometimes throw them out of their houses. We slowly came to understand that the food we were getting in our husband’s homes did not come for free. Every woman was working hard to keep her family going, and she too had rights to live in her husband’s homes
as equals.”

So Kanaklata and women in the local group decided that they would ensure justice for the abused women of the village. The problem was that villages in this region had their own informal systems of justice delivery — usually it was the male elders who sat together and took decisions on disputes that arose from time to time,
including those occurring within and between families. 

 “What struck us was that the verdicts the men gave were faulty because they did not consider the issue from the woman’s perspective,” Kanaklata said. So she and other women in the village decided to set up a parallel justice delivery structure where they would come together and decide cases together.

The outcomes were distinctively different. Kanaklata cited the example of a young bride from the village, who had gone back to her parental home and subsequently refused to return, much to the embarrassment of her husband’s family — and his village. The men in the village sat in a council and ruled that the woman should return to her husband at any cost, but the young woman refused to comply. When the women decided the same case, they approached it in a diametrically different way. They did not lay down diktats. “We were able to understand things men could not. We discussed the issue and then decided to go to the girl’s village to find out what was disturbing her. We assured her of our support and, after a while, the couple came together and is now living quite happily.”

Today, the woman who remarked that she “sits under a tree”, has been able to get drinking water for the people in her village by petitioning the authorities for tube wells and ensure pensions for several elderly widows in the villages, something no one had bothered about earlier. She has also helped people access jobs under the MGNREGA. A nearby government work site bore testimony to this — half the labourers working on extending a local pond here were from her village and they got a daily wage of Rs 152. “Everyone in our village has a job card, and we have all worked on work sites when we have run short of money. Now we are demanding work for more than the stipulated 100 days,” said Kanaklata.

The one thing this feisty woman regretted was her lack of education, “I am a Class Eight drop out. If had more education, I would have been able to do so much more for my people.” But how many educated women have achieved even half of what Kanaklata Murmu in a remote tribal village has been
able to do?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2014