Preparations Underway: Re(Visiting) Indian Anti-Violence Activists

Preparations Underway: Re(Visiting) Indian Anti-Violence Activists

In The Forest

HERE, O my heart, let us burn the dear dreams that are dead,
Here in this wood let us fashion a funeral pyre
Of fallen white petals and leaves that are mellow and red,
Here let us burn them in noon’s flaming torches of fire.

We are weary, my heart, we are weary, so long we have borne
The heavy loved burden of dreams that are dead, let us rest,
Let us scatter their ashes away, for a while let us mourn;
We will rest, O my heart, till the shadows are gray in the west.

But soon we must rise, O my heart, we must wander again
Into the war of the world and the strife of the throng;
Let us rise, O my heart, let us gather the dreams that remain,
We will conquer the sorrow of life with the sorrow of song.

By Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Naidu’s beautiful words are what I’m carrying with me as I get ready for a trip to India with my dear colleagues from Move to End Violence’s second cohort.

In preparation, I have been thinking hard about what it means for me, an activist against gender based violence, and an Indian-American immigrant woman, to travel (back) to India. An experience both familiar and foreign. A journey that always anchors me in my skin.

The way that I have found it best to ground my cross-cultural existence and my intersectional truths, is to seek the voices of Indian women, contemporary and historical, national and transnational. My heart beats a quicker pace when I think about meeting with the Indian feminist leaders and activists during our time in Delhi and Kolkata. And we will, assuredly, report on those experiences. So, in my own preparations, as I learn and think about the landscape of the contemporary movement in India, I have also taken a moment to think about the legacy of Indian feminist activists and leaders in which I stand.

One of those women is Sarojini Naidu, a freedom fighter in the Indian Independence Movement, the first woman President of the Indian National Congress, the first woman Governor of Uttar Pradesh and an accomplished poet who, in the same breath could speak eloquently about the scourge of colonialism, and the injustice of sexism.  Her political work and writing were rooted in a strong feminist ethic, and in 1917 she helped to establish the Women’s Indian Association and traveled to London to make the case, to the British, for Indian women’s right to vote.

 Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi in 1930.

Though some biographers record her activism for Indian independence as beginning in 1916 when she met Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, it began more than a decade earlier, in 1905, when she joined the independence movement in response to the partition of the state of Bengal.

During the years of 1915-1918, she travelled to different regions in India delivering lectures on social welfare, women’s empowerment and Indian independence from England.

She presided over the annual session of Indian National Congress in 1925, and also over the East African Indian Congress in South Africa 1929. She attended a Round Table conference with Gandhi (and my own grandfather’s elder brother, Nanak Chand Pandit) in England in 1931, was jailed for civil disobedience during the Salt March, and was arrested in 1942 for her affiliation with the Quit India Movement.

What a life. And what a legacy.

As we know, women’s history is too-often subsumed: their narratives lost; their significance undermined. Though Sarojini Naidu is well-known in India (Indian Women’s Day is celebrated on her birthday), my American education of Indian history never got around to her name, which I’ll be sure to remember, and her words, which have begun to keenly shape my journey to India, even before it’s begun. As I prepare to meet with Indian activists working to end violence against women and girls in India, the last stanza of her poem, In the Forest, gives me a charge. A charge which I accept.

But soon we must rise, O my heart, we must wander again
Into the war of the world and the strife of the throng;
Let us rise, O my heart, let us gather the dreams that remain,
We will conquer the sorrow of life with the sorrow of song.

Eesha Pandit
Eesha Pandit
Managing Partner
Center for Advancing Innovative Policy (CAIP)

Eesha Pandit has worked for women's human rights and reproductive justice for the past decade. Currently, she is a Managing Partner at the Center for Advancing Innovative Policy (CAIP). Learn More

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