Indian women’s rights movement has lost a visionary and powerful leader of poor and marginalised women workers ad self-employed women facing intersectional vulnerabilities in the labour market, factor market and product markets in the informal sector. Her passing created an immeasurable void in the democratic spaces that strive for the dignity of individuals and social cohesion. Ela Bhatt always stood by the underserved sections of society in the urban, rural and tribal areas. Elaben supported the survivors of the 1969 communal riots and 1980 anti-reservation riots in which the Dalit families were attacked. As a student of M.S. University and member of the Study and Struggle Alliance in Vadodara, I got in touch with Elaben during the early 1970s when the textile mills closed their doors to women workers. We were working for textile workers in Vadodara. At that time, Elaben was a young lawyer of the Textile Labour Union founded by Gandhiji and Anasuyaben Sarabhai.
Secular Humanist who stood by the Dalit, Adivasis and Religious Minorites
In 1969, Gujarat experienced extremely violent communal riots targeting Muslim localities, shops and bustees. In a highly charged environment of religious bigotry, Elaben stood tall among the survivors of riots- mainly widows, orphans, and elderly who had lost their young boys and men, property, shops and homes and had lost all hopes of rebuilding their devastated lives. Elaben extended her helping hand in relief operations and encouraged these ‘women-headed households’ to start a business as vegetable vendors, hawkers of food items, weavers of handloom, artisans producing handicrafts, embroidery workers and come together under the umbrella of SEVA women’s cooperatives. When they were prevented to sell their products in the streets of central Ahmedabad, she encouraged and joined them in registering their protest in the form of peaceful sit-ins in front of the District Collector’s office.
Formation of Self Employed Women’s Association
Elaben formed the world’s first women’s trade union, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) with an aim of fighting against exploitation and discrimination in the labour market and in course of the last 50 years, put in place structures and systems for income generation programmes, self-employment, social security, housing rights, financial inclusion, health insurance and human development investment through collective efforts of the working class women. During this year of the Golden Jubilee Celebration, there are so many inspiring and evocative stories and vignettes have been shared in SEVA’s monthly newsletter, Anasuya in Gujarati and Hindi!
Friend of Women’s Rights and Women’s Studies Movement
In 1981, Elaben invited me and Trupti Shah who was active in Manthan, Vadodara to, conduct cultural workshop at the newly established trade union office of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) that was formed in 1972. It was very insightful to discuss with Elaben and her enthusiastic and erudite husband, Prof. Ramesh Bhatt who taught economics at H. K. Arts College of Gujarat University. Elaben found reaching out through cultural medium of songs, street plays, documentary film screening, photographic memories, storytelling and exposure trips extremely valuable to develop synergy among women members of SEWA. We stayed at her home and enjoyed simple Gujarati meal warmly served by her and her husband,Prof. Rameshbhai Bhatt. At SEVA, Bhadra, Ahmedabad office, She also introduced us to different divisions and production units of SEVA in that building. We had a great time singing feminist songs, improvising plays and experimenting with street-theatre format and watching documentary films in Gujarati on the legal rights of women made by Dinazben Kalwachwala of India Space Research Organization (ISRO), Ahmedabad. She translated her favourite song, We shall overcome into rustic/colloquial Gujarati as ‘Ame Paar Karishun…..’.
In 1981, in the midst of anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat, she vocally supported the reservation policy enshrined in the Constitution of India and when angry anti-reservation rioters came to burn her house and pelted stones at her, Elaben and Rameshbhai stood peacefully, firm, and poised. The robust women’s rights movement and nascent women’s studies movement stood by courageous Elaben and invited her to address the plenary of the First Women’s Studies Conference hosted by SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai. When IAWS was formed, Elaben and several office bearers of SEVA became not only its life members but also actively participated in the IAWS Conferences.
In 1985, Elaben led SEWA’s delegation at the United Nations End of the Decade and we witnessed her humane style of mentoring and hand-holding of SEWA members in those 10 days of the International Conference in which there were delegates from 165 countries.
Shramshakti Report, 1988
In 1986, when Elaben became a member of the Rajya Sabha, both Dr. Neera Desai and I visited her at her official Delhi residence. She welcomed us with great affection and enthusiastically showed us her labour of love, the vegetable garden that she had nurtured. She chaired the National Commission on Self-Employed Women in 1987. When she decided to come up with Shram Shakti Report profiling macro analysis of women in the unorganised sector workforce, hundreds of women’s rights activists, scholars, and researchers from all states and union territories of India who were inspired, led and mentored by Elaben supported her initiative voluntarily by collective data, providing case studies, field reports to produce a mammoth Shram Shakti Report, 1988. We, as the Narimukti Collective of Gujarat, translated Shramshakti Report into Gujarati in 1989. Mahila Daxata Samiti Delhi and Mumbai published their Hindi and Marathi translation respectively.
Legal Reforms for labour Standards, Social Security, Social Protection of Workers
Under her leadership, SEVA played a pivotal role in the enactment of The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act (2008), National Rural Livelihood Mission (2011) and Street Vendors Act (2014). In the II Labour Commission’s Report, only 2 chapters- on the informal sector and child labour stand out for their commitment to social justice and workers’ rights. For both these chapters were drafted by the SEVA team.
Elaben’s Contribution to The Elders, formed on the 89th Birthday of Dr. Nelson Mandela:
In 2007, in South Africa, Elaben was invited to attend the meeting convened by Dr. Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu in Johannesburg in which a group of world leaders arrived at a consensus to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems under the banner of The Elders. Its commitment is to peace-building, peacekeeping and peace-making in the conflict zones, resolving cross-border disputes, and sustainable development goals. Elaben Bhatt was particularly involved in The Elders’ initiative on equality for women and girls and a campaign titled, ‘Girls, not Brides’ against child marriages in Asia and Africa. In 2009-2010, Elaben made 2 visits to the conflict zones of the Middle East with Elders delegations and averred that ‘Nonviolent work demand more hard work than fighting’ and ‘cowards use weapons’. In 2011, She visited Bihar with her fellow Elders- Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Together, the Elders had a dialogue with the members of Jagriti, a youth-led project aimed at preventing child marriages in Bihar, and motivated the state government of Bihar to make concerted efforts to prevent child marriages with the help of community-based development investment in education, nutrition and women empowerment.
Several obituaries by her colleagues and admirers have described Elaben as a ‘gentle revolutionary. Elaben won the hearts of activists and academicians, researchers and policymakers by her polite but firm style of communication, her refined sense of humour, her warm hospitality that had a personal-Elaben touch, her courage of conviction and creative methods of finding solutions to unfolding challenges in the changing socio-economic and political realities that threatened the survival base of the urban, rural and tribal women. She was a secular humanist in her speeches and in praxis. Recipient of Padma Shree, Padma Vibhushan, Magsaysay Award for Community leadership and Frances Legion d; Honneur, Right Livelihood Award, Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, honoris causa from Harvard-Yale-SNDT Women’s University and many more; as well as innumerable prestigious awards from the state and non-state institutions all over the world; Elaben remained humble and accessible to all of us till the last day of her life. As she spoke slowly and in a non-threatening manner, she could reach out to her listeners effectively-may they are young students, working-class women, elderly artisans, erudite professionals, funders, global politicians and firebrand journalists. As Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedabad during 2015-2022, Elaben firmly adhered to Gandhian principles of a non-sectarian and pluralist approach in governance.
Selfless Life Lived with Honesty of Purpose
Elaben, as a true Gandhian followed the principles of simplicity, the dignity of sweat labour, decentralization, economic self-sufficiency, cooperation, equality, non-violence, peacemaking, peacekeeping, peace building, actions guided by human values of ethics and justice, social solidarity, empowerment of village production units and sustainable future by living in harmony with nature. She considered poverty and hunger as structural and systemic violence. Her inspiring values and beliefs are conveyed in these statements, ‘Let diversity be maintained, grow, flourish….’. ‘Think correlatedly, creatively and respond with empathy and social solidarity when you face challenges in life.
Elaben was a product of the freedom movement and put into practice, Rabindranath Tagore’s verses Ekla Cholo Re when faced with adversities in her public life. She had a harmonious personal life. While working with poor women at the grassroots level, she acquired new wisdom from the grounded reality. Whether it was a matter of the desirable rate of interest to be charged by SEWA Cooperative Bank or launching the SEVA Insurance Programme, she consulted the members of SEWA. Currently, SEWA Bharat has 21 lakh members in 18 states of India and luminaries such as Renana Jhabvala and Mirai Chatterjee who dedicated their whole life for the mission of SEWA and Elaben’s dream of empowerment of unorganised and informal sector workers. ILO has recognised SEVA as a Trade Union.
During the lockdown in 2021, It was such a morale boost to find you on the zoom platform of Citizens Forum by Bharti Sinha Sahay when I made a presentation on Gender Responsive Budgets. Your presence and encouraging comments meant a lot to me. We wanted you to address IAWS members, but now we have to satisfy ourselves with your inspiring memories. Dear Elaben, we promise to continue your legacy of making dedicated efforts for social security, and social protection of the unorganised sector workers and will amplify their voices. My heartfelt condolences to Elaben’s daughter-Amimayiben, son-Mihirbhai and their family members, her colleagues and millions of members of SEWA.
I would like to end this tribute with beautiful verses of Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson that was often recited by Dr Nelson Mandel.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frighten us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
You’re playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Dear Elaben, your presence had a liberating influence over all those whose lives your touched. Rest in power Elaben. We promise to follow in your footsteps wherever we are
Youtube- Vibhuti Patel |Remembering Ela Bhatt (1933-2022)
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About the author
Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Professor at IMPRI and Former Professor at TISS, Mumbai