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Op-Ed: Remembering the extraordinary Kamla Bhasin

  • Published at 06:47 pm September 30th, 2021
Julian Francis Kamla Bhasin
The author with Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya in 1996 Photo: Courtesy

Her work will live on through the people she trained or influenced

Yesterday, the phone rang. “Julian bhai, Kamla always said that you have known her for longer than anyone else. When are you going to write about her?”

Whatever my caller said was correct, but I just did not know where to start as well as what and how much to write. In fact, since Kamla’s passing, many beautiful and very detailed tributes have been written. It is difficult to know what I can add.

In fact, in a way, it was Bangladesh’s Liberation War that connected me to Kamla. In 1971, Baljit Malik, later to be Kamla’s partner/husband, who was then working at Vidya Bhawan in Udaipur, Rajasthan, brought a group of senior students to volunteer in the West Bengal refugee camps and during their time there linked up with Oxfam where I was working. 

Later on, when Baljit learned that from mid-1972 I was going to be based in Delhi for Oxfam covering their work in northern India including Rajasthan, he requested that I visit Udaipur where organizations were working closely together under an organizational umbrella -- Vidya Bhawan Rural Institute and Seva Mandir. 

Eventually, when I visited Udaipur, large parts of India -- Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan -- were suffering a severe drought. On my first day in Udaipur I was briefed by government officials and some NGO workers and in the late afternoon when returning to the guest house organized by Baljit, I met Kamla and explained what I was doing. 

In a lively voice she said: “Drought affected villages, poor people who are proud. You want to meet them? Get on my motorbike and I will take you there.” We drove up into the rocky Arravali Hills where Seva Mandir was helping the villagers with well-digging. 

To break through the rock, the villagers, Bhil indigenous people of the area, would light a fire of dry leaves and twigs in the partly dug well and when the rock was hot, buckets of water would be lowered down and poured on to the rock which would split. 

The men would then, using pickaxes, sledge-hammers, and shovels, fill up bamboo baskets which would then be pulled up by rope and pulley by women of the village. Kamla had already learned local songs which were sung while pulling on the rope and it was clear that she raised the spirits of both the women and men. 

Later, she told me how she had quickly learned that most of the tribal or lower caste people were, most of the time, being excluded from most government activities and that women suffered the most. In the following years Oxfam supported a number of Seva Mandir’s projects.

Even when she joined FAO’s Freedom from Hunger Campaign and was based in their Bangkok regional office, we kept in touch and would meet whenever she came to Delhi. She was able to ensure that UN FFHC funds would reach the very poorest and the most marginalized. 

She was able to assist a number of organizations get off the ground. Soon, through Kamla, I came to know a number of amazing women involved in different aspects of women’s development and the campaigns related to patriarchy. The influence of mainly Kamla but also the others changed me to the extent that a woman friend of mine said: “Julian, I began to like you when I realized you had some good feminine qualities.”

Growing up in the UK with a brother with a severe learning disability, Down Syndrome, and with a son, born in Delhi in 1975 also with a severe learning disability, I was often working with NGOs related to people with disabilities and often spoke to Kamla about the challenges my wife and I were facing. 

She was always a wonderful person to talk to and, of course, when her own son suffered brain damage due the after effects of a vaccine, we became even closer in discussing what to do, what actions to take. Sometimes we used go as a family for lunch with Kamla and Baljit and enjoy the wonderful garden at their Bhagwandas Road home.

Later on when I came, in 1985, to Dhaka to work with CUSO, a Canadian NGO, I came in contact with some other amazing women activists all of whom have, for years, worked very closely with Kamla. Again, I have been blessed by their company and by how they have influenced me. Whenever Kamla was planning to come to Bangladesh I would be alerted and I would make sure to get together and attend different functions. Often I would be the oldest person there but it was always so good to see the large numbers of committed young people.

Earlier this year, in April, when she heard that I was infected by Covid she wrote to me that even though I was one year older than her, there is a lot more for me to do and she asked if I had forgotten that I had promised her that I would live to the age of 120 years. 

With Kamla there would always be a lot of fun and laughter and she would always be emphasizing the power of love and not the love of power. Kamla and others have always been promoting peace and so it is not surprising that the Pakistan newspaper, Dawn, carried a powerful appreciation of Kamla’s life and work.

Of course, I am sure that Kamla’s work will live on through the many who have been influenced and trained by her. It is worth reading what she wrote to her friends a few weeks after the tragic death of her daughter, Meeto. 

Now all her followers and supporters must think positively in the same way: “Another realization I have is that our movements, networks, and involvements are also going to provide me the main reason to continue to live. This work, I feel, will hold my finger and take me forward. It will give me the courage to get up, wipe my tears, smile through my grief and move on. I know all of you will help me move forward. You will not allow me to sink and grieve for ever. And in this support group my colleague, Meeto, will be standing right in front urging me to smile, to write new slogans and songs, to sing them even if out of tune. She is already doing this.”

Again, a year after the passing of Meeto, Kamla wrote a New Year message for her close friends: “On this day I want to tell you that you are very special for me. You have given me love, strength, courage to go on with my life. You have enriched my life. You have given me a sense of security, a sense of belonging. 

“I celebrate my relationship of friendship and love with you. I wish to tell you that I need your love and support for the rest of my life too, so do bear with me and continue to be close to me. 

“As you know, even I am not perfect (!!), so do pardon my follies, shortcomings. Just know that I love you and I want the best for you. 

“I do not know what the New Year will be like. I can guess that like all the earlier years it will be both good and bad, and it will bring the usual challenges.” 

We do not know what the future holds but all of us who have been influenced by this remarkable person should move forward knowing that Kamla will be always watching what we are doing and whether we are following the right path.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.’

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