Within a couple of days of Mrinaltai’s passing, Dr. Vibhuti Patel sent us this obituary to be shared on our blog. I am sorry to be the cause of this delay. Particularly sorry because if you grew up in Bombay in the 1970s, then chances are Mrinaltai’s face is the face of ‘women in politics’ for you. The image of her wielding a rolling pin, leading a morcha, is likely to have been one of the defining images of urban politics and citizen activism around urban governance–none of which was language used in those days.
I once met Mrinaltai at a talk and asked her what she thought were the two impediments to women entering politics, and she said, “Muscle power and money power.” I heard that formulation first from her, but have heard many, many use it since. She described the then common practices of list-manipulation and booth-capturing and also spoke about the ability to raise campaign money. The latter hasn’t changed much.
Unlike, Dr. Vibhuti Patel, I did not know Mrinal Gore personally, but this is a loss that fills me with sadness that is personal. With her rolling pin, Mrinaltai also took swipes at the glass ceiling that is still largely in place for women in public life. I hope that will change in our lifetime.
Mrinaltai Gore (1928-2012)
by Dr. Vibhuti Patel
On 17th July 2012, Mrinal Gore passed away. With her demise, an era of women freedom fighters with feminist sensitivities in praxis is over.
Inspired by Quit India Movement under leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, 14 year old young girl Mrinal became active in the freedom movement. Drawn to political and social causes, she gave up a promising career in medicine in order to organise the poorest and most powerless.
She married her comrade, Shri Keshav Gore and when he died at a young age in 1958, she founded Keshav Gore Smarak Bhavan which provided democratic platform to progressive forces for debate and discussion, meetings and public gatherings, documentation and institutional base for Samajwadi Mahila Sabha, Bombay Nurses Association, Anganwadi Workers Union, Swadhar and innumerable issue-based action fronts involving liberals, socialists and left groups.
In the sixties she worked as corporator and then as legislator. Her agitations were always related to basic issues — water, kerosene, inflation — and they were always fierce. But there was no violence ever, neither in her actions nor in her words. Even friends weren’t spared, if she was convinced they were wrong. She was revered and respected by the ministers and chief ministers of her time.
Making of a Legendary Political Persona
In the early seventies, she along with her coworkers formed Yuva Kranti Dal that fought against vested interests in rural, urban and tribal areas as well as caste based oppression, injustice and violence. She believed in transparency and social accountability in public life.
She brought the issue of safe drinking water in the political agenda of local self government body of Mumbai and earned a title of “Pani Wali Bai”. A political reformer by instinct, Mrinaltai helped to set up in September 1972 the Anti-Price Rise Committee, which mobilised the largest-ever turnout of women on the streets ever seen since the Independence movement. At the same time, Mrinaltai also worked within the Socialist Party and outside, to get the government to focus on drought in rural Maharashtra.
The year 1975 was an eventful one for Mrinal Gore. It saw Indira Gandhi’s government impose an internal Emergency and suspend the constitutional rights of the people. Mrinaltai went underground to guide the protests against the Emergency. She was arrested in December that year and placed initially under solitary confinement. Once the Emergency was withdrawn in 1977, she was elected on a Janata Party ticket to Parliament, winning by the highest margin of votes in the entire state of Maharashtra.
She supported renaming of Marathwada University to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathada University. When I led a team to 48 riot torn villages in Marathwada in connection with renaming issue and our team prepared report on atrocities committed on Dalits, she suggested my name to several social organizations and journals so that our report got due publicity.
In 1979, when I was staying at Borivali, we had an acute problem of water and transport, we invited Mrinaltai and we started getting supply of water and later on bus service also. She was always sure of herself and her action. She made rapid appraisal of the ground reality, surveyed pros-n-cons of the scenario, collected documentary evidences and acted after doing lot of homework. Her demand of community based day care centers for working women’s children was preceded by survey of working women who reported that it was extremely difficult to carry infants in overcrowded suburban trains.
Champion of Women’s Rights
Since 1977, every year women’s rights activists of all hue choose a common theme for commemoration of March 8. Mrinaltai was always there. Now we will miss her the most on International women’s day. Whether it was in 1980-Anti rape struggles, in 1981-movement against domestic violence, in 1982-solidarity and starting of community kitchens for Textile workers who were on strike, in 1983-Ant dowry movement, in 1984-Dharmandhata Virodhi Mahila Kruti Samiti (women’s Front against Communalism), in 1985-Campaign for Housing rights (Nagari Nivara Sangharsh Samiti), in 1986-fight against draconian population policy, in 1987-campaign against Sati, in 1988 introduction of bill for Regulation of Pre Natal Diagnostic Test Act; Mrinaltai took active interest in the discussion and participated in action along with her colleagues. At times, she invited us to discuss the technical details of new issues such as amniocentesis, legal reforms, and harmful contraceptives so that she could effectively argue the points in the legislative assembly.
The 1980s found her working with the emerging feminist groups and participating actively in protests against rape and dowry, caste atrocities, sex selection and communalism. A natural organiser, Mrinaltai employed a large spectrum of protest action to get the issue across – from street marches to sit-in and fasts. Not only did she set up a support centre for women survivors of domestic violence, she founded a workers’ association – the Shramjeevi Mahila Sangh – expressly for women employees and played pivotal role in getting 65 acres of land for building housing complex for evacuated pavement dwellers during 1980s.
Till late 1980s, she used to commute by local train in women’s compartment. If trains were crowded, she would stand quietly in train without making fuss. Once, I saw her boarding the train in which I was sitting with my 5 year daughter in my lap. Out of respect for Mrinaltai, I got up. My daughter, Lara asked me, “Why are you getting up? I told her, “We must give seat to Mrinaltai.” Lara said, “Is she your sister?” I told her, “Mrinaltai is every woman’s elder sister.” All women in the compartment started smiling.
The first ever bill in the country on sex-selective abortions of female fetuses was moved by Mrinaltai as MLA in a Nagpur session of the Maharashtra Assembly in 1987.
I received Citation and Memento from Mrianltai in a huge function of social activists on 2nd April, 2010. For me, it is most valuable award in my life.
While talking about secular humanism of Mrinaltai, Ramlath, a feminist activist states, “I had met Mrinal Gore few years ago in her house for a photo shoot. Since she always had a few activists by her side, I asked would it be possible not to have anyone in the room while doing the photo shoot. She laughed and took me to a room upstairs and asked me to close the door. I must have spent some 45 minutes with her….She became a lot more relaxed …. started talking about less serious stuff…. asked me about photography/lighting, wanted to know about the light- meter I was using and of course, some personal questions…during our conversation I mentioned about the problems women like me face while finding a house in Bombay because of my Muslim identity, she said she had no idea brokers in Bombay had started asking for passports /pan cards and other documents in order to establish one’s religious identity. She immediately called someone and asked whether he could help me find an apartment to rent….one could see pain in her eyes when she talked about the greed and hatred in this city…”
The huge Nagari Niwara Parishad Project in Goregaon East is a living memorial for Gore and her work. She persuaded the state government to offer land it had acquired under the Urban Land Ceiling Act to the really poor and needy. Local politicians who feared that Gore will get a readymade vote bank delayed the project. Yet, when the homes were ready after two decades, they were still the most affordable. They were not big flats, but self-contained spacious units built neatly atop Dindoshi Hills. While the younger generation may not remember this, their parents will remain grateful that they could finally own a home in Mumbai, thanks only to Gore.
Reverence of Feminists for Mrinaltai
Veteran feminist Ammu Abraham (of Women’s Centre-Mumbai) who, like Mrinaltai, gave up a promising career in medicine to plunge full time into organising the poor and the marginalized in the 1970s, has this to say about Mrinaltai, “I remember her with affection. As one of the activists in Mumbai who met her at various meetings at the office near Mantralay, I interacted with her quite a lot, on March 8th leaflets, Maharashtra State Women’s Commission and other campaigns. While there was a lot of common ground between us, we did not always agree entirely on issues, but she was never one to take that personally. One of the most generous spirits associated with the women’s movement in Mumbai and Maharashtra has passed away. Hard to say goodbye.”
I had known Mrinaltai from my college days in the early 1970s and she inspired us, social activists of Vadodara to start Anti Price Rise Women’s Committee I 1974 when I was an undergraduate student. When I relocated to Mumbai in 1977 and was active in the united front of women’s organisations, I had to visit Mrinaltai’s residence-cum office regularly for preparation, translation, cyclostyling, posting of circulars, resolutions and leaflets. She always welcomed me with warm smile. While working, if I told her that I wanted to go out for short time; she would immediately retort, “I know, you are hungry.” And she would announce, “Make poha, Vibhuti is starved.” And I would get poha and sometimes Jelebi also. I was so touched by her hospitality, sensitivity, generosity of heart, open door policy and decent sense of humour.
Mrinaltai always respected collective wisdom of women’s movement. She invited young feminists to discuss contemporary issues and introduced best practices of new groups in her organization. To provide institutional support to women in distress, she started Swadhar in mid 1980s at Keshav Gore Smarak Pratisthan formed by her after her husband who was a socialist leader and died at a young age. Here she provided child care centre, library for poor students, counseling centre and meeting place for all progressive forces. She was the first one to launch struggle against sexual harassment of nurses in hospitals and formed trade union of nurses under leadership of Kamaltai Desai.
Prof. Lakshmi Lingam, Deputy Director, TISS and member of Consultative Committee of Sophia Centre for women’s Studies and Development avers, “Mrinaltai is a truly powerful inspiring woman. She came across as a person with determination in thought and tenderness in the heart. She spoke in feminist meetings whether it is the sex determination tests, violence against women, 73rd & 74th amendments, women’s policies of the Government or the support for working women, with so much of clarity and sense of humor. She truly represented to many of us a person who had the ability to straddle the old and the new and reach across generations with since of sisterhood and modesty. I did not have any personal rapport with her, but met her in various meetings and shared a hand shake or a glance of acknowledgement. These are impressions that will stay with us for a life time and also provide a beacon as to how we conduct ourselves with fellow sister travelers in the movement. Long live Mrinaltai and her like!”
Legendary Leader with Mass Appeal
In 1988, her sixtieth birth anniversary programme attracted thousands of social activists, trade union workers, women activists with their children. By then, her health had deteriorated due to cancer and all of us who supported her work had made contribution to purchase a car for Mrinaltai.
In 2002, we invited her to inaugurate Workshop on Sexual Harassment at workplace and Round Table on Women Empowerment Policy, 2001. In 2003, Mrinaltai invited me at Swadhar to conduct a session on Gender Audit of Budgets. In 2007, when she came for Mahila Milan programme at at TISS, Mrinaltai had become really weak. But she was as spirited as ever. She attended rally of women’s organizations in solidarity with the victims of rape and massacre of Dalit girl, Priyanka Bhootmange and her family members in Kharalanji.
Mrinaltai was a principled politician, honest to the core and great organizer. She stuck out her neck in the midst of adverse circumstances because courage of conviction. Her name was synonymous with any fight for justice and social accountability in public life. She provided her visionary leadership in the area of political struggles, civic amenities, dalit rights, women’s rights, housing issues, Narmada Bachao and innumerable social movements of the marginalized and voiceless sections of society. She was a politician with genuine concern for masses. Her towering personality became more affable due to her humility and love for humanity.
Mrinaltai visited SCWSD and was a Chief Guest of the workshop on Sexual Harassment at Workplace organized by SCWSD in 2002.
Mrinaltai always encouraged women to be self dependent. For her, the concerns of Dalits, women, workers, farmers, and tribals were indivisible and demanded a holistic approach. Her politics, consequently, was always inclusive rather than divisive. This was why she could win the affections of diverse sections of people and come to be universally called “Mrinal-tai”, or elder sister. As veteran feminist and recipient of coveted award “Daughter of Maharashtra” at the hands of Mrinaltai, Manisha Gupte states, “She lives on, especially through her tireless commitment to the people residing in the slums of Mumbai city, and her empathy with women struggling to survive through sky-rocketing prices of household commodities.”
Mrinaltai will remain a constant source of inspiration and role model for many generations of social activists.