Previous chapter
Table of contents
Next chapter

Get more information on Richa Nagar: Muddying the Waters

Buy this book




5. Traveling and Crossing, Dreaming and Becoming

Journeys after Sangtin Yatra

This chapter is based on writing undertaken with Richa Singh, Surbala, and other saathis of Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan in Hindi and English between 2004 and 2012.

When a movement stops asking questions, of itself, of the world, it becomes orthodoxy—an idea that has run out of ideas. It becomes fixed, static, brittle, rather than fluid. Water can resist the most savage of blows, ice shatters. It is only armed with our questions, that we can change history.

—Notes from Nowhere, We Are Everywhere

These thoughts, first written in Hindi by Richa Singh in April 2005, point to a personal and collective turmoil with questions of inequality and the im/possibility of women from unequal locations to speak in a unified voice.1 Reflecting on her own recently completed (paid) air travel to a conference in Mumbai, and her return to a village in Sitapur on a thelia, Richa Singh wrestles with the question of how there can be “oneness” among those women who cover the distance of thousands of kilometers in a few hours, those who cover the distance of a few kilometers in several hours, and those who barely walk on any other paths except those that connect their mayaka to their sasural.2 Her gut feeling tells her that people who participate in maintaining these gulfs have no right to claim that all women are one. No matter what the arguments about all women confronting similar forms of violence—the pains and concerns of a woman who has to think about the hunger of her belly, or a body-breaking illness, or how to feed her family the next day, or how to save her thatched roof from the heavy rains—can never be the same as those of upper- and middle-class women desirous of claiming commonality with her.

This turmoil with inequality and the impossibility of experiential commonality that we attempt to translate here emerges from an ongoing journey that began in March 2002 when nine women began a collective journey in Sitapur as activists, critics, writers, and close companions. Here we summarize some of the key segments of this journey, reflecting on the manner in which the collective’s investment in the politics of women’s development NGOs and the overwhelming response generated by our collaborative book, Sangtin Yatra (Anupamlata et al. 2004, Sangtin Lekhak Samooh 2012), opened spaces for the authors to participate in and critically interrogate the sites of formal knowledge production. Specifically, the collective’s agenda in the aftermath of the reception of Sangtin Yatra has evolved through encounters and engagements with international solidarity networks, donor agencies, academic publishing, and national curriculum development initiatives.

We begin with a brief sketch of Sangtin Yatra and its meanings for our intellectual and political growth as an alliance across borders. The two subsequent sections consider the effects of Sangtin Yatra, and how these inserted the collective into struggles around the politics of knowledge production in institutional sites that the collective had not encountered before. Finally, we reflect on the manner in which the transnational nature of our alliance has enabled our critical engagements with structures and norms of professionalism and expertise locally, regionally, nationally, and transnationally, as well as the limitations and contradictions that remain buried in these engagements.

Can Analytical Frameworks Travel?
Border Crossings through and beyond Sangtin Yatra

Sangtin Yatra began as a journey of nine travelers. Five of them—Anupamlata, Ramsheela, Shashi Vaishya, Shashibala, and Vibha Bajpayee—made a living as village-level mobilizers in MSS, a large and influential government-sponsored NGO, where they had worked together for six to eight years as close associates. A sixth member of the collective, Surbala, had quit her position with MSS in 2000 in order to focus her energies on building another organization that this group had registered under the name of Sangtin, so that the work of rural women’s empowerment could continue after the guaranteed funding expired for the MS program in Sitapur. Reshma Ansari, the collective’s seventh member, ran a literacy center in her village as an MSS worker. Of the remaining two members of the collective, Richa Singh, who had begun her activist career as an office staff in MS-Varanasi, was then serving as a district coordinator of MSS; finally, Richa Nagar, a tenured associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Minnesota at the time, had worked with MS activists in different districts of Uttar Pradesh since 1996 and had also been active as a creative and journalistic writer in Hindi since 1983.

This group of nine women initially came together to critically reflect on internal processes and politics of NGO work and the labor of activism, social change, and knowledge production from the perspective and priorities of the village-level NGO workers who undertake the main labor of translating the projects of empowerment on the ground. Confrontations, dialogues, and negotiations with multiple inequalities—of social hierarchies, status, education, resources, and language—within the collective and within the structures in which each member of the collective is embedded were the primary vehicles to advance this journey.3

The title Sangtin Yatra captures the essence of our collaboration while also highlighting the name of the organization, Sangtin, in whose name the collective wanted to continue activities that combined rigorous research, radical activism, and creative work in the villages of Sitapur. For the several thousand travelers who have become sangtins since this journey began, Sangtin Yatra is not simply a book; it is our constitution. No matter where the members of the collective are working or speaking as sangtins, we recognize that remaining faithful to the principles that we identified for ourselves in Sangtin Yatra is one of our key responsibilities.

The writing of Sangtin Yatra marked a significant moment of creation in the making of our collective. We learned to identify the classed, caste, communal, and gendered processes that had shaped our differentiated pasts and presents as well as our investments and embeddedness in structures of privilege and oppression. We recognized how these processes fractured both subjectivities and solidarities, and that the task of imagining transformative politics necessarily implied engaging with and producing uncomfortable dialogues with and about difference within collectives and institutions. In part, these dialogues are targeted at troubling the discursive practices associated with projects of poor women’s empowerment, and in part, they seek to imagine new ways of sharing authority, imagining reciprocity, and enacting accountability.

Photo 6. The nine authors of Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire. Mishrikh, 2004.
(Photo: David Faust)

As a fissured and wounded “we,” we braid and unbraid the lives and struggles of seven sangtins who work as village-level activists—their childhoods and coming-of-age, their marriages and encounters with motherhood, and their growth as NGO workers and feminists. We challenge the expressions and agendas of donor-sponsored global feminisms that equate impoverished or dalit rural women’s oppression to “private” practices such as veiling and whose conceptualizations of “violence against women” refuse to recognize how the poor rural men themselves are excluded from the dominant order of development and patriarchy. We explore how the micropolitics of professionalism and expertise serve to reinforce and reconstitute elitism, casteism, and communalism in women’s development organizations, albeit in the name of saving the monolithic “woman-as-victim”—the new globalized, subaltern “woman” who is the subject of justice (through “expert” intervention) under international capitalism. Through this process of interweaving words, silences, and critiques—spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten—we forge a collective identity as activists and thinkers who are committed to reclaiming the sites of “empowerment”—politically and intellectually.

The process that led to the writing of Sangtin Yatra was intoxicating and exhausting, inspiring and challenging, and it allowed us to dream and cry together. Little did we recognize before the launch of Sangtin Yatra, however, that the collective articulation of sangtins’ stories and critiques was a relatively easy step in a tougher journey that was yet to unfold. The warm welcome received by the book in the Hindi media, in the homes and offices of NGO workers, and in the communities of progressive artists and intellectuals was overwhelming. But the wide media attention in these spaces generated an angry response from the director of Mahila Samakhya, Uttar Pradesh (MSUP), and her allies. These responses pushed the collective to invest itself in issues of knowledge production for multiple audiences in myriad and complex ways. Questions about power and privilege, mediation and translation, attention and representation have posed constructive challenges as well as political possibilities for sangtins to grow as an alliance of transnational actors—an alliance interested in understanding and transforming frameworks and institutional spaces and hierarchies in and through which knowledge about issues and processes such as difference and discrimination, oppression and resistance, justice and empowerment is produced, recognized, validated, questioned, or dismissed. While grappling with these more “abstract” concerns, the collective has also juggled more “concrete” priorities such as the relationship between intellectual critique, political journey, and livelihoods, and whether and how a multilocational and multi-institutional alliance can maintain a balance among these without centering the vantage points of more privileged members of the collective.

This chapter, enabled and energized at different junctures by the struggles and insights of hundreds of sangtins but penned by one or two members of the alliance, is itself a part of our ongoing battles and negotiations, not simply within the collective, but also with spaces of academia, NGOs, social movements, and think tanks. In merging our analysis from our specific institutional contexts and comforts and discomforts with respect to English, we are acutely aware of the limitations and contradictions of our locations.4 We also recognize the responsibilities and possibilities that open up with the act of claiming this analytical space. Our coauthorship underscores Sangtin’s collective position that in any long-term collaboration across unequal worlds, the accounting of the nature of benefits and losses cannot be undertaken from the perspective of a single institutional location or by a single member of the alliance. Rather, it is in and through the collaborative moments of reflection and writing that the alliance gains new energy and insights to advance the struggle, to reassess the meanings of what has been gained or lost, and to determine the directions in which new steps might be taken.

In linking various segments of our yatra in different institutional realms, then, we consciously blur the conventional definitions of academic, activist, and creative writing. To advance the collective’s goal of widening the political and intellectual spaces for its struggles, we write with multiple audiences in mind, including those NGO workers, organizers, intellectuals, and readers who wish to know where and how our journey has advanced in the aftermath of the critique produced in Sangtin Yatra and those who want to assess the possibilities and limits of the kind of alliance work that we have undertaken. Many pieces of this analysis have found their way into our Hindi publications—Sangtin’s newspaper, Hamara Safar, and its book on the making of the sangtin movement between 2004 and 2011, Ek Aur Neemsaar (Nagar and Singh et al. 2012). By crafting an analysis that attempts to advance dialogue with these audiences simultaneously, we hope to resist a common tendency to maintain a separation between the theoretical and political insights that are produced for national and international Anglophone academic audiences on the one hand, and for the activists, NGO workers, community members, and thinkers in the vernacular realms, on the other.

In order to achieve this simultaneous resonance and relevance across worlds, we continue to rework here the ways of knowing and speaking—that is, the forms and languages in which narratives and analyses are produced in conventional academic productions, NGO reports, and journalism. We share with you notes from a yatra that is continuously unfolding—notes that are interwoven with an evolving praxis in which travelers from diverse locations learn and grow together as we articulate our overlapping intellectual agendas, grapple with lessons learned, determine the trajectories of our political journeys as individuals and members of an alliance, and as we are inserted in new institutional spaces with familiar hierarchies and inequalities—of caste, religion, class, gender, and geographical location—and continue to evolve processes for understanding, challenging, and transforming them.

Journeys after Sangtin Yatra: Specifying and Translating the Politics of Knowledge Production

Within three weeks of its launch in Lucknow, Sangtin Yatra became a target of attack by the director of MSUP, where seven out of nine authors were employed: Ramsheela, Shashibala, Shashi Vaishya, and Vibha Bajpayee as mobilizers; Reshma as a teacher in a literacy center; Anupamlata as a junior resource person; and Richa Singh as the district coordinator. The backlash developed into an intense controversy that focused on authorizing or discrediting the “truths” of the sangtins as well as recognition or dismissal of the partnership among the nine authors (see Sangtin Writers 2006). Here we briefly reflect on MSUP’s attack and how it led us to seek allies and supporters transnationally, and subsequently to create Playing with Fire.

The following translated excerpts give a flavor of the critique that made Sangtin Yatra controversial.

Excerpt 1

Hasn’t it been only six years since we first learned to ride our bikes and stormed the neighborhoods, streets, and villages of Sitapur?5 Who among us had imagined that we would so confidently rebel and march out of the same households that caged us. . . . When we prepared to write this book, we again felt a sense of adventure creeping into our bones. Would this world be able to see us formerly uneducated women as writers? Would it give us the same respect and wisdom that it accords to all its upper caste and elite scholars and thinkers? Would our readers be able to value the courage and trust with which we have poured out our most cherished and intimate moments, our deepest sorrows and wounds of humiliation, and everything sweet and bitter that we have encountered in our lives? . . . We knew all too well from working in a women’s organization that it is much easier to interrogate the definitions of honor, morality, and justice by giving instances from the lives of others, rather than by applying those critiques to our own clans and families. Even so, we unveiled details about our lives in our diaries and discussions because we believed that we would not be able to advance this struggle by hiding things. We suspect that our readers will read with pleasure—and perhaps, respect—the details we furnish here about our intimate lives and relationships, our sexuality, our poverty, and the putrid swamps of casteism and communalism that we live in. But we wonder whether they would be able to read with equal pleasure or respect our analyses and critiques of women’s and development NGOs. But on this issue, too, we were inspired by the belief that if we couldn’t muster the courage to say everything even after arriving at this juncture in our journey, then it would be difficult to fight the battles to come.

Excerpt 2

The scope of work done by rural-level NGO workers is defined in a rather constrained way in every respect. We are not given many opportunities that would allow us to link what is happening in our villages to the conditions and struggles ongoing in other states and countries. Similarly, we are not able to fully connect the violence against dalit women with other forms of violence. . . . Almost every other day, new workshops are organized to ensure that our documentation is refined and polished in accordance with the wishes of our funders. But . . . we get very few spaces or resources to grapple with a range of sociopolitical processes that are discussed in academic seminars and make the national and international headlines every day—e.g., globalization and the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, the ever-increasing suicides of peasants in our country, or the privatization of water. As a result, we face severe limits in our ability to relate these processes to the kinds of violence that are wreaked regularly on the bodies and minds of women in our villages. And it is precisely our inability to make these connections that allows established experts and other researchers to carry out study projects “on” us. . . . In Sangtin, we have decided to reflect in depth on how violence that is targeted on women’s bodies is interwoven with other forms of violence, and to advance those reflections and understandings collectively with members of our village communities.

The process of creating Sangtin Yatra, as well as its content, argue for empowerment through dialogue. The collaboration finds its shape, substance, and meaning through an evolving process that challenges the framing rationales of donor-driven NGOs. The idea that poor women must be empowered through “feminism”—as defined and taught to them by the “experts”—is challenged by a process in which everyone’s needs and priorities are continuously interrogated and negotiated with the goal of creating a level playing field, however impossible it might be to create such a field. The collective grapples with how the lives and struggles of seven women—conventionally lumped together as “rural NGO workers”—are interwoven with local structures of caste, class, religion, and gender, as well as with broader processes of development, NGOization, and knowledge production. The autobiographers’ varied encounters with poverty, hunger, caste-based and communal untouchability, and their struggles to gain access to education, place question marks on the idealized definitions of childhood and the “rural girl child” often assumed by policy makers. We note how shifts in the caste, class, and communal configurations of each sangtin’s natal and conjugal villages shaped the ways in which different groups in her village were centered or marginalized with respect to development resources. The collective confronts the implications of the difficult negotiations over salaries in homes where men do not have stable employment and where men’s insecurities lead to increased instances of gambling and violence, which are, again, infested by caste and communal politics. At the same time, the collective recognizes that connections among local patriarchies, caste-based structures of discrimination, and broader political economic processes must be made in ways that address dominant versions of feminism that often declare to the rural women that their primary enemies are their fathers, uncles, brothers, and husbands.

The aforementioned dialogues produced a critique of NGO work that enabled the authors to understand the processes by which NGOs, despite their stated goal of empowering women on the margins, end up being dominated by Hindu upper-caste workers and how critiques of casteism, communalism, and untouchability remain confined to the official meetings. Consequently, elitism within NGOs reproduces the very hierarchies that the NGOs seek to dismantle and the village-based, less formally educated dalit workers consistently find themselves at the margins of institutional spaces. The dialogical journey of sangtins also enabled the collective to grapple with the manner in which professionalization of organizational processes makes NGOs accountable primarily to their funders who seek reports, statistics, and evidence of empowerment, where empowerment is visualized as a concrete thing that can be measured, replicated, and reduced to its component parts. Furthermore, the separation of gender-based violence from other forms of violence pigeonholes the activists into a narrow vision, foreclosing opportunities for them to engage with such issues as communalism, struggles over water and land, displacement, war, and imperialism. In this way, village-level NGO workers become “experts” of their local field sites only.

But Sangtin Yatra did not limit itself to a critique of development and NGO-driven empowerment. The dialogic processes opened spaces to accomplish two other forms of critical work: The first was the task of combining careful research, reflexive activism, and critical pedagogy, which allowed the authors to scrutinize our own practices and relationships (for example, the manner in which our caste and class locations shaped the relative meanings of hunger and untouchability and the intense—often violent—silencing around homosexuality and around extramarital and intercommunal intimacies, even in feminist circles), and at how hierarchies of caste, class, religion, and gender were replicated in our own collective, families, communities, and relationships. The second was the critical work of grappling with the question of how Sangtin should envision its work with local communities. The cycle of dialogue, writing, and reflection helped Sangtin to create a vision that emphasized the importance of enacting accountability and transparency to people; the need for projects to emerge from local priorities rather than the priorities of the donors or trainers; the necessity of understanding bodily violence as deeply intertwined with economic and sociopolitical violence, and of recognizing socioeconomic disempowerment as intricately interwoven with intellectual disempowerment. Together, these new understandings and critical energies translated into a deeply felt need and commitment to gain expertise beyond the local.

The insights coproduced in Sangtin Yatra parallel and complement critiques that have been reverberating for almost two decades on the changing configurations of NGOs under neoliberalism. NGOs’ increasing dependence on foreign donors and government funding has gone hand in hand with their growth as an arm of the state; as a result, activism is increasingly privatized and resistance gets converted into jobs that fetch salaries (Armstrong 2004, Kamat 2002, Roy 2004). Furthermore, the structures and practices of information retrieval and knowledge production work in ways such that southern NGOs and their workers frequently become suppliers of intellectual raw materials for northern NGOs; the latter demand transparency and accountability from the former “while maintaining secrecy and no accountability in return” (Nnaemeka 2004, 367). Greater dependence and closeness to funders result in upward accountability and technocratic definitions of achievement in the NGOs, so that unit costs, quantifiable outputs, and detailed specifications of what partners are expected to do become organizational norms (Hulme and Edwards 1997, 8). This kind of instrumentalist approach where empowerment becomes a blueprint is inconsistent with claims to promote long-term qualitative change and forecloses possibilities of genuine partnerships. In the realm of women’s movements, the professionalization of gender issues and a decline in feminist mobilization on the ground has often been accompanied by the NGOization of grassroots feminisms—a phenomenon marked by the rise of a class of “femocrats” that unilaterally tends to decide what is best for all women, at the same time when women’s NGOs have been reduced to marginalized forces within corporatist civil society (Lang 2000, Spivak 2000a).

When nine sangtins decided to share their reflections on similar trends in lay language with local communities and NGO workers in Sangtin Yatra, it created a furor. On the one hand, readers and reviewers praised the book as an “extra-ordinary intervention in feminist thought” from the Awadh-region (Kushavarti 2004, 26; also Pushpa 2004, Srivastava 2004), and remarked on the “freshness of hypothesis and methodology” with which Sangtin Yatra fought against social orthodoxies, and offered a “natural invitation to . . . understand and do things in new ways that can enact . . . creative struggle” (Verma 2004, 26). On the other hand, such attention triggered the wrath of the director of MSUP, who questioned the truth of the sangtins’ critiques; the credentials of rural NGO workers as legitimate intellectuals; the ownership of the collective’s ideas and efforts; and the honesty of Richa Singh and Richa Nagar, who allegedly had—for selfish reasons—tricked the less privileged rural activists to “shamelessly” spill their personal stories and to bite the hand that fed them. Within a month of the book’s launch, the director of MSUP began to verbally attack the authors based in Sitapur. This was followed by official notices that transferred Richa Singh out of Sitapur and threatened to fire Anupamlata, Ramsheela, Reshma Ansari, Richa Singh, Shashibala, Shashi Vaishya, and Vibha Bajpayee on the grounds that they had participated in a criminal act against MS by writing Sangtin Yatra.6 As for Richa Nagar, the MS leadership concluded that her “research” was done, she had returned to her university, and the drama of collaboration was over. The director of MSUP sent a letter to the chair of women’s studies at Minnesota accusing Richa Nagar of leading an unethical and exploitative research project and demanding disciplinary action against her. Specifically, the director of MSUP wrote to the autobiographers: “It is only because of your work in Mahila Samakhya that you were able to step out of the four walls of your home. Mahila Samakhya has tirelessly worked to build your skills . . . and . . . [enabled you] to reach a level where you can powerfully connect with village women and make your voice heard on all platforms. Thus your . . . behavior is an act of betrayal and a gruesome criminal act against the organization.”7

This attack led to a strong response in support of Sangtin Yatra. For example, Krishna Kumar, professor of education at the University of Delhi and then the director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), stepped forward in support of the book in Jan Satta, a major Hindi daily published from New Delhi: “In essence, this book is an evidence of the success of MS program, but it also symbolizes a rebellion against the formalities of constituting evidence. This rebellion is performed by the words themselves. Accepting those words, deriving happiness from their sculpting requires a generosity which if present in a governmental program can make it revolutionary” (Kumar 2004a, 2). Why did Sangtin Yatra become a cheeky mistake for which the authors had to be punished, when similar arguments have been made by prominent critics writing for highly educated audiences? As Krishna Kumar aptly notes, Sangtin Yatra and its aftermath illuminated the ways in which “rural woman’s voice becomes dependent on business people of international funding. It is heard only when translated by licensed middle people. When it rarely emerges on its own, it is declared unruly, and therefore, intolerable” (2004a, 2; also Kumar 2004b).

Sangtin Yatra explicitly contests representational practices where rural women are “solicited, cajoled, encouraged to speak” so that “developed” urban women “may speak to one another about ‘them’” (Lazreg 2002, 127). The authors had formed an alliance in 2002 to critically reflect and write about the lives and work of the seven village-level NGO activists—not to produce entertaining stories for consumption by the urban middle class—but to make our self-critiques the basis for envisioning new directions for the activists’ future political work with the poor communities in rural Sitapur. After considerable reflection on the division and definitions of “skills” that went into the book’s writing and production in 2002–3, each author believed that the work was written and owned by all sangtins and the book was self-published in 2004 in the name of Sangtin, the organization that the authors based in Sitapur had cofounded in 1999.

The sangtins articulated their strategies of representation as an intervention into the politics of knowledge production. However, it was not until the visibility of Sangtin Yatra made our collaboration suspect and a source of insult to the state-level leadership of MS that the collective began to grapple more deeply with the political meanings of knowledge, and the relations, conditions, tools, and languages through which its producers and content are legitimized or eliminated. The attacks in the aftermath of our initial critique revealed to us that the norms and culture of expertise that we had critiqued in Sangtin Yatra were a tiny piece of a much larger picture; continuing the yatra necessarily entailed a commitment to disrupt the order of dominating knowledges and of the hierarchies of status and authority from which expertise is produced.

Edward Said draws our attention to the ways in which the cult of professionalism and expertise has created a doctrine of noninterference among fields so that the most crucial policy questions affecting human existence are left to “experts” who speak a highly specialized language (Said 2002, 119). As professionals are bestowed special privileges of knowing how things really work and of being close to power, argues Said, what emerges is an interpretive community whose constituency, specialized language, and concerns “tend to get tighter, more airtight, more self-enclosed as its own self-conforming authority acquires more power, the solid status of orthodoxy and a stable constituency” (Said 2002, 127–28). To counter this cult of professionalism, Said calls for a “politics of interpretation” that demands a dialectical response. Noninterference and specialization must be replaced by interference, “a crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seem impossible to make” (Said 2002, 145). According to Said, this exercise entails the recovery of a history hitherto either misrepresented or rendered invisible. The next phase requires “connecting these more politically vigilant forms of interpretation to an ongoing political and social praxis . . . For to move from interpretation to its politics is in large measure to go from undoing to doing, and this . . . is risking all the discomfort of a great unsettlement in ways of seeing and doing” (Said 2002, 147).

If Sangtin Yatra was an attempt to articulate and circulate a critique by those who are frequently misrepresented and rendered invisible by the development industry, the journey in the aftermath of Sangtin Yatra can be seen as a move from undoing to doing. This move brought a new set of challenges—that of recognizing and politicizing the locations and languages from which the undoing can be simultaneously translated into doing. MSUP’s attack on the authors’ livelihoods and freedom of expression was worsened by the reality of a collective scattered across two continents, two districts, and six villages. Meanwhile, the authors in Sitapur were incessantly maligned in their workplace and by some of their “gender trainers”:8 not only had they “stripped themselves naked,” they had also overstepped their “auqat” by critiquing the very institutions that had taught them how to “speak” and to “step out” of their “cages.” Moreover, MS’s tremendous influence at the state and national levels and its credentials as an organization dedicated to the empowerment of “most marginalized” women made it difficult for the collective to garner overt support of individuals or organizations who had codependencies with MS. The sangtins in Sitapur became convinced that it was time to mobilize pressure from supporters in a way that could bypass the politics of MS at the state and national levels, and yet make the government feel responsible for the actions of MSUP. The result was an online petition prepared with the help of supporters in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Minnesota, Washington DC, and New York. Signed by Indian professors and activists in India, Nepal, United States, and the United Kingdom, the petition was dispatched to seven departments of the state and central governments in India, where it also coincided with commentaries written by prominent educators and critics in national dailies and periodicals. MS’s attacks on the village-level NGO workers stopped within days of receipt of petition and publication of commentaries, but Richa Singh’s transfer was not withdrawn.

Arguably, both the backlash and the petition and commentaries supporting Sangtin Yatra can be seen as paving the way for new solidarities on the politics of NGOization and knowledge production. The issues of elitism, exploitation, and accountability that we raised in the book now acquired more gravity and visibility. As reviews and excerpts from the book kept appearing in the Hindi press beyond the borders of Uttar Pradesh, we grew confident that our analysis was converging with the struggles and concerns of many. Ultimately, it was the courage derived from this kind of wide support that galvanized Richa Singh to deliver her protest resignation to MS and return to Sitapur to continue the collective journey with sangtins. With this resignation also came critical support from the Minnesota chapter of the Association for India’s Development (AID-MN). Members of AID-MN familiarized themselves with Sangtin Yatra and associated politics, initiated conversations with members of the collective and with AID chapters in other parts of the United States and India about Sangtin’s future directions in light of its changing relationship with MS, and decided to provide a saathiship to Richa Singh so that she could focus her energies to work toward the goals articulated in Sangtin Yatra. Closer to home, the struggle was honored by the NCERT, which invited Richa Singh to participate in the review of national curriculum framework as a member of the National Focus Group on gender issues in education. Furthermore, NGOs and activist networks working within India recognized Sangtin as an ally in struggles against communalism, casteism, violence against women, economic globalization, and imperialism. Alongside these developments, there also arose an interest in translations of Sangtin Yatra—into Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, and English. With the onset of MS’s attack, the collective instinctively knew that an English translation would be necessary as a shield in case of intensified hostility, and Richa Nagar began to translate the text. The online petition yielded greater urgency to this task. For the petition to work across borders, we needed the English translation so that our potential allies could familiarize themselves with the book before signing the petition.

The politics of language and translation acquired new meanings in each advancing phase of Sangtin’s yatra. The journey began by interrogating the meanings of development, violence, and literacy as the activists wrote their lives across the borders of their mother tongue, Awadhi (which is often regarded as spoken, rural, and “traditional”), and Hindi, the language in which most people of rural Sitapur become literate and “modernized.” Later, at the time of creating Sangtin Yatra, we also felt it necessary to complicate the communalized compartmentalization between Hindi and Urdu by identifying the language of sangtins as Hindustani. After the publication of Sangtin Yatra, the backlash against the authors took us into another realm of translation: across the borders of Hindustani (commonly regarded as vernacular, ordinary, and regional) and English (often seen as elite, national, and transnational). Initially aimed at gaining support for our constitutional rights to claim a space as authors, intellectuals, and critics, this translation subsequently became invested in communicating the meanings of our labor across the borders of people’s organizations and movements (often regarded as political and grounded) and academia (often considered intellectual and theoretical). On the one hand, the excitement of those who read the English translation convinced us that the process through which we had grappled with the politics of knowledge production and NGO work enabled Sangtin Yatra to speak across borders.

On the other hand, the collective recognized the inseparability of the intellectual and political, of theory and praxis, and the need to creatively politicize these interwoven strands for members of the NGO sector, educational institutions, and the communities where we live and work. The harassment targeted at the eight sangtins in Sitapur frequently took the form of accusations that the sharp analysis and language of Sangtin Yatra could not have been produced by them since they were not highly educated or qualified intellectuals. However, Richa Nagar’s work with the collective—especially the work that did not acquire a familiar academic form (e.g., preparing petitions, networking with supporters, writing official responses to MS, facilitating conversations between AID-MN and Sangtin)—was deemed as belonging to the nonacademic realm (of activism). As the nine authors scrutinized these prevailing discourses about what and who constitute legitimate knowledges and knowledge producers within academia and activism, we saw tight connections with the same cult of professionalism and expertise whose exclusionary and paralyzing effects we had highlighted in Sangtin Yatra. We could only continue the yatra by establishing our labor and enterprise as simultaneously activist and academic. The decision to write Playing with Fire and to publish it with Zubaan Press in New Delhi and the University of Minnesota Press in Minneapolis emerged from these churnings.

New Institutions, Old Discomforts: Sangtin’s Struggles for Survival

The journey after Sangtin Yatra taught us that it is not sufficient to tease apart multiple layers of politics that define every act of knowledge production. For, each new act of politicizing can itself create distinctions that (ironically) emanate from our preexisting locations in the same institutions whose norms of professionalism or expertise we wish to contest. Thus, even as the collective chose to agitate from the transnational space to rescue the jobs of the village-level NGO activists, it made Richa Nagar the primary person who could inhabit, converse, and translate in and from that space. But the collective had also learned that this contradiction did not necessarily make the transnational location more inauthentic and, therefore, guilty and the local spaces more authentic or innocent. Rather, the collective came to see the politics of knowledge production as deeply intertwined across local, national, and transnational scales. Rejecting authenticity as a political strategy or an intellectual stance, then, the collective became invested in translocal and transnational solidarities as a tool to reimagine and reconstitute the relations, conditions, and processes of knowledge production, as well as the purposes for which these reconstituted knowledges can be deployed.

Since June 2004, we have found ourselves confronting and challenging familiar attitudes and assumptions with respect to expertise, qualifications, and intellectual legitimacy—in publishing Playing with Fire; in negotiating the parameters of new projects with international organizations such as OXFAM and more alternative groups such as ASHA Trust (Lucknow); and in configuring Richa Singh’s saathiship with AID and Sangtin’s representation in NCERT. A key contradiction appears repeatedly. On the one hand, we witness an institutional desire to recognize the collective’s accomplishments and to create space for sangtins as critics and community workers with a different kind of vision and caliber. On the other hand, the rules, practices, and cultures of professionalism in these institutions often make it difficult for them to accommodate some of the basic principles of our collaboration. Let us consider some examples that capture this tension.

Whereas Zubaan Press embraced all the authors as Sangtin Writers (and Sangtin Writers had a market in India by 2006 because of the controversy surrounding Sangtin Yatra), market considerations and cataloging systems made it difficult for the University of Minnesota Press to grant us formal authorship as nine sangtins: the collective had to be split into “Sangtin Writers” and “Richa Nagar.” Even the placement of Nagar’s name after Sangtin Writers required negotiation before it was accepted by the U.S. publisher.

Both presses felt that the translation of Sangtin Yatra must be contextualized and its significance more clearly articulated in Playing with Fire for an audience that was more academic than the intended audience of the original book. The collective understood this point, but this requirement made Richa Nagar the only author who could write the framing chapters for a national and international readership. This resulted in deliberations about the tone and style through which the introduction and postscript could be used to resist the very idea of framing and authorizing. Once these two sections were drafted, every sentence was translated, discussed, and revised as necessary—until the entire text became an essential part of our journey. The contents of these two framing chapters fed directly into the new mission statement of Sangtin.9

Whereas academics interested in praxis and methodology frequently express a desire to understand the details of our collaboration, some find it difficult to accept collaboration or co-authorship as processes that cannot be contained or neatly outlined in ways that are replicable or verifiable. Further, well-intentioned members of academia and the NGO sector frequently ask why a collective whose eight members are far from fluent (or even comfortable with the idea of speaking or writing) in English claims authorship of Playing with Fire. In turn, the sangtins respond with two questions: Why is the collective not considered expert enough to make its own decisions about where, when, how, and through whom it wants to translate and circulate its narratives and critiques? And why are researchers and development experts who do not speak a word of Awadhi never asked the same question about documents they generate in the forms of dissertations, books, and reports to donors?

Finally, international and regional NGOs and solidarity groups that have approached us with the intention of assisting our journey often find themselves in a bind. First, their rules allow them to give grants only to “qualified” individuals (as principal investigators or project supervisors). Second, even if these supporters are willing to give us the space to redefine empowerment or violence on Sangtin’s terms, their procedures often prevent the grassroots activists from claiming ownership of their own work and from sharing their critical reflections on that work in public fora so that their institutional critiques may circulate more broadly. Herein emerges yet another contradiction that haunts this project: whereas Richa Singh’s resignation from the post of MS’s district coordinator prompted NCERT and AID-MN to recognize the risks that she had taken for a collective battle and to honor her efforts as an individual, Sangtin’s efforts to secure minimal funds from funding agencies in the name of the organization or its other volunteers (who seem less qualified on paper) have frequently met with resistance.

As the collective grapples with these tensions, we continue to face harder, more pressing questions surrounding the precariousness of livelihoods of sangtins. At a time when the term foreign funds continues to construct an opposition between imperial domination and national sovereignty in the context of left-leaning social movements, several organizations are developing political methods of building power through their own members as their “primary agents of possibility” (Armstrong 2004, 52). Even as Sangtin draws inspiration from these groups, it continues to experiment and struggle with its own context-specific challenges and limitations. Organizing chikan embroiderers and small-scale milk producers in Sitapur into cooperatives have been two such experiments. Although these initiatives have been difficult to sustain, they have enabled Sangtin to confront the critical question of how it might generate resources and energies for (a) improving the access, quality, and relevance of basic education available to the least privileged children, and (b) creating spaces for more collectives of women and men to emerge so they can envision self-empowerment through dialogue and devise strategies to fight political, economic, psychological, and physical violence. Our power to realize these simple dreams, however, hinges in crucial ways on our ability to continue pushing the borders of formal knowledge production, and expectations about who should reside within those borders.

Parallel Diary 1: Theory as Praxis

In terms of the politics of knowledge production, Sangtin Yatra underscores that knowledge is embodied in dialogue; each dialogue in a new setting imparts that knowledge a new language and meaning. Knowledge acquires multiple forms as it becomes part of new struggles generated by critique, conversation, and reflection. In this sense, the books Sangtin Yatra and Playing with Fire, the protest resignation by Richa Singh, the online petition, the newspaper articles, reviews, and commentaries on the books can all be seen as multiple forms of knowledge enabled by dialogues evolving in different sites touched by the sangtins’ alliance. In this collective intellectual journey, theory is generated as praxis. That is, what matters is not just theory-as-product but rather the activity of making knowledge, especially as a medium for negotiating difference and power. Theorizing, then, is not only about what the members of an alliance are in a position to see or conceptualize—it is equally about what we are in a position to do in making knowledge—“namely, constitute ourselves as political actors in institutions and processes both near and far” (Nagar 2006c, 154).

Sangtin Yatra disrupts the notion of “the field over there” as a source of raw material for formal knowledge that is subsequently processed by the expert academic. Rather, as an ongoing journey, it repeatedly suggests that the field is everywhere, an idea that we expand on elsewhere (Sangtin Writers 2012, Nagar and Singh et al. 2012). For quick examples in the context of the above controversy, one can think of at least four different sites that were impacted by sangtins’ intervention in knowledge making. First, the attack from the director of MSUP led to critical conversations in what was then the women’s studies department at the University of Minnesota about what constitutes ethical research, and about blurring the definitions of researcher and subjects of research, and of theory and praxis. Second, in the case of academic editing and publishing, sangtins’ modes of self-presentation as well as the content of our analysis have frequently led to difficult conversations about authorship, participation, translation, and representation and the need for editors and publishers to interrogate their own tendency to reduce formally less-educated, rural people to ethnographic subjects and to inadvertently romanticize or exoticize them without being able to accept them as true intellectuals or authors. Such conversations happened around displaying authors’ names and photos on the cover of Playing with Fire, demands to revise sangtins’ words to fit the requirements of the presses, and how to address the queries of reviewers and copyeditors without falling prey to their problematic assumptions and stereotypes. A third field that became central to sangtins’ journey was India’s NCERT, where the intervention made by Sangtin Yatra resulted in Sangtin’s participation in the process of restructuring the national school curriculum, and which led to a chapter of Sangtin Yatra being included in the Hindi textbook for the Central Board Secondary Examination (tenth grade). Last but not least, the arguments made in Sangtin Yatra and Playing with Fire sparked the interest of donor organizations, among them Oxfam, Association for India’s Development, and Global Fund for Women, each of which entered into important conversations with members of Sangtin on the need to rethink a range of concepts and practices in the landscape of funded projects and activism, including violence against women, documentation of impact, skills and qualifications, and the very idea of a principal investigator.

In common parlance, the first two fields (women’s/gender studies and academic publishing) are often associated with the realm of the northern academic establishment, and the last two (NCERT and donor organizations) are linked to “the ground.” But sangtins’ praxis allowed the concerns of the first two fields to become entangled with the other two. Subsequently, two members of the authors’ collective, Surbala and Richa Singh visited the United States to participate with Richa Nagar in a series of academic, activist, and artistic forums with an explicit aim of looking at U.S. universities and organizations as their field sites.10

At the same time, a commitment to collaborative praxis translates into a longer, more difficult journey: the journey that involves living up to our own critique. With Sangtin Yatra and Playing with Fire, some critical issues began to crystallize for the movement that was emerging in the villages of Sitapur under the umbrella organization, Sangtin. To begin with, the movement could not imagine focusing solely on poor women. Overnight meetings led by sangtins in village after village revealed that access to irrigation waters, fair wages, livelihoods, and right to information were the key issues around which collective struggle needed to happen. Soon, Sangtin began to transition from a collective of nine women to become SKMS, an organization comprising mainly dalit peasants and laborers, approximately half of whom are men. This has periodically thrown up the most fundamental question—what is a narivadi sangathan (feminist organization)? Along with this growth came another basic question—what is SKMS’s relationship with the state? Could SKMS remain oppositional to the state if its actions were engaging with and responding to the state’s policies pertaining to rural development?

Even as the organization grapples with these questions, SKMS has been at the forefront of fighting difficult battles with the government for returning water in an irrigation channel, which had been denied to forty thousand small farmers for sixteen years. In a landmark victory in 2009, the organization also won unemployment compensation for 826 mazdoor families under NREGA after two and a half years of sustained agitation against the state. As the growing membership of SKMS grappled with the interbraided violence of unemployment, displacement, casteism, communalism, and heterosexism, it also became clear that the pasts and presents of untouchability, deprivation, and disabilities are not so easily erased and that in order to remain committed to being an antihierarchical organization, SKMS has to continuously find ways to make space for these pasts and presents to be understood, confronted, negotiated, and remade in the organization.

There are also other challenges. First, in the absence of any donors, how can SKMS sustain itself? Can SKMS survive without entering into a dependent relationship with the same capitalist market that it confronts for its everyday long-term survival? Another challenge has had to do with the negotiation of the relationship between authors of the book, Sangtin Yatra, and the authors of the movement that is unfolding everyday as well as the nature, role, and function of translocal and transnational alliances in the making and advancing of such a movement.

One of our saathis, Maya, whose struggle and tears inspired us to begin Sangtin Yatra in 2002 (see chapter 4), was brutally murdered in her village by her own family members in 2007.11 Maya’s murder had as much to do with her political activism as it had to do with the choices that she openly made about her personal life and intimacies. Maya was killed at a time when SKMS gained high visibility as a key people’s organization in Uttar Pradesh that is challenging the developmentalist state. Her murder struck SKMS with the same basic question that we confronted in 2004—what is a feminist movement? And can we really afford not to focus on violence against women in an organization 90 percent of whose membership is dalit and 50 percent or more of whom are dalit women laborers?

Photo 7. SKMS saathis take over Vikas Bhawan (District Development Office) to demand their rights under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Sitapur, 2009. (Courtesy: Sangtin Archives)

Photo 8. Saathis prepare for the next phase of struggle as they fight for unemployment compensation under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Sitapur, 2009. (Courtesy: Sangtin Archives)

Photo 9. Jawaabdehi rally of SKMS: Saathis demand accountability from the development officials. Sitapur, 2010. (Courtesy: Sangtin Archives)

Journeying through Questions:
Possibilities and Contradictions of Collaboration

The movement is a web of interconnected strands, of recurring themes and discernible patterns. Autonomy. Participation.Democracy. Diversity. The reinvention of power. The importance of creativity and subjectivity. Real and basic needs rather than ideology as the basis of political action. Access to the“commons”—whether water, public space, software, seeds, or the manufacture of medicines. And constant questioning and innovation, especially when the movement is the most self-satisfied or most despairing.

For movement implies motion, journeying, change.

—Notes from Nowhere, We Are Everywhere

Every step of this journey thus far has carried enormous meanings for the collective.12 In different ways, every sangtin has poured her soul into it, risked her honor for it. This probably could not have happened if we had not made a commitment to confront at all times the uncomfortable differences among our social and institutional locations, power, and access to resources. This awareness of power differentials becomes especially palpable when we ask how our collaboration has continued after MSUP’s angry attack on the livelihoods of seven sangtins. Richa Singh bluntly asks whether such a long, hard battle could have continued in the absence of not simply the commitment but also the power of location and resources that Richa Nagar brought to the collective. She is confident that once the book was written and the risks taken, the battle would have continued irrespective of Richa Nagar’s involvement. She wonders, however, if the collective would have been dismantled in the absence of the national and transnational support that our journey was able to garner through networking and solidarity building in which Richa Nagar’s social, geographical, and institutional locations became major advantages for the collective. But while Richa Singh can imagine the scattering of the collective in the face of threat to livelihoods, she cannot imagine that the sangtins could compromise the principles articulated in Sangtin Yatra: This itself attests to the success of the yatra.

The world of NGOs, ostensibly committed to bringing about greater equality, is efficiently divided along the lines of positions. These positions are never defined merely according to responsibilities. They are inevitably entangled with honoraria amounts; the importance of NGO staff increases or diminishes on the basis of who gets greater or lesser honorarium. On paper, Richa Singh is a member of Sangtin and Surbala is the secretary, but does that make their situations approximately equal? The relative positions that each of them occupied in MSS itself creates a distinction in their present circumstances. Surbala chose to leave the security of an MS job at a time when Sangtin was merely a name, whereas Richa Singh was forced to leave MS after Sangtin Yatra faced backlash from MS officials. Richa Singh feels that her own personal life was not deeply affected after she left MS. However, she did lose her official status and authority, the absence of which resulted in the disappearance of many conveniences, facilities, and resources. And working in the absence of these became Sangtin’s major challenge.

When Richa Singh decided to leave MS, the whole collective was behind her. Some supporters suggested in the spirit of solidarity and fair-mindedness that if Richa Singh was quitting, other members of the collective who were MS employees should also quit MS. But did the other sangtins have the same options of being able to acquire an alternative livelihood as Richa Singh did? No. And soon, AID-MN’s saathiship for Richa Singh became a major supporter for the continuation of the dreams and stances we had taken in Sangtin Yatra. Yet, Richa Singh remembers that at the time her saathiship was being finalized, friends at AID-MN asked her what her “minimal financial needs” were. Richa Singh could not help asking: were Surbala to obtain the same saathiship, would her material circumstances automatically translate into her getting a lesser honorarium than Richa Singh?

On 20 June 2005, Richa Singh gets on the computer at 1 A.M. to write her thoughts in Hindi to send to Richa Nagar, who is responsible for putting it all together in the form of a chapter that we have been asked to contribute to an edited volume, Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies of India. At 3:30 A.M., Richa Singh realizes that she still has about an hour left before the electricity is cut off, but then worries that she will lose everything if the power is cut off early. For a long time now, Sitapur town has had daily outage ranging from ten to fourteen hours. Within the Sitapur district, Mishrikh development block receives electricity supply that alternates between daytime during one week and nighttime during the next, and even that supply is often irregular. There are villages in this district that do not get electricity for months in a row, and there are also villages where electricity has still not reached. If one starts comparing the hours of electricity supplied to Mishrikh, Sitapur, Lucknow, and Delhi, each comparison will yield a difference of night and day. Sometimes friends in big cities who want Sangtin’s input on an important matter ask Richa Singh to take a look at something they shared on the Internet and then provide rapid feedback on behalf of Sangtin. But for Richa Singh, this desire of the more privileged well-wishers to include Sangtin in their deliberations raises serious questions. And what would happen if the same job were assigned to Surbala or Ramsheela? Surbala’s village has no electricity, and Ramsheela’s village gets it for a few hours over several months. In such a scenario, the very access that Richa Singh has to a computer in Sitapur town bestows privileges on her that problematically make her more special than the rest.

The globe has become a so-called village, an interconnected market. But how many gulfs keep yawning between our locations and between the needs created by those locations on the basis of which grants and projects are determined? When a handful of people sit with very special facilities and scarce resources while the majority lose access to basic resources for survival, how do we expect that both the resource-rich and the resource-poor will come together in common institutional spaces to work and act as approximate equals?

On the surface, these questions seem no different from the ones with which we began our journey in 2002. But our yatra thus far has imparted them with deeper meanings. Although MS’s backlash made us more confident than ever about the truth of our critique, it also showed what the price of articulating that critique could be. That the only source of livelihood of our most economically vulnerable sangtins could be snatched away as punishment for critical reflection and collaboration was a reality that shook us. In order to remain true to our commitment, however, the sangtins must continue identifying and challenging institutional norms and practices that exclude, diminish, or dominate them, or that maintain the status quo in the name of helping, empowering, or giving voice to the marginalized. The knots become tighter and harder for us as we gain access to some spaces and lose others by raising uncomfortable questions. We are committed to changing unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power—whether it is hours of electricity, or the right to claim a truth as legitimate intellectuals, or the right to appear as authors on the cover of a book written in English. But we also have to be vigilant about what is at stake here. As we fight to claim intellectual authority and legitimacy for our insights; to redefine empowerment and violence on our own terms; and to engage in constructive criticism of the institutional spaces where we are hired, fired, or invited to work—we cannot afford to engage in critique that advances the careers or visibility of some in the collective while jeopardizing the access to livelihoods for others.

The primary objective of our journey has been to initiate and sustain difficult dialogues—among ourselves and with those institutions with which we become affiliated. Like Notes from Nowhere (2003) we, too, believe that it is only through these difficult dialogues that our journey can continue and move us forward. Through constant interrogation of the contradictions that remain within us, we want to steer away from simplistic claims about equality among us; but we also believe that if people sitting in unequal places will not come forward to build alliances then the gulfs between our intellectual and material struggles will continue to widen. The journey on which we have come thus far through trust, solidarity, and self-critique cannot stop at one or two critical experiments, one or two books, or one or two institutions. It is a dialogic process—a dialectical response—that can be sustained only through continuous movement and questioning.

Parallel Diary 2: Churnings of a Movement

Silence and Protest

Some children are constantly given opportunities to use their voices, and some find themselves in circumstances where they gradually start identifying their own notes. But there are many children whose voices are cruelly suffocated by society every time they try to express themselves. They learn to become silent—sometimes because of the schoolmaster’s stick, sometimes by the slaps of the malik, sometimes by the thrashings from their Maa-Baap, and often by the insults hurled at their own families by others. And the little feet that start moving tentatively on the path of life begin to tremble at the very outset of the journey.

Those who feel most crushed by the dominant groups are frequently the same people who are dubbed bevaqoof and nalayaq by the mainstream. And these same definitions—like heavy labadas—become such unsheddable burdens for so many people in our villages that they do not get a chance to carve out new definitions for themselves. As the sangtins’ journey moved forward, saathis began to understand the connections between their struggles; they began to understand how the suffocating of one’s voice from childhood and the inability to carve out the definitions to undertake an analysis of one’s own conditions take away the resources necessary for people to live a full life.

How deep are the relationships between the struggles of childhood, youth, and old age, and so tightly intertwined with our pasts, presents, and futures that one’s childhood becomes synonymous with the history that is always present in one’s current struggles. Perhaps it is because of the constant presence of our childhoods in our lives that the memories, desires, tears, and feelings dug from our pasts have become a potent medium for building relationships in the Sangathan. Through the language of childhood, struggle travels from one soul to another, from one person to another, from one world to another.

When saathis of the Sangathan sit down to reflect on our childhoods, we quiver with rage. How does one begin to describe the childhoods of our saathis, such as Banwari, whose roti was snatched away as punishment, sometimes for talking too much and sometimes for expressing a desire to play with the children of his malik’s family? Society thrashed him so hard that the waves that rose inside Banwari fell silent for years. He shut the doors of his heart and swore to himself that he would never open his mouth again. Saathis such as Banwari ask, “the country became independent, the drums of democracy have been continuously beaten, but how do we break the chains that have bound us?”

But when Banwari found the space of the Sangathan, his muffled voice started rising and blending with the voice of the Sangathan. Banwari says: “When I sit in the meetings of the Sangathan, I feel I have a place in this world. I feel valued. The fears that had locked my tongue for years are slipping behind.”

It is through voices such as Banwari’s that the intimate episodes and experiences of our lives find their grounds in the Sangathan. Somewhere or another in the innermost layers of all of our lives are experiences that we managed to recognize as injustice but were not able to create anything from that recognition. The merging of the silences and protests of saathis, such as Kailasha and Banwari, with the voice of the Sangathan allows all the saathis to learn how to take the recognition of injustice to its next destination. Without the notes attained through this recognition, the Sangathan could not have appreciated how deep a relationship exists between the following poem of Dhoomil (1999), the suffocated voices of childhood, and the silences that have the power to break other silences: The struggle to reclaim roti is not simply about who rolls or eats the roti. Nor is it merely about drawing attention to those in power who play with the roti; it is also about a silent violence of the powerful that can only be fought by enabling the silences of the deprived.

A man

rolls the roti

a man eats the roti

there is also a third man

who neither rolls nor eats the roti

he only plays with the roti

I ask

who is this third man?

the parliament of my country does not respond.

Murders, Silences, and Feminisms: Maya and Jinnati

Minneapolis, 24 November 2007. I have just hung up the phone after speaking with Richa Singh. Maya has been murdered. The same Maya, whose fearless voice always drowned the voices of others, has herself been silenced forever. The corpse of the same Maya, whose forceful presence I associate with the beginning of our journey as sangtins, was thrown to rot on top on the garbage by her murderers—to mock all those struggles that Maya lived with her each breath, each laugh, and each scream and threw an open challenge to her whole society.

Her heavy sobs shaking with terror and anger still echo in my ears—“All these people will kill me, just like they killed Jinnati.”

And several of the women sitting around Maya in March 2002 had said almost in unison as they wiped the tears from Maya’s eyes, “How can they kill you, Maya? It isn’t that easy to lose or take someone’s life. Aren’t we with you?”

Five and a half years after that conversation, Maya was murdered in cold blood. Why? Because none of us could dare to live our most intimate relationships as Maya did? Because Maya did not allow any family, any husband, any job, any organization, or any ideology to govern her thoughts and lifestyle? Without ever uttering words such as “NGOization” or “feminism” from her mouth, Maya taught us most critical lessons that no one else could teach us—from her behavior, her relationships, her stubbornness, and her decisions. Yet no organization, no movement, no companion could stop this fearless Maya from being murdered. Isn’t this a major defeat for us all?

—translated entry from Richa Nagar’s diary

It was the year 2000. Five years before the birth of SKMS and more than a year before the beginning of Sangtin Yatra. In the Arthapur village of Kutubnagar in Mishrikh Block, a man killed his wife, Jinnati, by stabbing her body with a knife several times. The whisperings suggested that Jinnati was involved in an extramarital relationship with a young man from the village. Further murmurings revealed that Jinnati was a second wife, and her husband was many years older than herself. At the time of her death, Jinnati was the treasurer of the micro-credit program run in the Arthapur village by MSS. Outside a shop at a street corner in Kutubnagar, one of Jinnati’s friends said to a companion, “What a tragedy that Jinnati’s husband killed her so heartlessly.”

Hearing these words, a man from Arthapur immediately declared, “What Jinnati’s husband did was right. This is the best lesson for women such as Jinnati. If Jinnati were from my family, I would have gotten rid of her a long time ago.” Most people called Jinnati characterless and saw her murder as inevitable.

Anyone’s murder, anywhere, is a matter of profound pain and sadness. But Jinnati was not just anyone—she was involved in so many key discussions in MSS. No one doubted that she was emerging as a strong leader in her village. Yet, for the women who had plunged themselves into women’s issues with Jinnati, her murder became a challenge. Far from expressing sadness or making efforts to bring her killer to justice, many women from Jinnati’s own village and adjoining villages busied themselves with trying to prove the validity of Jinnati’s murder. And yet, these same women knew of several men from Kutubnagar whose extramarital relationships were no secrets. At the time when people gathered to pay their last respects to Jinnati, it was not just the men who were absent. Even those women who were involved with Jinnati’s own village-level micro-credit program did not step out of their homes.

The collective absence of women clarified the challenge that stood before MSS workers who opposed Jinnati’s murder: making any public comment about Jinnati’s death meant inviting bitter reaction against all those women who were becoming active on women’s issues. The district-level administration of MSS understood full well that women who publicly opposed Jinnati’s murder would be communally blacklisted as “characterless” women who “want to turn all the daughters and daughters-in-law in the area into Jinnatis.” Even as hearts trembled with anger, they remained enveloped with the fear that no such word should slip out of any mouth that could become an excuse to push women back behind the closed doors of their homes. . . . At the same time, MSS leadership recognized its responsibility: “If we fail to question the society’s definition of a good woman now, when would we take up this challenge? Isn’t a silence over a foundational issue such as this one almost as big an injustice against Jinnati as her murder was?” In the end, MSS workers decided to organize a silent protest to raise this question in Sitapur.

In a tense environment, approximately three hundred women from Kutubnagar marched in the silent protest against Jinnati’s murder. At the main intersection of Kutubnagar, they invited the men from the area to join in. Approximately a hundred men joined the juloos at that invitation, but left the march after covering barely half a kilometer. It was hard to tell how many of those men allowed themselves to open their hearts to the protest’s message, but the juloos did bring an end to public discussions that had continuously proclaimed Jinnati as characterless. Later, Jinnati’s husband was sentenced to life imprisonment.

How ironic that the cheerful and “big-mouthed” Maya, who remembered Jinnati’s murder as she tearfully relayed the fear of her own end, was brutally murdered within a matter of a few years. Actively involved in both MSS and SKMS, Maya was admired and resented for her wild and daring ways. Maya disappeared from her village Narayanpur on the evening of 21 November 2007, and two days later her corpse was found on the village’s garbage dump.

The main cause behind the murders of both Jinnati and Maya was that they had intimate relationships with men outside of wedlock. However, the quick pace at which Jinnati was accused of being immoral was something that did not repeat itself in Maya’s case. In Jinnati’s case, it also became a public fact that the perpetrator of her murder was her own husband, whereas in Maya’s case, the identity of her killer remains a mystery. In the police network, one did hear stories about Maya’s “illegitimate” relationships every now and then, but no “facts” were ever made public.

Together, MSS and SKMS organized a condolence meeting in Narayanpur on 26 November 2007. Besides prominent people such as Pradhanpati of Gramsabha Rannupur, more than one hundred saathis from nearby villages gathered to pay their respects to Maya. All these people also participated in the six-kilometer-long padyatra from Narayanpur to Kutubnagar that was held immediately after the gathering. The meeting and padyatra made it clear that no matter how many people taunted Maya for her hekadi, men from the Sangathan remember Maya’s every gesture with fondness and respect. Shivram recalls how Maya often put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Why, Shivram, you say what we should do next.” Shivram’s voice gets choked with tears as he remembers that sahaj style of Maya. No matter how tired Maya might have been of the pangs of poverty, the chains of our society could not touch her soul, her ways of embracing life. That is precisely why society could not tolerate Maya’s forceful laughter and honestly lived relationships while she was alive.

Along with this painful recognition, however, we faced a powerful truth that made the tears shed after Maya’s death very different from the suffocated screams that followed Jinnati’s murder. When Jinnati was killed, MSS activists had to strategize about how to help people understand that the very attempt to justify her murder was criminal, while also making sure that village-level volunteers who opposed Jinnati’s murder were not branded as loose or immoral.

The scene in Narayanpur village on 26 November 2007 was intimately reminiscent of, yet in complete contrast with, what was seen in Arthapur eight years earlier. Whereas not even one man had stepped up to publicly condole Jinnati, several hundred men were present along with SKMS’s women saathis to extend their respects to Maya. The manner in which people discussed the frightening meanings of Maya’s murder was something that could never have happened after Jinnati was killed. These differences forced the saathis to ask ourselves several questions: Even if a lot remains to be changed, what kind of transformation has already taken place that allowed our men saathis to publicly weep as they remembered Maya? What has changed as a result of the Sangathan’s work that allowed our men saathis to declare angrily that the accused must be punished? Why is it that this time, instead of lowering their voices at the intersection in Kutubnagar, saathis such as Ram Avtar and Bhainu could scream with rage in their tear-filled voices: “An injustice like this against women cannot be tolerated!”

If Ram Avtar and Bhainu had not been saathis of SKMS, would they have been able to gather the courage to shame their community in this way? Perhaps not. But before we raise our hands to pat our own backs for this accomplishment, larger questions scream at the saathis and make our hands numb. What is the price that the saathis must pay for this project of social transformation that we have embraced? Has Maya been forced to pay that price with her own life? If this is true, why is it so? As these questions torment us, we are also faced with the questions that our critics often pose before SKMS.

For example, one question that has been posed on several occasions is whether the political journey that began with the book Sangtin Yatra was sidetracked by the making of SKMS. Did the collective critique through which the sangtins had sharpened their feminist thought lose its edge as the group transformed into an organization of laborers and peasants? This question acquires even more urgency in the context of Maya’s murder. In departing from a sole focus on women’s issues and creating an organization of peasants and workers, has the Sangathan committed a strategic or ideological mistake that has resulted in our paying the price with the murder of a courageous companion such as Maya?

Whomever joined the journey of sangtins saw a couple of simple dreams somewhere along the way: the dream of a society where one does not have to be humiliated because they are materially poor, dalit, or landless, or because they pull a rickshaw or thelia. A dream of a society where memories of one’s childhood do not automatically bring tears to one’s eyes. A dream that turns humiliations of childhood and difficulties of life into energy that radiates hope.

In these simple dreams of living a life with respect, the sangtins could not see anything that should have been confined only to poor women. Nor did the sangtins, in connecting this dream with all the exploited workers and peasants of our villages, feel for a moment that we were leaving women behind. Are women not peasants? Are they not laborers? If the mere mention of a peasant or laborer evokes the image of a man’s face in our minds, by what words should we define such feminist thought?

At the same time, a bitter truth has prominently informed the Sangathan’s struggle: the everyday humiliation and tortures suffered by women transform themselves far too easily into the murders of Mayas and Jinnatis. The everydayness of humiliation suffered by our men saathis, by contrast, does not place them at the risk of murder. The mockery of a woman’s existence that happens in our homes and communities in the name of “respect” and “protection,” and the tireless efforts to crush her dreams and render her desires invisible are, after all, the everyday killings that become the stepping-stones to gruesome murders of living, dreaming, and fighting women such as Jinnati and Maya. A fearless woman is battered inside her home so that she cannot advance her struggle with confidence. A woman saathi returns home from a victorious rally on NREGS, only to be cursed in a public place by a husband or relative who wants to establish his or her power over the woman before the world—“Look! she is under our control. No matter how strong a leader she might become outside the home, deep inside we can destroy her soul in whatever way we choose.” The Mayas who collide with multiple systems of domination are grave threats because the courage of their ideas and the force of their determination place in the circle of suspicion all their “saviors”—from the district administration, the NGOs, the Pradhans, and the police to their husbands, lovers, and family members.

It is only by advancing these bitter truths in the Sangathan that we have learned the complexities of struggles that insist on identifying and finding their own notes in the midst of the terrifying possibility of being silenced forever. And it is these same truths that have enabled the saathis to see the violence inflicted by hunger as deeply connected with the violence inflicted by murder. If struggle against both forms of violence is intertwined and inevitable, then the Sangathan must also confront the risks and sacrifices that come with these necessary choices: for Kailasha, that risk translates into giving up her day’s food, and for Maya it becomes the loss of her life. The difference in the magnitude of the two sacrifices shrinks with the recognition that both sacrifices are borne of a simple hope that the Sangathan enables—the hope for a dignified and fulfilling life. In a context where premature crushing of life is hardly any news, saathis such as Kailasha and Maya pay the cost of this hope with their bodies.

“No Entry Signal!”

After the rally of 23 August 2006, the gaze of political forces on the active saathis had become more vigilant. The same people who previously dismissed the sangtins as women working on women’s issues were now feeling threatened by SKMS’s growing visibility. The economic equations that had emerged in the game of development were feeling the sangtins’ burden. The information about when the saathis were planning which activities in which villages were now being assembled actively outside the Sangathan. In these circumstances, the three women who were working full-time as organizers—Richa Singh, Surbala, and Reena—felt an urgent need to remain in continuous contact with the movement’s membership. The long queues at public call booths made it difficult to discuss highly politicized and volatile matters with the members. Finally, Reena had a landline installed and Surbala arranged for a mobile phone. Having access to the phone made it far easier for them to do the planning associated with the Sangathan’s activities. In the midst of all this, Sarvesh of Sabelia village said to Surbala one day:

“Didi, Can you help me buy a phone, too?”

“Why don’t you purchase some wheat to feed the family instead? The winter nights are cold and you don’t even have a razai. Why don’t you get a razai from your earnings? What will come from getting a phone?” Surbala lectured Sarvesh.

Then Sarvesh went to Richa Singh with the same request. Her response was similar: “Sarvesh, I would not advise you to get a phone.”

Sarvesh went and purchased a phone himself.

When Surbala saw Sarvesh with a phone, she complained—“Sarvesh, we tried to make you understand why you shouldn’t waste money on a phone. But you didn’t listen!”

Sarvesh said—“When you purchased a phone, did I ever try to tell you to not get one? That your expenses will increase because of the phone? Then why did you tell me not to get a phone? Isn’t that what everyone else says? That ‘when you poor folks get some money you lose sight of what your real need is. All you do is spend your money on wasteful things such as radios and phones.’ When you told me the same thing, I was incensed. So I just went and purchased a phone.”

When Surbala first heard Sarvesh’s words, she was livid, but soon her anger turned into an intense restlessness. Why did Sarvesh interpret her advice in this way? After several days, Surbala discussed this issue in a meeting with other saathis and confronted the truth of what Sarvesh said. Can she or Richa or any other saathi truly assess what Sarvesh can or cannot do with the wages of his sweat? Can they determine what is or is not his need? Is it not true that despite their best intentions, those who organize and lead movements end up pointing their fingers at Sarvesh’s tabqa and their ideas about his tabqa lead many to presume and define things for that tabqa? Why? Just because they have tried to stand with them or extended a little bit of support in their fight for their roti? Sarvesh’s tabqa is the one that supports our movements precisely like our thumb blends with our hand to reinforce it into a powerful fist. And even after reinforcing the fist, it never preaches at anyone. Then why is it that Surbala assumed that she knew what Sarvesh’s need was?

Today, Surbala does not mind Sarvesh’s purchasing of the phone or his harsh directness with her. In fact, she sees these as “no-entry” signals. No-entry signals that remind her that she has no right or ability to decide how Sarvesh’s life should carry on, what his needs are, or what would give him happiness. Remembering this incident, Surbala wrote in her diary—“After this incident, my relationship with Sarvesh has deepened. Now when the people of our villages return with a radio in their hands after pulling the cycle rickshaws in Lucknow, I do not flinch. I still wrestle with the questions—‘Why did they purchase this radio? Wasn’t their need something else?’ But I don’t dare to think that I am even in a position to understand the answers.”

Sarvesh, like others in SKMS, pushes us to confront the reality that the Sangathan’s collective struggle for recognition of injustice is impossible without a recognition of the limits imposed by each saathi’s own privileges and perspectives . . . our own inability to fully know any saathi’s feelings, desires, actions, or reasoning. It is this politics of recognition that gives all the saathis of the Sangathan the tools to measure the sacrifices of Kailasha and Maya, and to derive courage and inspiration from them.

The stories of Banwari, Sarvesh, Maya, and Jinnati challenge their audiences—wherever they might be located—to reconsider the questions surrounding silence, power, and context, as well as the centrality of desire in shaping the politics of struggle, solidarity, alliance, and representation.13 In writing the journeys of saathis such as Banwari, the movement asks a question: how has SKMS’s work enabled these saathis to speak with conviction and authority? But this question is undergirded by another question: in which environments and circumstances do people assert their power to speak with confidence? The movement commits itself to providing precisely such an environment so that saathis can claim their first occasions for interaction and participation in a setting that is radically different from the worlds that have denied them dignity for most of their lives. Worlds in which their speech, their passions, their analyses remained unarticulated or unheard. In making this commitment, the movement recognizes that those who are silent are often those who are most critical and suspicious—even if unconsciously or implicitly—about language. The movement appreciates that, far from being a neutral medium, language is always shaped by power and operates in particular environments to entrench and normalize hierarchical relations around caste, class, gender, and geography.14

At the same time, the stories poignantly indicate the ways in which desire and pleasure are read as excessive when expressed by the disenfranchised and the poor, by people who are expected to fight for their daily survival and sustenance in the forms of livelihoods and “basic needs.” Although Maya’s and Jinnati’s fates cannot easily be compared with Banwari’s or Sarvesh’s, and their desires are enmeshed in quite different structures and configurations of power, each one of their stories is about how the very expression of desire for pleasure or indulgence—whether expressed through extramarital affairs or through an “unnecessary” desire for cricket or a cellphone—becomes a transgression of their auqat or “rightful place.” In explicitly articulating or remembering their desire for pleasure—and in politicizing that pleasure as their right—Banwari, Sarvesh, Maya, and Jinnati resist the dominant perceptions about the rightful place of the marginalized and about what they should or should not be entitled to. Their insistence actively redefines the notion of “the political.” While the previous chapters of Muddying the Waters chiefly engaged with modes of acting and being that are self-consciously political—whether in the academy or “on the ground”—the stories of Banwari, Sarvesh, Maya, and Jinnati introduce a different modality of the political, one that pushes us to reconsider who and what is read as an agent of knowledge production, and how. Such rethinking requires a redefinition of the notion of the political itself, a theme to which I return in the last chapter as four truths of storytelling and coauthorship in alliance work.





Previous chapter
Table of contents
Next chapter
    The content of this electronic work is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit this electronic work in whole or in part without the written permission of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

© 2019 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved