Fostering Collective Action Against Oppression
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
Parindey: Vimla Vishwapremi
Alivelihood: Social activism
Region: Palampur, Himachal Pradesh
“But first, let's listen to what the last one standing in the line has to say if we want to be guided on the right path of social progress.“
- Vimla Vishwapremi
Born into a family of weavers belonging to a scheduled caste community known as Bunkar, Vimla Vishwapremi says that there were several mouths to feed when she was born. She began to feel that her presence was different when she went to school. Her caste was marked by deep stigma and discrimination. She was asked to occupy the last benches in school, made to sit separately at birthday parties, do household chores from a very early age instead of focusing on her studies, and so on. Even though she was good at sports, especially volleyball and kho-kho, her coach never supported her in going to matches or taking the lead over other students. “Day and night we were made to work in farms, graze cattle or run here and there. By the end of the day, I was too exhausted to do anything. Education was secondary for us then, and there was never really any space where we could be mentally free enough to study or even ask for that time,” she recalls.
After completing her 10th standard, she faced tremendous pressure and discouragement from all sides to leave her studies and accept her fate as a 'Dalit woman', into marriage and submission. But something in her made her different, conscious, and she struggled to study further and kept reading, knowing about the things that interested her. When she was young, she witnessed the death of her elder sister, who was married early without choice and tortured by her in-laws for dowry. This was the turning point in Vimla's life, after which something within her began struggling for the dignity and rights of the oppressed, the women. During her schooling, she enrolled in a stitching camp and came across a training programme on women’s health conducted by a local NGO, and it opened the world for her. She used to go to women’s gatherings and speak about women’s rights, health issues etc. As an adolescent, many people did not take her seriously, and she frequently encountered derogatory comments about her gender and caste. However, she was successful in gradually forming a collective of young women in the village, who would then go around singing songs of awareness and disseminating information on important women's issues. Vimla felt a strong need to speak up against the very evident atrocities of caste and gender-based discrimination in her and nearby villages, and she saw it as the only way for her to move ahead in her life. She was transforming herself through her struggle by not getting subjected to the same fate.
The women in the mountains face issues of poor livelihood opportunities, patriarchal oppression, and domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent evils in these societies and results in the compromise of the dignity of women and serious psychological harm to children and families. Furthermore, Dalit women bear a double burden with their caste position, making it impossible to approach or demand an equal status in society. Vimla organised women on many issues in the villages around Kandbari, Palampur etc., creating platforms for awareness and discussion where women can speak and relieve themselves.
She began interacting with the women who came as elected representatives to the panchayat. However, slowly, she could see structural defaults that keep women from making any decision, such as the constant reinforcement of a belief that they are inferior, incapable, and limited. Moreover, women from the lower castes do not manage to become a part of elected women's circles, which largely remain accessible to upper-caste women. Vimla became increasingly concerned about the Dalit women of these villages, who remained on the margins amongst the marginals. Thus, she began to travel around villages with her weapon of love and struggle, gathering crowds and speaking on caste–gender issues. It was only in 2007, on International Women's Day, that elected representative women came together from a few districts of Himachal Pradesh to discuss various forms of sexual, emotional, physical, and caste-based violence, opening a new dialogue. The women collectively felt the need to show solidarity and formed an organisation named 'Parvatiya Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch'. Led by Vimla’s close guidance and effort, the organisation was a much-celebrated statement on her struggle. Slowly, developing her knowledge of the legal, political, social, psychological and economic aspects of human rights, gender, and caste, she got training as a human rights defender. She gradually brought over 1000 women into connection with the Manch. Realising the universality of her cause and focusing on the most marginalised, the Manch's name was changed to 'Parvatiya Mahila Adhikar Manch' in 2014 to reach all relevant sections.
The Manch is growing every day. Their primary aim is to provide a space for women to feel confident and a sense of belonging, which they have been denied in every other space. They have done exceptional work in raising women's consciousness of their issues and reinforcing the Dalit voice. The Manch comes to life through daily interaction with the masses, and Vimla skillfully communicates with both men and women to make her point. Lata, a domestic violence survivor now associated with the Manch, says, "My children used to be scared when there was violence at home. I have suffered my fate as a woman. Meeting Vimla ji opened the world to me. I feel this strength in me, which was not there before. Because of her, I can fight for myself and my children today without feeling like nothing is mine to call, not even my respect." Vimla has always shown concern for women’s right to decision-making in giving birth and reproductive matters. She thinks that keeping women away from decision-making in these aspects is a fundamental beginning of discrimination and subjugation. Dalits too are denied self-expression in similar ways.
In a successful journey ahead, the Manch faces challenges such as funding to undertake programmes, difficulty in reaching remote areas, and a risk of violence and offence while dealing with sensitive cases of atrocities. Other challenges include mental and physical exhaustion, restrained action due to caste conditioning, lack of resources on the part of the organisation in providing good legal aid sometimes etc. However, Vimla believes in collective action as the supreme force and that all these factors can be overcome by the sheer will of people to fight for their cause.
Vimla envisions a space for Dalit women where they can convene in the case of a violation of their rights in any capacity and find themselves living with dignity and respect. It is conceived as a type of shelter home that can develop into a space where they earn their living, one that welcomes them when they have nowhere else to go. "A space where she feels free, unrestrained, loved, and respected." Establishing such a space in Himachal, amidst the natural tranquillity, can be a healing and enlightening environment for women who have been subjugated in all spheres of life.
Vimla's life and work are not separate. They are inextricably linked through living and action, with her politics manifesting itself in her personal life and her personal connections influencing her politics. Her happiness on seeing a woman do well for herself, the little deep sufferings she so closely empathises with, the courage she radiates, the compassion she holds beneath the layers of rage and the sharp observance of social realities; everything flows under the abundance she has which gives her the strength to fight, magic to organise, and power to change. When asked about her favourite flower on a field trip to court with a woman for a hearing of a POCSO act, Vimla replied, “Marigold. Do you know why? Look at it closely, and you will see many petals come together into a beautiful assembly, becoming a flower. It holds so many petals together in unity, like representing a sangathan, a collective, where each petal is part of a beautiful whole."
Vimla Vishwapremi can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org