‘I have grown some steel in my psyche’

‘I’m 79 + now, and I’ve been doing all this since my late 20s.’
‘Sometimes the ideological war extends to the home as well.’
‘Many nights I couldn’t sleep when someone close to me uttered the smallest insult.’
‘It would cause me a lot of pain. But one has to be honest to oneself.’

To live in the capital of Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh and distribute leaflets on the road celebrating Lucknow’s composite history requires guts. But guts is something 79-year-old Roop Rekha Verma has never lacked.

The former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University and founder of Lucknow’s Institute of Women’s Studies has taken on bitter professional rivals as well as communal fanatics for decades, never giving up her fight for communal harmony or women’s rights through her organisation Saajhi Duniya.

It is this courage and commitment that made Roop Rekha Verma a petitioner in the Supreme Court against the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists, and stand surety for journalist Siddique Kappan.

In the first part of a multi-part interview with Jyoti Punwani, the veteran fighter talks about her life and times, her childhood in a small town and education in Lucknow, and her rebellion against stereotypical expectations of society and family.

What made you approach the Supreme Court against the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists?

Despite increasing deterioration and dents in our democracy in the past few years, the premature release of culprits who had been proven guilty of having committed ferocious crimes — I can’t imagine crimes more serious than murder and gang rape — shook most of us very deeply.

We were all wondering if there was any door open for us to correct this. It so happened that the three of us: Subhashini Ali, Revati Laul and I were approached and we agreed to file a petition.

The Gujarat government’s reply to our petition disclosed that the release was approved of by the Centre and also that it was illegal. It didn’t follow the prescribed norms. The trial court hadn’t given permission for their release.

We also came to know that these convicted murderers and rapists had hardly lived in prison. They’d been granted parole often, on the flimsiest of grounds. So they had suffered hardly any punishment.

It was a shame on our democracy.

We have submitted our rejoinder, the next hearing was due on November 28, 2022, but the bench did not sit.

Remember Arnab Goswami’s case? He got bail from the Supreme Court within two days of the Bombay high court rejecting it. The Supreme Court held a special hearing during its Diwali break, though it wasn’t a matter of life and death, nor was any Constitutional principle involved.

We don’t know how much time this Bilkis Bano matter will take. But the Supreme Court is the last door open for us.

A video of you distributing leaflets in the midst of traffic in Lucknow in July went viral. What was that about?

That event was collectively planned. Some conscientious citizens thought of commemorating the anniversary of the Siege of Lucknow which took place during the 1857 War of Independence.

Though the British and Indians clashed in various parts of Lucknow during that time, the British were only defeated in the locality of Chinhat. This was the very first defeat of the British in India, and it happened at the hands of both Hindus and Muslims. We wanted to remind the people of Lucknow of this joint struggle and victory.

Some of us were distributing leaflets in one area, I decided to move to another place where no one was distributing. That’s how I got photographed alone and all the credit was given to me.

What was the response to these leaflets?

I don’t know how many read them, but I saw that none were thrown away. One or two passersby did react negatively. Since the main figure at that time was Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah, his name figured in the leaflet. So these people asked, why didn’t you mention Rani of Jhansi? Why only a Muslim name?

I had to tell them that if you know the episode, you will realise it was Ahmedullah Shah who led it. Ghamandi Singh’s name was in the leaflet too, he was a commander in the Battle of Chinhat. It’s you who are thinking in terms of Hindu-Muslim, not we, I told them.

The heading of the leaflet was ‘Milke Chalo‘, and we wanted to show that all castes and all religions had fought together for freedom.

Did anyone recognise you there?

Yes, a few did, asking if I wasn’t the same person who had been VC of Lucknow University. A chair means so much to to some! I’ve spent 40-50 years fighting for human rights and peace, sometimes risked my life too, but some people remember only that one year when I was VC.

Risked your life? When?

Sometimes while visiting riot areas under curfew. Then once, while pursuing a gang rape case with others, the lawyers of the accused attacked me in the court corridor. I was saved only due to the chance presence of a police officer on the other side of the corridor who heard the commotion and came running.

How did you decide to stand surety for journalist Siddique Kappan?

Actually they had been looking for someone to stand surety for 10 days, but I had no idea. A friend from Kerala called me up and asked me to find a surety. I felt that I must offer myself; that was the minimum I should do.

I don’t know Kappan, I only know that he was going to report on the Hathras rape; he was just doing his duty as a journalist. I can’t vouch for him, but I knew that getting bail did not mean that he’d be free from the charges against him. He would still have to stand trial.

I have stood bail for people during the Emergency, so I knew what to do. I went to court with the required papers and the court ordered the release in a day. But in the case of Kappan the process of checking the papers has taken more than 2 months without a positive result! The second person who stood surety needed some bank documents; the bank took an unduly long time.

These people know whose case it is and know what the government wants. Injustice has become the norm.

What does your family feel about these things that you do?

Had my parents been alive, had I been married, had my brother and his wife been alive — both of them passed away from Covid — then I would have been reproached. There would have been some bickering, some disapproval.

I have a lot of differences with my extended family, some hold views opposite to mine, but most of my family members feel concerned for me. A few appreciate me as well.

I’m 79 + now, and I’ve been doing all this since my late 20s. I can say I’m thoroughly hardened now.

Sometimes the ideological war extends to the home as well. It gives greater pain and discomfort, and embarrassment too. Many nights I couldn’t sleep when someone close to me uttered the smallest insult. It would cause me a lot of pain. But one has to be honest to oneself.

All that has destroyed me in many ways, but it has also enriched me. I have become more immune to these kinds of slurs. I have become more mature in that I see both the positives and the negatives in what people say. I have gone through many ups and downs, felt diffident. But gradually I have grown some steel in my psyche.

Can you tell us about your childhood?

My father was a medical doctor in government service. He had worked under the British, and then in Independent India.

We were six siblings —you know people those days had a lot of children, some would die early, and there was no concept of family planning. I was the youngest, and I only remember my father as a retired person. However, he didn’t go into private practice after retirement, but opened a charitable clinic.

I was born in Etawah, but I’ve never seen it. I spent my childhood and teenage years in Mainpuri, a small district city.

Our standard of living was ordinary; in those days you were either very poor or you had a marginally decent life. A large section of the population used to be very ill. I’ve seen indescribable poverty and sickness in society, lines and lines of leprosy patients begging on the footpaths. But in a few decades, they were cared for in hospitals. Gradually, the government made schemes for those who were very poor and sick.

Most people lived simply but there was a lot of hierarchy. Our family too, was an ordinary middle class family with a lot of old ways of thinking. In domestic discourses there would be a bit of advocacy about egalitarian movements, but in practice, inequalities would sneak in.

Overall, people felt inspired towards change. Even if in their hearts lay deep roots of unequal living, yet they would vouch for equality. They would support reforms but also justify the caste system as being based on work, not birth.

Did you go to school and college in Mainpuri?

My sister and I studied in the government girls’ college in Mainpuri, through the Hindi medium. Our education was very ordinary, but we had one advantage: Our parents were very keen on educating us, though my mother had studied only till Std V. As there was no degree college for girls in Mainpuri, we were sent to Lucknow for graduation.

When I went to Lucknow I was a nervous girl of 16, afraid to speak out. Following the English books recommended in the syllabus was very difficult. For that generation, exposure was very limited, hence maturity came much later. In a small city like Mainpuri, the link to the outside world was only through the radio, and modernity was seen negatively.

Didn’t Kamleshwar (the pioneering Hindi short story writer) hail from Mainpuri?

Yes! He was part of our biradari (clan) and would often visit. Also, we had a good library at home. My father was interested in Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu literature, and we used to have weekly literary meetings at home, where local authors would come. My eldest sister participated in Hindi mushairas. Every year there would be a kavi sammelan in Mainpuri, and I had the good fortune of seeing renowned poets in my house.

All this greatly influenced me. Thanks to our library, I read a lot, even though I didn’t understand all that I read. I remember reading Rahul Sanskritayan, Yashpal and, of course Premchand. I didn’t understand Premchand’s Nirmala the first time I read it. (Nirmala is the story of a girl forced to marry a widower of her father’s age.)

When did you turn rebellious and feminist?

There is never a cut-off point.

At a very young age, I had a tendency to question and not accept everything as a matter of faith. Partly this was due to the Arya Samaj culture at home. We were free from the burden of following rituals. Much later I realised that the Arya Samaj also had its irrational ideas and rituals and had an inimical attitude to minorities.

Feminism very silently made an influence on me due to the literature I read and also what I kept noticing in our gender-unequal society.

At that time, advocacy of equality was prevalent across the whole nation. It was hypocritical to some extent because in everyday life, the practice was of inequality. But therein lies the difference from today. People weren’t proud of advocating inequality and violence as they are today. For a long time, our society, by and large, maintained the correct yardsticks at least.

Gradually, questions started coming to my mind: Why should a wife be beaten? Why should a husband have the right to subordinate his wife or why should a girl’s life always be controlled by others? By the time I was doing my MA, I was quite clear on the need for equality.

What were relations between Hindus and Muslims like?

There was not much discussion of Hindu-Muslim at home. There were discussions on Partition, but these emphasised the violence my parents had seen, not hatred. They remembered how during curfew people would be starving because all shops would be closed. The foremost impact of these discussions was that this kind of ferocious situation should never be repeated. Despite hearing the claims of the superiority of this or that religion, no religion or community was vilified.

However, while there was no hate discourse around me, a lot of the writings in those days projected a false history, which created the ground for hatred. One gathered that Muslim kings were more ferocious. Later I read writers like Bishambhar Nath Pande, D N Jha, Romila Thapar, etc.

Gradually, I developed a faith in our composite culture and the need to fight collectively for this feature of our nation. By the time I finished my MA, I could understand the whole game of communalism.

Wasn’t there pressure on you to marry?

Oh there was heavy emotional drama. The pressure was not just from my parents and older siblings, but every aira gaira nathu khaira (Tom, Dick and Harry) would ask me “Why don’t you get married?” An LIC agent who’d come to the university to sell policies told me it’s high time I got married!

Later, people began asking, “Why couldn’t you get married?” I still regret that it took me very long to learn to be rude and tell them “It’s none of your business.”

When they saw I wasn’t going to marry, the next stage began. It was spread about me that “She wants to live freely. She can’t look after a family.” They meant I was immoral.

For all single women, this is the story. It’s presupposed that the ultimate destiny of women is marriage. Everyone thinks they have the right not only to ask, but to demand an explanation from unmarried women. This is typical of our society, as is the belief that only immoral women choose to remain single. They are called “free life persons.”

I suffered such gossip for very long. Only after proving my grit and consistently taking a stand on social issues have I made my space in society. But it’s been a very painful process. Many things were learnt after a long ‘trial and error’ method.

Why did you not want to marry?

I guessed that I was not the type of person who’d be able to be all three things at the same time: A good wife, a good mother, and a good professional. I hadn’t thought of what profession I would take up, but I knew vaguely that I would work. Some of my siblings were perfectionists: You had to be the perfect mother, the perfect daughter… And I knew that I could not try perfection in more than one or two roles.

Also I was quite fearful of the new life that marriage would force upon me.

Because of the intense family pressure I did crack at times. I had to take part in the matchmaking process. So the drama took place about seeing and being shown. But it made me very uncomfortable.

Then I revolted. And the family had to keep quiet.

So you lived alone in Lucknow?

No, my brother was studying to be a doctor in Lucknow. We both were in our respective hostels. After we both got jobs, we took a house on rent and our parents came to live with us.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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