South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, celebrates the life of Kamla Bhasin, a true South Asian in her thinking and actions, who passed away aged 75 on 25 September 2021. She was a member of SAHR since its inception, a former Bureau Member and continued to be an active member to the end.
Through her regional activism, which was practical and effective at any social level in any country, Kamla Bhasin has left behind a lasting legacy. Her contribution to women’s rights in the region is monumental. She “weaponised” a multitude of women from different fields, activists, academics, lawyers, and WHRDs among them, in South Asia. Kamla’s month long training course in feminism thorough SANGAT, the South Asian feminist network, is conducted in several local languages in the region, in several countries providing access to knowledge that is invaluable for an activist. Whenever she visited a country in South Asia there were plenty of her trainees looking forward to meet her with eagerness and be inspired by her ebullient nature. She forged friendships and connections across the region through her activism and made all those who met her accessible to her feisty spirit in activism in return inspiring them. Her written work which has been translated into multiple languages, makes her vision and ideology easily accessible throughout the region.
Kamla worked for non-violence and peace in South Asia and was part of several regional networks and organisations such as the SAAPE network, Park-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) and Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) actively striving for it. She promoted the call for a borderless South Asia and held melas (festivals) promoting social integrity across Indian borders. In 2018, when SAHR invited her to be a delegate at the first Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore, she wholeheartedly accepted the invitation informing the Secretariat that she did not need a visa as she planned to cross the border. At the event, she said that the border crossing was so smooth and it felt like ‘returning home’ remembering her childhood in Panjab. SAHR learnt that even during her last stages of her life, with pain due to her acute health condition, she was committed to the causes she worked for.
SAHR was fortunate to have Kamla’s guidance and support in all its regional activism. Especially, it has been a privilege to have fought against common regional issues and working to achieve peace, non-violence and equality along with her sharing her camaraderie and zest.
Following are a collection of quotes commemorating Kamla’s life and her work from SAHR members, some who have known her personally and all who have worked with her in promoting peace and harmony in the region where women’s rights and equality are respected. This space on our website will be updated as and when new quotes are submitted.
Kamla was the main driving force behind the South Asian women’s movement. We will miss her energy, her love and her creativity.
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Sri Lanka
Indeed the Quintessential South Asian for yes that was her most loved and treasured identity! She connected peoples across borders in our region with love, joy and deep friendship. A passionate uncompromised feminist, multifaceted champion of social justice, exuberant scintillating personality who touched each and every person she met in a special way. As the tributes pour in from different nooks and corners one realizes the kind of hope and strength she brought to so many people. For me an irreplaceable personal loss and an aching void, difficult to come to terms with.
Dr. Roshmi Goswami, India
It’s always very difficult to say the final goodbye to a loved friend. We had to, no matter how much we did not want to or prayed it wouldn’t come so soon, bid farewell to our dear Kamla.
Kamla, as we all knew her, was a person who filled everybody’s heart with love and respect whoever came in touch with her. Her heart knew no bounds of whatever identity a person bore to extend herself. I first met Kamla in 1986 while attending a South Asian Gender Training in Koitta, Manikganj. It’s a long 35 years association, every moment is cherished by me with great fondness . Sangat wasn’t formed then , but perhaps that was the inception phase for this very unique platform under Kamla’s leadership. She stood against all kinds of divisive intrigues of the society informed by patriarchy and hegemonic ideas. I still remember one of her sayings “we are against the walls that divide us. We are the cracks in those walls!”.
It’s amazing to see how her training sessions turned into beautiful spaces for us to laugh, pour our hearts out, enjoy jokes, sing and dance for “Azadi”.
Kamla, you will remain in our hearts as long as we continue our journey to Azadi. We have not said goodbye to you Kamla, we only wish you farewell!
Sultana Kamal, Bangladesh
You are an icon of the human rights movement in South Asia; a great feminist, a source of inspiration for deprived and marginalised people and community. You, a comrade of Democratic movement of Nepal; I got the opportunity to work with you while in the ACFOD board for 8years along with Nighat Khan,Gamini Appa,Kailash Satyarthi and Sabur. You taught us the meaning of equality and justice. Your teaching and courage will always inspire all rights activists.
You will be remembered as a symbol of courage and hope, though we will be missing you physically in our struggle but your courage will always inspire us.
Sushil Pyakurel, Nepal
I remember how Kamla Bhasin brightened up my day with her smile and the twinkle in her eyes the moment she walked into my office at The Star newspaper sometime in the early eighties. She was keen to understand the women’s movement in Pakistan that was beginning to make an impact with the formation of the Women’s Action Forum.
Years later, we would meet primarily at SAHR meetings. In sharp contrast to the grim issues discussed at the Bureau meetings, the evenings would see Kamla keeping everyone entertained with her humour, anecdotes and songs. Her laughter and warmth are memories to cherish.
Zohra Yusuf, Pakistan
I first met Kamla ji in the early 1990s when I attended a one-month long workshop on Gender organised by Stri Shakti on the outskirts of Bhaktapur, Nepal. The workshop started with Kamla ji telling the participants, ‘Those who like to call themselves feminists, move to the right side and those who don’t, move to the left side’. So, I, together with another Nepali participant, moved to the left side. We were questioned as to why we didn’t like to call ourselves feminists. Pat came my reply, “Although, I firmly believe in gender equality and women’s empowerment (GEWE), the word ‘Feminism’ is understood as being very derogatory as people think we are firebrands and bra-burning radicals like in the West”. Kamla ji did not utter a word. But by the end of the workshop, I proclaimed that from now on I shall not hesitate to call myself a feminist.
Such was the power of communications of Kamla ji that one could not but be compelled/swayed by her clarity of thought and mission to dismantle patriarchy. Later, when I was working with UNDP/Nepal I invited her to orient Parliamentarians on GEWE and the necessity of legislating the 11th Amendment to the Women’s Rights Bill. The Bill was successfully legislated in 2000.
Kamla ji, I’ll always remember you like this – a powerhouse of knowledge, energy, passion, commitment, humble with an innate ability to embrace diversity and vicissitudes of life, attract detractors, a powerful voice for the downtrodden, and above all an inspiration for the feminist movement with an amazing laughter that was so infectious!
I can hear your whispers in my ears,
“This is not, goodbye!
Trudge on dear sisters, for aazaadi is close at hand, I spy!”
Rest in eternal peace dearest Kamla ji
Bharati Silawal Giri, Nepal
Here was a powerhouse, the most joyous, most committed, most loved. Kamla Bhasin can only be explained with superlatives somehow.
She made South Asian feminism a brand of it’s own, linked it deeply to human rights, weaved poetry and art to complete her mosaic.
Her ability to bond, blend and build remained unparalleled. When Kamla was created, they broke the mould. When Kamla served, she broke the mould.
Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Sri Lanka
A legend and inspiration for the entire feminist and human rights movement in India, South Asia and around the world. She was truly a global citizen with South Asian sensibilities. Her ability to connect through poetry, songs, slogans and by her mere presence was unparalleled. There cannot be another Kamla.
Amitabh Behar, India
Kamla Bhasin’s personality was towering and she was versatile. She had an amazing connection with grassroot workers and at the same time she was comfortable with elites.
She was a feminist activist, author, poet, peace and human rights activist. But, the most important thing is that she was a great human being.
Kamla was known across South Asia for her work on women’s rights and for promoting people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan. Had the opportunity to travel with her in Pakistan and realised her contacts with women’s rights groups and other activists.
It’s very difficult to find people like Kamla.
Jatin Desai, India
To try to encompass one’s thoughts and feelings about Kamla in a few words is pretty impossible simply because she defied the constraints of words…Looking back at over four decades of our association one remembers a multifaceted relationship. It took in music, dance,laughter, iconoclasm, careful, thoughtful analysis of the predicaments of our fractured region,defiance of patriarchy and utter devotion to the cause of peace in our time. Her strength lives on in all of us.
Salima Hashmi, Pakistan
Kamla Bhasin, a co -founder of SAHR, was a vibrant and passionate champion of human rights. In her life and work, she embodied the themes of resistance to injustice and reform to emancipate. She will be sorely missed.
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Sri Lanka
Kamla was one of a kind in every way possible. She combined her intellectual knowledge of Patriarchy and underlying causes of gender discrimination with practical solutions that included music, humor and of course her deep humanity and belief in human rights of all people everywhere. However, the most defining aspect of her personality was her ability to love, to embrace and include. It is a personal loss of a friend, mentor and my feminist guru.
Shaheen Anam, Bangladesh