The Story Of Meera

The Intersectionality of Oppressions

Rahul Banerjee

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is once again challenging the mendacity of the Indian State as it has done on so many occasions over the past three decades and as before it will succeed in holding the state accountable to a certain extent. However, this story is not so much about the tenacity of the NBA but about a person who is a shining example of one of its unique characteristics that has contributed to this tenacity. In truth NBA has a lot to do with the character of its main leader Medha Patkar. Right from the start of the NBA three decades ago, Medha has been able to inspire young urban people to ditch their careers, for some time at least and sometimes permanently, and dedicate themselves to the struggle for justice of the NBA in particular and across the country in general. In fact the NBA has sustained itself for so long with so much energy and purpose because young people from the cities have continually come to man and woman the barricades. Given the complexities of conducting a mass struggle in the modern world against a ruthless and crooked state apparatus which is backed by the rapaciousness of global capitalism, it is not possible for the rural people in the valley alone to sustain the struggle. English speaking youth have always been in demand and they have contributed their mite to keeping the fight going.

Meera Sanghamitra is one such young person. What impressed this writer was that she is a transgender person. Her presence was so powerful that it smashed the stereotypical picture in this writer's mind of the transgender persons who routinely move around the town singing and clapping and asking for money on various festive occasions.

Meera is of course very active in defence of transgender rights also as will become clear but her main work at that time was as an activist of the NBA fighting for the rights of the people who were to be displaced due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam being built in Gujarat. The struggle had reached a stage where the many people in Madhya Pradesh had to be rehabilitated and for this they were fighting their individual cases in Grievance Redressal Authority. The Government continually tried to short change the affected people and so their cases had to be fought diligently and once they were awarded compensation then it had to be ensured that they did get this. Moreover, there was a big scam that was unearthed about false land registrations having been made by unscrupulous officials and lawyers to siphon off the rehabilitation money due to the affected people. Finally, there was the struggle against the sand mining mafia which was devastating the river bed of the Narmada and its tributaries through indiscriminate extraction of sand with machines. Then, as always, there were the various mass protests that had to be organised in the valley, in Bhopal and in Delhi against the continuing efforts of the Government to cheat the affected people. Meera, led all these activities with aplomb. It must be remembered that given the kind of society in India it is not easy for a transgender person to work as a normal person. That is why most transgender persons have got ghettoised into their own communities on the margins of society as has been powerfully portrayed by Arundhati Roy in her latest novel. Under the circumstances leading an active mass struggle with so many responsibilities is no mean feat. She has now moved on to being one of the national convenors of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) which is an umbrella organisation of several mass struggles going on across India against the depredations of modern anti-people development.

The immediate spur for this post, however, is a strong statement that Meera has recently made in defence of transgender rights. The other day the veteran Dalit activist from Maharashtra, Ramdas Athavale, who is a minister in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the centre, said that transgender persons should not wear Sarees. He said this during a workshop to sensitise people about transgenders as part of the efforts to get enacted the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016 which is pending in parliament. This bill seeks to give a distinct identity to transgender persons and prevent discrimination against them. There are two important aspects of this statement that need to be discussed. The first is the patriarchal mindset that has made the minister think of transgenders as males who should not cross dress and sully the patriarchal sanctity that has been given to women with the saree being the traditional symbol of Indian womanhood. Almost certainly the minister also looks askance at women cross dressing and wearing jeans and tee shirts even though he may not have picked up the courage yet to make such a statement in line with his more patriarchal colleagues in the NDA. But the crucial point that Athavale has missed is that many transgender women feel they are women despite having male bodies and so prefer to dress as women.

The second aspect is more important as this statement shows that despite decades of struggle for Dalit rights, Athavale has little sensitivity for the feelings of another marginalised and oppressed community, that of trans-genders. In recent years the intersectionality of oppressions has become the focus of activists. This is a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. There are multiple oppressions and so for instance a poor black woman has to fight class, race and gender oppression while a rich white woman has to fight only gender oppression and may also be oppressing the black woman through the class and race privileges that she enjoys. Ideally true socio-economic change is possible when all the multiple oppressions are taken into account and an alliance forged to fight a common fight. Athavale had come in for criticism from Dalit rights activists earlier for joining the NDA which is a Brahminical coalition inherently against the interests of the Dalits and now he has fallen foul of the transgender community with his uncalled for advice regarding how they should dress.

Meera normally does not wear a saree, preferring to dress in salwar kameez but to protest this outrageous statement from Athavale she has not only worn a saree but has taken a selfie of herself and posted it in Facebook. She is extremely busy now with various struggles of farmers in Andhra Pradesh and also drumming up support for the NBA but yet as a true intersectionalist she has stood up for the rights of her very own transgender people. Despite all the many hurdles, the oppressed will one day certainly inherit the earth.

Vol. 50, No.11, Sep 17 - 23, 2017