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Vidya Munsi: Poster girl of the Indian women's movement

By Rajashri Dasgupta

Vidya Munsi has been at the forefront of activism for over 65 years, joining the Indian communists in UK when the communist party was still illegal in India, becoming West Bengal's first working woman journalist, and advocating throughout the cause of women

 She has been a familiar figure marching down the streets of Kolkata, taller than her 5'7", head held high, protesting a dowry murder or the rape of a slum-dweller. A pair of high-powered glasses hides her twinkling eyes, but her hearty laugh and ready wit have regaled audiences, whether on religious fundamentalism or land rights for women. She remembers every debate clearly, the complexities and nuances of each issue that saw her in the forefront and in solidarity with movements in Vietnam, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. At 89 years, nothing deters the indomitable Vidya Munsi, least of all the cerebral stroke that in 2002 paralysed the right side of her body.

Vidya di, as she is affectionately called, has just finished recording the history of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) that was formed in 1954 with democratic mass organisations from different states and progressive women leaders. She dictated the important events of the last 54 years, and challenges before the NFIW -- of which she is an executive member and the only living founder member -- from memory (sometimes referring to an odd document) to her husband Sunil Munsi who took painstaking notes, longhand. Perhaps her urge to report can be traced back decades, to 1952, when she became the first working woman journalist in West Bengal as a correspondent for the Mumbai-based Blitz.

Those acquainted with Vidya di know this is not an unusual feat for her. She has been in the forefront of activism for over 65 years, joining the communist movement whilst studying in the UK and becoming a member of the national council of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Later, she became president of the Paschim Bangla Mahila Samiti and worked for several years as member of the West Bengal State Social Welfare Advisory Board and Commission for Women for its first nine years.

On March 1, one caught glimpses of Vidya di's old spirit when, seated in a wheelchair, she was surrounded by groups of young enthusiastic women eager to hear her speak. It was only fitting that she was guest of honour at the exhibition 'Poster Women', an exciting initiative tracing the country's vibrant women's movement through posters. In fact, this is the first time such an exhibition has been attempted in India, probably anywhere in the world. Swayam, a women's rights organisation focusing on ending violence against women, Zubaan, a feminist publishing house in New Delhi, and Seagull Foundation for the Arts have come together to bring this unique exhibition of 157 posters to Kolkata.

Vidya di was introducedtothe power of posters in 1943 when she and her colleagues held their first poster exhibition in Sheffield, UK. The exhibition was on the trauma of the Bengal Famine where, through posters, they recounted the seven instances of famine that had occurred in undivided Bengal under British colonial rule. The money collected at the exhibition was sent back to India to aid the stricken peasants. "Since then I have drawn so many posters on various issues, whether on rights of women and youth, protesting the retrenchment of workers, or demanding communal peace. The visual power of posters can hardly be undermined," says Vidya di. Indeed, if she had preserved posters of various historical movements during her time, they would have been an important testimonial to the social, political and cultural heritage she has been part of and helped create.

 What made Vidya di different from others is that she never hesitated to speak her mind or do what she thought was best for the women's cause. Many comrades in the communist party, says Vidya di, deplored her decision to work for women's issues. "But if women do not take on the responsibility of giving priority to women's issues, believe me the men never will. If we depend on men we will still be waiting for things to change," she laughs.

She took the battle right into the lion's den, as the communist party is not known to easily give women a voice or space. To the discomfort of party bosses, Vidya di advocated that women's issues be "a running battle -- a priority -- with all other battles" and that socialism itself would not automatically solve the problems of women. Bela Bandhopadhya, a close friend, remembers that when, at a conference, some male leaders lamented that young women were not joining the movement, Vidya di retorted that if the party patriarchs did not mend their ways even the older women would be forced to leave!

In the years that followed, Vidya di endeared herself to women in Bengal as she found common cause with them. Given the difficult times, it is her non-sectarian attitude and ability to work with women from different organisations on a common platform that will perhaps be remembered most. "Left political parties are usually rigid and boycott autonomous women's organisations and treat them as pariahs. Vidya di was different," says a member of Sachetana, a non-party-affiliated group. "I was amazed how Vidya di would listen with great attention and interest to everything that was discussed at various meetings. No issue was trivial for her, even a newcomer demanded her attention," says Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam.

Vidya di was introduced to the world of politics by her uncle; her father, a well-known criminal lawyer, inculcated in her the love of books. But it was her maternal grandmother who kick-started her entry into the public arena. When Vidya di set her heart on studying medicine after standing first among the girls in the matriculation examination, it was her grandmother who stood by her against family resistance. "Why should she not go? Her father has the money, the girl has the courage," her grandmother argued.

Vidya Munsi, nee Kanuga, left home in 1938 to become a doctor. But politics occupied all her attention and in 1942 she gave up her studies and joined the band of Indian communists in the UK when the communist party was still illegal in India. Since then, she has never looked back.

On her return from the UK she married the geographer Sunil Munsi, editor of the now-defunct journal The Student. There, she was groomed to be a reporter and Vidya di, a Gujarati by birth, learnt to write Bengali. "From sheer necessity," she guffaws. "I was suddenly asked to edit the Bengali Chalar Pathe. You can't have an editor who does not know the language!"

A few years later, she became Kolkata correspondent for the Blitz weekly, a paper critical of government policy and excelling in investigative journalism. She worked at the Blitz for 10 years, and one of her exciting 'scoops', she recalls, was on two Canadian pilots who would fly from Hong Kong with gold and drop it on an island in the Sunderbans; the gold would then be smuggled by small boats into Kolkata. Another of her major stories that made the headlines was on the Chinakuri mine disaster in Asansol, where hundreds of miners were killed. The famous playwright Utpal Dutt later scripted the tragedy into the chilling play Angar.

For the many women who crowded to see the Poster Women exhibition, Vidya di represents a symbol of courage and struggle -- the women's movement's very own Poster Girl.

(Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent journalist based in Kolkata)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2008