A profile of courage

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The story of Yasoda Ekambaram and her ongoing struggle against illicit liquor even in the face of personal losses.

"MY sense of shame at being illiterate and my guilt at having failed to send my daughter to school are at the root of my evolution into a relentless fighter for women's rights," says Yasoda Ekambaram, who has won the Neerja Bhanot Award for 2001. For the 43-year-old Dalit woman from Tamil Nadu's Thiruvallur district, the award, given in appreciation of her service in the cause of women's development, has an added significance in that she won it in the Year of Women's Empowerment.

Yasoda, with the photograph of her daughter Indra.-R. RAGU

Yasoda is no different from most Dalit women in rural India - socially oppressed, economically exploited and politically ignored. But what makes her stand apart is her ability to fight relentlessly for the causes she holds dear.

The Chandigarh-based Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust presents the award every year to a woman fighting for social justice. The award, comprising a cash prize of Rs.1.5 lakhs, a silver trophy, and a citation, was presented to Yasoda at a function in Chandigarh on September 6. The citation describes Yasoda as "a picture of courage and fortitude" and says that she is one of the 60 leaders of the Rural Women's Front (RWF), a wing of the Centre for Rural Women's Education for Liberation (CRWEL), a voluntary organisation. (The RWF functions in villages around Thiruvallur, about 80 km from Chennai.) Her life, the citation says, is one of "consistent and continuous struggle for the eradication of illicit liquor, rampant in the area." It makes a poignant reference to the heroic struggle she conducted on December 6, 2000, when her only daughter Indra (20) and a close relative Rathnammal (55) were murdered by the henchmen of bootleggers. "Yasoda is a source of inspiration for all women," the citation concludes.

Yasoda was nominated for the award by HEKS India, a Switzerland-based organisation that has been supporting the development initiatives of the CRWEL for the past nine years through its coordination office in Chennai. Yasoda's life with Ekambaram could in no way be described as happy. Both were agricultural workers. Like all other Dalits (belonging to about 125 families) in Beemanthoppu, a hamlet in Ramathandam village, they worked in the fields belonging to caste Hindus for wages (Rs.40 a day for men and Rs.20 for women) that were far below the minimum wages fixed by the government. They were employed for hardly 120 days in a year, and it was a struggle to make ends meet. Like almost all other men in the village, Ekambaram spent most of his earnings on liquor, leaving almost nothing for Yasoda, who had never been to school, to fulfil her dream of educating Indra. Ekambaram died 12 years ago. With her meagre earnings, Yasoda could not pull on. She had to send Indra, who was eight then, to work in the fields.

Dalits, she realised, could not make use of even the minimal facilities provided by the government - such as the public distribution system or the schools - largely because a substantial portion of their meagre earnings was wiped out by the menfolk's addiction to liquor.

Said Yasoda: "It is struggle every day. It is quarrel between drunken men and their wives every day. If women dare question their husbands, they are beaten up mercilessly. Or they are asked to go back to their parents in neighbouring villages. How long can they stay in their parents' places, where the situation is hardly different from that of their own homes? They return, and this is the routine in almost every home."

Illicit liquor, she said, robbed these families of their hard-earned money, which could otherwise be spent on children's education and other necessary things in life. "It causes unrest in families. Children who do not have the benefit of education get frustrated and many unpleasant things happen. At the same time, the manufacturers and vendors of illicit liquor educate their children and ensure that they are well-settled in life." Although Yasoda was not directly affected by illicit liquor after Ekambaram's death, she was moved by the sufferings of many other women in the village. She thought she could do something for these hapless women.

Yasoda was convinced that education was the key to the empowerment of women and that the greatest impediment to ensuring education was their menfolk's addiction to liquor. The only way out was to wipe out the illicit liquor trade from their village. But how to go about this? The answer, Yasoda said, came from the CRWEL. The CRWEL saw in Yasoda a potential leader who could be of immense help in its efforts to mobilise Dalits and women and empower them. A unit of the RWF was formed at Bheemanthoppu and Yasoda was appointed its coordinator. It was one of the 60 RWF units in Thiruvallur district.

Yasoda enrolled about 30 women in the RWF and spoke to them on the need to assert their rights. The women decided that they should muster strength to combat the menace of illicit liquor. Under the CRWEL's guidance, they staged peaceful demonstrations against the manufacture and sale of illicit liquor in the village. They passed on to the police information on the distillation of arrack in the surrounding areas and sought their assistance. Assistance did not come always. The illicit liquor menace, which subsided whenever the police intervened effectively, raised its head again when the bootleggers returned from jail. "Policemen," Yasoda said, "did not always respond to our requests. In fact, they got irritated. We had reasons to suspect a nexus between a section of the policemen and the bootleggers. We, therefore, had to think of a more effective way of resisting the illegal activities." Joining hands with the affected women from neighbouring villages, they organised "road rokos". After an agitation at Velliyur, the police swooped on a bootleggers' den and destroyed illicit arrack worth Rs.12 lakhs.

S.M. Annamalai, one of the founders of the CRWEL, said: "In 1997, in acknowledgement of the work done by motivated RWF groups headed by Yasoda and others for the elimination of illicit liquor, the CRWEL was given a district-level award." However, he said, the struggle against illicit liquor had to be a "continuous activity" because the convicted offenders regrouped and resumed operations after serving their jail terms. According to him, corruption in the police, particularly at the lower levels, and the absence of severe punishment for the offenders perpetuated the problem. The women's groups had to be alert always. "As demonstrations and agitations did not always ensure immediate police intervention, we had to look for better forms of agitation," said Yasoda. "We learnt by experience that militant action by RWF activists could be more effective," she said. Women's groups marched to the distillation spots and destroyed arrack stored in mud pots.

In December 2000, just when Yasoda and her friends thought Beemanthoppu had gained a respite from the menace, bootleggers from neighbouring areas started selling illicit liquor in the village. Some local people who had been involved in bootlegging asked the women why they alone should be penalised. On the evening of December 6, an agitated Yasoda, accompanied by the local panchayat president (also a woman), took a group of RWF members, including Indra and Rathnammal, to the spot where bootleggers from neighbouring villages had set up shop. Her efforts to stop their trade did not succeed. Yasoda swooned when their henchmen assaulted her. Indra, who came to her mother's rescue, was hacked to death. Rathnammal was also killed by the goondas. Several women and a few men of the village were injured in the attack.

Ten persons were arrested and a case was registered. The police were not very helpful initially. In the First Information Report (FIR), they sought to describe the incident as a consequence of "a family quarrel". They did not want to relate it to an offence under the prohibition law since they had been claiming that the district was "liquor-free". "Only after we insisted on it, they added in the FIR that the incident followed an agitation against illicit liquor," said Annamalai.

The murder of Indra and Rathnammal sparked protests by women's organisations. The government announced a solatium of Rs.1 lakh each to their families.

NINE months after the incident, illicit liquor continues to claim the lives of the poor. In early September, 13 people died after consuming the deadly brew at Menambedu in Ambattur, an industrial town in Thiruvallur district. The tragedy has signalled that Yasoda's battle against bootlegging is far from over.

Yasoda has not recovered from the grief over the loss of her only child. But she remains firm in her resolve to fight against illicit liquor. "In fact, she is now even more firm on ending the menace and vows to continue her fight for women's empowerment with greater vigour," said V. Tamil Selvi, Director, CRWEL.

With the cash prize of Rs.1.5 lakhs, Yasoda, who lives in a mud hut, has instituted an award (the Indra Rathna Award) in memory of Indra and Rathnammal. The award will be given every year to a woman for outstanding service in the cause of women's development. The CRWEL has donated Rs.2 lakhs to the Indra Rathna Award Fund and proposes to collect donations for the fund.

"I will spend the rest of my life working for the uplift of people around me, particularly women. If only all children of my village get education, which was denied to me and my child, my life would have served its purpose," said Yasoda. There was no sign of bitterness in her voice.

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