Feisty activist

Print edition : August 10, 2012

Mrinal Gore. She took a keen interest in issues that were close to her heart.-VIVEK BENDRE

Mrinal Gore (1928-2012) was one of the finest champions of the public cause.

Mrinal Gore, the veteran socialist leader and former Member of Parliament, epitomised a generation of women who were visionaries, leaders and undoubtedly pioneers of modern India. With her passing on July 17 following a cardiac arrest at Vasai in Thane district at the age of 84, India has lost one of its finest champions of the public cause and Mumbai its Paniwali Bai, the sobriquet she earned for her efforts to bring drinking water supply to Goregaon.

Well known for her unique brand of social activism, Mrinal Gore took a keen interest in issues close to her heart empowerment of women and justice for the poor and the marginalised. Had her health permitted her, Mrinal Gore would have perhaps continued to lead marches in her trademark style brandishing rolling pins and put pressure on the apathetic government to secure civil and political rights for the downtrodden. Her campaigns were effective and often achieved the intended results.

Born in 1928 in a Maharashtrian family in Mumbai, Mrinal Gore was fortunate to grow up in a liberal and intellectual family that believed in gender equality. This environment was to shape her future. She belonged to that special league of enlightened women who took to politics in a period when it was unthinkable for women to work, let alone engage in public work. She had illustrious contemporaries in women activists such as Ahilya Rangnekar and Suseela Gopalan, both of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who along with Mrinal Gore are credited with shaping the reformist agenda. Their efforts at championing the cause of women paved the way for the empowerment of women in India.

Drawn to social work and politics in 1947, Mrinal Gore quit her medical degree course and began to work full time with the Rashtriya Seva Dal, an organisation linked to the Indian National Congress. She soon joined the Congress but left it after a year and started the Socialist Party with a group of youngsters. Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Mrinal Gore became intensely involved in social work, especially in promoting womens rights, civil liberties and trade union activities. Her commitment to social and civic causes eventually made her enter active politics, where she had a successful career.

In 1948, a year after India attained independence, Mrinal married the socialist leader Keshav Gore. The couple lived and worked in one of Mumbais burgeoning suburbs, Goregaon, which at that time was a rural area. They worked tirelessly to build better civic infrastructure for the community. Their efforts resulted in the provision of toilets, water connections, community halls, health and family planning centres and schools in the area. They even managed to prevent the builders lobby from demolishing slums in the area. It was due to their relentless efforts that Goregaon was able to get proper civic amenities mainly water.

Mrinal Gore joined the Goregaon Mahila Mandal in 1950. One of her first missions was to start a family planning centre, which the mandal did in 1951, well before the Union government began its family planning and welfare programmes. She was elected to the Goregaon Village Council in 1953, and she continued her social work for the area.

In the early 1950s, the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and the Goa liberation movement were gathering strength. The Gores mobilised people for rallies and protests and often found themselves behind bars.

In 1961, Mrinal Gore stood for the civic elections and won a seat in the Bombay Municipal Council.

In 1972, she contested the Maharashtra Assembly elections on the Socialist Party ticket. She won the election with the highest margin of votes in the entire State. As an MLA, she took up issues such as atrocities against marginalised farmers, Dalits, tribal people and women. At this time, prices of essential commodities began to rise as a result of the India-Pakistan war, which had just ended. Mrinal Gore was at the forefront of the campaign against price rise.

When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975, Mrinal Gore went underground and organised several protests with womens groups. But she was arrested and jailed. After the Emergency was withdrawn in 1977, she was elected to the Lok Sabha on the Janata Party ticket. In fact, when she was in Delhi to attend the Lok Sabha sessions, the famous chant used to be Paniwali bai Dilli mein aur Dilliwali bai paani mein (Paniwali bai, or water woman, is in Delhi, while the Dilliwali, or Delhi woman, that is, Indira Gandhi, is in deep waters (reeling from the effects of the Emergency)).

Although Mrinal Gore lost her seat when the party split, she remained immensely popular with her constituents and the people among whom she worked. She continued to pursue issues affecting the poor and women. In 1985, she was once again elected to the State Assembly, this time on the Janata Party ticket.

Mrinal Gore was also a vociferous opponent of sex determination tests, and her relentless campaign against it ensured that it became a topic of public discussion. She moved a private members Bill in the Assembly seeking a ban on sex determination tests and succeeded in finding support for a ban on female foeticide. The State government banned sex-selective abortions in 1986. Unfortunately, she did not win the next Assembly elections. She declared on the day the results were announced that she would never contest another election.

Nonetheless, the feisty woman did not give up social work and continued her campaigns. In the 1990s, when economic reforms were introduced, she once again took on the authorities and backed campaigns against economic liberalisation. Her biggest fear was that the capitalist agenda would result in further marginalisation of the poor.

Age and poor health notwithstanding, Mrinal Gore protested against the entry of Enron Corporation, the American energy and services company, into Indias power sector. She was involved in issues relating to rehabilitation and resettlement of the people displaced by the Narmada dams and joined the protests against the raising of the dams height. She travelled extensively in the dam-affected areas, backing the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and supporting the tribal peoples rights.

Mrinal Gore will be best known for her dauntless and unique campaigns. She used every method to draw public attention to pressing issues. Her most effective method was to mobilise women and have them barge into government offices brandishing rolling pins and banging steel plates so that the apathetic officials listened to them. During one such campaign against price rise, every day at 4 p.m., women would gather at neighbourhood corners across Mumbai with their rolling pins and steel plates, create a racket and disperse. Eventually, the issue was taken up in the Assembly.

Addressing tribal people from Nandurbar district displaced by the Narmada dams project.-PAUL NORONHA

Womens Reservation Bill

Another issue that concerned Mrinal Gore in her later years was the Womens Reservation Bill. In an interview to Frontline in 2008, she said that reservation was singularly responsible for bringing more women into politics. They need to extend it to Vidhan Sabha [Assembly] and Lok Sabha levels now. She said people pointed out that she used to win elections from a general seat and wondered why others could not. I was lucky. Not everyone is so fortunate. We have to give women quotas to participate politically. It will be good for our country, she argued.

Her work will be carried on by the Brihanmumbai Niwara Abhiyan, the non-governmental organisation she founded. The Abhiyan recently secured a piece of land to build low-cost houses for middle- and low-income groups in Goregaon, where real estate prices are very high.

Mrinal Gore was possibly the last of her tribe.

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