Collectively Stronger

On Sanjoy Ghose’s 25th death anniversary, Ashutosh Tosaria tells us through a microstory how collectives are transforming lives of young girls and women across the country – an idea in which Sanjoy believed strongly.

Sanjoy Ghose
Sanjoy Ghose

Two hours from Kolkata, a group of thirty young girls and women, all in the age group 16-22, had gathered in a village in Baruipur. They were told that the visitor from Bengaluru would like to understand their work as the leaders of girls’ collectives they manage in their villages. Language was a potential barrier in our communication, but none of them seemed worried. Two of the leaders spoke English and Hindi and decided to help me converse. This group of thirty constituted the Block Federation of these girls’ collectives that dotted several panchayats in the area.

To make sure I leave with a thorough understanding of the Federation’s work, they started by explaining how villages are dispersed and often have hamlets on the periphery. Fearing that girls from these hamlets might be left out due to lack of representation in the panchayat, cluster and block groups, the girls had decided to have a separate collective for each hamlet. They explained how a democratic process is followed to elect the groups and how representatives from each group form the next higher group, eventually leading to 30 of them constituting the Federation. Elections are held regularly, and elected leaders frequently meet members of their groups to keep them informed about activities and other happenings.

As I listen to these girls talk passionately about their work as a collective, I am transported to my days at Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) where emphasis on collectivization and cooperation was extensive. I think of Sanjoy Ghose, a visionary social activist, and an alumnus of IRMA’s first batch of Rural Management programme who understood the power of collectives, of equipping people with tools and processes to find their voice and shape their development discourse. Today, twenty-five years after he was abducted and killed by ULFA, I wonder how these thirty girls in Baruipur, without knowing him or his work, exemplify the same spirit.

By now, 8-10 members were sharing their experiences and the 2 leaders acting as translators were also in a rhythm. As they were talking about rights and fighting patriarchy, I enquired what would they like to do in terms of vocation or higher education. There were quite a few responses, with many wanting to be lawyers or police personnel. The latter is something I’ve heard in several girls’ collectives, but I was quite intrigued to see so many aspiring lawyers. Their response was straightforward – “if we have to keep ourselves safe, we’ll need to do this, no one listens to us otherwise”. They narrated an incident about a girl who was raped and how the police refused to file an FIR. The federation, along with some women’s groups, sat outside the police station for hours and through the night, before the officers relented. They also advised the cops on specific sections of IPC that should be used.

The Federation was acutely aware of their realities and how systems were not geared to support them. Each one knew how patriarchy creates barriers for them, at every step. They also had a good sense of how to untie some of these knots. Once they got into collectives, they found a space to discuss their issues. They realized there are several girls who face similar problems. This open and fearless space was facilitated by a local NGO, which also conducted sessions on their rights, gender, discrimination etc. Armed with this perspective and facts (constitution, IPC etc.), the collectives went on to create knowledge for themselves. That’s when they decided to act together and mount a resistance to patriarchal overreach in their own lives and their neighborhood.

Collectives have done wonders across contexts. For girls and young women, these create a much-needed space to discover, dream, connect and cut through the restraints that dot their lives. Intrigued by the power of collectives, I keep looking for examples where theory meets practice to create transformative experiences for people. That’s something Sanjoy did really well. His work and ideas are far more valuable today perhaps when we’ve become weapons to rip apart our social fabric. The way these thirty girls in Baruipur are raising uncomfortable questions, speaking up and working together, Sanjoy would have loved to spend time with them and learn from them.

The article was first published in Daily Pioneer.

The writer is a development worker. Share your feedback on [email protected]

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