National

In Service Of The Deprived: The Extraordinary Ela Bhatt

The death of Gandhian Ela Bhatt is an irreparable loss for the marginalised and underprivileged

Ela Bhatt 1933–2022
info_icon

To be in Gujarat in the last decades of the 20th century was an exhilarating experience. The presence of several legendary persons made the state quite unique. These included painter Bhupen Khakhar, architect Balkrishna Doshi, the great Gandhian Narayanbhai Desai, writers like Umashankar Joshi and Suresh Joshi, political philosopher Bhikubhai Parekh, economist I.G. Patel, artist Mrinalini Sarabhai, ‘Milkman’ Varghese Kurien and Elaben Bhatt. So many of them and with such eminence! All of them were easily accessible and one could literally walk into their offices or homes with utmost ease. Of these, most are gone. Of course, each one of them has left an indelible mark on not just Gujarat but globally in their respective field of work. Bhatt’s demise brings back the memory of a Gujarat that was a rare treasure of talent.

Bhatt, known to us in Gujarat as Elaben, grew up in Ahmedabad during the years of India’s struggle for independence. Her mother Vanalilaben was involved in mobilising women. Her father Sumantrai Bhatt, a lawyer, knew Mahatma Gandhi during his years at the Sabarmati Ashram. It would have been a surprise had Elaben not imbibed the spirit of simplicity and dedication to the poor, the highest of the Gandhian values. Like her father, she studied law and like Mahatma Gandhi, she decided to use her knowledge of law for protecting the rights of textile workers and women.

The creation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which she led for decades, was her joint action with Arvind Buch. She worked as its general secretary for about 25 years, from 1972 to 1996. The trajectory of SEWA under her leadership has been a case study for several management institutes and think-tanks. In many ways, her work in SEWA took shape and moved from strength to strength precisely during the years when Kurien was working towards the White Revolution. Their stories complete the context for the low-income groups in Gujarat moving towards relative prosperity.

Elaben’s work was recognised nationally in a short time as her idea of self-employed women generating more employment for others like them and setting up thousands of small enterprises was an idea for which India of the 1980s was ready. However, her work cannot be judged in terms of the jobs produced, families empowered or capital mobilised by SEWA. Seen in isolation from the values that she brought into her work, it cannot be understood, even partially. And these were Gandhian values she had imbibed during her childhood. Clad in simple Khadi clothes, she became a living example of simplicity. She was as particular about time as the Mahatma was. A person of few words, she spoke only when necessary, yet she never wore a serious, pondering look. Her visage was always enlivened by a faint smile and her sense of humour was as lively as the Mahatma’s. No wonder then that she was admired not only by Indians, from the poorest to the mightiest, but also by the likes of Nelson Mandela.

My first meeting with Elaben was at her residence. I had sought her advice on the work with the Adivasis I was planning to take up. She listened to my plans with keen interest. When I finished what I had to say, she said, “Saras”—a Gujarati exclamation with a range of meanings—‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘not so bad’ and even just plainly ‘I do not want to say much’. My heart sank. Sensing my unease, she added, “I can see that you have thought well about what you plan to do. I am sure you will succeed. But remember the trusteeship idea of Gandhi. A work can succeed only when you do it as a service for the collective good.” Then, she smiled an endearing and benevolent smile.  Her words remained with me for the next couple of decades. They flashed in my mind when I handed the Adivasi Academy, I had been working for, over to younger trustees.

My next visit to Elaben, after several years, was when Mahasweta Devi asked me to take her to meet Elaben. That was in 1998. Mahasweta Devi and I were working for the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTS), previously known as criminal tribes. We wanted her to initiate microfinance for the women in Chharanagar, a locality of the DNTS. The women in that locality had been forced into brewing illicit liquor and the lot of their families was pathetic. We spoke to her at length, explaining the historical context of the colonial law, which had wrongly branded some rebellious communities in the 1870s as ‘criminal’. She listened to us patiently but turned down our request. She said, “I have tried that in the past, but the situation of Chharanagar is too complex for me to handle.”  I was quite upset at this refusal. After we left her house, Mahasweta Devi commented, “She is a real worker. She knows exactly how much she can do and what she cannot do. There is no pretence, no falsehood in her.”  That was a great daughter of India recognising truthfulness in another great daughter of India.

Elaben’s relationship with the BJP government in Gujarat was not what it could have been. Both SEWA and the Anand Dairy belong together in not being seen by the BJP government as the pride of Gujarat. Yet, she continued to work on her many ideas. Her being appointed as the chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith, founded by Mahatma Gandhi, was a befitting compliment to her. She also headed the Sabarmati Ashram Trust. Last year, when the Gujarat government decided to ‘develop’ the Ashram as an international tourist attraction, she became restless. Many of us, not directly related to the Ashram but with a deep engagement in its sanctity, spoke to her, wrote to her and met her in online meetings. In these exchanges, she did not use any strong words about the government interference. However, she politely made it clear that she would not be a party to it.

Just as the Sabarmati Ashram affairs brought to her stress, so did the matters related to the Gujarat Vidyapith. For the first time in its history of a century, the Vidyapith had to acc­ept a person who was a complete stranger to the Gandhian thought and values. This happened just a few weeks before Elaben breathed her last. One wonders if she did so thinking that her commitment to certain ideals was out of place and had timed out or was she saying as she passed on to a larger world, “Hey Ram.” India has lost in her demise an extraordinary example of a lifelong pursuit of happiness for others. Her name that had become synonymous with the acronym of her organisation SEWA will surely be remembered whenever the word ‘seva’—service of the poorest—is uttered.

Advertisement

Ganesh Devy is a cultural critic and founder of the Adivasi Academy

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement