Varsha Jawalgekar: I Am Alive

 Varsha has been working as a Community Correspondent for one and a half year. She talks about the changes her work has brought to her life and to her community.

“When I am speaking for the dalit, I am a dalit activist. When I am speaking for sexual minorities and women, I am a gender activist. When I’m reporting a gross violation of human rights, I am a human rights activist. And when I have a camera in my hand, I am a videoactivist.”

If ever the world started turning to the perfect harmonious tune of humanity, justice and equality, Varsha Jawalgekar hopes to become a poet and a painter. Until then she would prefer to dabble in the arts whenever she has the time and the inclination. Until then she has a lot on her mind.

Varsha is first and foremost an activist, the kind of relentless crusader for community and society who has decided to spend every living moment working for her fellow people. She has been associated with various people’s movements since the age of 14. She is now the leader of a people’s movement called ‘Parivartan Janandolan’ which she founded with the vision of organizing Dalit, Muslim and other women from marginalized communities and religions in the Vaishali district of Bihar to fight for and achieve their rights. It is her conduit to the grassroots of the nation, into the hearts and minds of her community and her people. This is where she belongs.

Varsha is part of a network of citizen journalists from across the country called IndiaUnheard, a hyperlocal news feature service which reports everyday from some of the most remote corners of the country. She is the Community Correspondent representing the communities in Vaishali district. In her hands, the camera becomes a tool for her activism. She uses it to document, archive and intervene in local issues.

In a recent incident, the damning footage that she captured of the corruption by a public distribution system official was used as evidence to get the official suspended. People who have suffered silently for years have opened up to her camera and Varsha has managed to share these powerful stories with the world. The videos give her access to a larger, global platform. Thousands of people across the world watch her videos. Her voice has bypassed and breached the narrow confines of the mainstream media and speaks out for some of society’s most disadvantaged individuals.

“My work as a grassroots activist and my work as a Community Correspondent are mutually inclusive,” says Varsha. “They are not in conflict which the other but each is tool and a step towards my ultimate vision of justice and equality.”

If Varsha rejects easy categories, she credits it to the life she has lived. Born in a middle class family in the Latur district of Maharashtra, she reckons that her activism was born early when the women in her house used ask her to help mediate their domestic issues. But it was the earthquake of 1993 which ravaged her district that shook her to the core. “It was an earthquake in mind,” she says. Barely 14, she volunteered as a humanitarian aid worker at ground zero and she was made responsible for the assessment of loss.

“It was a very sensitive time. I was meeting people who had lost almost everything they had lived for,” she recollects. “I worked among the community; I was studying and gradually understanding their loss. But at the time, I was witness to the corruption in the government. I understood the misery of being the underprivileged and I resolved that I would do something about it. It was a time of my social awakening.”

Varsha then joined a local people’s movement by the name of Bharath Gyan Vigyan Samuday which used a science based approach in dealing with issues of education, awareness and health among marginalized communities. All through her university years, Varsha describes herself as being in the constant process of participation and learning. She describes these years as the formative experience of her life, the time when she began to feel the call from within. Even after she completed her masters and became a lecturer she continued volunteering with NGOs and people’s movements until one day when she made the decision to forego her career as take the plunge into full-time activism.

She completed an 18 month course at the National Centre for Advocacy Studies and decided to travel across the country. During her travels, she found that Bihar beckoned. She loved the place and the people as much as she decided that her work was needed there.

“Bihar was the place where Buddha was born. It was a place of learning and ancient universities. Vaishali was the seat of the world’s oldest republic,” says Varsha. “But inspite of this culture and history of enlightenment, Bihar seemed to be moving steadily into the dark. It was poor and undeveloped. The caste system was rigid and there was little tolerance. The marginalized had no access to health, sanitation, education, justice and other basic amenities. The very land that they lived on was being snatched from beneath their feet. Worst of all, they had no voices. I realized that this must be the place where I have to do my work.”

She lived among the people. As a woman she had access to spaces that men couldn’t venture like the kitchen of a dalit woman. She stayed in the villages to weeks on end. She studied their issues first hand  and began to speak to the women about their rights. It was a gradual process but she stuck to her vision and a movement was born. In the process, Varsha found her community.

“The older people and the younger, the men and the women, all call me ‘didi’ (elder sister),” says Varsha “Every time I visit their villages, they say that didi has returned back to her ‘naiher’ (the matriarchal native place).”

When she looks back now, Varsha confesses to feeling a degree of surprise as to where she has reached in this one life but she credits every experience- good and bad, that helped her make the person that she is-an activist, a woman, a poet, a painter and everybody’s didi.

“I prefer the word ‘manvi’ to describe myself. It simply means a ‘human being’.”

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