|Rasheeda Bee - epitome of courage
By Andalib Akhter
Bhopal: Contrary to the general perception that Muslims, particularly their women remain in the cocoons of tradition and they don’t have enough courage to fight against the odds, a semi-literate woman, Rasheeda Bee has proved that her religion never came in the way of her fight against injustice. In fact her strong will and indomitable spirit to fight for the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy made her an epitome of courage and kindness.
Rasheeda Bee never came out of her home alone till the Bhopal catastrophe happened. She belonged to a conservative family and had got married to a draper when she was just 15. When the leakage of deadly Methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide created havoc on December 2, 1984, Rashida did not know what to do. Two decades later, she has become a symbol of the struggle for justice for the victims of the world’s worst industrial calamity. Rasheeda — along with her associate Champa Devi Shukla — got the ‘Goldman Environment Award’ for the year 2004 in San Francisco, US.
Rasheeda, who never went to school, now carries a stylish visiting card and a mobile phone. She heads a NGO BhopalGas Victim’s Women Stationery Workers’ Union Rasheeda and Champa Devi Shukla along with several other women formed a women’s group that later took up the seemingly unending fight for justice. "It was very difficult.. I had never talked to any stranger before the tragedy. My son died because I couldn’t take him to hospital. I was alone at home those days. He died due to lack of proper treatment. It was long before the gas tragedy happened," says Rasheeda explaining her early days . After the gas leakage she was a changed woman. " Allah gave me courage I came out of my home and started fighting for justice ". Her women’s group went door-to-door and asked women to join them.
After an year of the incident, the state government started a three month training project for women. After that the authorities asked them to leave and do their business on their own. But the victims wanted employment. The women group met the then chief minister Moti Lal Vohra. He referred the case to State Industry Corporation. The women started making stationery items for the corporation. Initially, they were paid Rs. 6 per day. After much protest, their salary was raised to Rs. 10-15 per day. They worked there for two-and-half years. They prepared stationery used in government departments. After two-and-half years, the corporation made a profit of Rs. 400,000. So the group said that the profit should be shared with the women. The corporation was to work under no-profit-no-loss basis. But the government refused to share the profit.
The women’s group led by Rasheeda went on a protest for 27 days. The then Chief Minister Arjun Singh gave the stationery-manufacturing unit to a government trust. Later in 1988, it was given to the government press. The unit is still working in the premises of Bhopal municipality. In 1989, employees of the press got Rs. 2,400 per month but the victims (all women) who worked there got Rs. 532 only. So the group decided to fight against this discrimination.
On June 1, 1989 the group started a protest march to Delhi. They covered the distance on foot in one month and 13 days. "It was a tiresome trudge. My voice wavered when I addressed the women. I encouraged them." "There was no other way. Everybody was upset. All the women were in trouble. So we came together. We didn’t have men in our group. So women came with us. I told them if Muslim women are going out why not Hindus." When the group reached Delhi, it was told that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did not meet the public on Saturday and Sunday and on Monday, he had to leave for Paris. Moti Lal Vohra who was then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh -- assured the group that they will get justice. He promised and convinced them to go back to Bhopal. "Since then, we are waiting for Vohra but he never met us. We were cheated," says Rasheeda. The cases are still pending in various courts. Rasheeda and her group have not accepted defeat. They are ready to fight. When Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemicals, Rasheeda’s group initiated protest against it in February 2001 in Mumbai. Over 500 women painted the Dow office’s wall with red colour, the colour of blood. The group asked Dow to take responsibility for Union Carbide’s liabilities as well. They fined the group Rs. 74, 000. The group then started ‘Jhadoo Andolan’ (broom movement). In 2002 the group went to Pondicherry with brooms where Dow’s head office was located.
The same year, Rasheeda and Shukla went to Switzerland and demonstrated in front of Dow’s office. "We had a sit-in for four days in zero degree temperature. We presented a broom to the CEO of Dow and told him that if a person commits a mistake in India, women beat him with brooms. It represented the anger of Bhopal women" reminisces Rasheeda. Rasheeda and Shukla along with some activists went to Israel, US, France, England and the United Nations to protest against Dow. After receiving the Goldman Award, Rasheeda and Shukla formed a Bhopal Ki Chingari Trust (Bhopal’s Spark Trust).They gave all the award money ($125,000) to the trust. It will be used to provide jobs to unemployed women who are victims of the gas tragedy, medical treatment of disabled children, and an annual award will be constituted to be given to people fighting against polluting companies. The award will carry a cash prize of Rs. 50,000. For Rasheeda awareness in women is important as she believed that only women can bring about a revolution in the world.
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