This moving portrayal of a remarkable freedom fighter challenges conventional elite and andro-centric historiography. Jaggi Devi’s experiences are explored in the context fo powerful peasant movements, nationalist campaigns and the dilemmas and contradictions of post-Independence India. This is oral history of its best projecting authentic voices from the ground with care, empathy and concern for their wider significance.
The author expertly interweaves Jaggi Devi’s voice with a range of interviews and documents, including passages from Nehru’s authobiography indicating his deep respect for the militant peasants of Avadh. With Jaggi and her chronicler, we visit a number of freedom fighters/ families of freedom fighters in rural Avadh gaining different perspectives from which to view nationalist and contemporary politics. We learn of specific contributions made by peasant women – the ‘kisanins’ of Avadh – on various fronts. We become aware of continuities and ruptures, promises and betrayals.
Jaggi’s personal and political seves merged in a seamless whole. In her later years, the lone crusader ‘Jaggi Mata’ was also ‘Jaggi Neta’: there was no distinction. History comes alive as we journey through the life of this unique figure. Jaggi’s unquenchable thirst for freedom compels us to interrogate comfortable positions and rethink issues of agency, identity, gender and class.
It is an honour to present before the scholars and readers, the story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi and her passion for freedom, published under the programme `Narivada: Gender, Culture and Civilization Network', launched by the IGNCA under the aegis of Ministry of Culture. Narivada is the culmination of various exploratory efforts of IGNCA on the subject of gender and culture. In 2003, the IGNCA organized an international seminar in collaboration with Utkal University at Bhubaneshwar on the theme `Reframing Gender in the Context of Culture of India'. At the end of the seminar, the erudite group of participants felt that there is no recognition whatsoever on the positive role that our culture can play in rebuilding a national profile for a culturally rooted paradigm of empowerment of women. Given the extraordinary cultural resources of the IGNCA, it was appropriate that the center should take up the challenges of bringing the women's question and the multi-faceted aspects of women's culture, center-stage in the contemporary discourse of women's empowerment. While in the past, andocentric presuppositions have been a stumbling bloc to 'paradigm building'; today women themselves are both the subjects, as well as agents, of scholarly study and analysis. This has created a new space for indigenous cultural studies and the need to voice their experiences.
Narivada's endeavours are centered on shifting the emphasis of gender research from reductionism to a more holistic frame. Narivada aims to promote a constructive dialogue and critical reflection on the relationship of gender, culture and civilization with a view to give legitimacy and place to the rich cultural frames, to diverse communities and regions; and to give adequate opportunity to the silent and suppressed voices of women.
One of the main projects supported by IGNCA and the Ministry of Culture is to document the "Oral History of Women about the Making of the Indian Nation". This project explores the alternative oral history or 'her-stories' of nationalism of women who were participants, onlookers, or receivers of stories of the freedom movement from the older generation of women.
The monograph on Jaggi Devi, whose whole life was devoted to the cause of justice and freedom, brings to us a voice from the grassroots. It has been argued by many sensitive feminist writers that epistemologies and theories of knowledge that dominate our discourse are based on distorted notions of objectivity. Women scholars have outlined the problems associated with quantitative theorizing based on the methods of natural science. They have emphasized the immediacy of women's conscious experiences. New methods have emerged out of consciousness-raising sessions organized at the grassroots level. In these sessions, the oral histories of women define their own construction of gender. Jaggi Devi's story, as the author explains, "is a contribution to writing history 'from below'. It explores a space typically forgotten or neglected by mainstream historiography — the space occupied by a struggling dalit woman. She was neglected because of a double bias in historiography: a class bias as well as an andocentric one".
Some contemporary women believe that collective feminism in India was born in the 'first wave feminism' in the 1970s. This is untrue. The oral popular history of such women matriots may prove otherwise. Cutting across class and geographical divides, the book charts the life of a lone crusader. Such instances push the boundaries of feminism further back into time. The narrative raises wider questions about methodological and empirical issues related to the study of women's culture. It is about the art of life: the ethical and moral values that give meaning to existence, and a quest for a personal freedom.
Jaggi Devi: An Unheard Voice
I first learnt of the existence of Jaggi Devi in 1986 while reading for my M.Phil thesis (which was on women's roles in peasant movements in pre-Independence U.P.). An article referred to her as `Srimati Jaggi', the Kurmi woman whom peasant leader Baba Ramchandra married. I felt curious about this woman. What would she have experienced — a peasant woman married to the acknowledged leader of the Avadh agrarian movement? Did she herself participate in the powerful struggles of that time?
I grew interested in meeting Jaggi, to explore her memories. I had a hunch that she might have a great deal to share. Original manuscripts — the 'Baba Ram Chandra papers' stored in Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teenmurti, New Delhi — provided tantalizing glimpses of women's active participation. Jaggi Devi had been the original custodian of these manuscripts. From the papers, it was clear that local women raised some specific women's issues during, within and alongside the concerted movements.
In 1988 I decided to undertake — quite independently — a field trip to Jaggi Devi's village. By then I had completed my M.Phil and started research for a Ph.d . Meeting Jaggi did not formally fit into any of these projects. The decision to meet her was prompted by my growing interest in critical feminist and 'subaltern' research6. This in turn was influenced by my engagement in contemporary women's (and related progressive) movements. Seeking Jaggi out was a personal quest too — to connect with those who had struggled in the past, hear their unheard voices, and document their undocumented stories.
The First Trip
In May 1988, I boarded a train to Pratapgarh. Several people had warned me I would be vulnerable to harrassment — but I reached safe and sound. A bus from Pratapgarh to Patti, then a shared jeep, took me right up to Jaggi's village Daudpur Kunda. To my enormous relief, Jaggi was there! She was unwell, lying on a string cot, unable to eat anything since some days. She took me in at once, with great affection, as if she had long been waiting for somebody like me to turn up at her doorstep.
I had written to her, but received no reply. She explained, "I received your letter. Everyday I think about it. But how could I invite you to my mud hut? It is a big responsibility to look after a guest. How could I ask you to eat our food, live in our hut? That is why I did not reply...."
But I was most comfortable in her mud hut, shaded by a protective pipal tree. Gurmilan, her self-appointed helper, served fresh papaya and bananas plucked from their trees. I still remember the exquisite taste of nimoona — a preparation of fresh peas —that her daughter Lalli prepared at Jaggi's behest.
Appointed: Her Scribe
The present monograph is based on three field trips during 1988-89. Within this period Jaggi too visited Delhi, including a daylong visit to my home in Delhi University.
Jaggi was deeply aware of the historical significance of experiences such as hers, and keen to communicate to everybody in the country. Her affection towards me included an element of relief: she felt she could lighten her burden somewhat, by appointing me her scribe. The third time I went to Daudpur, she exclaimed, "You have come, beti now I am at peace. I do not read or write, but I have found the correct pen. I am happy. I have not studied. But I have lived. Yes, I have lived my life!"
During the same trip she took me to several adjoining villages — Rure, Kasaipur, Devsara, Pehra, Labeda, Bhavpur, Kehla, Behta and Bisar... to meet fellow-activists and the families of now-dead activists. To acquaint me with their history became a mission with her.
Small, dark, with vibrant eyes and energetic gestures, Jaggi was intense, shrewd, witty and acutely intelligent. Her company was heady, her personality compelling. As she made a point, she would grip your wrist to make sure you listen, her fingers like talons. Spry and birdlike, she cackled with laughter. She was soft and tender, but at the same absolutely tough, unsparing. I want you to see this woman in your mind's eye, to feel her presence. She was warm, full-blooded. A tremendous excitement filled the space around her.
History 'From Below'
This story is a contribution to writing history 'from below'. It explores a space typically forgotten or neglected by mainstream historiography — the space occupied by a struggling dalit woman. She was neglected because of a double bias in historiography: a class bias as well as an androcentric one.
Her vitality helped me understand the spirit of the Indian struggle for national independence — in a way different from, and more powerful than, what history books had taught me. Jaggi's life spanned an era of dramatic changes, and she herself was passionately involved in the big and small of political movement. Through it all, she managed on meagre resources, struggling to survive.
She and her ilk fought for swaraj — the country's freedom — and won it. But despite their lifelong sacrifices, it was others who plucked the fruits of the tree called freedom.
Personal Connections and Class Contradictions
Jaggi Devi took part in collective struggles for female education in the 1930s, and tried to educate her daughters Lalita and Vijayalakshmi (in the 1940s). However, circumstances rendered it impossible for the girls to attend school. Years later Jaggi said to me, "I wasn't educated. But I have educated you."
When introducing me to others in her area Jaggi said, "This is my daughter. I could not educate Lalli or Vijaya. But I have educated this daughter." Her meaning was clear. She'd fought for Swaraj, education and basic survival rights. But others were reaping the rich harvest which people like her had sown. If I received education, it was due to the struggles waged by her, and others like her.
Jaggi articulated the deep injustice of post-Independence socio-economic arrangements, yet retained a vision broad enough to encompass all of us, whatever our class and caste. Often she was sad and bitter, yet at other times she spoke as a wise and loving `Man' (which is what most people called her in her later years), considering all the young of the country as her own children. With an air of joyous satisfaction, she would comment, "I have sons and daughters, many of them. I didn't study, but they have studied."
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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