‘Like Sushmita, many have to pay with their lives’

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She lived for her beliefs, and died for them. Sushmita Banerjee, who had been working for women’s upliftment in Afghanistan, met a tragic end on Thursday when she was shot by suspected Taliban militants. Her brother Gopal Banerjee remembers, “She had no fear, she was a daredevil.”

She sure was, agrees Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust Founder and photographer Ram Rahman. “It’s really tragic that the 56-year-old author met such a gruesome end. Back home too artists, scholars and activists from different walks of life face resistance and challenges. Pune activist Narendra Dabholkar was killed last month while on a morning walk. Even I have been physical assaulted while fighting for freedom of expression in the country. Our exhibition was attacked in Delhi, as was another show in Pune. An RSS member also tried to vandalise our exhibition in New York,” says Rahman.
One of biggest challenges, says Shilpi Marwaha, a young theatre actor from Asmita group, is to fight against social injustice without expecting any help from the system or police. “We have been doing street plays in various parts of the country to create awareness on violence against women. Following the December 16 gangrape case many times police have tried to stop us from performing. While street play could an important tool to bring in social change and stop men from seeing women as a commodity, the system instead of supporting us tries to stop us every now and then. We were even attacked by the police for performing just after the gangrape last year,” recalls Shilpi, who also insists that this fails to deter their determination as the group continues to perform.
The system might make it hard but “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” says young documentary filmmaker Kanishka Singh Deo. She recently made a film highlighting the plight of Maruti employees who were involved in the violence cases. “They are still considered criminals. A few years back when I worked on a film on the LGBT community, homosexuality was not decriminalised. And while working on both the films I was scrutinised for my work. Being in the middle of these people and working against the stereotypes — like Jat community is generally considered violent and homosexuality is yet to gain acceptance — could be very challenging. Even convincing them that we are trying to help can be very hard,” says Kanishka.
Whenever there is an attempt to bring in change, there is bound to be resistance, says academician Abhay Chawla, who has been working for acid attack victims. “Issues like rape, acid attack or even RTI may look simple to deal with but they are not given the kind of establishment and system we live in. And then there are various organisations who are against any social upliftment. Not everyone can understand the hardship of those trying to bring in social change. Many people like Sushmita who take up social issues have to pay with their lives,” says Chawla.
Social workers and activists can attract antipathy from many quarters, says photographer Chandan Gomes who has extensively covered recent protests in the city. “It can be very disheartening. But to bring in change one has to learn to stand the ground and not give up. It is for government also to show some support to those fighting against social taboos and catch the culprits who commit heinous acts like attacking and killing those trying to bring in change,” adds Chandan.

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