Dismantling Communalism And The Patriarchy In Lucknow: Meet Professor Roop Rekha Verma And Her Organisation Saajhi Duniya
For years, she has championed the cause of human rights and secularism in the City of Nawabs. Her passion for social activism continues even today at the age of 76.
On May 2, 2005, a brutal gangrape sent shockwaves through Uttar Pradesh. A Muslim scrap dealer’s thirteen-year-old daughter was pulled into a moving car from Aashiyana, Lucknow. Six men then took turns raping, sodomising and burning her with cigarettes. After several hours of the ordeal, they dumped her on the roadside at Daliganj. The girl was seriously injured. The gang — Aman Bakshi, Bhartendu Mishra, Faizan, Saurabh Jain and Asif Siddiqui — was led by Gaurav Shukla, the nephew of Samajwadi Party leader and Arun Shanker “Anna” Shukla.
After an 11-year-long legal battle which saw witness intimidation, Gaurav Shukla was finally convicted in 2016. Professor Roop Rekha Verma and her rights organisation Saajhi Duniya was instrumental in securing justice for the survivor.
Who is Roop Rekha Verma?
Professor Verma, secretary of Saajhi Duniya, was born in 1943 in Mainpuri, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. For 39 years, she taught philosophy at the Lucknow University and was appointed the Vice-Chancellor in 1998 for a year. Professor Verma, for years, has championed the cause of human rights and secularism in the City of Nawabs.
She has been critical of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — all her life. Her passion for social activism, which started when she was in her mid-twenties, continues even today at the age of 76.
Speaking to NewsCentral24x7 about the aforementioned 2005 gangrape case, Professor Verma said that the perpetrators had tried hard to manipulate the case, adding that, “Even the Women Rights Commission was helping the culprits.” She was also attacked in the court premises by a bunch of people while accompanying the victim. She added, “I was afraid that Gaurav Shukla might try to harm the survivor after the chargesheet was filed against him. One day when I was accompanying the victim for the case proceeding, I was attacked by 20-25 lawyers. They even threatened to throw me from the sixth floor of the court.”
“We staged many protests in the scorching heat of May-June to put pressure on the administration and the government. The accused repeatedly attempted to claim that they were minors at the time of the crime, but we challenged them before the Juvenile Board. After 11 years on April 13, 2016, the last accused Gaurav Shukla was awarded ten years imprisonment. It was a long struggle,” she remembers.
She adds, however, that back then, the government still retained an iota of shame. “Not like the present rule, which wouldn’t even care if we died fighting.”
As per Professor Verma, the culprits used every trick in the book to instil fear in them. “They even sent two anonymous letters at my house, threatening to take my life, if I did not step back from the case. Those letters were published in many newspapers.”
The media, as per Professor Verma, played a crucial role in that case; it raised important questions and shaped the public opinion. It helped put pressure on the administration and the ruling party to take appropriate action. Now, however, she feels that the media lacks the courage to publish such stories. She believes that the state now controls them.
“No social reformers have seen any big changes in their life.”
In the early nineties, post the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalist groups, sectarian hatred had engulfed the country, resulting in the death of thousands. Professor Verma, around that time, started a rights organisation called “Nagrik Dharam Samaj” with the help of other like-minded people, in an attempt to battle communalism.
In 2004, the name “Nagrik Dharma Samaj” was changed to”Saajhi Duniya”. While it began as a movement towards tolerance and plurality, Saajhi Duniya has now expanded to include issues like gender, primary education and other human rights. Saajhi Duniya has, so far, fought 200 cases related to abuse and sexual violence against women.
It is mainly sustained on Professor Verma’s meagre pension and occasional donors.
Tazeen Khan, an executive member of Saajhi Duniya who helps in providing counselling to victims of domestic violence and pursues cases in the courts on behalf of women, told NewsCentral24x7 that though women are unlikely to be involved communal riots, they often bear the brunt of the ensuing violence. Usually, that includes sexual abuse as well.
“We know the helping an individual is unlikely to change the basic structure of the society, but we do need such helping hands in society. There are lakhs of women who are the victim of violence and sexual harassment; it’s impossible to help all of them. We try to stand by a few of them; sometimes they do get justice, sometimes they do not. To make a gradual change in society, we organise a sensitisation workshop in the schools and colleges where we help them to understand why we do need an egalitarian and just society through debates, plays and discussion. We address masculinity and prevalent discrimination in society, and how it could be ended,” Professor Verma told NewsCentral24x7. She added, “Certainly, it will have a positive impact on society but it will take time. No social reformers have seen any big changes in their life, not even Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Savitri Phule, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar or Ruqaiyya Shekhawat.”
Twenty-six-year-old Sangeeta Kumari*, a government teacher told NewsCentral24x7 that she had been physically abused for a year by Santosh Singh, an employee of the fire department in Lucknow. “I wanted to fight, but my family did not come to my support. I was depressed and was even thinking about committing suicide. I shared it with one my friend who put me into the contact of Saajhi Duniya. Roop Rekha Verma and Tazeen Khan gave me courage. They helped me register an FIR and guided me throughout the case. We received threats, but Professor Verma did not falter.”
The court convicted Santosh Singh on April 6, 2019.
“There is no democracy left in the country.”
The office of Saajhi Duniya, an old two-storeyed building in Lucknow, belonged to the famous Hindi writer and social activist Yashpal. Yashpal was closely associated with the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association. He opposed the Hindu Mahasabha’s idea to turn India into a “Hindu Rashtra“. At the entrance of the building, a poster reads:
“Haqim-e-waqt ka farman-e-junoon
Phir se suno na to ye baat nayi hai, na purani hogi
Phir wahi bikne bikane ki kahani hogi
Jo bhi kuch paas hai sab bech do sab nilaam karo
Jism-o-jaan, izzat-o-ghairat sab kuch
Hanste huwe qatil ke haath dharo
Aao keh dein ke ye sauda
Hamein manzoor nahin, sau baar nahin“.
72-year-old professor Ramesh Dixit, who taught political science from 1982 to 2011 at the Lucknow University, said that Professor Verma has been a staunch critic of saffronisation all her life. That, according to him, makes Saajhi Duniya a rare platform in the city that has been combating communalism and gender violence for years.
Professor Verma compares Narendra Modi’s government with Hitler’s Third Reich. She said that Muslims are being reduced to second-class citizens of the country. In the recent past, especially in Modi’s regime, activists fighting for the rights of Dalits, Tribals and Muslims have been persecuted. Serious charges like sedition and the National Security Act have been invoked against them.
In July last year, 20 students protested in the Lucknow University against not being admitted to various courses. They termed the decision of the university arbitrary and unfair. On July 4, when the vice-chancellor was passing the site of the protest in his car, some students tried to block his path, and a skirmish broke out. Professor Verma, who had extended her support to the protesting students, however, found herself being blamed for the violence by both, the university and the police.
She told NewsCentral24x7, “They tried to book me for inciting violence against the current Vice-Chancellor in 2018, even though I was miles away from the place of incident,” adding, “I have not done anything visible after that; otherwise, I might not be sitting here in the office and talking to you”.
But she isn’t afraid. The Bharatiya Janata Party may have returned to power with a staggering majority, but she refuses to double down. “There is no democracy left in the country,” she said, adding, however, “No matter how difficult the time is, we have to continue our fights for an egalitarian society, where no one will be discriminated on the line of religion, caste and gender.”
*Name changed to protect the identity