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Trupti Shah, a feminist fighter for the environment and social justice

Friday 27 May 2016

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The women’s movement, the environmental cause, the struggle for justice has lost a voice that never flinched from standing up for victims of
exploitation, injustice and violence. Trupti Shah (54) left us on May 26,
2016 in Vadodara after a valiant battle against lung cancer.

Trupti, an economist by training, centered her lifelong activism primarily
on women’s issues, constantly drawing its intersections with development,
environment, communal strife, caste, labour and human rights issues.

With parents, Thakorbhai Shah, a known labour union leader and mother
Suryakanta Shah, active in public life, Trupti was drawn into people’s
struggles very early in her life.

Trupti always attributed her initiation into activism to her parents. In
her own words, “I inherited the spirit, ‘not to tolerate any injustice’
from my father who left his career as journalist and Gandhian ideology to
fight against injustice and became a Marxist-Trotskyist and Trade unionist.
Along with him and other younger comrades from the Communist League, a
Trotskyist group, I witnessed or participated in most of the major
movements that emerged in Gujarat in the 1970s. My involvement in the
women’s movement has its roots in these experiences.’’

Her first experience of people’s movement was in 1973 when she was just
11 years old. She, with five other girls, was detained in the state home of
children for three days for participating with the elders in the anti-price
rise movement that started in Vadodara to protest Rs. 1 hike in milk
prices. She was soon to actively participate in the ensuing Nav Nirman
Andolan and anti-Emergency movement. A product of Maharaja Sayajirao
University’s distinctive academic atmosphere from her kindergarten studies,
Trupti was to plunge into the women’s movement from her student days. And
that turned into her lifelong passion.

As a young 18 year old, unlike most other Gujarati youth, she became active
in the Communist League (CL), the Indian section of the Fourth International, which supported autonomous women’s movement world over. Dr. Vibhuti Patel, one of the leading activists of the Communist League was to
mentor Trupti’s initiation in the autonomous women’s movement. Dr. Neera
Desai, a renowned sociologist and feminist, too was a major influence on
Trupti’s young mind and her work for women’s rights.

When the nationwide movement for reopening the Mathura Rape Case seeking amendments in legal provisions related to rape was started, Trupti was a part of the forum, “Narishoshan Virodhi Samiti” (Committee to Resist
Exploitation against Women) to be initiated in Vadodara. Disenchanted with
the apathy of women political leaders towards gender-based violence,
she participated as perhaps the youngest delegate in the first conference
of Autonomous Women’s Movement organised in Bombay in 1980. The proceedings sharpened the need in her to start something afresh in Vadodara for women’s rights. And so she resolved: “there is a need to have an autonomous women’s organisation in Baroda which will uphold the interest of women above all other issues and political affiliation.” And the rest of her life became a persistent effort towards building such an organisation. [1]

An effort of several years and like-minded friends resulted in Sahiyar
(Stree Sangathan) an initiative led by the Maharaja Sayajirao University of
Baroda students in 1984. The overriding consciousness resulted in an
organisation by women and for women with the long term aim to work towards a society free from inequality, injustice and atrocity - a society where
women enjoy equal status and recognition as human beings. Resisting
communal forces and fundamentalists of all hues, in striving to uphold the
principles of equality and non-discrimination, soon became central to all
Sahiyar’s initiatives.

Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) is a feminist group in Vadodara. She was one of
its founder members. Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) works for women’s rights and strives to create awareness among society on women’s issues. She was
involved in awareness programmes like street theatre, organising workshops,
training, participatory research and publication on behalf of the
organisation. She was also involved in counseling of adolescent girls and
women and providing legal support to them.

Her concerns were not limited to only women’s issues. She brought gender
perspective to other public concerns such as environment, civil liberties,
human rights, anti-communalism and all just causes.

She had been involved with several social / voluntary organisations since her
student days and undertook community work and social awareness work through these organisations.

One such organization being Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), an
organisation working on the issues related to environmental rights and
awareness. As also a part of PSS, Trupti brought in her impeccable research
and analytical skills and her understanding of human environment in
identifying and studying the rampant environmental degradation and
displacement of adivasis in the name of development for land grabbing and
privatization. The concerns highlighted by her have found their expression
in the changing environment over time, which only goes to showcase the
depth of her understanding. Her thorough approach and holistic
understanding of environmental issues, helped in preparation for legal
action, an important aspect of her action-oriented approach.

She was also involved with People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), as
well as the Radical Socialist.

Trupti brought her expertise and sensitivities of women’s rights to other
struggles and every major social upheaval that she responded to – during
the anti-Narmada dam agitation, the anti-nuclear protests at Mithivirdi
area, the fight against industrial pollution in Gujarat, the 2002 Gujarat
Carnage, the various government undertaken slum demolition drives, and
raised environmental concerns in Gujarat from time to time including in
respect of the Statue of Unity project, Garudeshwar Weir project and the
recent Vishwamitri Riverfront Development project, flagging the
environmental violations, livelihood issue and damage being caused by the

Her academic association with MSU continued simultaneously; in various
capacities – as a researcher, teacher, and as academic coordinator with
the Women’s Studies Research Center and later in the faculty of commerce
and faculty of social work as well.

She infused her academic expertise in her activism, translating it into
action-oriented work at the grassroot level. Whether she was involved in
preparing training manuals for NGOs, reviewing exercises, conducting
training programmes, community programmes, she combined her academic
brilliance with radical activism. She constantly flagged concerns and
violations of all kinds with a rare passion.

She earned her Ph.D. for her thesis, “Economic Status of Women in Urban
Informal Sector – A study of Baroda City” from MSU in 2000.

She continued to write extensively, with her unwavering faith in the
collective women’s movement. She took great satisfaction in the four
part: Nari Andolanno Itihas (History of Women’s Movement), a series of books on the history of women’s movement in Gujarati, published by UNNATI and Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) in 2011.

During her last days, she was most concerned about the violations in the
Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project case, especially related to the
river’s bio-diversity, environmental degradation, loss of livelihoods. Her
concern to her last breath: behno na adhikar ni vaat loko nathi
sambhadta….nadi, Paryavaran ni vaat loko samjhe to saru
(People are
apathetic to women’s rights….it would be good if they understand the issue
of river, environment).

She is survived by her fellow comrade, activist, friend and companion,
Rohit Prajapati, who has been her partner in her efforts and pillar of
support, and her son, Manav, amongst other family and friends.


[1Trupti participated actively in this effort at the international level as well, notably as a member of the Fourth International Women’s Commission and an important collaborator of the four month-long sessions devoted to the questions of women’s liberation held in the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam during the 1990s. IVP