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Roop Rekha Varma, social justice warrior
Last year, former Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, Professor Roop Rekha Verma, volunteered to stand as surety for Kerala journalist Sidheeq Kappan, following bail granted by the Supreme Court in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) case.
Kappan did not walk free as expected, because the sessions court in Lucknow rejected his bail plea in another case lodged against him under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
Kappan was arrested on his way to Hathras in September 2020, to report on the gang rape and death of a Dalit girl. He was jailed for nearly two years. Last September, the Supreme Court granted bail to Kappan, stating that every citizen has the right to free expression.
Bail conditions required two Uttar Pradesh natives to stand surety for Kappan. But no one from the state came forward to stand surety, 10 days after the Supreme Court decision, until Roop Rekha Verma volunteered to do so
In another petition, Roop Rekha Verma, along with Subhashini Ali and Revati Laul, also challenged the premature release of the 11 convicts in the Binkis Bano case. A committed and dedicated social activist for more than three decades, Verma is founder-secretary of Saajhi Duniya (Shared World). She is a relentless fighter against religious bigotry and communalism.
A voice against fundamentalism
Verma, 79, taught philosophy at the University of Lucknow for 39 years before retiring in 2005. Today she is recognized as a major voice against religious fundamentalism and conflict, violence against women, and other human rights issues, especially in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state which has made headlines because of violent attacks against Muslims after the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014.
“I am deeply disturbed with the way India is deteriorating in every way,” Verma told Arab News. “We have become violence-loving people; it shakes my soul.”
Suman Bajpai interviewed Roop Rekha Verma for India Currents. The interview has been edited for clarity.
You stood surety for Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan as a condition of bail. Why?
I had heard of Kappan as a journalist who was arrested while on his way to Hathras to cover the story of the shameful rape-murder of a Dalit girl and her body’s undignified disposal by police. It sounded like a blatant dictatorial act. I agreed to stand as a surety for him as it seemed the minimal which one could do in fairness.
It looks like opening your mouth is a serious crime. He was heading to cover a crime incident in Hathras but was arrested. Suddenly Serious Offences Acts and sections such as UAPA, and money laundering are slapped on him. He becomes suspected of having links with notorious outfits. Such back-to-back developments to tighten the noose create doubts in citizens like me.
I may be proven wrong if Kappan is indeed found guilty by court, but still at this moment, his right to bail cannot be suppressed.
Tell us about your fight against inequalities of caste, gender, and religion.
Inequality of all kinds is unjust. It is a cause of uncountable miseries. Its unacceptability made me take up awakening people against it and helping its victims. Gender and religious-casteism discrimination have been my focus areas.
In society, inequalities and poverty were rampant. Acceptance of inequalities and poverty was also rampant. But, side by side, awakening on these evils and the desire to remove or at least lessen them was also flourishing. Pro-equality literature, discourses, and even political campaigns were in the air. So, we were unconsciously and gradually awakening. Beginnings were being made for both humanistic and humanitarian developmental and modern ideas. We were an inspired lot despite many hurdles of old societal structures.
You became a social activist after retirement. What took you down that path?
I did not become a social activist after my retirement. I was doing social work from a young age.
Why are people afraid of raising their voices against injustice?
Because they are afraid or are unclear about what to do. The more the regime is dictatorial, the more the people are afraid. This is one cause. The other is their limited knowledge and limited sensitivity.
You distribute leaflets to create awareness in society. Is it bringing about change?
Distributing pamphlets is not the only way and my work involves many more things. But spreading messages or write-ups is one of the many ways.
How do you face challenges?
The challenges? Long list. Oppression by the powerful, the masses’ ignorance and lack of will to stand up, the habit to look at social interventionists as a nuisance, enmity by those who gain in unequal situations, and so on.
How do I face them? Well, because I do not mind. Because the solutions to the problems are more important to me than the troubles on the way. Because not doing anything and seeing wrongs makes me restive.
As a voice for human rights, what should we be concerned about?
If I am really recognized as a voice for human rights, it is the large-heartedness of those who look at me as such. But I regard myself as a very small actor on this terrain as compared to a large number of old and young ones who are in jail or persecuted and tortured just for speaking the truth. Just for standing up for human rights.
The spirit of 1857
When she leaves home in the morning, Verma carries a pile of leaflets to distribute on the streets of Lucknow hoping to revive a 19th-century spirit that once united Indians across the religious divide.
The leaflets she hands passers-by are titled “Break the stick of hatred, love your fellow men.”
They are Verma’s attempt to “revive the spirit of 1857” — the year that saw India’s first popular uprising against British rule. Verma hopes her efforts will rekindle unity and stir reflection on the current situation in India, where “division in the name of religion weakens the country.”
“The colonial power started the policy of dividing the people in the name of religion. Today, there is no British rule, but the policy of polarizing people in the name of religion is continuing to affect the unity and progress of the nation.”
“We are making an appeal to people to reunite and rebuild India on the path of progress,” she added. “We have to learn from our own history, which shows the way.”
This article was published for Women’s History Month