LAST October, when Ramchandra Chavan, 53, was being taken to a Pune court after he had allegedly beheaded his wife, a group of women turned up on the court premises and hurled a volley of chappals at him. “We tried to give him what he deserved,” they said as they walked away.
They were members of the Bhumata Brigade, the same group that has been agitating against the bar on women from entering the core shrine area of Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. Over the years, their issues have ranged from women’s rights to price rise, and their demonstrations have invariably come with a show of muscle power, as on the court premises and outside the temple, which they tried to storm.
The organisation has 30-odd cases against it, mostly related to agitations, said its founder chief Trupti Desai. “Whenever we agitate, we take our lawyers with us,” Desai said. “In cases like ours, the offence is bailable.”
Desai and others set up Bhumata Brigade in Pune in 2010 and since then claim to have expanded to 4,000 members across Maharashtra — homemakers, students, labourers, farmers, businesswomen, teachers, lawyers and doctors.
Desai, 31 and mother of a kindergarten child, is among the homemakers. She said their fight is against “injustice against women, subjugation of women, and corruption”. The Bhumata Brigade includes some men members; under its umbrella is the wing Bhumata Ranragani Brigade, which takes up specifically women’s causes, such as the temple protest.
Vice president Pushpak Kevadkar runs a motor driving school. Durga Shukre is a homemaker while Priyanka Jagtap, 22, is preparing for MPSC, having joined the group at the start. These four make up the core group at the forefront of agitations.
Desai said she has been an activist since her teens, her movements including one against the Pawar family-run Ajit Cooperative Bank over an alleged scandal in 2008. Since she set up the Bhumata Brigade, its exploits have earned varying degrees of publicity in Maharashtra, with the temple protest going live on national TV. Maharashtra CM Devendra CM backed their demand, but the women are upset that he made no promise.
“When we are leading from the front despite threats to our lives and without security, what is the problem for the CM in sending out a strong signal?” said Priyanka.
One thing common to most of its movements has been visibility. “When Anna Hazare was campaigning for Lokpal, we were part of the agitation. I was put in jail,” Kevadkar said. And Shukre said, “During Baba Ramdev’s agitation in Delhi, we were present.”
They have demonstrated over prices of onions and other vegetables, farmers’ suicide and exploitation of farmers. “We have personally met chief ministers in the past four or five years and pleaded with them to on behalf of farmers,” Kevadkar said.
Where do they get their funds from? “The funds come either from our own pockets or from donors who are impressed with our desire to fight for the deprived,” Desai said.
Desai said they keep a distance from political parties. “Despite threats from NCP members, we carried on with our protests (against the bank),” says Desai. “When we launched a protest against the rape of a child at Antop Hill in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena supported us. And now when we are agitating for women’s right to pray, the BJP is with us.”