The Never-Say-Die Woman


When I raise my fingers at someone, I don’t speak, but my hunger does!

With a vision that reaches beyond the ordinary, strength of more than a hundred men, courage of a soldier and a willpower that never dies, Guliya Bai, the woman who strengthened the fragile lives of the deprived in Hoshangabad, rules millions of hearts, not just in her village Kesala, but across the entire state of Madhya Pradesh.

The 65-year-old lady, with her dark brown eyes and wrinkled skin, is the President of Satpura Mahili Sangathan, a committee which tries to empower women in 36 villages across the district of Hoshangabad. She is also a member of Kisan Adivasi Sanghatan, an organization that helps the poor farmers. Guliya Bai is an activist who ‘doesn’t need an organization to support her’ remarks Baba Mayaram, a rural affairs journalist in Hoshangabad.

Guliya Bai started her journey in quest of justice when she was barely 20. The newly married bride was the dark horse in her family, and her in-laws disapproved of a woman raising her voice. She remembers how a tribal woman’s house in Sukhtawa was completely destroyed by ‘jangal ke thanedar’. The forest officers complained that the woman had “stolen” wood from the forest, a forbidden act. In spite of being warned that her husband would leave her if she stepped out of her house, she went ahead and rescued her ‘tribal sister’. While she narrates this episode of her bravery, her hands move enthusiastically and her orange bangles jingle against one another. There seems to be no fear in her eyes. Guliya Bai took some twenty more women with her, and entered the thanedar’s house, and questioned him vehemently about his action. She became the voice of the ‘voiceless tribals’.

Wearing an orange sari, chunky silver anklets, glass bangles, mangal-sutra and a red bindi, not to leave out the tattoos engraved on her skin, Guliya Bai looks powerfully extraordinary among the ordinary. For more than 40 years now, besides bringing justice to homes, this lady from Kesla village in Hoshangabad has raised her three daughters and taken care of her husband who has been lying paralyzed for thirty years now. The unbidden tear when she talks of her husband does not go unnoticed.

She pulls down her ‘ghunghat’ and smiles a little, when Faguram, a Zila-Parishad member, starts talking about her acts of great daring, especially the time she held the hands of Digvijay Singh, Ex-Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. ‘Guliya Bai ke pehle aisa koi nahi kar paya (none before Guliya Bai could ever do this),’ he says proudly. Farmers kept dying as well as being displaced every now and then, either for the Tawa dam project, or the proof range. The innocent farmers were denied pattas for the land on which they were living. Accompanied by villagers, Guliya Bai sat for three days before the Chief Minister's’s house to meet him. He met and consoled them, but before he left, Guliya Bai caught his hands to ask him about the compensation for the displaced villagers. When the CM explained that surveys are being conducted, Guliya fearlessly asked, ‘Khet mein ya paper mein?’ (on the land or on paper?)  She went on to say that the government has been cheating the poor farmers. There have been many incidents, when the lady who was herself displaced by the Tawa dam has questioned the authorities. ‘Dharne lagake kam karana ata hai humey,’ (Protests make them work) she says confidently.

Having been a member of the now defunct Tawa Matsya Sangh,Guliya Bai joyously talks about the organisation that brought livelihood to hundreds of poor people. ‘Sarkar ne chal karke tor diya,’ (it was a sabotage by the government to destroy the organization) she says resentfully.

Nothing stops Guliya bai even at 65; she struggled for a year to get her and her husband’s pension. ‘Ye form bhara, woh form bhara, ek darawaza se ek darwaza’ (I kept on filling forms, and running from door to door) she says. She finally managed to get a meagre amount of Rs.150 per month.

Guliya Bai protested to the government against the insufficient pension sanctioned for old women, and almost no pension for widows. While we wait for things to happen on their own, she will probably sit in another ‘dharna’ in the near future to bring justice. In spite of being discouraged time and again by the government, or sometimes even by the men in her own village, the never-say-die attitude keeps the Kesala lady going.