For those who knew Mrinaltai Gore, it is not difficult to imagine her reaction to her name being given to a flyover connecting the eastern side of Goregaon to its western half. She would have been embarrassed. In her trademark nonchalant manner, the fiery socialist leader and champion of women’s issues would have brushed it off as irrelevant to her life’s purpose.
That the decision was carried out by the Shiv Sena, a party and ideology she was opposed to all her life, would have amused her. In the 1970s, the late Bal Thackeray had mocked Mrinaltai as “Bhatak Bhavani”. It was a derogatory description, loosely translated to mean a ferocious wandering woman. Decades later, when her party colleague HD Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, she had lashed out him for meeting Thackeray when Raj Thackeray was embroiled in the Ramesh Kini murder case.
Thackeray reserved special scorn for women politicians on the left-of-centre of the political spectrum. Mrinaltai’s passionate but articulate espousal of causes riled him. Given this vicious hatred, and the Thackerays’ meanness towards their ideological or political adversaries, Uddhav Thackeray’s insistence on Mrinaltai’s name for the flyover took everyone by surprise. But he has an eye on the civic election next year.
As he and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis presided over the flyover inauguration, their praise for Mrinaltai rang hollow but they had unwittingly turned the spotlight on a woman Mumbai should have remembered more. When she passed away in July 2012, the 84-year-old Mrinaltai was but a shadow of her old self. Yet, thousands had come to pay their last respects to a woman identified as “Paaniwali Bai”, a sobriquet she was given after she fought hard for slumdwellers’ access to water.
Riots over water in slums had claimed the lives of 11 people in 1964, she had stormed into the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) office, torn up the existing rules and ensured that the municipal law that did not permit water connections to the slums was rectified. Later, in the post-Emergency 1977 Lok Sabha election after she had been jailed by Indira Gandhi’s regime for 18 months, the campaign line reverberated: “Paaniwali Bai Dilli mein, Dilliwali Bai paani mein”.
Mrinaltai was, during her six decades in politics, a corporator, MLA, MP, and had turned down a cabinet berth in the VP Singh government. But she is best remembered by — or reintroduced to younger Mumbaiites — as a foremost feminist and people’s politician. The sort who travelled by the suburban trains regularly, not for a photo-op; who spoke up fearlessly, campaigned for issues and saw them to the logical end, set up institutions and women’s help centres, and became the voice of the average citizen. Her home in Goregaon and the Keshav Gore Trust she had set up to take her husband’s work forward were the twin hubs of socio-political reformist activity.
As MLA in the Maharashtra Assembly in the 1970s, she had the Slum Improvement Act passed to replace the draconian Slum Eradication Act. In 1985, she argued for banning sex determination tests resulting in Maharashtra being the first state to pass the Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act three years later. The morchas she led against the wild price rises in the 70s and 80s, with the rolling pin in her hand, immortalised her image.
In the House and outside it, Mrinaltai consistently focussed on issues concerning slum dwellers, atrocities on women, Dalits, farmers and tribals. As a teenager, stirred by the Quit India movement, Mrinaltai had given up studying medicine to devote herself to nation-building. It kept her going. In 2006, frail and ill, she still brought herself to the protests against the Khairlanji rape and murders.
Mrinaltai lost the 1989 LS election and never contested again. Goregaon, and the western suburbs, were turning saffron.
Over the next two decades, the BJP and Sena carved out their niches. But they need to invoke Mrinaltai’s name in their quest for power in the BMC.