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Academic-activist, historian and woman of substance

By A. Joseph Antony

Not many of us from the 1985-87 MA batch of the Department of History, University of Hyderabad took our Medieval History lecturer, Mrs. Rekha Pande, very seriously. It may have been because she was the faculty’s baby of the team, a few years older than her students and extremely unassuming.

To me, just like Prof. K.S.S. Seshan, she was patience personified. There were good reasons for being so. As a mother of three boys, two of them twins, (one little guy I’d seen being extremely chubby yet very naughty), she consciously chose to spare the rod, even if it meant spoiling the child. Encouragement she realised produced better results perhaps than playing the policeman/woman.

There was enough cause for her to be annoyed with me, for I slept in a class of under 20 during lectures and not just hers. Since I was oblivious to the goings-on, instead of blowing her fuse, she may have joined my classmates to laugh at me dozing or even snoring ! But when it came to awarding marks, she was not just fair but generous. For a term paper on ‘Feudalism’ she gave me 14/20. The icing on the cake was a word alongside the marks that meant so much—Good !

India’s ‘Missile woman’ Tessy Thomas (second from right) launches Prof. Rekha Pande’s (extreme right) book at the 2014 World Women’s Congress

I had been cold-shouldered in the English department’s admission interview, filled with high-flying academics armed with doctorates from across the globe. The lone friendly face in that eminent panel was the late Mrs. Meenakshi Mukherjee, who tried her best to make me comfortable when answering questions. It was obvious to her that overawed as I was by the distinguished cordon facing me, I was fumbling and fouling up out of fear.

That morning’s mess-up made way for a delightful afternoon face-off with the History department’s faculty members. They were not just student-friendly, but even engaged me in argument, showing me respect by their patient hearing, regardless of whether I spoke sense or nonsense. That restored my confidence considerably but wasn’t good enough for me to make it to the first list of admitted students.

My late dad was mighty impressed that I was no. 3 on the waiting list. Mercifully some from the first set dropped out paving the way for me to pay up the first semester fees of Rs. 75 and enrol. In time I realised Mrs. Rekha was just like the rest of the faculty, the sessions helmed by Profs. Nagaraju, Seshan, Aloka Parasher, P. Sudhir, K.S. Mathew, V. Ramakrishna and Mrs. Kameshwari Jandhyala.

With Tony, Cherie Blair and former AP CM Chandrababu Naidu

Each of them epitomised the finest in education without making a show of their scholarship. Many of us were from rural backgrounds and hit roadblocks with words in English that were difficult to digest. Full credit to them that over the next two years, the weakest among us was absolutely at home with our teachers and overcame all hurdles to a post-graduate degree !

Mrs. Kameshwari, tired perhaps of my discourse, meandering as much as Mao Tse Tung’s Long March, stifled a yawn to abruptly ask whether the Red Army completed it or not. I didn’t need more hints and wound up the marathon soon enough.

We’d gang up to ‘corner’ Dr. Sudhir on Marxist history but the more we argued with him, the more it became clear that we were waging a losing battle. So sound were his arguments and his demeanour as cool as a cucumber, the only recourse open to us was to be gracious in defeat. When one of our gang mimicked Dr. Sudhir, he was the first to have the heartiest laugh !

Dr. Aloka’s lectures were fine-tuned to the smallest detail. It was staccato gunfire over a 50-minute session, where she would at best pause for a sip of water. Every second was loaded with knowledge and it would be no exaggeration to wonder like the rustics in Oliver Goldsmith’s  ‘Village Schoolmaster’ as to how ‘one head could contain all she knew.’

For most academicians, intellectual rigours are best expressed through papers/presentations in various national and international journals and fora. With 19 books and about 150 articles ahead of her, Dr. Rekha had struck a different path. For a better understanding of the past, she found forays into the present a rewarding route. This combined well with a lifelong quest to question centuries-old societal stereotypes of male dominance.

With ‘Chitchor’ Amol Palekar

For as a schoolgirl she questioned why boys got to repair fans and switches, while girls were restricted to stitching during the crafts period. As a 19-year-old, a taxi ride with Mother Teresa through Varanasi convinced her of reaching out to the needy.

Born in Malukhan village in Uttarakhand’s Raniket district, her calling crystallised perhaps in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous line, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” To Prof. Pande, one half of humanity, termed the ‘weaker sex,’ had wept more.

The time had come to wipe away those tears in a ‘might is right’ world. To portray the plight of the oppressed it was paramount to address the ones Edmund Burke referred to: Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.  

When direct action wasn’t possible, presenting the viewpoint of the weak offered hope. Backing her enterprise were her energy and enthusiasm. If she was dismissed lightly early in her career, recognition for her work didn’t take long in coming.

Achievements on the international firmament alone would do the most forceful academic-activists proud. She was Editor of the International Feminist Journal of Politics (she’s still on its International Advisory Council) and Foreign Policy Analysis. She is on the Editorial Board of Palgrave Communications, on the Editorial Review Board of the International Journal of Semiotics and Visual Rhetoric (IJSVR) and the Current Research Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Reward for toil with women at the grass-root level most of her life, opportunities came with recognition to rub shoulders with the high and mighty too. Prof. Pande was invited by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, when they visited Hyderabad in January 2002. The couple met women working on social issues. Also in attendance was the then  AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.

Looking back at an illustrious career, its highpoint was becoming Chairperson of the Women’s World Congress, held in Hyderabad from August 17 to 22, 2014, attended by a 1000 delegates from 35 countries. ‘Gender in a changing world,’ theme of the convention, attracted 750 abstracts and panels from across the globe.

The conclave discussed gender and culture/law/ history/management/violence/digital divide/ globalisation. Workshops examined reproductive technologies, role of education in empowerment and trafficking of women among other topics. The symposium, with students, researchers, government officials, corporate honchos, NGOs, explored ways to establish a gender-just society.

Her book, ‘Journeys into women’s studies—crossing interdisciplinary boundaries’ (Palgrave Macmillan Press, UK) was released by no less than India’s  ‘Missile Woman,’ Tessy Thomas and University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy.

Other tributes include being made a member of the Feminist Jurisprudence Committee, National Commission for Women and Core Advisory Group for sensitization and capacity building towards eliminating child labour. She was also nominated as Peace Ambassador for the South Asia region by the International Women’s Peace Group, South Korea in 2016.

At her recent farewell from the University of Hyderabad, she was awash with accolades from students and colleagues alike. Despite streaks of grey in her hair, her early students will remember her in balladeer Pete Seeger’s immortal words:

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you.

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young.

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