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Roop Rekha Verma's unwavering fight to uphold constitutional values

80-year-old former philosophy professor and activist Roop Rekha Verma was part of a PIL to the Supreme Court against the remission orders for 11 men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano in 2002, and lends her support to fight communal tensions and gender injustices

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Mar 28, 2024 12:46:34 PM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2024 02:03:52 PM IST

Roop Rekha Verma's unwavering fight to uphold constitutional valuesRoop Rekha Verma, Activist, former acting vice chancellor, University of Lucknow Image: Amit Verma
Roop Rekha Verma confesses that she had made up her mind to “speak with a restrictive terminology and voice” during the interview with Forbes India.

“But I cannot,” says the 80-year-old activist, who was the former acting vice chancellor of the Lucknow University, where she taught and headed the department of philosophy. “To make sure I’m not in conflict with myself, perforce, I have to keep doing what I am doing,” she says, her voice steady, calm and resolute. It is the same voice that has made the country sit up and take notice so many times in the past, when Verma, in a simple act of gumption, stood up for what she believes in.

In January, the Supreme Court (SC) quashed remission orders by the State of Gujarat to grant premature release to 11 men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano in 2002. When Verma heard about the remission order, she said, as per a report in the Times of India, that standing with rapists and murderers and glorifying them is the “highest form of obscenity in the democracy”. Thus, the Lucknow resident became a co-petitioner in the public interest litigation (PIL) filed with the SC that led to the apex court’s judgment.

About two-odd years ago, Verma stood surety for journalist Siddique Kappan as a condition of his bail. Kappan had been arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police when he was on his way to report on a gang rape of a teenage Dalit girl by four upper caste men in Hathras. He was being tried under sedition and the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Verma did not know the young journalist, but felt that what happened to him was against the constitutional value of freedom of speech and expression. Maybe he is guilty, maybe not, she tells me. By standing surety, she was only helping him get bail, which was his right. He would still have to answer to the courts.

Roop Rekha Verma's unwavering fight to uphold constitutional valuesIn another instance in 2022, a video of the frail, sari-clad Verma went viral on social media. In it, she is seen distributing pamphlets at a busy traffic intersection. The pamphlets urged people to let go of communal hatred, and stated that the two biggest religious communities in India fought side-by-side against the British during the rebellion in 1857.

While she has come into the limelight of late, standing up for communal harmony, constitutional values and gender justice is second nature to Verma. The youngest of six siblings, she grew up in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, listening to stories of the massacres that occurred during the Partition of 1947. Fortunately, her father (a doctor) and mother (a homemaker) never held a communal lens to the Partition. But those stories made her wary of conflict, she says.

Various influences from her childhood would shape Verma’s identity, be it her father’s passion for literature, her mother’s keenness to get her children educated, and various other small attempts of social service and kindness made by her parents “to come out of our narrow self”, she says.

In the 1980s, she had questioned the University of Lucknow about why the mother’s name is not included in academic forms, which made the institution revise and print new forms.

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“She is not an armchair activist. She leads from the front and is fearless,” says Mina Kala, an activist and former teacher of economics, who has known Verma since 1990, when they first met as part of citizen collective called Nagrik Dharm Samaj, which Verma had formed. Kala adds that Verma had also spearheaded the creation of a department for women’s studies at the University of Lucknow.

Social scientist Nadeem Hasnain, who has known Verma since the early ’70s, says that she was the youngest professor at the University at the time, and was “serious, committed and very friendly with students”. He remembers how, in the wake of the riots post the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, Verma had fought with the administration to distribute essentials to affected people in the curfew-bound areas.

Roop Rekha Verma's unwavering fight to uphold constitutional values

“She is a frail woman with a steely nerve,” he says, adding that Verma has travelled through the country to extend support to various social causes, often spending her own money. “Even now, she is putting back some of her pension money,” he says. Both Hasnain and Kala agree that Verma is democratic and apolitical. Her efforts have earned her many detractors, but also a strong community of friends.

Verma refuses to take flailing health as an excuse and continues to work on the ground to combat injustices on the grounds of gender, caste and religion. She turns to music, literature and her friends for refuge whenever she feels disillusioned. “There is a fight inside of me as well. I resurrect myself every time I feel there’s no hope,” she says. “I tell myself, ‘Keep working. Otherwise, you are nothing’.”

(This story appears in the 22 March, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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