Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Madhavi Kuckreja: The change starts with you

Madhavi Kuckreja isn’t like anybody else. Oh, I know none of us is like anybody else, but Kuckreja really isn’t like anybody else. She’s a true radical. She’ll make you question all your preconceived notions, and you might want to have her over for dinner because she’s just so wonderful.

A Punjabi from Delhi who grew up in Kolkata, she comes from a privileged, upper-class background. For more than three decades, she has worked on empowering underprivileged Dalit and Muslim women in Uttar Pradesh. After studying in India and the US, she went to rural Uttar Pradesh in 1990 to do trainings for the Union ministry of human resource development’s Mahila Samakhya Programme. She began working with Dalit women in what she calls “very poor, dacoit-ridden, badlands kind of place. It was totally feudal, there were no telephones, and there were murders all the time." She ended up staying in Chitrakoot and Banda until 2004, founding and growing her first organization, Vanangana, challenging stereotypes and building technical skills.

Vanangana still exists, and it’s now led by local women. It works on issues of violence against women and organizes women so they can assert their rights. The Dalit women’s samiti has more than 3,000 members. There are workshops to run, court cases to fight, hearts and minds to change, boundaries to break.

Bishakha Datta, executive director of the not-for-profit Point of View, has known Kuckreja and her work for decades. “Madhavi really gets it!" she says. “That’s what’s amazing about the work of groups she’s spawned. She gets that a woman may get raped not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s a pawn between two caste groups who are in conflict. Or two religious groups. Or two groups fighting for land or water or some natural resource...again with caste or religion or something underpinning the conflict. She gets the messiness of life, gets the missing links, and brings all that into her activism."

Kuckreja loved her life in the village, but in 2004 she decided to move to Lucknow for reasons both personal and professional. While in Chitrakoot, she had made the brave decision to give birth to a child and be a single parent, and she had a son to raise. She was also concerned about the organization’s sustainability. She didn’t want Vanangana to be another not-for-profit that lives and dies with its founder. She was and is much adored at Vanangana, but “I had to move out to change the power dynamic".

In Lucknow, Kuckreja, 52, continues to live life on her own terms. She lives with her Muslim partner, who is several decades younger than her. She started Sanatkada, a craft shop that has morphed into a vibrant cultural centre. All the team members are women from 32 local mohallas. They run information centres to teach people about government schemes, ID cards, ration cards, bank accounts, education opportunities, etc. They take groups of girls for year-long leadership programmes: Kuckreja firmly believes that leadership must come from within.

Sanatkada offers technical skills like computer literacy, photography and video, not assuming that every woman wants to sit and sew blouses for a living. Sanatkada members show films, including ones they’ve made themselves, in mohallas. They also photograph weddings and other occasions for a fee. Every year, the entire team organizes a cultural festival.

And the old house where Sanatkada is based offers something unusual: a place where people from all classes and castes can meet as equals, something which happens too rarely in India. “Your doodhwalla (milkman) might be friendly with you, but you will never have dinner with him," says Kuckreja. “My driver eats with me. People in Lucknow were very shocked to see this. Your spaces reflect your politics."

Kuckreja, Vanangana and Sanatkada aren’t about knitting woolly caps and making a little money to supplement your family income. They work with women to really help them examine their own lives, in their own communities. This goes beyond simply working on personal laws and economic empowerment. Team members constantly challenge themselves as well. The personal is always political. For instance, no Vanangana staff person is allowed to wear sindoor, as it is a stamp of male ownership.

“One thing that struck me was the lack of not-for-profits working with Muslim women. There are very few Dalit and Muslim leaders as well." She was involved in riot-related court cases in post-Godhra Gujarat, and says she learnt a lot. “We got shaken and realized that we had been blinded and not seen it. We did not have Muslims, even in our organization. They have been left out of the development discourse. In 2004, we decided we would only hire Dalits and Muslims."

India is full of activists. But Kuckreja is special. She sees that the path to change is just that: a path, a journey. Kuckreja knows two things very well. One, that the journey to true freedom is a lifetime one. You don’t get raped and recover the next day. You don’t suffer poverty and relax with the first pay cheque.

“You journey with people for 20 years at a time," she says of her life as an activist. “With survivors of violence, you journey with them for a lifetime. People are breaking barriers for the first time." And she is there to help them. Her house in Lucknow is constantly full of children who have come from rural areas to study in the city. She’s like a foster mother to them all. “Alternative family also has to be rewritten. Otherwise you have to fall back on the old traditional family," she says.

The other thing she knows very clearly is that however beloved she is, she is not the role model for the women of Chitrakoot, Banda and the mohallas of Lucknow. “I have been the inspiration, but not the role model," she asserts. “My class and privilege and the things I’ve done have been so out of the box. These women have to deal with their community on a daily basis. The real leaders are women like themselves, not angrez like me."

Kuckreja is clear and fierce and warm, one of those rare people who are righteous without being self-righteous. Siddharth Dube, a writer on rural poverty who has known Kuckreja since childhood and who worked with Vanangana researchers, expresses it perfectly: “Madhavi is not simply a role model for activists, but the kind of person everyone should wish to be, someone who believes in social justice for everyone."



Individual donations, American Jewish World Service, Misereor, Mahindra and Mahindra, and the Crafts and Weaves shop in Qaiserbagh, Lucknow.


Good-quality video and still cameras for the film unit, mopeds for the outreach team, a generator and an organizational website.


Support a Violence Against Women survivor’s shelter/rehabilitation, and a computer training course for young women from the community.


Teach spoken English to a Hindi-speaking team, help start a website, and/or document the work in English.


Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout