Saturday, 21 January 2012 10:11

Sheila Didi (née Sushila Kumari Sharma) 1928-2011

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Amarjit Chandan writes:

Sheila Didi, who has died aged 83 in Chandigarh, was one of the most prominent women political activists of the post-1947 East Punjab in India.

She was born in Nairobi on August 5, 1928, to parents active in the Arya Samaj movement. Her father Lal Chand Sharma was jailed in 1914 at a very young age in Mombasa for anti-British activities.

Sheila graduated from Cardiff University, Wales and was enrolled at the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn, London, between 1948 and 1956. During that time she was influenced by the Indian communist movement and left a bright career in London to work among industrial workers and landless farm workers in Ludhiana. The following year in 1957, she married her comrade, Madan Lal Didi, a labour organiser and poet and a close friend of Sahir Ludhianvi.

The couple moved in 1966 to Chandigarh where Sheila worked passionately for workers’ and women’s rights. She was, presently, president of the Punjab Istri Sabha, a front organisation of the Communist Party of India, and trustee of the Aruna Asaf Ali Trust, [East] Punjab. She was a nominee for the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Sheila is survived by her three brothers - one of them Visho Sharma emeritus professor of sociology in Michigan university - and a sister who all live abroad. Her daughter Poonam  is editor of Preetlari, son Rahul lives and works between the US and Russia, and daughter Shumita works as a cultural activist running an organisation dedicated to the common heritage of a united Punjab.

(Picture 2) Caption: From right Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna founder President of the Ghadar Party, Sheila Didi and Oshima Raikhy. Back row from right Jaswant Kaur Gill and Amarjit Chandan. Preet Milni Amritsar, 1967. Photo by Prabhat Studio Hall Bazar Amritsar.

Visho Sharma, Sheila Didi’s brother, remembers:

Though her major accomplishment was as a singer; her heart was really immersed in Kenya's Freedom Struggle, as part of humanity's cry for equality, freedom, and social justice.  She worked as much with, as for, Joseph Murumbi (later Kenya’s Vice President) and Mbiyu Koinange (President Jomo Kenyatta's closest confidante).  For long hours, she toiled in modest accommodations writing addresses and mailing freedom literature.

When Kenya gained independence, Koinange sent for Sheila, by then an Indian Supreme Court lawyer, to sit not far from the President at the Independence ceremony on 12 December, 1963.  It was her greatest pride later that her mother, Shanti Devi (Apostle of Peace), was given the top national award of a Freedom Fighter by then President Moi.

Sushila Sharma became Sheila Didi, in 1956, when she married a Punjab trade union leader, Madanlal Didi.  He, before his death in 2008, was a legend in his own right: General-Secretary of the Punjab Trade Union Congress, he was renowned for his Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi poetry. 

Sheila remained prominent in Punjab politics and national party work; and associated with prominent international leaders. She spent two weeks, in a Moscow hospital, with one of the sub-continent’s greatest poets, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was thrilled as much by her voice as her passion to straddle the India-Pakistan divide in the struggle for equality, freedom, and social justice.

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