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Courtesy @ Hema Das

Tête-à-Tête with Hema Das

Hema Das is a resident of Tezpur, Assam. Presently, she is the co-founder of The EAST and is working as its Secretary. She is also a Member of the District Women Cell, Sonitpur, Assam; the Institutional Ethics Committee (LGBRIMH); the Internal Complaints Committee (Tezpur University); and other government as well as non-government organizations. She is also the co-founding member of the National Council of Women Leaders.

Caste in Assam

My father is from Assam and my mother is from Arunachal Pradesh. We were living in Arunachal Pradesh because my father, who was a government employee, was posted there. I did my college in Assam while living in a hostel and after my father’s retirement, we shifted to Assam in 1998 and I got married there to my husband who is also an Assamese.

@ Hema Das

When I started my work, I was not aware of casteism in Assam since I was born and brought up in Arunachal Pradesh. However, unlike other north-eastern regions, which are predominantly occupied by indigenous people, casteism is very much prevalent in Assam. People hardly talk about these issues. We realized that there are hardly any organizations that talk about the plights of the SC people.

Most SC people in Assam are marginalized and backward and have no representation in the development sector to discuss issues related to the land which is their livelihood.

With the initiative of our organization, called The EAST (Eastern Action Socio-Economic Development Trust), we started a people’s movement headed by marginalized women from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities.

I connected with the National Council of Women Leaders in 2021 when I attended a workshop organized by them in Delhi and interacted with Dalit women from across India. After that, I started reaching out to other SC groups in Assam like the Anusuchit Jaati Parishad, whose work unfortunately is limited to giving certificates to the SC people.

Courtesy @ Hema Das

The main challenge here is that SC people hardly identify themselves as such. They feel it compromises their prestige and worry that ‘other’ people will think of them as ‘low’ and weak. This is one of the reasons why SC people are deprived of living their life with dignity.

The EAST and Nari Manchas

In 1999, I was a part of the youth development program of IGSSS, called SMILE, and worked as a SMILE fellowship member from 2002 to 2004. We used to do voluntary work like meeting different people, talking about their livelihoods, and the issues they were facing.

After a few years of volunteering, we realized that we need to start an organization. We registered The EAST in December 2004, and from January 2005 we started working as a volunteering organization. One of our objectives is to create a people’s organization where one can come together and talk about their issues freely. At The EAST, we try to create a space for the survivors of violence and give them psychosocial counselling.

Courtesy @ Hema Das

Nari Manchas is a grassroots community-based women’s organization comprising women from SC and tribal indigenous communities of Assam. We started the organization in 2005. We take up issues related to violence against women and girls, and help the survivors. We reach out to the district legal services, and the district women’s cell.

Initially, we try to resolve the cases at the community level and when that does not work out, we contact the local police and legal authorities.

Most of the women involved with Nari Manchas are farmers and homemakers. They are also weavers because weaving is one of our traditions and all women know how to weave. Some members are also in government jobs.

When I compare our work with what is happening in mainland India – how some groups are so strong and organised – we hardly have that here. Organising ourselves is a big challenge. We also have to identify our issues before we can do something about them.


The EAST is a grassroots organization and that is why most of the women and the girls only speak their indigenous dialects. Very few of them speak Hindi. So, language is a big hindrance.

We usually speak in our mother tongue like Axomia. That’s why while the women attend meetings organized by other bigger organizations, they hardly learn anything because of language barriers.

Most of the community’s women leaders are not well off. They hardly have the equipment to attend virtual discussions and talks, or to participate in online sessions. Internet connectivity is an issue because most women stay in isolated areas.

Sometimes when we participate in meetings, workshops, or trainings organized by larger platforms we get very little space to share our issues. As a smaller group, our voices are hardly heard and hence, our people become reluctant to even participate or raise their voices.

@ Hema Das


When I reflect on our work, I realise one of the most important things is to network and learn from each other. It is also very important to work with the issues which are relevant to the people. We cannot just imitate the concerns and issues from somewhere else because our issues are diverse, our situations are diverse, and our cultures are diverse. That’s why we have to go according to the situation which is prevalent in our area and try to understand from our perspective. The concerned communities must own the initiatives.





Courtesy @ Hema Das

Most of the time what happens is that those who represent Assam, or the north-east as a whole, are privileged groups and they hardly understand what the issues of the marginalized are.

Most such people and organisations are politically motivated and intend to use the marginalized people as vote banks, or are inclined towards getting some schemes or benefits from the government.

Also, those who run major voluntary organizations are mostly from privileged upper castes but they say that they work for everyone – the tribal, the SC, and the tea garden people.

They probably consider it as a project but for us, this is about our self-esteem, our dignity, and about our rights. It should not just be a project for anyone.


I think about how we can organize ourselves, and have fellow-feeling and empower each other to create a space where we can talk about our lives, and network with different agencies and talk to other social groups.


The EAST has around 300 women members from diverse marginalized communities in Sonitpur and Morigaon districts. We talk about social justice and gender justice. Lack of control over land and other resources is a very important point because marginalized communities depend on land rights for their livelihood.

Courtesy @ Hema Das

In Sonitpur, we have reached four Panchayats under Dhakiajulie block, namely, Gormara, Gorubandha, Missamari, and Jia Gabhoru. In Morigaon, we are in one Panchayat, namely, Uttar Dharamtul in Mayong block. Out of these five Panchayats, two are in the area inhabited by the SC people.

In the last panchayat election, women leaders from Nari Manchas got elected as the president of the panchayat. Since, we don’t affiliate with any political party or authoritative bodies like the panchayat, the elected women leaders resign from Nari Manchas.


It is very important to build the capacity of the women leaders. Since many women have reached the panchayat level, they are now leaders in their communities in the true sense but they still have so many things to learn.

Most of the time the training sessions are in languages that the women are not well equipped with. We need to organize trainings, orientations, and workshops which will be relevant to them in their work. The training and the workshops need to be area specific. We cannot generalise women, women are not a homogeneous group.

Our women need to feel like are not isolated and that they have relevant support to aid their work. When we come together, lots of things can be achieved. We need to collaborate and have a strong network.

A single person cannot do anything. There are a few educated girls in our communities who can be trained. Due to the shortage of funds, the women are not able to give full-time to the organization. We need funding for small projects and someone who can train the people in their language and then the people can go back to the community and train other people.

Note: This article is based on the interview between Hema Das and Preeti Nangal and has been edited for coherence. This article is part of the Tête-à-Tête series, which covers the lives, challenges, and achievements of NCWL grassroots workers. The rest of the series can be accessed here and on our social media handles (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).


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