Re-reading histories


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IN times when the chronology of the women’s movement is recorded more with reference to Beijing and Beijing Plus Five and debates within the women’s movement are sought to be confined/constricted to networking between NGOs at the behest of donors or, alternatively, the UN platform, re-reading histories of the contemporary women’s movement in India written from the perspective of the 1980s seems almost like reliving revolutionary moments.1 Not without basis either.

As the writing on the women’s movement in India makes visible, in the coming decades, historians of contemporary India will find it difficult to ignore the women’s movement. Not simply because it shall set right a gender imbalance, but due to the fact that some of the crucial battles for the preservation and advance of India as a democracy are being fought out around the issue of gender. Going beyond a narrow perception of equality to seek equal rights vis-a-vis their male counterparts, women in India have joined up with ongoing social movements to re-define the parameters laid down for women’s activism.

This focus by the movement on bridging the gap between formal and substantive equality and follow-up on constitutional rights through laws to help create an enabling environment for the exercise of those rights has significance extending far beyond the impacting on women’s status. The last two decades have contributed to the opening up of the ‘woman question’ in India in ways that have challenged the existing systemic discriminations and deprivations in a manner never envisaged by any of the political tendencies or groups which had hitherto espoused the cause of societal change.

Further, the centrality of gender in the political discourse has assumed greater importance in recent years given the increasing hold of fundamentalism in this region. It can also be established that the ‘woman question’ offers an ideal entry point for exploring the links between retrogressive ideologies and neo-liberal political strategies, a combination which presents the biggest challenge to the strengthening of democracy in India as well as the South Asian region. The social historian can ignore these phenomena at his/her own peril.



It needs to be pointed out that conventional notions of chronicling history cast a veil of invisibility on significant aspects of the processes which had a direct bearing on the lives of women, gender relations as well as the dynamics of social change. That is why the movement addressed this gender blindness from the start. Women’s Studies, which emerged as the intellectual or academic face of the women’s movement has developed a credible critique of this inherent bias, earlier passed off as objectivity and perhaps, even neutrality.

The contention here is that for a deeper analysis of social dynamics it is necessary to have both an understanding of gender relations as well as a gender sensitive view of history. However, just as the women’s movement has had to force its way into the consciousness of the professional academic historian, historians of the movement too have had to and may still have to wage a longer struggle to be recognised as part of the historical ‘fraternity’ or else rest content with a ghettoised existence somewhere on the periphery, as has been the fate of the objects/subjects of their study.

Developments in the discipline over the last few decades do point towards greater sensitivity in approach. One of the greatest historians of the 20th century has, in fact, observed that ‘the signs of significant, even revolutionary, changes in women’s expectations about themselves and the world’s expectations about their place in society, are undeniable.’2 The significance of the movement lies, apart from other factors, in its success in having ‘raised questions that concerned all.’ One may conclude that here the women’s movement’s ability to speak on behalf of a wide section of the hitherto unheard mass is seen to be an important and lasting contribution of the last century in the sphere of advances made at the level of social movements. The validity of this observation can be seen to apply to India as well.



The early years of the decade of the ’70s were witness to new stirrings among women with numerous formal and informal groups formed in this period. Alongside university based formations, trade unions, or splinter groups of political parties, the left-socialist political tendencies too were engaged in discussions on feminism and women’s rights. These years, which witnessed a brewing of an economic and political crisis also saw an increase in attacks on women. Manifestations of this stirring could be seen in the political upsurge of the ’70s, a phase of sustained political activity that drew upon the energy of the youth and their dissatisfaction with the emerging face of independent India.

Some of the specific programmes implemented during the Emergency made clear that the celebratory tone with regard to women’s concerns expressed at the time of International Women’s Year was not bereft of ideological baggage. While the Declaration of the U.N. Decade for Women provided a focus to the sporadic activities it was involvement in the mass struggles of the ’70s which proved to be a testing ground for tracing new contours in activism. These included the movements which sprang up before the Emergency, mainly in Bihar and Gujarat; the spreading influence of dalit groups in western India and the South infusing a strong element of anti-caste flavour to the brewing protest movements; and the Communists’ focus on workers’ and peasants’ struggles bringing issues of the rural masses to the fore.

Lest this read like a political roster or chronology, it must be pointed out that the earliest women activists of this generation emerged from these very struggles.



The publication of Towards Equality,3 the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India during the Emergency, provided official endorsement of some of the worst fears of the older generation activists. In the history of social movements it rarely happens that official reports provide such timely ammunition to critique a policy approach. The fact that the social scientists on the committee chose to accept the challenge posed to their intellectual skills by the Indian conundrum is a rich tribute to the practice of social science in this country.

The movement built on this in the years to come through the discipline of Women’s Studies. While those in metropolitan campuses became familiar with the feminist writing emerging from the West, activists also drew on a vast storehouse of popular writing emerging from a mix of left-socialist ideological streams, local traditions and folklore of resistance. It is not surprising that these years saw a literary outburst as well as challenges to entrenched strangleholds in the language press.

This was the immediate context of the world women inhabited – politically, socially and culturally. These were the ideas young women activists were exposed to, which they drew upon to develop their own frame of possibilities for social action at an individual and collective level. Few knew or imagined that their emotive and perhaps even confused outpourings of anger at entrenched forms of discrimination and denial would contribute to the building of a ‘movement’, but they did feel the weight of social bindings and tradition even as the ideological influences encouraged them to question these.



The mass movements sweeping the country instilled a sense of confidence in justification of the need to resist ideologies and forces that upheld inequalities. These encouraged women to dream of a different future, a better world. Social movements emerge from hope as well as the ability to resist. The ’70s were years of challenges, which were sought to be turned into opportunities by a generation which still believed in what may today seem to be outdated concepts: revolution, ideology and struggle. Therein lies the significance of the moment and the mood. This volatile combination was what turned it into a historical conjuncture.

Participation in these movements as well as the resistance to the Emergency gave much needed visibility to women’s activism. A conscious infusion of critique of patriarchal approaches, visible almost from the start, made a radical difference to the struggles as well as organisations launched in this period. Of course, this caused some discomfiture in the wider political stream.

However, despite hurdles and resistance, and an initial cool response, most of the dominant political forces did end up taking positions. The rightists denounced the movement for originating from the individualist aberration of degenerate western society. The main centrist party, the Congress-I, was too preoccupied trying to save its political constituency to really bother itself with anything that veered it away from the politics of power. It was suspicious of even a whiff of democracy as it was busy transforming itself under an authoritarian High Command which, ironically, was presided over by a woman. Thus both these trends ignored the writing on the wall. Meanwhile the left-socialist groups, which alone sensed and reflected some of the unrest building up, lent ideological support to specific struggles. Though wary of ‘bourgeois feminism’, they extended full support to mass organisations of women.



Ironically, even in an earlier phase, it was women’s involvement with the emerging struggles against imperialism that made transgression by women somewhat acceptable, as well as visible: i.e., when it appeared to be in the interest of a wider social cause, or to be more precise, a nationalist cause. This was carried over into the early years after Independence when social welfare activities by elite women came to be accepted since they seemed to fit into pre-determined notions of fulfilling ‘nationalist’ expectations of strengthening the ‘motherland’ as well as notions of ‘charity’.

While conditions in India required that women attempting to strike a path beyond the norms laid down for ‘public women’ look towards newer forms of struggle and organisation, the continuity with the past remained intact. In the decade of the ’80s, when younger activists were exploring new forms of protest as well as pressing for more discussion on norms, they were often encouraged by the enthusiastic response of older women activists who had lived and struggled in the days of the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal movements. This infused new zest into the search for answers to their specific dilemma but it did not make the struggle any easier.



The conceptual frame, premised on the realisation that any notion of justice and rights for women had to locate the debate within the broader structures that provided the social, economic and ideological roots for entrenched social inequalities was certainly empowering, to use a current buzz-word. Simultaneously, it held forth the possibility of placing limitations on the movement.

Through the early years of Independence, the social perception regarding women’s efforts towards change was sought to be, and perhaps to a great extent did remain, fixed in the dominant frame of service to society with a spirit of self-sacrifice without challenging the basis of inequalities and division within society, be they gender-based or otherwise. At one level society’s preoccupation with viewing women’s concerns within the parameters of social evils reflects the continuity with the social reform movements of the 19th century. ‘Upliftment’ or ‘removal of social evils’ had been the dominant ethos of intellectual and social public pressure. In this framework a specific focus on women’s rights appeared to be justified only if aimed at situations of ‘gross abuse’. Further, the definition of such abuse continued to be caught up in a warped frame premised on patriarchy and women in the public space.

The maturity of the movement requires moving beyond the mould of ‘woman as victim’, which sections of the movement too tended to adopt in its early phase along with the concomitant frame of ‘social evils’. It may be argued that transcending these stereotypical casts would be indicative of the success of the movement – of women having crossed the first barrier and entering the process of history writing as a discursive subject in a fully legitimate sense – neither as victim, nor as an objective recipient of ‘welfarist’ goals. Though the writing on the movement goes beyond this to explore the myriad dimensions of women’s contribution, the ‘victim’ image persists in much of the public impact generated by the movement.



Where is one to look for explanations for this divergence? Is it merely a question of the image not mirroring the reality? Or is the reality itself more complex? There are several ways in which these questions could be approached. First, despite the vast literature and news reportage on the subject, as any experienced activist would testify, the extent of violence inflicted on and experienced by women both within the family and outside, has still not been fathomed. In fact, social scientists of the day have miserably failed to even register the quantum and significance of the phenomenon, leave alone search for explanations.4 This compels activists into highlighting the incidents of violence, which are getting more grotesque and bizarre by the day. But the act of highlighting these incidents leads to perpetuation of the ‘victim’ image.

Second, it may be argued that while the plank of the activists’ concerns and assertions is primarily centred around the demand for equality, in its widest possible definition, it is this very conceptual frame, endorsed and guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, which seems to be both unacceptable and ill-fitted to the larger public and social vision of and about women. Hence, activists themselves sometimes end up having to dwell at greater length on ‘victimhood’, almost as if vivid descriptions of brutalities inflicted on women are needed to justify their demanding or asserting what should be theirs by right.

The focus on violence and crimes against women remains significant for several reasons, not the least being the continued increase in the scale of violence inflicted on women. This is true of both domestic violence as well as what women are subjected to outside. Despite a long-drawn and sustained struggle against dowry, along with the number of deaths the incidence of dowry too has increased.5 As some have argued, in this silent war waged by society against women more lives have been lost than in any war on the frontiers of independent India.



Despite laws to bring culprits to book, the police take cover under the plea that it is difficult to pursue cases of domestic violence since they are committed within the four walls of the home. Today, even as new laws are on the anvil, the fact remains that the consumerist onslaught in the wake of liberalisation has made the going tougher for women on account of dowry as well as having to cope with pressures on the family.

Sexual violence against women often has its origins in conflicts in other domains of social life.6 It continues, however, to be the single-most commonly adopted form of assertion of power, which in turn may stem from class, caste, communal or other forms of community or identity formations, including the overtly political, and this includes the state. From the start activists were at pains to locate the issue of sexual violence at a plane broader than that of ‘body politics’, emphasising the concept of ‘power rape’ even in discussions on proposed amendments.



In recent years, as tensions between groups have increasingly turned more violent, there has been a corresponding increase in the extent and variety of attacks on women seen as the most vulnerable in such situations. The movement has, from the start, drawn attention to the overlap as well as linkages between the prevalence of social inequalities and vulnerability of women from the subordinate groups. As the world becomes more unequal, violence against women too becomes more pervasive. India is no exception to this phenomenon. Cultural identities and notions of ‘honour’ make the situation on the ground even more complex. While this raises questions about forms of organisation to counter such violence it also underscores the need to build coalitions at the ground level.

While women have shared their status of ‘unfreedom’ with others, the specificity of the sexual form of gender-based oppression faced by them is yet to be adequately recognised.

Echoes of these issues can be seen in the debates on health and reproductive rights and on reservation for women in assemblies and Parliament. While the media has broadcast the detrimental aspects of hazardous contraceptives, the basic right of women to take decisions about their lives and to decide the number of children is glossed over. This is because the issue is still located within the frame of the ‘population bomb’ theory whereby it is the ‘national’ duty of every woman to bring down the birth rate. Shades of eugenic and even communal arguments here combine with the interests of multinationals who promote drugs, some even banned in the countries of their origin.7



As for reservation, the debate has been caught up in false pleas taken to build a quota within the quota. Activists are aware of the need to expand and spread the movement to reflect voices from sections which have hitherto been denied representation in fora where decisions are taken. However, to argue that only the women’s movement is representative of elites is to distort the theory and practice of the movement as well as to gloss over the serious limits to the democratic base of electoral politics in India. A visibly charged galaxy of bourgeois leaders react vociferously each time the debate surfaces. Unfortunately, the bill has been caught up in a debate on the quota within the quota on the basis of misinformation and to protect outright vested interests.8



The need to form broader alliances to confront this violence has been felt and addressed throughout this period. It remains, however, a problem area. Even as ideologies propagating egalitarian social change succeeded in attracting a large part of women activists within their fold, tensions begin to show up on account of prevailing patriarchal perceptions.

As is obvious from the writing on the contemporary movement, its relationship with the leftist stream has been a point of active tension throughout this period. What is, however, missing is a recognition of the fact that this tension has proved to be the source of, or catalyst for, a most fruitful exchange leading to the release of creative energy which has propelled the movement through the most difficult times.

All sections of the left felt pressured to engage with women’s struggle for equality throughout this period; equally the women’s movement was under siege to prove that their road to equality did not necessarily traverse the path of bourgeois capitalist development, even if it did not end up endorsing or upholding any model of the socialisms prevalent. This ensured that engagement with feminist ideologies was undertaken with a critical eye to how these applied to conditions prevailing in India.

A similar trend was visible in other Third World countries as well. It is this creative as well as critical encounter between Feminism and Marxism, alongside an interrogation of feminist theory as emerging from the West, which has resulted in the phenomenal spread of movements for women’s equality and the hegemony of transformatory ideologies over struggles launched. This has contributed to the evolution of a movement which, while drawing upon the international movement for support and as reference point, relates to issues in a specifically Indian context.

This augurs well, for the movement within India is based on a critique of patriarchy and its linkages with ideologies perpetuating inequality within Indian society. While many have disclaimed allegiance to ‘feminism’ in the past, it is more important to understand that over the years feminism itself has acquired new meanings and forms, primarily because of activists relating it to Third World women’s experiences.9



The early years of the movement provide ample evidence of the debate based on a plurality of perspectives. Clearly, there was no single position on some of the issues. Differences emerged at every point: over demands, perspective, slogans, goals as well as the concepts used to analyse these. The different positions taken sometimes represented the different ideological streams present in Indian politics and in society. However, to understand these solely on the basis of political labels or their absence is clearly mistaken.

While the analytical assumptions of the autonomous vs. party organisations divide the two groups, in fact no such clear dichotomy ever existed at the level of issue-based understanding. Similarly, neither the ‘autonomous’ nor the mass organisations had a unified understanding, either amongst or between themselves. This could be demonstrated with regard to the issue of dowry, rape, maintenance rights, sati, work, representation, population policies – the whole gamut. On all these there was a criss-cross between the two categories.

At this point of time the ‘feminist’ trend visibly exerted more pressure than the right did on the left with regard to issues pertaining to the social domain. This forced existing organisations to engage with and interrogate patriarchy in the course of their political activism and in all aspects of social and political life. The period saw the birth of several new organisations and small discussion groups across the length and breadth of the country. At the other end of the spectrum the allegedly ‘affiliated party-based organisations’ of the left responded, pushing for a wider definition of women’s issues and an understanding considerably at variance with the radical feminist approach.



The real issue was how Indian feminists would relate to and intervene in the discourse on feminism at the level of praxis. Many among the autonomous groups adhered to socialist-feminist perspectives even if their organisational approach was different. Needless to say that the pressure worked both ways whereby those steering clear of political labels were drawn into debating women’s issues within the existing historical frame of strategies for social transformation. The tensions and hostilities were real, so were the debates, at times a carry over from student politics, rightfully expressing concerns about hierarchies, substitutionism, apprehensions about electoral political practice as well as forms of organisation.

It was time well-spent if one considers the long preparation required to meet the present challenges. Those never-ending debates helped lay down norms of interaction and respect for each other’s position based on an understanding of the common ground as well as the intersections. The points of convergence are by now well-known and these must continue to form the plank on which unity would have to be forged in the times to come when challenges from those in opposition to women’s rights and equality hold a position of vantage. It is clear that dialogue must continue even on aspects where differences prevail.



Notably, in the writing on the movement primacy has been given to the divide between the ‘autonomous’ and the ‘politically aligned’ organisations. This introduces an element of confusion in terms of ideological underpinnings of organisations/trends within the movement. It draws a somewhat specious divide in terms of discussions on ideology and hegemony by giving primacy to one aspect, that of being affiliated to a stated party ideology. This is also of concern since it projects a notion of equidistance from all ideologies. Combined with the pervasive attempt to project social movements on a non-ideological plank, this has, perhaps inadvertently, paved the way for a rightist offensive as seen in recent efforts to project Sadhavi Ritambhara as a champion of women’s rights. Has the signal not gone to the subsequent generation of activists that change can be negotiated on a non-ideological basis?

It is important to record that despite differences there was no dearth of unity in action. Over the years different sets of platforms emerged around which joint activity was organised. The Anti-Price Rise Movement was an early attempt at co-ordinated protest on a single issue, despite difference in approach. From the early ’80s the united forum became a regular feature. The campaign against rape gave birth to the Forum Against Rape in Bombay, subsequently renamed the Forum Against Oppression of Women. In Delhi the agitation against rape mobilised significant numbers on 8 March 1980, and then moved on to protesting against dowry deaths.

By 1982 a co-ordinated platform involving national level women’s organisations had come together to move beyond sporadic protests and launch a sustained campaign against the practice of dowry. The joint forum as a symbol of unity has spread to large parts of the country, giving birth to a community of women, which meets both in protest against an incident as well as at the hint of a possible attack on their rights. Of course, some of the hiccups of coalition politics too have, from time to time, been visible in these fora, causing cracks when specific groups differed on the focus of campaigns or the form. But, to dismiss these efforts at concerted action as ‘bureaucratic’, as some scholars have done, is to miss the point altogether.10

It is also important to note that several parallel networks emerged well before the Beijing meet. Whereas earlier ‘autonomous’ groups tried to network on their own initiative alongside lobbies convened by the national level women’s organisations, a shift became evident from 1995, with the U.N. set-up moving into the voluntary sector so as virtually conduct an orchestrated alternate campaign. The idea here is not to run down the U.N. agencies or organisations co-ordinating the alternate networks. Just that, given the shift in the role and stance of the U.N. in the post-cold war period, the implications of co-ordinated dissenting networks are serious. From the movement perspective, however, what is significant is that the dialogue has continued.



While the extensive campaigns against growing violence have received a continued exposure, activity centred around the need for economic rights for women has suffered a virtual black-out in the media in recent years. Possibly because the perception of the movement on current processes in the globalisation era is at variance with the vast middle class enthusiasm for the process of reforms.



It was in 1980 that national level organisations first came together, at the initiative of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, to demand a specific focus on women in the country’s planning process. The outcome of discussions with the Planning Commission resulted in a decision to allocate 30% funds in poverty alleviation schemes with women as specific target group beneficiaries, a departure from the earlier family-centred approach. There was considerable resistance from the bureaucracy, whose members argued that this would lead to a break-up of the family. Women activists argued otherwise. As later data has shown, the ’80s were years when allocations for and spending on such schemes was significant enough to record the highest per capita expenditure on the rural poor by the state. Women received some benefits from this timely intervention.11

There are several dimensions or levels at which the struggle for economic rights for women has been waged in India. While the history of the economic basis of the gender divide is not entirely divorced from the processes of historical development from the earliest times, it is the disjunction caused in the colonial period that has shaped the debate in more recent years. The break-up of the family-based enterprise as a unit of production also lies at the base of the woman being seen as a non-productive being in recent years. This perception shapes the terms of entry for women in the labour market even today.12

It also conditions how women are seen in the process of formulating the country’s economic policies. It is interesting and worth noting that the nationalist movement considered the matter worthy of discussion at the very moment it appeared set to take on the reins of administration. The report of the sub-committee on planning, titled Women’s Role in a Planned Economy, acquires importance for the vision and the promise it held out.13 The argument here was not on terms of women’s upliftment, nor amelioration, nor for the setting aside of certain types of work as ‘women preferred’. Rather, the thrust of interventions was in the direction of recognising women’s position as equal citizens; hence the need to make appropriate allocations and provisions targeted at them in the planning process. Rural women, virtually missing from the debate, as reflected in the writing though not from the struggles, were central to the perspective on development in this period.



Ironically, the very political party whose leader and ideologue, Nehru, held forth on the subject, wrecked it by the policies it pursued. However, for women activists this provided a crucial link with activists of the previous generation. The CSWI adequately recorded that the problems Indian women faced were a result of the path of development pursued in independent India. While numerous struggles for a better economic status by vast sections of women have been recorded, the crucial aspect of linkages with macro-structures is absent in the discussion on the movement in the contemporary period. This despite the sustained effort to focus on these aspects by the women’s organisations with a view to influencing and lobbying for women’s economic rights.



Even at the international level, the debate on development owes significantly to the global women’s movement. Discussion on the role of subsistence production as distinct from capitalist production is central to the evolution of the vast literature on political economy of the 19th and 20th centuries, and hence also to Marxism. Feminist scholars in the West have over the last few decades added considerably to this by focusing on the household as a unit of production as well as consumption.14

With recent developments, women’s role in the economy has become important in several ways: home-based, informal work has marked a crucial phase of maximisation of profits by multinationals as well as strategies to re-work capital-labour relations, to the extent that labour historians are having to rethink the category of labour since present definitions exclude vast sections of the labour force, particularly women. The ILO now seeks to redefine work for purposes of international conventions by coining a new concept of ‘decent work’.

Writing on work-related issues within India has focused on the link between not seeing women as primary earners and the wage patterns that emerge thereof; the trends in women’s employment; working conditions and rights as workers (Sen); the issue of the sexual division of labour; the importance of informal work; the link between women’s work, status and markets; the issue of control over assets and resources; and most recently, the impact of globalisation on women’s lives.15



The subject of globalisation is important both in terms of its relevance for debates on economic issues within the movement as well as the struggles being waged by women in large parts of the country: be these the Karnataka women’s fight to traditional knowledge and preservation of biodiversity; Andhra women’s battle on the power question; fishworkers’ and forest workers’ struggles to preserve their livelihoods; and informal sector women workers struggle to be recognised as workers.

It is not possible to cover this aspect in detail, nor to reflect the range of positions on the subject in this article. However, as discussions at the time of the Beijing Conference and subsequently the Global March 2000 against Poverty and Violence reflected, the attempt by international funding agencies to posit only one way forward was seen as undemocratic and anti-people, specifically anti-women by vast sections of the movement.16 This is a subject that directly concerns women, particularly in South Asia, since the entry of multinationals in the rural areas threatens livelihoods in ways that may have long-term impact on the region’s stability.17



It is important to remember that the decade of the ’80s, when the women’s movement was growing, marked a significant shift in the political dynamics of this region. These years were crucial for the building up of tensions on the communal front. First, movements emanating from problems faced with regard to the federal character of the Indian Republic began to take a communal turn. Subsequently, the fundamentalist forces increasingly began to set the agenda in the political discourse of the subcontinent. Even the ruling party of the day, the Congress-I, described as secular by most analysts, resorted to playing the communal card.

Increasingly, in the course of campaigns such as on Muslim women’s right to maintenance and sati, the lack of political will in maintaining a secular polity was visible, not to speak of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the role played by the state machinery in the sequence of events leading upto the demolition of the Babri Masjid by RSS and VHP led karsevaks. The fact that some of the battles between contending fundamentalisms were fought out on the turf of women’s rights and that the state too played politics on this, points to the need to focus on gender as a category of analysis to understand both fundamentalism and the state in contemporary India.18

The deepening wedge/hiatus between communities, particularly the Hindus and the Muslims, was the outcome of political processes as they evolved in the 1980s. The movement against foreigners in Assam was one of the first to acquire an anti-Muslim colour. In Tripura the divide between Bengalis and the tribals was used to stem the wave of radical political growth. The growth of terrorism in Punjab in the 1980s projected as a problem involving the ‘Sikhs’ by the RSS and the Shiv Sena, marked the beginning of the aggressive face of Hindutva.



Throughout activists had to deal with the divide sought to be created among women on religious grounds. In Punjab the Khalistanis demanded a separate personal law for the Sikhs. In Tripura the tribal militants who were raising seccessionist demands aggressively pushed the question of identity by opposing the adoption of non-tribal customs, dress styles and symbols, such as the bindi and the sari.19 Similarly in Kashmir attempts were made to impose dress codes for women on the lines of the Taliban diktats.

It soon become clear that the emerging movement would have to directly confront the issue of identity. The stage was thus already set for the raising of tempers on the Shahbano issue. That the ‘identity’ problem resisted a one-time solution was a foregone conclusion once the movement to build a temple in Ayodhya at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood gained momentum. By the mid-80s this had overshadowed rumblings in the South over the ‘Tamil’ question, or the human rights issues in the North East.



This is not the place to list out a political chronology of this period. Nor can one map the complex terrain on which the battle for identities is being fought out today in simplistic terms.20 However, it must be stated that there is a need to frame the question of women’s rights within the context of the discourse on democracy as it was shaping up in India at the regional and the national level. Clearly some of the interventions by women themselves were governed by these considerations. For instance, women have stood up to large-scale terrorist violence in states in almost all regions of India, including Punjab, Tripura, Tamilnadu, Assam and other parts of the North East, or Kashmir.

Voices from the movement in support of these interventions have been from varying perspectives. There is agreement that the violence unleashed by the state in the name of ‘security’ cannot be condoned. This gains importance as ‘national’ interest is coming to be defined in clearly fundamentalist and communal tones within a majoritarian perspective. There is recognition that the agenda of Hindutva is in opposition to the need to find solutions within the framework of democracy, and preserving the pluralist character of society. The fascist overtones of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine’s political agenda are hidden from none. The aggressive face of Hindutva, whereby religion is used to make political gains is widely known. But for the women’s movement the danger clearly lies in the centrality of gender in this discourse.

The casting of women’s role, image and agency is today significant for the construction of identities. Where does the women’s movement draw the line? Does it allow the category of woman to be parcellised into religious and casteist moulds? Has this not always been the case with the Hindu upper caste, upper class North Indian centred norm set for the Indian woman and endorsed so faithfully by the mirror of Indian society in its reel versions of popular culture? Does the movement allow itself to be swamped by those pushing the entire focus of the debate on identity as being defined by rival claimants? Or alternatively, should it not continue to push for expansion of secular space even as it respects pluralist forms and expression in all spheres? Can we at all speak for ‘women’ as a single homogeneous category?



This dilemma has been confronted specifically with regard to the debate on personal laws of different communities. Activists are generally of the opinion that the principle of gender justice should be incorporated into all the personal laws so as to protect minimum rights of women governed by them, while at the same time expanding rights in the secular framework. There is a noticeable change with regard to moves for reforms within the community in the last decade. While women have been pressing for changes to personal laws, fundamentalists within the communities have been resisting the slightest concession to the pro-change lobby.

The situation has been complicated, not the least by the RSS camp’s attempt to argue that laws pertaining to the Hindus have already been reformed and that it is the minorities, primarily Muslims, who are resisting change and who mistreat the women of their community. Hidden in this campaign to ‘reform’ is the attempt to introduce a uniform civil code, which for the RSS primarily means laws akin to those applicable to the Hindus. The coming to power of the BJP-led NDA at the Centre has added to the danger of further advances in the Hindutva agenda.

The women’s movement, sensing this danger has tried to rework its positions so as to incorporate a sensitivity to the sentiments of the minorities, keeping in mind the pluralist character of Indian society, without giving up on the demand for reform. However, there is no unanimity on proposals for reform.21

There are other aspects that have emerged as points of debate and difference in the course of the development of the movement in its contemporary phase. Many of these continue to dog the mental as well as political space activists inhabit. The movement has addressed a range of issues over the last two decades and it is not possible to cover these here. The biggest challenge of the need to reach out to women in distant parts of the country to be able to reflect diverse experiences and needs remains. It has to learn to speak with greater strength on behalf of those who have never been allowed a voice. It has to effectively break the upper caste dominant Hindu mould which acts as the image of the Indian woman.



Whereas there are many new issues which need to be thought through from a range of perspectives, some questions persist. The issue of funding, raised repeatedly during the last 20 years is one such sensitive subject. Without approaching it from a moral high it is imperative to discuss this afresh in the current phase of the movement.



Today, as more of the activity on women’s issues gets caught up with NGO agendas, there is an urgent need to examine the impact donor-driven agendas have in the long run. Is the shift from movement-oriented activity to NGO-isation the ultimate desired objective? As the economic crisis deepens, and the state as well as other public institutions withdraw from previous commitments leaving individuals, organisations and institutions floundering for resources, there is an urgent need to address this question.

There is already a debate raging on the question of accountability and transparency with regard to NGOs. However, while analysts were quick to react to doubts raised by the left about issues arising out of funding, there is a visible paralysis in the face of need for critical self-examination at the present juncture.22

It is no longer a question of distinguishing between those who take funds and those who do not in order to build coalitions. Rather, it is imperative that we continue to forge unity with those who share similar concerns by first grappling with the central issue of how funding affects the agendas on which organisations are expected to move. This is urgently required if the movement has to attempt to gauge the impact recent trends have on the contemporary reality and address the question of transparency.

While NGOs as a tool of community control and source of strength in the framework of a civil society are certainly welcome, it needs to be examined whether this phase of NGOisation, linked as it is to abdication of their responsibility by the state and public institutions, is a truly desirable situation. Similar trends are visible in Latin America, South East Asian countries as well as parts of Eastern Europe.23 The way forward then is not to revive debates from the past, but to understand that these were born out of tensions and pressures rooted in our society. Therefore, solutions have to be found by taking cognizance of the changing context, both in terms of geo-politics as well as ideological shifts within the domain of movement politics.



Finally, the movement has shown a marked reluctance to theorize even as it has constructively engaged with feminist theory in its praxis. What explains this? There is a preponderance of the western context and concepts in the analytical frame of women’s studies, despite the attempt to be critical at every point. Even though it has addressed the state from a range of perspectives, lacking is the evolution of a contextually grounded theory. This has led many to see this as a dependence on the state and law.

There are no ‘conclusions’ to offer on a subject that has been and continues to be addressed from diverse perspectives. Today, as there is strong evidence of depoliticisation and lulling of the movement in many countries of the West, activists often express nostalgia for a bygone era. Is there a movement today, seems to be a common refrain? Measured in terms of massive street actions in the urban setting, the case for a lull, even stagnation, seems strong. However, the strength of any movement is to be seen in its varied dimensions.



There is ample evidence that the rhetoric of the movement is today ingrained into the consciousness of the vast mass of Indian women. Women are today a sizeable section of ongoing social movements seeking renegotiation of their rights on a range of issues. There is no reason to doubt that the protests of the ’80s left an impact on the public. Can the state and government ignore the constituency of women altogether? Has not the demand for equality captured the imagination of the young minds? Have the efforts of the movement to mainstream their concerns failed? Can women’s urge for self-expression be trampled upon without resistance today?

There is hardly any place in India today where women are not standing up for their rights. Despite the odds they face they are part of every struggle for the strengthening and extension of democratic rights. Over a million women, elected to local self-governing bodies are resisting attempts to send them back to the confines of the home. The resistance to women entering the political domain is reflective of the threat to vested interests.

However, even as more women wish to decide their own and their nation’s destinies, the structures at the top seem to be becoming more elusive, decision-making more distant, and the right to choose one’s path abrogated by the very international bodies that spout the rhetoric of choice and freedom. Can the women succeed against such odds? That they have not given up is victory past the first post.



1. Radha Kumar, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1993 and Nandita Shah and Nandita Gandhi, The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India. Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1992.

2. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. Viking, New Delhi,1995, pp. 312-319.

3. Towards Equality, Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India. Department of Social Welfare, GOI, 1975.

4. Upendra Baxi, Violence Against Women in the Labyrinth of the Law: Notes Towards Carriers of Symbolic Politics within the Institutions of Boredom. At a seminar on Women, Myths and Rights, NMML and University of Delhi, 16-17 November 1989.

5. Rajni Palriwala, Women are not for Burning. Paper presented at Anthropological Perspectives on Women’s Collective Actions: An Assessment of the Decade,1975-1985. Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Symposium No. 99, Mijas, Spain, 1985, mimeo.

6. Brinda Karat and Indu Agnihotri, Women and Violence, in AIDWA publication no. 7, New Delhi, 1999.

7. Jyotsna A. Gupta, New Reproductive Technologies, Women’s Health and Autonomy: Freedom or Dependency? Sage, New Delhi, 2000; and Population Policy and Women’s Health, AIDWA Publication no. 1. New Delhi, 1999.

8. Brinda Karat, ‘No Alternative to the Women’s Quota Bill’, The Hindu, 9 August 2000; also Seminar 457, September 1997.

9. Amrita Basu (ed.), The Challenge of Global Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective. Westview, Colorado, 1995.

10. Radha Kumar, op cit., p. 157.

11. Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar, ‘Changing Terms of Political Discourse, Women’s Movement in India, 1970s-1990s’, Economic and Political Weekly 30(29), 22 July 1995, pp. 1869-1879.

12. U. Kalpagam, ‘Gender in Economics: The Indian Experience’, Economic and Political Weekly 21(43), 25 October 1986, pp. 59-66. Also, N. Banerjee, ‘Analysing Women’s Work under Patriarchy’, in Kumkum Sangari and Uma Chakravarti (eds.), Myths and Markets: Essays on Gender. Manohar, New Delhi, 1999.

13. M. Chaudhuri, ‘Citizens, Workers and Emblems of Culture: An Analysis of the First Plan Document’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 29(1-2), January-December 1996, pp. 211-235.

14. D. Elson and R. Pearson, ‘Subordination of Women and Internationalisation of Factory Production’, in Young, Wolkowitz and McCullagh (ed.), Of Marriage and the Market: Women’s Subordination in International Perspective. CSE Books, 1981.

15. Shramshakti, Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed women and Women in the Informal Sector. The Commission, New Delhi, 1988; Bina Agarwal, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia. CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge, 1994.

16. Womenspeak: United Voices Against Globalisation, Poverty and Violence in India. Published by six women’s organisations. New Delhi, 2000.

17. Utsa Patnaik, ‘The Cost of Free Trade: The WTO Regime and the Indian Eco nomy’, Social Scientist 27(11-12), November-December 1999, pp. 3-26.

18. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia (eds), Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays. Kali, New Delhi, 1995; and RSS: The Ideological Onslaught on Women. AIDWA, Publication no. 5, New Delhi, 1999.

19. Women Against Terrorism: The Tripura Experience. AIDWA, New Delhi, 2000.

20. Zoya Hasan (ed.), Forging Identities: Gender, Comunity and the State. Kali, New Delhi, 1994.

21. Brinda Karat, ‘Equal Rights Equal Laws’, Women’s Equality 1(V), January-June 1993, pp. 5-9. Archana Parasher, Women and Family Law Reform in India: Uniform Civil Code and Gender Equality. Sage, New Delhi, 1992; and Kirti Singh, ‘Women’s Rights and the Reform of Personal Laws’, in Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Hindus and Others: The Question of Identity in India Today. Viking, New Delhi, 1993.

22. Ilena Sen (ed.), A Space Within the Struggle: Women’s Participation in People’s Movements. Kali, New Delhi, 1990. See the Introduction.

23. S. Lang, ‘The NGOisation of Feminism, Institution Building Within the German Women’s Movement’, in B.G. Smith (ed.), Global Feminisms Since 1945. Routledge, London, 2000.