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'We need sustained political work and a clarity of vision'

Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-
LAXMI SEHGAL

MY introduction to political life came through my mother and her commitment to social revolution. She wanted to change society totally, for she believed it was most unjust to women and to the poor. That basic vision, I believe, still holds true. Many of the promises made by the Independence movement to women have not been kept. And in at least some ways women are worse off today than they were 50 years ago. What we must learn is that oppression never withers away; it must be hacked away.

The first real political battle I was involved in directly touched the lives of millions of women. In the late 1920s, we were fighting for legislation to end the practice of child marriage, the Sarada Bill. My mother was very active in this movement, much to the annoyance of the orthodox Brahmin community, but with the support of my father. In Chennai, the Women's Indian Association (WIA), with Margaret Cousins as its secretary and committed to social reform, was a key body for women in politics. Although the WIA started off purely as a body for social reform, Cousins and the Association, as they went along, realised that social reform could not be brought about under colonialism. The commitment to social change thus widened into a political vision. In the case of Cousins, this was partly because she was a disciple of Annie Besant.

The WIA's political vision came about over many years but was driven by Mahatma Gandhi's campaigns of the 1920s. The Swadeshi movement and the burning of foreign cloth in particular created an atmosphere that attracted a very large number of women to politics. Just as important, it broke barriers. The charkha and khadi: these symbols created a language that women of all classes, from villages and urban centres, shared. For the first time there were symbols for a common political agenda.

Although some people find it hard to believe, I never personally felt any difficulty in being politically active. In fact, the thing about my life that my mother's friends found most disturbing was my decision to become a doctor, since they felt that my years in medical college would 'waste' my youth, and only allow me to marry a widower! Many women one came across were prevented from having a public life by their families and society, but many others found ways to break the shackles.

There is an interesting point about women's seclusion, though, which is that women are not and were never barred from all political activity. During the anti-child marriage campaign, an aunt of mine actively campaigned against our effort to end the social evil. They were orthodox Brahmins and believed not only that child marriage was not bad but that it was in fact a very good thing. In those days the religious and social leadership had no difficulty with women like my aunt joining a very public, very political battle in support of orthodoxy. Their problem was with women like us, who wanted to bring about change. Similarly, women were free to sit up the whole night listening to kathas or praying whatever, but spending a couple of hours in the evening at some perfectly healthy entertainment was taboo.

Perhaps the most important factor in drawing women to politics was education. While I was in the Madras Medical College, we celebrated its centenary. Women had been graduating from institutes of higher learning for many years in the south, and this meant that they long had access to liberal, progressive ideas. A large number of Muslim women had joined the WIA, a fact that now seems important to me. They were in some ways orthodox - in wearing a burkha, for example - but saw no contradiction between this and their struggle for social change and the betterment of women. Notably, no one had heard of bigoted mullahs passing fatwas against activism by women; nor, perhaps, would anyone have tolerated it.

Within the political climate of the time, there was a tremendous variety of political choice open to women activists. You had Krishnabai Nimbkar, Rukmini Lakshmipathi, the first woman from Madras to stand for election to the Legislative Council in 1936, and Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who came from a Devadasi family and fought hard to end the practice. I was tremendously influenced by Sarojini Naidu's younger sister, Suhasini Nambiar. A Communist, Suhasini Nambiar escaped from Germany after the Nazis came to power and reached India as a stowaway in a boat. She was constantly under surveillance and, during the Meerut Conspiracy Case, in which she was accused of being involved, she stayed hidden with us in Chennai. She convinced me that the Congress, including Pandit Nehru and Gandhi, only wanted to substitute brown rulers with white ones, and that it had no revolutionary agenda. Within the Congress itself, we had leaders like P. Ramamurti who encouraged a radical-Left approach among young people. Later, when I commanded the Rani Jhansi Regiment in the Indian National Army (INA), its 1,500 women soldiers were fighting not only for the liberation of our country but also for the emancipation of women.

What does this mean for women today? In important ways their political choices have shrunk, not expanded. The Congress after Independence in essence peddled the idea that political action was no longer necessary; everything would be taken care of. Of course, nothing came about. All that mattered to it was how many people voted for the party, not how many women it helped. Feudalism, exploitation and the oppression of women continued untouched. In spite of the fact that we have had a woman Prime Minister, I honestly believe that the condition of women has deteriorated since my youth. In our village, for example, despite the caste system there was at least some sense of a shared womanhood and of a common sense of solidarity. Today I find a midwife, so central to rural life, being stripped and paraded in a village near Allahabad. "I brought most of these men into the world, " she told me, "but not one of them lifted a finger to help me." Solidarity has been replaced by a violent, materialist culture, which only values quick cash. In Kanpur, where I work as a doctor, I see women bearing the brunt of poor funding for government hospitals and the erosion of the most basic health services.

I believe, therefore, that the status of women in independent India has certainly deteriorated. Although scientific advancement ought to have benefited women, we find it being used as an instrument of oppression: witness widespread female foeticide. Tests that should have been employed to diagnose genetic disorders are instead used to determine the sex of the foetus, to enable the killing of unborn girls. The practice is rampant in States as far apart as Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. The reason given for this practice - best summed up by an advertisement billboard on an autorickshaw in Rajasthan, "teen hazar kharch karo, teen lakh bachao" (spend three thousand, save three lakhs) - reflects the depravity that the persistence of practices such as dowry have brought to our society.

Even more barbaric practices, such as sati and the murder of women charged with witchcraft, have also seen a revival. The life of the girl child begins with humiliation, and she is less well-fed, less well-educated than the boys in the family. Later, if a woman enters the workplace she is subjected to sexual exploitation and often paid less than men are paid for work that is often more arduous. Women find that they have fewer opportunities for professional advancement , or to learn new skills. Dalit and tribal women are exploited and oppressed twice over, while women bear the brunt of growing communal violence in our country.

What we achieved in the south was to unite social reform and national liberation, something that never really happened in the Hindi belt, as E.M.S. Namboodiripad has pointed out several times. If the southern States are somewhat better off in social terms than the northern States today, I believe that is at least in part owing to the struggles that we fought. When I speak to young educated women today, I find very few who are interested in joining organised politics. Indeed the very word 'politics' appears to have acquired a somewhat odious resonance. Yet, well-paid corporate jobs or power in government will benefit few women, and will most certainly liberate none of them. For that, sustained political work, and a clarity of vision are needed.

I am optimistic that reservation for women in Parliament will energise women's activism in India and provide it a clear political focus. We have already seen the vibrancy that comes into being when women are provided an opportunity to shape their lives. In the panchayats, women leaders have showed that they are consistently more committed to grassroots issues and to honest governance than men. In the years to come, replicating this regeneration at the national level will be our biggest challenge.

As told to Praveen Swami.