A saga of struggles

Print edition : July 15, 2005

Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women's Struggles by Brinda Karat; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, April 2005; pages 284, Rs.595 (hardcover), Rs.275 (paperback).

THE public image of Brinda Karat as an impassioned and articulate campaigner for the rights of women is inseparable from that of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the eight-million strong women's organisation that she headed for the better part of a decade. Their identities are closely joined, and Brinda Karat in her book Survival and Emancipation focusses entirely on the challenges encountered by that robust organisation in its leadership of a complex struggle in complex times. This book then is an exercise in stocktaking, in distilling the theoretical and organisational lessons from the experiences of the women's movement in the phase of economic liberalisation (1991-2004) by one of its important leaders.

As stated by Brinda Karat in the Preface, the articles in the book were written during the period when she was the general secretary of AIDWA, for newspapers and magazines, and for seminars and as organisational reports. The tone is therefore immediate, polemical, and often, in campaign mode. Setting the framework for the discussion that is to follow in the book, Brinda Karat argues that the unprecedented challenges facing women's movements worldwide must be challenged politically - not by the limited agendas of donor-driven women's organisations, not necessarily through formal association with political parties, but through struggles that situate "the problem of women's unequal status in the wider political context of macro policies and developments".

The book deals thematically with a range of questions. The first few articles paint a canvas of the struggles that women are engaging in both internationally and in India. The women's movement in India, as Karat repeatedly stresses, was born in the freedom struggle and that tradition of resistance "still lives and informs the movement through its ups and downs". It fought the communal legacy of Partition; a major strand within the women's movement participated in the great agrarian upheavals that accompanied freedom; and it fought bitter battles on the issue of social reform in the 1950s. These were arenas of struggle that the women's movement would return to in later decades - in the resistance to globalisation and neo-colonialism, in the struggles for land and wages, and in the campaigns for legal safeguards for women in the home and at the workplace. The articles in this section discuss the concerns of feminist movements in developed countries that are in a "phase of renewal" as they fight economic and social battles not different in essence from those being fought by women in the developing world.

The second set of articles deal with what has perhaps become the central concern of the Left women's movement from the decade of the 1990s onwards, namely, the huge assault on incomes, jobs, food security and living standards of an increasing number of persons. Women, particularly poor women and those from Dalit castes and tribal groups, are the first in the firing line of liberalisation policies. These policies have affected women in ways direct and indirect, from actual dispossession of land, shrinking job opportunities in agriculture, and falling wages, to increased violence against vulnerable sections among them, a huge increase in the burden of unpaid work, hunger, migration and falling health standards. There is of course an entire literature on the impact of liberalisation on different sectors of the economy and on the workforce. Brinda Karat's writings bring a chilling reality to the process of structural reform on women, drawn as they are from an extraordinarily diverse range of experiences of and interventions by AIDWA in the field. The documentation and analysis of these struggles will be of great value to social scientists and activists alike.

Women's political participation, communalism and women, and the questions arising from the spiralling violence against women are the other themes that the book discusses. In each of these, Brinda Karat brings insight and clarity to the question at hand, particularly in respect of formulating a political demand around each of them. The demand for the Women's Reservation Bill to be passed in Parliament has been a central demand of the women's movement of the 1990s, and an issue that has seen joint action by women's groups and organisations. The positive experience of reservation for women in panchayat bodies has lent enormous weight to the demand for reservation in legislatures and Parliament, a constitutional provision that is seen as essential for women to overcome the social and cultural barriers to their political participation. Will such reservation reward merit? Will it subvert democracy? Will women from backward classes and minority groups lose out in such a reservation scheme? Should reservation be implemented within parties before implementing it in elected bodies? Brinda Karat's set of articles on the reservation question engages with many of the arguments that have been used to derail the demand for the reservation of one-third of the seats for women in elected bodies.

The period between 1990 and 2004 saw the penetration of the state and its institutions by the forces of communalism represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies. For women from the minority communities, this translated into a direct threat to their physical well-being and safety. The communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002 brought back memories of the communal violence of the Partition days, although it represented a far more serious onslaught, conducted as it was by a constitutionally elected government. Gujarat, however, represented just one facet of the rise of communalism that has other implications for women and their mobilisation, Brinda Karat argues. In an important and illuminating discussion on the question of a uniform civil code, Brinda Karat argues that unless a gender-just uniform code ensures legal uniformity between communities and within communities, it could end up as a code that maintains the uniformity of male privilege. Thus, at this juncture, a more realistic slogan, she argues, is that of "equal laws, equal rights". "This platform takes forward the legal framework of gender justice, a starting point, in the spheres of matrimonial property, domestic violence, and registration of marriage for women of all communities so as to strengthen the common secular ground." Alongside, there must be a push towards gender justice within the framework of personal laws of communities, she writes.

Both the forces of communalism and liberalisation have directly perpetrated or given sanction to a level of violence against women not seen or experienced before. As AIDWA is an organisation with an active presence in every State, its cadre are constantly called upon to intervene in situations of violence - from dowry-related domestic violence and harassment of women in the workplace to honour killings and the violence against the cadre from terrorist groups in Assam and Tripura. This section in the book draws lessons from specific campaigns led by AIDWA against violence in different States - the campaign against caste violence which the killings of the "Melavalavu Six" in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu spurred; the struggle set off by the gang-rape of 27-year-old Bhuvaneswari Devi in Madhya Pradesh as "punishment" by a panchayat; the campaign against discriminatory population control measures, and so on.

Brinda Karat's book grasps the enormous complexity of what is often referred to as the "women's question" in India. It presents new issues that have emerged during a period of far-reaching economic and political change to confront women in the home, at the workplace and in the public sphere; it looks at the manner in which these issues have impacted women, themselves divided along the lines of class, caste, religion and region; and it evaluates the way the women's movement - AIDWA in particular - has responded, politically and organisationally, to these challenges. It is therefore a work of great import for the theory and practice of the women's movement.

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