Of social justice and gender equality

Print edition : May 06, 2005

Brinda Karat after her election as the first woman member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau - SANDEEP SAXENA

The CPI(M) resolves on a deeper engagement with women's issues and caste oppression.

TWO significant issues that came up for discussion in the 18th congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and which went largely unreported, were the women's question and social oppression. For the first time, a CPI(M) party congress adopted a resolution against the growing violence and discrimination against women. It also acknowledged the need for an intense campaign for social reform and gender equality..

The 18th congress underlined the need to take up issues of economic and social oppression together, especially in the context of attacks on women, Dalits, Advasis and the minorities. It has resolved to take on the question of caste oppression as well, but not in the same paradigm as some of the overtly caste-based political parties.

In keeping with the broader understanding of identifying itself with the aspirations and assertions of all socially and economically oppressed sections, the CPI(M) congress has resolved to champion the cause of Dalits against caste oppression, making their demand for justice a part of the common democratic platform; the demand of the women's movements for equality and gender justice, viewing the women's question as not only a gender issue but a class issue; the struggle of the Adivasis for land, access to forests, an end to inhuman capitalist and feudal exploitation, and the protection of their identity and their cultural and linguistic rights; and all social causes that help to fight obscurantism, socially regressive customs, patriarchal and feudal practices.

Delegates stressed the need for the party to take up the issues of economic exploitation and social oppression together. The CPI(M) has all along opposed untouchability, caste discrimination, dowry, female foeticide and minority baiting, but it now feels the need to take the lead in taking up social issues for campaigns and struggles. So, for the first time, the party has formulated a concrete approach to women's issues, and identified certain areas that need urgent attention.

While the CPI(M) and its mass organisations have always been more than cognisant about these issues and have been taking them head on, this is the first time that the party has concretised its approach on women's issues and identified certain areas to be taken up at a broad front. It is imperative, the resolution says, that these issues, are not seen as "women's issues" around which struggles only by women are to be organised: "They must be recognised as issues for general, united, militant and consistent campaigns and struggles."

The congress expressed grave concern over one of the most devastating developments at the turn of the century - the drastic fall in sex ratio - and has called for strong interventions to bring this "brutality" to an end. The resolution states: "The fact that this falling sex ratio is linked to dowry demands and expenditure on the marriages of daughters highlights the necessity for an intense campaign for social reform and gender equality."

The congress has also observed that neoliberal reforms had added new dimensions to atrocities and discrimination against women. It was observed that class violence had increased in urban and rural areas and Dalit women, in particular, were increasingly the targets of vicious and humiliating attacks. Neoliberal policies, which had resulted in industrial closures and unemployment, coupled with the withdrawal of the state from the social sector, has made the situation far more vulnerable for women. "Incidents of sexual and violent attacks on women in the public sphere, at the workplace and in the home have all registered an increase," the resolution noted

The congress has called for the urgent passage of the Domestic Violence Bill and stressed the need for a Central law against sexual harassment at workplace. It has also observed with concern the growing prevalence of `honour-killings', a practice that embodies the notion of family, caste or community honour. It is well known that this practice is also used by dominant caste groups to victimise other caste groups, especially Dalits. In parts of northern and northwestern India and elsewhere, where the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) has been at the forefront of organising resistance to this practice, the party feels the need to involve other mass organisations in combating unconstitutional practices operating under the garb custom. The resolution also looks critically at the media, especially the electronic media, which it says has promoted patriarchal values, consumerism, the commodification of women, propagation of rituals and beliefs that promote son-preference and gender inequality.

The prevalence of the two-child norm, noticed in several States, also drew the attention of the congress. This norm runs contrary to the National Population Policy of 2000, which strictly prohibits the use of any such norm to determine the number of children a couple should have.

The congress resolution takes serious note of the invasive contraceptives that have been introduced in government family planning programmes. It has called for urgent reform in all unequal personal laws that deny women of all communities equal rights in inheritance, marriage, marital property and custodial rights. It has castigated the growing criminalisation of bourgeois parties, which has resulted in circumscribing the political participation of women. "Their refusal to pass the Women's Reservation Bill keeps the number of women legislators and parliamentarians abysmally low," the resolution noted.

Apart from the women's question, the 18th congress raised the issue of the exploitation of tribal people, who it says are the "worst victims of the new phase of capitalist development under liberalisation". It has resolved to take up the issues of land, access to forests, wages and development of tribal areas, and ensure that the tribal people are given educational and employment opportunities. Apart from the issue of "predatory exploitation of moneylenders and contractors", the political resolution drew attention to the attempts to communalise tribal communities. This has not only spread divisiveness among people but spelt havoc for minority communities living in tribal-majority areas.

Overall, the political resolution talks about breaking new ground in order to link up the party with socially oppressed sections. The CPI(M), of course, despite its limited influence outside West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, has always raised issues of caste oppression, whether it be the lynching of Dalits in Haryana or the gang-rape of Dalit women in Seoni, Madhya Pradesh. What is new is the realisation that the Left should make more meaningful interventions.

The political resolution warns against the "intensification of the caste appeal and fragmentation of the working people on caste lines". It has resolved to combat what it calls the "pernicious effects of caste-based politics". While acknowledging that "the party should work out concrete tactics in different areas taking into account the caste and class configurations", the political resolution cautions that electoral exigencies should not come in the way of the party's independent campaign against caste-based politics.

The political resolution has expressed support for reservations in the private sector for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the wider context of shrinking jobs in the government sector and increasing privatisation. But at the same time, it points out that "reservation is no panacea for the problems of caste and class exploitation but [that] they provide some limited and necessary relief within the existing order" For the same reason, the party has extended support to reservations for Dalit Christians.

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