West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharyee with (from left) Tapasi Praharaj, Mangaleswari Deb Barma, Brinda Karat, Ahilya Ranganekar, Lakshmi Sahgal, Pappa Umanath, Subhashini Ali, S. Sudha and Puspha Das at the opening session of the 7th National Conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association in Bhubaneswar.
THE 7th National Conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the leading national women's organisation in India in terms of size, reach and political effectiveness, was held in Bhubaneswar from November 18 to 21, 2004. The conference marked a milestone in the history of the organisation as well as that of the larger women's movement in India of which it is a part.
"This conference has focussed on the challenges facing women in the changed political and economic situation," Subhashini Ali, president, AIDWA, told Frontline. "Women are still not a part of their agenda for most political parties. With our organised strength, we will force them to recognise our presence, and our fight against hunger, violence, inequality and oppression."
AIDWA has nearly 80 lakh members drawn from all regions, States, language groups, economic classes and religious communities of India. But, its growth is more than numerical. Since the last conference in 2000, its understanding of the complexities of the women's question in India has matured, leading to successful interventions for change on a gamut of issues. In many instances, these interventions have taken place in alliance with other women's organisations. The lively discussions and well-considered resolutions that came out of the Bhubaneswar conference, which was attended by around 900 delegates, reflect the most important political, economic and social concerns of our times.
An inspiring note was lent to the inaugural session of the conference by the presence of six of the 12 founding members of AIDWA, which had its first national conference in Chennai in 1981 - Ahilya Rangnekar, Kanak Mukherjee, Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal, Mangaleswari Deb Barma, Manjari Gupta and Pappa Umanath. Now advanced in years, these women represent the link between the era of the freedom struggle, when the first women's organisations were born, and the present. As a tribute to their role and contributions, a book on them (Breaking Barriers: Stories of Twelve Women, LeftWord Books, 2004, pages 144) was released by Vina Majumdar, director, Centre for Women's Development, on the occasion. Sharing warm memories of her association with Suseela Gopalan, Vimal Ranadive, Ahilya Rangnekar and others, she said that a political women's organisation had to "retrieve its historical memories, so essential for its political success". The collective voice of women, who participated in India's freedom movement, disappeared from the public domain after Independence, she said, and she congratulated AIDWA on trying to re-establish the bridge between the two eras.
At 90, the frail but feisty Lakshmi Sahgal, who led the famous Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army (INA), opened the conference with a ringing call to the audience to take a vow not to rest until the struggle for women's emancipation was won. Kanak Mukherjee said that those who started AIDWA with "a vision in their eyes of women's emancipation" believed that this could only find fulfilment in a socialist society.
Subhashini Ali, AIDWA president.
The conference felicitated leaders from sister organisations with whom AIDWA has had fruitful joint programmes and struggles in the past - Mary Khemchand of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), Primila Loomba of the National Federation of Indian Women, and Jyotsana Chatterjee of the Joint Women's Programme. The conference also felicitated Moloyshree Hashmi, the courageous and gifted actor who has done much to strengthen the progressive theatre movement in India, a cause for which her husband, Safdar Hashmi, was murdered by hired Congress thugs in 1999.
AIDWA's road map for the next three years, a report entitled `Perspectives on International and National Issues and Women's Status 2001-2004', was presented by general secretary Brinda Karat. Marshalling evidence on the impact of imperialist aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other parts of the world, and its negative consequences for democracy and the women's movement, Karat argued that the struggle against United States imperialism was germane to the rights of women all over the world. Neoliberal economic strategies had intensified unemployment, discrimination at the work place, trafficking of women, and other forms of violence against women, she said.
At the national level, the falling sex ratio is the most graphic indicator of the erosion in women's status, and the conference highlighted this and its alarming implications as a central issue for the women's movement. The deficit of women in the population, which was three million in 1901, is now 36 million, the conference report notes, with the juvenile sex ratio at 927, according to the 2001 Census. In fact, the sex ratio for the population excluding persons from the Schedule Tribes (ST) and the Schedule Castes (SC) is just 900. There are only about 400 cases registered under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Tests Act, and there has not been a single case of conviction of a doctor under it despite the widespread use of sex determination techniques. A resolution called for the strict implementation of laws against sex-determination and dowry and for protection of the girl child from discrimination. Son-preference beliefs and rituals must be fought, it stated.
While the 2004 electoral defeat of the "communal, anti-democratic and anti-poor" National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar has created a situation more favourable for women's struggles and demands, the report notes, the neoliberal economic policies pursued by the NDA government, and which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appears to be committed to, continue to impact adversely on the status of women.
Tribal women at the rally organised in connection with the conference.
A resolution calling for a nationwide struggle for the implementation of the assurances made to women in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) by the UPA government was passed. The assurances include the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill, legislation against domestic violence, guarantees on right-to-food through the universalisation of the public distribution system (PDS), and the right to employment through the implementation of the Employment Guarantee Act (EGA).
The conference wanted the "coercive population control measures of the Rural Health Mission", aimed at enforcing the two-child norm for elected panchayat members, withdrawn. The norm "punishes the poor for their poverty", and infringes on the constitutional right of every Indian citizen, it says. A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in May 2003 found that 75 per cent of those disqualified from contesting panchayat elections in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan were from the S.C., S.T. and Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories. In Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, 55 per cent and 48 per cent respectively of persons disqualified were women.
The system of targeting the PDS excludes large sections of the poor. Methods of poverty measurement are also deeply flawed, the conference report notes. Food, work and health are basic rights and must be provided to all those who need them. In this context, the growing distance between economic policy and the real lives of the poor, particularly women, is alarming, the report says. The huge increase in women's migration, for example where entire armies of rural women and children are on the move in search of work and food owing to agrarian distress, is not reflected in the economic policy. The Economic Survey of the Central government and the Central and State budgets do not take note of this serious phenomenon.
COMMUNALISM is an ever-present political and ideological threat even after the defeat of the NDA. It continues to make itself felt in the spheres of politics, education and culture. The report notes that the ritualisation of religious belief by communal forces has aided communal mobilisation of women. "In this context we need to take a critical re-look at the assumption that notions of `sisterhood' automatically bind women's movements," said Karat. "One section of women is oppressing another on the grounds of religion and caste."
Brinda Karat said women have played a central role in the huge political mobilisation against terrorism and insurgency in the Northeastern States, particularly in Tripura, which saw "perhaps the biggest mobilisation of women against terrorism anywhere in the world". It was political intervention and not counter-terror measures by the State that would contain terrorism, and women's participation in political action by the Left forces in Tripura and Manipur had been the basis for building peoples unity against terrorism in these States, she said.
Sudha, the new general secretary, and Pappa Umanath at the conference.
Seven commission papers, which brought new developments that impinge on women's status under the organisation's scanner, were presented at the conference. These included discussion papers on trafficking in women, the specific issues faced by Dalit women, agrarian migration and its impact on women, the need for a liquor policy for India, the problems of poor urban women, female foeticide and infanticide, and fundamentalism and women.
The policy of encouraging new leadership has brought some new faces into AIDWA's central executive committee. Taking over as general secretary from Brinda Karat, the charismatic leader of the organisation who has been at the helm for the past nine years, is S. Sudha, a young AIDWA leader from Tamil Nadu, who was a secretary of the organisation at the central level, and has been both secretary and president of the Tamil Nadu unit. AIDWA has a rule that office-bearers cannot have more than three terms of three years each.
Subhashini Ali continues as president, as does Shyamali Gupta as vice-president. There are nine vice-presidents and six joint secretaries. Karat is now a vice-president. The organisation has elected five assistant secretaries, a newly created post to encourage new women entrants into the leadership.
At its closing session, Subhashini Ali read a special resolution of recognition of Karat's contributions to the organisation, which she said bridged the transition between the leadership provided by its founders and the present leadership. Apart from the attention she gave to building the organisation, she recognised the importance of organising sectional struggles within the women's movement and of joint struggles with other women's organisations. In an emotional outpouring of their regard and affection for Karat, delegates from all States came upon the stage to embrace and offer mementos to their former general secretary.
Over 800 delegates who attended the 7th National Conference represented a motivated, spirited and highly politicised section of the women's movement in India, of which AIDWA is an important and leading constituent. They were drawn from all States of the country, and brought the specific problems that women face in their States into the forefront of their three-day conference. Despite the language barrier, an efficient system of translation allowed them to share their experiences and chart a new course of struggle and intervention on women's issues for the next three years.
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