Many known and unknown women have helped build up that seeming inchoate, open-ended, work-in-progress that is the Indian women’s movement. Among this remarkable sorority is Vina Mazumdar, known widely as ‘Vina-di’, who being endowed with tremendous energy, intelligence and an interest in ideas, has contributed immensely to the intellectual growth of this movement.
In her eighties now, Mazumdar has recently written a memoir, entitled ‘Memories of a Rolling Stone’, brought out by Zubaan. To have a woman who was a notable educationist, who anchored the 1974 Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, who is widely seen as the “grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia”, and who remains a feminist/activist/”trouble maker” to this day, set down her recollections of a lifetime spanning eight decades is in itself cause for celebration. So many of her contemporaries have, sadly, passed on leaving their footprints behind, but not their words. In her acknowledgements, Vina-di indicates one of the factors that motivated the work: “I view this book as part of my tribute to the Indian women’s movement to assert the rights they had earned through participating in India’s freedom struggle.”
The freedom struggle certainly helped to shape this young life. When Mazumdar joined the Delhi University, she could sense the political turmoil in the air. The Constituent Assembly was in session, and she would occasionally make her way to the visitors’ gallery to listen to a galaxy of leaders hold forth on their idea of India. One abiding memory was that of witnessing the Union Jack coming down and the Tricolour going up at Delhi’s India Gate, the other was of a caption-less David Low cartoon she saw in a British newspaper as a student at Hugh’s College, Oxford, which appeared soon after Gandhi’s assassination, depicting Socrates with the bowl of hemlock, Christ on the cross, and Gandhi with his ‘dandi’ (stick).
Here then was a women shaped by pre-Independent India, who would go on to try and shape, in her own way, post-Independent India. The challenges Mazumdar faced were many, and they included domestic upheavals caused by professional choices. There was also the backlash from entrenched hierarchies – notably during her courageous attempt to breathe fresh life into the stagnant academic scenario of the University of Berhampur in Orissa.
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Meanwhile, the world began to focus more on women. The United Nations marked 1975 as the Year of Women, and went on to declare 1975-1985 as the decade of women. This meant that UN member-states had to submit Country Reports on the status of women in their respective countries. That was how fate and a visionary bureaucrat called J.B. Naik, conspired to introduce Mazumdar to the subject of gender. She was taken on as Member-Secretary of the committee that was drafting India’s report on the status of its women. The whole experience was to prove a life-changer. As Mazumdar puts it in her memoirs, “My earlier struggles represented an individual woman’s efforts to balance the demands of professional and familial responsibilities. The new struggle was increasingly a collective, ideological one – to rediscover the Indian nation, the world, the past, the present and the future – from the perspective of India’s hidden and unacknowledged majority: poor working women in rural and urban areas.”
The exercise meant, first of all, evolving a framework with which to regard the position of women in the country cutting across castes, classes, economic strata and religion and reorganising existing demographic data to yield its evidence of the large scale “marginalisation, poverty and invisibility” of Indian women caught in a “dual economy” (traditional and modern) – a concept borrowed from Gunnar Myrdal‘s ‘Asian Drama’. It was what Mazumdar describes as a “fantastic experience of the evolution and growth of collective thinking”. Despite occasional personal differences within the Committee, the process was driven by a “collective conscience”, as Mazumdar puts it.
There were major silences in the Report and Mazumdar recognises that the Committee did not pay sufficient attention to the issues of rape and dowry. Yet, it is no exaggeration to say the Committee on the Status of Women in India Report, which came out in 1974, changed the way the country regarded its women. It countered assumptions of the millennia, undermined government mindsets, helped unleash innumerable mutinies, and changed policies and laws. In fact, it was revolutionary in its impact, all the more remarkable for having emerged just before one of the darkest periods of recent Indian history – the Emergency. If the Committee, and its Member-Secretary, did not have friends and supporters in the establishment, it may have never seen the light of day. Today, decades later, Mazumdar, recalls with what one would imagine an impish smile, “Before the rest of the government could realise what the Report contained it was placed before Parliament, a report very critical of the Government of India.”
The realisation of the centrality of gender in society led to another significant process in which Mazumdar again played an important role, and that was the emergence of women’s studies as an academic discipline. Mazumdar sees the women’s movement and the women’s studies movement as “twin movements”, each influencing and furthering the other. The logical outcome of this process was the setting up of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in May 1980, with Mazumdar as its founder-director. It was at this point that her concerned elder sister, observing Mazumdar’s penchant for embracing ever new challenges despite the fact that her daughters still needed her attention, termed her a “rolling stone” – the title of the book.
But the stone, despite such apprehensions, rolled on nevertheless and invariably into fresh fields. This included a project that came to define Mazumdar’s contribution as a social analyst-activist. To put it in Mazumdar’s own words, “Our (CWDS’s) real journey of discovery began at the ‘Reorientation Camp for Seasonally Migrant Women Labourers’, organised by the Department of Land Reforms, Government of West Bengal, in Jhilmili village in Banjura district.” That encounter with tribal peasant women proved to be an “unusual alliance of a social science research institution and groups of the poorest, migrant rural women”, and to Mazumdar it showed the possibility of arriving at development with a human face.
The CWDS had its plate full. There were a plethora of concerns that needed scholarly scrutiny, ranging from the resurgence of the practice of ‘sati’ in some pockets to one of the most serious demographic challenges facing India today: the skewed sex ratio.
When ‘Memories of a Rolling Stone’ was released in Delhi, Brinda Karat, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, spoke for many when she observed how Mazumdar helped bring women together. Said Karat, “This was because she was convinced that if things have to be changed on the ground, it has to be a joint effort… Vina-di put things in a wider perspective, which could draw the Indian women’s movement forward. This helped it to retain a dynamism that has petered out in many movements in the West.”
By arrangement with WFS
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