Vina Mazumdar (1927-2013) was one of the champions of women’s rights and women’s movements in independent India. By INDU AGNIHOTRI
TO capture the thoughts of Vina Mazumdar or moments of her life is to attempt to document a significant phase of the history of a newly independent nation and the struggle of its women to assert their voice to determine the terms of their life with regard to both freedom and change. This exercise, perforce, goes beyond chronicling specific events of her personal life to become one of viewing events unfolding in a changing India and analysing the collective assertion by a vibrant women’s movement, its key concerns and its interventions.
Coming as she did from a relatively privileged background which provided her the opportunity to study in some of the best institutions of her time—Calcutta University, Banaras Hindu University and Oxford—she in a sense played her part in a continuum. This was marked by the freedom struggle, then a nation in the making and later a country struggling to remain a vibrant democracy in the face of changes that swept both South Asia and the rest of the world in the 1990s. She was one of many Indian scholars whose minds were opened up to new vistas thanks to the exposure to the advanced West and its liberal democracy and intellectual traditions and who came back to India with a resolve to examine critically their own society, and its intellectual traditions and social practices with a view to building on the goals that the independence struggle had posited. Being a student of international politics and history, Vina Mazumdar was not unaware of the limits to the interventions she envisaged as part of her vision in the fast-changing context of the 1990s or the new millennium. But given her indomitable spirit as a fighter for social change, it was not surprising that she did not give up. Not many people know that one of her last projects for the Government of India (its Ministry of Human Resource Development and Ministry of Women and Child Development) was “Women, Equality and Governance: Landmarks in the Indian Story”, wherein she undertook to “restore the lost institutional memory” of Bharat Sarkar (Indian government), to use her own oft-repeated words. This ended with the compilation of a 10-volume documentation—using both official and movement-based sources—of which she was the General Editor.
The significance of Vinadi’s contribution lay in the manner in which she identified key concerns of the movement and suggested ways to address them, be they with regard to poverty, inequality, political representation, social advance to confront gender-based discriminations or to develop analytical frameworks and concepts to understand these as well as the institutional responses to them.
When the Government of India appointed her National Professor in Social Sciences in 2006, she was happy because it was a recognition of her work as a social scientist, an identity she cherished and which guided her academic pursuit. To label her a Women’s Studies scholar, or a feminist, while remembering her would at one level signify the recognition of her immense contribution to the development of Women’s Studies but will also perhaps constrict to a narrow frame the vast sweep of her intellectual canvas. Until the end she remained concerned about shifting agendas and goals of academic pursuit and shared her disquiet on some of the recent trends in academic discourse, even as she remained open to new questions and approaches from vastly diverse perspectives.
Her observations as a social scientist and educationist on long-term changes in our society and the underlying social dynamics informed many of her interventions. Apart from the facts, data and empirical evidence that “Towards Equality—A Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974)” garnered, its strength lay in nailing the lie that India’s rulers have repeated from colonial times—that the poverty of its people is due to some inherent social backwardness and in a sense delinked from ongoing socio-economic processes. The framework and approach adopted in “Towards Equality” spelt out in no uncertain terms the need to understand that the condition and status of India’s women was tied to the fate of its people and the development path and policies adopted.
It was this that prompted Vinadi to interrogate the principles underlying policymaking and institutional processes while foregrounding, all through, the need to keep constitutional goals at the centre. The confidence she displayed in the capacity of the most marginalised women to critique, question and influence decision-making processes stemmed from her recognition of the fact that they had an intense desire to change the course of their lives, mired as they were in extreme poverty and inequality. Not for nothing did she predicate her well-timed interventions at official meetings with the opening words of the Constitution, “We the people”…, to remind those occupying important positions of the resolve of the Indian people and of the women to be free from historically determined inequalities and social prejudices, despite all odds.
She served on numerous government committees, but her acceptance of a position offered to her was dictated not by what it would bring to her personally, but the extent to which it would further the agenda that she had drawn up in the course of her travels across the remote corners of India as part of her work for the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI). It was this remarkable confidence in the resolve of the people of India to be free to determine their own destiny that lay at the back of her significant interventions in international fora in the 1970s.
There will be several other occasions to write about Vina Mazumdar’s role, contribution and beliefs. But a more fitting tribute to this extraordinary personality would be to try and understand her way of looking at the condition of women in the very world they lived in. This would include the tribal and peasant women of Bankura and Medinipur in West Bengal, where she took her first steps to address concretely the poverty and livelihood concerns of some of the most marginalised women through a strategy of collective mobilisation and intervention, with an eye on building a partnership between the state and the community. She did so not in the currently prevalent mode of public-private partnership (PPP) but by posing the issue as one of asserting their right to resources such as land and forests through collective endeavour. The Bankura Story, as the International Labour Organisation called it, marked an attempt by tribal women to address their vulnerability—which drove them to seasonal migration—and to traverse new paths to life with dignity through assertion of collective leadership.
Consider, for example, her persistent appraisal and critical response to official policy pronouncements: her interventions on the National Perspective Plan, 1988, the National Population Policy in 1994 or the open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with regard to the National Rural Health Mission. All these pointed to specific clauses or their orientation which violated the spirit of the Constitution as well as specific goals and guarantees.
She brought the same rigour to her interventions on international platforms. Developments between 1975—the year of the First World United Nations Conference on Women in Mexico and the World Social Development Summit in Copenhagen —and 1995 signalled to her changes both in the world order and the United Nations system, prompting her to decline the invitation to join the official Indian delegation to the U.N. conference in Beijing, which she pronounced was a “non-starter”. Being a daughter of the independence struggle, she was aware of the possibilities that the anti-imperialist movements had opened up as also of the shrinking space for the vision these had held out for advancing women’s rights in the international arena.
It is not surprising that her key interventions in international conferences built upon opportunities made available to women through initiatives taken by the U.N. in a critical phase of the 1970s and 1980s when the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still held out a potential. She did not need to be a leftist to appreciate the significance of changes in priorities and policies in the post-Cold War era.
Somewhere at the centre of all her interventions was a continuous critical engagement with the state, government policy and the politics underlying the shaping of the political process. This was done by utilising the resource of development studies’ perspectives to make concrete interventions with regard to critical policies from a platform of joint activity under the aegis of national level women’s organisations. There is no doubt that she played a critical role in bringing together this group of what she often referred to as the Seven Sisters on certain common demands despite well-known public differences in approach and perspectives. The guiding principles of the joint front forged over several years remained a common concern for women’s rights within a secular democratic polity. This kept it together and defined its role through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, when fundamentalism posed severe challenges to the shared agenda.
It was not a coincidence that one of the first interventions that Vina Mazumdar pushed jointly with women’s organisations after founding the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) was with regard to the absence of a focus on women in the planning process in India. The outcome was there for all to see: the chapter on women in the Sixth Five-Year Plan was undoubtedly a result of this pressure. This subject remained a key concern.
Next, in July 1982, together with the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the CWDS called the first meeting on amniocentesis to highlight the declining sex ratio to which the CSWI had first drawn attention, way back in 1974. Only a few would know that Vina Mazumdar actually sat with a group of us, late into the evenings, drafting the anti-dowry charter which the Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch had presented and used as a campaign document from 1982 to 1984 to press for the much-needed amendment to the anti-dowry law.
She used the Seventh Summit of NAM in Delhi in March 1983 to present a Charter of Women’s Demands to the heads of state gathered there. Following up on the demand for a National Commission for Women, a key recommendation of the CSWI, she took issue with the government on its refusal to consult the women’s movement and attempts to water down the status and stature of the proposed commission by appointing a Commissioner. At each point she emphasised the need for the government to consult women to draw upon critical experiences from the ground, even as she pooh-poohed postponement of action on critical issues, such as the Women’s Reservation Bill, in the name of building a consensus. Consultation for her was a means to initiate public debates in times when new technologies and media were not options available to all and not used as a shortcut for co-option or procrastination.
Vina Mazumdar was equally at home in her capacity as a spokesperson for women’s rights in villages in remote corners of India, as she was in Inter-Ministerial Conferences where she would happily take on the challenge of resisting developed countries thrusting their agendas on erstwhile colonial states, or amidst the numerous bureaucrats she befriended and whose skills and goodwill she depended on to push critical policy measures. The openness and the zest with which she embraced life imparted an unmatched energy to her. At conferences in different towns and cities, she would sit late into the night in informal discussions with young scholars and activists to acquaint herself with their concerns, share their dilemmas—personal, professional or political—and suggest ways to move forward by way of making casual conversation. She had a rare knack of dismissing negative responses with a classic shrug of the shoulder. She could regale her audiences with sharp analytical comments as much as by reciting poetry in English or Bangla and surprise many with her reciting of Sanskrit shlokas.
It is this which won her respect, recognition and allies from a vast array of people across South Asia and from other continents, cutting across the barriers of age, geographical borders and ideological boundaries. She wore many hats and would not accept being “framed” in a single identity. Her emphasis on the law drew strength from her close association with her long-term friend and colleague, Prof. Lotika Sarkar. She forged deep friendships across India and the world and used these to build new institutional platforms to take forward the process of critical engagement with people’s concerns.
Vina Mazumdar’s departure marks the passing of an era characterised by unprecedented articulation by an organised women’s movement with a vision of collective assertion for change. Towards the end of her life —when she saw social movements diversify—Vina Mazumdar remained a keen observer of ideological debates from vastly different perspectives. A student of politics, she understood well the need to interrogate the politics of movements and not be carried away by populist imagery or rhetoric. The endless energy that she brought to her intellectual endeavour drew strength from it being grounded in social concerns, and it is this that drew others to her even as she made light of her role as a leader by describing herself as a catalyst.
Indu Agnihotri is Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.