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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 32 New Delhi August 1, 2015

Recovering a Lost Chapter in History of Women’s Movement

Friday 31 July 2015, by Pamela Philipose

book review

Charting A New Path: Early Years of National Federation of Indian Women by Gargi Chakravartty and Supriya Chotani; People’s Publishing House, New Delhi; 2014; pages: i to xix and 360; Rs 300 (PB), Rs 450 (HB).

When I read excerpts of Geeta Mukherjee’s speeches in Parliament in Charting A New Path: Early Years Of National Federation of Indian Women by Gargi Chakravartty and Supriya Chotani,it immediately recalled a spry compact woman with her hair tied severely in a bun and invested with boundless energy, who could in her seventies still scramble on to a car bonnet to address impromptu meetings. Does anybody in these days of instant social media-driven politics even remember that inspiring figure who was not just a Communist Party of India (CPI) representative in the Lok Sabha but a member of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW)?

Today, as we ask ourselves how we should respond to growing governmental repression, economic inequality, caste atrocities and comm-unalism, the activism of women like Mukherjee offers many lessons and this is what makes this book, which is an early history of the NFIW, so significant. The efforts of its two authors in sifting through mountains of pamphlets, party publications and copies of New Age; excavating records from musty government offices; sorting out photographs; making sense of notings; interviewing those who had participated in the NFIW’s struggles, have translated into a valuable resource.

There is such a wealth of material here that it is difficult to know where to start. The NFIW was an organisation that struggled with definitions from the outset: is it right to call ourselves feminist? It was an organisation that endeavoured to arrive at the right strategies: should we split if the parent party splits? One of the touching moments in this book is how hard the NFIW members tried to remain as a united entity even when the Community Party of India became two entities. The argument put forward at that point by many of its members was that since they were all women their issues were common and the NFIW should represent everyone.

Some of the stances the NFIW adopted, as the evidence marshalled by Chakravartty and Chotani indicates, were way ahead of the times. Long before the autonomous women’s movement began talking about bodily integrity and against marital rape, there was Renu Chakravartty in Parliament arguing that the restitution of conjugal rights was against the rights of women. Its position on some issues would seem radical even today, such as the demand for equal rights of inheritance to agricultural land. Much before India got the 498A, which recognises abetment to suicide of recently married women as a crime, the 1970 Salem conference was arguing that the Criminal Procedure Code should be amended to punish those who goad women into suicide. Much before the concern of rape was taken up by women across the country, the NFIW was taking up issues of sexual harassment, particularly of Dalit, tribal and working class women.

For purposes of this brief review let me draw out one string from the skein that was the NFIW—its battle for access to food. The rights language is, of course, of relatively recent vintage but it was as if the NFIW had instinctively recognised the right to food as a fundamental right. In many ways the issue was part of its activist legacy. Some of the regional mass organisations of women that predated it had involved themselves in political campaigns on food, whether it was the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti which went by the planetary acronym of MARS and which had worked indefatigably during the Bengal famine; the Punjab Women’s Self-defence League, or the Delhi Mahila Sangh which composed songs of the food crises— “Bookha Hai Bengal re Sathi, Bhookha Hai Bengal,/ Suno Hind Ke Rehne Walon (Friends, Bengal is hungry/ Listen, O people of India)”. During public meetings, people would drop a coin in the jholas of the activists in the spirit of solidarity.

When the NFIW came into existence in 1954 it began to look at the structural reason for food shortages. It traced the direct impact that lack of food had on the well-being of women, not just because the responsibility of keeping home fires burning fell on their shoulders but because they were the ones who got the least to eat in such circumstances. It is interesting to note that each one of the NFIW Congresses referred to the issue of food in some way or the other. The First Congress, held in 1954, noted that toiling people and agrarian workers were the lowest paid, in some instances their daily wage being only a few annas and a handful of coarse grain with lower rates for women and lower castes. The Third Congress, held in 1959, argued that the government should build stocks to ensure fair-priced grain for the peasant. It noted that post-independent India, despite two Five Year Plans, has still not been able to provide food to all at affordable prices. The next year saw postcards being sent to the Prime Minister from women across the country. The Fourth Congress of 1962 strongly critiqued the government for its failure to arrest rising prices. The NFIW intensified its campaign with demands for immediate redressal and the setting up of infra-structure to ensure equal access to foodgrain.

The Sixth Congress of 1967 urged women to find out why prices were going up and why black-marketing continued to flourish. That year West Bengal saw a sustained demonstration before the Regional Food Directorate. Chakravartty and Chotani relate how 300 women of 12 affiliated organisations marched through the main roads of Calcutta to Raj Bhawan to hand over a mass petition signed by 1200 women from the State that referred to incidents of starvation and the sale of children. Similar protests took place in Bhavnagar, Madras, Patna and other cities.

This campaign reached its crescendo with the anti-price rise campaign of the early 1970s. It began with the Seventh Congress of 1970 deciding to observe Women’s Day of 1971 as a day against rising prices. This was an amazing, multi-faceted campaign ranging from public marches—including the famous Latini Morcha of October 1973 as women wielded, as they put it, the only weapon of the kitchen, the rolling pin, to bring the government to its senses—to the filing of petitions, the gheraoing of the chairman of the Oil Seeds Merchants’ Chamber of Commerce and the composition of stirring songs and slogans, one of which went: “Indira Gandhi hosh mein aao, bekari par rok lagao (Indira Gandhi, come to your senses, put an end to destitution)”.

What was interesting about this campaign was that it touched so many different lives, from that of a poor village women to a middle class flat dweller. It also saw the demand for foodgrain being linked to related issues. In Manipur, for instance, the Manipur Nupi Marup, while demonstrating before the Chief Minister of Manipur for the opening of fair price shops, also wanted cheap textbooks and stationery for schoolchildren and the immediate enactment of the land ceiling laws.

The food campaign was just one among innumerable other causes the NFIW took up over the years and which ranged from legal reform to concerns like disarmament and international solidarity. Charting A New Path is essentially a book of record. It does not attempt a critique of the strategies the NFIW adopted nor does it venture into sensitive territory such as attitudes of the functionaries of the party— in this case the CPI. Many in the party leadership tended to see the NFIW as the “women’s wing” of the party rather than as a women’s organi-sation with close links to the party. The argument that women’s issues can wait until the country got itself a revolution and a new order was a fairly common one in the early days, but the reader is none the wiser about such intractable confrontations or indeed the shifts in party positions vis-à-vis the women’s movement. The account also ends rather abruptly at a point when the 1980s had arrived, with no expla-nations being offered by the authors as to why this was the case. Did the era from the mid-1980s onward represent a new phase for the organisation during which it was forced to re-invent itself given the significant structural changes in the country’s economy, society and politics that were taking place? The question is not answered.

Such inadequacies notwithstanding, Charting A New Path, with its grainy black and white photographs of many an unsung revolutionary, is an important effort at recovering a lost history and is bound to enthuse the academic and activist alike.

The reviewer is a Senior Fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.