Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016
Eighth March in Today’s Context
Saturday 12 March 2016
by Gargi Chakravartty
Eighth March, the International Women’s Day, is a milestone in the women’s movement. It was Clara Zetkin who proposed, at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910, for the observance of an International Women’s Day with the demand of equal rights for women, especially women workers. In India during the Second World War many women, who were part of the country’s freedom struggle, were inspired by the worldwide anti-fascist movement and the heroic resistance of women, particularly those of the Soviet Union, to the Nazi offensive of Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War. This was the time when anti-fascist conferences were organised in India, not only by writers and artists but also by women who could realise the danger of fascism and Hitler’s advance towards Asia. The Japanese bombing of Calcutta in December 1942 and the subsequent deteriorating situation in Bengal in 1943-44 galvanised the work of women activists to form the Mahila Atma-Raksha Samiti (MARS). Women activists put up plays and poster exhibitions, held meetings and prabhat-pheris (early morning singing squads) to inspire women and organise themselves against the fascist assaults. Likewise the Japanese bombing of Visakhapatnam and Kakinada in 1943 created a crisis and women activists mobilised large sections of women and set up the Andhra Mahila Sangham. A shadow-play, written by Sarla Sharma on the Japanese attack, was performed in Delhi by the Delhi Mahila Sangh. A play, titled Tanya, about an eighteen-year old Soviet girl who gave her life fighting the German fascist onslaught, was also staged in the national Capital as a part of the anti-fascist campaign.
Once the Second World War was over with the fall of Berlin on May 9, 1945, women of the affected countries took the initiative to hold a conference in Paris in December 1945 to set up the Women’s International Democratic Federation to which 40 women’s organisations across the world declared their affiliation. This conference was attended by 15000 women from Europe, Asia and Africa. Madame Eugene Cotton, a leading physicist who had been one of the main organisers of the underground anti-fascist resistance movement in France, was elected the first President of the WIDF. Vidya Kanuga (later Munsi), who attended the conference in 1945 as a representative of the All India Students’ Federation, later wrote: “For those present at the Congress, there could never be any question of separating the struggle for women’s rights into a compartment, separate from that of entire mankind’s struggle for peace, against fascism and for democratic advance. The entire life experience of those who attended that Congress ensured this.”
In India, March 8 was observed for the first time in the forties by the radical women as a day of solidarity with the global women’s struggle against fascism. For progressive women, the fight against fascism and the struggle for gender equality are inter-related. This was the lesson drawn from the worldwide women’s movement.
In fact, March 8 is not a day of celebration to exchange flowers, rather a day to express solidarity with all the peace-loving struggling women of the world. In India, the day became popular much later from 1975 onwards. The proposal to declare Eighth March as the International Women’s Day was given at the UN General Assembly by Herta Kusinen, the President of the WIDF, at the 24th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Today when in India we find the fascist forces emerging and throttling the voices of democracy, Eighth March assumes far greater significance for ordinary womenfolk of our country. When there is an environment of fear and terror where any note of dissent or any criticism of the policies and strategies of the government of the day is misconstrued as being anti-national and unpatr-iotic, one is reminded of those events that took place during the Second World War in Europe. The entire trend of the majoritarian culture with hate speeches by BJP leaders and/or those occupying constitutional positions, such as Ram Shankar Katheria, Yogi Adityanath etc., is reminiscent of a fascist state where there is no space for any divergent opinion. Though the RSS and BJP are trying to appropriate Ambedkar today while targeting Nehru, they have conveniently forgotten how the RSS volunteers had organised more than 90 demonstrations in Delhi in 1952 and burnt the effigies of not only Nehru but also Ambedkar who had then initiated the drafting of the Hindu Code Bill. (The Times of India, March 5, 2016) The Hindu Code Bill was the first pro-woman legislation in independent India that was vehemently opposed by the predecessors of those who are now campaigning for Hindutva.
Women in India, already burdened with livelihood issues, lack of food security, high rates of crime, are bound to face state repression if the democratic space to voice their demands is curtailed by the so-called fringe elements of the ruling dispensation. This reminds us of the genesis of India’s radical women’s movement rallying against fascism in the forties of the previous century. The hour has now come again to connect the women’s fight for equality with the overall struggle to save democracy and defend our Constitution.
Gargi Chakravartty is an activist in the women’s movement.