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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015

Jagmati Sangwan — A Committed Social Reformer

Sunday 22 March 2015, by Ranbir Singh



Born on January 2, 1960 at village Butana of Sonipat district, Jagmati Sangwan, General Secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), may be legitimately acknowledged as a committed social reformer. She had to operate in a State characterised by the paradox of economic development and social regression.

Haryana has been able to emerge as one of the most developed States of the Indian Union on account of the success of the Green Revolution and White Revolution mainly because of the contribution of women in these. But despite this, the women continued to suffer from domestic violence, sexual abuses, denial of higher education, share in property and prohibition from marriage within gotra (clan), within the village and in the adjoining villages on account of the persistence of a neo-feudal and conservative culture in the rural areas of the State. So much so that there were instances where Khap Panchayats dissolved already solemnised marriages on the pretext of the violation of maryada (tradition). Although these were not directly responsible for the honour killings of those who had married against these norms, the Khap Panchayats cannot be altogether absolved of the charge that the retrograde culture promoted by them prompts some families to indulge in such crimes.

Although Haryana has undergone rapid modernisation on account of the enhanced rate of urbanisation, phenomenal increase in the number of educational institutions, rapid industrialisation and its development as a hub of information technology during the past three decades, the status of women has not undergone any qualitative change. This is evident from the adverse ratio in the population, lower rate of female literacy, incidence of malnutrition in them in comparison with males. And, instead, crimes against women have magnified over the years due to several reasons including sex ratio, frustration among the youth due to unemploy-ment and their increased criminalisation due to the impact of the consumer culture after liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the Indian economy on the one hand and on account of the adverse impact of the films, electronic and social media, that have been promoting a culture of vulgarity, on the other.

Sangwan had been able to become a social reformer on account of getting school education and play volleyball in her village due to the relatively liberal attitude of her Arya Samajist family. The Sports College for Women, set up by Devi Lal Government in 1978, not only enabled her to get free education but also helped emerge as a national level sports woman who represented India in international events. This further strengthened her confidence to take up cudgels with the powerful Khap Panchayats for safeguarding the rights of women. Her ability to get higher education—Master’s degrees in Sociology and Physical Education and Ph.D degree in Sociology—also provided her the needed strength to dare challenge the forces of oppression. Her participation in the students’ movement as an activist of the SFI and her marriage to Inderjeet, the State Secretary of the CPI-M, gave her the needed ideological orientation for this purpose. Her success in becoming an Associate Professor in Physical Education and Director of Women’s Study Centre in MDU, Rohtak also equipped her with the needed professional background for this task.

Sangwan joined the Haryana Janwadi Mahila Samiti for taking up the cause of women. She not only became its State President but also enrolled more than 50,000 women as its members. She launched awareness campaigns in almost all the districts of Haryana for mobilising the women to resist crimes against them. She also began a relentless campaign against female foeticide and honoured the couples having single girl child. She even barged into a meeting of a Khap Panchayat at Rohtak in 1982 in spite of the fact that women were completely debarred from it at that point of time. Later on, she took up cudgels against a Khap Panchayat when it annulled the already solemnised marriage of Sonia and Rampal despite the fact that they had a child from it. Afterwards she tenaciously fought for getting those involved in the honour killing of Manoj and Babli.

Her efforts, however, had only limited impact on account of the prevailing adverse socio-cultural and political environment on the one hand and weakness of the progressive forces in the State on the other. The virtual absence of civil society in the State has also been a hurdle in her way. But despite these constraints, she has dared to take up the cause of women of the State. Her efforts are bound to make a bigger impact as the neo-feudal culture has begun to gradually change with increasing number of girls in institutions of higher learning and their successes in the field of sports. But we still await a social reform movement for accelerating the pace.

Prof Ranbir Singh is a former Dean, Social Sciences, Kurukshetra University.

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