My story starts, somewhat incongruously, with the inevitable struggle of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer to get a “good” posting in the Government of India. One needs the pull and push of godfathers and godmothers, especially for postings considered cushy or prestigious (the two words have different connotations).
So, when I decided to opt for the normal five-year tenure in the Government of India, away from my home cadre of Himachal Pradesh, I was aware of these facts of life but did not visualise how difficult it would be. However, I found an unexpected ally in a non-governmental organisation (NGO), who introduced me to Bunker Roy, who in turn became a conduit in my search.
When I was finally informed that I had been posted as joint secretary in the Department of Social Welfare (as it was then called), my heart did sink a bit. “Social Welfare” or “Welfare” postings were not really popular with the bureaucracy, but after sternly telling myself that beggars could not be choosers, I trotted off to Shastri Bhavan in early 1985.
Bunker Roy had apparently done his bit in spreading the word. I came to know this when one day, soon after I joined in Shastri Bhavan, R P Khosla, the secretary of the ministry, called me to his room. There were two women sitting there with him and one of them, who was puffing away on her cigarette, turned around, looked me up and down and said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “Ah, there you are” – as if she knew me (or knew of me) and was expecting me. I was completely mystified. Coming from the boon docks, I had never heard of Vina Mazumdar, or of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS). Nor had I heard, except very vaguely, about the women’s movement.
The rest, I would say, is my history. I found a new vocation, a new interest, a new awareness, both of the world around me and of myself. Over the four years I spent in Shastri Bhavan, I discovered “gender”, with all its connotations. Vina-di, as she was widely known, was the guiding light, the reason why I felt myself so involved in this “not so important ministry”, why I began to understood a dictum “the personal is the political”. (All this was in spite of a solicitous junior (male) colleague warning me of the pitfalls of engaging with “women’s groups” – he graphically described how every divorce that took place would be followed by celebrations organised by such groups.)
But what I started to feel was that I had a whole new world to explore, uncover and understand. I had not heard of the Committee on the Status of Women, or of Towards Equality (TE). It was just a report or a book, left on my table in the office, meant for “reading” because it related to the ministry (there were many of these). But the presence of, and my frequent meetings with Vina-di and her persona made TE come alive. This report became my first and primary textbook in Shastri Bhavan, enriched, with running anecdotes provided by one of my personal assistants in the office, S C Bhattacharya, who, coincidentally, had earlier worked as her stenographer when she was dictating the final report of TE. Bhattacharya remembered, especially, the high speed and the high quality of her dictation, which he said, was the best training-learning experience he had received in his career of stenography. I still have with me this old printed copy of TE (first edition), now dog-eared, torn and frayed. In turn, Bhattacharya told Vina Mazumdar that the new joint secretary seemed to be obsessed with TE and had issued instructions that she should not be disturbed in office with too many sundry visitors since “she had to make up for a lot of lost time”. In turn, Vina-di repeated this quote back to me, with some delight.
Vina Mazumdar took me under her wing. I learnt about the International Women’s Year (1975), the International Women’s Decade (1976-85), went through the reports of the Mexico (1975) and the Copenhagen (1980) Conferences on Women, and prepared the ground in Shastri Bhavan for the next (third) upcoming International Conference on Women scheduled for mid-year 1985 in Nairobi. My advantage was that the presence of Vina Mazumdar and her colleagues from CWDS made each of these earlier events come alive, because they, as the representatives of the women’s movement, were actively in pursuit of the implementation of the recommendations made earlier at these conclaves and they made me feel personally involved as well. This would not have happened if the UN reports of Mexico, Copenhagen, etc, were to just “officially” land on my table for me to read, which is what normally happens within the government departments and ministries. It would then have become a duty, sometimes even a chore, for bureaucrats to plough through these “weighty” tomes. (I would probably have told one of my juniors to prepare a “short” summary.) Personal involvement is rare in such a scenario, just official duty.
Education as Empowerment
One day she asked me to go with her to the room of the education secretary, Anil Bordia; a new National Policy on Education was on the anvil. One of Vina-di’s highest priorities related to education, to women’s education, and how it was visualised and implemented. She used to repeat to us a Sanskrit sloka, sa vidya ya vimuktaye – education is that which liberates – (this was long before Freire!). Anil Bordia was planning to arrange a workshop on the proposed “New Education Policy” (NEP) and, of course, wanted Vina Mazumdar’s help, especially for drafting the section on women’s education.
Her imprint is still there in this section of the policy document. Part IV of the 1986 policy, enshrined the title “Education for Women’s Equality”, starting with these memorable sentences:
Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women…In order to neutralise the accumulated distortions of the past…the National Education system will play a positive interventionist role in the empowerment of women…foster the development of new values through redesigned curricula, textbooks, the training and orientation of teachers, decision-makers and administrators, and the active involvement of educational institutions. This will be an act of faith and social engineering…The National Education System will play a positive interventionist role in the empowerment of women.
It was the first time that the word “empowerment” entered the vocabulary of a government policy document and it was Vina-di’s achievement. I remember that in the official discussions which I attended many eyebrows were raised. Sadly, it has now been debased and trivialised by overuse in all sorts of other contexts, but the original sheen has still not disappeared from my mind.
When this concept of education as a means of empowering women entered government policy, it did not lie dormant, with no practical expression or manifestation. Vina Mazumdar strongly believed that government policies are to be “implemented” and not to be kept as showpieces. The initiation of the Mahila Samakhya programmes in 1988 for rural, poor women (especially scheduled caste and scheduled tribe women) by the education ministry was a direct result of this theme of women’s empowerment in the NEP. It was an unconventional programme, raised eyebrows for its apparent breaking of protocols and government’s “rules of business”. Mahila Samakhya is not a programme which taught the women only the ABCs; it mobilised and organised the poorest women of the locality and village into groups and taught them, what can be termed, “life-skills” using unorthodox teaching-learning methods, so that they developed the ability to fight their own battles and thus become empowered women.
Women and Children
Notwithstanding her priority to the building of a strong women’s movement in the country, Vina-di did not separate or split issues relating to women and those relating to the child. Many feminists – especially radical feminists from the west – looked at the processes of motherhood as patriarchal ploys of diverting women’s attention from their autonomy and their individuality; child-care and child-rearing was seen as a burden that prevented women from an “outside” life, relegating her to the “inside”. In India, the early women’s movements of the 1970s followed this reasoning, by and large. If women and children were clubbed as a dyad by the State, this was more for administrative and management reasons, whereas the Indian’s women’s movements of that time were largely anchored by women and focused on women. Childcare, maternity and maternal health, the population issue, etc, were extremely important issues for the movement, but they were seen from the point of view of women and not that of the child. Vina Mazumdar, however, showed far-reaching and exceptional sensitivity towards the need to visualise the mother and the child in the same frame, but as independent persona, each having separate identities, both of which had to be cared for.
A decade after TE, in 1985 the book titled, Who Cares? A Study of Child Care Facilities for Low Income Working Women in India, written my Mina Swaminathan and published by the CWDS with the feminist publishing house Kali for Women came out. Vina-di wrote the preface, in which she mentioned the connections between TE and the presence of childcare facilities as an important support service for women. The book was written and published with the approval of the executive committee of CWDS, even while Mina made it abundantly clear that she was doing so from the perspective of child needs, not from that of women. CWDS fully supported her in this. In her preface, Vina-di recalled Mina’s own contribution to the setting up of CWDS in 1980.
There was genuine partnership in such efforts between those who worked for the women’s cause and those who worked for the child’s cause. It was not a bifurcated interest or interests. Vina-di had much to contribute to this broader vision of the existential relationship of the mother and the child through her encouragement of those who were looking at children’s needs. Mina acknowledges that it was Vina Mazumdar who initiated the study and supported its completion with utmost interest. In the first chapter of the book, Mina points to the increasing recognition that women and children need to be seen together and the needs of families to be considered as a whole, that facilities for children of working women can no longer be seen in isolation from the need for child development and education, nor could children’s programmes be seen in isolation from the changing position of women and families. The two, she says, should converge and be placed in the larger framework of social and economic change and development. Both Mina and Vina Mazumdar always prioritised the childcare needs of poor and vulnerable women.
Similarly, when Razia Ismail, after retirement from UNICEF, put all her energies into the formation and running of the Indian Alliance for Child Rights, Vina Mazumdar presented the first annual lecture on the girl child in 2001.
Academia and action came together for Vina-di. She did not see any fault line or divergence between them. She was the architect of the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) programme of women’s studies, under which for the first time the focus was shifted from middle-class preoccupations to those of the socially and economically deprived. ICSSR commissioned studies on unorganised women workers in the coir, cashew and other industries. She was instrumental in pushing the idea of creating the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), which she presented during a conference at the SNDT University under the then Vice Chancellor Madhuri Shah. After the memorandum of association was finalised and passed, elections were held to pick the executive committee to conduct the IAWS conferences.
From its inception, the IAWS has been an organisation for both scholars and activists, and as Maithreyi Krishnaraj points out, it has rejected the separate categorisation of these two conventional groups. Devaki Jain says that it has redefined the scholar as an activist and the activist as an intellectual. When the Mahila Samakhya programme was started, the women of the sanghas (i e, the village women) said that “they wanted time to think” according to Srilatha Batliwala, who started the programme in Karnataka. In each of the IAWS conferences, both scholars and activists participated and still do. As Maithreyi Krishnaraj points out, this was a special feature of the IAWS unlike other discipline-based bodies.
Over 600 women attended the first conference and Vina-di’s efforts to get the presence of the members of the women’s wing of political parties brought in Mrinal Gore, Ahalya Rangnekar, Manju Gandhi, Sarojini Varadappan, Sister Mary Braganza, Pramila Dandavate, etc. Vina-di’s attempt was to build a federation across all parties. Though this idea failed, the women’s movement always had the presence of women members of political parties and this was largely due to Vina Mazumdar’s vision. She had created a forum of “seven sisters” which is still remembered with nostalgia.
The Responsibility of Democracy
Vina-di’s insistence on conducting formal, planned elections for selection of office-bearers of women’s organisations is another unique aspect of her faith in democratic values. It is also a tribute to her insistence on formal procedures being consistently followed, perhaps due to her own collegiate experiences. Besides the IAWS (which came into being later), the CWDS, started in 1980, has regularly conducted formal elections for their office-bearers. This formal electoral procedure is not followed by most NGOs and other social organisations where informal procedures such as election by consensus, show of hands or voice vote are the usual modes.
Vina-di has an anecdote that related to one of her many trips to Bankura (West Bengal) where CWDS was working with tribal women. She used to tell us this incident quite often; it had obviously made a deep impression on her. Lotika Sarkar was with her on this trip to Bankura. Lotikadi had just finished speaking to the tribal women of the area (unlettered and poor) telling them and making them understand – as she was asked to – about their rights relating to all aspects of their lives. Her intention was to make the women acquainted with the issue of women’s rights, how they are not powerless creatures but strong beings because they had rights as per the Constitution of India. The women heard her talk with rapt attention. After the talk was over, one of the tribal women (I forget her name) put up her hand and put a question to Lotika Sarkar,
It is wonderful that you have come here from Delhi and told us, unlettered women, about all our rights, about what we can do with these rights. It has made us feel strong; our shoulders are now straight and broad after listening to your talk. Now, tell us what our responsibilities are.
I think Vina-di remembered this small incident all her life because it reinforced her belief in the strength of women, especially of poor women. The women’s movements have always fought against the “welfare” approach to women, against the tendency to see women as powerless, needing protection rather than empowerment.
Vina-di led a multidimensional life, with multifarious interests, as her biography Memories of a Rolling Stone has depicted. To those of us who knew her closely, she will always remain a lasting influence, because she has touched our lives with such strength. It would not be an exaggeration for me to say that my life as an IAS officer took a complete U-turn after knowing her, working with and listening to her, interacting to her and most of all, learning from her.
- They don’t make them like her anymore: A tribute to Vina Mazumdar #poem (kractivist.wordpress.com)
- #RIP- The Grand Old Lady of Indian Womens Movement, Vina Mazumdar – No More #Womenrights (kractivist.wordpress.com)
- Vina Mazumdar’s Rolling Story (kractivist.wordpress.com)