Vina Mazumdar’s Rolling Story

Pamela Philipose

Many known and unknown women have helped build up that seeming inchoate, open-ended, work-in-progress that is the Indian women’s movement. Among this remarkable sorority is Vina Mazumdar, known widely as ‘Vina-di’, who being endowed with tremendous energy, intelligence and an interest in ideas, has contributed immensely to the intellectual growth of this movement.

In her eighties now, Mazumdar has recently written a memoir, entitled ‘Memories of a Rolling Stone’, brought out by Zubaan. To have a woman who was a notable educationist, who anchored the 1974 Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, who is widely seen as the “grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia”, and who remains a feminist/activist/”trouble maker” to this day, set down her recollections of a lifetime spanning eight decades is in itself cause for celebration. So many of her contemporaries have, sadly, passed on leaving their footprints behind, but not their words. In her acknowledgements, Vina-di indicates one of the factors that motivated the work: “I view this book as part of my tribute to the Indian women’s movement to assert the rights they had earned through participating in India’s freedom struggle.”

The freedom struggle certainly helped to shape this young life. When Mazumdar joined the Delhi University, she could sense the political turmoil in the air. The Constituent Assembly was in session, and she would occasionally make her way to the visitors’ gallery to listen to a galaxy of leaders hold forth on their idea of India. One abiding memory was that of witnessing the Union Jack coming down and the Tricolour going up at Delhi’s India Gate, the other was of a caption-less David Low cartoon she saw in a British newspaper as a student at Hugh’s College, Oxford, which appeared soon after Gandhi’s assassination, depicting Socrates with the bowl of hemlock, Christ on the cross, and Gandhi with his ‘dandi’ (stick).

Here then was a women shaped by pre-Independent India, who would go on to try and shape, in her own way, post-Independent India. The challenges Mazumdar faced were many, and they included domestic upheavals caused by professional choices. There was also the backlash from entrenched hierarchies – notably during her courageous attempt to breathe fresh life into the stagnant academic scenario of the University of Berhampur in Orissa.

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Meanwhile, the world began to focus more on women. The United Nations marked 1975 as the Year of Women, and went on to declare 1975-1985 as the decade of women. This meant that UN member-states had to submit Country Reports on the status of women in their respective countries. That was how fate and a visionary bureaucrat called J.B. Naik, conspired to introduce Mazumdar to the subject of gender. She was taken on as Member-Secretary of the committee that was drafting India’s report on the status of its women. The whole experience was to prove a life-changer. As Mazumdar puts it in her memoirs, “My earlier struggles represented an individual woman’s efforts to balance the demands of professional and familial responsibilities. The new struggle was increasingly a collective, ideological one – to rediscover the Indian nation, the world, the past, the present and the future – from the perspective of India’s hidden and unacknowledged majority: poor working women in rural and urban areas.”

The exercise meant, first of all, evolving a framework with which to regard the position of women in the country cutting across castes, classes, economic strata and religion and reorganising existing demographic data to yield its evidence of the large scale “marginalisation, poverty and invisibility” of Indian women caught in a “dual economy” (traditional and modern) – a concept borrowed from Gunnar Myrdal‘s ‘Asian Drama’. It was what Mazumdar describes as a “fantastic experience of the evolution and growth of collective thinking”. Despite occasional personal differences within the Committee, the process was driven by a “collective conscience”, as Mazumdar puts it.

There were major silences in the Report and Mazumdar recognises that the Committee did not pay sufficient attention to the issues of rape and dowry. Yet, it is no exaggeration to say the Committee on the Status of Women in India Report, which came out in 1974, changed the way the country regarded its women. It countered assumptions of the millennia, undermined government mindsets, helped unleash innumerable mutinies, and changed policies and laws. In fact, it was revolutionary in its impact, all the more remarkable for having emerged just before one of the darkest periods of recent Indian history – the Emergency. If the Committee, and its Member-Secretary, did not have friends and supporters in the establishment, it may have never seen the light of day. Today, decades later, Mazumdar, recalls with what one would imagine an impish smile, “Before the rest of the government could realise what the Report contained it was placed before Parliament, a report very critical of the Government of India.”

The realisation of the centrality of gender in society led to another significant process in which Mazumdar again played an important role, and that was the emergence of women’s studies as an academic discipline. Mazumdar sees the women’s movement and the women’s studies movement as “twin movements”, each influencing and furthering the other. The logical outcome of this process was the setting up of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in May 1980, with Mazumdar as its founder-director. It was at this point that her concerned elder sister, observing Mazumdar’s penchant for embracing ever new challenges despite the fact that her daughters still needed her attention, termed her a “rolling stone” – the title of the book.

But the stone, despite such apprehensions, rolled on nevertheless and invariably into fresh fields. This included a project that came to define Mazumdar’s contribution as a social analyst-activist. To put it in Mazumdar’s own words, “Our (CWDS’s) real journey of discovery began at the ‘Reorientation Camp for Seasonally Migrant Women Labourers’, organised by the Department of Land Reforms, Government of West Bengal, in Jhilmili village in Banjura district.” That encounter with tribal peasant women proved to be an “unusual alliance of a social science research institution and groups of the poorest, migrant rural women”, and to Mazumdar it showed the possibility of arriving at development with a human face.

The CWDS had its plate full. There were a plethora of concerns that needed scholarly scrutiny, ranging from the resurgence of the practice of ‘sati’ in some pockets to one of the most serious demographic challenges facing India today: the skewed sex ratio.

When ‘Memories of a Rolling Stone’ was released in Delhi, Brinda Karat, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s  Association, spoke for many when she observed how Mazumdar helped bring women together. Said Karat, “This was because she was convinced that if things have to be changed on the ground, it has to be a joint effort… Vina-di put things in a wider perspective, which could draw the Indian women’s movement forward. This helped it to retain a dynamism that has petered out in many movements in the West.”

By arrangement with WFS   



Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: The indefatigable freedom fighter and champion of #womenrights

By- Rupen Ghosh, Facebook

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, born on this day in 1903 (April 3, 1903), should be remembered today for drawing attention to the revival and promotion of India’s rich and varied art and crafts, for championing of women’s rights, and as a social reformer, a fearless and committed freedom fighter and revolutionary. Committed to the causes of women empowerment, education, handicraft, theatre along with her contribution to the field of arts, crafts and writings, she was a remarkable person, who was endearingly referred to as a romantic rebel. Some credited her for initiating cultural renaissance in India. It is a pity that many in the present generation have not even heard of her name and her championing the role of women in the Indian freedom movement.

She came from a family background where her parents remained in touch with such prominent freedom fighters and intellectuals as M G Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and women leaders like Ramabai Ranade, and Annie Besant, and this attracted young Kamaladevi towards the then resurgent nationalist movement. Later on, she participated in Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagraha of 1930 and was chosen as a front line unit of volunteers, after having prevailed over Mahatma not to restrict the movement to men alone. Defiant and daring, despite herself coming from a conservative background, she deified the orthodoxy and married Harindranath Chattopadhyay, when she was a widow, much to the opposition of the patriarchal society of those times, the early years of the last century, that were essentially conservative and conformist and against widow marriage. Harindranath was brother of Sarojini Naidu and an actor of some repute. Theatre bound them together and Kamladevi would act in and promote plays of social themes that carried the message of social reforms. The marriage however did not last long and they later on separated amicably.

As a committed women’s rights activist, she was instrumental in establishing the All-India Women’s Conference, with a clear agenda to work steadfastly for legislative reforms to bring women’s issues to the centre stage. During her tenure, she set up educational a number of institutions for women. Notable was the formation of Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences in New Delhi, a unique institution in those days.

During the ‘30s, she joined a group of idealistic and intellectually gifted and committed young men and women in forming the Congress Socialist Party. She subsequently became president of the party, working alongside Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and Minoo Masani. She remained a life-long committed feminist, and for her, socialism and feminism were inextricably linked. She fought for women’s rights, including launching struggle for better working conditions for women in working places – factories and farms – and was one of the first to fight for their right to paid maternity leave.

An indefatigable freedom fighter and an idealist, she plunged wholeheartedly in the Quit India movement of 1942, and was incarcerated in jail for over a year. However, as India gained independence in 1947, she eschewed active party politics and stayed away from any accepting any formal posts, be in in the cabinet or as a governor, though there were offers in that direction, and chose to devote her life in social work. During the ‘50s and beyond, Kamaladevi concentrated towards the revival of art and crafts of India, by setting up the All India Handicrafts Board and being associated with it for two decades or so. Her interests in weaving, pottery, sculpture, toy-making, etc. led to forming cooperatives to market the produce of these wonderful craftsmen and craftswomen, so that they are not deprived of their rightful earnings. It is not any exaggeration that if today, India’s crafts and indigenous traditions survive and have a presence in the country as well as abroad, a large part of the credit should legitimately belong to Kamladevi Chattopadhay. Indeed, she was truly a remarkable personality, a selfless freedom fighter, committed to such varied interests as social reform, gender empowerment, community leadership, untiring work for promotion of handicrafts and indigenous culture. and devoted her life to these causes.

Declaration of Independence of Tibet in Delhi


Students for a Free Tibet

Students for a Free Tibet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Posted on August 16, 2012


POST BY JYOTSNA – Students for a Free Tibet-Delhi Member

Students for a Free Tibet and Regional Tibetan Youth Congress Delhi held a public gathering yesterday (Wednesday, August 15th) to mark India’s 66th Independence Day by unveiling a re-creation of the Declaration of Tibetan Independence issued by the His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama in 1913.  The year 2013 will mark exactly 100 years since Tibet proclaimed the restoration of its independence. The text of this proclamation has survived, though the original document did not. The 10 foot-long handwritten scroll, bordered with brocade and silk in the style of a thangka, was unveiled by Shri Vijay Kranti, renowned photojournalist and a long time Tibet supporter. The proclamation was read out by prominent Tibetan and Indian community leaders, MPs, students, and Indian supporters in Tibetan, Hindi and English.

India’s independence was won through a freedom struggle based on the principles of non-violence, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. The Tibetan freedom struggle shares the same values as the Indian Independence movement. At this crucial time when almost 50 Tibetans have made the ultimate sacrifice to protest Chinese rule, it is imperative that we remember Tibet’s past as a sovereign nation and commit ourselves to the Tibetan freedom struggle.

As the world’s largest democracy, and with a particularly fierce freedom struggle essentially based on Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and non-cooperation, India has a moral obligation to add her voice to the multilateral government pressure on China to stop the crackdown in Tibet.

Therefore, Indian members of Students for a Free Tibet has initiated a Petition campaign to call citizen of India to stand with Tibet.

As a conscious Indian citizen who greatly values my independence, I have signed this petition to strongly urge Shri S. M. Krishna, The Minister of External Affairs to make a strong and clear statement acknowledging the crackdown in Tibet, and to highlight the human rights violations being carried out in Tibet today.

Click here for the Petition. Please share widely to your friends also.

We will deliver this petition on October 2nd, 2012 – Gandhi Jayanti – a day that symbolizes our nation’s ability to reject colonial rule, to recognize freedom as our birthright, and to regain our independence.

I am writing to you to urge you to join me in signing this petition.

With Hope,

Jyotsna George

Indian Member of Student for a Free Tibet





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