Vimala Ramachandran

Tryst With the Women’s Movement

I was studying in class 8th in Kendriya Vidhyalaya Pattom in Trivandrum, Kerala. The year was 1968. We had just moved from Shimla and being children of a central government officer, we barely stayed two years in one city. A teacher in school, I do not recall his name, was passionate about the civil rights movement in the US. He was a great admirer of Martin Luther King and the assassination of such a heroic leader in March 1968 had disturbed him greatly. He introduced us to the historical speech – “I have a dream” – and many of us learnt to recite it. One day he talked about Sri Narayana Guru (1855–1928), a revered spiritual leader and social reformer who revolted against casteism and propagated the new value of freedom and social equality. He asked if we would be willing to do a comparative study of the two great reformers.

Some of us volunteered, not knowing much about civil rights or the social reform movement in Kerala.

We started off reading about the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the struggle for equality and justice in the US. Classmates who could read Malayalam read about the Kerala social reformer and shared it with the rest of the group. We gathered press clippings, went to the British Council library, the public library, the ashram, attended lectures, walked around the city and talked to people. We stayed and ate together – students of different castes, religion and speaking different languages (Kendriya Vidhyalaya was an amazing melting pot of students from all over the country. Small groups of students came together to write about the two great leaders. We then put up an exhibition of sorts in our class. It was the most wonderful two-weeks of my student life.

Coming from a traditional Brahmin family, I was not adequately exposed to ideas about caste inequality. The first time I heard about it was during the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu when I was studying in class 5 in Kendriya Vidhyalaya, IIT Madras)  and I recall elders arguing that Brahmins have no future in the state and we should therefore learn English and Hindi well. There were others who disagreed and talked about historical injustice. Heated discussions followed and children were often asked to go out and play and not eavesdrop on conversation of adults.

The short two-week project opened my eyes to caste and race, social discrimination and the spectre of inequality and injustice. On completion of the project, I started questioning traditional practices, subtle and overt forms of discrimination, consciously befriended children from different communities and backgrounds. I used to make it a point to eat in the homes of my friends. The biggest change that came over my friends and me was that we started questioning and reflecting on everyday experiences. We discussed the food shortages of 1968–69, the unrest and stark inequalities in society. Our world was turned up side down in a short span of a few weeks. It did not seem such a momentous experience at that time, it was only many years later as an adult that I realised how the kind of education I received, made such an impact on me. I also realised that our teacher did not tell us what to look for and what not to look for, what to believe and most importantly he did not lecture us on caste or religion. He just let us explore and reach our own conclusion.

The late-1960s and the early-1970s were heady times, as high school students we were fascinated with the revolt in France and were hungry for news about what students across the world were up to – the civil rights movement, the new left in Europe, opposition to the Vietnam war and closer home the simmering anger about the way the Indian state was shaping up. I finished school in 1971 and went into college in Hyderabad. Almost everyone around me was questioning, protesting and dreaming about change. While many fellow students embraced the communist philosophy a few of us – women students – were uncomfortable with the patriarchal values that were embedded in dominant socialist and communist doctrines of that time. The Left in general was not comfortable discussing dowry, purdah, exclusion of widows, widow remarriage and child marriage. These were real issues for young women – Hindu and Muslim – from traditional families and from middle class and lower middle class homes. The constant tug of war between different interpretations of equality seized my imagination. We seemed to live in two different worlds – while in college we engaged with modern ideas and as soon as we stepped into our homes, we were expected to conform, to be the tradition-bearers of our family.

The three years at Osmania University Women’s College, Hyderabad were not dramatic. This was the time when I read a lot about all kinds of protest movements, especially the budding feminist movement in the West. All around us the Maoist students’ movement was making its presence but we remained cocooned in the safe environment of a women’s college.

The real change came when I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1974. The campus was full of posters, people professing different ideologies, arguing and debating, there were elections happening and there was so much to learn about what was happening in the world. My first real tryst into the women’s movement was through an exhibition that we organised – it was called “Oppression through the Ages”. It was about women’s oppressions and women’s movements. That was the first time I seriously engaged with, read about and put together information that transformed me.

In the immediate post-emergency period (1977–78) an anti dowry campaign was underway in Delhi. As a young college lecturer, I plunged into demonstrations and protests; participated in street plays, learnt and sang songs and discussed women’s situation with students and teachers. It was a time of exploration and learning. By the end of the 1970s a number of women’s organisations came up – the Manushi collective was born. Saheli, a women’s crisis centre came into being and most importantly a network of like-minded women came together, cutting across social, economic and educational status.

It was a difficult phase – the movement was young and the odds we were fighting against seemed so enormous and almost insurmountable. Women were being harassed, burnt, tortured in the homes and the law was a mute witness. This was the time when I became disillusioned with protests and demonstrations. I felt something more concrete needs to be done to enable women to fight for their rights.

In early 1985, a unique ‘mela’ (a fair) was organised by Social Work Research Centre [SWRC], Tilonia. At that time, I was working as a Lecturer in Janki Devi Mahavidhyalaya of Delhi University and was invited to participate in the ‘mela’ and help out with the logistics. Hundreds of women from different districts of Rajasthan and from women’s groups across the country came together to talk about gender relations and related social issues. In small tents pitched across the campus, groups of women talked, shared their experience, enacted plays, learnt screen-printing, sang and danced. The drums never stopped beating and it was a long celebration. A large group of them were involved in Women’s Development Programme of Rajasthan. It was a fascinating experience as poor rural women talked with tremendous confidence, celebrating their newly acquired consciousness and relating to each other as women.

It was refreshingly different from meetings of feminists groups I had attended in Delhi. Nobody was raving and ranting about the dismal state of affairs or pinning all the blame on the ‘state’, nor was any attempt made to ‘identify villains’. The mood was one of genuine exploration. There were no pat answers dressed in ideological jargon. They were discussing the barriers for women accessing economic, political and intellectual resources and how women can overcome them. The primary focus was on ways and means to empower poor women. Boundaries between urban and rural women dissolved and we found a common meeting ground.

This was another turning point in my life. I believed that women need to be organised and empowered in such a way that they can negotiate this patriarchal and unequal world from a position of strength, with the confidence that they can use the laws of the land and their own strength to bring about change. I had personally experienced the power of ideas, the power of information and the enormous difference self-esteem and self-confidence can make in the way I related with the world. I have moved on from there on, believing firmly that change has to start with each one of us.