Indu Agnihotri

Coming from a family with one foot in old Delhi and another in a UP town ruled, till independence, by a small princely family, I had exposure to contradictory influences in my growing up years.  Schooling in a Convent school drilled a strong set of dos and don’ts, while the feudal connection brought exposure to the rights and wrongs of history. Growing up in post-partition Delhi conveyed a sense of what it was to survive and move on despite loss and suffering. Nearing adolescence, I had already developed my own take on power, authority, coercion, patriarchy and discrimination.

In JNU, where I studied for my Masters, the ideological debate around what had appeared to be the givens of history was a shocker. That there were so many ways of understanding, experiencing and confronting reality was truly an eye opener. It helped to understand social relations and personal relationships better, to say the least.

Somewhere down the line, I picked up friends. Common between us was our interest in women’s rights. And so it was in 1973, Meera Velayudhan, Gail Pearson and I landed up in Akhila Shivdas’ terrace flat, armed with photocopies of Wally Secombe’s ‘Housework Under Capitalism’, published in New Left Review. Just as we began figuring out how not to tie up our destiny with the drudgery of domestic slavery and redraw the lines between the world and ourselves, our comrades in the Trotskyist group, gave us a jolt: why should you – women – meet separately? And why not, was our spontaneous response, even before we thought of arguments for and against this minor tension that had developed in the landscape of JNU politics.

We stuck it out and got branded as the ones with an ‘interest in women.’  The label stayed, for better or for worse! Little did I know then that I would be spending the rest of my life expanding the contours of that ‘interest.’ With time, the circle of those sharing this interest expanded despite other more overtly political engagements. Our involvement began to take more concrete shape even as developments forced us to contextualise women’s experience in the larger political firmament.

The Emergency and the resistance against it in JNU helped to crystallise incipient ideas. My own experience on the editorial boards of Filhaal, a civil rights’ paper, and Manushi cleared the mist. My revolutionary friends moved away from Leninism towards anarchism, anarcho- syndicalism and libertarian Marxism. From them and the new found feminist sisterhood of post-emergency Delhi, I learnt that the absence of structures did not always mean democracy, or, greater transparency in decision-making. The former’s critique of ‘the social democrats who survived on concessions given by the bourgeoisie,’ made me appreciate how significant it was to fight to preserve these ‘concessions.’ More than a year spent with Manushi, which transformed from a movement-oriented collective initiative to a one-woman show illustrated that women did not always bond the best nor necessarily represent the opposite of what men stood for. Negative traits could inhabit female spaces as much as they could the revolutionary male. It was not about biology after all, as we had argued in the first place.

There were efforts by women to organise in India and elsewhere. The theory and texts we imbibed affirmed our instinctive responses concerning the need to challenge women’s oppression as part of processes of social transformation. In 1979, Meera and I went to meet and persuade our friends in the CPI(M) to together start a women’s organisation. Our persistence made the secretary of Delhi’s party unit remark, ‘These two come and sit on dharna in my office every day!’

But some people in the organisation did take note. Brinda Karat was one of them. We had earlier approached her for contacts with women workers for Manushi. She sent us to a tile factory in Doriwalan where women stood for hours in cold water to pile up tiles. The idea perhaps was to see whether we could merge our theoretical approach with the everyday experience of women facing exploitation.

A later image, 1979: me trudging to Lawrence Road where striking women workers from NAFED were demanding gloves and wooden planks for their palms and toes, sore due to continuous exposure to fluid extract from making ketchup, juices and jams. I learnt a lot about the women’s question that day and other days, subsequently. As I interacted with women, workers and workers’ wives from the textile mills of Delhi, huddled in their homes in far flung bastis, or loom workers in Sawan Park, trying to figure out how a women’s organization could take up their issues, many things became clear.

‘Their issues,’ did I say? Perhaps this helped us frame issues differently from our other friends in the women’s movement. How women are not just women, but workers, drawn from various communities, castes and regions, speaking different languages and how the state, society and their families exclude them from their rights. They brought the vibrancy of diverse experiences and a potential to take the women’s question into their homes. They framed it, they fought it and they pushed it onto public agendas. Certainly, even as some of the activists were drawn from more elite backgrounds, the strength of the movement, its slogans, its face was built on the life and experience of these women.

Working together to organise CITU’s first Working Women’s Convention again drove home the need to focus on both, the commonality and the specificity of women’s experience from their differential locations. Jana Natya Manch’s first ever performance of ‘Aurat’ depicting a working woman who starts out by staying away from the struggle to raising the flag in the final scene was a shot in the arm. The presence of Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar brought in an academic perspective while also pointing to the need to critique official policy.  AIDWA was born out of similar and varied experiences.

The changing political atmosphere in India brings other images to mind. The 1984 riots cast their shadow on Delhi and its women, forcing us to set up Mohalla-based peace committees to curtail rising communal forces; returning home after volunteering in a relief camp in Jehangirpuri I would sense the haunting mood of the evenings. The anti-Mandal agitation, when middle-class urban women took to the streets while the organised slum women restrained their children from joining the riotous mobs, even as they were being egged on by their ‘concerned’ teachers in their efforts to divide the poor further changed the climate. Only to be followed by growing tension during the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid campaign and AIDWA and others mobilising women for peace and harmony, including  by raising the slogan ‘Mandir Bane Masjid Rahe,’ at an all India rally in Lucknow, to pose issues differently from the aggressive fundamentalism of contending religious communities.

Through these years, even as the strains on Indian democracy surfaced again and again, the mood of this city that I have grown up in has changed. Today, with the neo-liberal advance, even as many more arrive to live out their lives on its streets, the media has shifted its gaze from the development-oriented human interest stories which provided some space for women’s issues to the booming market and glamour that inhabit the corporate space. Women have paid no small price in this story of double digit growth and shining India.

From being part of initial efforts to influence agendas, women are once again being pushed into the spectrum of a narrow feminist gaze. Rich, vibrant and diverse in their articulation, they seem, nevertheless, to become more marginal to the evolving discourse of power. The challenge for women to write their future differently remains and, we may need to look for more than one answer.

As I look back, I know that even as I taught history in Delhi University, I learnt from women living in the slums. Even as I embellished my vocabulary from the books I read, I learnt to speak the language of the movement and to spell out its goals in their words. And, even as I struggled with my personal dilemmas, I picked up the courage to fight my battles drawing strength from the determination that I saw on their faces to make sure that the next time a woman was tortured, deep in the middle of the night, she would have a place and people to go to for support, guidance, redress and solidarity.

There are many who believe that movements ride on the shoulders of spontaneity. What they do not know is that struggles are sustained through the continuous efforts of the organised strength of women who work tirelessly, in-between their home-based work, cooking meals and attending to their children’s needs, by nurturing this desire for change and organising for it.

I was lucky to be part of a collective process of women reflecting on their experiences and resolving to organise for change. Even as we still chase that dream of change, the world tells us that this neo-liberal uni-polar world with its oppressive free market ideology has come to stay. Though it may sound Utopian from the comfort zone of our middle-class, reasonably sedate lives, the fact remains that the women’s movement in India – and in Delhi – has gathered enough experience to know that despite today’s vastly depressing geopolitical environment, change remains inevitable. The movement continues with its efforts to contribute to this change by bringing to that process the positive energy of a radical perspective combined with a humane approach, with a view to advancing Democracy, Equality and Women’s Emancipation. With the experience of all that it has given to me, I too persist with my hopes for change, riding on the shoulder of this movement.