25 YEARS OF SAHELI:An Afternoon of Discussion
25 YEARS OF SAHELI: AN AFTERNOON OF DISCUSSION
Newsletter Dec 2006
Weaving together the strands
Saheli has had a challenging journey, and what better occasion than completing 25 years, to review and analyse our struggles in order to build on the strengths to move forward with renewed vigour.
We wanted to look at the experiences of a range of autonomous movements, and their experiences of being non-party and non-funded. These include – democratic rights movement, tribal/forest rights movements, Dalit movement, sexuality rights movement, autonomous rural women’s union (Sathins). The presentations explored the challenges faced; the limitations and as well as strengths of autonomous politics; experiences of allying with other like-minded movements, and the articulation of autonomous politics in these alliances and broad formations; experiences of mainstream electoral politics for autonomous mass organisations.
The presentations individually explored the articulation of women’s rights in these movements (for instance-Sathin union – women’s labour, forest movement – women’s rights over natural resources etc.), and examined whether these articulations had been shaped by autonomous politics. Most significantly, all presentations touched upon the relevance of autonomous politics in today’s political context.
So we had Uma Chakravarti, Delhi, speaking on the democratic rights’ movement; Chayanika Shah, Forum Against Oppression of Women and Labia, Mumbai, on the queer movement; Saraswathi on organising Dalit women workers in Karnataka; Shamim, Shramik Adivasi Sanghathan, M.P, on mass organising and political mobilisation and Kiran Dubey on the Sathin Union, Rajasthan.
UMA CHAKRAVARTI, DELHI, ON THE DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS’ MOVEMENT
Uma: As one of the older ones - am going to be 65-the history that I carry is perhaps out of the framework for many of you here. In the morning someone pointed out that she was younger than Saheli! I have a double location in the feminist movement. My politicisation and personal journey were both shaped in Miranda House College, where being a committed college teacher meant getting involved with issues around you. In the 1960s, the post-independence nation-state was in a crisis and the system was shaken by the Naxalite movement which raised issues of land rights and economic issues. More crises joined it – student movement in Bihar in the 1970s, and the Bodh Gaya movement.
To control all this upheaval, the Emergency was imposed. It was a traumatic moment in history, and the crisis was in the middle class. For instance, 200 teachers from Delhi University were jailed for being dissenters against Mrs Indira Gandhi and the party in power. Even the right to life was not conceded during the Emergency, but this was later challenged in court. When in 1977 the Emergency was lifted and elections announced, the most dramatic phenomenon was the emergence of civil society groups and civil rights groups. A huge meeting was held in 35 Ferozeshah Road. Sudesh (Vaid) of PUDR was one of the organisers. Sumanto (Banerjee) was there too. Groups like Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCL and DR) came up as autonomous groups. Not branches of political parties, and they were forums for all kinds of people to come together.
Women’s groups broke away from political parties. Women also went to jail at that time, but we never thought that they experienced jail as women. In my personal archives I just found Snehlata Reddy’s prison diary, containing a daily account of her imprisonment. She was having a nervous breakdown in jail. It was clear that she was experiencing jail life as a woman. She also talks about the imprisonment of sex workers etc. After she came out, she got involved in prison reform.
In 1977-80, civil rights groups were powerfully located because it wasn’t sure in which direction the political situation was headed. The reports that came out were all about attacks of state repression, police atrocities etc. At the time of Rameeza Bi’s rape, women’s groups and democratic rights groups were functioning closely together. Women’s groups started with custodial violence, but moved into looking at violence in the personal sphere. The range of violence is increasing but we are stuck at an earlier understanding. Autonomous politics is sort of a division of labour, and some of us have feet in both camps. We don’t want to make hierarchies of oppression or gradations of exploitation. But we are forced into decisions – where we are divided into groups which take up specific issues.
Transformatory movements of cutting edge come from people from the double location - women like Sudesh (Vaid), for whom her primary identity was PUDR. But because of her, the old notion of democratic rights was challenged: you cannot look at democratic rights without looking at the violence and oppression that women face within the family. So ‘Inside the Family’ – a fantastic document, was an attempt to understand dowry violence. It is a formidable conceptualisation of the family, and came about after pushing the civil rights groups who were not taking this up on their own. Similarly, ‘Sadda Haq’, the report on widows. To this day, the job of holding up the mirror is coming from women in the Democratic Rights movement. But the frame has not shifted. Are we able to expand it to incorporate it with all contradictions? Women’s groups and democratic rights groups have fraternal relations and play complementary roles. There’s no problem in separateness, as long as we recognise that conceptually, there shouldn’t be a hierarchy of oppression. If we take the structure, we might see class, then caste, but patriarchy not that clearly. It is still assumed that patriarchy will vanish with the destruction of feudalism. But it will not. Patriarchy is as strong as class or caste.
Mindsets will not change unless there is structural change. Yet, hierarchies of oppression are created. For instance, sexuality – there is resistance to bring it into the framework. Autonomy should also mean autonomy to think outside the settled framework. That is the challenge before us. Both sets of groups need to conceptualise afresh so that all structures of oppression can be brought in, and that would help us to strategise better.
CHAYANIKA SHAH, FORUM AGAINST OPPRESSION OF WOMEN AND LABIA, MUMBAI, ON THE QUEER MOVEMENT
We need to talk about the history of Stree Sangam/LABIA since not many people know. In the 1990s, some people had started talking about their sexuality. In some conferences, these issues had come up to some extent. Within the women’s movement, sexuality, lesbianism had come up at a discussion and theoretical level. These are important discussions. But about living as a lesbian, there was very little talk even within the women’s movement. In Forum’s 10 year booklet we listed the issues we didn’t talk about – one was lesbianism. Even in our personal lives and even in the movement, the perspective came later. Often, even in personal life, the realisation of ‘who am I?’ comes very late, because one hardly ever thinks about who one is. To recognise that there were other women like us is how Stree Sangam started. It was not seen as a political organisation, but a space for dialogue between lesbian and bisexual women. Of course, some people from the movement and Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW) were part of it.
After 1975-80, women’s oppression has been an identified oppression, and it was given a political perspective. But here, we began from a space where women were scared of themselves and their needs. But they were clear that their needs were different. There was a long time when there was a struggle between making it a social or political space. There is a lack of support from society and family, so there is an acute need for social space. The notion that women experiencing domestic violence would join the movement and join us in the process for change, failed. Because the onus of radicalism on the most marginalised does not work. Similarly, why expect that women, simply because they were lesbian, would be political? In fact, being marginalised, just living one’s life the way one wants is very difficult – it is a struggle in itself. We saw this in the women’s movement, and even with our group it was evident that every lesbian did not necessarily want to transform it into a political group.
It has been a unique journey over the past few years. The difficulty in getting other women’s groups to talk about it, and creating spaces has been a struggle. So it is good to have spaces like this one, where one can say that one is working with dalit, adivasi women, or lesbian women in the same breath. That space too has not come overnight - it has come through knocking by women from within, from outside, and also thinking through by the groups themselves.
Talking about autonomy - the group was autonomous because initially, no one wanted to be associated with it! So we automatically were autonomous. Slowly, a helpline started. Campaign groups like Caleri started, gay formations started. Around 2002, women who were with Stree Sangam in a political way felt they couldn’t run a social space. So then LABIA – Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action came up – clearly saying what we are about. In your face, no shying away. We are a feminist queer group. It’s difficult to translate queer in Hindi. There is no one word – only a paragraph! But it means a diverse range of sexuality. We like to call ourselves ‘Humjinsi’, not ‘samlaingik’. The structure of heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality – whoever questions it or breaks it is queer.
We fight both patriarchy and heteronormativity. Through the lesbian women’s movement, there are questions for the women’s movement. If women’s groups run a helpline, then issues of lesbian women should be part of the agenda. We are called to speak on sexuality, because we have a good understanding of the structures of sexuality and can critique it. But being queer, we might have something different to say about other aspects of the structure (not only about sexuality). But that is not as well recognised. When groups organise with a particular identity (like Muslim women), it becomes easy to simply ask Muslim women what they think, and go along with that, and sideline our own responsibility to think about Muslim women’s issues. The good thing is that we don’t want to speak on behalf of anyone. But the bad thing is that we are ghettoising them. A similar thing is happening with lesbian women.
There are instances from all over the country of wanting to marry/not wanting to marry, how to live together. Concept of ‘one true love’, problems of gender behaviour within these couples etc. issues we are not looking at. We are told marriage is such a patriarchal institution. We feel till it is an institution/model available to everyone, we want it too. It has to be available to all. We say - say ‘no’ to marriage for all, then we say no to marriage for lesbian women. When this is the only model available and women want it, what do we do? The queer movement, and women’s movement, are not taking up this issue? We need to look at families differently, new structures of living.
LABIA has taken a conscious decision to be autonomous, non-funded. We keep all other funded groups working on sexuality on their toes. There is a lot of funding coming in for sexuality – HIV/AIDS etc. But to what extent is this work questioning the structures of heteronormativity? What are the limitations put by funders? Nowadays, nobody takes a position that there should not be funding. There is a need to have funded groups. But then what is the role of groups like ours? Being what we are – loose structure…young people...with very little time except to live their lives, do their jobs, and to do this work along with that is very difficult. We have a small voice, we know, but even then we want to stay autonomous and make our voices heard. We play an important role in the women’s movement as well as the queer movement. The challenge is how to maintain that?
SARASWATHI ON ORGANISING DALIT WOMEN WORKERS IN KARNATAKA
I am nervous about talking in English and Hindi, so I will sing now to ease my tension. This Kannada song is by a famous Dalit poet, and I am very proud to be singing this song. It is about letting our silences speak. It’s called ‘Hejje Maatadu’, written by the Dalit poet Ramaiyya.
[text when translated in English reads somewhat like this]
Let our footsteps speak
Let our anklets speak
Let the fragrance of the jasmine speak
Let our silences speak
The garden of flowers is distant.
The path is full of thorns.
The night is cold.
Even if an army of swords should come upon us
One lamp is enough to light another and another
Until the path is bright with the glow of any lamps.
Our eyes will dream of the garden of flowers
We will sing and dance on the journey
The rainbow will reappear
The world with be regenerated, radiant.
We will follow the pebbles that others left to mark the unmapped journey
Our loving care will heal the sword wounds and through the ashy barren land
The youthful earth will sprout again.
Rather than a ‘speaker’, I am here as a friend who has come from Bangalore to share. I want to talk about two incidents. When in 5th standard, a story was told in my class about Gandhiji, who spun his own yarn. I was very moved, and on going home, began stitching my shoe, but got a beating from my father. I wondered why my father was hitting me, when I was doing a great thing like Gandhi. And the second was when I joined the powrakarmikas (municipal cleaners) – there was a strong resistance from my father. These two answers came to me at the age of 42, that my father also came from the same community – that picks up dead animals, cleans them and makes chappals. It is like a curse – to hide one’s origins.
I have two identities – one as a woman and one as a Dalit from the Madiga caste, which is one of the lowest untouchable castes. Within the Dalit movement, I was always asked why I interacted with non-Dalit, upper-caste, short-haired, English-speaking women in the feminist movement. And when I came to these women I was told that apart from caste there were other issues to be raised and talked about also, like patriarchy. I have solidarity with various movements. Otherwise, there is a huge wall between Dalits and non-Dalits.
After I left my bank job, I joined the powrakarmikas. For me, as a Dalit, the entry to work with powrakarmikas was relatively easy. I joined the sweepers’ union with all my autonomous politics and energy, all my resources. No funding, no political affiliations. But I did not have much clarity about my own role. I just wanted to do something, but not sure what and how. But I knew that the trade union movement of Dalits was very important. They were denied basic rights. Worked in very bad conditions – no gloves, no gumboots. There are more than 10,000 cleaners, who work like donkeys without any facilities from 7 am till 2 in the afternoon. The so called civilised people don’t even give them water to drink. More than 80% of the workers were women of my community. Class, gender, caste – made it very important to work there.
There were issues about (1) part time and full time activists, and raising money for them (2) collective democratic leadership, particularly that of women was very difficult and (3) lack of moral and emotional support. If I have emotional support, I can work like a donkey. But without it, can’t work. Got a lot of support from Manasa. I worked, but I had no official position. Therefore in decision-making, I found participation problematic. (4) Dealing with male ego was terrible, especially trade unionists with 40 years experience! It is very difficult to get women into collective decision-making. So it was very difficult for me to participate and justify my involvement in both Dalit and women’s movement.
The positive bit was being part of these movements. We started a support group, in which there were autonomous, non-funded groups, and they supported our movement (of powrakarmikas). In the morning, it was said that funding is justified for salaries of grassroots women. But I come from Karnataka where the movement of Dalits was started by penniless Dalits. What were their assets? The anger in their bellies, the songs in their hearts and their art – they are fantastic drummers. We can question what stage has it reached etc. – but that is a separate issue. The Dalit movement was autonomous unto the 80s and even 90s. And it was very gender sensitive.
And the women’s groups of 1970s and 1980s were also sensitive to Dalit issues. But I also feel that the women’s movement has not used the wit, the strength and potential of the Dalit women very well. Also it has not understood the different ways in which patriarchy and sexuality issues operate in Dalit communities. The feminist movement has been very important to me and autonomous politics is very precious. It has helped me to understand human contradictions and human complexities. When we talk of democracy and equality or collectivity and we collect even one rupee for work, that is very important. For me, activism is very spiritual. Spirituality minus gods and goddesses and religions. Gods in my community are not up there. Gods are talked to, shouted at, fed, cajoled. I need gods like that!
SHAMIM, SHRAMIK ADIVASI SANGHATHAN, MADHYA PRADESH, ON MASS ORGANISING AND POLITICAL MOBILISATION
I first started working in MP in Bargi – the site of the first dam on the Narmada river. I met Anurag, and we got married and moved to Betul district to work with adivasis, mostly Korkus and Gonds. We have spread now to Harda and Khandwa. There is a lot of injustice and oppression. We went to this area precisely because we did not want to work with any established organisation with a hierarchy. We wanted to work in our own way.
When we started working people said we would be playing vote-bank politics. So we promised we won’t. We also had a middle class aversion to elections. We wanted to keep away from ‘dirty’ electoral politics because we were ‘good’ people. That was our first mistake. But now we feel that in a democracy one cannot bring about change without becoming a part of electoral politics. We did not want to be ‘tainted’ by politics, but at the same time realised that the people we were working with, were ending up bringing the same corrupt people to power. We were in this dilemma for four years. We simply could not join any of the established parties who used the marginalised people for their own vested interests, and played communal politics. We wanted a society without inequality of any kind – between rural and urban, educated and uneducated, adivasis, Dalits, women.
We decided to forge a new path, and decided to make our own party – Samajwadi Jan Parishad. We have branches in 14 states and are working with marginalised people and adivasis. We have been working for 14 years. For the first three years, no one supported us. We were often called Naxalites and thrown into jail. And then we realised that our energies are getting frittered away and we must channelise them and become part of the most effective medium – electoral politics. If you believe in democracy, then this is the only system available today, and one must utilise it, and imbue it with your own progressive values. To get out of the swamp of current electoral politics with all its murkiness, evolve a new political culture and build a new revolutionary electoral politics, that is the challenge.
Of course, it’s not easy. Everyone (all parties, bureaucracy, media) are out to malign the activists, especially the women. If you take a rally to the Collector and get your demands met, then the media says you are having an affair with the Collector. If you get imprisoned, then you are a Naxalite. There is no third option. I am supposed to have had an affair with every SP and Collector in the district! We stood in Harda, for MLA, against a whole bunch of goondas and mafia. But I feel that it has made us more powerful in many ways. Also, we are non-funded. So fighting an election was not easy. But we feel that it was very important that we even fought an election. Because it posed an alternative in front of people. It is even more important than winning. This we did despite the fact that bigger parties used goons to harass our activists, beat them up, got our jeep impounded, put us in jail. But in many such cases people sympathised and empathised with us, as honest people. When we were arrested, some women in a basti, who had never earlier supported us, refused to eat food that night.
We had started knowing we will win after a long time and we were ready to lose in preparation for that victory. There are five aspects: organisation building; agitation/protest; ideological change - in mindsets and perspectives; mass movement and political mobilisation: electoral politics. With globalisation and money becoming available and all important, our strategy has to be multi-pronged. Politics means we have to think of alternatives for everything and everyone. We have to work on our own funding, and that is going to be our strength. Only then will the embers be fanned and flames rise. Thank you, Zindabad.
KIRAN DUBEY ON THE SATHIN UNION, RAJASTHAN
Since morning, I have seen the people who have laid the foundation of this organisation. A pillar that has given us strength from time to time. On behalf of the Sathins of Rajasthan, I congratulate Saheli. I am also thankful for the opportunity to share the struggle of the Sathins on this historic day.
Here, the focus will be more on the union process. This union is an independent trade union of the Sathin workers of the Women’s Development Programme (WDP), Rajasthan. The agenda of the union addresses workers rights, as well as women’s rights, and other women’s issues.
Through the WDP, women were activated and their participation at the grass roots increased. Women began breaking out of the shackles of traditional bondage and raised issues that had till now been socially prohibited. They took part in the jati (caste) panchayat; protested against domestic and other forms of violence; demanded property and other rights etc. Information was shared with the village women, about government schemes related to health, education, public distribution, etc. as well as the rules about wages and measurements in famine works; minimum wages; land records; property and other legal rights etc. As women’s power at the grassroots found an identity and the issues being raised started affecting the existing power equation, department started to exercise control.
There was growing discontent. The Sathin grew increasingly aware of the exploitative nature of her employment and the blatant inequalities in the salary structure within the hierarchy of WDP. Added to this, the Sathins experienced the true nature of the state, by witnessing the response to some specific situations. Some Sathins and village women of Kekri panchayat, had participated in the National Women’s Conference at Calicut in December 1990, under an independent banner. This was not tolerated by the department, and punitive action was taken and their jobs terminated on their return. They however continued their struggle for justice and fought a legal battle right up to the Supreme Court.
The class character of WDP became clearer and there were tensions between the functionaries at the different levels of the programme. Contradictions of the programme had surfaced forcing a split in the movement. Those in positions of power now sided with the government and the Sathins sided with the village women. The Sathins had support from a very small section of the women’s movement.
The irony was, that a programme initiated to empower rural women, not only failed to give recognition to the contribution of those very women, but it was on the contrary exploiting Sathins’ labour. In early 1990 the Sathins went on strike in the Sathin mela at Padmpura, and they placed a demand for an increase in the honorarium before the chief minister. Initial discussions and some initiative for unionising also took place in Bhilwara. Follwing a strike, the CM was forced to increase the honorarium by Rs 50. This was a turning point for the union process – and greatly strengthened the Sathins.
There was stiff opposition from the government, as well as from a very large segment of the women’s organisations and the NGO sector within the state. Because they felt that the anganwadi union gave minimal attention to women’s issues, the Sathins decided a separate union would be a better option to that of joining the existing ones. Theirs was an attempt to widen the trade union agenda with a focus on workers’ rights, to now also include the issues and concerns of the rural women. Finally, the union was registered in Ajmer.
The WDP occupied a central place within the women’s movement in Rajasthan. It had a dual ownership shared between the movement and the state. This sometimes led to a possessive attachment to the programme, on the part of the movement, and is perhaps an explanation for the strongly emotional reaction to some conflict situations. The hierarchical inequities within the structure were blurred through processes of collective functioning and through the projection of a united front. It was paradoxical that women from within the women’s movement when they were in situations of authority and control justified exploitative structures which grossly undervalued women’s work and contribution.
The strong opposition from representatives of the women’s movement within the programme to the Sathins decision to unionise needs to be looked at in the light of the above. The Sathins were accused of undermining the spirit of the programme: of moving away from the spirit of ‘sewa’ and community service, to one of focusing on their own selfish interests. They were also accused of splitting the movement; of indulging in ‘netagiri’; breaching mutual trust and so on. The Sathin union began to be viewed as a threat not only because it widened the notion of empowerment, but also by having a spill over effect involving the vast category of the voluntary worker.
The registration of the Sathin union in January 1993 was followed by efforts to spread the union to all the districts, a process met with a lot of opposition. The action plan of the union included the framing of the charter of demands and working out strategies to get the demands met by the government.
The first annual state level convention of the union was held in May 1993 against strong resistance from the government. The denial of their basic rights as workers within WDP and the anti women policies of the state were recognised by the Sathins and articulated as core issues that needed to be addressed. The slogans reflected the thrust. For example: “Maan aur adhikaar chahiye, Kaam ka pura daam chahiye” (a demand for rights, respect and a just wage); “Karamchari ka dharja do, sewa ke liya suraksha do” ( a demand for status and security).
The Sathin union received its first jolt from the government in January 1995, when it was decided to retrench the existing Sathins and recruit new ones in different gram panchayats; to limit the tenure of appointment of the new Sathins to five years and to fix an age limit for the Sathins. The Sathins replied in song: Atal Bihari Vajpayee – an old man running the country, and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, an old man running Rajasthan. So why not retrench them first?!
The Sathins demanded to know: Did the government now expect us to empower rural women (who were entrenched in traditions that were centuries old), within a period of five years? The government with all the resources at its disposal had hardly made a dent in the situation of poverty in the country in the last fifty years; how then did it expect the Sathins, who were at the lowest rung of society, to perform such wonders in just five years?
However, in 2003 the state elections were due, and by now the government had realised the potential of the Sathins for drawing votes. There was hence a complete shift in the governments’policy. There was a total reversal of the earlier decisions The government now announced expansion of WDP to all 32 districts, i.e. a total of 9189 Sathins.
There was confusion as to whether the union had benefited or had lost ground. The numbers of the Sathins had increased manifold, but the empowerment component of the programme was completely shelved. The Sathins in isolation were quite ineffective. Further, many of the original Sathins had discontinued work as they were over age. Meetings only took place in small groups, and the entire original group of Sathins did not meet at all.
However finally it became amply clear that while autonomy from funding and maintaining politically independent stance helped consolidate and build public opinion, it was the relationship to the state that was ultimately what really mattered. The course of things was to a very large extent defined by the state. The relationship of the women’s movement with the state perhaps needs to be looked at while dealing with the question of the nature of autonomy. That the autonomous women’s movement defines itself by its source of funding and political alliances needs to be reviewed and widened to include an understanding of the state. Mahila Shakti – Zindabad!
DISCUSSION FOLLOWING THE PRESENTATIONS
Sai Kodai, working with NIIT in Delhi shared her personal experience of growing up in a Dalit family that was very brahminical in its thinking. “I count myself fortunate that my feminism started in the Dalit movement. It didn’t start with a very academic approach. It was very natural, very organic. There was energy in the movement which is not there in the literature/academic mode where you discuss Virginia Woolf, you discuss Kamla Bhasin, you discuss and analyse. But you don’t question structures that are part of you. Which is actually more difficult to do. When Sarsi was talking, I identified with her honesty. Always confused whether to question Dalit oppression or patriarchal oppression.”
Taking forward the debate on entering electoral politics, Malika said, “In the Uttarakahand Mahila Manch, we feel that taking part in electoral politics means we are propping up a very weak democracy. The mechanisms to make leaders accountable, and the political consciousness among people, are not fully developed. In today’s electoral politics, you get sucked in. You are positing all your faith and power in a few elected representatives. UMM feels that through a people’s movement we bring about political consciousness so that if and when we enter the political arena, it is done with strength and when one is fully prepared.”
In response, Shamim reiterated, “Organisations like ours will never win elections the first time round. It takes a long time, and this is an extended period of political struggle. While it is necessary to get into politics fully prepared, with ideological clarity and maturity, these processes are not mutually exclusive. Unless you actually enter politics, you are never fully aware of what the dangers and pressures are. You have to take the plunge, despite the apprehensions. It’s like on-the-job-training.”
“Why do we not know the dangers, even before entering electoral politics? Do the voters not know in what kind of system they are operating? Don’t they understand who is honest and who is corrupt? It’s the compulsions of the system that makes them vote for the goons, despite recognising them,” responded Malika.
Rajni asks Uma, “How does the autonomous women’s movement view the anti-reservation movement in Delhi and all of India? After the anti-reservation stir, the harassment of Dalit doctors and students increased. The example of Dr Ajita who was thrown out of her job. We are hearing many incidents also of several Dalit girls being failed in medical exams by one or two marks.” Rajni also asked Saraswathi how she did not know which community she belonged to. “Despite middle class, or education, there are some things which tell you the discrimination you face.” She also asked her to point out the differences in attitude to Dalit writing in south India.
Said Saraswathi, “Of course, from my birth, I knew that I was Dalit. I have enjoyed reservation, had a caste certificate. There are various divisions, only I did not know that I belong to the cleaning community. I laughed and told my father, it is an organic link – I will ultimately reach where I have to reach i.e. to the cleaning community.”
Saraswathi went on to raise the question of funding. “For me, it is possible to raise money for Dalit issues and remain non-funded. We have four full timers, and are able to raise funds to support them. About writing, you cannot really call it ‘Dalit feminist writing’. There are some women Dalit writers who have started theorising – but for the larger world theorising and articulation is lacking. There is no documentation of this strong and vibrant movement. The whole Dalit question needs to be framed in a different way, in the context of reservation, globalisation and privatisation, liberalisation. Women’s groups should look at how patriarchy works differently in different caste structures. The wit and the wisdom of Dalit women are very important for women’s movement.
And responding to Rajni, Uma said, “There is a difference in the anti-reservation movement of the 1990s and now. Even in north India, there has been a difference. During the anti-Mandal stir, there was a confusion among women’s groups. In 1990, there was a visibility in the national media to the caste issue. There are several streams of the women’s movement, and some groups, like AIDWA did raise the issue. But I do agree that the connections that should have been made between women’s groups and Dalit women’s groups did not take place. The caste issue has made a critical input into the women’s movement. There has been some positive development, and this needs to be sharpened. Despite this, the sharp reaction to reservation is there. We need to change the terminology. Reservation sounds patronising, like a dole, and the baggage of this terminology should go. We should say either ‘affirmative action’, or ‘proportional representation’.”
Differing with Uma was Ajita, associated with Saheli. “When the Democratic Front was made on the reservation issue, with views slightly different from the hardcore Dalitwadis, I had a lot of expectations. But I had not a single friend from the progressive crowd come and stand by us.”
Saraswathi, sharing that this was a similar situation in Karnataka too, said, “There is an indifference. In Karnataka, many Dalit comrades asked – “When Sharanavva was made nude and paraded, where were the feminists?” They give lot instances. But I feel all these things can be addressed with a lot of patience and lot of respect. I always tell my Dalit (especially male) friends – who was Mathura, who was Bhanwari, who was Shah Banu? Who fought for them? Women’s groups in the whole country fought for them. In Karnataka, the first rape case taken up by Dalits groups was a non-Dalit woman. Whatever is positive, healthy and democratic in each movement, must be carried to other movement.”
Janaki too added that although we have come a long way, there is there is a sense of loneliness. “The anti-reservation agitation has done so much damage to people’s lives. The movement has to show its engagement with what we do.”
Dr Ajita Gill, speaking about her expulsion from her research job in AIIMS for participating in the pro-reservation rally, made a poignant intervention about the trauma of Dalit students. “Joined AIIMS in 1995. I have been made to feel that I come from the reserved category and suffered from an inferiority complex and like other Dalit students, I also used to get supplementary. The anti-reservation stir gave an outlet for all my anger over many years. I got into trouble with my supervisor, who didn’t accept arguments from a Dalit person. They as it is had grudges against me, alleging that I was not working hard. The issue was that I was not willing to unethically recruit people in the research!”
Moving from the reservation issue, Sandhya from Forum highlighted the fact that marginalised communities like Muslims or Dalits have men from their community standing by them. And the entire community can question the women’s movement for not standing by them. But lesbian women and gay men, or men who are not considered men – who will raise their issues? No questions are being addressed even in this audience, and we need to think why.”
Kiran, responding to Sandhya’s query about whether a union of the informal sector (like the Sathin Union) now needs to transform into a women’s organisation, said, “We are exploring possibilities about how to take the issue forward. We are also discussing with all of you, and want inputs from everyone. The Sathins have undergone a process of deep politicisation, and this needs to be taken forward, along with others who support the Sathins.”
Coming to the question of funding, Nilanjana said, “When working in Bangalore in Manasa, and also with sexuality rights groups, we used to get stuck on the issue of funding and autonomy. We were told “you must ask this question later”. But when will ‘later’ come?”
In response, Chayanika replied, “Today, the campaign against Section 377 has come up in a very important way. It is doubtless an important issue. But for us (lesbians, trans) it is not a big issue. We listed three issues – (1) decriminalisation (2) protection from discrimination – is a very big issue if one can’t even come out. Repression, violence, leading to migration, displacement etc. (3) And the third issue is – what are the positive rights we want to ask for? We have not talked about that. We are stuck at just trying to say we are citizens. But there was no hierarchy of the levels – we had to struggle at all levels. But the 377 campaign is focussed on a legal campaign alone.
Everybody is talking about sexual behaviours only, which is linked to the issue of funding. Men, and queer men too, still have space (in public) available. There’s lots of discrimination for queer men too, but still they have more public space. Various identities are being defined for men based on class, sexual behaviour etc, defined due to funding. According to us, that is not the issue. For lesbian women, we don’t have even one word. For gay men, there are hundreds of words, based on behaviours. These words – kothis, panthis etc. is very problematic, because it is also class based. But it denies these categories a choice of lifestyle.
We have lost the language of sexuality rights. We talked of reproductive rights in the women’s movement. And in Beijing, sexual rights. What is the agenda and understanding of sexual rights?”
Ranjana and Laxmi summed up the discussion... the presentations, each so rich, had raised many questions. Questions that the movement would have to tackle with criticality and sharp analysis, as well as solidarity with different autonomous movements.
Given the job of thank yous, Deepti said, “When we started this whole process, documenting history, our friends and well wishers said to us ‘Why are you so self critical’. So now we are going to break from tradition and say thank you only to us Sahelis! So thank you all Sahelis! There are many people we want to thank. All of you who have come here today to share this occasion, those who could not come but are here in spirit, all our speakers, those who came up and shared your thoughts. I don’t know what to say – it was overwhelming and humbling.” She also thanked our printers – Sandeep, Shafi and Dhananjay, who ‘worked like crazy with us crazy women’ to bring out this document literally overnight; Anindita for the posters she made; Anjali Deshpande for translation, Chopraji our electrician for the free fan in our office, and Lakshmi who came and cleaned our office everyday with a smile. And to all the founder members and all the women who have made the place and this day what it is – to all of them – Zindabad!!”
And Nilanjana added, “I know everyone would like to thank the volunteers of Saheli for all the hard work and putting this together. It’s been wonderful! A fantastic opportunity. Thank you so much!
After the song Sanghathith Ho, everyone made their way to the Saheli office under the flyover for a dinner of Deez Biryani (of course!).
And as the evening turned into night, and the days into weeks, the memories, the warmth, the togetherness of that day lives on… and the hope that we can move forward together with renewed strength.