Souvenir 1988

In the third national Women’s Liberation Conference held this year in Patna, women from all over the country declared unanimously:

We deplore the explosion of communalism and religious fundamentalism in public life that is being systematically promoted by State power today. Fundamentalist values of whatever religion, highlight the most patriarchal aspects of traditional cultures, and in the case of Hinduism, fundamentalism is linked with casteist forms of oppression. Under state patronage this culminates in serious erosion of women’s rights and disgnity as in seen in Shah Bano Judgment and the Deorala Sati incident or in cases like that of Indu Jain. Women’s organisations should intervene in communal riots and fundamentalist legislations and help create democratic and secular public opinion which does not sacrifice women’s rights at the altar of religion.

This common understanding has not come about from a theoretical debate at the conference but from our work and struggle over the years. Women’s organisations have struggled against the growing tide of communalism and revivalism. Despite our struggles we have had to watch with remorse the passing of Muslim Women’s Act, which deprived Muslim women of their then existing rights to receive maintenance from divorced husbands. Endless riots have meant working for relief and rehabilitation of the victims. Sikh women almost lost their existing rights in the name of strengthening Sikh identity. And even now, despite the Anti-Sati Act we have to expend our energies to prevent the likes of Shankaracharya from glorifying the practice of sati.

Saheli has been working against communalism since 1984. We got involved with relief work following the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, from humanitarian considerations. But this set us thinking. While sati or the Muslim Women’s Act were yet to be become issues to contend with, we were familiar with the experiences of other countries where women were reeling under fundamentalist attacks. We knew that communalism would make people insecure and to strengthen their identities, they would hark back to their traditions. Women being the bearers of tradition by and large, medieval codes of behaviour regarding them would be revived. Our theme for the 1985 International Women’s Day was communalism and violence. It is no coincidence that we had called upon women to fight communalism, lest sati be revived: though our worse fears came true two years later.

Most dominant political parties make active use of communalism to contest elections today. Be it ‘Rama o the idiot box for Congress I’ or ‘Syed Shahbuddin for VP Singh’ but the intention is to cash in on communal feelings. The entire electronic and print media are in the hands of the ruling elite to spread and arouse communal feelings for vested interests. In fact communalism had made such inroads into the polity, that when we as women wanted to fight against women begin deprived of maintenance on the ground of religion we were told by progressive people that you are a Hindu (not a woman first) and will create ill feelings among communities by speaking our. It was not realized that the creation of such divisions in the Indian context is likely to fragment any struggle, and one by one women from each community can be effectively isolated.

Communalist trends of the pre-independence days in collusion with British policies, brought about a Constitution where religious freedom has merely encroached on civic rights. Rather than treating citizens of our country on an equal footing, women were forced into a subordinate position within the family.

Family laws have been an issue of great concern to the women’s movement. While it is recognized that all existing personal laws are unfavourable to women, the strategies for bringing about changes are different. One section believes that personal laws should be reformed within each community along the lines of religion and tradition. We are a part of the larger stream which believes that change based on even the most positive interpretation of religion and tradition is not likely to lend itself to egalitarian family law. In fact struggle of this kind would be difficult because each community will be cordoned off, separated and left to rely on its clergy for interpretation. This will strengthen the hands of the clergy who, in most cases as with the Shankaharcharya, are obscurantists and are clar allies of communalist political parties. We believe that a uniform civil code has to emerge from ideas of love and equality and will bring women together.

Rioting and massacre, which are engineered to bring communal politics to the surface, need to be dealt with specifically. Rioters are never punished and in fact thrive under political patronage. With each riot the lumpen element gets a boost and becomes a threat even in the absence of riots. We need to take cognizance of the fact that police and the armed constabulary are also actively engaged in killing and looting. Unless the laws of the land apply to rioting, it is very difficult to put a stop to it.

Work against communalism need not be restricted to riots and erosion of women’s rights. We have to start questioning communal thinking, fundamentalist attitudes and raising of false demands on a daily basis. Take, for example, the issue of job reservations. We should there be only anti and pro reservation stirs and not an equal fervour for more jobs for all? We should simultaneously deal with other issues which cause communal disharmony. Take the example of Ram Janma Bhoomi. We should actively demand that a place of historical importance be declared a national monument.

We as women have the most to lose if communalism is not controlled. Communalism is a threat to the women’s movement because more of our energies are getting diverted towards maintaining existing rights rather than moving ahead for positive change. With this conclusion Saheli is trying to strengthen the movement against communalism.


Our Work Against Communalism:

1984: Delhi Carnage

            - Relief and rehabilitation of victims

            - Investigation

            - Signature Campaign to Rajiv Gandhi asking for punishment to Cong I leaders involved in riots.

            - Demonstrations to seek punishment for the guilty

            - Awareness campaign for voters

1985: Rehabilitation Work among Delhi riot victims

- Raising the demand for a uniform civil civil code, on International Women’s Day.

- All India resolution for uniform civil code against Muslim Women’s Bill

1986: International Women’s Day demonstration against Muslim Women’s Bill

        - Gherao of Lok Sabhi Speaker to prevent passage of the Bill

1987: All India anti-Sati signature campaign, seeking not only ban on sati but an end to communalisation of politics

        - Outreach to colleges on sati issue

        - Rally to seek anti-sati legislation

        - Dharna to seek punishment for PAC murderers in Meerut

1988: Observing Meerut riots anniversary because the guilty go unpunished.

        - Struggle to get anti-sati law amended and enforced.