In March this year, several hundreds of students and research scholars enrolled across the 163 Women’s Studies Centres in India suddenly found their futures uncertain.
A few days before Twelfth Plan period was to end on March 31, 2017 – and with it the Five-Year Plans – the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a notice stating it would continue its expenditure under the Plan head only till March 31, 2018.
The funding for a number of academic research centres across the country was slotted under the Plan head – including the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, set up under the Eleventh Plan (2007-2012), as well as the Women’s Studies Centres, which have received funding under the Plan head from the Sixth Plan onwards and were expanded in number under the Twelfth Plan.
Then, in June, the UGC sent out another notice stating that expenditures under the Plan head would now continue only up to September 30, 2017. After that, the extension of financial support for Plan schemes would be subject to a review by the UGC.
The community of women’s studies (WS) scholars began organising to protest this and save their centres. They undertook signature campaigns and some departments compiled internal reports of the contributions and achievements of WS scholars to make a case before the UGC for the ‘value’ of this interdisciplinary discipline, which remains misunderstood and marginalised. Not to mention that the centres are yet to be regularised as permanent within most universities and institutions, and currently operate with few permanent faculty positions.
On August 23, the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), set up in 1982, organised a National Convention on Women’s Studies Centres in Delhi attended by more than 200 participants from across the country – students, researchers, faculty and staff.
The Convention prepared a memorandum and submitted it to the UGC, appealing that the commission continue financial support to the 163 centres that are currently funded.
“We urge continuation of central grant support for WSCs until they are regularized as permanent departments with adequate faculty and staff positions and support for activities, i.e., until they are incorporated on equal status with other disciplines in the structures and institutions that govern university and college institutions.”
After the Convention drew media attention, the UGC on August 24 hurriedly issued a public notice, referring to “a news item published in one of the prominent National daily news papers” about the impending withdrawal of funding for WS. The notice said that “there is no such proposal to cut or stop support to Women Study Centres being funded by the UGC".
While this has brought relief for WS scholars and teachers, it might not be smooth sailing yet, especially given this government’s proclivity towards going back and forth on its ‘word’.
As Indrani Mazumdar, General Secretary of IAWS and faculty member at Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), told Newsclick, “Considering this is a public notice and not an order issued to a particular university, it is certainly a matter of relief. At the very least, we hope this has opened up a negotiating space for the centres and the WS community at large.”
This is not the first time that the NDA has attacked the discipline. In 2003, there was an attempt by the then NDA regime to rename the WS centres as ‘Women and Family Studies’ centres. The WS community rose up in protest and fought tooth and nail to resist the move – antithetical to the whole point of ‘women’s studies.’
What is women’s studies?
WS as a discipline has roots in the women’s movement in the country. In 1971, a Committee on the Status of Women in India was set up to examine for the first time the social, economic and political status of women in India. The report was meant for a United Nations international women’s year convention at Mexico in 1975.
In 1974, the committee came up with the ‘Towards Equality’ report, which made clear how consistently and shockingly the status of women in India had been deteriorating since Independence. This brought mainstream national attention to ‘women’s issues’ for the first time.
Women had already begun organising around issues such as sexual violence, property, dowry and other gendered social malaises – triggered by cases such as the Mathura rape case (1972), where a tribal teenage girl was raped by two constables inside a police station in Maharashtra and the Supreme Court had acquitted the accused while blaming the victim.
In 1986, women’s studies was officially enshrined as an academic discipline as part of the National Policy on Education.
WS as a site of knowledge production centers the realities of gender, while granting ‘women’ – a category which includes the differences of class, caste, religion, sexuality, etc. – the subject position. It then goes on to examine established fields of knowledge, from economics to politics to science. It has unearthed the hitherto buried histories of the roles women have played in nation-building and all other areas of society. WS has reminded policy-makers to keep in mind the needs and problems and aspirations of women.
As Lata Singh of the Women’s Studies department in JNU says, “Women’s Studies as a discipline questions all the structures we take for granted and destabilises them. It encourages critical thinking, and asks disturbing questions about the family, religion, caste, etc. It is not just about ‘women’ and patriarchy, but about the inter-linkages of marginalised identities and their resistances and political potential. One of the greatest challenges to the status quo has come from the women’s movement. No wonder that the government would not like to invest in something that questions the establishment.”
But as the UGC’s hurried notice shows, shutting down women’s studies altogether will be bad PR for the government, making it lose face before the rest of the world, as a country with first-world aspirations cannot blatantly turn back the clock on women’s progress.
As Mary John of CWDS told Newsclick, before the UGC's 24 August public notice was issued, “The government could go ahead with selective cutting of funding, but it can’t really shut WS down as it will make the government look bad and regressive before the world. But other than that, we, as the WS community, need to find our feet and work on charting out our future course."