A few years ago, as part of the Zubaan Oral Archives Project, independent researcher, writer and women’s rights activist, Sahba Husain spoke with several other women activists about the women’s movement in India, beginning with Brinda Karat, a leading political and women’s rights activist.
In part one and two, Brinda talked about her childhood, her political journey and the working class movement during her early days in Delhi. In this part, she talks about the trade union movement, AIDWA and more.
Sahba Husain: Did you work in the trade union movement throughout the period of Emergency? Did you face any kind of harassment?
Brinda Karat: I got drawn into the women’s question through the trade union movement. At that time in JNU — I had very little to do with the student movement, JNU was a different world altogether from the trade unions where I worked — there was a very active group who was with the SFI (Student Federation of India) and they had done an exhibition called “Towards Equality” which highlighted so many important aspects. There, I remember meeting some of the women who had organised the exhibition — Indu, Meera, Ashoklata and Indrani — they were much younger than me but I was quite taken up by their energy even though it was a different world for me. This was during 1977-78. A few days later, Com. Major called me where some of these young women were sitting with him and he said to me, why don’t you listen to what they have to say? They were speaking to him about the importance of the Left and of taking up women’s issues and gender issues. I listened to them and after they left, Com. Major asked me what I thought and I said that it was a very good suggestion and we must consider it. In the meanwhile, the Party congress had already taken a decision that we needed an All India women’s organisation and many of the women party leaders were working on women’s issues and that different women’s organisations were working; we should come together and build up a strong women’s movement. The party had already adopted that resolution and it was happening in all the states but there was no (national) women’s organisation though the National Federation of Indian Women was there.
At the time I was too involved in the trade union movement; I was one of the secretaries of the Textile Workers’ Union. I told Com. Major I could help but not take full responsibility. However, once this was formulated in the state committee of the party, they also thought that I should take the responsibility. They told me that they were not expecting me to take this up permanently and that I could continue to work in the trade union but that I should be the convener because it was not going to be a party based organisation and involve other people and then see whether we can get working women or working class women involved in this. I was clear that this was only going to be a short-term responsibility so I agreed to be the convener.
The very first meeting I had with women was in Mangolpuri and the mother of a Birla Textile mill worker who I was very close to — a very young militant worker I stayed with during the emergency — I contacted her and told her this is what we were planning to do and she said, yes, there are so many problems that women in the area are facing. So, when I went there, there were about 15-20 women waiting; I knew some of them but most of them I did not know. I asked them what we were going to talk about. They said, well, look at the problems we are facing — Mangolpuri was a new resettlement colony — there are health problems, our children are drinking this terrible water and we are all so sick, and the women were all so vocal and so angry with what was happening. Then we had meetings in all the areas where we had contacts. So, in that sense it was the workers’ movement that gave us the contacts since we knew so many textile workers who were spread out in Delhi and other industries and trades where we had unions and where we were working; we just got totally involved in this. Then, we brought into the committee some other women who were working with us in the trade union movement who then also got involved. There were many other working class women there, and we started mobilising and that’s the kind of work we first started. Then, we started building up a base where Indu, Meera and Ashoklata along with a few others also got involved but it was very much a working class based effort of working class women, right from the beginning of the work that I had started with women’s organisations and movements.
We had organised a March 8th (International Women’s Day) demonstration in which some of these women came but I think there was also an issue of identity. There were a lot of young, vocal, educated women and I think at that time there was no identity with an organisation of the working class women, so they felt a bit ‘out of place’, they didn’t fit in, they thought. Later on when we discussed it, there was something missing in it for them although it was not articulated in that manner. When one looks at it, I think they did not have an identity where they felt part of a strong women’s movement or part of the organisation because it was a very formative period. We felt that we must develop a consciousness in which we can believe that all these issues are our issues and how their experiences are very much linked to this. They did not feel linked to the slogan of international women’s day or what it really meant because, I think they (the working class women) had just come into this; it was perhaps the second or third demonstration they had come to. They were more involved in issues concerning price rise or civic facilities and wondered, what is this international women’s day and how is it linked to our struggle? The slogans were also such that the women could not see the link and were a bit uncomfortable. Then, we formed a 11 or 14 member committee of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti and we had our first independent demonstration — I think it was October 1978 — in which we raised, apart from violence, many other issues that concerned the working class women, linking the two issues and I think, that was something that stayed with the organisation, that there has to be a recognition of women not just as women but as workers, as citizens who have a different perception of society.
So, that was a very important lesson for me later on when I tried to understand the different theories regarding feminism and the different kinds of debates that were going on. That basic experience of working class life, and the different lives of working class women, both as far as their men are concerned and as far as the concerns of educated, middle class women who were very active those days — from the autonomous women’s groups — this was a critical learning point for me. I think it also helped give us all a direction.
I must’ve been working now for almost ten years both with the women’s organisation and the trade unions but I think, the understanding of the different areas of women’s oppression or women’s discrimination and to gain an understanding and depth, it was really that period which was very important because one was learning so much from different experiences. There was the issue of dowry and there was the issue of domestic violence and there was our whole experience in Delhi of building these legal aid cells for women.
Sahba Husain: From the TU movement to AIDWA, tell us about the initial years.
Brinda Karat: In later years when there were differences with other mass organisations of women in the way we were trying to bring them in from different classes and sections of society like poor rural women or unorganised women workers, there were strong objections. So, on the one hand you are working in an area where you are trying to bring something into your own movement, the women’s movement and bringing in a different perspective than a perspective of an urban environment where young women and their groups were proliferating after the Emergency. My response was based on an understanding of class, trade unions, working-women and working class women; there was at that time a certain amount of antagonism between these different trends in the women’s movement because they just dismissed us as being communists. However, the anti-dowry campaign actually helped ease some of the differences because we had a very good mobilisation and we all worked together but there were still a few important, contending and contentious issues. For example, we wanted to bring politics into the movement; the role of the government and the state but they were totally opposed to it. Even regarding the international women’s day, we wanted to bring in the question of imperialism and they said no, also about peace because there was this threat to the peace movement in the world and what was happening at that time in Europe — and they were totally opposed to that too and then the question of nuclear armament which was a big issue but they were opposed to it saying it was all politics and then they brought to an extent that when we talked about price rise and how women were affected by it or their rights to a decent living and to take it up as an issue for the women’s day, they refused it. So, as a result, there was no joint women’s day that year. I think in that process of contestation, we also learnt from what other women’s organisations were doing and because we were sure about our own experiences, we also could look at others and on some of the issues like violence against women is concerned — I think that even the extreme position taken by some of these women’s groups did have its own impact or reverberation just as our issues impacted them very much. So, although for about ten years, in the period of the 80s, there were many joint movements on different issues, the disagreements and suspicion remained.
Let’s take the issue of patriarchy — a word that we hardly used then. The reason was that when the word patriarchy was used by the autonomous women’s groups, it was used as an autonomous system, it was used as a word that was not linked to capitalism or any socio-economic framework, it was used in a way that all men are potential rapists, that promoted the use of the word patriarchy but when we, in our movement started linking up class plus gender plus caste as well as other social issues and looked at the way capitalism has developed, then the use of the word patriarchy had a completely different meaning and a different connotation because that connotation was taking place in a particular theoretical and conceptual framework which was very rooted in our work and our practice. I think, despite those differences regarding the theoretical frameworks, I certainly feel that because of the needs of the Indian situation and because we have contextualized our movements in India, there is a common meeting ground in lot of areas where women came together.
In the meantime, I did become the first secretary (AIDWA) and once I did, I mostly worked with women and was very inspired and learnt from them. By 1985-87, I had totally given up my secretary-ship in the textile workers union, mainly because the textile mills had closed and that life was over to that extent. The mill gate was gone and that changed a lot of things. I was also involved in Party work; as the local committee secretary in North Delhi, and then as a state committee member and then a secretariat member. I think during 1988-89, I was doing a lot of work at the AIDWA center while still continuing to do Party work, trade union work and the JMS work. I was JMS secretary for some years and then I became general secretary of AIDWA in 1993 and then I became a central committee (CC) member of the Party but I must say that by then I had become very outraged by injustices to women and it had really become part of my DNA. It was important to bring issues from the women’s movement to the Party and the Party’s understanding to the women’s movement. There were definitely many issues in the Party that we used to clash about and try and bring into the Party to understand what was happening in the women’s movement. I mean, it was a mixed reaction; some areas and some states were quite sympathetic and responsive and some were not but, what was critical was the development of women cadre at that time when I was the general secretary of AIDWA, across the board, in all the states.
It was a mobilisation of a commonly held understanding of what politics requires and that was grounded in our common work in AIDWA. Every generation of women in the Left has cleared new paths for the next generation of women coming in and the generation before was one that had fought for freedom. They had established the foundation of Left Indian women’s movement within a socio-economic framework and they tried to take the movement forward. All this at a time when communists were under terrible attack, when it was very difficult for women to work and, at the same time, when the Party was concerned and concentrating on making a path for itself. Those pioneering women communist leaders, I believe, that they did not get the recognition that they deserved in the Party. It did not happen at the time because the Party and they (women) too were trying to establish the Party as a force and although they did so much for women, and through the mobilisation of women, the Party did not recognise it. It was not a priority at that time. That is a deep regret always in my mind because without the pioneering work of these women leaders, where would any of us be?
In the last decade or so, there has been quite a substantial and substantive change within the Party regarding women’s issues, regarding how the Party should be looking at the broader aspect and also within the Party itself and all that gelled when the CC adopted a very significant and important document which was both a general theoretical understanding of how we look at the secondary status of women in society from a Marxist point of view and at the same time, it also addressed the organisational issues within the Party. If you look at communist documents across the world, you’ll find that this is a significant document for any communist party and that the party could adopt such a document and try to implement it. I think that the work done by women in the party and the fact that today, we have a generation of party leaders who are very committed to taking forward issues of women within the party as much as taking it outside the party, this itself is a significant move forward and I am very happy about it.