|ON August 18, the streets of Najibabad, a small town in Bijnor district of UP, were full of amazed men and women who watched a huge procession, led by hundreds of women, shouting slogans demanding equal rights and freedom from oppression. Their amazement soon turned to enthusiasm and they greeted the procession with welcoming smiles and friendly gestures. The strong midday sun and unbearable humidity meant nothing to the women as they marched towards the venue where their organisation --- the All India Democratic Women’s Conference (AIDWA) --- was to hold its fifth state conference.
Apart from the delegates who had come from as far away as Ballia (the easternmost district of UP), Mirzapur, Chandauli, Gorakhpur, Fatehpur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Kannauj, Gonda and from nearby Saharanpur, women from different parts of the district also participated in the procession.
Though the Najibabad town unit of the AIDWA was formed only a month before the conference, it worked night and day, collecting money, pasting posters and distributing leaflets, to make the conference a success.
TASK IS HARD BUT NECESSARY
After all the women came into the hall for the open session, state AIDWA president and veteran freedom fighter Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and chief guest Dr Syeda Hamid (former member, National Commission for Women) came to the dais, along with the state and district level leaders of the organisation. Smt Mithilesh Vashisht, convenor of the Najibabad town unit of AIDWA, greeted the huge gathering and welcomed them to Najibabad.
Formally inaugurating the conference, Captain Lakshmi called upon the women of Uttar Pradesh to transform the politics of the entire country by transforming their own lives.
Dr Syeda Hamid made an eloquent speech, congratulating the AIDWA for the attention it was paying to the hard but necessary task of organising and mobilising the mass of women. She said if women unite and refuse to be pawns in the hands of vested interests who divide them in the name of nationality, religion and caste, they would give birth to a new world. She said the battle for peace within the country and between countries is something that is dear to every woman’s heart and should be a cause for all women to fight for. Dr Hamid pointed out that though there is no shortage of good laws, laws would remain on paper unless women organise and demonstrate their strength.
Dr Hamid also referred to the struggle for 33 per cent reservation in parliament and state legislatures. Congratulating the AIDWA for having consistently been in the forefront of this battle, she said the hypocrisy of most political parties has been revealed in the course of this struggle. While praising the role of Left parties, she said the other parties are determined to see that women do not get the right of representation. She mentioned the newspaper reports of that very morning, that quoted the prime minister saying that the bill cannot be passed unless there is unanimity on this issue. She wondered why this insistence on unanimity only on this question!
State AIDWA’s working president Subhashini Ali placed the main issues the conference was to discuss. The conference was greeted by local CPI(M) MLA Master Ram Swaroop, and CPI(M) district secretary Rampal Singh. The AIDWA’s Bijnor district secretary Naseema Usman thanked the speakers and announced the conclusion of the open session.
BURNING ISSUES OF STRUGGLE
A panel comprising Captain Lakshmi, Mithilesh Vashisht and Nirmala Pradhan presided over the conference, assisted by a steering committee comprising Madhu Garg, Dhandevi, Hausla Singh, Saroj Verma and Saroj Kushwaha. Vandana and Seema kept the minutes.
While 300 delegates had been elected to the conference representing 30,000 members, 256 attended. This was in itself remarkable as these women came a very long distance and Najibabad is rather inaccessible.
State AIDWA’s general secretary Zarina Khursheed placed the report and Subhashini Ali supplemented her speech. The main issues confronting the women of UP were emphasised --- feudal mode of thinking and behaviour, communalisation of society at every level by the Sangh Parivar and its government, caste polarisation, the devastating effect of liberalisation on their livelihood, health, education and development, etc.
The growing violence against women was discussed in detail. On the one hand, increasing caste polarisation and conflict, amid some amount of assertion by some sections of Dalits, have led to violent and humiliating attacks on women, ranging from beating to stripping and rape. On the other hand, rampant consumerism is leading not only to an increase in dowry demands and domestic violence but also to violent attacks like acid-throwing and gang-rape on young girls in towns and cities.
The problem of communalisation of society has not only resulted in conflict and violence but also created a feeling in members of one community that the other community are responsible for all their problems rather than the government, the exploiting classes or foreign companies. Examples of the communal poison being injected into the minds of children through textbooks were also mentioned.
Along with these issues, the report also raised organisational points. While there has been an improvement in the functioning of the state committee and in its relations with the districts, there are still many problems. In some districts, no team of functionaries has emerged and unit functioning is still not satisfactory. At the same time, some districts like Lucknow, Agra, Kanpur and Saharanpur had definitely improved in these respects.
A very positive feature of the delegates’ participation in the discussion that followed, was the lively interest they displayed in not only the contents of the report, but also in the choice of who would be speaking on behalf of which district and what she should highlight.
On behalf of various district delegations, 26 delegates participated in the discussion on the report. A majority of them made very important points about various issues that they had taken up in their districts or that were the result of new economic policies. A few talked about organisational issues.
Many delegates spoke about the terrible condition of women workers in the unorganised sector. Ruby (Lucknow) said that while men working in zardozi (embroidery) were paid about Rs 100 per day, women doing the same work get only Rs 30. Not only that, women have their wages cut even if they visit the toilet while this is not applicable to men. Amina (Kanpur) said that women stitching readymade garments get only Rs 1.50 per piece whether it is a salwar, kurta or petticoat. Agricultural workers from Kannauj, Chandauli and other places said that women were paid between Rs 15 and Rs 25 per day while men get more than Rs 50. Asmat Ara (Fatehpur) spoke about the atrocious attacks on Dalit women, which are a common practice in her district, and referred to the recent killing of two Dalit women and three children in the district. Chinta (Mirzapur) described the killing of 16 tribals and Dalits in Bhawanipur village by the police who claimed that they were Naxalites. She said that a 12 year old boy called Subhash was killed and the police gave his father’s name as Ram Avadh. But the fact is that her own husband, Subhash s/o Ram Avadh, had to go into hiding and approach the National Human Rights Commission to save his life. She said the government had not been able to give the names of more than three persons who had been killed. This was the kind of justice that was being meted out to the poor and downtrodden in the state.
The problems of Anganwadi workers in the main cities of the state --- Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra and Allahabad --- were highlighted by Kumkum who said that the Anganwadis in these cities had been handed over to NGOs. But these NGOs were not paying the workers and were taking money from them in return for employment. Now the situation is that the Anganwadis have been closed since June in all these cities.
Shanti (Ballia) said that doctors in government hospitals are employing goondas and refuse to admit poor patients who cannot pay. Seema (Lucknow) talked about the efforts they were making on the organisational front --- holding classes, discussion groups and activating the units. Anupama (Saharanpur) described a horrific incident in which after a Dalit boy married a Gujar girl, both his sisters-in-law were dragged out of their house into the fields and gang-raped by Gujars who wanted to teach them and other Dalits a lesson. Even though the AIDWA unit intervened and got the rapists arrested, the Dalit family has fled the village in terror.
Champa (Fatehpur Sikri) said there are a large numbers of widows in her area because their husbands died early from inhaling stone-dust from the redstone that they were employed to break. She said these poor women have now to endanger their own lives by taking on the same work. The only other employment is weaving of rag-rugs for Rs 30 per day. (Even this wage was won after a bitter battle led by the AIDWA unit.) She said that in one case of child-rape, the local SO offered the child’s parents money to compromise their case but large numbers of women gheraoed the thana, beat the SO and forced the police to arrest the culprits. These and many other accounts kept the delegates totally engrossed and involved.
In between the speakers, resolutions against dowry, atrocities on Dalit women, crumbling public distribution system, and fee-hike were adopted. The dowry resolution was particularly important. UP has the largest number of dowry deaths in India --- more than 2000 last year alone. Dowry is becoming commonplace and rampant among even those communities and castes where it was unknown earlier. Female foeticide is directly linked to this curse. The speakers introducing and supporting the resolution (Vandana and Seema Katiyar) said that it is not enough to condemn dowry; it is necessary to fight this evil. The AIDWA members and leaders have to start this battle in our own homes if we are to have any credibility.
SOURCE OF STRENGTH
After Zarina replied to the discussion and the report was unanimously adopted, the AIDWA’s national general secretary Brinda Karat addressed the delegates. She said we are now celebrating 20 years of AIDWA and we have grown from 7 lakhs to 55 lakhs in these 20 years --- the result of our correct perspective on women’s problems. While we recognise the problems of patriarchy and feudal thinking, we also believe that it is an exploitative system like capitalism that is basically responsible for the oppression of women. Our fight thus is not against individuals but against the ideology and system of exploitation. She was happy to note the improvement in the work of the UP unit that has clearly come out in the delegates’ speeches. But, she said, much more remains to be done and the AIDWA membership must see a huge increase if it is to have an impact in the state. She said the AIDWA understanding has proved to be correct that while we are for all women and for women’s unity, specific problems of Dalit women, minority women, agricultural labourers, etc, must be taken up. Several units in the state were working and intervening on the basis of this very understanding.
Brinda Karat concluded her speech by saying that our committed workers who have sacrificed much for the principles, are the AIDWA’s backbone. She gave the example of Rina, a sarpanch in Assam, who refused to give the money meant for development to the terrorists and had to witness, as a punishment, the murder of her husband by the terrorists. At the condolence meeting that followed, Rina said there was nothing more that could be done to her and so she would dedicate her life and energy to the organisation and its cause. Brinda Karat said it is Rina and hundreds of others like her who give the AIDWA its strength and who give us the courage to face all odds.
Urmila Awasthi presented the credentials committee report. Some of the significant points are: 52 widows participated; 23 Muslim delegates were present; 94 delegates were OBCs, 73 SCs, 4 tribals and 65 from upper castes; 137 delegates came from the working class. A large majority of delegates were between 26 and 50.
The panel for the new state committee, circulated among the delegates, was unanimously passed. The new state committee then met, elected its office bearers and finalised the list of delegates to the national conference. The new committee will be led by Subhashini as president, Madhu as working president and Zareena as general secretary. Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, who had completed three terms as president, was elected patron of the state unit.
In her concluding speech, Madhu congratulated and thanked the delegates for their cooperation and participation. When she called into the hall the volunteers who had worked day and night to make the conference a success, all the delegates welcomed them with applause and slogans. Madhu reiterated the leadership’s commitment to the anti-dowry campaign and gave a call for local level mobilisation against licit and illicit liquor vends.