A BRIEF REPORT OF THE NINTH NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF AIDWA
The 9th National Conference of AIDWA held at Lajpat Bhavan, Moti Jheel, Kanpur,UP, from Nov 9th to 12th 2010 was the first conference to be held in the Northern Hindi belt. 753 delegates from 22 states and 20 special invitees took part in the 4 day conference. Amidst slogans pledging to carry forward the struggle for women’s equality and emancipation, legendary freedom fighter Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal, living symbol of women’s fight against imperialism and emancipation, unfurled the AIDWA flag. Floral tributes were paid to martyrs who have laid down their lives in the struggle for equality, democracy and emancipation. Slogans rent the air as doves were released to mark the historic occasion.
Having elected the Presidium, the Working President, Shyamli Gupta placed the Condolence Resolution which recalled the contribution of many AIDWA leaders who passed away during this period, particularly its founding members Ahilya Rangnekar and Ila Bhattacharya, and its creative and dynamic Vice President, Kalindi Deshpande. It also paid homage to over 200 martyrs who have lost their lives in Maoist-TMC sponsored political violence in West Bengal. This was followed by a rousing Welcome Address by the Chairperson of the Reception Committee Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal, who called upon the delegates to continue the struggle for equality till the last remaining breath in their body.
In her Presidential Address, Subhashini Ali recalled the long history of Kanpur in the struggle for independence. She emphasised the need for the unity of the working poor and women from the vulnerable sections of society at a time when the ruling classes were consolidating themselves on an international scale. Referring to president Obama’s recently concluded visit to India and the back slapping compliment paid by him to the Congress and the Indian ruling classes for their pursuit of neo-liberal policies, she drew attention to the paradox of the largest number of people - amongst them more and more women - going to bed hungry, even as India’s ruling class pats its back for sharing the stage with the US president as an emerging super power. The challenge of the times, she said, was the need to counter the fragmentation of the working people in the name of identity and build their unity based on struggles of the weakest, most marginalised groups and communities. She called upon the media to avoid being carried away by the glitter of globalisation and to focus on the struggle, experiences and lives of the poor.
Inaugurating the Conference, AIDWA patron and MP, Brinda Karat recalled the long history of the women’s movement, born in the crucible of the freedom struggle, to highlight the point that for the movement to be effective, it had to keep its history and heritage alive and intact. Releasing the book Badhaen Todte Hue in Hindi, which records the lives of twelve of AIDWA’s founder members, she emphasised the need to preserve that legacy. For this, the women’s movement must continue to align with those movements in contemporary times which are fighting the forces of exploitation. Referring to different strands within the movement, she warned against its depoliticisation and fragmentation. She said we need to fight the forces of competition and capitalism which foster illusions of individual success and achievement as opposed to the experience of the movement, which shows that social change comes with collective strength, organisation and struggle. AIDWA has continuously struggled to counter trends within the movement which define women’s rights and emancipation from narrow feminist frames and perspectives, denying the daily experience and struggles of the mass of women. We need to focus on the lives and struggles of rural women who earn their livelihood under harsh conditions; women who stand up to the might of the corporate sector which in the name of micro-finance institutions is pushing them to higher rates of interest even as SHGs are being touted from international platforms. In new times and changed contexts, the aspirations of the people have to be examined afresh, particularly of young women, who are caught between forces trying to keep alive socially conservative attitudes even as they are drawn to new frontiers by the changed context. It is the Left led struggles which have advanced women’s struggles for their rights, and drawing attention to the need to defend the democratic women’s struggle from the onslaught of the TMC-Maoist alliance, she stated that the women of West Bengal are today under grave attack for their commitment to advancing the struggle for democracy and equality. AIDWA has grown and its political understanding has advanced; this will provide the leadership to the struggles of the poor, the dalits, tribals and the most deprived sections, she said.
SESSION ON AIDWA WOMEN IN STRUGGLE
Phulora Mondal, from West Medinipur, narrated her experience of resisting political violence in West Bengal, and the political commitment and bravery of the AIDWA activists who were defending the movement despite the grave threat from the Maoist -TMC combine. Shanti, who was part of the massive agitations to prevent land grab by the MNCs for illegal mining in the Arakku valley of Andhra Pradesh, spoke about the collusion between the corporations and the Government leading to brazen violation of their entitlements. Mukesh from Kaithal in Haryana highlighted the gravity of the assaults on young people who wanted to make self choice marriages, and the stranglehold of caste forces which was leading to killings and crimes in the name of honour. She said that she herself would have lost her life if she had not approached AIDWA, and become part of the democratic movement. Highlighting the movement against untouchability in Tamilnadu, Ponnuthai from Madurai described the police atrocities on the AIDWA women from all castes who mobilized against the wall dividing the so called upper castes and SC communities in Uthapuram village. She had suffered grievous blows on her back for which she had to be hospitalized, but she said that even if her back was broken, AIDWA’s resistance to untouchability and other forms of discrimination could not be broken. Parvin Akhtar from Tripura spoke about how Muslim women’s rights were being advanced in Tripura, through her own experience of having won in an open general seat in the panchayat elections, and how a sizeable percentage of women from Muslim communities had been elected to the local bodies and benefited from reservation. All these brave activists were felicitated on behalf of AIDWA. The conference also felicitated Lalli Devi, the dalit woman from Allahabad, who had stood up against caste discrimination in Uttar Pradesh.
Annie Raja, General Secretary, NFIW, greeted the conference. JWP sent its written message. Fraternal delegates who greeted the conference included Comrade SR Pillai, President, AIKS, Comrade AK Padmanabhan, President, CITU, Comrade Hannan Mollah, Jt. Secretary, AIAWU, and Com. Sreeramakrishnan, President of DYFI. Among the Special Invitees was Jasodhara Bagchi, former Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission of West Bengal.
After the election of the Steering Committee, the Minutes Committee and the Credentials Committee, the the General Secretary, Sudha Sundararaman placed the Draft Report on major international and national developments and for discussion.
The report noted that the global economic crisis has exacerbated poverty, inflation, unemployment, and inequality, all of which have severely affected women in many ways. Women’s work has suffered considerably, as cut backs and cancellations of export orders have reduced employment in textiles and clothing, leather products, pharmaceuticals, food processing, toy production, electronics, etc. The problems of migrant women have increased. The hostility from anti-immigrant groups has also escalated due to domestic unemployment. The report pointed out that the agenda of imperialist domination was still a source of daily violence against women and children, especially in war-torn regions. On emerging issues like climate change, the developed world was opposing moves to curb their own carbon emission, while restrictions for developing countries would have adverse impact on women. Fundamentalist forces are whittling away at women’s hard won rights, and women are increasingly becoming victims of identity politics. However, the alternatives emerging from some Latin American countries and socialist countries are a source of inspiration and hope for the women’s movement the world over.
Taking an overview of the national situation, the report noted that the policies of the UPA-II government have led to the worst forms of crony capitalism and corruption, seen in the various scandals such as the 2-G Spectrum, etc. The weakening of the Left in Parliament has meant further and aggressive implementation of neo-liberalism, leading to greater impoverishment of the common people. The astronomical rise in prices, accompanied by a dismantling of the PDS, is leading to further malnutrition and anaemia amongst women. A major thrust towards privatisation of health and education programmes is affecting women adversely. Financing for the social sector had also gone down, the report pointed out.
The refusal to pass the 33 per cent women’s reservation bill exemplified the government’s opportunism, lack of political will and the extent to which patriarchal attitudes are stalling this important legislation. The report also highlighted the separatist and divisive agendas in many regions of the country, which were leading to violence and creation of conflict zones, where women and children could not live in peace. The dangerous communal agenda of the BJP was also evident in the attacks on minorities, and the assault on women’s democratic rights. The challenge from fundamentalist forces that are trying to push back the gains that women have made as part of the democratic struggle was another important issue placed for discussion. The report showed the multiple ways in which women’s choices were being curtailed in an authoritarian manner. The commodification of rituals, and practices like dowry has led to a greater acceptability of customs that violate women’s rights. Conservative opinions are evident even in judicial pronouncements. This is happening at a time when women are coming forward in every sphere to claim their rights. The range of violence unleashed against women is also on the rise, and women from oppressed and marginalised sections are more vulnerable to gender oppression and violence.
During the rich discussion, the delegates drew clear links between increasing food insecurity, rising prices, lack of availability of work, even as wages decline and hours of labour increase, all as part of the impact of the global economic crisis. The delegates saw this as the specific context of increasing violence, criminality and corruption through their experiences of the last three years. Delegates also highlighted the money power and the corrupt and criminal nature of elected representatives of ruling class parties. The liberal liquor policy pursued by many state governments including Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, etc, without any concern about its impact on women came under severe criticism. The terrible conditions of women working in the home based sector in Delhi, the impact of the agrarian crisis in hilly states like Himachal Pradesh, the political violence in West Bengal, the manner in which Microfinance Institutions are squeezing poor women in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, etc. were described in detail. Delegates noted how this was in contrast to the Left Front governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, which had made special efforts to implement alternative policies keeping in light the special problems of women. Special programs in these states for the support of self help groups, minority women, tribals and dalit women, widows and single women were mentioned.
The Draft report on Organisation and AIDWA’s Interventions and Struggles was placed by the General Secretary on the second day. Some of the issues reiterated critically by the delegates were the nNeed to strengthen the All-India Centre of the organization, the weaknesses in committee functioning at all levels that required rectification, the importance of identifying and educating whole-timers and activists, the need to expand and consolidate membership by focusing on primary Unit building activities, and the need to improve functioning of the various Sub-Committees. The difficulties in organizational building in the current socio economic situation, and the great dangers of fragmentation was a refrain from delegates, who also pointed to the grave challenge posed by divisive and reactionary forces to women’s mobilisation, and stressed the need to intensify ideological inputs and cultural initiatives to counter these trends.
Some of the sharpest interventions came from the Maoist affected areas where women face increasing violence and threats to the realisation of their democratic rights and aspirations. The delegates from West Bengal especially reiterated their resolve to resist the TMC-Maoist conspiracy to undermine the Left forces in the state. This was also accepted as a national task. Apprehensions were also expressed about the proliferation of NGOs and groups that undermine the struggle by their depoliticised approach, and a need to evolve a strategy to deal with them.
Summing up the discussion, Sudha called upon delegates to deepen their understanding and analysis of the contemporary challenges facing women, and consolidate the organisational base by reaching out to the poorest sections of women. She said that women must seize every opportunity to advance their rights and resist all attacks on them, be they from the imperialist forces, the obscurantist, conservative Hindutva elements and other fundamentalists.
Both the reports, and the Accounts which were placed by the Treasurer, Banani Biswas, were passed unanimously by the delegates.
The Conference paid rich tribute to its outgoing president Subhashini Ali, who completed three terms. She had led the organisation through a most challenging phase, expanding its outreach to newer sections, focusing on the demands of specific social groups and communities, even as AIDWA built upon common struggles. The central and state leadership and activists besieged her with tokens of their appreciation, in a spontaneous and moving acknowledgement of her rich contribution. They thanked her for her tireless efforts that had made it possible to hold the conference in a Northern state for the first time.
The conference elected a new Central Executive Committee of 102 members. Shyamali Gupta from West Bengal was elected the new President. Sudha Sundararaman will continue as the General Secretary and Bonani Biswas as Treasurer. A 29 member secretariat was elected unanimously.
The conference concluded with a mass rally. Despite the fact that it was the period of the Chat festival, women from several districts of UP came to hear and applaud the concluding speeches of the leaders. Attempts by the police to disrupt the public meeting were soundly rebuffed. It was addressed by Brinda Karat, MP, Subhashini Ali, Shyamali Gupta, Sudha Sundararaman, Madhu Garg, and other leaders, whose calls for militant, unrelenting struggles against exploitation and oppression were met with supportive cheers from the women of Uttar Pradesh who had congregated there in large numbers.