A Conference Dedicated To Renewal And Reaffirmation:

28 November 2004 Subhashini Ali
IN the afternoon of the November 17, adivasi women from the remote and inaccessible parts of Koraput district danced on the streets of Bhubaneshwar to the sounds of their traditional drums as they led a procession of thousands of women shouting slogans of "AIDWA zindabad". The procession ended in the inaugural rally of the 7th national conference of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in Bhubaneshwar.
The chief guest at the rally was Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal. In his rousing speech, Bhattacharya said that the performance of the women panchayat members, the tremendous role played by AIDWA members in different movements and their unflinching support and courageous participation in all aspects of electoral campaigns had all gone a long way to ensure the repeated victories of the Left Front in his state. He called upon all participants of the democratic movement, both men and women, to fight social evils like dowry and female foeticide which, he said, were certainly not the concerns of the women's organisations alone but of society as a whole.
The rally was presided over by the president of the Orissa unit of AIDWA who was also the secretary of the reception committee of the conference, Tapasi Praharaj. Among those who addressed the rally were Brinda Karat, general secretary, Subhashini Ali, president, Shyamali Gupta, working president, S Sudha, secretary, and Pushpa Panda, general secretary of the Orissa unit.
In her impassioned speech, Brinda Karat said that it was not enough for the government to have a Common Minimum Programme but what was needed was the acceptance of a Women's Minimum Programme which would address the needs of the poorest sections of our society. She said that while the defeat of the communal forces in the recent Lok Sabha elections was welcomed not only by AIDWA but by women in general, the 7th conference would definitely discuss ways and means to make the new government implement its promises to women like passage of the Womens Reservation Bill, the Anti-Domestic Violence Bill, the centrally-funded Employment Guarantee Scheme which must include the work done by women in its definition of public works and also have 40 per cent women beneficiaries and for a Universal Public Distribution System which provides adequate quantities of foodgrains at affordable, low prices.
The three-day conference of AIDWA that began the next day, i.e November 18 and continued till November 21, at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneshwar, was a landmark in the history of the organisation for several reasons. At the 5th conference of AIDWA in Bangalore, the constitution had been amended and a limit of three terms had been placed on all those occupying the three posts of president, general secretary and treasurer at all levels of the organisation. This had been done to ensure that new leaders could be constantly developed and promoted to positions of responsibility. It was in the unit, district and state conferences leading up to this 7th conference that this amendment was really implemented. The national conference was the occasion for this to be done at the national level and it was a historic moment, at the end of the conference, that Brinda Karat who has been the general secretary for a little over 9 years and who has guided the organisation to the position that it now occupies as the largest, most well-known and perhaps most effective of all women's organisations in the country, stepped down from the post and S Sudha, AIDWA secretary was elected to the post of general secretary. This was quite a unique event, the result not only of AIDWA's commitment to the constitutional amendment but to the reinforced belief of its leadership and membership that the experience of its implementation at all levels had strengthened the organisation, infused new blood and new thinking into its leadership and saved it from stagnation and staleness. It was this belief that gave all the delegates to the conference the confidence and courage to pledge their support and co-operation to their new general secretary while calling upon Brinda Karat to continue to guide their organisation in the years to come.
While promoting and encouraging new and young leaders, AIDWA members never forget what they owe to their founders, their patrons. And that is why the inaugural session of the conference had as its centrepiece the tribute that AIDWA paid to them, their heroism and their inspiring leadership.
The inaugural session of the conference began at 9.30 a m sharp on the 18th morning with the flag-hoisting ceremony and homage paid to the martyrs. A presidium comprising of Subhashini Ali, Shyamali Gupta, Vibha Ghosh Goswami, Josephine, Punyavati, Zainaba, Pramila Pandhe and Kiranmala was elected to conduct the proceedings.
After Tapasi Praharaj welcomed the delegates on behalf of the reception committee, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, one of the founders and patrons of AIDWA, inaugurated the conference. She recalled the founding conference of AIDWA in Chennai in 1981 and spoke about the tremendous advance that the organisation had made. She said whenever women had been called upon to prove themselves they had never been found wanting as far as courage and the spirit of sacrifice were concerned but very few people realised the courage and sacrifice that they displayed in their every day lives and struggles for survival. She called upon all AIDWA members to refuse to be cowed down and to fight for their rights and the rights of Indian women to equality and dignity.
Brinda Karat, then announced that a book on the 12 founders of AIDWA - Kanak Mukherjee, Papa Umanath, Mallu Swarajyam, Lakshmi Sahgal, Ahilya Rangnekar, Mangaleshwari Deb Barma, Manjari Gupta and the late Ela Bhattacharya, Susheela Gopalan, Vimal Randive, Moturu Udayam, and Pankaj Acharya - entitled "Breaking Barriers" that had been commissioned by AIDWA, written by Parvati Menon and published by Leftword was now ready for release. This was a dream come true for the organisation. Not only could it acknowledge the tremendous contribution made by these heroic women to the cause of women's and social emancipation but the stories of their lives could now be known and appreciated by millions who would be inspired by their path breaking examples. Parvati Menon told the conference that it had been a privilege for her to have been associated in the writing of the book and she thanked Malini Bhattacharya, Indu Agnihotri, Sonu and others for their assistance.
Dr Vina Mazumdar, doyen of the women's movement, rose to release the book and to present copies of it to the founder patrons of AIDWA who were present - Ahilya Rangnekar, Mangaleshwari Deb Barma, Papa Umanath, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal and Kanak Mukherjee. She said that on this historic occasion she could not help but recall her close association with and great admiration for those about whom the book was written. As she called upon the patrons present to stand and receive their copies, the entire hall was filled with applause and ringing slogans as all the delegates and guests gave a standing ovation to their beloved leaders. The joy of that moment tinged with the sad remembrance of those wonderful women who were no longer present was extraordinary. Kanak Mukherjee and Ahilya Rangnekar in spite of all the handicaps of ill health addressed the audience with great enthusiasm.
AIDWA then honoured a special guest, Mala Hashmi. While welcoming her, Subhashini Ali said that Mala was a theatre activist whose commitment to people's theatre and people's movements were unparalleled. Her brilliance was widely recognised and she could have chosen a career in theatre or cinema that would have taken her to great heights. In an age of glitz and glamour, she had repeatedly proved that her talents were not for sale and were only for the service of the people and their struggles. Mala Hashmi had also always tried to keep gender issues at the centre of all the Jan Natya Manch presentations. Her courage at a time of great personal tragedy had also been inspirational. AIDWA also paid tribute to her colleagues in Janam and when Mala accepted AIDWA's token of appreciation, all those present expressed their heartfelt feelings of respect and admiration.
Veteran leaders of women's organisations that have along with AIDWA played a crucial role in developing the post-Emergency joint women's movement on a variety of issues starting with changes in the rape and dowry laws and then developing into struggles against globalisation and communalisation were also very welcome guests at the conference. Vina Mazumdar (CWDS), Mary Khemchand (YWCA). Jyotsna Chatterji (JWP) and Pramila Loomba and Sehba Farooqui (NFIW) were all given tokens of AIDWA's appreciation of their contribution and they also addressed the conference.
This was followed by a session dedicated to struggles. Seven AIDWA activists from different parts of the country spoke about the struggles in which they have participated. The first to speak was Shabyabati Jamati, a young tribal girl from Tripura who is a surrendered militant who belonged to the ATTF. Shabyabati spoke with great dignity and said that she belonged to a very poor family in South Tripura. She was very keen to study but because of his poverty, her father had to discontinue her studies after the Xth Standard. It was then that she was approached by members of ATTF who convinced her that all the problems of poor young girls like her would end when they achieved their goal of an independent country. She was taken by them for training in a camp situated in Bangladesh and was trained in the use of sophisticated arms. After that, to her dismay, she was kept in the home of one of the militant leaders and made to perform menial tasks. She found that while young recruits like herself were deprived of even minimum necessities, the families of the leaders lived luxurious lives. Not only that, young men and women were forbidden to form relationships and one young couple that wanted to marry was actually executed while the leaders lived with their families and children. As a result of her disillusionment, Shabyabati managed to escape from the camp and contacted AIDWA leaders who helped her to surrender. She is now an AIDWA activist who is actively engaged in strengthening the democratic movement and also in helping other misguided youngsters like herself.
Romola from Manipur spoke about the ongoing agitation in her state against the atrocities committed by members of the armed forces and para-military groups against women. She said that the rape and murder of a young woman, Manorama, by Assam Rifles personnel had enraged the people, particularly the women. AIDWA members had also played a significant role in the agitation and several of them had been jailed.
Salma Rehman, a Block-level president from Kozhikode, Kerala, spoke about the communal clashes that have been engineered in Marad which is part of her block. She said that fisherfolk belonging to the Hindu and Muslim communities had been living in amity until the RSS and Muslim fundamentalists started organising them. In the most recent events of January, 2003, hundreds of Muslim families were forced to leave their homes and livelihood. AIDWA organised relief camps for them and also campaigns for communal amity but the UDF government played a pro-RSS and dangerous game because of which the Muslims are being forced to sell their homes and properties. AIDWA is continuing its efforts to bring the women of the two communities together again.
Rani, a dalit activist of AIDWA from Bandlagudem village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh had a horrifying experience to narrate. She said that most of the land in her village belongs to two brothers, Ravi and Ramachandran. They are also money-lenders who charge the most extortionate interest rates. For example, a man who takes a loan of 1500/- is told that he owes them 30,000/- in a year or so. As a result, most of the poor people in the village have lost their land. A young girl whose father had taken a loan was forced by the brothers to go to Hyderabad and work in their home there. She was raped for more than 6 months and then sent back to the village when she became pregnant with 500 rupees for an abortion. The brothers have also converted about 50 acres of 'their' land into a fish pond which is guarded by fierce Doberman dogs. Because of these dogs no one can venture out of their home after sunset. One day, a 6 year old boy fell into the pond and died and his parents were refused permission to take his body out. This was the proverbial straw that broke their backs and many of them revolted and sat on a dharna demanding action. Rani said that her husband was forced to come and pressurise her to leave the dharna. She told him "I have been living under your chappals and their chappals for so long now. But not anymore. You can do what you like but I will not leave the struggle." At last their determination bore fruit and the brothers were arrested. The struggle has only just begun.
From Midnapore district of West Bengal, a tribal woman Gita told the delegates that she was now serving her second consecutive term as block panchayat president. She said that in her area the tribal women were actively participating in a movement that was transforming their lives. She said that they had fought against the excessive drinking of liquor by their menfolk and were involved in many activities connected with education, health etc.
Sheila, the sister-in-law of Sonia who has been in the news recently because of the decision of a caste-panchayat in Jhajjar, Haryana, which issued a fatwa saying that her marriage to Rampal (Shiela's brother) was rendered null and void because they belonged to the same sub-caste and they would now have to live as brother and sister gave an inspiring account of the barbarous event. She said that the caste-panchayat leaders had forced Rampal to sign a document divorcing Sonia and then forcibly entered the house where she was with Sonia. They were both manhandled. Sonia's clothes were torn and her dupatta was removed. Even her chappals were taken away and she was forced out of the house, barefoot. Shiela tried to protect her and then went with her to a neighbouring village and then gave her shelter in her own marital home. Sonia was three months pregnant and was so traumatised that she had to be hospitalised. Shiela said that AIDWA activists were very supportive and finally approached the NHRC in Delhi under whose instructions the district police finally took action against the caste-panchayat leaders. They had to reverse their earlier decision and were made to accept Sonia and Rampal as man and wife. Shiela said that this incident had made a deep impression on her. She realised that the caste-leaders could only do what they did because her family was poor and powerless. She was now determined to fight all forms of oppression and had joined AIDWA. She was proud to call herself an AIDWA activist now and had formed a unit in her own village.
Damyanti is a dalit AIDWA activist from Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. She said that her district had suffered drought for five years running and the women had to spend much of their time and energy on finding water for their households. In such a situation, the Tamil Nadu government gave permission to a local bottling company to sign an agreement with Coca Cola company which would allow them to drill to a depth of 3,000 feet and extract millions of litres of water to be used as bottled mineral water. The local people, especially the women realised what this held in store for them and they made up their minds to stop this from happening. Huge dharnas and demonstrations were organised and finally the Tamil Nadu government had to cancel its permission.
With these narrations of courage and determination, the memorable inaugural session of the 7th national conference of AIDWA came to a close.