“It is so inspiring to see hundreds of women delegates, representing lakhs of women all over the country, assembled in a democratic space, rather than a religious one. Transforming the consciousness of women is a real challenge and AIDWA needs to expand its struggle to combat communalism, casteism, patriarchy, and other regressive ideologies. The Manusmriti still lives in the hearts and minds of millions of women. That has to be countered. We dream of a world that is fair and just and free of poverty and inequality. We have gathered here to fight for it. We see fellow human beings as equals and we foster the spirit of democracy, secularism and equality. We vow to fight all forces opposed to these noble values that were born out of our glorious freedom struggle. I wish your Conference all success!”
It was with these words that Mallika Sarabhai, well-known choreographer, dancer, and the Chancellor of the Kerala Kala Mandalam deemed University, inaugurated the 13th National Conference of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) at Thiruvananthapuram on the morning of January 6, 2023. The conference was held at M C Josephine Nagar, Tagore Theatre. Over 850 delegates, observers, and special invitees from 26 States and Union Territories attended the Conference. The 12th AIDWA National Conference was held three years ago in December 2019 at Mumbai in Maharashtra.
Earlier in the morning, the AIDWA flag was hoisted by the National President Prof Malini Bhattacharya. Thereafter delegates paid their homage to the founders and martyrs of the movement. This was followed by lighting of torches brought from 12 States, where the earlier national conferences were held. Big enthusiastic torch lighting pre-conference programmes were held in the 12 States prior to the national conference. These flames represented the aspirations and struggles of the entire membership of AIDWA across the country.
The inaugural session began with revolutionary songs and was presided over by the AIDWA President, Prof Malini Bhattacharya. After a brief introduction by the General Secretary, Mariam Dhawale, the condolence resolution was placed by Malini. The Chairperson of the Reception Committee, P.K. Sreemathi delivered the welcome address, in which she outlined the democratic and progressive traditions of Kerala.
THUNDEROUS RECEPTION TO ALEIDA CHE GUEVARA
The hall erupted in thunderous applause when Aleida Che Guevara stood up to greet the conference on behalf of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). In her address she described the revolutionary role that had been played by Cuban women and how the revolution had triggered the emancipation of women. The FMC had played an important role in ensuring that women were able to work as equal partners in managerial and other positions. The social policies of the government like the provision for creches, day schools, focus on nutrition, elderly care etc., were a result of the work of the FMC. She also apprised the delegates of the status of women in Cuba and hoped that a united and anti-imperialist women’s movement would emerge to meet the challenges faced by the women of the world. She addressed the conference in Spanish, which was translated in English by Dr Madhura Swaminathan.
ENTHUSIASTIC WELCOME TO TEESTA SETALVAD
Human Rights activist Teesta Setalvad received enthusiastic applause when she recollected the solidarity shown by AIDWA to her while she was in prison; she received thousands of solidarity postcards from AIDWA activists across the country during that time. These postcards reassured her that she was not alone in this struggle. She outlined the collective challenges that all democratic forces face, especially women from religious minorities and oppressed classes and castes, and called for a united struggle for defending the Constitutional values of equality, and against discrimination. She pointed out that there is a great need for citizens to struggle and mobilise people so that public institutions, the legal system, and the media remain fair and transparent.
INSPIRING SYMBOLS OF RESISTANCE
Six symbols of resistance were honoured in the inaugural session. They were: 1) Phulora Mondal, a popular leader of Lalgarh, West Bengal, who resisted Maoist-TMC terror and was incarcerated in false cases by the TMC government for nearly 9 years; 2) ) V.P. Manziya, a classical dancer from Malappuram, Kerala, who bravely faced Muslim fundamentalist forces that excommunicated her from the community and continued with her passion for dancing and established herself as a dancer of high repute; 3) Revathi from Tamil Nadu, who fought for justice after her husband was tortured and killed in police custody; her perseverance led to a murder case being registered under the SC/ST Atrocities Act against the accused police personnel; and she also received Rs 33 lakh as compensation for her husband’s custodial death; 4) Sanjukta Sethi from Odisha who fought against bonded labour and the oppression of the microfinance institutions; 5) Kamlesh from Haryana, who led and played an important role against caste oppression and in the struggle of Anganwadi workers and helpers last year; 6) Sheela Gohana from Haryana, who stopped wearing the ghunghat (veil), combated conservative customs in her village, and inspired other women to do the same; she also organised women farmers in solidarity with the historic farmers’ movement.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY BRINDA KARAT
The tasks and the challenges before the contemporary women’s movement were outlined in detail by AIDWA patron, Brinda Karat, in her Keynote Address. She said, “This conference is special also because it marks the completion of the 40th year of the foundation of AIDWA. Four decades ago, in Chennai in March 1981, the first conference was held, attended by delegates representing 11 lakh members from 15 states. That conference pledged to take forward the goals enshrined on the AIDWA flag of Equality, Democracy and Women’s Emancipation. Today with close to one crore members and with units in 25 states, AIDWA has surmounted myriad challenges at different levels and has in these 40 years, emerged as the largest women’s organisation in India with an enviable record of taking forward the battle for our goals. We pay tribute to the founders of AIDWA, and we pay homage to our martyrs.
“Today I salute our activists, many of whom have faced repression from the State and governments, particularly by the TMC in West Bengal and the BJP in Tripura…..I especially extend my warm greetings to our sisters here in Kerala. You have played a critical role in these challenging times. The historic women’s wall is a symbol of both your strength and your resistance - the legacy of the renaissance taken forward with an understanding which extends to the fight against class exploitation. Women mobilized by AIDWA in Kerala have played an important role in the victory of the Left and Democratic Front.”
Brinda Karat concluded her speech with the following words, “The entire effort of the BJP-RSS regime is under the umbrella of a strategy to develop a so-called overarching Hindutva identity - of which women form an essential part. Women’s democratic rights are undermined in this process. This so-called exclusive Hindutva identity is also reflected in the promotion of the homogenization of religious rituals across India supported by huge amounts of money, overwhelming local religious traditions. Adivasi cultures are a special target and are sought to be subsumed in the Hindutva narrative. All this is accompanied by the promotion of obscurantism, superstition and utterly unscientific thinking. It is essential for women’s organisations like AIDWA to join hands with rationalists, people’s science movements and organisations to counter such trends and strengthen scientific temper among women.
“The 13th conference of AIDWA is meeting at a time of a serious challenge to the very concept of democracy, equality and women’s emancipation. Women of India participated with honour as partners in the struggle to win India’s freedom. Today that freedom is under attack—not by a neo-colonial power—but the very forces that claim to be nationalist. Those who had no part in the freedom struggle now want to impose their notion of fake nationalism to undermine all that we have fought for and gained. The united kisan movement has shown what the strength of a united force can achieve.
“We have and must further strive to build a strong women’s united movement with an alternate vision to the hate filled, corporate communal regime ruling India. Let every injustice, let every assault on the constitutional values of secularism and democracy by the ruling regime and its ideological progeny of the Sangh Parivar, be met by the rising tide of people’s resistance, women’s resistance, united resistance to not just defend our gains but to ensure the defeat at all levels of those who exploit, oppress and divide us today.”
The session ended with the Presidential Address of Malini Bhattacharya who outlined the challenges before the AIDWA in these oppressive times. She concluded by saying, “Our slogan for our 13th conference is ‘Struggle in Unity for Equality’. Our goal is to protect the gains secured by our predecessors in the matter of the rights given to us by our Constitution and to move at the same time towards more substantive equality through social change. In this struggle, unity among women and among all democratic-minded people is the strategy we have to follow. All of you who are listening to this are our companions-in-arms in this struggle.
“We have to make our base broader to build links with organizations, institutions and individuals who have felt in their bones the pressure of these oppressive times, but many of whom may still be unaware of or unable to express what this dead weight is that is crushing their bones. All of them must become active participants in this struggle. Our experience also tells us that we can do this only by discarding compromises and half-way measures in our dealings with socially retrograde irrational practices such as dowry, neglect of the girl child, tolerance of domestic violence and social discrimination based on caste and community. These practices demeaning to women are often sanctified today as ‘Manuvad’. Through our deliberations in this Conference, we pledge that AIDWA shall be in the forefront of this united struggle until we win.”
MASSIVE RALLY CONCLUDES CONFERENCE
The 13th AIDWA National Conference concluded on the evening of January 9, 2023, with a massive rally of over 50,000 women. (The report of the delegate sessions of the conference will be carried in these columns next week.) The rally of the delegates, many in their traditional state dresses, began from the Reception Committee office. It was led by an all-women’s band by a thunderous beating of drums. Thousands of women came to the public meeting through large jathas from several different points in Thiruvananthapuram.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated the public meeting held at Mallu Swarajyam Nagar (Putharikkandam Maidan). In his inaugural address, Pinarayi Vijayan observed that the 'victim shaming' culture of blaming women even when there is violence against them exists in the country, and efforts are being made by the ruling RSS-led BJP to further strengthen such a patriarchal society. The BJP is trying to divide the people against the slogan of the conference ‘Struggle in Unity for Equality'. The central government is subverting women's safety and gender equality. What happened in the Bilkis Bano case is a shocking illustration of this. A section of the people is being terrorized by making citizenship based on religion. Hitler's strategy of exterminating religious minorities and communists, whom the RSS says are internal enemies, is also being attempted to be implemented in India. The Kerala LDF government has taken the stand that this politics of division will not be tolerated in Kerala, said Pinarayi Vijayan.
He briefly described the Kerala model which was an important theme of the conference. Kerala is adopting alternative models to contain inflation and unemployment. Welfare schemes are seen as a right of the people, and not as charity by the government. The government is committed to protecting women's rights. He added that Kerala is the state that implements gender budgeting and Nava Keralam (New Kerala) will also incorporate it.
Brinda Karat, who greeted the public meeting, said that in a country where BJP leaders slut-shame even women who are victims of violence, it is encouraging when a Chief Minister understands deeply what 'victim shaming' is and condemns it. The AIDWA is committed to advancing the struggle of women. Women will never be willing to submit to BJP's Manuwadi agendas and practices. Brinda Karat called to fight for values like democracy, equality and women's emancipation.
The newly elected President of AIDWA, P.K. Sreemathi observed that in order to achieve equality, democracy and secularism must exist. She said that women should actively join the struggle against communal forces and be in the forefront of it. The re-elected General Secretary of AIDWA, Mariam Dhawale welcomed all the participants in the public meeting and thanked them for making this Conference a historic success. She said that the slogans raised by the conference are to convey the message of struggle to all sections of women, to strengthen the struggle against the Manuwadi agenda, and to resist the communal-corporate nexus all over the country.