By Anjali Sinha
13 April, 2007
[The seventh national
conference of women's movement particularly autonomous women's movement
was held in Kolkata in the beginning of September 2006. Although it
has been more than six months that the conference was held, but looking
at the fact that the issues discussed/not discussed had a lot of import
for the women's movement in general and the autonomous women's movement
in particular, a few observations about the same are being shared with
the wider audience. ]
is autonomy ? How does one define an 'autonomous women's group' ? How
does one differentiate it from women's organisations which are integral
part of larger political processes ?
Although the question of
autonomy has been high on the agenda of the women's movement since its
inception in the seventies, all these questions still beg for answers.
Till date one is yet to come across any single definition of the concept(s)
which has given rise to tremendous confusion within the ranks of the
women's movement in general and autonomous women's movement in particular.Confusion
gets further confounded when one notices a disjunction between the way
the concept gets defined in a larger fora like a conference and the
way it actually unfolds itself and how it is conveniently used to accomodate
and exclude certain formations/groups citing the same 'principles'.
The deliberations of the
seventh national conference of women's movements recently held in Kolkatta
( September 2006) are a case in point. Here one was witness to a strange
spectacle where the highest decision making body for the conference
comprised mainly of groups/formations which could not have been there
if the initiators of the process had decided to stick to the very definition
of 'autonomy' ( 'Swayattata ka arth hai hum rajnitik dalon, sarkaron
aur funding agencies se sansthagat evam vaicharik roop se swayam ko
swatantra manti hai' ) given in the invite for the conference itself.
At least there would have been second thoughts about putting the name
of a Delhi based prominent NGO as the sole contact address for the conference.
Interestingly neither the
'old guards' of the autonomous women's movement nor the 'new entrants'
to its 'legacy' seem to be even aware that such a discrepancy exists.It
is possible that a section of the autonomous women's movement which
is aware of this anamoly, do not feel any urgency to even recognise
it. Possibly they subscribe to the prevalent understanding that looks
at the dynamics of the autonomous politics as a 'process' or a state
of being one aspires to and think that things would get rectified on
Whatever might be the case,
it needs to be understood that this gap between self-perception and
self-actualisation of the autonomous politics is having a very negative
fallout ? It has created a situation where 'institutionalised' or 'state
sponsored feminism' - which has the potential of deradicalizing feminism
- has been accorded new legitimacy as being part of the 'autonomous
women's movement'. It has created a situation where the division between
NGOs - running projects centred around women- and mass organisations
of women who have been valiantly raising issues since decades has been
deliberately blurred. And a key difference between the sustenance of
a project - which is external - and a movement - which is driven mainly
by its internal momentum and legitimacy among the masses, is being largely
forgotten.It has led us to a situation where the failures of the autonomous
women's politics - even its failure to define itself or suggest any
alternative organisational structure- have not even come on the agenda.
It has been more than twenty
six years that the emergence of autonomous women's politics impacted
the onward journey of the emergent women's movement in a decisive manner,
whose influence is still being felt.One just wishes that the upholders
of autonomous women's politics in the 21 st century rise from the deep
slumber and get ready to introspect their failures which are of their
But before coming to the
grips of the problem it would be opportune take a bird's eye view of
the seventh national conference itself and get to know what actually
transpired during the four day gathering.
As reported in a section of the media the beginning of September saw
coming together of around 2,500 women from 22 different states of the
country belonging to different formations / groups to discuss and debate
issues which seem to bother the present day women's movement especially
the autonomous women's movement. Titled 'Towards a Politics of Justice
: Affirming Diversities, Resisting Divisiveness' the conference focussed
itself on globalisation, fundamentalism, family and violence as well.
This seventh National Conference
of Women's movement - particularly autonomous women' movement - was
held after a hiatus of nine years. It was for everyone to see that the
caravan of National conferences had traversed a long distance starting
from Bombay (1980, 1985), Patna ( 1987), Calicut ( 1990), Tirupati (1994)
and Ranchi (1997) and reached here.The last conference namely the sixth
Conference held in Ranchi had seen participation of more than 4,000
women. Despite the long gap, which saw scores of new faces join the
feminist stream and a few old faces fading away from scene, there was
no dearth of vibrancy in the four day congregation.The closing plenary
had tried to flag of four different key questions - namely disability
and difference, caste and diversity, morality and sex work and reexamining
gender. The colourful and boisterous closing rally on the streets of
Kolkatta where the participants resolved to continue the struggle with
lot of sloganeering rather reverberated the overall mood of the conference.
Of course, for any concerned observer to the whole proces, all the gaiety
and color in Kolkatta, could not hide the fact that there was something
seriously amiss in the very process itself, which needed urgent attention.
It was late seventies when
autonomous women's politics made its presence felt on the Indian scene.
It was a period of turmoil in Indian politics when a spontaneous pan
Indian movement of women took shape. Close on the heels of the retrogade
judgement by the Supreme Court in the Mathura rape case, and the indignation
felt by wider populace, one was witness to the emergence of scores of
women's groups at different places.Interestingly many of them declared
themselves to be 'autonomous' signifying their independence and distance
from men, political parties and state.A noteworthy feature of this new
autonomy raga pertained to their critque of the organisational principles
in vogue then which according to them were quite 'formal', 'hierarchial',
'Patriarchal' and 'stiffled free participation.'
It is now history how the
debate around autonomy tried to breathe in fresh air in the rising women's
movement initially. With its emergence as spaces where women could come
together it provided an outlet for organising women who had remained
aloof from 'party politics' for various reasons. One of the electrifying
slogans of the era, namely 'Personal is Political' , made famous by
the surge in the women's movement in the western countries, had caught
the imagination of the leading section of women.'
It also led to questioning
within the left movement which felt that the questions raised by the
autonomous women's movement carry import and this led to serious introspection
on the question of gender and patriarchal control at various levels.
The relation between the party(ies) and its women's organisation(s)
also came under scanner and their was growing realisation that much
needs to be done to rectify the situation. It definitely led to some
corrective action(s) on their part. Of course it would be incorrect
to say that there is no scope for further improvement.
It was during those times
that the idea to hold national conferences took shape which were construed
as ' a space for women to come together, share and express ideas, politics,
struggles and campaigns and sharpen' one's politics.' Although the nascent
autonomous women's movement had taken lead in holding the conferences,
individuals/groups/organisations with close affinity to left/radical
left formations had not shied away from participating wholeheartedly
in such meetings. An impartial analysis of the seven conferences would
make clear that at many such places where the left movement had been
strong, women belonging to this current were in significant numbers.
The left/radical organisations also shouldered many of the responisibilites
in making these conferences a fruitful exercise. Interestingly none
of them were part of the decision making process as the very constitution
of the highest decision making body (called National Co-ordination Committee'
the campaign committee which is organised for every conference and stands
dissolved after its completion) barred them any such voice.
One would be surprised to
know that while women's groups with (left/radical) political affinities
were thus barred from joining the decision making process, the upholders
of autonomous politics had no qualms in accomodating certain other groups
which themselves violated the 'principles' of autonomous politics -
namely their dependence on institutional support. As is widely known
a key feature of autonomous women's politics had been its maintaing
a distance from party, government and institutional funding. It has
felt that 'instiutionalised or state sponsored feminism' has the potential
of blunting the edge of women's movement.
Thus while certain groups
were barred and certain groups were included supposedly taking a principled
stand, it would be of interest to note that the autonomous women's movement
has still not been able to present a positive definition of many concepts
which are vital for its sustenance. As a matter of fact it is still
defined in the negative - a politics which is not affiliated to a party
or government, does not take funds or does not believe in structures
which are 'hierarchial','patriarchal' or 'detrimental to collective
functioning' etc. (Something on the tune of Hindu philosophy wherein
it defines Brahma as 'na iti'- it is not this) When asked to pinpoint
its essential features, another level of general features are put forward
which talk of priority to internal transformation, a notion of collective
functioning, emphasis on democracy or non-hierarchy, abhorrence to institutional
If one refers to an evaluation
of the autonomous women's politics done sometime back it becomes clear
that there is nothing new about the present state of affairs.Nandita
Gandhi and Nandita Shah in their perceptive paper ''Organisations and
Autonomy' (Gender and Politics in India- edited by Nivedita Menon) tell
us that 'Autonomy' has been 'viewed in relation to other people, relationships,
institutions and different aspects of life'. It also addes that 'Autonomy'
has been considered '.. [a] developing concept,' and 'viewed more as
a proces or a state of being one aspires to rather than a set of conditions
which, if fulfilled, give an individual or organisation the label of
autonomous' .According to them '[t]here is so far no single definition
of autonomy which can be debated, critiqued, questioned. Perhaps this
is because the concept has emerged from and is still being developed
through political practice.'
A leading autonomous women's
group active in Delhi, which recently completed 25 years of its existence,
tend to reiterate what is being discussed above."Autonomous politics
is usually defined in the negative - that we are not affiliated to a
party or government , we don't take funds, but what is the meaning of
autonomous politics ? What is the fundamental core ?"(Saheli, Dec
It is possible that friends
and fellow travellers of the autonomous women's movement - with whom
one has shared a long partnership on various issues - may try to brush
aside my observations as of no consequence. Perhaps they could castigate
me that my argument is flowing not out of my concern about the health
and well-being of the autonomous women's movement, rather it has arisen
out of my not so hidden agenda of 'NGO bashing'.
An agenda which was quite
prevalent in the late seventies or early eighties. Times when NGOs were
presented as agents of imperialist conspiracy, which were out to thwart
radical change. It needs no repeating that one needs to have more nuanced
understanding of the whole phenomenon. We should not forget that today
NGOs form part of the civil society networks based everywhere.And many
of them have done commendable work as far as amelioration of human sufferings
But my primary concern is
definitely not the way NGOs operate nor their interaction with the autonomous
women's movement as it is unfolding before our eyes, rather it is to
underline the gap between the self representation and self actualisation
of the autonomous women's politics.
This has led to unforeseen
consequences. The first and foremost being it has led to a sense of
complacency in the autonomous women's movement.Is not it high time that
the autonomous women's movement which abhorrs political parties, should
come out of the illusion that funded organisations are not carriers
of any politics.
Lastly, the need to redefine
the whole concept of autonomy and make it more expansive has never been
so better. One just wishes that instead of sitting on one's laurels
the autonomous women's movement gets ready to take a fresh plunge..
Contact : firstname.lastname@example.org
( The writer works with a
women's organisation 'Stree Adhikar Sangathan' and is associated with
the magazine 'Stree Mukti' (Hindi))
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