Values of Freedom Struggle and Women in India @ 75
ON August 15, when we unfurl the national flag, we recall that historic midnight session of the Constituent Assembly seventy five years ago when the first national flag that was unfurled over parliament, was handed over to the President Rajendra Prasad by Hansa Mehta, freedom fighter and one of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly. She said “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India…. We have fought, suffered, and sacrificed in the course of our country’s struggle for freedom. Today we have attained that goal…we pledge ourselves to work for a great India… for a greater cause to maintain the freedom we have attained…” Inspiring words that reflected the hopes and dreams of women that in independent India they would enjoy the rights of equality and equity as equal citizens. Today women of India and specifically women of the labouring classes who form the vast majority of the female population, are faced with the challenge she had voiced... “ to maintain the freedom we have attained.” In this piece we look at some of the values of the freedom struggle and the constitution which helped women advance to the extent they have in these seventy five years – and the barriers yet to be breached.
ASSAULT ON SECULAR VALUES AFFECTS WOMEN DEEPLY
The greatest strength women in India inherited from the freedom struggle was that women’s lives were to be determined not by religious texts which uniformly across religion, determine a secondary status for women, but by a constitution which recognised equality between all citizens regardless of sex, religion or any other factors. Constitutionally and legally the caste system was declared to be abolished. This intrinsic secular framework of the constitution has been pivotal in all the many achievements of women in breaking barriers in myriad fields. It is this secular framework which paved the way for a host of pro-women legislations that would not have been possible had India adopted the same pattern that Pakistan did, namely the declaration of a theocratic State, in their case with Islam as its religion. There were those who wanted the same pattern with India being declared a Hindu rashtra, which would have meant that it would not have been the constitution but the Manu Smriti which would have governed the lives of women.
V D Savarkar, one of the founders of the Hindutva ideology had said, “ The Manu Smriti is the holiest religious text...it has enshrined the moral principles guiding our cultural traditions and codified and consolidated centuries of our country’s spiritual and divine journeys…” There is no need here to elaborate what the Manu Smriti holds for women and dalits. It is a classic text of extreme and brutal patriarchy with the stamp of approval for birth based gross inequality and religious sanction to the caste system as being intrinsic to Hindu belief.
At that time those who made the atrocious demand for the Manu Smriti instead of the constitution were fringe elements like the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. Today they rule India. It is therefore necessary to reiterate the cardinal truth that much of what women in India have achieved is precisely because our laws are based on the principle of secularism and equal citizenship. Therefore though they admittedly have their inadequacies and flaws, they are still better than many other similarly placed developing countries, and provide a framework for advance of women’s rights.
In celebrating India’s independence we must also guard against those retrograde forces including those in government who want to dilute many of these laws such as those dealing with domestic violence or an adult’s choice of marriage or sexual choice as being against the ‘Indian ethos.” The refusal of the BJP-RSS led government to legislate against so-called honour crimes, against marital rape are also a reflection of the barriers to women’s individual liberty and freedom.
WOMEN’S INDEPENDENT AGENCY AND AUTONOMY UNDERMINED
During the freedom struggle, women’s social and political action and to an extent their independent agency was encouraged by the leaders of the different political streams of the national movement – whether the Gandhiji led dominant Congress party mainstream, the communist led movement or the social justice movement led by Ambedkar. Lakhs of women broke out of stereotypical roles of women imprisoned in feudal fetters and joined the freedom struggle as fighters, braving lathis, imprisonment and even death. But what happened after independence? Today in India, taking these values forward, there are countless examples of how women and particularly young women have through collective and individual assertion broken into fields and spheres which were hitherto out of bounds for them. Women’s movements for justice have through militant struggles been the driving force behind legal and policy changes to benefit women, particularly the poorer sections of women.
But the role of the State and governments have been at best half-hearted and feeble and at times positively aggressive and hostile. A reflection is seen in the continuing prevalence of son preference cultures reflected in the low child sex ratio at birth. Although female foeticide was made illegal in 1994, an estimate in a report published by the UN Population Fund in 2020 is that between 2011-2016 close to 4 lakh female births are “missed” in India due to sex selective abortions. Violence against women in its various forms from sexual assault, child rape, dowry deaths, acid attacks also reflect a kind of backlash against women’s assertions for equal space in social and family life.
The National Crime Bureau figures show that in 2019 (most recent available) the number of crimes had gone upto 4.12 lakhs. The subsequent 2020 report which shows a decrease cannot be taken at its face value because of the conditions of lockdown. Worse, the conviction rate is as low as 23.7 per cent in crimes against women. Dalit and adivasi women in particular have been targets with caste crimes which in a large number of cases are also class crimes committed by the rural elite, increasing. The impunity that rapists and criminals enjoy is provided by the open patronage given to them such as in the Hathras case, by those in power.
Another area of betrayal of the values of the freedom struggle concerning women is seen in the dismal representation of women in parliament. It was a shame that India’s first parliament had only 5 per cent women. 75 years later, women constitute 14 per cent, much below the world average of 24.6 per cent, which is low enough. The record of state assemblies is even worse with an average of just 8.8 per cent women. India is behind 140 countries in this respect. In spite of electoral pledges, the Women’s Reservation Bill is in cold storage displaying the anti-women attitude of the present regime who have the numbers to get it through but not the political will or inclination.
This male supremacist approach in political representation and in decision making bodies is made even more stark by the success of women at the grassroots level. Starting with a one third reservation which was increased during the UPA period to 50 per cent, women in panchayat and local bodies have set global records not only in their numbers but also in numerous success stories scripted by their hard work and perseverance. It is significant that it was in the Left ruled state of Bengal that the one third reservation for women was first implemented and that it is in Kerala that local bodies led by women have won numerous awards for their work.
VALUES VS CAPITALISM AND NEO-LIBERAL FRAMEWORK
There is no doubt that women face the greatest challenges to their hardwon rights today, more than ever before because of the policies of the BJP-RSS regime and the offensive of their manuvadi ideology. However the status of women, her ability to assert her independence is to a substantial measure determined by her economic status, and the way that a society addresses the historical burden of the unequal sexual division of labour between men and women. In this sphere, the present government is more aggressively pursuing the pro-corporate neo-liberal policy framework laid out earlier by the Congress led government. While social and obscene class inequality affects both men and women of the exploited sections, women among them are the worst affected.
In India, in spite of the huge participation of workers and peasants as the backbone of the freedom struggle, the correlation of class forces in the leadership of the movement, established a bourgeois landlord regime in Independent India under the leadership of the big bourgeoisie. It was this power of the ruling classes which led to a compromise in the constitution itself in which all the basic fundamental rights in the economic sphere including against economic inequalities, for the right to work, the right to equal wages as a fundamental right, the rights of working women in various spheres were relegated to the non-justiciable section under Directive Principles. The few socialists and communists in the Constituent Assembly demanded that all these economic rights must be justiciable and part of the fundamental rights chapter. At that time it was Vallabhbhai Patel who as chairman of the sub-committee argued against their inclusion in the fundamentalist rights chapter. Today that demand is equally relevant.
Under neo-liberal policies, women in India have seen a deterioration of their economic status making them all the more vulnerable to social discrimination. India has one of the highest unemployment rates for women in the world and one of the lowest female labour participation rates (FLPR). While unemployment affects both men and women, an OECD survey in 2019 showed a 52 percentage point difference of unemployment rates between men and women in India, among the highest in the world. Moreover, India has also a large percentage of women who are forced to drop out of the labour force because of the expenses of unsuccessfully looking for work and the consequent disappointment and frustration. Lack of work opportunities particularly in rural India have led to a historic low in the labour force participation rate of rural based females to below 10 per cent in April 2022.
Women’s wages are still on an average one third that of men. This is also because women’s work is considered supplementary to family income and therefore the tasks performed by women are invariably lower paid. A most striking example is of the shameful exploitation of around one crore employees mainly women providing essential services in the various schemes of the government such as anganwadis, in the health services as ASHAs, in the mid day meal provision in schools, as cooks and servers who have been denied regularisation, even a minimum wage, with no benefits due to government employees.
The toxic combination in the trishul of capitalism and its cooption of caste and patriarchy based hierarchies and oppressions allow the intensification of the extraction of surplus value through the exploitation of cheap female labour and the cheap labour of the victims of the caste system to help corporate profit maximisation. The 2019 time use survey conducted by official agencies though flawed in many ways, still points to the huge burden of unpaid work of women in India including domestic work because of the lack of government support in child care, in care of elders in the family, in the provision and access to household essentials such as water and fuel. While women do on an average five hours of domestic work, men spend only one and a half hours. Female caregiving services are double that of males. Instead of development and technology lightening the unpaid burden on women, the opposite is happening precisely because unequal social relations remain the core of Indian society under capitalism.
Without giving equal opportunities for women in productive paid work and without the State providing the facilities for child and family care and easy access to public services like water and fuel, the unequal sex based division of labour will remain as a barrier to women’s advance. In socialist countries, it was this critical transformation of giving women the opportunity for employment as a basic equal right that led to a radical change in the status of women.
In India, the capitalist exploitative system backed by an aggressive policy framework of the present government to help corporates on the one hand and to push their regressive manuvadi social agenda on the other, combine to drastically undermine not just the values of the freedom struggle, but freedom itself. This calls for a united mobilisation of men and women of the labouring and middle classes towards a second freedom struggle for socialism, to bring equality, justice and emancipation from the ills and sickness of the present system.