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Friday, Dec 02, 2022

India still fails its women, 75 years after Independence

Women's contribution continues to remain unsung and underplayed.

sarojini naiduSarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi during the 1930 Salt Satyagraha. While some freedom fighters like Naidu entered politics, many were lost to obscurity (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In just a few hours from now, independent India will be 75 years. The nation will, as usual, have the traditional official celebrations. But the truth is that we are jaded, the miracle of freedom no longer dazzles us. For those of us who saw the British flag come down and the Indian flag take its place, these are disquieting times. Times of evading the truth, of evading reality. We celebrate our Independence, but we have edged out the story of Partition. Is it intentional amnesia? Or have we truly forgotten it? True, humans can forget what they want to in a heartbeat. But Partition is the Siamese twin of our freedom. It was the price we paid for freedom, the price that was paid by people who lost the homes they had lived in for generations only because of a line drawn on a map.

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And what about women’s contribution to the freedom movement? We only know that Gandhiji brought women into the freedom movement. But recently, during a conversation with novelist Githa Hariharan, when Nayantara Sahgal said that there were over 30,000 women in prison in 1932, I was staggered by the number. Thirty thousand women in prison? And how many more out of it? Prominent women in the movement like Sarojini Naidu or Vijayalakshmi Pandit became household names at the time. But of these 30,000 women we know nothing. What happened to them after Independence? Did they go back to their homes and take up the household duties which had been their lot earlier? Why were they, barring a very few, not in politics? And why were these few women invariably connected to important men?

An even worse and equally forgotten story is of women who were raped during the Partition riots. I have been haunted by these women since I came across a pile of Harijan (Gandhiji’s journal) issues at home and read Gandhiji’s words trying to comfort and advise the raped women. What happened to them? Where did they go finally? Their families would not accept them, for they were disgraced, dishonoured women. What happened to the babies born of rape? Women who were raped in Bangladesh during the war were given the title of “Birangana-s (heroines)” by the government. A crass, insensitive way of thinking. Better, perhaps, to be invisible than a heroine.

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Women were considered comrades in the freedom struggle. Now? They are stalked, subjected to acid attacks, domestic abuse, marital rape, sexual harassment at home and outside; they are trolled on social media, judged by what they wear, what they do. Legislation is unable to keep up with these crimes. They say that the condition of women spells out how civilised a country is. By this measure, we have failed. In spite of our boastful claims about a modern progressive India, the majority of women, and a great many men, remain outside the world of opportunities and achievement.

The truth is that very soon after Independence, we forgot our dreams for the country, our aspirations for people, and latched on to the reality of power. Seventy-five years after Independence, we are a polarised country, full of hate. Listening to the “debates” on TV, one gets the full brunt of this hatred. The shouting and shrieking makes one wonder: why are they angry? Not only those out of power, even those in power are angry. What makes them so angry?

Nevertheless, I am convinced that political power is the only factor that can help. Without it, a people remain voiceless. Look at these numbers: The Constituent Assembly, which was convened before Independence to draft the Constitution, had 389 members, of which 11 were women. The present Parliament has 785 members, with 78 women among them. Any significant change in 75 years? Not really.

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Not that there are no women in politics. We see party spokeswomen who can out-shout and out-shriek other panelists, even the anchor. They have learnt to be as good haters as the men are, to be as angry as the men. This spectacle convinces me that I shall see no changes in India in my lifetime. We have gone too far ahead on the road of hatred to turn back. One had also hoped that open and rampant sexism would no longer be possible. But not too long ago, a male Member of Parliament told a female colleague to go home and do her work of patting out bhakris (rotis) — showing a contempt not only for this particular woman, but for all women’s work. If women did not pat out bhakris or roll out chapatis, what would the country eat? And this statement was made to a woman who comes from a powerful political party. Do we then give up hope?

“A moment comes…when an age ends, when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance” — these were the words of our first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru.

We have to hope, to wait for all the voices which have been suppressed, even in free India, to find utterance. That will be real Independence.

Shashi Deshpande is a novelist

First published on: 13-08-2022 at 09:32:26 am
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