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The borders within institutions

In an apparent move to advance the cause of women, the Government of India announced last Friday the appointment of five members to the Nat...

Written by Nirmala Sitharaman |
May 26, 2005

In an apparent move to advance the cause of women, the Government of India announced last Friday the appointment of five members to the National Commission for Women (NCW). The notification also stated that three existing members are being removed. The NCW is a statutory body formed after an Act passed in the Indian Parliament in 1990. The chairperson, the member secretary and the 5 members work as per a mandate given by the Act. In handling complaints of women, or during investigations of matters affecting rights of women, the NCW exerts its powers as a civil court in summoning persons and documents. Its every business is recorded in detail. An annual report of its activities and accounts is submitted to Parliament.

Since its inception this is the first time the NCW has faced removal of its members. A statutory Commission’s member/s removal is envisaged in the mandate under circumstances that are clearly defined.

I, as one of the removed members of the NCW, hold the government’s notification wanting on propriety. To wield authority without being accountable is the very conduct which women often question in many institutions, be it the police or the policy maker, legislature or judiciary. Today there is a desperate need to strengthen institutions which are necessary to uphold the principles enshrined in the Constitution. What is the objective of the removal — is a vital question as it sends out a message to the country.

First, it sends a message of utter disregard to institutions . Second, it sends a message of tokenism. Third, being a message from a government headed by Manmohan Singh, who has headed several prestigious institutions, it has even more significance. Fourth, this is a message from a party that 14 years ago thought it fit to establish the Commission, and not a Committee for women.

Several coincidences beg to be noticed. The government today is ‘‘guided’’ by the NAC headed by a woman. A new chairperson was recently appointed and has taken on the reigns of the NCW with a new member secretary, three existing members and two vacant positions. The evening after the announcement, the chairperson informed the press that she had not been consulted (informed) on the removal of members with whom she worked for three active months. Even more significant is the fact that the chair has not been consulted on the 5 new members with whom she must now work. What better example to prove this government’s contempt for institutions?

Where are the loud and vocal women’s groups who rightly shout in the streets with their fists held high? No government earlier contemplated such a move. It is either that this government is different or we, the removed women, have committed grave improprieties in office.

Hectic activity marked the NCW under the previous chairperson. Its members met as frequently as thrice a week reviewing issues from all over the country affecting women. Investigations were carried on with energy. On subjects such as gender budgeting, effects of globalisation, review of laws, rights of tribal women, or travails of women in the unorganised sector, members would go to the farthest corners of India, interact with women and present reports. But post-general elections 2004, for reasons undisclosed to the NCW, its annual grant was ‘‘frozen’’, severely inhibiting all its activities. Complainants were not allowed to suffer, however, and investigations were not held back as members took a conscious decision to take the cheapest available transport and carry on ‘‘as normal’’. There was no clever leak to the press to say that the new government is stifling a statutory body.

The government’s motive is clear. If you should belong to a particular school of thought which is not acceptable to them, you are not wanted. This is outrageous. Members, activists and sympathisers of political parties have been part of the NCW always. Even if not merrily, they have co-habited with one another and certainly for the better of the NCW. But today’s UPA government will not tolerate heterogeneity. Diversity in opinion is at best a poll plank. Women of only one stock are needed here. Women appointed by the NDA do not belong.

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