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Women and Movement Politics in India

Author(s): Leslie J. Calman

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No. 10 (Oct., 1989), pp. 940-958
Published by: University of California Press
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Leslie J. Calman

The Indian women's movement is decentralized into

very loosely allied organizations, some of which are associated with polit-
ical parties but many others are "autonomous" and have explicitly rejected
any such affiliation. This article will describe the overall structure of the
women's movement, analyzing the ideological origins of that structure and
paying particular attention to the movement's relationship to other con-
temporary nonparty-affiliated Indian movements. It will suggest some po-
tential strengths of the reticular structure, noting that political movements
may serve different functions than party and electoral politics, particularly
the creation of new channels for political participation and the develop-
ment of personal and community empowerment. In the long run, these
may also have an impact on governmental policies and actions. I will
show that in the pursuit of these goals, the women's movement has become
an integral part of that broader nonparty movement sector that emerged in
India in the early 1970s and blossomed in the wake of Indira Gandhi's
declaration of an Emergency in 1975.

The Structure of Movements

In the theoretical literature on movements, a consensus emerges on the
relative merits of larger, centralized, hierarchical organizations with well-
developed divisions of labor versus those of smaller, decentralized, reticu-
lar movements characterized by very little division of labor. Centralized
movement organizations are thought to be more successful in the short run
at influencing established institutions of government; they can mobilize re-
sources, coordinate the support that already exists for an issue, lobby gov-

______ Leslie J. Calman is Assistant Professor in the Department of

Political Science, Barnard College, New York. The research on which this article is based
was funded in part by grants to the author from the American Political Science Association
and Barnard College.
( 1989 by The Regents of the University of California

ernmental decision-making bodies, and provide the type of technical
expertise to which bureaucratic government institutions respond. On the
other hand, a decentralized movement, while less effective in moving gov-
ernment, seems better suited to organizing and expanding participation at
the grass roots and to generating new ideas and strategies. As M. L.
Carden notes with regard to the proliferation of organizations in the U.S.
women's movement, a decentralized form of organization allows people to
find or form the niche in which they feel most comfortable and least com-
promised; it can more precisely match selective incentives to individual
need.' Because such a movement has no single, strict ideology to which
participants must conform, it can more easily embrace diversity of ideolog-
ical beliefs and choice of tactics; and this promotion of ideological and
strategic innovation may represent, in the long run, the best hope for the
creation of consciousness, and thus for a movement's survival, transforma-
tion, and growth. In the short run, another strength of a movement char-
acterized by numerous segments is that if one organization fails, through
pressure from its opponents or by withering from within, the entire move-
ment is not placed in jeopardy.
Movement organizations may also serve other functions in addition to
those of aggregating and articulating interests, developing ideologies, and
mobilizing support. "New social movement" theory draws our attention
to other attributes of movements that mark them as distinctly different
from other forms of political participation. Particularly in political envi-
ronments characterized by bureaucratization and centralization, the move-
ment organization can serve as an alternative political structure in which
participatory democracy is valued, learned, and practiced. Increased per-
sonal autonomy, participation in direct decision making, and access to a
variety of self-help initiatives may be provided within the context of the
movement organization that consciously emphasizes the importance of de-
centralized participatory structures. Viewed in this light, a movement's
success should be partially judged by its social impact on its participants,
the promotion of personal and group self-esteem, and the creation and dis-
semination of new cultural norms; while the empowerment that comes of
working to control the destiny of one's own community may ultimately
lead to greater economic and political change, judging the efficacy of a
movement solely by its immediate impact on public policy thus seems too

1. Maren Lockwood Carden, "The Proliferation of a Social Movement: Ideology and In-
dividual Incentives in the Contemporary Feminist Movement," Research in Social Move-
ments, Conflicts, and Change, no. 1 (1978), pp. 178-96.

Because different types of movement organizations are effective at pro-

moting different goals, an examination of how efficaciously a movement is
constructed requires that we look not only to the type of organizational
structures within the movement, but to the mix of structures and how well
they correspond to the goals of the movement. It may be that there is,
within one movement, a role for organizations that concentrate on per-
suading government to institute or implement law (much as the Women's
Equity Action League acts in the United States), while other organizations
contribute to the development of ideology and mobilization at the grass
roots (as U.S. "radical feminist" organizations have done). Indeed, a
friendly alliance among such disparate groups may provide the strongest
model of all for a movement with broad aims. We find such a structure
within the contemporary women's movement in India. Let us turn first to
an overview of the women's movement, and then analyze its relationship
to what may be called the nonparty movement sector.

The Women's Movement in India:

Structures and Ideologies
Few generalizations can be made with certainty about the women's move-
ment that began emerging in India in the mid-1970s; but one thing that
can be said is that it is a movement characterized by diversity. It is really
many movements; highly decentralized, it is composed of countless organi-
zations in both cities and rural areas. It claims participants who are
wealthy, who are middle class, who are poor; those who are communist,
socialist, or resolutely nonideological; and those who are members of par-
ties or who hold political parties in contempt for being elitist, opportunist,
or corrupt.
There are, however, identifiable tendencies within the movement. "Ten-
dencies" or "emphases" are more accurate descriptions than "divisions"
or "splits" because while different movement organizations devote their
energies to different tasks, the activities are in most respects complemen-
tary rather than conflictual and there are many individuals and groups
whose loyalties appear to crosscut the differences in emphasis. Nonethe-
less, one can differentiate between two essential organizational and ideo-
logical clusters: one, which is largely urban-based, focuses on issues of
rights and equality; the other, with both urban and rural components, em-
phasizes empowerment and liberation. Both seek to raise the conscious-
ness of women and men, first to understand that women in contemporary
India occupy an inferior position relative to men economically, socially,
and politically, and then to realize that this position is unjust and unac-
The former tendency within the women's movement focuses on wo-
men's issues as issues of human rights within the secular democracy that
India's constitution proclaims. Their demands are most fundamentally for
equality under the law (although, of course, in a polity subdivided under
different religious laws, that poses the question of equality of which women
to which men) and for protection by the courts and law enforcement agen-
cies from violence against women. The rhetoric of what we will call the
"rights" wing of the movement is for the most part determinedly un-"fem-
inist" in the Western sense in that it refrains from positing a conflict be-
tween women and men; it does not even present itself as a challenge to
gender roles, fearing that such an image would mark the movement as
overly influenced by the West and as attacking the family that, in India,
enjoys a place on a high pedestal. Instead, the self-portrayal is of modern-
izers and democrats seeking basic human rights. The rights wing of the
movement is determined not to be seen as radical, man-hating, or family-
hating-all of which are held, in India, to be synonymous with Western
But, of course, the demand for gender equality does mark the wing as
radical, requiring shifts in Indian law and vastly different governmental
behavior in the implementation of law. The focus of this part of the move-
ment is on moving the government to pass and administer laws that give
women equality in those family matters subject to legislation (inheritance,
marriage, divorce, and child custody), to act to improve women's health
and access to education, to move toward equality in employment, and
through both raised consciousness and the passage and implementation of
legislation with regard to rape and dowry, to assure women freedom from
The diversity of the roots of different movement organizations has led to
differences in their structures and modes of operation. Some of the groups
that operate within this wing of the movement were born from opposition
political parties and generally act in concert with the politics of those par-
ties. These include the Janata Party's Mahila Dakshata Samiti, the Com-
munist Party of India's National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW),
the Communist Party of India-Marxist's All-India Democratic Women's
Association (AIDWA), and the All-India Coordinating Committee of
Working Women (AICCWW). It may seem ironic that those groups rhe-
torically committed to communism operate, at least in part, within the
"rights" wing of the movement. But in India, the CPI and CPI(M) have
resolved to work within the parliamentary system; that the women's orga-
nizations associated with them share this strategy is therefore not surpris-
ing. Other groups within the rights wing of the women's movement
include venerable independent social service agencies, such as the All-

India Women's Conference (AIWC) and the Young Women's Christian

Association (YWCA). These have a long history of action on behalf of
women and, influenced by the broad feminist stirrings that have taken
place since the Emergency, are now becoming increasingly radicalized.
With the exception of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, which is based in
New Delhi and has affiliated groups in only a few states, all of the above
organizations are national in scale, have local chapters, and are organized
hierarchically with the national leadership based in the capital. They have
large memberships; NFIW, for example, claims 800,000 members while
AIDWA claims 115,000 are enrolled in its branches.2 The YWCA has 67
branches all over India and considerable financial resources. Along with
their access to and skill in using media, the ability of these organization's
leaders to mobilize large numbers for agitational purposes confers on them
considerable clout; they have entree to high government bureaucrats and
to elected officials, including the prime minister.
Still other organizations operating within the rights wing of the move-
ment are resolutely autonomous; these are generally small groups of activ-
ists who look most familiar to a Western feminist in their ideology and
style of action. Groups such as Saheli (sister) in New Delhi and the Wo-
men's Centre in Bombay provide informal counseling to women troubled
about a variety of problems, from domestic violence to health and employ-
ment concerns; in these efforts to raise consciousness and to empower indi-
vidual women through personal support they share much with the
"empowerment" wing of the movement described below. However, coun-
seling, consciousness raising, and support activities are just one aspect of
the autonomous organizations' work; they also engage in agitational polit-
ical activity such as demonstrations and public meetings designed to gain
publicity for their causes and thus bring pressure to bear on the govern-
ment to change laws or implement existing ones.
Such organizations tend to have few members-Saheli, for example, has
25 to 30 active members at any given time-but unlike the mass organiza-
tions in which members are mobilized by the leadership for political activi-
ties, members of the autonomous organizations tend to be personally
active in both policy making and implementation. Since, by definition, the
autonomous organizations are small, localized, and unaffiliated with any
larger group, it is impossible to get an accurate count of how many exist.
However, they do appear to exist in most parts of India; a 1985 national
conference in Bombay of autonomous women's organizations attracted 85
groups from the following states and cities: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bi-

2. Interview with Vimla Farooqui, general secretary, NFIW, New Delhi, 19 June 1986,
and with Vimal Ranadive, secretary, AICCWW, New Delhi, 18 June 1986.
har, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Nagaland,
Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
Leaders of the rights wing of the movement are generally urban, middle-
class, and highly educated; only a very few are Muslim. Measured on a
standard scale of left- to right-wing politics, they represent a range of ideo-
logical beliefs, but they have nonetheless been able to adopt common de-
mands for legislation with regard to dowry and dowry deaths, inheritance,
police brutality, and other matters upon which the government can act.
Organizations spanning the ideological spectrum from the women's wing
of the CPI(M) to the YWCA have formed coalitions around such issues
and acted in unison to build public opinion and bring pressure to bear on
Parliament and government bureaucracies to act. Even the autonomous
groups that deride parties and the party system share a strategy of trying
to move the government; that they do so not by engaging in electoral poli-
tics themselves but instead by lobbying members of government and by
building public opinion through agitation and publicity does not negate the
fact that their goal is government action to bring about and guarantee
rights for women.
The other organizational and ideological wing of the movement, which
we will call the "empowerment" wing, aims at the personal and commu-
nity empowerment of poor women in both urban and rural areas. Not
infrequently (and this is why the common categorization of the movement
as divided along urban/rural lines is incorrect) it is educated, middle-class
city and town dwellers who are instrumental in organizing the rural and
urban poor. Here, if the emphasis is on rights, it is not on civil rights but
on economic and social rights-the right to determine one's own future,
which requires both political empowerment at the local level and access to
the tools of economic well-being. The emphasis is on empowerment from
below, not the conferring of rights or economic development from above.
Still, these organizers are not anarchical purists; and most organizations
are not averse to seeking and accepting resources both from international
sources and from the Indian government to assist in organizing or in im-
plementing the economic development schemes they pursue.
While the truly rural-based movements tend to be small and localized,
some of the urban-based organizations are quite large and have expanded
into rural areas. For example, the Self-Employed Women's Association
(SEWA) has over 20,000 members in Ahmedabad and its chapters in sev-
eral states, the Working Women's Forum (WWF) has over 13,000 mem-
bers in Madras and its environs, while the Annapurna Mahila Mandal has
between 7,000 and 10,000 members in Bombay.
To distinguish between the "rights" and "empowerment" wings of the
movement is helpful as a way of marking differences in priorities but, on

the ground, the barrier between the two is a fluid one. The emphases are
different but not mutually exclusive, and often a single organization will
engage in both types of activities simultaneously. Thus, for example, the
AICCWW not only engages in demonstrations and lobbying aimed at af-
fecting legislation on such "rights" issues as dowry and changes in law
regarding Muslim women's right to receive maintenance upon divorce, it
also organizes working women within the rubric of the CPI(M)-sponsored
labor union, CITU. Urban "think tanks" such as the Center for Women's
Development Studies in New Delhi or the Research Unit on Women's
Studies of SNDT University in Bombay will provide scholarly support for
legal arguments made by groups attempting to influence legislation. At
the same time, they will sponsor study groups or even entire projects di-
rected at organizing and empowering poor rural women.
It is the quest for empowerment-through consciousness raising about
the place and capacity of women and the poor, through schemes designed
to generate economic self-reliance, and through the facilitating of decision
making by participants in movement organizations-that most marks
movement activity as distinct from politics-as-usual within the electoral
system. And it is here that the women's movement can be seen as part of a
broader phenomenon within Indian politics, that is, the nonparty move-
ment sector, which eschews electoral politics and focuses instead on em-
powering the grass roots. Like the empowerment wing of the women's
movement, the nonparty movement sector is marked by a profound skepti-
cism about the ability of contemporary party and electoral politics to
broaden opportunities for political participation and economic develop-
ment for those who by virtue of their sex, ethnicity, or caste have thus far
been deprived of access.

The Non-Party Movement Sector

Since the early 1970s there has been a burgeoning of ideologically left-of-
center movement organizations whose participants dedicate their energies
predominantly to working outside the formal institutions of political par-
ties and government. As the "revolution of rising expectations" began to
give way to what Robert Hardgrave calls a "revolution of rising frustra-
tions,"3 movement organizers-often middle-class, urban, and educated-
have worked to aggregate and articulate the demands of women, the rural
and urban poor, and the scheduled castes and tribes to bring pressure to
bear on government decision makers from outside the party structures.
For some, this choice of movement activity marks a deep despair with

3. Robert Hardgrave and Stanley Kochanek, India. Government and Politics in a Develop-
ing Nation (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 23.
existing political parties and the electoral process. One prominent activist
in the woman's movement contends that movement activists have a great
deal of cynicism about politicians; like many other Indians, they are pre-
pared to believe the worst about them. She counts herself among the disil-
lusioned, claiming that no self-respecting person would wish to be involved
in electoral politics since they have become, in her words, the province of
The more radical critics look much further than to particular politicians
or parties and criticize the model of development that has been pursued by
the Indian state. "Development" has meant not a decrease but an increase
in the gap, not only between rich and poor, but between those with social
and political power and those without. Efforts to have an impact on gov-
ernment policy can bear only limited fruit since the government does not
control the means of social transformation; resources and authority are
predominantly in the hands of dominant elites. It is they who have bene-
fited from access to technology and the green revolution, even as the real
income of "a significant proportion of low income households experienced
an absolute decline."5 Thus, action within or aimed at government cannot
be enough; movement organizations must also aim at challenging the
structure of the economy and the "socio-cultural" barriers6 that prevent
the poor and powerless from taking purposeful action. For these and other
activists, then, the desire to work outside of the party structures signals a
belief that nonparty organizations can bring something to the poor and
powerless that party politics cannot; the nonparty organizations are inter-
ested not only in moving government but also in creating personal and
community empowerment. Like those involved in the "new social move-
ments" in more economically advanced countries, they want to create al-
ternative political spaces in which the powerless can learn to organize and
act politically and in which they can exercise self-determination immedi-
ately. In terms of building the self-esteem of the participants, the practice
of independent decision making within the groups is intended as an end in
itself. Indeed, at the core of these movements is the effort to build empow-
erment through the creation of consciousness and the reconceptualization
of politics as something deeper than the exercise of influencing state power.
In India the goal of empowerment is particularly critical for women,
who have been deprived of power within the family by mainstream reli-
gious and social traditions. Women cannot hope to exercise public power

4. Interview with Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, New Delhi, 5 June 1986.
5. D. N. Dhanagere, "Agrarian Reforms and Rural Development in India," Research in
Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change, no. 7 (1984), p. 196.
6. Sheth, "Grass-Roots Initiatives in India," Economic and Political Weekly, 2 November
1984, p. 260.

so long as they are powerless over their own lives because of forced subser-
vience to fathers, husbands, and in-laws; violence within the family; and
limited educational opportunity. Nor can they exercise power over their
own lives or public life if they are consumed with poverty, ill-health, and a
lack of adequate food and clean drinking water. Working outside of gov-
ernmental channels to raise consciousness and self-esteem and to question
social structures is critical for the obvious reason that there are many cul-
tural and religious barriers to women's equality that are outside the realm
of government action; thus, transforming women's consciousness and
building power at the grass roots is essential. This is activity that a move-
ment, not a government, is best able to generate.
The goal of empowerment, however, while seen as developing from the
ground up and important in its own right, is in no way antithetical to the
goal of influencing public power; obviously, even limited empowerment of
the less powerful-be they dalits (scheduled castes), tribals, or women-
creates a group whose interests can more forcefully be articulated and who
can influence more effectively the creation of government policy at the leg-
islative level.
In addition, empowerment of the grass roots is seen as critical by those
who hope to change public policy at the executive level because in India
the frequent, and often vast gap between the passage of legislation and its
implementation can only be bridged through public pressure. Minimum
wage laws, for example, exist throughout India but are rarely implemented
in an economy in which labor is largely unorganized. It is, of course,
against the law to murder one's wife or daughter-in-law in a quest for
greater dowry, and yet this crime is rarely prosecuted. Thus, even when
laws commonly exist that guarantee women's rights, they are rarely imple-
mented without sustained, organized pressure. Thus, because moving the
government is as much a matter of agitation as of legislation, the empow-
erment of the grass roots is necessary even for those whose focus is on
government activity.
Thus, the agenda of the nonparty movement sector and the women's
movement is two-fold. They seek to build the self-esteem of their mem-
bers, to counter a culture of despair and hopelessness with one charged
with purposefulness, self-reliance, and power. This is seen as a necessary
precondition for the meaningful participation of the poor or powerless in
their own liberation. But most nonparty organizations also pursue this
strategy in order to have an impact on the government and those private
citizens with economic power. The nonparty movement sector aggregates
and articulates interests; it increases the bargaining power of the less pow-
erful. In this way, the coalition between the "empowerment" and the
"rights" wing of the women's movement can be a fruitful one; their differ-
ing approaches may prove to be complementary rather than contradictory.
Origins of the sector. The growth of the women's movement and of the
nonparty movement sector more generally is a response to a structural
crisis plaguing the Indian political system. By the mid-1970s, the incum-
bent governments at the national level and in many states appeared cor-
rupt, intent on destroying democratic liberties, unable to expand political
access to those lacking political power, and incapable of promulgating the
political and economic changes necessary both for economic growth and
for overcoming poverty.
Following her stunning success in the 1971 parliamentaryelections, In-
dira Gandhi appeared to have not only a mandate for change that would
benefit India's poor but the political power with which to implement it.
However, the appearanceof strength masked an emerging institutional cri-
sis: by reconstructing a Congress leadership that would owe personal loy-
alty to her, Gandhi created a government and party that lacked connection
to the people and had little ability to lead or even manage.7 The organiza-
tional ties linking the localities through the states to the center had been
severed; incumbent politicians at central and state levels had support from
above but not below. As a result, party and government institutions cap-
able of implementing Gandhi's program did not exist.
Also lacking were the institutional means to organize the popular sup-
port from below necessary to implement populist and redistributive pro-
grams. That such mobilization was critical was readily acknowledged by
officials of the central government. Given the lack of political will among
"those in the higher echelons of the administration [who are] also substan-
tial landowners themselves or [have] close links with big landowning inter-
ests," a 1973 Planning Commission report concluded, "politicisation of
poor peasantry on militant lines is a prerequisite for . . . conferring rights
and privileges on them."8 Ironically, it was a recommendation that was to
be taken up not by government, but by movement politics. For in practice,
the government had no means of mobilizing the poor; Indira Gandhi con-
trolled state governments that, in turn, controlled almost no one.
The urban middle and lower-middle classes-including, but not limited
to university students-lost patience with the evident mismanagement and
growing corruption in government and took to the streets. Some seemed
to see the corruption and ineptitude as characteristic of a particular group

7. See Stanley Kochanek, "Mrs. Gandhi's Pyramid," in Indira Gandhi's India, Henry C.
Hart, ed. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1986).
8. Planning Commission, Report of the Task Force on Agrarian Relations (New Delhi:
GOI, 1973), pp. 3, 10. Quoted in Dhanagare, p. 192.

of individuals; others, though, seemed doubtful about the efficacy of parlia-

mentary government itself. The situation became gravest in Gujarat and
then, soon after, in Bihar. Once joined by the venerated independence
leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, what had begun as student demonstrations
became transformed into a movement with national ambitions and, as it
developed, national impact. Under JP's leadership, the target of the move-
ment became Indira Gandhi's "tyrannical rule"9 and the goal, at least for
some participants, what JP called "total revolution."
Although it was a judgement by the Allahabad High Court against Mrs.
Gandhi for corrupt election practices that finally pushed her to defend her
incumbency by declaring a national emergency, it was the JP movement
that had placed her on the defensive and dramatized the widespread dis-
content with her rule. The movement was significant, too, in providing a
critique and a method that were to prove inspirational to the nonparty
movements that emerged or were reconstituted after the Emergency was
over. JP's insistence on a decentralized and less statist model of develop-
ment, his skepticism about the ability of hierarchically organized parties or
state power to bring socialism and democracy to the grass roots, and his
commitment to a decentralized socialism built from the ground up by em-
powering the powerless were to become the jumping off point for many
who organized after the Emergency.

Emergence of the sector. During the 21 months of the Emergency, over

110,000 people were arrested and detained without trial and without being
informed of the charges against them. Incidents of torture and murder in
the jails were rumored and later, during post-Emergency investigations,
often confirmed. Freedom of the press was abrogated and a number of
political organizations-some of the left, some of the right-were banned.
Parliament passed a 42nd Amendment to the Constitution that allowed
the government to abrogate civil rights if they were seen to interfere with
the pursuit of economic or social progress, and that increased prime minis-
terial powers to near-dictatorial proportions.
With the ending of the Emergency, there was an explosion of new move-
ments dedicated to the attainment of human rights and socioeconomic
progress; the bubbling up of activity seemed to one observer "like a soda
bottle opening-right across the country."10 There was a widespread
sense that democracy could no longer be taken for granted, that if there
was to be a renewal and then a deepening of freedom and democracy, peo-

9. J. Narayan, "Total Revolution: Its Future," in Towards Total Revolution, vol. 4,

Brahmanand, ed. (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1978), p. 180.
10. Interview with Vina Mazumdar, director of the Center for Women's Development
Studies, New Delhi, 23 June 1986.
ple would have to become actively involved. In part, this was prompted by
the failings of Indira Gandhi's government described above. Less focused,
but also of importance, is what seems to have been a more general discom-
fiture that grew during the late 1960s and early 1970s1I and that exploded
in the anger and disappointment prompted by the Emergency, i.e., more
than 20 years after independence, India had made some progress in com-
bating poverty and increasing access to political power, but not, in the eyes
of many Indian citizens, enough. Whereas the generation that came of age
toward the end of the nationalist struggle put its trust in parliamentary
procedures and specifically in the Congress Party, the generation coming
of age 20 years later had reason to be more skeptical about the ability of
Congress to meet its goals of secular democratic socialism and economic

The Women's Organizations

With the above as the overall setting in which new movements emerged,
let us turn now to some of the specific factors that ushered in new or revi-
talized organizations that, viewed together, constitute the new women's
movement. It is again helpful here to think in terms of the "rights" and
"empowerment" tendencies within the movement, for while some of the
inspiration and resources were shared, others were not. As I have noted,
the movement is really a series of separate organizations, each with differ-
ent emphases, which work cooperatively only on an ad hoc basis.
For those active in the "rights" wing, several factors prompted move-
ment emergence including the ideological call for action implicit in a gov-
ernment report written at the request of the United Nations for the
International Women's Year, and the existence of many organizations and
leaders that could easily adapt to a new set of priorities. The release in
May 1975, just prior to the Emergency, of the Report of the Committee on
the Status of Women in India (CSWI), Towards Equality,12 created an
effect similar to that experienced in the United States in 1961 with the
creation of the President's Commission on the Status of Women, sparking
immediate demands for government action. The data it compiled on wo-
men's inferior position in religious and family life, in health care and in
law, and with regard to economic, educational, and political opportunity
served as a jolt to the consciousness of many educated and politicized Indi-

11. This point was suggested to me by a number of observers in interviews: Marty Chen,
10 June 1986, New Delhi, and Govind Kelkar, 9 June 1986, New Delhi, among them.
12. Department of Social Welfare, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, Towards
Equality (New Delhi: GOI, December 1974).

ans, both women and men, and helped spur their activism in a new direc-
Much of the document is a call for vigorous governmental action to
improve the status of women. Significantly, the authors of the report
placed their advocacy of change to create equality for women not only
within the moral scheme of "social justice" but squarely within the devel-
opmental needs of the nation as a whole. Women's equality, they argue,
"is a basic precondition for [the] social, economic, and political develop-
ment of the nation"13 and thus should be a governmental priority. How-
ever, the CSWI also recognized that the state is not the sole or even most
important agent of social change. Law, they acknowledged, is often in
advance of social norms; government actions to reform law can have only
limited impact because of "the normative and structural unpreparedness of
the society to accept [the laws'] goals and means." "Religion, family and
kinship roles, and cultural norms delimiting the spheres of women's activi-
ties obstruct their full and equal participation in the life of the society and
achievement of their full potential." 14
Since the government alone cannot alter cultural patterns and social
structures that uphold women's inferior position in the family and in the
economy, the CSWI, in addition to detailing actions that government
should take, called specifically for movement activity. The report urged
"community organisations, particularly women's organisations" to "mo-
bilise public opinion and strengthen social efforts against oppressive insti-
tutions like polygamy [and] dowry" and to "mount a campaign for the
dissemination of information about the legal rights of women to increase
their awareness." 15 The uplift of women, then, must be the joint task of an
educated and committed government and a social movement that would
enlighten and inspire. Thus it makes perfect sense that those who operate
within the rights wing of the movement, and who place great emphasis on
moving government to pass and implement improved legislation, also en-
gage in efforts to empower women. There is still faith in parliamentary
procedures here, but also a recognition that the transformation of cultural
norms and the empowerment of women at the grass roots is critical to the
mobilization of interests necessary to move government as well as to be
ready to receive government assistance when it is offered.
Towards Equality constituted an important ideological first step in mo-
bilizing educated activists. Today, movement activists frequently cite the
report as a critical factor in raising their consciousness and motivating

13. Ibid., p. 8.
14. Ibid., p. 37.
15. Ibid., p. 101.
them to act. In its scale (480 pages) and comprehensiveness, it is a mov-
ing, often depressing indictment of a socioeconomic and political system
that pervasively discriminates against women. However, as the report was
published just prior to the Emergency, its recommendations languished.
Along with other concerns about human rights, this was one of the frustra-
tions that burst forth at the close of the Emergency.
Many resources were available that made organizing of the rights wing
possible. Leadership was provided by educated women who had long been
engaged in political work through unions, political parties, social service
agencies, and research institutes. The movement could also draw on a
communications network in urban areas that was aided by a generally
sympathetic press (including many young female journalists) and by the
linkages that already existed among preexisting political parties and
groups. Scholarly resources, critical for lobbying efforts, also existed in the
form of interested individual women scholars and research institutes
whose focus was on women. Finally, a range of resources became avail-
able to the movement through international channels, from ideological in-
spiration on questions of feminism and development practices useful to
women to financial assistance for research, communications, and organiza-
tional support (from, among others, the Ford Foundation, Oxfam, the
ILO, and several Scandinavian governments).
The situation for the empowerment wing, though, was somewhat differ-
ent. While it is true that the urban-based groups working to empower
women of the unorganized sector share certain roots with the rights wing,
notably the prior participation of leaders in labor unions and political par-
ties,16 the rural component of the empowerment wing is quite different.
Here, inspiration and resources derived less from the political parties and
established organizations that developed in India's early years; instead, the
impetus here was found more in the nonparty grass-roots radicalism that
began to emerge in the wake of the Naxalite failures in the early 1970s.
Disillusionment with government capacity and anger at economic ex-
ploitation became manifested in some rural movements prior to the Emer-
gency, and some of these have served as models for the nonparty
movements that have grown since 1977. Included among these are several
Maharashtra-based organizations that work to organize tribals (Shramik
Sanghtana in Dhule District and Bhoomi Sena in Thane District beginning
in the early 1970s, and Keshtakari Sanghatana in Thane in the late 1970s)
and that have received substantial public notice. Each has been particu-

16. Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA, was an officer of the Textile Labour Association
which gave SEWA its start. Jaya Arunachalam of the WWF was a long-time Congress ac-
tivist. The Annapurna Mahila Mandal was begun by a former CPI labor union organizer,
Prema Purao.

larly attentive to the need to organize women within its community, both
because women's participation is seen as critical to the actions of the com-
munity as a whole and because of a recognition of the specific gender-
related needs of women.
The emphasis is less on moving government and more on creating struc-
tures and educating for direct political participation in decisions that affect
the local community. Each of these movements has been characterized by
a refusal to align with political parties, which they regard as opportunistic
and ideologically rigid. Instead, actions aimed at government and the
landlord class are undertaken locally, after the intensive discussion,
politicization, and strategizing that occurs in several forums. Shibirs are
"camps for collective reflection" 17 at which men and women, or women
alone, gather to share experiences, build new ideological understandings,
and formulate strategy. Decision making occurs within small tarun
mandals (youth leagues) and workers' associations, all characterized by a
nonhierarchical style of organization and group decision making. Actions
have included marches, demonstrations, and strikes aimed at government
representatives and landlords for increased wages and employment and the
abolition of bonded labor; activities to enhance community economic
power, such as the obtaining and managing of bank loans and collective
savings funds; and also campaigns, particularly by women, against social
ills including gambling and alcoholism, and the payment of bride price.18
There has been a particular focus on the link between the economic ex-
ploitation common to the community as a whole and the sexual violence
that is the particular victimizer of women, visited upon them both by the
men of their own families and by men who hold economic or state power
over them: landlords, money lenders, police. 19
Another early movement that has served as an inspiration to further
activism was the Chipko movement in the Uttarkhand region of Uttar
Pradesh. Widespread deforestation, first by unchecked commercial inter-
ests and later under government auspices, had created an economic crisis
for the local people who occupied and drew their sustenance from the for-
ests. The impact was particularly great for women; male migration to the

17. According to Bhoomi Sena activists. See G. V. S. de Silva et al., Bhoomi Sena: A
Struggle for People's Power (Bombay: National Institute of Bank Management, 1978).
18. Leslie J. Calman, Protest in Democratic India (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press,
1985) chapter 8; and Amrita Basu, "Two Faces of Protest" in The Extended Family, Gail
Minault, ed. (Columbia, Missouri: South Asia Books, 1981).
19. Gail Omvedt raises this point in "Women in Popular Movements: India and Thailand
During the Decade of Women," a report prepared for the UNRISD Popular Participation
Programme, June 1985, unpublished mimeo, p. 16; also Jana Everett, "We Were in the Fore-
front of the Fight," South Asia Bulletin 6:1 (1986), p. 21.
plains is common and women do nearly all cultivation and the gathering of
fodder, fuel, and water, tasks made much more time-consuming as the for-
ests became denuded. Despite their importance in the economy, women
have been regarded as occupying a solely domestic sphere with power and
authority in both domestic and political spheres "built around a hierarchy
of males."20
The Chipko movement began under the leadership of C. P. Bhatt and
other male Sarvodaya (Gandhian movement) workers, organized as the
Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh (later, the Dashauli Gram Swarajy
Mandal, or DGSM); initial demands were for the limiting of commercial
exploitation of the forests and for local participation in their management.
The Sarvodaya workers lectured the local people on the importance of eco-
logical balance, citing the frequency of floods and the consequent soil ero-
sion that made cultivation more difficult. Despite the fact that it was
women's jobs that had been made the most difficult by the years of defores-
tation, the initial focus of the Sarvodaya workers was on organizing the
men of the community who, it was anticipated, would benefit from the
employment that could be generated through the careful exploitation of
local resources. In 1973 protests by the DGSM were successful in prevent-
ing the Forest Department from allotting rights to a set of ash trees to a
tennis racket company from the plains, and in persuading the department
to grant rights to a smaller number of trees for the manufacture of farm
tools to the DGSM. Following this, the movement spread to three other
Still, in 1974, the government made plans to allow the cutting of 2,500
trees in the Reni forest. C. P. Bhatt suggested that, when the time came,
the people hold on to the trees (chipko means "to hug") to protect them.
When the lumber company arrived at the forest, the men of the commu-
nity were nearly all away and it was the women who quickly mobilized,
confronted the contractors' men, and forced them to back down. A subse-
quent report by the U.P. government declared that the Reni forest should
become a protected area and a 10-year ban on felling trees was instituted.
It was this action that caused the Chipko movement to be known as a
women's movement, even though the women were acting in concert with
the wishes of the men of their community. The action was imitated in

20. Shobhita Jain, "Women and People's Ecological Movement: A Case Study of Wo-
men's Role in the Chipko Movement in Uttar Pradesh," Economic and Political Weekly,
October 13, 1984, p. 1790. Much of this account is drawn from Jain. See also Kumud
Sharma, Balaji Pandey and Kusum Nautiyal, "The Chipko Movement in the Uttarkhand
Region, Uttar Pradesh, India: Women's Role and Participation," in Rural Development and
Women: Lessons from the Field, Shimwaayi Muntemba, ed. (Geneva: International Labour
Office, 1985), pp. 173-93.

other villages in the area throughout the late 1970s. The Sarvodaya work-
ers, realizing that the women were a valuable political force, took to edu-
cating and involving them in public activities; women, who had never
before done so, began to attend village meetings and to demand a voice.
The confidence and motivation of the women grew. This was particu-
larly evident in an incident in 1980 in Dongri Paintoli village. Here, the
members of the all-male village council agreed to a deal with the U.P.
government whereby a local forest would be given to the Horticulture De-
partment for felling, in return for which the government would provide the
village with a new road, secondary school, hospital, and electricity. The
women of the village, who lacked formal political power, declared that
they did not accept the decision of the village council and would fight the
felling of the trees. They were, in turn, threatened by the men. Nonethe-
less, when the tree cutters arrived in February 1980, the women came out
in large numbers and succeeded in driving the workmen away; the govern-
ment, within a month, acted on the recommendation of its own committee
and banned the felling of trees in the area.
The Chipko movement added a new dimension to the perception of
what constitutes "women's issues." The way in which economic develop-
ment is to transpire so as to best fill human needs, and the importance of
environmental conservation were introduced as issues of central concern to
women. While the movement raised problems, particularly the sharpening
of disagreements between women and the men of their communities, it also
heightened women's participation in public forums and their awareness of
their own potentialities. Both in its expression of empowerment of women
and in the public issues it proclaimed as being of concern to women, the
Chipko movement was an important inspiration to further organizing.
Empowerment movements have also been aided by two shifts in the in-
ternational development scene: a recognition in the 1970s that community
organizing is a prerequisite to the most efficient use of outside resources,
and the realization that women constitute an important part of any com-
munity development effort. As a consequence, international agencies
began looking for nongovernmental organizations that were doing commu-
nity organizing among women and that had the capacity to absorb funds.
The movements just mentioned were not affected by this shift, but with the
ending of the Emergency there has been an upsurge in community organiz-
ing, often among tribals and scheduled castes, that has looked to their
model. In addition, SEWA and the Working Women's Forum now sup-
port rural development projects with the help of international funds; there
are also smaller groups that receive funding such as the Comprehensive
Rural Operations Service Society (CROSS) in Andhra Pradesh.
The reticular structure of the women's movement in India provides it with
opportunities for working simultaneously on multiple fronts. As activists
are themselves aware, it is at best unnecessary and at worst destructive for
women in India to expend much energy trying to impose some theoretical
or strategic unanimity; there is more than enough for activists working on
many different fronts to do.
Surely, efforts to press government for the passage and, even more criti-
cally, implementation of better and existing laws for the protection and
improved status of women are needed. Police action against the perpetra-
tors of violence against women; improved access to education and to the
training necessary for employment in the organized sector; greater govern-
ment expenditure on health care for women and infants; implementation
of minimum wage laws, the Equal Remuneration Act (1976), and the
Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929, amended in 1978); job reservations
for women; guaranteed employment; increased credit availability for poor
women-all are but a few of the reforms that have been called for by wo-
men's groups and that can be pressed by the rights wing of the movement.
For the purpose of moving government to act, their resources are most
appropriate. They can mobilize large numbers for agitational activity and
they have access to media, to political parties and parliamentary commit-
tees, to scholarly and legal resources.
However, the danger is that these activities, even if acknowledged as not
enough, could absorb too many of the valuable resources available or are
seen to represent the entire agenda of the women's movement. In fact,
success for the women's movement will not be measured in laws passed,
but rather in the establishment of access to economic and political power.
The unorganized poor women in both urban and rural localities who con-
stitute the vast majority of India's women seek transformation through
local access to economic means, freedom from violence, and through deci-
sion making in their everyday lives. These can only come by way of organ-
ization that is made possible through the empowerment wing of the
movement. A proliferation of nonparty organizations-each free to create
new ideas about what is needed and what can work, able to allow women
to exercise leadership and organizational skills outside the family struc-
ture, and able to challenge the intransigence of local economic and polit-
ical elites-is critical to transforming the lives of the mass of Indian
women. The state alone does not have the capacity (even if it had the will)
to reform the myriad of social structures that perpetuate women's secon-
dary status; political participation at the party level has become a static
exercise; and the state has not shown itself capable of lifting India's most

dispossessed citizens out of poverty. Empowerment must come first, not at

the level of the state but at the local community level.
The best hope for the success of the women's movement is to deepen the
cooperation that already exists between the rights and empowerment
wings of the movement. As mentioned above, often it is urban- or town-
based, middle-class, educated activists who take the initiative in organizing
poor women. They have provided the spark and the initial resources nec-
essary to begin or solidify organizing. Money from government or interna-
tional sources can filter through them; local authorities can be intimidated
by their presence; they can provide linkages among the disparate groups,
facilitating communication and the sharing of ideas. They can also serve
as the link between poor women at the grass roots and government deci-
sion makers. In this way, the two parts of the movement can work symbi-
otically, with resources flowing in part from above and ideas about grass-
roots development being generated in part from below.
It is also essential that the women's movement retain and expand its
linkages to other parts of the nonparty movement sector. Environmental
concerns are of critical importance to the women who gather fuel and fod-
der and cook on smoky stoves; the human rights movement helps to focus
attention on gender issues; those organizing poor rural communities, as we
have seen, have made efforts to empower women around gender as well as
class issues. Although by definition, these different movement clusters
wish to remain autonomous, they must also be cooperative, for it is only
their combined strength that is meaningful.
If the level of concern that the nonparty movement sector causes the
incumbent government is any measure of its success, there are some hope-
ful signs. As of the Seventh Five Year Plan, the Government of India has
promised increased support for, but has also introduced steps to regulate
autonomous organizations. Organizations receiving any grants from
abroad must, since the passage in December 1984 of the Foreign Contribu-
tion Regulation Act, register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The gov-
ernment has also proposed a Council for Rural Voluntary Agencies,
complete with a code of conduct and regulatory powers. It appears to
represent an attempt by the government to control those who will cooper-
ate with government and isolate those who won't.21 Although disturbing,
it is an ironic tribute to the power of the nonparty movement sector to
challenge existing authority.

21. Kalpana Sharma, "Neutralizing Voluntary Agencies," Indian Express, 3 August 1986.