India: Women’s social and economic conditions, struggles for land and women’s resistance

Armed with traditional weapons, adivasi (tribal) women march in Lalgarh, West Bengal


From International Campaign against the War on People in India

Contemporary Anti-Displacement Struggles and Women’s Resistance

By Shoma Sen, Associate Professor, RTM Nagpur University

Women’s exclusion in the present model of development needs to be understood as inherent to a system that benefits from patriarchy. Seen as a reserve force of labour, women, excluded from economic activity are valued for their unrecognized role in social reproduction. The capitalist, patriarchal system that keeps the majority of women confined to domestic work and child rearing uses this as a way of keeping the wage rates low.

The limited participation of women in economic activity is also an extension of their traditional gender roles (nursing, teaching,or labour intensive jobs requiring patience and delicate skills) with wages based on gender discrimination. Largely part of the unorganized sector, deprived of the benefits of labour legislation, insecurity leads to sexual exploitation at the workplace. In the paradigm of globalization, these forms of exploitation, in export oriented industries, SEZs and service sector have greatly increased.

In spite of 63 years of so-called independence, women’s presence is negligible in political bodies and reservations for the same have been strongly resisted in a patriarchal political system. Though at the lower levels, reservations have made a limited entry possible, the success stories are more exceptions than the rule. Social institutions, thriving on feudal patriarchal notions are disapproving of women’s participation in production and laud her reproductive roles; violence against women at the familial and societal level is given social sanction and women are confined to a dependent life within the domestic space.

Therefore, women’s access to economic and political activity itself is a first step to their participation in decision making processes rather than the symbolic steps towards their “empowerment” that are seen in this system. Women’s resistance to this imperialist backed model of development, therefore, must be seen as their attempt to find space and voice in a system which has not only neglected their communities but even their gender within it.

Though some perceptions of feminism believe that women in the anti-displacement movements and the Maoist movement are working within the patriarchal fold, this paper contends that, on the contrary, their participation in such movements are a process of breaking the shackles of patriarchy, of emergence from private to public arenas. With fifty per cent of the population largely deprived from economic and political activity, such a democracy cannot be real in any sense and the participation of women in struggles is a process of democratization. If the gender axis of such struggles is sharpened then this trajectory is more likely to lead to equality and women’s liberation.

The present model of development in India has led to immense hardship for the common people and reaped beneifits for a limited few. It has led to a tremendous agrarian crisis which has also affected the lives of rural women and children. As lakhs of farmers commit suicide, they leave behind their wives and family members who have no recourse to mitigate their suffering. The agrarian crisis has led to large scale migration and trafficking in women and girls unskilled, low-paid jobs and towards sexual exploitation.

The various mining and industrial/development projects in the mineral rich hinterland have deprived women from their limited access to common property resources, their families and future generations from land. The processes of land acquisition have deprived them from decision making about their own lives and livelihood. The large-scale environmental degradation has had a devastating impact on their lives. Rehabilitation has uprooted them from familiar, healthier environments to difficult, alien surroundings causing cultural and psychological problems. The breakdown of community life, family and means of livelihood have led to sexual exploitation of these women as traditionally mainstream society looks at tribal women as “sexually free”.

By their life experience women have understood that development is not for them but others, whether it be the Narmada waters for cities in Gujarat or the Balliadila iron for Japan, and destruction of life and livelihood is in their lot.

In states like Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, women have come to realize that the pattern of development in India is lopsided and there are areas that will be exploited for their mineral and energy resources, for tourism etc that benefits the central government and imperialist backed industrial lobby; that the Indian government has forgotten the promises of autonomy made to them and are therefore fighting for secession.

As is always, in this pattern of democracy, dissent is suppressed not only by large-scale state repression but also by using rape as a political weapon to teach an ethnic or minority community a lesson and hundreds of women from these areas have faced such sexual violence from the army and para-military forces with the AFSPA firmly reinforced since 52 years to condone such crimes.

In recent years, a widespread resistance movement has grown in the mineral rich areas like Chhatisgadh, Jharkhand, and Orissa and also in parts of West Bengal and Maharashtra where the local people are resisting this imperialist backed model of development. Women are actively participating in these movements. In spite of facing the brunt of state violence and sexual assault, they are not intimidated.

In West Bengal, in the struggles at Singur and Nandigram, women spontaneously came out to fight. As was the tradition in Bengal, during the Tebhaga movement, women use traditional weapons, household implements and condiments like chili powder, signaling through conch shells etc in their ingenuous methods of self defense. In these struggles, women became iconic symbols of resistance, even in cultural forms like poetry.

In Lalgarh, West Bengal, when the PCAPA (committee against police atrocities) was set up, it was ensured that in each area 50% of committee members would be women. Even now, in spite of rapes, disappearances, murders, arrests and torture of women and men in that area, protest marches of women sometimes numbering up to 50,000 are being held. Draconian laws like the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention) are being used to arrest and deny bail to women who are simple, uneducated villagers, who never heard of the word Maoist, or urban women professionals who are also not part of this movement, but oppose this exploitative pattern of development. Whether they are Gandhians, NGO workers or simply liberal intellectuals, no one is allowed from entering these struggle areas to interact with the people.

In areas like Chhatisgadh and Jharkhand, where a similar anti-displacement movement and the Operation Greenhunt, to hunt down Maoists and their sympathizers is going on, women have been organizing for a longer time. As media reports and Naxalite literature show, the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS) is one of the largest women’s organizations existing in India today, though ironically it is “invisible” as it is banned.

Maoist literature and the reports of journalists, researchers who have visited Dantewara claim that the movement there has led to great changes in the lot of women. In the process of land distribution, land is allotted in the name of women as well. The construction of check dams, helping in agriculture has helped women solve the problem of domestic use of water as well. The new agricultural methods and introduction of fruit and vegetable cultivation has given women more nutrition.

It is again an ironical, but well known fact that only a few kilometers from the financial capital Mumbai, in Thane district, as well as in Melghat in Vidarbha hundreds of women and children die of malnutrition, but in Naxalite dominated Gadchiroli of the same Maharashtra, there are no deaths due to malnutrition. The access to better health and education in the Maoist areas is the only way women are getting educated there today. The wage increase in tendu (kendu) leaf collection has brought more economic equality into their lives. The setting up of rice mills helps women avoid the strenuous processes of threshing.

The KAMS has not only targeted external patriarchy (sexual exploitation by non-tribals etc) but internal patriarchy as well. The practice of isolation of women during menstruation and unscientific practices after childbirth are being reformed.

In Bihar and Jharkhand, the Nari Mukti Sangh (NMS) is a strong and popular women’s organization that is giving space to women’s voice and encouraging their participation in economic, political and social activity and decision making processes. Whether it be the replacing of the feudal patriarchal type dowry based marriages with democratic marriages, the punishing of perpetrators of sexual violence through people’s courts or the attempts at amicably settling family disputes, the NMS women’s teams move from village to village, not only affecting women’s lives with their interventions, but also involving women and children along with them.

Thousands of women and girls have learnt to read and write and been educated in the “Kranti ka Paathshaala” by organizations like KAMS and NMS. Picketing at health centres where there are no doctors, at schools where teachers are absent, fighting for equitable distribution of food grains, for better wages and better remunerative prices, for equal wages for equal work between men and women, these tribal women’s organizations are democratizing the processes of women’s political, social and economic activities, thus making development and democracy more meaningful to them.

Being aware of the impact of Globalization on women’s lives, how the beauty and fashion industry has been commoditizing women, these organizations, in the heart of India’s darkness have held rallies against the Miss World Beauty Pageant or opposed George Bush’s visit to India.

The leading activists of these organizations, hailing from indigenous backgrounds have a higher level of political consciousness than many women degree holders in our cities.

In conclusion, it must be noted that the suppression of the anti-displacement struggles by using force and violence, as is being done through the Operation Greenhunt, is not only causing devastation to the lives of lakhs of indigenous people and rural population, but it is also stifling the process of democratization that has begun by the social movements working in these places. Deprived of participation in economic activity, confined to reproductive roles, in the present system, women have found new horizons in the ideologies and participation in social movements. Whether Gandhian, socialist, dalit, nationality movements or Maoist movement, these are trajectories towards social equality and liberation for women and suppression of these movements means pushing women further into the morass of patriarchy and class exploitation, into caste and communal discrimination.

If democracy and development are to be really meaningful to women in India, then ways must be evolved to include women in these processes and not simply make symbolic gestures for their empowerment.

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