Tenth National Conference of AIDWA : Strengthen Struggles against Neo-liberal Policies & Communal Forces
Mariam Dhawale, Manjeet Rathee .
THE tenth national conference of the All India Democratic Women’s Association was held in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, from November 22-25, 2013 with the main slogan of confronting neo-liberalism, fighting conservatism, and combating communalism. The conference got off to a rousing start with flag hoisting by AIDWA's national president Shyamali Gupta and homage to martyrs who sacrificed their lives for women's emancipation and social justice. Comrade Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, chairperson of the reception committee and veteran Left leader, welcomed around the 750 delegates from all over the country, covering 23 states, gathered here to attend the conference. Manik Sarkar, chief minister of Tripura, who was to deliver the inaugural address, could not come due to illness but his heartfelt warm greetings to the conference were conveyed by Jitendra Choudhary, minister of industries. The industry minister, in his address on behalf of chief minister of Tripura, expressed concern over the anti-people and pro-rich disastrous economic policies of the present Congress regime, due to which the fruits of development have been squeezed and enjoyed by only 10% of our population. The only gainers under the present regime, the minister said, "are the monoply capitalists and corporate houses, landlords, moneylenders, tax evaders, black marketeers and illegal hoarders. They have been plundering the wealth of the country for their profit maximisation. These are happening due to the desperate implementation of so called neo-liberal economic policies by the UPA government led by the Congress... To get rid of these precarious conditions, people have started searching for a credible alternative. In this situation, BJP has been trying frantically to project itself as the alternative to Congress." The minister felt, there is a need to change the economic policies for the greater interests of the common masses of the country, which is only possible by chalking out a new and alternative set of policies. Focusing upon the developmental indices in the state which are way above the national average, the chief minister’s message highlighted the achievements of the Left Front government in Tripura in the field of total literacy, health policies, ICDS enrolment, position of women, self help groups, decentralisation of administration, and strengthening of the democratic rights of all sections of society. Tripura stands first in the country with 94.64% literates, 98% enrolment of children in anganwadi centres and highest electoral participation of 94% in the last assembly elections with women electorate surpassing the male voters by 2%. Manik Sarkar urged AIDWA to stress on education and removal of illiteracy among the women throughout the country. INAUGURAL SESSION The inaugural session featured a special session titled "Women against Violence: Fighting for Justice, Resisting Violence, Claiming Rights" wherein women who have been bravely fighting the battle against violence, discrimination and social injustice which includes domestic and political violence, sexual assault, fight for land rights, fight against caste and communal discrimination and against terrorism, spoke about their experiences. The conference was addressed by the Vachathi tribal mass rape survivor from Tamilnadu, Prandhayi, who stood up against her sexual assault by forest and police officials for 19 long years and finally succeeded in getting justice. Sarita (name changed), a dalit student from Hissar district in Haryana, who was gang raped by upper class people of village Dabra and whose father, unable to bear the shame and humiliation committed suicide, braved all odds in her struggle to get the accused convicted. Manwara Bibi from Bardhaman disrict of West Bengal foiled the attempt of the Trinamul goons to seize the panchayat elections by successfully contesting the elections in spite of the brutal killing of her husband at that very time and winning 83% of the votes. Bihar's Sushila Devi has been fighting a fierce struggle since 1992 for getting 8 acres of common village land out of the clutches of the landlord and a former IAS officer. Shamima Kausar, mother, and Musarrat, sister of Ishrat Jahan who was killed in a fake encounter by Gujarat police in 2004, have fought a prolonged legal battle to clear her daughter's name from the stigma of being branded a 'terrorist' and to ensure justice for Ishrat through punishment for her killers. The struggle and determination of Arunima Sinha to assert her identity as a national volleyball player from UP and her fight against the demeaning attitude of the state towards her achievements and dignity inspired the gathering as she shared her story of scaling the highest peak with an amputated leg, becoming the first woman in the world to achieve this historic feat. AIDWA patron and ex-MP, Brinda Karat in her speech stressed that violence is the most important issue which has to be also seen in its various dimensions. She put forth demands, including a code of conduct for elected MPs and MLAs who should be named and shamed whenever they use sexist language and make retrograde statements blaming women for the violence against them. Brinda said that it is only when these people know that "their careers will be jeopardised through penalties that they will learn to control their language." She also reaffirmed the resolve to fight political violence, caste and class inequalities and the need to fight capitalist structures which force women into situations that make them more and more vulnerable. She emphasised that our movement is to broaden the very concept of democracy to include as a basic prerequisite, a violence free environment, "where a woman does not have to battle poverty, caste or community based discrimination, where she can walk, talk, study, work, dress, partner without fear of violence..." Representatives of various national women's organisations, including Laila Passah from YWCA, Vimal Thorat from AIDMAM and Indu Agnihotri from Centre for Women's Development Studies, extended their greetings to AIDWA. Dr Indu Agnihotri emphasised the need for both organisations to work closely on women's issues. The conference was also greeted by J S Majumdar, vice-president CITU, N K Shukla, All India Kisan Sabha, M B Rajesh, president DYFI, Ritabrata Banerjee, general secretary SFI, and Vijay Raghavan, general secretary, All India Agriculture Worker's Union. Malini Bhattacharya, AIDWA's vice president and ex-member of the National Commission for Women, released Elisabeth Armstrong's book Gender and Neoliberalism: The All India Democratic Women's Association and Globalization Politics in the open session. The author of the book is an associate professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA, and has been associated with AIDWA for the last over 20 years. The book traces the growth and evolution of AIDWA's struggles and perspectives through long term ethnographic research in India's northern state of Haryana and Delhi, and the southern state of Tamilnadu. DELEGATE SESSION The delegate session began with the presentation of the report by the general secretary on the international and national situation. Thirty-three delegates spoke on the national and international section of the report. On the international situation, delegates strengthened the aspect of aggressive exploitation by the imperialist forces and how this has led to changes in the labour laws worldwide. This has also aggravated the insecurity in the lives of women and led to increase in trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. The delegates also suggested that AIDWA should coordinate with the progressive secular and democratic women's organisations at the international level which are fighting the onslaught of neo-liberal policies and fundamentalism in their own countries. In the national section, delegates very lucidly put across their experiences on the extremely adverse impact of the neo-liberal policies of the Congress-led government and the communal propaganda of right-wing ruling forces in their respective states. The discussion included concerns over growing domestic violence, sexual harassment at workplace, daughter dis-preference, conservative and patriarchal mindsets, sexual objectification of women, food insecurity, collapse of PDS, the falling work participation rates, and increasing influence of regressive and communal forces - particularly in the states ruled by right-wing parties such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Delegates from West Bengal expressed concern over the violent political attacks on their leaders and activists and on the sharp rise in incidents of violence and sexual assault on women since Trinamul Congress assumed power in the state. The delegates condemned the acts of self-proclaimed "god men and women" in light of the recent case involving Asaram bapu. Delegates from Karnataka expressed the need for active intervention in the cultural and social sphere so as to fight communal and conservative forces. Housing, ownership of land and joint pattas have been a major issue for struggle. Women are resisting land grabs and displacements, especially in tribal areas. The shrinkage of the rights and use of common natural resources is creating multiple hardships for women. It has led to increase in slums, tremendous exploitation of contract labour, underpaid work and increase in sexual harassment. The demand for social security for all women has acquired a central significance. The delegates were unanimous about mobilising women against obscurantist practices and ideologies which degrade women and reinforce their subordinate status. It was resolved that AIDWA will continue to fight against polarisation of communities on the basis of caste and religion and will work to create an alternative in favour of the interests of common women, particularly the poor and the marginalised. The main points that emerged from the discussion on organisation and work report were that AIDWA has to touch the hearts of the poor and the marginalised sections and continue to fight to achieve the basic rights like food security, land, housing, education and healthcare. Further, we have to increase our work among women belonging to the backward classes and fight strongly against communalism and obscurantism. Another area where AIDWA needs to work strongly is at the level of the unit committees so as to address the maximum issues related to their daily lives and problems. Ideological education is also an important area that needs to be continuously addressed. Cadre development and the role and development of whole timers also needs constant focus. AIDWA must strive to bring in young girls in our organisation. Seven commission papers on the following issues were also discussed "Gender budgeting - the Indian Experience" by T N Seema and Ishita Mukherjee, "The Corporatisation of Healthcare - An Assault on Public Health Systems" by Tapasi Praharaj and Sonya Gill, "Women, Work and Employment" by Kiran Moghe and Smita Gupta, "Women and the Conservative Backlash in Society and Media" by Malini Bhattacharya and Manjeet Rathee, "Women and Panchayat Raj" by K K Shailaja, Jagmati Sangwan and Jharna Das Baidya, "Muslim Women in India - Living with Growing Insecurities" by Subhashini Ali and Sehba Farooqi, "Education - A Basic Right of Women" by Sandhya Shaily, Minoti Ghosh and Savita. The last day session began with presentation of the main points emerging from the delegates' discussion on the seven commission papers by Ishita Mukherjee, Tapasi Praharaj, Smita Gupta, Rajni Palriwala, Nandini Mukherjee, Mariam Dhawale and Anandi. Three books were also released on this occasion, including AIDWA's souvenir "Two for the Price of One: Gender Concerns and Strategies in the Resistance to Imperialist Globalisation" by Brinda Karat and "Laws and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check" by Kirti Singh. The following ten resolutions were passed by the conference - condolence resolution for Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, resolution on food security, resolution to implement Sachar Committee recommendations in letter and spirit, resolution for a national law against superstitions and irrational practices, resolution on attacks on women in West Bengal, resolution on code of conduct to prevent anti-women remarks made by persons in public positions, resolution for women’s unity against increasing communal polarisation, resolution for a stand-alone law on honour killing, resolution for 33% reservation for women, resolution on immediate implementation of protection of women from sexual harassment at work place act. An exhibition based on women's issues prepared by the All India People's Science Network, Bihar, was inaugurated by Brinda Karat. The exhibition depicted through poems, slogans and visual images the condition of women and the urge to fight against the discrimination in various spheres. Three significant documents brought out by AIDWA were also released in this conference which included – ‘Torch Bearers of AIDWA’ edited by Malini Bhattacharya and Tanvi, ‘Women against Imperialism’, ‘Neo-liberalism and Fundamentalism, and for Socialism’ edited by Subhashini Ali. The third document related to the compilation of important statistics on women's status and situation was also released. The conference also passed two amendments related to the constitution of AIDWA which were placed by the general secretary. One related to the increase of AIDWA membership fee from Rs 1 to Rs 2. The second related to the provision of appointment of patron at the level of the state also, earlier limited only to the national level. CREDENTIAL REPORT The credential report placed by Maimoona Moolah consisted of very interesting information related to the composition of the delegates attending the conference. In all, 761 delegates attended the conference from 23 states with 91 year old Sudha Bindu Mitra from Bihar being the oldest and 26 year old Farhad Khanam from Jharkhand being the youngest. There were 21 doctorates among the delegates, 116 postgraduates, 156 graduates, 94 undergraduates, 181 middle school dropouts, 115 primary school dropouts and 8 who did not receive any formal education. The class composition of the delegates included 145 working class members, 66 farmers, 278 from the middle class and 2 belonging to the upper class. As per the caste composition, there were 110 belonging to the SC category, 49 STs, 228 OBCs, 40 Muslims, 21 Christians and 6 Sikhs. 165 delegates were whole-timers. Just as the conference was ending, the sad news of the demise of AIDWA patron and beloved senior leader Shyamli Gupta was received. AIDWA patron Brinda Karat paid homage to Shyamlidi and placed a resolution before the conference. Shyamlidi, who had attended the conference for the first two days and had addressed the delegates, passed away in West Bengal due to heart attack on November 25, 2013. A day before in Bodhgaya, Shyamlidi, who has played a decisive role in the formation and strengthening of the organisation, had been felicitated. Her organisational understanding and sharp political acumen has helped and guided members of AIDWA in their multiple struggles for women's emancipation and equality. The delegates had expressed their deep love and respect towards her contribution over the years. The conference extended condolence to her family members and all her comrades in AIDWA. The new CEC elected by the conference comprised 97 members and 10 permanent invitees which elected a 31-member secretariat as follows - president Malini Bhattacharya; general secretary Jagmati Sangwan; treasurer P K Sreemathy; vice-presidents Subhashini Ali, M C Josephine, Rama Das, Rampari, Savitri Deb Barman, T N Seema, Kirti Singh, T Jyothi, Banani Biswas, U Vasuki, Anju Kar, Sudha Sundararaman and Mariam Dhawale; national secretaries Minoti Ghosh, K K Shailaja, Krishna Rakshit, Swaroopa Rani, Kiran Moghe, Tapasi Praharaj and Sehba Farooqi; and assistant secretaries Anwara Meerza, Sandhya Shaily, Madhu Garg, Sumitra Chopra, Madhuri, Jharna Das and P Sugandhi. The conference ended with a call for continuous struggles against neo-liberal policies and forces of communalism and emphasised the need to build a pro-women and pro-poor alternative. At the level of organization, the conference called for completion of this year's membership through consistent campaign by the end of December. It was also decided to mark December 10, Human Rights Day, in support of secularism and a violence-free society for women.