Long Way To Go

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From Capt. Lakshmi of the Azad Hind Fauj to Indira Gandhi and today’s state chief ministers, Indian women have come a long way in politics. But key reforms that could see them improve their position remain undone because of male feudal attitudes BY R. C. RAJAMANI

Today, as a modern and progressive nation, India can justifiably feel proud about the power and position enjoyed by its women. In fact, the country’s women can feel even prouder as the authority and influence they wield are not a free gift to them. They have worked for it hard against heavy odds and so richly deserve what they have achieved.

Yes, gone are the days when India lent itself to derision by the rest of the world, when we harked back to the Vedic period to say that Indian women enjoyed a high and exalted position in those times that have long passed into history. Gone are the days when Indian women only hovered fearfully in the background, exploited by a male dominated society. They have fought their way to prominence in diverse fields of activity.

Today, Indian women hold high positions in every walk of life – from education to entrepreneurship; from business to bureaucracy and from administration to the armed forces.

And last, but not the least, is their triumphant, if intrepid, entry into the rough and tumble of politics where the road to progress is tricky and treacherous, once thought to be right only for men.

Remarkably women in India began to play a key role in politics and governance long before they have done so in mature democracies like Britain and USA. Britain had its first woman prime minister Margaret Thatcher more than a decade after India threw up Indira Gandhi in 1966, as the first woman PM. The US is yet to get its woman president though its democracy is 240 years old.

Women may still be underrepresented in Parliament and state assemblies. Yet, they are in good numbers at the grass root level – from Panchayats upwards. This augurs well for their political future since by the time they reach assemblies and parliament; they will be rich in experience.

FIGHT FOR WOMEN’S RESERVATION

There is much merit in the demand for 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies. But the law in this regard is stuck in parliament for more than two decades. Male politicians of feudal mentality will do their worst to prevent the legislation from being enacted. Characters like the Yadavs –Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh, Sharad – and many others of their ilk created ugly scenes when the relevant Bill was sought to be introduced in parliament more than once.

The Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Deve Gowda government on Sept 12, 1996. It has since traversed a tortuous 20 year-journey that saw high drama every time it was sought to be introduced in the Lok Sabha. The Bill also lapsed each time the House was dissolved and was re-introduced by the Government of the day.

Remarkably women in India began to play a key role in politics and governance long before they have done so in mature democracies like Britain and USA. Britain had its first woman prime minister Margaret Thatcher more than a decade after India threw up Indira Gandhi in 1966, as the first woman PM. The US is yet to get its woman president though its democracy is 240 years old

Once, Union minister Renuka Chowdhury pushed a Samajwadi member away when he tried to snatch a copy of the Bill from law minister H. R. Bhardwaj in the UPA government’s first term when it was being introduced. Bharadwaj sat between two women ministers and was guarded by some women MPs to ward off any attack on him by opposition members.

JD (U) veteran Sharad Yadav, an inveterate opponent of the legislation, once asked in the Rajya Sabha, “Do you think these women with short hair can speak for women, for our women...”

Finally, in March 2010, the Rajya Sabha passed the measure amid unruly scenes created by opposing MPs who sat on a dharna on the floor of the House. They were physically evicted by marshals.

The Constitution Amendment Bill now awaits passage by the Lok Sabha to go into the Statute Book.

May be it is not fair to blame the ‘Yadavs’ alone for the non-enactment. In fact, the need for the law can be obviated if every political party chooses 33 per cent women to contest the elections to seats specially designated for them. There was a suggestion to this effect by the Election Commission. However, no political party, including the Congress and BJP, has been willing to implement the idea.

POLITICS & PARLIAMENT

Ammu Swaminadhan : An early woman Congress leader, Ammukutty Swaminadhan grew up politically under the patronage and guidance of her illustrious husband Subbarama Swaminathan, a poor Tamil Brahmin who won scholarships to study at London, Edinburgh and Harvard Universities and became a successful lawyer. Joining Congress under the influence of her husband, Ammu became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and took part in India’s struggle for independence. After Independence, she served as a member of the Constituent Assembly of India. In 1952, she was elected a member of the Rajya Sabha from Madras State. She died in 1978.

Dr. Swaminadhan and Ammu had four children: Govind Swaminadhan, the elder son, a barrister at the Madras High Court. His wife was the daughter of Pandit Santhanam, founder of Lakshmi Insurance Company of Lahore

Subbarama, the younger son, an advocate at the Bombay High Court. His wife, Nuru Swaminathan, was a daughter of M. C. Chagla, sometime Chief Justice of the Mumbai High Court.

Captain Lakshmi Swaminadhan (1914-2012), celebrated freedom fighter and Marxist. Her first husband P.K.N. Rao was a pilot with Tata Airways. Her second husband, Prem Sehgal, was a doctor who worked with her in the Azad Hind Fauj. Lakshmi and Prem are the parents of Subhashini Ali, a staunch feminist activist and a dedicated member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Mrinalini Sarabhai, a Bharatanatyam dancer and wife of Vikram Sarabhai, a renowned scientist. They are the parents of Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer and former Gujarati film actress.

There is much merit in the demand for 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies. But the law in this regard is stuck in parliament for more than two decades

Aruna Asaf Ali (16 July 1909 – 29 July 1996) is widely remembered for hoisting the Indian National Congress flag at the Gowalia Tank maidan in Bombay during the Quit India Movement, 1942. After Independence, she remained active in politics, becoming Delhi’s first mayor in 1958. She successfully started a media publishing house which brought out Patriot daily and Link weekly. She received India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, posthumously in 1997.

Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984) Daughter of Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi is still the most famous woman politician in India. Perhaps no other Indian leader was loved and loathed in equal measure as Indira Gandhi during her lifetime.

Indira caught the imagination of the world as no other Indian or developing nation’s leader has done. As a world leader, her moment of glory came in December 1971. War clouds were gathering over the Indian horizon in the aftermath of Islamabad’s military crackdown on East Pakistan after the Awami League had won the national elections and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was poised to take over as prime minister.

But the Punjabi-dominated, Urdu-speaking military would not countenance a Bengali-speaking prime minister.

Troops landed in thousands in Dhaka and all over East Pakistan and let loose a reign of terror. Panic-stricken East Pakistanis crossed the border into India in their millions. Already battling poverty of its teeming millions, India was faced with the humanitarian responsibility of feeding the starving refugees. It discharged it with its own resources and foreign aid for months. As aid was thinning out, India realized that the only permanent solution was to send the reluctant refuges home under a government of their own choice that assured them safety and security.

Indira Gandhi went on a world tour, apprising leaders of the problems India faced in the wake of the massive influx of refugees. She gave President Nixon, who still tended to side with Pakistan, an earful. The West was dithering, was reluctant to ask a recalcitrant Pakistan to behave and respect the democratic verdict. Her patience finally worn out, Indira took things in her own hand and surprised the rest of the world.

What happened within a few months is history. Indira Gandhi defeated Pakistan in a war forced on India and helped the Bengalis of East Pakistan win independence to form Bangladesh. Even her political opponents hailed her as `Ma Durga’.

Indira displayed courage in crucial moments of her political career. It was her courage that helped her challenge the Old Guard in the Congress party and emerge as the undisputed leader in 1969; it was her courage that helped her take on Nixon at the height of the Cold War during the early 1970s; it was her courage that helped her win a decisive victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war that saw the birth of Bangladesh.

Perhaps none paid for the folly of underestimating her courage more dearly than the Pakistani military ruler general Yahya Khan, who boasted to a group of Western journalists, ‘‘If that woman thinks she is going to cow me down ... I refuse to take it. If she wants a war I will fight it.” This was on November 27, 1971. Within two weeks the general lost the war and Pakistan lost its eastern wing that became independent Bangladesh.

The office of the president of more than century old Congress Party was given to the grieving and rather reluctant widow of Rajiv Gandhi in 1996 and the Italian born Indian ‘bahu’ continues to hold the office without a break for 20 years, possibly a Guinness record

Just sample this Sunday Times correspondent’s (London) description of Yahya Khan as he spoke to the journalists over dinner a few days before full scale war broke out in December 1971:

“Rage and sweet reasonableness alternated in Yahya’s rambling confidence, ever returning to that woman! To a tough man like Yahya, being caught in a relentless trap and waiting helpless for the next turn of the screw is bad enough; to a Muslim general the idea that the screw is being turned by a Hindu in sari is clearly agonising.”

Indira displayed caprice too. If she displayed statesmanship during the Bangladesh war, a few years later she showed her sense of insecurity over losing power. She declared a State of Emergency on the advice of her son Sanjay Gandhi and a closed coterie around him. She did not resign after the Allahabad high court unseated her from Parliament. She did not want to hand over the baton to a senior leader like Jagjivan Ram because of her distrust of her colleagues.

To the media Indira remained somewhat of an enigma. During her lifetime, the media loved, admired and hated her with equal intensity at different times. It praised her to the skies and also downed her to the dumps. It employed only the superlatives to describe her actions.

Sonia Gandhi: The office of the president of more than century old Congress Party was given to the grieving and rather reluctant widow of Rajiv Gandhi in 1996 and the Italian born Indian ‘bahu’ continues to hold the office without a break for 20 years, possibly a Guinness record. Her desperate attempt to form a Congress led government in the summer of 1999 without verifying if she had the numbers was a great embarrassment to her and the party. Any other person in her place would have lost the job for the fiasco. But the Congress, which is chary of looking beyond the “Nehru Gandhi” clan, seems happy with her continuance.

At best a halting speaker, Sonia has hardly made any mark as an MP even after being a member of the Lok Sabha for close to 20 years. Her enigmatic persona and freezing looks seem to command awe and respect from Congress leaders and workers alike. The Congress president is certainly more hard working and appears politically more mature than her vice president son.

Sonia is still the King/Queen maker of her party – former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, former President Prathiba Patil and former Lok Sabha Speaker Ms Meira Kumar, all owe their elevation to Sonia. There were much better candidates for these posts but Sonia had her way.

Sonia’s estranged sister in law Maneka Gandhi is a battle scarred politician who has worked her way hard to her present position as a cabinet minister. A fierce fighter, she has also groomed her son Varun to be a politician of some substance

Sonia’s estranged sister in law Maneka Gandhi is a battle scarred politician who has worked her way hard to her present position as a cabinet minister. A fierce fighter, she has also groomed her son Varun to be a politician of some substance.

Today there are four women chief ministers in India - Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Vasundhara Raje Scindia in Rajasthan and Anandiben Patel in Gujarat.

All these women have worked their way hard to occupy their high office today. Both Jayalalalitha and Mamata apparently have a dictatorial streak about them and command total submission from senior ministers and leaders. They are feared, if not respected, by their political opponents. Both of them facing elections in summer are likely to retain their offices.

Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, is another woman leader who commands awe from her party leaders. Sushma Swaraj, the present external affairs minister, is also a former chief minister of Delhi. A tried and tested politician and leader, Sushma is still thought to be Prime Minister material.

Uma Bharti, now a union minister, is also a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. A fire brand leader, Uma is a powerful speaker and must progress to greater heights provided she conquers her temperament.

Former chief minister of Delhi, the ageing Shiela Dixit seems to have had her innings. Three times CM, Dixit did wonderful work for the development of the capital city.

Rabri Devi, the quintessential home maker and wife of RJD chief, the mercurial Lalu Prasad Yadav, and V N Janaki, widow of former Tamil Nadu chief minister MGR, were also chief ministers of their states. While Rabri Devi was CM for a few years with her jailed husband virtually remote ruling Bihar, Janaki was CM for just a few days. These instances are generally seen to be “accidents of Indian democracy.”

This may be seen also as a tribute to Indian democracy which has also allowed a foreign-born woman to become the leader of the opposition on her very first term in the Lok Sabha.

Sushma Swaraj, the present external affairs minister, is also a former chief minister of Delhi. A tried and tested politician and leader, Sushma is still thought to be Prime Minister material

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