Unlimited Girls - Interview with Veena Mazumdar, Part 1
Director: Paromita Vohra
Topic: conversations, old left
: Veena Mazumdar was born in 1927 and educated at Calcutta, Benaras, and Oxford. She is an Honours Graduate and D.Phil from Oxford University. In her professional career she has been a teacher of Political Science at the Universities of Patna and Berhampur, an Officer in the UGC Secretariat and a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla. She was Member Secretary, Committee on the Status of Women in India, and later Director, Programme of Women's Studies, Indian Council of Social Science Research for five years (1975-80). She was Founder-Director of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi from 1980 to 1991, and thereafter was Senior Fellow at CWDS and JP Naik National Fellow, ICSSR, for two years. She is one of the pioneers in Women's Studies in India and a leading figure of the women's movement. Since 1996 she has been the Chairperson, Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi.
Paromita Vohra interviewed Mazumdar for her film Unlimited Girls
(2002), an exploration of engagements with feminism in contemporary urban India. For more, see http://www.parodevi.com/unlimitedgirls/unlimitedgirls.html
New Delhi, India
Vina Mazumdar talks here about her experiences as a feminist; what it means to be a feminist in the Indian context; especially of her generation. She argues that she has enjoyed all her traditional roles as a woman and has never felt like an unequal citizen. She recounts the long struggle for political and social equality, her experiences of the freedom struggle and the characteristics of Indian feminism at the grassroots level.
New Delhi, India
The first six minutes of this video repeats itself for some reason. Many apologies. This shall be fixed soon.
Q - For how long have you been smoking?
VM - Ooh Baba! (recollecting) Since the sixties...say...(thinking) mm...sixties...I became a regular and a heavy smoker (camera zooms out a bit to show her with a lit cigarette) from the sixties.
(adjusting of mic)
Q - Why did you start smoking?
VM - Well before that it was irregular...it was a..I grew up in a..house of chimneys and I married into another. So..mmm..i mean it was a peculiar family where my brother in law would offer 'How about one?' so like that occasionally I used to join in. But uh..when I went back to Oxford to work for my D Phil, except for the hours in the library, the rest of the time..uh...and particularly when I was writing..the thesis, it just went up by leaps and bounds. So that's the period it was hard pressure. (takes a puff) The only reason for leaving the library, occasionally was for a cup of tea or coffee and a smoke..in the early period. It was..I had to..begin from scratch and complete the work in two years flat. And I had two kids along with me. So...(taking another puff)...
Q - So lot of people who are working...
VM - (interrupts question and says something unintelligible) since then..working under pressure has become the main...uh..practise. Committee of the status of women in India Lotikadi Pulronadi used to go on tac-tacking trying to reduce our smoking.
Lotikadi said "Pulronadi, what do you want? You want the report completed in time? Then stop fussing about Vina's smoking. Because your report will NOT get done...if you stop her. So that's...it became another kind of a justification. And then after that..by that time it was (phone rings in background) too late, you see.
15 years of...and...the disappearance of the few individuals before whom I did not smoke, there were a few, parents, mother in-law...DS Kothari...even he found out, some stage (laughing) I opened my bag there were...and he picked up the packet (gesturing all the while) and said "Dekho, isko aap bund kar do."
Ek honi (just now) it reduced. Don't smoke that much but...
Q - I've never smoked.
VM - Very good, stick to it. It's...a this...becoming a slave...
Q - There's a stereotype that feminists always smoke. There's a stereotype that oh...
VM - Oh no no no. Not in India. Ooh Baba. You don't know how many guardians I have in the...(gesturing to some place, over her shoulder)...they will still take away my packet, this place is still full of guardians.....it all depends on work pressure...
Q - So...umm..I'll just ask you questions and we can review from there?
VM - mm (nods in agreement)
Q - Um...are you a feminist?
VM - I think so, yes. I...use the word humanist more, but since I am a woman, yes.
Q - What does that mean when someone says you're a feminist?
VM - Well..uh..it certainly does not mean what most people...in this country, or elsewhere..think feminists..are. Uh..because as far as I am concerned, I have performed ALL my traditional roles, and uh...enjoyed...enjoyed all of them. But I am a product of the freedom movement, belong to that generation. And uh..the belief in human equality, especially in the Indian context...became part of...part of one's uh..self..uh..the (long pause) from that I suppose quite a few women in my generation whom I call the first-generation beneficiaries of the equality clauses in the constitution.
VM - It wasn't necessary to...fight for one's rights, as a woman. Not as far as uh...our society and polity was concerned. I stepped into a university job as soon as I returned from oxford. I never felt treated as an unequal by anybody, either my students or my colleagues or the university administration. So it didn't really occur to me that there was still a problem. That's why the...participation in the investigation of the committee on the status of women in India, proved to be such a...brain-shattering experience. Uh...coz it was a very big blow to one's self-perception. As a social scientist. As a..teacher. And, as a woman, that I had remained so..IGNORANT..of..and consequently indifferent to what was happening to a majority of women in this country.
VM - So that's the source of...the emergence of a new identity, as the feminist. But uh...I do make a distinction between an Indian feminist..and many others. Because of the context in which say people like Lotikadi and I....experienced this kind of self-questioning, had a great deal to do with our earlier background, as I say, both as member of the freedom generation which had absorbed that ideology and uh...as women..and as social scientists. So the anger......did not leave out ourselves. We had...failed.
VM - So how to undo the damage..became the first priority. After...more than 25 years...of..involvement in these twin movements in the country...I suppose, I could say that uh...feminism in India, in my own experience and in my analysis as a social scientist and particularly as the historian of the women's movement and the women's studies movement...boils down to what we have learnt, all of us, from..that majority of women in this country.
VM - So..because one of our first problems..to qualify as spokeswomen for the majority was to resolve our own identity crisis. Why would we be accepted. Whom did we represent. What was our identity. We basically by birth, by education, by profession, we were..part of a very small minority. So we HAD to go to the majority...to start looking at things from their perspective. There of course, the previous training helped. I think the social scientists training, the teaching training, all these helped. It was much easier to mingle, to communicate, to exchange and to learn from each other.
VM - This is whatever I say today, is the outcome..of these 25 years of...personal struggle, political struggle, professional struggle..and a struggle not just A woman, but struggle along with many other..women. When we try to...put it into a few...terms...drawing on my..old discipline...some of us in this center recently formulated what we called Panchsheel...Panchsheel for what they...women's movement..stands for in India... right at the top, comes justice...number two is...equality. Number three is autonomy. Number four is dignity. And number five ..THE most important, is participation...because it's gone way way way beyond what is called the human rights..discourse.
VM - What...is coming as THE message right from the grassroots to the top of our very very hierarchical society...is the demand for participation, WHICH......uh...to many people in the urban middle-class, the elites, the demand for participation is a...rights demand. Maybe..in my earlier teaching of political theory I would have also said the same thing. Not today. Because the message I have learnt from the grassroots even, is that participation spells responsibility. We HAVE to participate, because rights bring responsibilities.
VM - I think I told you that story of Behen Lotikadi....was teaching legal literacy to the Bankuda women for one whole week. She took them through their constitutional rights, their rights as workers, their rights as women...and their rights as uh...members of the family. They belong to different communities..so...there were problems..there different communities have different sets of laws or customs. Uhh...towards the end, the women asked her..They said "This is all very good. We have so many rights. Our spines have become straighter...but, lotikati, tell us now..what are the responsibilities?"
VM - Lotikadi looked at me and said, "In 37 years of teaching law-students, I have never faced this question from anyone before. There is something to learn here, Vina, for both you and me."
So, we admitted that..we had to learn. I was supposed to be the...political theorist. Rights come along with responsibilities, but, in the RIGHTS, THIS COURSE, THIS RESPONSIBILITY, this aspect is not mentioned.
VM - The DEMAND for participation..which has become a kind of unifying factor today...cutting across all classes, all the different backgrounds of Indian women. The demand for participation is there. But, that participation is not, a demand for power. It's a demand to play. Their innate responsible role in remaking..society. Making it something better. Not only for themselves, but for their children. That I think, is the unique character of Indian feminism. This emphasis, on responsibility. That's why it's..uh...it becomes a point of strength..to someone in my age group to be able to say...Yes, I have performed all my traditional roles, including that of the grandmother. So if I today say, that the biggest struggle today..the topmost priority today, has to be to awaken, the whole country, it's people and all those responsible for..governance, teaching...but what's happening to the girl child..is not..just a problem facing women. It's a major threat to the future..of all our grandchildren.
VM - Or what's happening with the armaments race..is AGAIN..a major threat to all our grandchildren. So...one of the recent tactics that I have proposed to the national alliance for child rights is that..get the grandmothers angry..nobody can fight like them once they are angry if they KNOW what is happening to the girl child. If they KNOW what kind of threats the future faces from the arms race and the increasing violence, they will fight, and they ARE bonny fighters.
Q - You said earlier that Indian feminism is not about if women who are asking for participation but are not necessarily asking for power, but even if people are asking for power what's wrong with that?
VM - well, that's what I see...today..particularly in the hands of the media, my dear, you will forgive me..politics...has become a dirty word. Politics mean..power politics. Politics means corruption. Politics means degeneration...So, good people should stay away from politics. That's not the mantra on which we were brought up. To be APOLITICAL..for our generation was to be..a non-Indian..was to be..anti-democratic..a reactionary......and as a teacher of politics, depoliticisation to me is...something...which I never want to see happening.
VM - FORTUNATELY, in India, the process of de-politicisation is not...as advanced as in many of the developed countries, where I find particularly young people...because they say politics is dirty, politics is corrupt. So, they say they opt out of politics. They don't realize that that itself is politics, opting out of the legitimate political process..shows...an indifference to one's responsibilities. That's where I think the Indian women's movement has a great deal to teach...to the rest of Indians...and maybe to...many sections..outside India also. Because that's why I keep coming back..the responsibility.
Q - But don't you feel that a lot of the younger people in India in the middle classes have become apoloticized. They don't really care for politics, or what's happening...
VM - Oh yes, I know. I find it very difficult to identify myself with them. That's why I'm much happier. Uh..it is much easier to communicate with...the grassroots women. Who, develop their sense of responsibility, to others. Not just to themselves but to others. Children. Family. Community. We see these as barriers. But...barriers to the growth of an individual identity.
VM - But when you use the sense of collective responsibility as a...measuring..rod......you find that it's a different kind of...sense of social and political responsibility. IF you allow those boundaries, the family, the community, the...the Makoda women used to say..'WE' meant...what were we? 'We' meant at the most the Parivar..the family. Or...the king group..the community. Or at the most, the village. Even though we all..worked as agricultural labour and we met women from other villages, particularly, when we went on seasonal migration, it never occurred to us that we had anything in common with them. But when we came together in a Samiti, we came from several villages, and the common factor was that we were all poor, we were all illiterate, we were all agricultural labourers, and we were...right at the bottom of the heap. We didn't know.
VM - Today we find, we know, a hell of a lot. We are much stronger. We can teach others. AND, because of that strength that we have gained, we have a responsibility, to others, to help others, to come together like us. Because that's why they ALWAYS harp on this responsibility. It's a very interesting factor, it's something that I never heard from any of my students, like Lotikati's, law students. That, if I today had to write a definition of participation, I will have to begin with that participation means responsibility, not just power. Power is an instrument, not an end in itself. It's just...there are certain instruments that...and I would say this is the new meaning that the women's movement is bringing into democracy. This emphasis on..participation. And THERE I take all pride that it is..the voices are coming from the grassroots majority of Indian women.
They have taught a great deal..to..the rest of us.
Q - Do you think what we're talking about having learnt from them is something that urban feminists have also begun to replicate?
VM - WELL...my experience is...you see, there all kinds..as in any other movement, there are all kinds of people, and there are different types of ..activities. That is what I call the politics of protest, which is also very..necessary. And there is what I call the politics of construction...or transformation. In my experience..over-preoccupation with the politics of protest....it's a very...draining process.
VM - I have seen young women aging before their time. Whereas many of us older women..have weathered..better. This is one of the differences that..in that the politics of protest you are continuously draining yourself. It's very difficult to leave time or opportunity for refueling your energy, for recharging your batteries. Whereas the politics of construction or transformation, I use both the words...transformation also involves a certain element of construction...That...brings it's own rewards, and it helps to recharge. I'll give you a...a one...and it's not just...something..limited to women.
VM - I've had this long nurtured dream that all educational institutions can play...uh..definitely active role, in this kind of transformative politics. To not only to help others but to help themselves. And here I was fighting against...the uh..what is seen as perceived truth by the..again...by the dominant media, the dominant middle-class opinion, that educational institutions have all gone to the dogs! You can't expect anything from them. They are also all finished.Whereas I saw those institutions as sources of strength. Sources of human..there were all those...teachers, students...libraries..skills, communication skills, research skills. So, over the last four years, apart from the fact that CWGS itself regards, we have always regarded ourselves as an educational institution.
VM - I did manage to involve...one university..in Mednipur. In the work of the...women's village groups. As partners. One was an oral history project..involving the students and teachers of the department of anthropology. And one was eh...research and development project, in verniculture and verni-compost. I would..like you to...listen to..those teachers..and those students who have been involved in those projects, working with the women in the same way that we work with them, learning from them, developing a completely different set of attitudes and different notions about their OWN responsibilities as scientists, as academics...I've been watching the transformation right in front of my eyes! Not just young people but uh...some die-hard teachers, in their late 30s, 40s, even older.
VM - One book at least, is just out. Which those authors, themselves, decided to call Doo E Prithi Veer Uttarom. By their understanding, they and the women were inhabitants of two different worlds. So..this whole association was an effort to scale the barriers that divided these two worlds. And at virtually in every page of this book, which THEY have written, says that the extent to which the scaling has been of mutual..GREAT mutual benefit..so nothing...this is NOT impossible, it is..and I can tell you that uh..this kind of translation of a dream which I have nursed for...more than 2/3rds of my life......certainly increases my (laughs), as I say, refuels my batteries and gives me renewed energy.
Q - But you're saying the other women's movement has not had this kind of activities.
VM - Well look, these are...it's happened..those who have gotten engaged in women's studies from within the university. They have been changing. Again I have seen the transformation before my eyes. But...the degrees of consciousness of the...way..that one is oneself..changing..differs!
VM - Plus the period of association..but there is no doubt that women's studies in India has straight off gone to the grassroots level. Unlike the..uh..women's studies as it began elsewhere. At the..you'll find that..uh..again here, the trend in India..is different, it is spreading, it is becoming stronger. More widespread. Whereas in the west, it came up as a wave in the 60s and 70s. By the middle of the 80s, it was beginning to..decline. And uh...the human...the human content of women's studies...well I find it missing in..what is going on in the name of women's studies in most of the western countries today.
Q - You referred to the twin movements. What does that mean?
VM - The women's studies movement and the women's movement. They fade into each other. But..both are important. Because we are talking about transformative politics..and the studies that go on...they go on inside educational institutions, and they percolate. They make information available that was not there before. It takes time. It's a very slow, very gradual process. But then...people...surely..Shakespeare is..far more powerful today..than he was in his lifetime. AND..now that the..uh..Rabindranath has been..unleashed..I think he will become much more powerful...than..because we have seen the upward and the downward swing of Tagore..Tagore's name, Tagore's reputation, Tagore's philosophy, in our own lifetime. But I'm hoping that a lot more people will...get to know about Tagore's views..now.
Q - From what you say, it sounds as if you're maybe a little impatient with this whole notion that has become prevalent, and is becoming within other women's groups, of a sort of personal consciousness.
VM - Personal consciousness of course. It's...I...I don't think anybody can remain involved in any movement...without developing...a higher degree of..self consciousness. But...the extent to which that self-consciousness becomes a tool in communicating with others..depends on the outcome of the consciousness. In some people, hyper self-consciousness results in feeling locked in..they can't communicate. I have not found that within either of these movement. I find people are opening up much more easily, it is easier to communicate, and uh...that's why the...there is a remarkable difference between...even in studies..whether you engage in the politics of protest and anger, or the politics of engagement, construction, transformation, it does make a difference.
VM - How one uses one's consciousness...so that's the..and I find the study of just trying to analyze these..uh..women I have seen..transformed right in front of my eyes...that itself is such an empowering process. So, there is a mutual reinforcement of...you know, one of my favorite questions of the government was when the government uses the word "empowerment of women", I say 'who is empowering whom? You don't empower, other people. People empower themselves. In the process, they help to empower hell of a lot others. So that's the..it's a mutually reinforcing...so.......sounds very confusing, no?
VM - But uh...as I said, I find the...I...take a great pride in...this I think is the hallmark or the Indian. That's why this..uh..in the women's movement...took a..national women's organizations..took a deliberate political decision, back in the 80s, not to push for reservations for women at the Legislative Assemblies and the Parliament, but to demand reservations and elections, through elections, with due representation for the Dalits and the Adivasis in the local self-government bodies, I felt..six feet tall. And the logic that one of the leaders..she was a veteran political activist, unlike me. I asked her, I said 'How are you going to justify this, you are taking very much the same position as the CSWI took..earlier..in demanding some kind of intervention in the local self-government bodies, in favor of women, but in turning down reservations and the legislative assemblies and parliament.' I, Lotikati and I had asked at that time, that what's the logic?
VM - CSWI logic was very different. We don't want to be equated with Harijans and...scheduled.uh.Adivasis. But, in 1988, Sushila Gopalan, explaining very similar decision as CSWI's, said "We need a new generation of leaders from below. WE need." She was a veteran. Not only a political activist, but a leader. And when Shrinivas described women's studies in India as the only significant development in Indian social sciences in the decade of the 70s and the 80s, and called it a challenge from below, he never changed that opinion till the end of his life. Even one of the last articles that he wrote, and THIS time he used the word 'feminists'. "The feminists are out there, in the countryside, organizing. Things are changing right in front..of us. We are just..not watching, adequately. Things are changing, and the challenges are coming from below."
Q - It sounds like everything is there is very strong feminist movement and like in other movements in rural and semi rural and the semi-urban areas. But somewhere in the cities, this movement has kind of faltered.
VM - Uhh..yes..maybe (reaches for juice)............to some extent it is possible that uh...because in the early stages, the women's movement got projected as essentially urban, elite's movement. Educated, not just middle, but upper..middle-class women. And uh...the what has happened is at the base of the movement is now much more widespread and far more in the rural areas. But mind you. The possibility, the road ahead was initially demonstrated by...this totally indigenous coming of the soil of India. Organisations like Seva..in Ahmedabad...Working women's forum, in Madras, and the Annapoorna Mahila Mandal, in Bombay.
VM - The women's studies beginners..went to..look at these groups, what is happening here, and found extraordinary political dynamism. Which is something that none of us could find in middle-class women's organizations, which had much longer histories.
So we thought 'okay, here's the model.' (gesturing) And that's the model we tried to push elsewhere. Today when you see that the movement is...less visible, in the urban areas, I agree. But uh...one of the reasons for that is the...is the...tremendously accelerated process of globalisation and the...(cannot make out word) the..politics of destabilization, that's going on in the urban areas, but all this and in many of these little little centres, whether you call them women's studies groups, whether you call them feminist groups, whether you call them NGOs, whether you call them political activists...though operate from the urban areas, but...if you ask them, they will...and if they are frank, they will tell you that they draw their strength from whatever grassroots that they are able to acquire.
VM - The urban situation today certainly needs much more because uh...the...(takes a sip).frankly I don't...feel myself competent to analyse the..urban situation today, though I have spent all my life living in urban areas, the product of one metropolicant. Spent the major part of my life between Calcutta and Delhi. The pace of life is...but uh.. (CU of VM's hands clasping glass) I draw some encouragement from what uh..my son-in-law tells me because he's looking at spontaneous ..uh..community formations and ideas emerging within the..urban societies. I find..what he's describing very interesting, but frankly at this age I cannot change..turn myself into..getting down to looking at urban politics. They...panchayat situation still looks far more..uh..attractive..so that's where I prefer to...(laughs) you know..once time is very short...so..leave it to the next generation..they are at it...they are at it..lot of, lot of people are examining it.