Saying “land to the tiller” is gender-insensitive. “Land to those who work on it” is not.
Review of AIDWA Booklets
At a time when academics, non-governmental agencies and international donors are preaching the virtues of small-scale mobilising efforts, local reforms and individualised initiatives, the sheer scope of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s working and vision appear as daring as they are urgent. With well over five million members, AIDWA is the largest women’s organisation in India, and its campaigns include struggles against dowry deaths, child sexual abuse, media objectification of women, and domestic violence. It has also sustained a campaign for enhancing women’s participation in politics, for securing their economic independence and for joint-ownership by wife and husband of redistributed surplus agricultural land.
The organisation’s campaigns, analyses and demands have finally been summarised in seven booklets. These publications reflect both the vibrancy of the Indian women’s movement and the concerns of an influential segment within it. Moreover, since AIDWA’s work has so often been either denigrated or ignored by mainstream scholarly studies, these seven booklets enable activists and scholars to independently and critically evaluate the aims and methods of the organisation, and measure the importance of the left women’s movement in India.
The booklets bring together AIDWA reports on the statistical indices of the condition of women’s lives and conference papers on the most important issues faced by India’s women today. They constitute forceful critiques of government’s policies that affect women. More importantly, they propose a systemic strategy to combat the increasing social, political and economic impoverishment of women. Understanding of the discrete issues affecting the Indian women’s movement requires taking into account the various interconnections. After all, the totality of the oppression is marked by the integral links among caste despotism, the coercions of liberalisation, and the designs of conservative religious ideologies.
The approach to the problems leaves its imprint on the solutions proposed. AIDWA’s demand for co-ownership by wife and husband of redistributed agricultural land is fundamental to its strategy of securing economic independence for women. And to emphasise the value of women’s agricultural labour, AIDWA amended the slogan “land to the tiller” to “land to those who work on it” (since tilling of the soil is an exclusively male preserve, whereas there are many other laborious tasks which are typically performed by peasant women).
This kind of intervention against gender inequality in land reform movements is only one aspect of the organisation’s approach. “The Triple Burden, Some Issues of Class and Caste Oppression of Women” reports a stunning figure—66.6 percent of all agricultural women workers are of scheduled (or lower) castes. On the other hand, there has been a shift in agricultural production from subsistence crops to cash crops, which decreases the need for agricultural day labourers, many of whom are lower-caste women. This economic trend is seen to be a consequence of the government’s pursuit of liberalisation policies, which increasingly promote the privatisation of communal village lands and other resources. As a result, dalit women become more dependent on upper caste landowners for their survival, since they cannot supplement their daily wages by rearing animals or growing small crops on the communal lands.
In this change in the agricultural workspace, AIDWA sees a trend that is part of the overall picture of neo-liberal India, where the margins for political, social and economic independence are being systematically reduced. The booklet on “Women in the New Economic Order” explains the pervasive violence of upper castes against lower castes in this evolving agricultural scenario. “It is more than possible for the most backward social practices to be co-opted and marketed in modern new form,” says the booklet. Against this background, AIDWA’s demand for sweeping land reform and equal rights to land ownership, is also a frontal attack on the conditions that foster the ongoing caste, class and gender oppression.
The booklets on population policies, anti-Muslim communalism and reservation for women in government jobs, address the daily social discrimination faced by women. “Population Policy and Women’s Health” reports on a campaign by a coalition of women’s groups and other social justice movements, against the dumping of coercive and unsafe birth control methods on India and the Indian government’s complicity in forcing these methods on women. As part of this campaign, AIDWA sought to shift the terrain of debate from population control to women’s health needs. Its demand for greater access to complete health care and the continuance of drug price controls, is predicated on the idea that women are more than just agents of reproduction.
But the movement for women’s health struggles against an international climate in which birth control is seen “as the panacea for all social and economic ills of the Third World” and even literacy is thought to be more a means to promote population control than to better people’s lives. In addition to analysing the areas of struggle, these booklets present a wealth of statistical evidence on inequalities in health-care access. In a nation where 75 percent of all disease is due to malnutrition, contaminated water and non-immunisation, and 84 percent of health-care costs are paid for privately, the need to transform national health priorities from population control to a more holistic vision of the nation’s health needs, is clearly self-evident. (See reports from the Peoples Health Assembly held in Dhaka in December, page 27.)
These booklets condense the abundant knowledge gained by a national-level people’s organisation in the course of its continuous activism. Though not elaborated on in this series, the myriad regional and local challenges made by AIDWA also help us in the analysis of the national and international scene. The writings are not purely academic, and help in understanding how to organise at the mass scale, from the grassroots on up. For example, a detailed and practical discussion about organising the vast sector of home-based workers is followed by a pointed assessment of its approach. This combination of organisational knowledge and systemic political analysis is perhaps the most strikingly original aspect of these booklets.
At times, the articles in the publications seem disjointed and repetitive, but this is inevitable in any compilation of documents from a movement that is ongoing and not interested in resting on its laurel. Unfortunately, these essays cannot document the effects of long-term activism in the various locales nor how these campaigns sustain AIDWA. One therefore waits for a fuller and rounder picture of work by a rare, well-organised, mass-based group that has not lost its voice, unlike so many others.