The Covid-19 Pandemic may not be gendered, but the response of the Indian government – as also other governments around the world – to it has been disproportionately gendered, with women having to face the brunt of the myriad crises borne out of the government’s abysmal failure coupled with lack of will to deal with the Covid-19 situation.
Numerous studies and reports have shown how the pandemic and the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Indian government have subjected women to increased domestic abuse and violence, decreased access to food, education and healthcare and growing joblessness. In this article, we shall attempt to show how India – where the female work participation rate is among the lowest in the world – has witnessed a sharp rise in female unemployment in the Covid-19 period, with experts opining that this sudden chucking of women out of employment might set back Indian women by 20 years!
Before the Pandemic
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index (based on pre-pandemic data), India ranks 112 among 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) — the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work — fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. According to the Deloitte report titled ‘Empowering Women & Girls in India’ for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of the slim percentage of Indian women who are employed, 95% or 195 million are employed in the unorganised sector or are in unpaid work. Among women in the prime working ages of 30-50, more than two in three women are not in the workforce, with the majority of them reporting that they are “attending to domestic duties only”.
Among those in the workforce, rural women work overwhelmingly in agriculture, while the most common jobs for urban women are of garment workers, domestic cleaners and ‘directors and chief executives’. The last may sound promising, but the fact is that “99% of women workers described as directors and chief executives were self-employed, of which around one-third worked as unpaid family workers,” economists Bidisha Mondal, Jayati Ghosh, Shiney Chakraborty and Sona Mitra found using 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office data. “Such women were mainly engaged within the self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and had thus been recorded as directors or working proprietors, even as their activities, for the most part, remained confined to food processing and garment manufacturing. A large proportion of self-employed women workers were also engaged in outsourced manufacturing work, typically characterised by low earnings, long hours of work and lack of any form of social protection.”
Further, the average working Indian woman works a longer week than her developing country counterparts. The average employed Indian woman worked 44.4 hours per week (in the April-June 2018 period) as against the developing country average of 35-36 hours, as per ILO estimates.
The unadjusted gender wage gap — the gap in the earnings of men and women in regular, salaried jobs, without accounting for differences in hours worked and educational qualifications — was significant. In rural areas, a male salaried employee earned nearly 1.4 to 1.7 times a female salaried employee, while in urban areas, salaried men earned 1.2 to 1.3 times a salaried woman. Indian women earn 35 per cent less on average than men. (The global average is 16 per cent.) Meanwhile, women are slightly under half of India’s population but can contribute only 18 per cent to its economic output.
The Pandemic and the Lockdown
Needless to say, the pandemic and the government response to it, have made these figures far worse and the consequent decline in Indian women’s right to dignified employment will continue to nosedive in the years to come unless urgent measures are taken to acknowledge and address this problem. A host of studies have highlighted the toll the government’s arbitrary and kneejerk response to the pandemic has taken on women’s employment.
Already, at least 4 in 10 women in India have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey. In other words, between March and April of this year, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors.
As stated earlier, 95 per cent of the slim percentage of employed women in India is employed in the informal sector. This sector, in particular, has been dealt a crushing blow by the lockdown and the government’s refusal to help citizens with much-needed cash in the lockdown situation. It is likely that the informal sector will take much longer to revive than the organized sector, and this will have a devastating impact on its women workforce, who are the first to be thrown out of these jobs and the last to be taken back into employment.
Small and growing businesses (SGBs) have been hard hit by the government response to the pandemic. According to a report in the ‘Stanford Social Innovation Review’, the COVID-19 crisis is especially threatening SGBs in low-income nations. These developments will have a disproportionate impact on women. According to India’s sixth economic census, published in 2016, 13.8 per cent of business establishments in India are owned by women, a majority of which are microenterprises and self-financed. Many of these women-led businesses are found in sectors like tourism, education and beauty, which have been devastated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. Similarly, as discussed above, women mainly engaged within self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and thus recorded as ‘directors’ or ‘working proprietors’ are facing catastrophe as the unplanned lockdown and the equally unplanned ‘unlock process’ has demolished their fledgling enterprises.
According to a paper (titled ‘The Covid-19 Lockdown in India: Gender and Caste Dimensions of the First Job Losses’) published by Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics, Ashoka University, “Women who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed in the post-lockdown phase compared to men who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase. Male heads of household were 11.3 percentage points more likely to be employed in post-lockdown phase, compared to female heads of household who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase.”
Deshpande made a further point in her paper. “”While women and Dalits have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve,” she wrote. “All frontline health workers are women; manual scavengers are exclusively Dalit. Thus, for several women and Dalits, the choice seems to be between unemployment and jobs that put them at risk of disease and infection and make them targets of vicious stigma.”
The truth of Deshpande’s words was reflected in a series of strikes by ASHA workers in different states and finally a nationwide protest in early August demanding protection, better and timely pay, and a legal status ensuring minimum wages. Nearly 6 lakh Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, apart from staff of anganwadis, National Health Mission (NHM) and other schemes participated in the protest.
One of the new sources of women’s employment in the last few decades has been government schemes, especially in the health and education sectors, where, for example, women work as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks. During the pandemic, ASHA workers, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers, although they are not recognised as “workers” or paid regular wages. Thus, they came out in huge numbers protesting inadequate assistance from the government in the fight against COVID-19, including lack of safety equipment, payment of salary and even risk allowance. They also opposed moves to privatise basic services at government hospitals and in nutrition schemes.
According to an Economic Times report, “The scheme workers have been demanding the government withdraw the proposals for privatisation of basic services including health (including hospitals), nutrition (including ICDS and MDMS) and education, make the centrally sponsored schemes like ICDS, NHM and MDMS permanent with adequate budget allocation and give them minimum wages of Rs 21000 per month and pension of Rs 10,000 per month besides providing them with other benefits of ESI and EPF.”
A survey by the Azim Premji University, of 5,000 workers across 12 States — of whom 52% were women — found that women workers were worse off than men during the lockdown. Among rural casual workers, for example, 71% of women lost their jobs after the lockdown; the figure was 59% for men. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy also suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.
A rapid rural survey conducted by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) showed that in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent, there was no agricultural activity during the lean months of March to May. In areas of irrigated agriculture, there were harvest operations (such as for rabi wheat in northern India) but these were largely mechanised. In other harvest operations, such as for vegetables, there was a growing tendency to use more family labour and less hired labour on account of fears of infection. Put together, while agricultural activity continued, employment available to women during the lockdown was limited. Employment and income in activities allied to agriculture, such as animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture were also adversely affected by the lockdown. FAS village studies show that when households own animals, be it milch cattle or chickens or goats, women are inevitably part of the labour process. During the lockdown, the demand for milk fell by at least 25% (as hotels and restaurants closed), and this was reflected in either lower quantities sold or in lower prices or both. For women across the country, incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives shrank. Among fisherfolk, men could not go to sea, and women could not process or sell fish and fish products.
Similarly, non-agricultural jobs came to a sudden halt as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other enterprises, employing a significant number of women, shut down completely.
In recent years, women have accounted for more than one-half of workers in public works, but no employment was available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) till late in April. The first month of lockdown thus saw a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women. In May, there was a big increase in demand for NREGS employment. However, with male migrant workers returning to their native places in large numbers during the lockdown, and thus creating a new pool of ‘unemployed workforce’ in the villages, rural women workers are now more likely to be pushed out of their jobs to accommodate the men and even in jobs under the NREGS women are now more likely to bow out in favour of women. This, by the way, is no contradiction or conflict between men and women – it is simply the gross failure of the government to provide jobs to all its citizens and protect the most vulnerable section – women – from sudden joblessness.
In a study of 176 female workers in informal sectors in Delhi, Shiney Chakraborty, a research analyst at the Institute of Social Studies Trust found that a majority of women reported a loss in income, but at the same time, 66% of the respondents reported an increase in unpaid work at home and 36% reported increased demands of child and elder care. Only a quarter reported any help from their spouses in household chores.
The lot of domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, has been especially hard. In 2008, for the very first time, domestic workers were recognized as workers in the Unorganized Sector Social Security Act, 2008. Official ILO statistics place the number of persons employed as domestic workers in India at 4.75 million, of which 3 million are women. But this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number is supposed to be more between 20 million and 80 million!
According to a survey conducted by Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha (BBGS), and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union, as many as 91% of domestic workers were not paid salaries in April and 50% of workers, who were above the age of 50, lost their jobs. Similarly, a survey by the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council (DWSSC) found that nearly 85 per cent of domestic workers were not paid for the lockdown period. An eight-state (Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu) random survey by the DWSSC – a non-profit organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship – found that 23.5% of domestic workers have migrated back to their native place. While 38% of the domestic workers said that they were facing problems in arranging food, around 30% had no money to survive the lockdown period. However, contrary to elite pre-conceived notions, 98.5% of domestic workers were aware of the precautions that should be taken to be safe from COVID-19. DWSSC’s survey was conducted in April. Four months down the line, domestic workers are still in distress as they are still largely unable to get back to work and access wages.
Across India, only 14 states have notified minimum wages for the domestic workers. In these states, the workers can file a complaint seeking redressal but in the remaining states including in the national capital, they do not have any such recourse. Hence there is a need for uniformity.
The report further stated that in many affluent communities, these domestic workers face discrimination. The rich consider the domestic workers as the carriers of the virus.
The present situation across the country is that because of the unjust stigma associated with domestic workers as carriers of the virus, coupled with declining incomes in middle income families as a result of job losses and wage cuts faced by them as well, domestic workers are facing unemployment and wage cuts on an unprecedented scale.
Even in the organized sector, women employees have faced disproportionate job losses and wage cuts. In India, women form a large section of the teaching community, but teachers in private schools have been subjected to wage cuts across the last few months.
Now, as the government has declared phased ‘unlock’, in as unplanned a way as it had declared the ‘total lockdown’, women workers who have not lost their jobs yet are facing every threat of doing so. With trains, buses and other forms of public transport still not running normally, women – who are much more unlikely than men to either own or access private means of transport – face the threat of being terminated from their jobs for the simple reason of not being able to reach their workplace regularly and on time.
Further, as India initiates phased ‘unlock’, with requirements that businesses operate with fewer employees, trends toward mechanisation are also likely to pick up pace. Because women are generally relegated to menial tasks within production processes, their jobs are often the first to go when firms automate.
The Road Ahead
The Pandemic and anti-people government policies have thrown the country into a whirlpool of excruciating poverty and hopelessness. But for its 600 million women, the impact has already been worse and is likely to be devastating unless proper corrective measures are adopted.
Research from the World Bank suggests the pandemic will drive more than 12 million Indians into poverty. Women are likely to be over-represented among the new poor. Needless to say, women’s employment must become a priority in recovery efforts. This, contrary to the government’s present policy of demolishing labour laws and giving corporates a free hand to exploit workers, will require government directives to curb any attempt to retrench the women workforce. For employees of enterprises that have folded up as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown, it should be the task of the government to provide alternate employment opportunities to women. In rural areas, reservation for women in jobs under MNREGS should be considered. Women’s participation in the rural economy should be given a boost by facilitating their access to the market and putting in place policies to ensure that they get a fair price for their produce. Women’s large scale employment in the manufacture of masks and sanitisers should be facilitated. Enabling measures to ensure women’s continued participation in employment should be implemented. Government financial support – substantial and not token – to domestic workers to tide over this crisis is a must. Alternate employment avenues for domestic workers thrown out of employment should be explored and put in place. New institutional provisions that leverage women’s empowerment at the community level will have to be actively considered.
Recovery from the pandemic and its aftermath has to be viewed through the lens of gender. According to Kadambari Shah, Sahil Gandhi and Gregory Randolph (Shah is a senior associate at IDFC Institute, Mumbai; Gandhi a visiting scholar at Brookings India and a postdoctoral scholar at the Lusk Centre for Real Estate at the University of Southern California’ and Randolph founding partner of the JustJobs Network and a PhD candidate in urban planning at the University of Southern California), “The policy response must be structured around rebuilding economies and societies in ways that empower women to lead safe, productive and fulfilling lives.” With women’s employment being crucial to not only their independence from patriarchal oppression but also to the development of society as a whole, it is essential that women’s organizations across the country unite and put pressure on the government to do whatever is essential to ensure that existing social and economic inequalities for Indian women are not deepened but bridged
Spectacularly Enough, ever since the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Modi government in late March, the ongoing people’s movement in Bhangor has reached new heights, with women and men taking to the streets on a regular basis to seize their rights. As a result, in Bhangor, at least, the government and administration have been compelled to actually give the people what they have promised – rations, relief after Amphan and special relief to those whose livelihoods have suffered due to the lockdown – instead of keeping the same confined only to notices and paperwork, as has happened in most other parts of the state as well as the country.
Although it is true that there have been sporadic struggles on similar issues in some other parts of the state, with success being achieved in a few places, the struggle in Bhangor has surpassed them all in terms of grit, vigour and magnitude. This deserves special mention, because only a couple of years ago, in August 2018 to be precise, when the historic anti-powergrid movement of Bhangor had forced the government to enter into dialogue with the Jomi Jibika Bastutantro O Poribesh Raksha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Land, Livelihood, Ecology and the Environment), that is the People’s Committee leading the movement, the entire leadership – both the political leadership of CPI(ML) Red Star as well as the local leadership of Bhangor, had been mercilessly maligned by a large section of the ‘left and democratic forces’ for ‘surrendering’ to the government.
Indeed, leaflets and pamphlets signed by leaders of these ‘left and democratic forces’, accusing us of ushering in a ‘Black Day’ and signing a ‘black deal’ with the government, were circulated in Bhangor and elsewhere and posted rampantly on social media. We, especially the authors of this article, were labelled as ‘traitors’ and our detractors glibly claimed that through a nefarious, underhand deal with the Trinamool government, we had prepared the ground for the Trinamool to firmly establish its autocratic rule all over Bhangor, and very soon we would be forcing the villagers to shout slogans hailing discredited Trinamool leaders. Our detractors, many of them leaders of ‘left’ organizations, stooped to the level of deliberately and actively circulating stories of our being gifted with a crores-worth flat in a posh part of the city in return of ‘surrendering’ the movement!
What had, in fact, happened? The main demand of the movement, from the beginning was that the government should open an unconditional dialogue with the Committee leading the movement. The government had responded by slamming terror charges against practically the entire leadership of the Committee, locking up people in jail for months and obstinately refusing to begin any dialogue. Rather, ministers of the Trinamool government openly claimed that they would go all out to crush the Committee leaders like so many ants. However, after a fierce struggle of 2 years, and especially when it became abundantly clear that even the arrest of the principal leader of the movement, Alik Chakraborty, would by no means succeed in suppressing the movement, which by then had spread across an entire Block and was rapidly spreading to other areas, the government was forced to eat humble pie and convene a meeting. Not only so, the government was forced to sit for a dialogue with not just the village leaders of the Committee but also those whom it had always labelled as ‘outsiders’ and steadfastly refused any interaction with. The meetings with the government went on for 3 weeks. When the dialogue began, Alik Chakraborty was still in jail (actually in police custody). At the first meeting, only Committee representatives of the village, and no political organizer from outside, were allowed. The village activists firmly told the government representatives that the Committee included political organizers from outside too and they would have to be invited to the next meeting, otherwise the Committee would not attend any more meetings. Thus, at the second meeting, 2 political organizers who were also members of the Committee participated along with the village activists. This meeting ended with all participants telling the government that no dialogue would be meaningful, or need be continued, if Alik Chakraborty was not released forthwith. The government buckled and Alik, who by then had already obtained bail in most of the 40-odd cases against him, soon obtained bail in the remaining cases. The government had no choice but to invite him to the next meeting. After a series of meetings, in which 47 people from the villages and 3 political organisers (that is 50 Committee representatives in all) participated, the government being represented by the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police, a representative from Nabanna (WB government headquarters), PGCIL officers and a host of other officers, a solution was finally reached.
The government was forced to sign a written agreement with the people of Bhangor, backing away from the initial powergrid project, promising compensation on a scale unheard of in the history of popular movements in recent years and, also unprecedentedly, declaring in writing that all criminal cases against activists in the course of the movement would be gradually withdrawn. It was in Bhangor that for the first time in India peasants were given compensation for electric lines running high over their land.
This historic agreement – which could have been used as an example for other ongoing and future people’s movements – was treated with unconcealed contempt by those ‘left and democratic’ forces who had wanted the strife and bloodshed to continue unabated in Bhangor without any resolution. Their ill-formed idea had been that if the strife continued, if more village people were injured or imprisoned or killed (while they themselves remained safe in the city), then they could take out fashionable rallies against the government from time to time and decry the lack of democracy in West Bengal, all from the safety of their offices or drawing rooms. The Trinamool government had made it very clear from the beginning that its targets were CPI(ML) Red Star and, later, to some extent, MKP, apart from the village people, and that no one outside these two political streams were likely to be arrested. In fact, throughout the course of the movement, no one from any political or democratic organization, apart from the aforementioned, were arrested. So most of these sections actually wanted no resolution to the problem because they were safe and, if any more bloodshed occurred, it would be common villagers who would be injured or killed, and they could ‘capitalise’ on these atrocities to secure their vested interests. The CPIM was particularly irked by the resolution of the problem because if the atrocities on the people of Bhangor continued till election year 2021, then their rapidly sinking electoral prospects would receive a much-needed boost. The CPIM spent several pages of the Bengali daily ‘Ganashakti’ in maligning us as traitors.
The problem is that all this led to a handful of ordinary people, supporters of the movement, to become confused and first begin to wonder and then believe that the CPI(ML) Red Star leadership had betrayed the movement and sold their souls to the Trinamool.
However, the people of Bhangor, who had faced the guns and bombs, police cases and atrocities, for two years, and were yet determined not to surrender, decided that the question had to be settled democratically. A series of village committee meetings were held, with thousands participating, where the various aspects of the movement and the pros and cons of signing an agreement with the government were discussed threadbare and thoroughly debated. The end result was that the people of Bhangor, almost unanimously, were united in their support of the historic agreement. In this they showed far greater political maturity than the so-called ‘left and democratic forces’. They realized what a great victory would be achieved by the agreement with the government, how enormously it would expand the democratic space and were determined to build on it and further consolidate their wins. The small section of left and democratic forces, which stood by our side and resolutely upheld the agreement, advised us not to be discouraged by the slew of slandering that we were facing because time alone could and would prove the truth.
They were absolutely correct. Today, we can hold our heads high and declare that we had committed neither crime nor mistake in signing the agreement with the government. The Bhangor agreement has not only resulted in consolidating the unity of the people of Bhangor, but also encouraged the people to carry on the struggle in a greater sphere. Just as they are fighting to extract and realize every promise the government made, so also are they leading rallies for the release of Varvara Rao, Dr Kafeel Khan and other political prisoners with equal vigour. The torch rallies and demonstrations they organized, demanding the release of political prisoners, in recent weeks, were indeed massive and magnificent.
At the same time, the people have developed a strong local leadership from among themselves. Today the situation is such that the people’s movement in Bhangor is strong enough to fight against the administration and win any local demand that was being denied to them. The local leadership has matured to the extent that this is happening frequently, they are leading and winning such struggles frequently, without the physical presence of any political leadership from outside.
Recently, when corruption was detected in the distribution of NREGA work, they gheraoed the Panchayat office, blocked roads, and compelled the administration to immediately rectify matters. When corruption was detected in the distribution of relief materials after the Amphan cyclone, they again gheraoed the responsible officers, compelled them to initiate enquiry against those who had undeservedly received relief material by virtue of their political clout, and provide money and materials to those who were truly affected by Amphan. Around 1150 families affected by Amphan, whose names had been submitted to the administration by the Committee, have received compensation so far – a feat once more unmatched in most parts of the state.
The people of Bhangor are now capable of crushing any unholy force that tries to rear its ugly head in the region.
This is possibly the only region in West Bengal where the BJP has not been able to unfurl its flag. The Trinamool’s Arabul Islam – who only three years ago had been the undisputed leader and much feared henchman of the region – and his men have gone into hiding. They dare not enter the area dominated by the Committee. Though Arabul Islam’s gang seized some Panchayat seats in the area by the simple expedient of not allowing elections to be held, their Panchayat members are now not allowed to enter the Panchayat office, or even the area, by the people of Bhangor. The villagers have brought a no-confidence motion against them and submitted a mass petition to the district magistrate to this effect. The Panchayat is now solely run by the 5 members of the Committee who were able to contest the elections, and thus win, and run in a manner that has people saying that not in the last 40 years has a fraction of the work been done that is now being regularly by the Panchayat!
Still, sad but true, some remain under the misapprehension that the movement in Bhangor is long dead, we have allowed the powergrid to be built, Trinamool has got its way and some even told us that they had heard that the BJP was making inroads into Bhangor!
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the movement had compelled the government to sign an agreement and back away from its original powergrid project and reduce it to a regional substation. Through this agreement, not only were the present interests of the movement secured, the oath was taken to go ahead determinedly towards the future, long-term objectives. The spirit of the fighting people of Bhangor is today proving that, back then, the leadership had not been wrong.
Actually, just as there is contradiction when a struggle begins, so also is contradiction present at every bend and curve of the movement. In the course of such contradictions, it may even be possible to be misunderstood or misjudged by friends. But if we are overwhelmed by the fear of being misunderstood or even, maligned by our friends, then we will cease to be guided in the interest of the development of the movement. Such shortsightedness, though it may help keep our ‘friends’, will definitely lead the entire movement into jeopardy.
The task of the leadership is to analyse and understand every bend and curve of the movement and guide it towards its final objective, whatever the temptation may be to succumb to the pull of populism.
Let us end with an example from the freedom struggle of neighbouring Bangladesh. Shortly before the National Liberation War started, when the Pakistani army had begun to brutalise Bangladesh, President of Pakistan Yahya Khan, fearing the retaliation that the Bangladeshis had already started, inviting the leaders of Bangladesh to a meeting. Most of the important leaders of Bangladesh held firm to the position that there could be no meeting unless the Pakistani army was withdrawn from Bangladeshi soil, and boycotted the meeting. But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman participated in the meeting called by Yahya Khan. As a result, he was maligned as an agent of Yahya Khan! However, history proves that it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who went on to lead the National Liberation War of Bangladesh and emerged as the undisputed leader of the people.
Sangrami Sangbad Weekly
Digital Weekly in Bengali from CPI (ML) Red Star West Bengal State Committee
Political Comments & Reports on Peoples Struggles
Chief Editor - Com Alik Chakraborty ; Editorial Board: Comrades Sharmistha Choudhury, Sankar Das; Gautam Choudhury & Raju Singh
It was on this day, the 6th of February, in 1932 that a young woman revolutionary, whom we scarcely remember and revere today, attempted to assassinate the Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta. Bina Das, who at the age of 21 fired five shots at the Governor, though failing to kill him, said in her statement before the Special Tribunal of Calcutta High Court during her trial, “I can assure all that I could never have any personal grudge against any person or anything on earth; I have no sort of personal feelings against Sir Stanley Jackson, the man and Lady Jackson, the woman. But the governor of Bengal represents the system of repression which has kept enslaved 300 millions of my countrymen and countrywomen.” The revolver used by Bina Das was supplied to her by another forgotten woman revolutionary, Kamala Dasgupta, who had left home and taken a job as manager of a hostel for poor women, where she stored and couriered, bombs and bomb-making materials for the revolutionaries.
Both Bina Das and Kamala Dasgupta were members of Chhatri Sangha, an organization of women revolutionaries affiliated to the Jugantar group. Determined that armed resistance was the only way to freeing India from British rule, both girls were driven by a burning desire to lay down their lives for their country. Bina Das was born in Krishnanagar on August 24, 1911. A few years older, Kamala Dasgupta was born on March 11, 1907.
Shortly before Bina’s matric examination, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay’s patriotic novel ‘Pather Dabi’ had been banned by the British as it was considered incendiary. However, Bina had already read the book by then and when asked to write an essay on her favourite book in her English examination, she wrote on ‘Pather Dabi’. Naturally, when the results came out, it was seen that she had scored far less in English than she deserved and she realized that it was due to her choice of novel for the essay that she had been so penalized. According to her, the marks she had lost in the examination were her first offering to the country.
Das was filled with indignation at the atrocities that her country had to suffer at the hands of the British and resolved to play her role in securing freedom for her country. On February 6, 1932, she attempted to assassinate the Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson at the convocation hall of the University of Calcutta. She had a revolver concealed under her gown and fired five shots in rapid succession at Jackson. Unfortunately, the bullets missed her target.
Bina Das was sentenced to nine years’ rigorous imprisonment. In an impassioned statement before the special tribunal of the Calcutta High Court, she said,
“I confess that I fired at the Governor on the last Convocation Day at the Senate House. I hold myself entirely responsible for it. My object was to die and if I had to die, I wanted to do it nobly, fighting against this despotic system of government which has kept my country in perpetual subjection to its infinite shame and endless sufferings, and all the while fighting in a way which cannot but tell. I fired at the Governor impelled by my love for my country which is being repressed and what I attempted to do for the sake of my country was a great violence on my own nature too… The series of ordinances savouring of Martial Law, to my mind, showed nothing but a spirit of vindictiveness and were only measures to crush all aspirations for freedom.
"The outrages perpetrated in the name of Government at Midnapore, Hijli and Chittagong (my own district), the refusal to publish the Official Enquiry Reports and many more of such instances, were things I could never drive away from my mind. The outrages on Amba Debi of Contai and Niharabala of Chittagong literally upset my whole being. I used to help the wife of a detenue in her studies as a work of love. Every day I saw with my own eyes the sufferings of the poor girl who was leading the life of a widow during the life-time of her husband as also the demented parents of the detenue, slowly sinking into their graves, without their having the faintest notion of the supposed guilt of their son…
"I attended the Court proceedings during the trial of my sister Kalyani. She was punished to serve a term of rigorous imprisonment for having allegedly attended a meeting which could not be held and for being a member of an unlawful society only on the basis of the evidence of her having a proscribed leaflet in her possession. This was to my mind grossly unjust. Though she is an Honours Graduate who had earlier lived in all the comforts of a middle-class family, yet ignominy was hurled on her during her prison-life. What with the jail-dress and jail-diet of ordinary convicts classified as third class prisoners, and the sleepless nights amongst such criminals, militated against my whole being. I saw all these with my own eyes and also witnessed the bitter tears welling out of the eyes of my dearest parents….”
Such a heroic woman died in ruthless anonymity. After her early release from prison in 1939, Das joined the Congress party. She was imprisoned again from 1942-45 because of her participation in the Quit India movement. From 1946-47, she was a member of the Bengal Provincial Legislative Assembly and, from 1947–51, of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. In 1947, she married Jatish Chandra Bhaumik, a former activist of the Jugantar group. Subsequently, she took up teaching as a profession. But professionally she suffered since she didn’t have a graduation certificate. She refused to accept the pension for freedom fighters. After the death of her husband, she led a lonely life in Rishikesh and died in anonymity. Her dead body was recovered from the roadside on December 26, 1986 in a partially decomposed state. It was found by the passing crowd. The police were informed and it took them a month to determine her identity.
Kamala Dasgupta’s political career began with her connections with the Jugantar group. She spent a long time in Presidency and Hijli prisons because of her connections with revolutionary groups and incidents of shooting and bombing. She was arrested for the last time in 1939 for her involvement in the Dalhousie Bomb Case. Besides being a freedom fighter, Dasgupta also contributed in the movement for the social and economic freedom of women. After the communal riots of Noakhali, she devoted her time to give relief to the victims of the riot taking charge of the ‘Vijaynagar’ centre. She edited the women’s journal ‘Mandira’ for many years. She also authored two memoirs in Bengali, ‘Rakter Akshare’ (In Letters of Blood, 1954) and ‘Swadhinata Sangrame Nari’ (Women in the Freedom Struggle, 1963). She died on July 19, 2000.
Even as the divisive, communal and sinister CAA was passed amidst surging protests throughout the country, led in great part by women and youths, atrocities against women and the relentless pauperization of the masses have continued to rise steadily.
We are approaching the International Working Women’s Day at a time when Indian women are not only facing unprecedented violence but also being deprived of decent jobs and wages and being pushed into an existence of dependence and penury. Data released by the National Crime Records Bureau have revealed that a total of 2,249 unemployed women committed suicide in 2018. The total number of suicides by unemployed women and men surpassed that of farmers and serve as a harsh comment on the state of joblessness and poverty in the country.
The new Codes on Labour, which will condense over 40 labour laws into four codes, is being sought to be passed in Parliament and will further affect labour rights in the country, especially those of the most vulnerable section, women. As it is the female labour participation rate in India — the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work —has fallen to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work.
According to a recent Oxfam report ‘Time to Care’, released in January this year, such is the income inequality in India, it would take a female domestic worker 22,277 years to earn what a top CEO of a technology company makes in one year. The report further said that women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day — a contribution to the Indian economy of at least Rs 19 lakh crore a year, which is 20 times the entire education budget of India in 2019 (Rs 93,000 crore). If care work had been socialized and industrialized – if communal kitchens, public laundry, crèches for children and the like had to replace today’s system of individual women and girls spending billions of hours cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly – then not only would employment rise but also women’s unpaid work would be replaced by work for wages.
Unpaid care work is the ‘hidden engine’ that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies moving, and little wonder that this ‘hidden engine’ is driven by women who have little time to get an education, earn a decent living or have a say in how the society and country is run, and who are therefore trapped at the bottom of the economy. Yet, no government till date has come up with a policy to replace this unpaid care work with socialized and paid care work as a means of empowering women.
Unable to give all able-bodied women work for wages, unable to provide equal wages for equal work, unable to create an enabling atmosphere for women to get educated and employed, unable to ensure a modicum of safety for women, the government is now bent on destroying whatever remains of the democratic and secular fabric of the country in the name of CAA-NPR-NRC. If not resisted, these communal tools will make women further vulnerable to devastation, displacement and even disenfranchisement. The evil design of transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra, based on the precepts of Manu Smriti, where women are but objects of male desire and slaves of patriarchal families, cannot be allowed to succeed.
Thus it is indeed heartening to note that across the country women are taking to the streets in thousands. Shaheen Bagh has already created history in women’s non-violent resistance to divisive state policies. Further, Shaheen Bagh is not alone. In various cities of the country similar prolonged demonstrations by women continue to thrive. The women’s mandate on CAA-NPR-NRC is clear: it cannot be allowed to stand. Kashmiri women, in the face of the most brutal kind of state terror, continue to fight for democracy.
All India Revolutionary Women's Organisation (AIRWO) too resolutely opposes CAA-NPR-NRC and, besides frequently hitting the streets demanding its repeal, extends its solidarity to Shaheen Bagh and its sisters. On March 8 this year, AIRWO calls upon all democratic women to rise and organize to the following slogans:
No to CAA-NPR-NRC!Stop violence against women! Equal pay for equal work! Dignified and secure employment for all able-bodied women of working age!
Sharmistha Choudhury, GS, AIRWO
How tragically often are women who shaped the destiny of our country and society relegated to forgotten chapters of the past, simply because they were women! The achievements of men with far less glorious roles, far less pioneering roles, are celebrated but women trailblazers, notwithstanding the tortuous roads they navigated, are consigned to ruthless oblivion.
On November 26, Constitution Day, let us remember one such woman who created history in more ways than one but finds scant glory in our history books. Dakshayani Velayudhan, the only Dalit woman in the 299-member strong Constituent Assembly that was tasked with drafting the Constitution of India, was one of the 15 woman members of the Assembly. She was elected to the Constituent Assembly of India by the Cochin Legislative Council (to which she had earlier been nominated) in 1946. She was the only Scheduled Caste woman to be thus elected.
Interestingly, though an ardent admirer of both Gandhi and Ambedkar, she by no means worshipped them blindly and did not hesitate to spell out her differences with their politics and strategies. For instance, she famously said that as long as untouchability remained, the word ‘Harijan’ was meaningless and was akin to calling a dog ‘Napoleon’. Another striking example of her unique politics can be seen in the when on 8 November 1948, Dr BR Ambedkar introduced the draft Constitution for discussion, she expressed some appreciation for the draft but was also scathing in her criticism. She found the draft constitution “barren of ideas and principles”. The blame, she said, had to be shared by all the members of the constituent assembly who, in spite of lofty ideals, illustrious backgrounds and prodigious speeches, could not come up with an original constitution. She called for greater decentralisation. She, in fact, suggested that the final draft of the Constitution should be adopted following a ratification through a general election. This was a revolutionary suggestion reflected lofty democratic ideals.
Dakshayani’s first speech in the Constituent Assembly focused on slavery and, according to her daughter Meera, “was a clear articulation of what was to become Article 15 of the Constitution.” Her term in the Constituent Assembly was defined by two objectives, both inspired and moulded by Gandhi and Ambedkar. One was to make the assembly go beyond framing a constitution and offer people “a new framework of life”, and two, to use the opportunity to make untouchability illegal, unlawful, and ensure a “moral safeguard that gives real protection to the underdogs”.
Born in a village in Ernakulam district in 1912 to a family which, at that time, was spearheading reform movements against widely prevalent caste evils like untouchability and segregation, she belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Pulaya caste and her name itself was a rebellion against casteism as being another name of Goddess Parvati, the name Dakshayani was supposed to be reserved for the upper castes.
A year after her birth, in 1913, her uncle, Kallachamuri Krishnaadi Asan, along with Pandit Karuppan and TK Krishna Menon led a civil disobedience movement against caste oppression. They founded the Pulaya Mahajana Sabha that defied restriction of movement for the oppressed classes. The organisation found an ingenious way to defy the king’s order that proclaimed that no Dalit group could have a meeting on his land — they held their meeting on a row of catamarans anchored to an iron pole in the middle of the Vembanad lake. By conducting the meeting on water, the group actually defied the king without literally disobeying the royal order It was this historic Kayal Sammelanam (Meeting on the Backwaters) that later formed the basis for the name of Dakshayani’s memoirs, “The Sea Has No Caste”.
Growing up amidst such radical opposition to social injustice and oppression, the young girl was a part of a series of firsts for her community. According to a 1934 report by KP Karuppan, who fought for their rights, men and women of the Pulaya community could not wear clothes to cover their upper torso or cut their hair. They were not allowed access to public roads, public wells, markets and government schools and hospitals. Further, a Pulaya had to keep 64 paces behind a so-called upper caste and make their presence felt by uttering a particular cry after every four or five paces. Such was the oppression suffered by the community Dakshayani was born into.
Dakshayani was one of the first girls in her Pulaya community to wear a dress covering her torso (till then most women of her community were not allowed by the so-called higher castes to cover the upper part of their body) and receive education at a government institution. After finishing her schooling, Dakshayani went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam — the only girl in the class. In fact she was the first Dalit woman in the state to become a science graduate. Later she would recall how she would have watch lab experiments from afar as an upper caste professor refused to let her touch the equipment.
Graduating with good marks in 1935, she then went on to get a teacher’s training course from Madras University, following which she was posted in a government school in Thrissur. All this while, she continued to participate in movements that called for abolition of caste slavery, equality for all and the democratization of public spaces. This defiance, grit and steely strength would mark much of her life.
In 1940, Dakshayani married Dalit leader Raman Kelan Velayudhan at Gandhi’s Wardha ashram, Sevagram. The ceremony was officiated by a leper and attended by both Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. Two years later, she was nominated to Cochin Legislative Council seat and in 1945, she made her first speech in the Council, slamming untouchability as inhuman. In 1946, she became the first and the only Dalit woman in India’s Constituent Assembly. She was just 34. Dakshayani called for implementation of non-discrimination provisions through public education and pointed out that it would send a great public signal if the Constituent Assembly were to endorse a resolution condemning caste discrimination.
An outstandingly courageous woman who hit out unceasingly at caste barriers, Dakshayani Velayudhan played a pioneering role in charting the course of independent India. She died in July 1978.
In very recent times, when the compulsion to appear pro-Dalit and pro-women had become quite overwhelming, the Kerala government constituted the ‘Dakshayani Velayudhan Award’ to be given to women who contributed in empowering other women in the state. The budget earmarked Rs 2 crore for the award. This was announced by the Kerala Finance Minister Dr. Thomas Isaac during the presentation of Kerala Budget 2019 in the Legislative Assembly on 31st January 2019. However, in the greatest possible mockery and disrespect to the memory of Dakshayani Velayudhan, it is this very Kerala govt that is siding with regressive Brahmanical forces in the Sabarimala issue and putting paid to the ideals Narayana Guru and Dakshayani Velayudhan fought for