KAMAYANI BALI MAHABAL pays tribute to Vina Mazumdar, the Grand old lady of the Feminist Movement and the Grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia
Photo credit: CWDS and the Mazumdar family
For me, the inseparable Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar are the founding gardeners who nurtured the garden of feminism in India , with their rich contributions to the women’s movement, especially sowing the seed of women political empowerment with the of ‘Note of dissent’, demanding women’s reservation in the path-breaking report, ‘Towards Equality’.
The Garden of feminism bloomed under their guardianship with twin movements — the women studies movement and women’s movement. According to Vina Di the ‘traditional approaches’ to women questions ,always have top down approaches , looking at them as a social and cultural one and not political. In Asia, women constitute the largest group engaged in agriculture and production of food and as such any concept of development of women should adopt ‘bottom up approach’, one that recognizes women’s claims to own agricultural land in their own right when they are tillers.
Vina Mazumdar, lovingly and famously known as Vinda Di for all, will always remain the Grand old lady of the Feminist Movement and the Grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia. Born into a middle class Bengali family in 1927, she studied at a Diocesan Girls School run by the British Protestant Mission, graduating from the Benaras Hindu University. She went to Oxford in the 1960s and, later, in the 1970s to complete her Bachelors and Doctorate. Her first job was in Patna University, where she worked between 1951 to 1960, and got involved in the teacher’s union. She energized the curriculum and the examination system, especially during her tenure as first secretary of the Patna University Teachers Association. Her resolute interest in educational reform prompted her move to the University Grants Commission, the apex body for the national university system.
A radical shift in her life and work came with her appointment in the Committee on the Status of Women in India. The committee, appointed by the Government of India in 1971, was reconstituted in 1973 with Vina Di, as member secretary. The committee was given an extended term of one year to finalize its report, to enable the government to face the first UN-sponsored World Conference on Women at Mexico in 1975, after debating the Report in Parliament. The resurgent women’s movement of the 1970s acknowledged the Report, Towards Equality, as its “Founding Text”. The concern and challenges thrown up by Towards Equality became a lifelong passionate commitment.
Vina Di establiished Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in the middle of the International Women’s Decade, as a sustained campaign to extend the understanding of women’s studies beyond academy. Armed with ‘Action Research’ then began the Journey of Vina Di’s transformation from an activist academic to a grassroots intervention worker began with the ‘Bankura project’ that took her across the country . She was very distraught about the conditions of women migrant laborers, and the immense concern made her take upon the challenge of an experiment on use of wastelands to provide sustenance for explored the travails of poor migrant women workers who travel from place to place, especially on foot every year for about nine months in search of wage labor.
She organized a rural women’s camp which revealed that the annual migratory process meant high infant mortality, indebtedness, and violent sexual exploitation. In 1981, she organized a group of asset less women from Bankura district, West Bengal; they managed to obtain eight acres of wasteland, which was registered in the name of the organization. It was the first time that these women owned an asset. It took three years of backbreaking labor by the group to demonstrate that wasteland can be regenerated to provide sustenance to women.
A major lesson that Vina Di always referred through the Bankura experience was to ‘listen and learn’ through collaboration with poor (rural) women while developing any research priorities and strategies. The impact was for all to see, the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests made an explicit policy pronouncement to involve poor women in wasteland development and joint forest management.
I still vividly remember watching , Paromita Vohra’s, Documentary ‘Unlimited Girls (2002) ‘, where Vina Di said that the government always uses the word “empowerment of women”, she would ask back ‘who is empowering whom?’. In the film she also stated that she did not believe that donning traditional role of wife, mother, were subordinating women. ‘One should not accept subordination position’, wherever women are.
The Women’s Studies movement under the leadership of Vina Di scored another goal in getting Education for Women’s Equality incorporated in to the new National Policy on Education (1986). The government was also forced to mention minorities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes having made space for women’s equality as part of a new thrust in the NPE.
I had the great opportunity to meet Vina Di at a conference to strategize our campaign on sex selection In 2005, I vividly remember she warned all of us involved in the campaign that historically it will be wrong to connect sex selection and female infanticide, as the present trend in sex selection is directly linked to the arrival and availability of technology. She also emphasized that it’s high time the social scientists and economists also took responsibility of the campaign, that putting it solely on women’s movement, as it’s a burning issue for all to address. In fact, ‘Towards Equality’ was also the first report to mention about the dwindling sex ratios. They looked at the 100 years of census data and it was first time when declining sex ratio was identified as a serious problem in the country.
In her Memoirs the Rolling Stones, published in 2010 by Zubaan Book in her own words, “My earlier struggles represented an individual woman’s efforts to balance the demands of professional and familial responsibilities. The new struggle was increasingly a collective, ideological one — to rediscover the Indian nation, the world, the past, the present and the future — from the perspective of India’s hidden and unacknowledged majority: poor working women in rural and urban areas.
Vina Di’s indisputable combination of canny academic entrepreneurship with activism provided opportunities to tribal and dalit women in non-threatening ways, and helping them break their shackles of poverty and deprivation. She has been a catalyst to crack the culture of silence that kept tribal and dalit women in segregation and deprivation and for centuries. Vina Di was an ace Kractivist, to bridge the Gap between Academics and Activism. And bring the Change.