Who is Bharat Matha?
(Speech given by Brinda Karat at Hyderabad Central University on March 8, 2016)
Dear Vice Chancellor Prof. Periya Swami, my colleague Vimal Thorat, other distinguished members of the panel who have spoken and dear comrades and friends,
I am happy to be here with the invitation of the Hyderabad Central University Students Union to join you on this occasion of International Women’s Day. We are speaking of International Women’s day in an institution which has just witnessed the institutional murder of a youngster. The institutional murder of Rohith Vemula has not only saddened but shocked and angered you. I think throughout the whole country, this institutional murder has led to an intensified resistance against the forces who sacrificed this brilliant young man. I pay my tribute to Rohith, I pay my homage to him and I believe that nothing can compensate for the loss of his life and if at all there can be any compensation it can only be if all of us together ensure that there are no more Rohiths, in the sense of sacrifice. No more Rohiths! I also believe that this tragedy in the campus of one of our premier institutions has led to a strong, united resistance which crossed all university boundaries, crossed states, and crossed regions. I believe that it must remain central to our efforts to ensure that the caste-based discrimination of the type that Rohith and his colleagues suffered will be wiped out from the faces of India’s university campuses. I believe that only with the elimination of such discrimination, we can ever hope to compensate for the loss of a life. I say this because I strongly believe that as those of us who believe in radical social change, we may come from many streams, we may believe in different parties and even different ideologies, we may have differences in our political approaches, but there comes a time in the life of a nation that if we, the citizens, do not recognise, identify and understand the nature of the assault on the very minimum democratic values of our nation and our country, we cannot hope to survive. As not just citizens, not just individuals, not just groups, not just communities and certainly not just agents of social change. I believe that your movements of resistance and the young voices of outrage, sorrow, anger and grief have found the resistance all over India today. That grief must be turned into a strength and that strength must be turned into a unity, and that unity must be the unity of purpose and that purpose must surely be ‘justice’.
Therefore, on this occasion, while I greet all of you, I also believe that this is a court of battle. It is a battle of ideas, it is a battle of justice, it is a battle of democracy vs. authoritarianism and dictatorship and I believe that all of us must rise to the occasion and find those aspects of work which unite us so that we can move forward in unison. I would also like to take advantage of this platform to have my voice raised to demand justice for Rohith. I believe the justice has not been served. It should not be like 'a Parliament debate should take place, there should be answers and that is the end of the matter'! The agenda of the Parliament may move on, but the agenda of justice remains where it is unless there is justice for Rohith. That justice demands that there will be action against those responsible, that justice demands that those must be identified, that justice demands that we cannot any longer brush it aside as an individual tragedy and, therefore, those who have to be punished must be punished. Those who are responsible must be identified and the demands of Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika and his brother Raja, that there should be a Rohith Act, an act which would encompass the demands of Dalit movements and democratic Left movements to address in a more comprehensive way the different discriminations and oppressions that Scheduled Caste students in particular including Scheduled Caste women students face, must be brought within the purview of law, should be met. Today we have The Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes Act, but within that legislation, there is nothing that deals with our educational institutions. There is nothing which deals with, specifically, the discrimination that the Dalit students face. There is nothing which identifies those different discriminations and, therefore, the demand for a Rohith Act, a demand which we had raised in Parliament, should and must be taken forward. Although, it is only one step. As we all know that laws may remain but very often they remain only on paper. But still in any country based on parliamentary democracy, ruled by legal frameworks, certainly the law is an important lever to at least empower the struggles for justice and, therefore that Act is also essential.
In our experience, patriarchy does not and cannot operate as an autonomous social system. Patriarchy is very much linked and lies on the back of, existing exploitations and oppressions. Patriarchy is always used as an instrument by prevailing, dominant ruling classes to continue the prevailing unequal social systems.
I commend all of you and I commend the demands that you raised because I believe that they are relevant, not only for this university but relevant all over India. I also believe that this struggle for justice is extremely germane to the general democratic struggles for social change because University campuses today are special targets of those who no longer think and who do not want others to think - those who believe that the university campuses should be converted into sakhas, those who believe in the gurukul method and the sishya should cut off his thumb to please the guru. They think that these so-called culture and traditions ‘need to be’ imposed on Universities. Those are very unethical of thought, of dissent, of democracy, of debate, of discussion and, therefore, we reject that method. We reject that tradition, we oppose those traditions and we say that Hyderabad University being at the crossroads at present, is really symbolic of what awaits many other campuses. You know what has happened in JNU, you know what just happened in Jadhavpur University, what happened earlier in FTII, and you know what is happening in Allahabad University today. It is so ironic that in Allahabad University the effort of the authorities is to create a new binary between Dalits on one side and Women on the other. The first elected woman president of Allahabad University Student Union is now being accused of using the place which should have been reserved for a Dalit. Two-three years ago when Richa Singh had applied, there was never any issue. But, it is after she is elected as the President of the University Student Union, the first women to be elected, they have discovered that there was something wrong in the admission process. Therefore only after she opposed the RSS, only after she opposed the ABVP, only after she opposed Yogi Aditya Nath's lavatory speeches, it is only then they have discovered this anomaly. If there is indeed an anomaly, it is for the University authorities to decide how to go about rectifying it, but you cannot victimize the first elected woman president because of your faults. But that is exactly what is sought to be done in Allahabad University today. So the voices of Hyderabad Central University resonate across the country and I greet all of you on this occasion for your struggles and for your unity, and I hope that you are able to take it forward to achieve what must be achieved and without that achievement India itself cannot go forward.
My dear friends, we are here to discuss these contemporary principal developments, in the particular context of Women’s Day. As my friend here has stated, of course, Women’s Day is sought to be co-opted by market forces and turned into some kind of a "saleable event". Women’s Day had its origins in the socialist women’s movement. I just want to read out to you the very first resolution which was adopted by the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1910, just a few lines to give you an idea. The resolution was moved by Clara Zetkin along with Alexander Kollontai and others. The resolution was to observe an International Women’s day, the date at that time had not been decided, and the resolution read:
“In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women's Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women's suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women's question according to Socialist precepts.”
So, clearly the whole concept of Women’s Day was rooted in a very political understanding of what constitute the women’s question. A hundred and six years later if we look at Women’s day today, the fundamental issue really is that the women’s question is very deeply linked to much larger socio-economic analysis and realities of the world and in the particular country in which we live.
In many parts of the Western world, Women’s Day has come to be accepted as a much larger mobilisation to raise the issues of women’s equality. Women’s Day became linked up with the struggle against patriarchy and in 50’s and 60’s for many of the women’s liberation movements of the West, which were very active at that time, the understanding of the patriarchy was linked within a narrow framework of male and female paradigm and the fight against patriarchy was basically seen as a fight, mainly and primarily, against male supremacy and male supremacist values which predominated. Certainly in societies where male supremacist values operate undoubtedly, the struggle against them must be an integral part of the struggle for justice for women. But in India and in many of the third world countries, our experience has been different. I do not want to come to judgements about what is right and what is wrong, but certainly, in our experience, patriarchy does not and cannot operate as an autonomous social system. Patriarchy is very much linked and lies on the back of, existing exploitations and oppressions. Patriarchy is always used as an instrument by the prevailing, dominant ruling classes to continue the prevailing unequal social systems.
In India, the struggle for Women’s rights and the early pioneers of women’s movements were very much linked to the struggle against male supremacist values, to the struggles against poverty, to the struggles against class oppression, and to the struggles against imperialism and colonialism. In fact, the struggle for women’s equality in India was really born and groomed in the crucible of women’s freedom struggle. The struggle for women’s freedom in India has always been deeply linked to the struggle for other freedoms. In that context, If we look at India and women’s movement in India today, we can find the universal slogans of sisterhood. For example, Hum Sab Ek Hei, Mahilaom Ki Ekta Zindabad, Nari Ekta Zindabad. In fact, in our understanding, very often the slogans of sisterhood deny, conceal and, therefore, weaken struggles for actual sisterhood unless and until they are rooted in an understanding that women in India are not a homogeneous community. In a country where you have such deep class differences, where you have the domination of capitalist system which creates inequality on the basis of the class, which creates deep differences among women, talking about sisterhood without recognising inequality among women could hardly be considered the symbol of sisterhood. Sisterhood cannot exist unless we recognise, identify and fight against the specific oppressions of Dalit Women and Adivasi Women. At various levels, whether it is violence against women or whether it is economic and social exploitations of women, the specific aspects and the experiences of the socially and economically oppressed women, if they are not at the centre of women’s struggle for justice against patriarchy, you cannot expect a movement for resistance which is true to itself. A movement which gets led by slogans which do not recognise socio-economic realities cannot counter the challenges posed by contemporary political developments today. Therefore, in India, women’s movements, the Left women’s movements have tried to build a more comprehensive understanding of women’s oppression and exploitation in India. We see these at three levels
1. Women as members of class and the specific aspects that they face. 2. Women as members of an oppressed class and the specific aspects they would face. 3. Women as women beyond the caste, class boundaries who also face patriarchal oppressions in a male supremacist, male dominated society.
It is only with a comprehensive understanding of all these three aspects, I believe, that we can have a robust Indian women’s movement. At a time when in the West we find the dynamism of many of these movements dying away, in India because of coalitions, because of alliances and because of a commitment to a wider understanding we have been able to build these coalitions and alliances on issue-based movements and we were able to overcome the ideological differences which exist and were able to build a movement which has challenged the ruling class. I think that is what is most positive about Indian women’s movement.
Today we face a greater challenge. Today we face the challenge from forces of the right wing who challenged the very existence of the Indian constitution, who challenged the existence of pluralism and pluralist cultures and who represent an ideology of upper caste, patriarchal thinking. All these are racked up in a kind of nationalism which promises one of what happened in the 1920’s and 30’s of Germany and Italy. Today, on Women’s day, we have a question, were the basic fundamental issues of women sought to be subsumed by slogans such as Bharat Matha Ki Jai? Now, what is this Bharat Matha Ki Jai, and what is this nation whose Jai we are asked to celebrate? We saw the entire debate lay out on nationalism. For women, these are very critical issues, because, in an ideology which seeks to validate more violence in the name of saving the nation, these are precisely the values which have dogged women through these centuries. It is these values - male supremacist values - are what constitutes nationalism, which are being played out in India today. What is this Bharat Matha? Who is the Bharat Matha? What are we being asked to defend? Rohith Vemula’s mother is a Bharat Matha, a woman who through her own experience understood the reality of caste. Where is her position today in Bharat Matha Ki Jai? Where is the position of Soni Sori in Bharat Matha Ki Jai? Where is the position of widows, single women bringing up their families in a new liberal framework with no type of support? Where is their position in Bharat Matha Ki Jai?
These are issues which concerned not just women, they are fundamental issues which concern our democracy today. I believe that there are several nations within the nation and the voices of those several nations within the nation are restrained. The resistance of these nations within the nation alone would save India. It is when those women who are the backbone of the crores of families and when their survival strategies are recognized that India can be strong. It is they who have no respect in the eyes of those who talk in the name of Bharat Matha and therefore we say, we cannot ever accept your slogan and your interpretation of Bharat Matha Ki Jai because the Bharat Matha Ki Jai that you are talking about is on the backs, on the graves and on the sufferings of the real Bharat Mathas. These are some of the basic truths that we have to face and we have to counter today.
Without any permanent benefits, without any job securities, a large number of women are desperately looking for employment. Every day, working women put themselves in a place of vulnerability to sexual violence because of this new liberal framework.
If we look at the true pillars, the first pillar of neo-liberal policies and the second pillar of communalism, which are holding up the government today, we can see that these neo-liberal policies have strengthened patriarchy in numerous ways. They are intertwined because the first and the foremost prerequisite for women’s advance is her economic advance. In a country ruled by neo-liberal policies and new liberal regime, we can see how even existing constitutional measures are being dismantled. Take the whole issue of reservation for example. Due to the privatisation and liberalisation, whatever reservation or whatever quotas or whatever benefits there could be, are being destroyed and whatever women could get within those reservations are also being destroyed. So there is virtually a de-reservation in India today. At the same time, the privatisation and the contractualisation of jobs, what do they do to our working class? Without any permanent benefits, without any job securities, a large number of women are desperately looking for employment. Every day, working women put themselves in a place of vulnerability to sexual violence because of this new liberal framework. The minimum guarantees of social security and the minimum guarantees of service conditions have been removed.
You talk about modern technologies and you talk about digitising India. But the frameworks of labour markets are such that you are disempowering women and not only women, but men of the working class too. Therefore within that, the vulnerability of working women goes up that much more. So, patriarchy and everything retrograde in our society is getting co-opted and is getting strengthened by this framework of neo-liberal policies. Therefore, any struggle for justice has to be a struggle which is linked to the struggle against this neo-liberal framework. The second aspect is the aspect of religion. Now religion today is being utilised as an instrument in a very planned way to divide, to disunite and to make people fight. Within the Hindutva-Sangh Parivar, it is not just Muslim, women are targets too. Hindutva ideologies, which are based on caste, based on upper caste understanding of society, carry within themselves, as the core of their thought, the control of women’s sexuality. This thought of the control of women’s sexuality embedded in the caste system is something which permeates the entire communal ideologies and practices of the Sangh Parivar in India today. Therefore, slogans of so-called ‘Love Jihad’, slogans of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ , slogans of ‘Teaching them a lesson’ are being raised.
What is all this amounting to? This amounts to the basic precepts of any modern society or democratic society like the freedom to choose one’s own partner, being circumscribed by caste and by communal ideologies. Therefore, when we fight communalism or when we fight the hatred and the toxic mixture of communalism with economic policies, the core is the autonomy of a woman. That autonomy is deeply circumscribed by Sangh ideologies today, and the fight against communalism and the fight against different levels of communalism must also, is therefore, against this patriarchal, casteist approach that the Sangh Parivar has towards the women in general and poor women in particular. Therefore, my dear friends, in today’s world I strongly believe that strategies to counter the dominance of right wing forces in our politics require a reworking of our strategies. Women’s movements require alliances that require coalitions, not just within Women’s groups but with other social movements. I believe that it is one of the strengths that in our movements in India that those coalitions and alliances are taking place. It is only through such united actions and such united resistance, that the struggle against capitalism, struggle against feudalism, the struggle against patriarchy and the struggle for women’s justice can go forward. You, here in Hyderabad, have been in the forefront of one of the streams of this very important struggle for democracy and I do hope that in the coming days, together, all over India, we can form such coalitions and alliances and take our movements forward to justice. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity and we will win justice for Rohith Vemula, we will win justice for your university and we will ensure that such tragedies do not recur.
Thank you very much.