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Whither Autonomous
Women's Movement?

By Anjali Sinha

13 April, 2007

[The seventh national conference of women's movement particularly autonomous women's movement was held in Kolkata in the beginning of September 2006. Although it has been more than six months that the conference was held, but looking at the fact that the issues discussed/not discussed had a lot of import for the women's movement in general and the autonomous women's movement in particular, a few observations about the same are being shared with the wider audience. ]

What is autonomy ? How does one define an 'autonomous women's group' ? How does one differentiate it from women's organisations which are integral part of larger political processes ?

Although the question of autonomy has been high on the agenda of the women's movement since its inception in the seventies, all these questions still beg for answers. Till date one is yet to come across any single definition of the concept(s) which has given rise to tremendous confusion within the ranks of the women's movement in general and autonomous women's movement in particular.Confusion gets further confounded when one notices a disjunction between the way the concept gets defined in a larger fora like a conference and the way it actually unfolds itself and how it is conveniently used to accomodate and exclude certain formations/groups citing the same 'principles'.

The deliberations of the seventh national conference of women's movements recently held in Kolkatta ( September 2006) are a case in point. Here one was witness to a strange spectacle where the highest decision making body for the conference comprised mainly of groups/formations which could not have been there if the initiators of the process had decided to stick to the very definition of 'autonomy' ( 'Swayattata ka arth hai hum rajnitik dalon, sarkaron aur funding agencies se sansthagat evam vaicharik roop se swayam ko swatantra manti hai' ) given in the invite for the conference itself. At least there would have been second thoughts about putting the name of a Delhi based prominent NGO as the sole contact address for the conference.

Interestingly neither the 'old guards' of the autonomous women's movement nor the 'new entrants' to its 'legacy' seem to be even aware that such a discrepancy exists.It is possible that a section of the autonomous women's movement which is aware of this anamoly, do not feel any urgency to even recognise it. Possibly they subscribe to the prevalent understanding that looks at the dynamics of the autonomous politics as a 'process' or a state of being one aspires to and think that things would get rectified on their own.

Whatever might be the case, it needs to be understood that this gap between self-perception and self-actualisation of the autonomous politics is having a very negative fallout ? It has created a situation where 'institutionalised' or 'state sponsored feminism' - which has the potential of deradicalizing feminism - has been accorded new legitimacy as being part of the 'autonomous women's movement'. It has created a situation where the division between NGOs - running projects centred around women- and mass organisations of women who have been valiantly raising issues since decades has been deliberately blurred. And a key difference between the sustenance of a project - which is external - and a movement - which is driven mainly by its internal momentum and legitimacy among the masses, is being largely forgotten.It has led us to a situation where the failures of the autonomous women's politics - even its failure to define itself or suggest any alternative organisational structure- have not even come on the agenda.

It has been more than twenty six years that the emergence of autonomous women's politics impacted the onward journey of the emergent women's movement in a decisive manner, whose influence is still being felt.One just wishes that the upholders of autonomous women's politics in the 21 st century rise from the deep slumber and get ready to introspect their failures which are of their own making.

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But before coming to the grips of the problem it would be opportune take a bird's eye view of the seventh national conference itself and get to know what actually transpired during the four day gathering.
As reported in a section of the media the beginning of September saw coming together of around 2,500 women from 22 different states of the country belonging to different formations / groups to discuss and debate issues which seem to bother the present day women's movement especially the autonomous women's movement. Titled 'Towards a Politics of Justice : Affirming Diversities, Resisting Divisiveness' the conference focussed itself on globalisation, fundamentalism, family and violence as well.

This seventh National Conference of Women's movement - particularly autonomous women' movement - was held after a hiatus of nine years. It was for everyone to see that the caravan of National conferences had traversed a long distance starting from Bombay (1980, 1985), Patna ( 1987), Calicut ( 1990), Tirupati (1994) and Ranchi (1997) and reached here.The last conference namely the sixth Conference held in Ranchi had seen participation of more than 4,000 women. Despite the long gap, which saw scores of new faces join the feminist stream and a few old faces fading away from scene, there was no dearth of vibrancy in the four day congregation.The closing plenary had tried to flag of four different key questions - namely disability and difference, caste and diversity, morality and sex work and reexamining gender. The colourful and boisterous closing rally on the streets of Kolkatta where the participants resolved to continue the struggle with lot of sloganeering rather reverberated the overall mood of the conference.
Of course, for any concerned observer to the whole proces, all the gaiety and color in Kolkatta, could not hide the fact that there was something seriously amiss in the very process itself, which needed urgent attention.

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It was late seventies when autonomous women's politics made its presence felt on the Indian scene. It was a period of turmoil in Indian politics when a spontaneous pan Indian movement of women took shape. Close on the heels of the retrogade judgement by the Supreme Court in the Mathura rape case, and the indignation felt by wider populace, one was witness to the emergence of scores of women's groups at different places.Interestingly many of them declared themselves to be 'autonomous' signifying their independence and distance from men, political parties and state.A noteworthy feature of this new autonomy raga pertained to their critque of the organisational principles in vogue then which according to them were quite 'formal', 'hierarchial', 'Patriarchal' and 'stiffled free participation.'

It is now history how the debate around autonomy tried to breathe in fresh air in the rising women's movement initially. With its emergence as spaces where women could come together it provided an outlet for organising women who had remained aloof from 'party politics' for various reasons. One of the electrifying slogans of the era, namely 'Personal is Political' , made famous by the surge in the women's movement in the western countries, had caught the imagination of the leading section of women.'

It also led to questioning within the left movement which felt that the questions raised by the autonomous women's movement carry import and this led to serious introspection on the question of gender and patriarchal control at various levels. The relation between the party(ies) and its women's organisation(s) also came under scanner and their was growing realisation that much needs to be done to rectify the situation. It definitely led to some corrective action(s) on their part. Of course it would be incorrect to say that there is no scope for further improvement.

It was during those times that the idea to hold national conferences took shape which were construed as ' a space for women to come together, share and express ideas, politics, struggles and campaigns and sharpen' one's politics.' Although the nascent autonomous women's movement had taken lead in holding the conferences, individuals/groups/organisations with close affinity to left/radical left formations had not shied away from participating wholeheartedly in such meetings. An impartial analysis of the seven conferences would make clear that at many such places where the left movement had been strong, women belonging to this current were in significant numbers. The left/radical organisations also shouldered many of the responisibilites in making these conferences a fruitful exercise. Interestingly none of them were part of the decision making process as the very constitution of the highest decision making body (called National Co-ordination Committee' the campaign committee which is organised for every conference and stands dissolved after its completion) barred them any such voice.

One would be surprised to know that while women's groups with (left/radical) political affinities were thus barred from joining the decision making process, the upholders of autonomous politics had no qualms in accomodating certain other groups which themselves violated the 'principles' of autonomous politics - namely their dependence on institutional support. As is widely known a key feature of autonomous women's politics had been its maintaing a distance from party, government and institutional funding. It has felt that 'instiutionalised or state sponsored feminism' has the potential of blunting the edge of women's movement.

Thus while certain groups were barred and certain groups were included supposedly taking a principled stand, it would be of interest to note that the autonomous women's movement has still not been able to present a positive definition of many concepts which are vital for its sustenance. As a matter of fact it is still defined in the negative - a politics which is not affiliated to a party or government, does not take funds or does not believe in structures which are 'hierarchial','patriarchal' or 'detrimental to collective functioning' etc. (Something on the tune of Hindu philosophy wherein it defines Brahma as 'na iti'- it is not this) When asked to pinpoint its essential features, another level of general features are put forward which talk of priority to internal transformation, a notion of collective functioning, emphasis on democracy or non-hierarchy, abhorrence to institutional funding.

If one refers to an evaluation of the autonomous women's politics done sometime back it becomes clear that there is nothing new about the present state of affairs.Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah in their perceptive paper ''Organisations and Autonomy' (Gender and Politics in India- edited by Nivedita Menon) tell us that 'Autonomy' has been 'viewed in relation to other people, relationships, institutions and different aspects of life'. It also addes that 'Autonomy' has been considered '.. [a] developing concept,' and 'viewed more as a proces or a state of being one aspires to rather than a set of conditions which, if fulfilled, give an individual or organisation the label of autonomous' .According to them '[t]here is so far no single definition of autonomy which can be debated, critiqued, questioned. Perhaps this is because the concept has emerged from and is still being developed through political practice.'

A leading autonomous women's group active in Delhi, which recently completed 25 years of its existence, tend to reiterate what is being discussed above."Autonomous politics is usually defined in the negative - that we are not affiliated to a party or government , we don't take funds, but what is the meaning of autonomous politics ? What is the fundamental core ?"(Saheli, Dec 2006)

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It is possible that friends and fellow travellers of the autonomous women's movement - with whom one has shared a long partnership on various issues - may try to brush aside my observations as of no consequence. Perhaps they could castigate me that my argument is flowing not out of my concern about the health and well-being of the autonomous women's movement, rather it has arisen out of my not so hidden agenda of 'NGO bashing'.

An agenda which was quite prevalent in the late seventies or early eighties. Times when NGOs were presented as agents of imperialist conspiracy, which were out to thwart radical change. It needs no repeating that one needs to have more nuanced understanding of the whole phenomenon. We should not forget that today NGOs form part of the civil society networks based everywhere.And many of them have done commendable work as far as amelioration of human sufferings are concerned.

But my primary concern is definitely not the way NGOs operate nor their interaction with the autonomous women's movement as it is unfolding before our eyes, rather it is to underline the gap between the self representation and self actualisation of the autonomous women's politics.

This has led to unforeseen consequences. The first and foremost being it has led to a sense of complacency in the autonomous women's movement.Is not it high time that the autonomous women's movement which abhorrs political parties, should come out of the illusion that funded organisations are not carriers of any politics.

Lastly, the need to redefine the whole concept of autonomy and make it more expansive has never been so better. One just wishes that instead of sitting on one's laurels the autonomous women's movement gets ready to take a fresh plunge..

Contact : [email protected]

( The writer works with a women's organisation 'Stree Adhikar Sangathan' and is associated with the magazine 'Stree Mukti' (Hindi))


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