Book Review: Non-fiction/The Indian women’s movement by Maitrayee Chaudhuri, Palm Leaf Publications/2011, 219 pp; Rs895 (Hardback)
This is a purposeful book—meticulously researched and lucidly written. It comes as a welcome addition to the burgeoning narrative on women’s movements in India. Tapping historical sources in the context of a focused theme endows this book with authenticity. With rational utilisation of social history in the colonial and post-colonial period, the book underlines the major breakthroughs and adverse occurrences related to the women’s movement in the past and ongoing odds that are choking its overall growth.
The beginning of the book, with elucidating four major social reform movements in prominent provinces—Bengal, Bombay, Madras and Punjab—makes beautiful sense, since knowing the women’s side during the 19th-century Hindu middle class reform is crucial before taking further compelling strides. Chapter three, Reform, Revival and the Women’s Question at the turn of the Century, captures the resistances like Revivalism, Nationalism and Communalism against the repression of colonialism and existing hierarchy besides taking into account the women’s reform in Hinduism and Islam. This paragraph makes complete sense to the wider concern of reform:
The most characteristic sign of the development of capitalism in India was the growth of towns. The dual nature of capitalism in India, where there were both British and Indian enterprises, had left their imprint on the towns, particularly over Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The town represented the dynamic changes that taking place in Indian society with the composition of bourgeoisie, a working class, a mass of small producer, craftsmen and the administrative staffs. The educated sections were sensitive to both the misery and poverty of the large mass of Indian people and the degradation and humiliation of even those Indians who were not in poverty. They became increasingly conscious of the burden of colonial oppression and the need for a change. (p. 72)
Chapter four, The Rise of Women’s Organisations and the Beginning of Women’s Participation in Politics, 1914–27 links to the institutionalisation and growth of Indian women’s movement, following the epoch-making First World War period. Side by side, the peak of the national movement and its influence over the women’s movement are highlighted very well in this book. The non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi strongly emphasised on the greater inclusion of all sections, including women. This political movement indeed proved a catalyst in the independence movement and later in the shaping of women’s movement. The scale of struggle against British colonialism could not be shot up to such high mark had
not the broader inclusiveness been grounded as the top-tier agenda of Congress and left leaderships. This paragraph delineates it more lucidly under the present contexts:
This participation of women in the active political life of country, and the formation of women’s organisation at all-India level were two landmarks in the evolution of the women’s movement. The ideas which governed women’s organisation and women’s participation in politics however did not make a break with the earlier reform, revival framework. A conflict between new needs and old perceptions was inevitable. Women’s organisations reveal the tension between confining women’s issues to social reform efforts and the compulsions from the wider society to link national liberation to the women’s movement. Participation of women in politics was a new step, yet ideologically the act was appropriated as an extension of traditional roles. (p. 113)
Chapter five, The Expanding Scope of the Women’s Movement and Communalisation of Women’s Issues, aptly revolves around the maturisation phase (1927–37) of women’s movement and its interwoven terms with the anti-colonial movement. This movement drew women’s organisations into its orbit and paved the way for an inevitable radicalisation. That development was very timely and encouraging, though the larger question of communal harmony remained unanswered in spite of few dedicated leadership interventions. Anti spirits were flamboyant and politically, too, they had virulent conceptions that finally deterred the healthy development of social movements and, in the longer course, whose losses
tolled much higher than ever anticipated. The author makes her scintillating point very absorbingly through these lines:
These trends within the women’s movement in a way sum up the entire trajectory of modern India. A professed commitment to western democratic institutions, to liberalism and nationalism was accompanied by a deep rooted desire to argue that these modern nations were actually traditional indigenous ones. In defining the “modern”, therefore a redefinition of the “traditional” was going on. The trend was present amongst both Hindus and Muslims. (p. 144)
The concluding chapter of this book—Radical Blueprints and Communal Politics: The Women’s Question, 1937–47—highlights the complex phase of modern Indian history with astute vigour. These ten years could be counted as most formative for the entire Indian sub-continent. In an organised way, India had to be a nation but, alas, its broad geography, cultural antiquities, social diversities and common past were compromised by the politics of communalism. The author’s note is quite worthwhile to mention here in this respect:
This may seem to contradict the obvious fact that there was a frequent convergence of reform and revival within both nineteenth century Hindu and Islamic reform. Traditions were reinterpreted and the past recast legitimizes women’s reform. The historical situation in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century had bower altered dramatically.
The two communities were defining themselves increasingly vis-a’-vis the “other”. The sorry state of the “self” was entirely the fault of the other. The occident no doubt still continued to dominate the idiom within which dominant discourses were constructed. But the imminent possibility of independence from colonialism made the question of hegemony of one or the other religious community over the new state more urgent than ever. (p. 181)
Throughout this book, intricacies of the Indian women’s movement are presented in distinct ways that appear candid and appropriate. Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s writing stands without any stodgy academic load or preoccupations—which otherwise has been rampant and overgrown over the years through the damaging complacency among Indian higher academic circles. Her remarkable work is a solace in this regard. Unfortunately, the burden of confused legacy is so enormous that its curtailment would need an attitude shift among the academic authors. Barring a few, most undeserving and horribly conceited writers have earned bad impressions and remarks for academic writing. At least now, a trend must be set
for original and insightful writings that can add some values to the broad world of knowledge. Palm Leaf
Publications as a start-up deserve all accolades for commissioning such a relevant book on a very crucial theme—here, too, the act is path-breaking to an extent.
The Indian women’s movement has been shaped and grown through the sociopolitical changes starting back in the late 19th century to the present date, but it remains a major loophole that economic aspects were never given the proper consideration even after the high time of capitalist movement in Indian economy 1991 onward. Here, the women’s movement should be properly aligned with the changing times, where challenges are multidimensional and complex. Interface among major academic disciplines with rational approaches are the need of hour, though in the present scenario the chances of which are minimal, considering the prevailing static appetite on Research and Development in the stream of humanities. Even more pathetically, there is no longer a mass women’s movement in India or abroad.
There are many organisations working for women’s equality in the public and private arena. But, where there were once women’s organisations with large participatory memberships, there are now bureaucratic structures run by the closed groups. Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women’s lives and has become pretentious and tired. This raises two questions—why is there so little discussion of the near disappearance of a movement that not so long ago was strong enough to bring about major changes in the social and cultural landscape?; what are the causes of
the movement’s decline?
The causes of the decline of these movements are more complicated than can be dealt with by circling the wagons. Neo-theocratic attacks have played a role in damaging some feminist projects, such as abortion rights, but the overall decline of the women’s movement has much more to do with a loss of a sense of urgency to cope with such maliciously inserted mandates.
Over the past few decades, progress has been felt for Indian women’s movements, but the overall actual state of affairs is far from desirable results. Mostly, women’s organisations are dominated by the power-groomed elites, and normally keep it away from bottom-level complications, which the vast majority in
India faces in day-to-day life. This book has specialties in this regard—historical interpretation of women’s movements along with aiming the further constructive course makes the work worthwhile for reading and getting noticed as the reference for introducing new policy measures. Maitrayee Chaudhuri has followed the events very cautiously and equally delineated them with care and precision that gives a valuable edge in favour of her deserving book. This book is worthy for readers and equally for bright book stakes…such things happen rarely in academic writing!
Atul Kumar Thakur
November 5, 2011, Saturday, New Delhi
(Published in Social Change-A journal of Council for Social Development and Sage Publications, June 2012)