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'What civil society said 25 years ago has become law today'

By Rashme Sehgal

Civil society has managed to push through far-reaching legislations on dowry, domestic violence, sex ratios and other issues related to women, says women’s rights activist Kamla Bhasin. But, however progressive, legislation alone cannot be expected to change patriarchal mindsets

Kamla BhasinKamla Bhasin is a renowned feminist activist and gender trainer in South Asia. She has written extensively on gender issues. Most notable among her publications are Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, co-authored by Ritu Menon, Rutgers University Press, 1998, and What is Patriarchy?, Kali for Women, 1993. 

To what do you attribute the increasing clout of civil society?

The main reason for its growing clout is that it has succeeded in empowering larger and larger cross-sections of citizens. Take the example of the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and how it has succeeded in providing employment to millions of people across the country. This did not happen overnight. It came about because of sustained agitation which was launched in the 1960s and resulted in the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act being passed in 1972. Once this was passed, it was decided that a similar Act would be passed in other states as well. Over 100 organisations under the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) came together to press for a nationwide scheme. 

But this was not the only issue that they were pressing for. NAPM has been pressing for better facilities for dam oustees; they continue to demand a better relief package for victims of the Bhopal tragedy, just as they have been supporting Sharmila Irom in the northeast. Sharmila has been on a fast for the last seven years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. 

The National Advisory Council (NAC), with members like Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, was set up by the UPA government led by Congress President Sonia Gandhi during its earlier tenure, so that the powerful voices of its members could be heard in government. In fact, the NAC was seen by many to be the nation’s primary advocacy body. The NAC helped consolidate development advocacy in a manner not seen in recent times and, before Sonia Gandhi’s resignation, I would say that the NAC was seen to even carry a political momentum in the way it went about doing its work. 

The minimum agenda of the UPA government in more recent Lok Sabha elections has also been influenced by civil society. The government recognised that speaking on behalf of civil society organisations helped it win votes. 

But not all civil society organisations are promoting equitable development.

No, of course not. There are several right-wing organisations led by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) which have been demanding the building of a Ram temple. In no sense can we say that they are following a secular ideology. 

Civil society organisations can be characterised by contradictory demands because they include both extreme right-wing, left-wing and middle-of-centre organisations. There are all manner of religious organisations functioning under this banner. Look at the most recent issue of decriminalisation of homosexuality under Section 377 which, again, is being supported and opposed by all manner of organisations. In no sense can we say that civil society operates in a uniform fashion over different issues. 

I would say that they have succeeded in building up strong centres of influence. The better organised the group is, the more influential its voice. Take the case of Swami Ramdev who has succeeded in mobilising a huge amount of public opinion, so much so that no government in power can afford to ignore what he says. Even the judiciary can no longer ignore public sentiment. 

We have been fighting to get justice for Sikhs killed in the 1984 massacre. It was because of sustained public pressure that Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler were denied tickets in the last Lok Sabha elections. But there is a constant tug-of-war going on between these different groups. For example, Christians, Muslims and civil society groups came together to oppose right-wing forces when Christians were being targeted last year in Kandhamal, in Orissa. Now, the religious groups have closed ranks and are opposing civil society groups over the issue of Section 377. We can’t agree on all issues. All we can hope to do is build up broad alliances on some issues. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to women-related issues, civil society has not had complete success.

What civil society was saying 25 years ago has become law today. This is true for a whole spectrum of laws on the issue of women’s rights, including cases of domestic violence and dowry. Earlier, people would say: Why are you airing a family’s dirty linen in public? Today, all the different women-related ministries are working on these issues. 

Twenty years ago, we were warning about the declining sex ratio and look at the startling situation today. Our lack of success on this issue is simply because the development paradigm being pursued today is completely capitalist-oriented. It may sound simplistic but the government is giving SEZs (special economic zones) land at subsidised rates. Now, the majority of land is owned by men and not women. As the price of land goes up, it is women who may end up becoming dispensable objects. Men are now demanding a higher dowry, so families do not want girls anymore. 

But you have to admit that it has failed to really impact the individual woman’s acceptance of a patriarchal system and roles…

I don’t think it has failed to impact an individual woman in such a comprehensive manner. After all, the law is a tool that has to be used by society. Legislation, in many cases, is quite progressive but it cannot be expected to change the mindset of every individual. Just look at where our daughters are today, in comparison with our own position 40 years ago. But this is not true for girls across all sections of society. The mindset of everyone has not changed. We still have an occasional judge saying that if a woman is raped it was because she was wearing jeans! 

To look at the overall situation today, I would say that if many of our structures, including patriarchy, continue to remain entrenched it is because they help reinforce our corporate industrial base. For example, patriarchy remains hand-in-glove with the beauty industry. If girls become anorexic, it is because of the demands being made on them by the beauty industry, and the problem is that adolescents and young women do get influenced by all this. We are not islands, and patriarchy keeps changing its face in very subtle ways. Why is the advertising industry so important? It influences young people to behave in a certain way. 

Can you elaborate on this a bit more?

Look at the kind of society we have become. We have grown so individualistic that we have ended up destroying our community spirit. We no longer like to fight for anything. Even our resident welfare associations no longer speak up on issues. The question to be asked is: Why have we become so de-politicised? Why have we become so crassly individualistic? 

A son will not talk to his mother living in the same house, but he will talk to 500 people on Facebook. Families are talking less and less to each other but getting more active with their social networking. 

What would you say are the major weaknesses of the civil society movement?

Many of the issues that have been raised have become completely mainstream. What started off being influenced by Gandhian ethics has ended up becoming one more (instance of) bureaucracy. Let us not forget that the government will not give money to any NGO that does not toe the line. Look at the way Dr Binayak Sen was jailed for two-and-a-half years without bail simply because the BJP government believed he was challenging the way they were handling the whole Naxalite issue. 

There is a huge difference between an NGO and a people’s movement because the latter does not take money from the government. Activist Medha Patkar remains fearless because she is not the recipient of government funding. This is not to criticise all organisations. Look at the way our struggles with RTI and its implementation are continuing. There will always be a dichotomy between state and people’s power, and this will continue.

What role do you see the media playing in increasing the clout of civil society?

It’s difficult to generalise about the media as a whole because even within the media there are different kinds of people. There are some sections of the media that owe their allegiance to the BJP and its right-wing ideology. Then there is a whole section of the media that goes the whole hog in supporting the corporations. Basically, I would say, the progressive media supports progressive groups while the more conservative media elements support conservative civil society groups. I think the media industry needs to develop a more pro-people policy and steer away from its focus on making larger and larger profits. Overall, of course, the media cannot afford to completely avoid focusing on the development agenda and those who represent it. 

Infochange News & Features, November 2009