NFIW and the Communist Party of India (CPI)

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Communist women played an active role in the formation of NFIW, much as they were the force behind the regional samitis. However, from the very beginning, the founders of the Federation made conscious efforts to keep the organisation as a non-partisan, broad-based, mass platform, which would draw in large numbers of women from all political shades, except those allied to the communal forces. Its Constitution, which was drafted after long deliberations at the First Congress at Calcutta, clearly outlined a non sectarian, federal structure, having scope to include both individuals and organisations (See Appendix I). Like in the regional samitis, the Congress itself saw participation from a number of prominent non-Communist women, who later took on important positions within the Federation, such as founder members Pushpamoyee Bose and Anasuya Gyanchand (Gyanchand became the first Joint Secretary). 1 A number of NFIW leaders such as Aruna Asaf Ali, Kapila Khandwala, Aruna Munsi, Manmohini Sehgal, Nirupama Rath, Dina Pathak and Aruna Roy have never been members of any political party. Since the beginning, NFIW’s large membership has always been many times more the number of women members of the Communist Party of India (CPI). This has also to do with the fact that in the post independence era, there were much fewer mass women’s organisations and practically no non-governmental or autonomous organisations, and it was therefore much easier to attract women activists from diverse backgrounds.
The CPI’s stance towards NFIW has always been of support, but with non-interference. In the beginning, CPI members were not unanimously agreed about having a separate women’s organisation, especially trade union leaders such as B T Randive and S A Dange. These comrades preferred that women should participate only in existing mass fronts such as trade unions, kisan sabhas or student organisations. Support however came from comrades EMS Namboodiripad and Rajeswara Rao. 2 Namboodiripad was asked to prepare a document for a discussion in the party on the need for a separate women’s mass organisation. “That first document… included issues such as the need for public baths and public lavatories for women in rural areas, among other needs of women in their daily lives. This document used to be sarcastically referred to by many militant leaders of trade unions as the ‘latrine document’.”3

Ideology and Scope

Despite the resistance, the founder members of NFIW stood firm in their conviction that women’s issues demand a political organisation, and progressively brought into the fold large sections of women from middle and working classes, from rural and urban India, from different regions, faiths and cultures. Hajrah Begum, one of the founder members of the Federation, recalls having a discussion on this issue with Renu Chakravartty, Dr Achamamba and few others, who all strongly agreed on the need for a women’s platform. Justifying the formation, she said: “Women have to fight for their rights as women, which are denied to them as human beings – they put her on Sati, they kill a girl when she is born… there are problems which affect all women….”4 What united them thus was a commitment to women’s equality in social, economic and political spheres, within a democratic, secular and socialist society. The resolutions passed in the first Congress, many of which drew upon the Copenhagen Declaration of Rights of Women, set the tone for its work in the early decades, such as demands related to women’s employment, including of working women, peasant women and agricultural workers, better health and educational facilities, and support to bills related to Hindu personal laws and abolition of dowry. The Federation combined mass political campaigns for social and legal reform with constructive work such as adult literacy and training centres, and free legal aid for victims of atrocities.

As a mass organisation, largely comprising women from the poorer sections, NFIW saw inextricable links between women’s struggles for equality and larger socio-economic struggles of peasants and working classes for equality and dignity. Women’s oppression, whether in the private or public sphere, was mostly understood in relation to feudal and capitalist structures.5 Within such a perspective, the question of employment gained particular importance. The Federation believed that economic independence was a necessary precondition for women’s emancipation and challenged the prevalent norms of sexual division of labour, which kept women confined to home and its drudgery. In this regard, it demanded and struggled for women to have access to more employment opportunities, and equally, fought against the then prevalent discriminatory practices of employers against women. Also concerned with decent working conditions, the Federation advocated for minimum and equal wages and maternity benefits. Taking up the question of peasant women, NFIW activists also joined ongoing struggles on land reforms in late 1960s and early 1970s. Much like the regional samitis, NFIW also gave an important attention to food shortages and price rise of essential commodities and this issue was taken up at a massive scale in almost all the states since the 1960s, with signature campaigns, agitations and marches to Collectors, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister. The much cited anti price rise joint movement in Bombay in the early 1970s took shape at the initiative of NFIW.6

Along with addressing economic issues, the Federation focused on issues of women’s inequality within spheres of family and community and lobbied extensively on Hindu women’s equal rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. NFIW leader, Renu Chakravartty, who was a Member of Parliament, gave passionate speeches arguing in favour of the Hindu Code Bill, and opposing thus views, held mostly by male members in Parliament, that the Bill would destroy Hindu family and tradition. In addition, NFIW organised concerted mass campaigns on the ground, collecting signatures and holding meetings with women, often in cooperation with other organisations such as the AIWC, which helped built pressure in getting these bills passed. One of the issues that the Federation pushed strongly was for the inclusion of the clause on divorce by mutual consent in the Bill.

Enactment and enforcement of social legislations has been a long standing demand of the women’s movement. It is now widely acknowledged that any attempts at codification carry with it a force of homogenisation in favour of the majority, obliterating diverse, and sometimes progressive social practices. These challenges hold forth also for the Hindu Personal Laws. Notwithstanding, at that point the Bills were seen as a radical way forward in institutionalising equality for Hindu women and generally helped open up the debate on these issues. Therefore, the Federation whole heartedly expressed its support to the same. Later it also fought for amendments in these legislations, such as those in the Hindu Succession Law in 2004.

In the first decade itself, NFIW became active on the campaign for abolition of dowry. Renu Chakravartty had introduced a private member’s bill on this issue in 1952, much before the government introduced it in 1959. When the bill was officially brought in, the Federation built a mass campaign to galvanise support for it. It also pushed for necessary amendments within it such as making dowry a cognizable offence. Most of its demands on amendments within the dowry legislation were later advocated by women’s groups in a joint campaign in the early 1980s.

Although in the initial decades, NFIW actively worked on women’s equality in all spheres, but it was somehow wary of describing itself as a ‘feminist’ organisation.7 This was because it adhered to the popular perception of feminism as being ‘anti men’, which was perhaps related to the fact that such a perception was prevalent in most socialist countries and platforms such as the WIDF. At the same time, the material category of ‘class’ was the most privileged lens for analysing gendered oppression. In the later decades, as new organisations came up, including those aligned to the Left, which opened fresh debates on patriarchy and culture, on conceptual relations between gender, caste and tribe, on sexuality and violence etc, NFIW gained from these perspectives and broadened its focus. For instance, while the Federation had been investigating and pursuing individual cases of rape and sexual assault, including of Dalit and tribal women and those in custody, it later actively participated in joint campaigns on legal changes in rape law. NFIW leader and MP, Geeta Mukherjee pushed for necessary amendments in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983 within the Rajya Sabha.

Over the years, the suspicion of the term feminism was rightfully discarded. To this end, in 2003, a pamphlet titled “Feminism” was brought out by the Federation, primarily for the grassroots activists, and in order to update them on the “richness and variety of understanding, if not agreement, that feminist movements have thrown up”.8 The pamphlet highlights that there is no one feminism and that “feminisms” must be spoken of in the plural. In this regard, the strand of feminism that NFIW now adheres to, is one that addresses gender in its multifaceted intersections with other structural formations and inequalities, whether of class, caste, race, sexuality, religion or state. It advocates thus a praxis that links women’s rights and struggles for a dignified life with struggles of the unorganised and organised workers, peasants, dalits, adivasis, urban poor, and all other marginalised sections. Such an understanding also illuminates its definition of ‘violence’, an important contemporary discourse. In popular understanding, violence is often equated with physical, sexual and more visible forms of assault, but the Federation understands it to also include the more invisible, structural forms of oppressions. The “denial of fundamental rights and justice” is seen as violence.9

Patriarchal cultures that sanction oppressions against women, especially in the domain of the family, have also come under special focus. In 1994, which the United Nations (UN) declared as the ‘Year of the Family’, Vidya Munsi wrote a pamphlet titled ‘Democratise the Family’. It noted: “We live in a state which is democratic and whose constitution recognises the full equality of all its citizens… We aspire to an egalitarian society free from all forms of exploitation. However, the Indian family, whether joint or nuclear, is mainly patriarchal… Only a democratic family, based on relations of equality and mutual respect among its different members, free from the hierarchy of age and gender, can successfully overcome such tensions.10

From the very beginning NFIW laid immense stress on building a joint platform and worked together with other women’s organisations in India. At the same time, NFIW was connected with the worldwide women’s movement, largely through its affiliation to the WIDF. 11 It organised and supported a number of struggles for liberation, such as in Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Africa and Palestine, and release of political prisoners such as Angela Davis. Its Congresses were always attended by international delegates affiliated to the WIDF and other activists. For instance, Pauline Lumumba, wife of Patrice Lumumba and Hortensia Allende, wife of Salvadore Allende came to NFIW to share on the situation in their country. In keeping this spirit of international solidarity, the Federation is one of the first organisations in India to have popularised March 8. It began observing the day from 1955, although its constituent units in Bengal and Delhi were observing it from 1943 and 1944 respectively. This was therefore decades before the UN declared the day in 1975, which was itself an outcome of a proposal by the WIDF.

1 For instance, MARS had within its fold many well known non-Communist women like Rani Mahalanobis and Leela Mazumdar. Noted writer, Indira Devi Chaudhrani became its first president.
2 Namboodiripad’s views on the matter are described in his article, ‘Women’s Movement for Democracy’, which he wrote a year after the First NFIW Congress. He writes: “The strengthening of the democratic women’s movement as represented by the Federation is of tremendous importance … Unfortunately, however, this movement has not received the attention which it deserves at the hands of the democratic movement. The trade union and kisan movements as well as the democratic political parties, including the Communist Party, have failed to take initiative in recruiting, educating and organising tens of thousands of women… even when the democratic women’s organisations have sprung up in the various provinces and have joined together in the National Federation of Indian Women, the significance of this new development in the entire democratic movement was woefully missed by them… Our tasks in the present stage, we have many a time repeated, are anti feudal and anti imperialist… and, it extends also to the sphere of struggle for equal rights of women; EMS Namboodiripad, ‘Women’s Movement for Democracy’, New Age, Vol V, No 2, February 1956.
3 Vidya Munsi, NFIW: A Brief History, NFIW Publication, 2008.
4 Hajrah Begum, Oral Interview, Nehru Memorial Museum Library (NMML), September 19, 1999.
5 Such a position is described in the following words: “…Communist women have always looked upon the struggle of kisans for land, for wages, for their freedom from serfdom and bonded labour, as being close to the women’s fight for liberation from barbaric feudal customs such as purdah, child marriage, dowry, wife beating, torture and atrocities on women as inferior beings of society as well as the unequal customs in marriage, inheritance etc.”; Renu Chakravartty, Communists in Indian Women’s Movement:1940-50, PPH: Delhi, 1980, p. 220.
6 Manju Gandhi, ‘Anti Price Rise Movement’, 20th Anniversary Special, NFIW Publication, 1972.
7 The term feminism has been in much discussion within Indian scholarship (See Mary E John, ‘Feminism in India and the West: Recasting a Relationship’ in Maitrayee Chaudhuri, Feminism in India, Kali for Women and Women Unlimited: Delhi, 2004). NFIW was resistant to using this term. Many leaders in their speeches and writings referred to this position. For instance, the NFIW Bulletin on 20th anniversary says, “Ours is not a feminist movement. Our fight is not directed against men but against the social, economic and political institutions that exploit both men women. Our programme of attaining for our women full human dignity and winning for them their rights as mothers, workers and citizens, is inseparable from the struggle of our toiling people for democracy, secularism, socialism and peace. None of the problems that affect the exploited humanity of India or the peace loving people of the world who struggle for national liberation, against foreign aggression and racism and for world peace fall outside the scope of our organisation.”; Primla Loomba, Editorial, 20th Anniversary Special, NFIW Publication, 1974. Similarly the Bulletin brought out on completion of 30 years of NFIW says, “Our outlook rejected the feminist stand that man was the main oppressor of women. Rather we looked upon men as our allies and we had to get them on our side for the common cause of building a life of dignity and happiness for women, children and the common people”; ‘The NFIW is Born – An Organisation of a New type’, Towards Equality: 30 Years of NFIW, NFIW Publication, 1984.
8 Nivedita Menon, Feminism, NFIW Publication, 2003, Preface.
9 This was the title of NFIW’s dharna during November 25-December 16, 2013, which demanded 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in the Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.
10 Vidya Munsi, Democratise the Family: Protect and Expand its Rights, NFIW Publication, 1994

11 At various points, Indian leaders were elected to senior positions of the WIDF. Aruna Asaf Ali was elected Vice President, Pushpamoyee Bose as a Bureau member and many others served in the Council and as Secretaries. At present, Annie Raja, NFIW General Secretary, is one of the Vice-Presidents of WIDF. 

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