History of NFIW's Formation

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The National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), which was formed in 1954 and brought together a number of progressive individuals and organisations committed to women’s equality. In the years to come, it emerged as the largest, pan-national mass women’s platform, which significantly shaped the women’s movement in the decades following India’s independence.

The history of the formation of NFIW goes back to the pre-independence period, and was conditioned by a set of national and international developments. Specifically, it can be traced to the birth of several regional mass women’s organisations in the early 1940s, notably the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (MARS) in Bengal, Lok Istri Sabha in Punjab, along with Andhra Mahila Sangham, Delhi Mahila Sangh and Kerala Mahila Sangham. These organisations were set up largely at the initiative of Communist women, and became the core units that later constituted the NFIW. These regional organisations emerged in response to the Japanese bombing of the eastern parts of India during the Second World War, and the concurrent famine and food crisis. The first organisation to come up was MARS in Bengal, whose members worked to secure relief to the people affected by the Bengal famine, by organising continuous agitations for opening of fair price shops, release of food stocks from the hoarders, and setting up kitchens, medical aid and rehabilitation centres. Following MARS, efforts were made by Communist women in other states to draw women in political campaigns on food. Later, at the time of partition, they also worked for the relief and rehabilitation of riot victims.

These organisations or samitis gave a radically new direction to the women’s movement of the time. In the 1920s and 1930s, the nationalist movement, dominated by the Indian National Congress and led by M K Gandhi had played an instrumental role in drawing women into the freedom struggle, several of whom later became pioneers in setting up women’s organisations. The largest of these organisations was the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), which was founded in Poona in 1927. In a few years, it expanded to have branches all over India and worked extensively on education and social reform initiatives.1 In the pre independence period, AIWC was an umbrella front of women’s organisations and almost all progressive women, whether affiliated to the Congress, Socialist, Communist or Labour Parties, were part of it. However, its leadership largely remained in the hands of elite women, who sought to confine its membership to upper middle class women. In contrast, the regional samitis brought streams of ‘toiling women’ into the movement, including peasants, agricultural labourers, working class women and wives of workers living in urban slums. In fact, members of the samitis appealed to the AIWC leadership for the inclusion and membership of the larger mass of women within the organisation.2 Also, while these samitis organised relief, sometimes in cooperation with the AIWC, they also took up protest demonstrations and gheraos to Assemblies and Collectors’ offices, demanding government’s accountability and intervention. For instance, in 1943, MARS organised a hunger march of 5000 women to the Assembly, which forced the government to distribute rice stocks as well as start more ration shops and relief kitchens. These samitis were thus much more ‘political’ in their approach.3

Despite the many joint areas of work between these samitis and the AIWC, the ideological rift which appeared between them grew deeper after independence, as the AIWC got much more institutionalised with government aid. This prepared the ground for the making of an alternate national mass platform. What worked as a catalyst was the formation of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in Paris, in December 1945.4 It soon began contacts with organisations all over the world to seek their affiliation.5 AIWC was the first one to be approached in India, but it refused the proposal of affiliation. When, in 1953, an invitation came from WIDF for a Congress at Copenhagen, a delegation of 25 women of diverse political shades and organisations went and participated. This was the first time such a large group of Indian women had gone abroad for an international women’s conference. On coming back, many of them felt the need to build a platform which would take forward the message of the Congress, specifically the Copenhagen Declaration on the Rights of Women.6 NFIW was born with their initiative, at its first Congress in Calcutta on June 4-6, 1954, with 35 constituent organisations and a membership of 129, 267.

1 For details, see Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray, Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s Conference, 1927-2002, Manohar: Delhi, 2003.
2 At the AIWC Conference at Akola in 1946, MARS members proposed a reduction of its annual membership fee from Rs 3 to 4 annas and a restructuring of its constitution to allow membership of poorer women and other organisations. But these proposals were not accepted.
3 This was pointed out even by Ashoka Gupta, one of the Presidents of AIWC, in her memoirs. See Ashoka Gupta, In the Path of Service, Memories of a Changing Century. Stree: Kolkata, 2005, pp. 83-84.
4 Following the end of the Second World War on May 9, 1945, large sections of women who had suffered during the war, came together to build this broad platform for peace, and defence of rights of women and children.
5 Three organisations, namely MARS, Golden Rocks Nadar Sangam of Madras and Punjab Lok Istri Sabha got affiliated with the WIDF soon after its formation.

6 The Copenhagen Congress adopted an overarching statement on rights of women, which included equal rights in employment, equal pay for equal work, equal rights to social insurance, equal rights to land and property, and in relation to marriage and children, state protection of mother and child, maternity leave and maternity benefits and right to education and vote, among others.

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