Towards the end of 1974, the Indian government released an important document. Entitled (space needed)Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, it was the first post-independence attempt to judge how women had fared in the new, free India. Initially, like most reports, it almost did not happen – the government appointed committee to put it together had been unable to do much and all its members had resigned. Then, two enlightened men in government, Nurul Hasan, the then Education Minister, and J.P.Naik, an eminent educationist, put pressure on Indira Gandhi and persuaded her to give the committee an extension, and bring in a new Member Secretary, Vina Mazumdar. Teacher, historian, researcher, administrator, feminist Vina Mazumdar, or Vinadi as she is affectionately known, was somewhat bewildered at how to deal with this major responsibility, but then, characteristically, she took the bull by the horns, and commissioned research studies, fixed gruelling travel schedules for herself and the committee, and within a year, put together a solid, comprehensive document.
In her late eighties today, Vinadi looks back at this time with amusement and affection. A year ago, she was persuaded to put together a memoir, ‘Memories of a Rolling Stone’. When it was launched in Delhi, the hall was packed to overflowing with people from different walks of life: Vinadi had once been a university teacher, later she had travelled abroad to study, she then worked in the University Grants Commission, she was centrally involved in the setting up of women’s studies in India, and later in life, she founded the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, an institute for research of which she was, for many years, the Director. At the back of all of this, lay a strong streak of activism. Reports and photos of the women’s movement in the seventies and eighties will show Vinadi at the forefront of many struggles for change. It was under her aegis, at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, that she made the space for one of the early women’s groups, Samta (Equality) out of which grew the journal Manushi.
Asked to describe herself, Vinadi laughs. ‘My passport,’ she says, ‘describes me as a social scientist but very few people know me as that.’ She calls herself an activist, a gender specialist, a feminist, a trouble maker (this is the epithet she loves the best!) and mother of women’s studies in India. All of these appellations have more than a little truth in them. What they don’t say however is that Vinadi has always been outspoken and direct, committed and excitable. And they don’t tell you of the difficulties she faced in being a mother to her children and a wife to her husband, and the strain her multi-faceted life imposed on her relationships. Vinadi herself speaks franky about this, citing the tensions in personal relationships as one of the things that happen when women become deeply involved in political causes.
“Vinadi had once been a university teacher, later she had travelled abroad to study, she then worked in the University Grants Commission, she was centrally involved in the setting up of women’s studies in India, and later in life, she founded the Centre for Women’s Development Studies.”
For the nascent women’s movement in India in the mid-seventies, Towards Equality became something of a Bible. Its findings, that violence had only increased, that workforce participation had worsened, that women were economically worse off – all of which were supported by another similar and equally important Report Shram Shakti, led by Ela Bhat, founder of SEWA – came as a shock. It wasn’t only women activists who were surprised. Vinadi speaks of how humbling the experience of learning was, how working on the Report, and meeting with poor women across the country, shattered the image that many middle class women hold of being enlightened and in Vinadi’s case, being ‘daughters of independence’.
Once the Report was ready, the members of the committee and their supporters all realized that if the government got even the slightest whiff of its negative content, they could easily stop its release. So a silent conspiracy was entered into, and a press conference was called where the findings were presented before the government got to see it, with the report being simultaneously released on the same day. Since that day, fearing the deviousness of committed women, the government has not commissioned another Report of this nature!
Women like Vinadi are rare these days – they’re women of my mother’s generation, brave, strong, straddling the domestic and private worlds and contributing equally to both. They’ve been an inspiration to many younger feminists, and yet, for many of them, as for Vinadi, the work they have done in their lives is not something they class as major. So, if you ask them to write about themselves, they’ll always say: ‘But I’ve not done anything much in my life’. So also with Vinadi. One of her friends called her a rolling stone, and the name stuck. Yet, unlike rolling stones that gather no moss, Vinadi and women like her carry with them a whole history which needs to be written into the pages of what is known as historical research.