India: Not easy for women in politics

By Monobina Gupta
Inter Press Service

 Sumitra Mitra: Positive discrimination 'did help to provide more visibility to women.'
Sumitra Mitra: Positive discrimination "did help to provide more visibility to women."

KOLKATA — Sumitra Mitra has been a Communist for more than 45 years. She has seen the party grow from its days of radical activism to its present powerful establishment phase - leading the government in West Bengal state for an uninterrupted 30 years.

Mitra, 60, is herself a twice-elected municipal corporator from Konnagar, a Kolkota (previously known as Calcutta) suburb with an overwhelming working class population. Once a thriving hub of industries, Konnagar’s factories closed down because of political unrest and a militant labour movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

"We are beneficiaries of a policy reserving 33 percent of seats for women in the local bodies," says Mitra. Eight of the 18 corporators in Konnagar are women.

The affirmative policy was first introduced in panchayats (local village councils) in 1993 through changes in the Indian constitution. Two years later, the West Bengal government introduced positive discrimination for women in municipal corporations.

"It did help to provide more visibility to women, help them have their voices heard," says Mitra. "But we still have a long journey ahead," she adds.

Gender-based reservation has not been introduced in state assemblies and in the Indian Parliament. "We are going to have to fight more to implement the 33 percent reservation bill, pending for a decade in Parliament," Mitra warns.

The parliamentary bill provides for one-third gender based reservation in state assemblies and in Parliament. Despite commitments by three major political parties, Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left Front (an alliance of communists), it has not been passed, 13 years after it was drawn up. "The truth is the men do not want the bill to get passed. They will have to give up some of the seats to women," says Mitra.

From a pro-left family, the gutsy corporator has been exposed to political struggle. Her own political life began as a member of the Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti, the women’s organisation of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), fulcrum of West Bengal’s ruling Left Front.

"In 1969 when I started working with the Samiti there was sheer political terror all around me," she recalls. Waves of political turbulence lashed West Bengal through the 1960s and 1970s, as a succession of fractious coalition governments headed by the Congress Party clashed repeatedly and brutally with the Communists.

This was also when India experienced its first armed insurrection by Naxals, the radical Left. "Caught in a cleft between terror unleashed by Congress and the Naxals, we were part of the resistance that fought the onslaught of violence. There were times when the adult males in the family were forced to go underground to escape repression of the police and political adversaries," narrates Mitra.

But the danger of being on the side of a radical opposition faded out as the Left Front government came to power. Mitra’s political life turned a corner, taking on a different dimension in 1995 when she was first elected to the Konnagar municipality.

A beneficiary of gender-based affirmative action, she believes it has the potential to change lives of women and empower them. "After all women hold up half the sky," she says, quoting Mao Zedong’s famous line.

At the grassroots or local governments like panchayats and municipal corporations, elected women representatives are making a difference. Their concerns are quite different from the priorities of their male counterparts. Women panchayat leaders, much more than men, focus on schools, teachers, tube wells, primary health centres - issues directly impinging on the lives of the community.

A sample study of panchayats in West Bengal and Rajasthan conducted by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Dufflo of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab says, "Women invest far more in infrastructure that relates to rural women's concerns (water and roads in West Bengal, water in Rajasthan). Women are more politically active in village councils with a female leader."

According to Mitra, "In our municipality we are popularising self help groups (SHG) that help women to earn. Increasingly they seem to want some sort of financial autonomy, instead of turning all the time to the males in the family, for money."

Since the Communists came to power, the Samiti has made SHGs one of its main area of activities. Mitra and her female party colleagues in the municipal corporation have successfully mobilised the local women.

Women representatives are at an advantage with women in the communities they are representing, says Mitra. "The women talk much more freely with us, share with us their problems - something they would never with male corporators," she adds.

Affirmative action has given this tireless political worker, who arrived in Konnagar as a 17-year-old bride, a larger political canvas to work on. But the going is tough. Steeped in patriarchy, India’s political parties, across the line including the Communists, do not make it easy for women to assert their identity as women.

Two years ago the CPI-M brought out a document, which read like a complaint sheet against men in the party. "Communist families should discourage conformity to stereotypical roles expected of women, particularly of newly-wed women, of covering heads, taking to purdah (veil,) shouldering the main burdens of domestic responsibility," said the document titled Women’s Issues and Tasks, circulated by the party.

Mitra, as a disciplined member of the CPI-M, does not want to air her grievances about the indifference of male comrades to the party’s women’s organisation. But she does repeat: "We (women) still have a long way to travel."

15 April 2009 — Return to cover.