Vina Mazumdar, freedom’s child

Pioneering feminist and academic, she successfully troubled the status quo

The Indian women's movement has lost two remarkable women in the course of three short months. When Lotika Sarkar passed away in February this year, the mind inevitably travelled to her ailing sister-in-arms, Vina Mazumdar, who died early on Thursday morning.

There is a poignant symmetry to this twin departure. Both women were pioneers — Sarkar in the field of law; Mazumdar, in the field of education and development studies. Both were inspired by the common project of gender equality. Both had this wonderful cigarette fume-tinted laughter — the causes they espoused may have been weighty, but there was always space for that infectious sense of fun.

This was a rare ideological partnership that needs to be celebrated. But this is also the moment to recall the life of Vina Mazumdar, freedom's daughter. It was the national movement during the fraught crescendo of partition and independence that provided Vina with her first impulse to understand, and then participate in, public causes. Political turmoil was in the air when she joined Delhi University as an undergraduate student. In her 2010 memoir, Memories of a Rolling Stone, she recalled that the Constituent Assembly was in session at that point and she would occasionally make her way to the visitors' gallery to listen to leaders holding forth on their idea of India. She was also there at India Gate to witness the Union Jack coming down and the Tricolour ascend.

The freedom struggle proved something of a lodestar. Mazumdar was to later observe that the Indian women's movement was essentially about asserting the rights women had earned through participating in the freedom struggle, it was part of the same continuum. Here was a woman shaped by pre-Independence India, who would, in turn, put her own impress on post-Independence India.

There came a point when her individual struggles as a woman and educationist broadened into a pan-Indian one when she became — at the prompting of the visionary bureaucrat J.B. Naik — the member secretary of the committee that was drafting the first report on the hidden half of the republic, its women. Wrote Mazumdar in her memoir, "My earlier struggles represented an individual woman's efforts to balance the demands of professional and familial responsibilities. The new struggle was increasingly a collective, ideological one — to rediscover the Indian nation, the world, the past, the present and the future — from the perspective of India's hidden and unacknowledged majority: poor working women in rural and urban areas."

The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, which came out in 1974, provided a 360-degree assessment of where Indian women stood a quarter of a century after Independence. For the first time, a government-appointed committee actually deconstructed tradition, interrogated the efficacy of existing legal frameworks, countered stereotypes, measured deprivations. In the process, it unleashed mutinies — both within homes and on the streets. Its subversive impact was felt even in the 22 months of silence and leg irons that was the Emergency, a few months later. Fortunately Member-Secretary Mazumdar had supporters in influential pockets of government.

The Report was a turning point in Mazumdar's life. The social centrality of gender was to be her mantra from that point onward. It informed her life as an academic and provided fuel for existence as an activist — and sometimes the two fields met in the theatre of her mind. Even as she meticulously documented the dynamics of migration and impoverishment among the rural women of Bankura district as an academic, she would work to evolve organisational stratagems to bail them out of poverty. If she, as a scholar, dissected the unfair impacts of the two-child norm promoted by the family planning lobby, she would work to undo public policy promoting it as an activist. For Mazumdar, academics was irrelevant if it was bereft of a human dimension. Today, if women's studies has carved a niche for itself — helped in part by the efforts of the Delhi-based Centre for Women's Development Studies, an institution she founded in 1980 — it was in part because of the energy and motivation of the woman who referred to herself as "the grandmother of women's studies in India".

But Mazumdar saw herself ultimately as a "trouble maker". She understood the importance of troubling the status quo — within the government, within institutions, within families, within society — in order to unleash change.

The writer is director, Women's Feature Service

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