ROLE OF WOMEN IN REVITALISING THE CULTURE AND ECONOMY OF THIS COUNTRY
I am very pleased that on the occassion of its sixth international and twenty-first national conference, the Bharat Vikas Parishad has seen fit to bring together a galaxy of intellectuals and persons of integrity in public life to inform us all about and to discuss among ourselves, various issues which affect and impact upon the culture of family, society and the nation as a whole. This effort could not have happened a day too soon for me. Far too often in the distant and and not so distant past, our nation and her societies have been overtaken by events, causing irreparable damage and indescribable misery only because the leadership at all levels has all too often failed to - a) project the present into the future which means to forsee and envision the possible consequences of present happenings; b) failed to see or comprehend warning signals sent out by certain events; c) failed to study and/or take seriously this nation’s past, her history, to be inspired to act and to be informed so as to avert similar occurences and d) simply lacked the skills and the ability to forestall or deal effectively with these events. I do not need to give specific examples for each one of the above mentioned shortcomings. Indian history is replete with instances of the comprehensive failure of leadership at all levels of national life.
In the near past, we were unprepared for the British occupation of India, for the consequences of the support extended to the khilafat movement, for the consequences of ignoring and sidelining Ambedkar during the pre-independence years, for the trauma of partition (which, our leadership of the times told us, was inevitable), for the brazen usurpation of the leadership of the independence movement from Gandhiji by the westernised and outward looking from among the leaders within the Indian National Congress and the hijacking of post-independent India’s national agenda by the marxist and anti-hindu intellectual establishment. This nation paid and continues to pay a very heavy price for all the short-comings mentioned above in our societal and political leadership particularly with regard to the events immediately preceding and following August 1947. Eight-hundred years of repeated invasions first by muslim invaders and later by european colonisers disrupted our communities, uprooted our societies, bad-mouthed our traditions and weakened our identity as a nation-civilization.
Today our society faces its most serious threat yet - a threat to its most fundamental unit and the very basis of our civilization - the institutions of marriage and family. And these institutions are being threatened through our women. There are forces at work which are seeking to alienate our women from their culture, their traditions, their family and from their fundamental identity, the family - all in the name of empowering them. The nature of woman and the place of womanhood in the Indian civilization is a subject as deep as the oceans and as vast. But for today, I have been asked to speak on the role of women in revitalising the economy and the culture of this country.
For the moment let us set aside the role of women and focus instead on the issue of revitalising our economy and culture. I will come to the role of women a little later. Let us take the economy first. And let us see the place that women occupy in the economy of this nation. But before we do that I would like to pose two questions before you all. Is it right to look at the economy of this nation in isolation from other aspects of national life, particularly culture and the civilizational ethos; and is it right to look at the role of women in this nation’s life, in isolation, severing her from the context of the family and society? Women do not form a community on their own, much as marxist feminists would like them to, and neither do men. Therefore when we set ourselves the task of analysing any aspect of our society or nation, or any issue concerning us, we must involve both men and women in the process. There is this pernicious tendency of involving the woman not in the analytical process along with the man, and not in the policy or decision making process but only in the process of implementation. Women are ‘partners’ only in implementing the agenda that men have devised.
I object to marxist feminists’ moral relativism and their calling upon our women to walk out of their homes by telling them that it is the patriarchal institutions of marriage and family which are systemically and by their very nature oppressive. They are now campaigning that the surest path to liberation from this oppression is to reject these institutions, and seek wherever possible, redress through the legal-judicial mechanism. But I also object on two grounds to some men telling us that the surest way to cure society of today’s ills is for women to stay at home just as I object to the prescriptive 33% reservation in all political, elected bodies as a means for empowering women. Why 33%? Why not 18%, 40%, 50% or even 65%? And yet this nation has accepted this 33% as a given and all debate on this issue somehow never raises this question - why 33%. It is typical of the ad hoc ism that characterises any policy measure directed at social justice. I am also not convinced that 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha is an end in itself. Reservation for women in the Lok Sabha throws up more questions than solutions.
I think all such prescriptive slogans are self-centered and motivated and intended to protect the status quo.
We should understand firstly that the dualisms of the role of man and woman as provider/caretaker, and that of workplace/home are recent developments in our society and it is these dualisms which cause the palpable tension between our men and women. This tension is caused by the fact that men and women no longer perceive themselves to be complementary in their nature and roles within the family and outside. Both men and women see the woman as competing with the man for resources, roles and power. Let us then first see what we were and what we are today and whether it is possible to bring about an attitudinal change by correcting these distortions.
At this juncture I wish to acknowledge with gratitude that Dr. M.D.Srinivas of the Centre For Policy Studies, Chennai, gave me some very useful insights into our traditional social, religious and political arrangements. Let us first see what we were as a nation-civilization. All historical records - Megasthenes, Fa Hien, Hieun Tsan, Al Beruni, and even the British records of as late as the 18th century speak of a nation whose societies were materially prosperous, with an abundance of everything - of rivers, of sunshine, of natural resources, of gold and silver, copper and steel, of cattle and humans, of food and cloth, of talent and skills, of culture and religion. From their records it is evident that we had everything and we had them in abundance and in plenty.
Because we are talking of revitalising the economy of this country, I would like to dwell a little longer on certain aspects of the economy of Tamil societies as recent as in late 18th century. Scholars at the Center For Policy Studies, Chennai, studied both the British records and the original Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts recording the economic activity of nearly 2000 villages in and around Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu. These manuscripts were maintained by the villages themselves and the British compiled their records by translating these manuscripts into English. How many of us know, indeed how many scholars have bothered to study the traditional arrangements of our societies before the British decided to ‘civilise’ and ‘organise’ us? How many of us know that those whom we label ‘dalits’ today dwelt in the largest homes of these localities or that their share and their claims to the produce of the lands would be among the largest of those living in these localities? How many of us know that even in the not so fertile lands of the region around Chengalpattu, the native genius and the skills inherited by our people generation after generation produced 2.5 tons of paddy per hectare, in the 17th century, which compares well with some of the best yields around the world? And this state of material abundance and prosperity would be true of societies (each in its own way), of the whole of this nation. It was possible to achieve as a matter of tradition, this level of excellence and prosperity because our societies were stable and they all enjoyed as a sacred right, near total autonomy in the management of their resources and in the administration of their affairs. I will come back in just a while to this issue of stability of our societies and their autonomy.
It is very important for all us to know this because we really cannot and should not revitalise this nation’s economy imitating western models; we have to re-kindle our civilizational memories of how we administered ourselves and what we had achieved, if this revitalisation has to involve the ordinary people of our societies in whom the skills abide and who are today marginalised. British records of this nation’s economy even as recently as in the 18th century state that India’s share of world trade was 18% while that of America was 2% and that of Britain was less than 5%. India’s share of world manufacturing output in 1750 was a colossal 24.5% while that of Europe and America combined was only 18.2%. But within a hundred years of British occupation of India, by 1880, India’s share of the world’s manufacturing output had come down to 2.8%. Our societies had been uprooted, our villages impoverished and denuded and our people had been displaced by hunger and acute poverty, from their traditional habitats. The man-woman dichotomy within the family and society which is causing the tension today should be seen against the backdrop of this disruption of our peoples and societies.
In the last 800 years, this country has been repeatedly invaded by fanatic religious marauders. These invasions have traumatised our peoples, and disrupted traditional norms of inter-community relationships within a locality. But these invasions which inflicted unimaginable misery and suffering on our women, yet never destabilised our societies the way the British would do centuries later. This was because even when our societies were incapable of effectively dealing with these muslim fanatics, the intellectual leadership in our societies never justified the invasions, never sought to discredit our religion and religious practices and traditions, and did not bad-mouth the norms and values by which societies arranged their affairs. This is important because as long as the intellectual strength and energy of societies remain rooted within, societies will always find ways to survive, or revive.
Invaders came and went or came and stayed, but they had very little to do with the functioning of our societies. And this was so even at the time of Alexander’s attempt to invade and ‘conquer’ India. Wars would be fought among local kings or between our kings and the invaders, but our societies were left undisturbed; our people went about their daily tasks with no threat to their being. Megasthenes records the functioning of our societies even in times of war, thus:“Tillers of the soil even when battle is waging in the neighbourhood are undisturbed by any sense of danger; for, the combatants allowed those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. The husbandmen being exempted from fighting (and this means there was no conscription of the cultivators although it doesn’t mean cultivators don’t fight), and other public services. They devoted the whole of their time to tillage. Nor would an enemy coming upon a husbandman at work on his land, do him any harm; for men of this class, being regarded as public beneficiaries, are protected from all injury. The land thus remaining unravaged and producing heavy crops ......” and so goes the description of stable Indian societies even in times of war.
There was thus a remarkable stability to our societies because even wars were fought on the basis of dharma; and causing injury to women and the ordinary people of any society was construed to be a gross violation of dharma. In these societies all economic activity was undertaken by the whole family, the whole community. Entire families, entire communities would be involved in that work. There was no man-woman divide in the work done and no accentuated man-woman role. This dichotomy of man as the earner of money or the ‘provider’, and the woman as the stay-at-home ‘caretaker’ did not exist. The dichotomy or dualism of home-workplace also did not exist. The entire family worked in the home and the entire family worked outside. But most of the activity was confined to the locality. Work which spilled over to the region was a small part and involved only a few members of the locality. This state of affairs was true even during the times of muslim invasions. Under such a dispensation either the whole village and the locality prospered or the whole locality suffered. There was never a time that one family or a few members of the locality would be poor or hungry. There was no hunger or poverty amidst plenty. Therefore women as a community in the workforce or feminization of poverty were unknown as concepts.
Now let us see the situation today. As I mentioned a little while ago, within about a hundred years of occupying our country the British had disrupted our societies and their traditional arrangements to such an extent that our share of the world’s manufacturing output had come down from 24.5% to 2.8%. How did the British manage to cause this total destruction of our economy and how did they manage to disrupt our societies within just a hundred years - something the muslim invaders could not do even over a long period of seven-hundred years? The status of our women in society today and their economic condition is a direct consequence of this great disruption. The two most outstanding features of our societies was their stability of conditions and the near total autonomy in the management of their resources and affairs. The British destroyed both.
The British colonisers brought into this country their legal-judicial mechanism and their civil services - both of which effectively made several communities dysfunctional. Dealing with crime, problem resolution, and inter-community or inter-locality problems and issues were dealt by our societies with total autonomy and through societal institutions which had been functioning generation after generation; and the localities managed their land, water and other resources of the region and made decisions about their political, social, economic, religious and cultural affairs autonomously with only residuary power invested with kings or other rulers. But once communities were made dysfunctional by the British civil services and adminstrative machinary taking over the functions and responsibilities of communities, our people were denied their right to carry on their traditional work, control over resources was lost, and soon, within a hundred years, the economy of our villages had been thoroughly disrupted. People began to move away from their traditional habitat. Villages emptied out and vast urban localities and urban slums began to mushroom.
People thus displaced had no resources, were displaced from their close-knit communities and while many were forced to become labourers in agriculture or industry, many more were without work. The new deprived and backward classes of Indian societies were thus born. Let us see the level of poverty this great disruption has caused in our societies - where there is hunger in the midst of food, where there is deprivation in the midst of plenty. Our per capita consumption of food grains is 200 kilograms per person per year. Let us not forget that this average statistics hides within it those of our people who have no one proper meal a day, people who go to bed hungry. The world average in consumption is 320 kilograms of foodgrains per person per year. We eat on an average 2200 calories of food per day while the world average is 2700 calories. Let us also not forget that these statistics also hide the fact that those living in absolute poverty do not consume even 700 calories per day. Our per capita availability of cloth is six metres of cloth per person per year. And the per capita availability of electricity is one 40 watt bulb burning for three hours in a day; less than 10% of our people have LPG for fuel while the kerosene made available for our women through the PDS is not sufficient to feed a family of five. This is the state of our economy where entire families suffer from hunger and acute deprivation. In such a state of absolute poverty and deprivation, how can we calculate the percentage or ratio of man-woman poverty?
It is because our women are capable of tremendous sacrifices, that they suffer most when there is such acute poverty. So how can we talk of feminization of poverty as though it is only women as a community who suffer this deprivation? Our women are being stretched beyond dharmic limits it is true; but the answer is not in women revitalising the economy but in the economy being revitalised in such a way that we deal with this deprivation so that our women are not called upon to make these sacrifices. Hunger, lack of primary medicare, inadequate or lack of sanitation are conditions that afflict all of us - men, women and children; but it is our women and children who suffer most from these conditions of living.
Now let us see how this great disruption of our societies and the resulting economic deprivation has impacted upon our culture. The system of education that the British introduced in India created the first major rift in our societies. It alienated the english educated Indians form their own people, from the ways of the ordinary people. This section also began to analyse our traditions, our religion and our arrangements from the points of view of the colonisers’ new educational system. This new group or category of intellectuals, our own people, began to decry, explain away, and reject our traditional way of life in response to questions that were raised within the western idiom of life. This new group, the surrogate rulers, were not created overnight, they were cultivated, nourished and developed by the education system that the British brought into India. And so, the intelligentsia which remained closely with the people for all the centuries of muslim invasions, now turned against its own people, their beliefs, and their way of life. This group of intellectuals was co-opted into the colonial adminstration - into the legal, educational, and civil services; and it was this group which was the bridge between the rulers and the ruled. This group granted legitimacy to the disruptive and destructive ways of colonial rule and this group was used to provide the intellectual framework for pitting community against community and gender against gender within our societies.
The British, with the help of anti-national Indians who were co-opted into the system, thus began to redefine our communities and instigated rebellion against traditional arrangements in the name of modernism, scientific temper, and ‘anti-superstition’ rationalism. Castes and communities competed with each other often violently for roles, privileges and status. The competition of the genders is the continuation of the same disruption, and characterised by the same malaise -attempting to redefine inter-gender relationships through responses to questions that will be raised only within the western idiom. The concept of equality of the genders or the concept of woman’s liberation, or feminization of poverty are not issues which would have ever arisen within traditional arrangements.
Within about a hundred years of occupying India, the British had uprooted our societies and sharpened every fissure that existed. The colonisers built their empires only through such disruptions. The British strengthened their grip over the administration with the cooperation offered to them by the intellectual leadership of our societies. The acute and absolute poverty that we see in our societies today is the result of this great disruption effected by the British. That more and more women want to step out of their homes and work alongside men in the workforce outside, is also a sign of the times. Why do women want to step out of their homes, and more importantly, why do women want to be accepted as equals are not questions that can be answered by discussing women as a community by themselves. This phenomenon is best studied by the attitudes that drive family life today. It is in this context that we must look at the role of women in revitalising the economy and the culture of this country. I have no doubts at all in my mind that just as it is the affluent and the english educated among us who have harmed our societies most, it will be the affluent and the english educated among us who will also bring about the changes to make this country civilizationally conscious of herself. And this destruction which has been caused by both men and women will be corrected only by our women. It can be corrected only by our women.
The most striking feature that sets apart non-Western societies from non-catholic Western societies is their consciousness of the sanctity of the institutions of marriage and family. Wherever marriages have lost their sacredness and become mere contracts, in all such societies families have been torn apart and fragmented, eventually leading to the atomisation of the individual who becomes alienated from all traditional institutions which gave him his identity, including his family, the locality of his birth and growing-up, sometimes his race and very often even his religion. This atomisation and alienation is widely prevalent in the West today. And because the destruction of these institutions have led to wide-spread social unrest and increase in the crime rate besides having serious psychological and other consequences on children and individuals coming from broken homes, social and religious leaders and thinkers are calling for the resurruction of religion, community and family values.
Whether religion can come back into the lives of people of the West to form the basis of their value system, whether it will be possible to correct the atomisation and alienation of the individual by resurructing communities, and if so what will be the binding-glue of such communities are major issues in themselves. What is relevant to this issue is the need that is being felt in the West today for the resurruction of family and family values. Without going into the details of the merits and demerits of the conclusions that some leading thinkers have come to on this issue, I would simply like to mention that some thinkers in the West believe that one of the primary causes for the disruption of family is that women have stepped out of their homes to become a part of the workforce in the West. There is now a growing call from social thinkers like Francis Fukuyama and the Church for women to return to their homes.
Some of our people here who also want our women to stay at home will quote copiously from statistics on unwed mothers, teenage pregnancies, single parent homes and so on in America and elsewhere in the West to bolster their argument. That is a simplistic and deceptive illustration. What led the women of the West to step out of their homes, why did the family disappear and why is there no sense of community are not issues for which there are simplistic answers and therefore to argue our case with their examples is incorrect and will not serve our purpose. If we have to protect the institutions of family and marriage in this country, we will have to discuss what are our attitudes that is driving our women more and more to value money and financial independence over tradition, why are they choosing career over having children, why are they increasingly speaking the language of rights and not responsibilities and why above all are they losing their sense of sanctity for these institutions.
Some of the remedies we are seeking like litigation, divorce, financial independence, and insistence of rights over responsibilities, are western in nature and oftentimes are held to be responsible for the disruption of families; but in the absence of any other means of redress and correctitude our women are being forced to take recourse to them, sometimes frivolously but we cannot pretend that all is well with our women within our families or that there are no discriminating attitudes and consequent violence and other forms of abuse against our women. What is needed is an awakened consciousness of Dharma and the restoration of Dharma within our families and in society.
It is generally accepted that there can be cultural revitalisation only if the family is restored to its sacred place in society; it is also accepted that a family is secure emotionally and stable only when the woman remains committed to it; but what is left unsaid and what is not even being spoken about is the general erosion of Dharma in our lives and how consequently hindus have devalued the woman and the home. And until we face up to this fact squarely, we are not going to persuade women to stay at home just because we are insecure and because we know our culture is being eroded. When entire village societies were disrupted and people began to move into cities, three things happened which impacted upon the status of our women. Work moved away from the home and the dichotomy of home/workplace appeared in our lives. Second, in middleclass homes, men entered the workforce in various capacities in the colonial administration and the English education and the pervasive influence of the colonisers over our men had its adverse impact on the lives of our women; because as more and more men became employees of the British administration and moved into cities, the Hindu joint family eroded and finally broke up and nuclear families became the norm.
When families migrated to cities, the first link to ones community and caste was broken. And when work moved away from the home and the locality into impersonal urban regions and men, as a consequence, spent more and more time away from their families, they became less and less accountable to their families or community for their way of life. English education and the contempt it imparted for traditional values and religious rituals broke yet another link with dharma. The dichotomy of workplace/home, provider/caretaker, mental/physical work was thus created. But preceding these dichotomies were other long and deep-rooted dichotomies with regard to man and woman. For very long in Hindu social history we have had the dichotomies of Purusha/Prakriti, Shiva/Shakti, Iswara/Maya, reason-mind/body, rational/emotional-impulsive dichotomies conditioning our attitude to woman and her place in society. The degeneration was so acute that over time even Purusha, Shiva, and Iswara acquired purely gender connotations and the understanding of these profound concepts was loaded with bias and attitude.
Urban societies and nuclear families were denied the benefit of the wisdom of the presence of elders in the family and community to set these attitudes right; and more to the point, people had severed themselves from the bonds of their religious leaders and religious institutions. Thus these pejorative attitudes and degenerative behaviour could not be easily corrected and these took deep root into hindu society. Forcibly confining the woman to the home, and within the home to the kitchen, rising physical violence against women, both within the home and in society was the result of urbanization, the erosion of the joint family and the waning influence of religion and religious leaders. Entire monographs can be written on each one of the dichotomies that defined the general character and role of men and women. But suffice it to say be it rape, dowry, domestic violence, harassment in public places, and even verbal disrespect, incidences of abuse of woman and womanhood is on the increase. And contrary to the widely disseminated falsehood that education is the panacea for all social evils against the woman, one only has to take a look at the statistics of violence against women in what are termed developed nations. And in India, Kerala, which we all tout as the model state because it has population growth under control and because it has the highest national percentage of literacy, also has the highest percentage in violence against women.
Which only buttresses the arguments of those who claim that it is our education system which is not only alienating the individual from family and society but which is also responsible for not dealing with the perversions of self-centered living. While both men and women are responsible for the increasing violence against women, it is the woman who is almost always the victim. The woman and child in the family.
It follows then that culture can be revitalised only by valuing the woman. And valuing the woman means not treating her body, her emotions, her home and the care she provides, with contempt. Unless we value the home and the woman who makes the home, culture cannot be protected because culture is imparted first and lastingly only within the home and only by the women in our homes. Thank you all.