An Open Letter to the National Leadership of the AIDWA : Struggle in Unity for Equality, or Struggle in Unity against Impunity?

To the National Leadership which is currently participating in the 13th National Conference of the AIDWA in Thiruvananthapuram.

Dear sisters in struggle

I write to you from Kerala, where the CPM is currently in power for a second time, a rare achievement indeed, in a state where power changes hands usually in each election. I know that most of you hail from places where the CPM is very far from power. I know the difference that makes to activism.

I write to you with a sense of desperation. Because the manner in which the CPM has been running the state here, as well as in the evolving logic of power that shapes it as a political party, the prospect of expanding democracy through respect for and participation of women as equal partners in the struggle for a gender-equal society seems to be fading rapidly. Of course, I am aware of the many facts that will be immediately assembled to counter this expression of apprehension: the growing numbers of women in Kerala’s self-help-group networks, their achievements in domestic and public life; government expenditure devoted to improving women’s lives and so on. All this will be served up with a liberal dose of comparison — with other societies in which none of this exists. I do agree that in Kerala, women are no longer passive in the face of even the most entrenched patriarchal hubris. But there is more than meets the eye if we are to examine the recent history of gender justice and mainstream left politics in Kerala

Your slogan for this year’s conference is particularly evocative, for growing neoliberal authoritarianism in the country seeks precisely to divide women, pushing majoritarian and caste-elite agendas.

Indeed, it is evocative enough to precipitate a whole series of questions about this society in which the CPM is in power. Who all seek to push majoritarian and caste-elitism in Kerala, and who have been resisting it? Has the AIDWA in Kerala, undoubtedly, the largest women’s mass organization here with progressive credentials, been in the forefront of the resistance? There can be absolutely no doubt that the AIDWA in Kerala is today quite crucial an organization to the CPM’s continuing presence as a political force, electorally and otherwise. Ever since the state created a development-centred civil society of women through self-help groups in the late 1990s, lower middle-class and working class women have been of vital importance to the mainstream left parties. AIDWA has played a key role in mobilising them; there can be little doubt that these women play a very important role in garnering the CPM’s local-level presence. Yet, why is it that the present CPM , in power and as a political party, seems to not just ignore women at crucial moments, but actually disrespect them, even? In each instance, the CPM male leadership seemed to be playing a smart game, using one principle of gender justice against another, even.

Take, for example, the veritable offboarding of K K Shailaja, whose work as Health Minister steering the state through pandemics had won her a strong constituency of her own. While her absence in the new executive was a great disappointment, openly voiced by many supporters of the CPM, the new leadership’s tactic was to replace her with a younger woman, and also to add a few more female faces in the cabinet. Now, that is a classic ploy to eliminate an undesirable: it is a principle of gender justice that women with experience and noticeable success should receive further acknowledgment of their abilities through an extension, but it is equally a principle of justice that younger women should be promoted for them to gain experience. Gender justice would multiply if these are applied together, but the CPM leadership used one principle against the other!

It is interesting, also, that while the government and the party has often declared unfailing committment to the interests of women, the religious minorities, and dalits — indeed, to the struggle with unity for equality — there have been too many incidents in which ‘unity’ with religious minorities, and dalits have been forsaken. I recall the case of Hadiya Asokan, in 2017, who had fought to choose her faith and marriage. Instead of supporting her with tact and courage, the government chose to twiddle its thumbs for the most; worse, on social media, many CPM supporters including AIDWA members, engaged in unabashed islamophobia. Indeed, the blatant attack on religious Muslim women they crafted together went totally against the AIDWA’s own stance in north Indian states!

Or, in 2021, when the baby born to Anupama Chandran, the daughter of the prominent middle-level leader of the CPM Peroorkkada Jayachandran (who himself is the son of a very prominent CPM leader from Thiruvananthapuram) and Ajithkumar, a dalit activist of the DYFI and CPM, was kidnapped by its own grandparents and trafficked to Andhra Pradesh through precisely the child protection machinery of the state (overseen by CPM activists), simply because his father was a dalit man — what was the response of the AIDWA? Members of the AIDWA indulged in the worst sort of character assassination on social media against both Anupama and her partner. Again, a discourse of gender justice — against underage marriage and pregnancy — was deployed against Anupama. While Anupama’s indefatigable determination to get her baby back forced the government to return him to her, the perpetrators of the crime are still at large, protected by the party machinery to this date.

What broke my heart in this atrocious violation of child rights and everything that we all stand for, was the manner in which promising young women activists of the CPM — and AIDWA — were drafted into the work of intimidating the couple and forcing Anupama to choose to abort. Anupama was kept in family confinement while Ajith was summoned to the office of a CPM activist, a woman lawyer, and threatened, even as Anupama was fed with lies. This woman is someone I had high hopes about as a potential leader advancing women’s rights in the party and outside. Apparently, the impunity enjoyed by those who lead the local CPM has corroded her values.

And apparently, AIDWA leaders in Thiruvananthapuram are unashamed. I am told that at a meeting held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of SAKHI, an NGO that has worked closely with the CPM government and housed many AIDWA activists occasionally, a prominent AIDWA activist from Thiruvananthapuram lashed out at a feminist visitor from Delhi for having condemned the government’s laxity in the wake of the child-kidnapping incident. ‘You should have heard both sides,’ she is said to have declared. But the feminist visitor had indeed tried very hard to reach out to the ‘other side’ back then — and received no response. This incident was not merely injustice against a couple, it was a blot on Kerala’s record of child protection, on the gender-mainstreaming efforts that the Kerala government has undertaken all these years. Clearly this AIDWA activist cares nothing for those losses, so mired she is in the greed for power and influence that seems to be sucking out every drop of ethical caution.

But then, my worry is not just about individuals who are AIDWA activists but about the organization itself, the respect it receives from th parent-body, the political party. After the Great Flood of 2018, when the Chief Minister set up a special advisory council for post-flood development, that body did not include a single female member. This is despite the fact that women had performed a stellar role in every phase of the rescue and rehabilitation work, as panchayat members and Kudumbashree leaders. How is it that the AIDWA did not seek to intervene, initiate a dialogue?

During the horrendous Nair riots around the SC judgment on women’s entry into Sabarimala in 2018, the CPM’s ‘Women’s Wall’ received tremendous media attention. I have had several objections to it — both to the metaphor of the ‘Wall’ as well as to the use of women’s bodies to set it up — but my most serious apprehension was about how the whole plan was declared. The call to women to come out and join the ‘Wall’ was surely not trivial. Given the fact that women were being asked to deploy their bodies even if only symbolically, it actually involved the exercise of what may be called sovereign power on female bodies. In democracy, as we know, sovereign power is not allowed to order people around; a party committed to democracy would have publicly called upon the leadership of the largest of progressive women’s organizations, had a public discussion with it, and then jointly declared the action. In this case, this did not happen. AIDWA women scampered at the local level mobilising women; the male leadership of the campaign gave ‘orders’ from above. To my mind, this is a naked display of sovereign power, which, as we all know, has always been completely misogynist and inimical to women’s public citizenship.

I worry that the CPM leadership nowadays seems more inclined to sovereignity rather than the governmentality that has been the central political rationality in Kerala since many decades now. It is as if the CPM and the state it controls can completely refuse democratic dialogue and action with women’s rights campaigners and feminists who it makes good use of . Many such instances can be cited: the saddest, perhaps, is of the Women in Cinema Collective which has been one of the staunchest supporters of the CPM in its electoral and other battles. The stubborn, unequivocal refusal to release the Hema Commisson Report even after endless public pleas by the spokeswomen of this group, even after good reasons have been cited, is definitely an instance of the hubris of sovereign power! Only sovereign power can indulge in use-and-throw of feminists who have provided it unconditional support in the cause of democracy. I am thinking about a particularly egregious episode to do with the CPM leadership’s unbelievable denigration of a senior feminist Aleyamma Vijayan — who has been a fellow-traveller of the CPM since the 1990s and indeed, the very face of CPM’s gender mainstreaming in its earliest days. In CPM’s recent assault against the fisher people on the Vizhinjam coast in favour of Adani Seaports, she was falsely accused of amassing ‘foreign funds’ for the protests, and worse, referred to by the party newspaper as ‘the wife of the anti-Adani seaport activist’. I must say that the headline left be utterly out of breath — someone with such a long career as a champion of women’s rights, such a rich public life, referred to as someone’s wife? How much lower can they fall?

But it is worse, actually: rather like the ‘populist authoritarianism’ that has been for the Chinese state on social media, the government here too appeases their liberal feminist supporters on Facebook by making pretenses of generous response — promising ‘gender-neutral’ uniforms, ‘gender-neutral’ classroom seating etc. — but withdraws it at the first sign of conservative opposition. Even in matters like sexual violence and domestic violence, the CPM-controlled state machinery reserves its punitive violence for its critics, and highly disempowered men — and rarely for men with connections in the CPM, unless it may rock the electoral boat or cause serious in-party differences , and in case, disciplining will vary according to the man’s clout. You may counter this by pointing out that many AIDWA activists –lawyers and others — have been helping very many women facing violence and other issues. Yes, I agree — but AIDWA cannot be just a ‘service provider’ (in the vocabulary of the neoliberal state), nor can it rely on an individualized understanding of patriarchy, being the progressive socialist mass movement that it is. And the failure of the AIDWA to speak up against the brandishing of sovereign power by the CPM male leadership has consequences not just for women, but for democracy itself, and even on the CPM’s future electoral prospects.

I must say that the AIDWA’s obedient silence in most instances has only added to the growing hubris of sovereign power. Also, it’s blindness to what counts as ‘women’s issues’. It appears, for example, that the dispute at Vizhinjam between the Adani Ports and the coastal people is gender-neutral, when we know that it is not. The loss of coastal land affects the coastal women worse when the sea mows down homes. But not even this mammoth women’s organization can see that!! Or, take, for example, the debt crisis among the lower middle-class. The AIDWA in Kerala seems to wake up only in defence of liberal feminist demands, or for state punitiveness in the wake of sexual harassment, when the accused is a perceived enemy of the CPM.

I want to make this very clear: it is not just women’s lack of access to power that I am talking about. Of course, we still know that women are still at the lower levels of power within the party. Out of the sixteen new comers in the State Committee only three are women. Out of a total of 88 members in the committee, just thirteen are women. And in the seventeen-member Secretariat, there is just one woman. The CPM State Secretary’s answer to questions about this, which was a counter-question whether the questions were aimed at ruining the committee or for improving it became controversial, too. But the real danger is that the AIDWA’s silence and submissiveness is feeding tendencies towards the exercise of sovereign power in the party and the state.

The impunity that the male leadership claims is almost always justified by pointing to the Hindutva looming close. But the solution to authoritarianism is not to borrow its trappings and throw all ethical considerations to the wind. Yes, one needs tact and caution — very much indeed. But that cannot be the abandonment of ethics and voice.

Best wishes for the conference,

J Devika

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