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Gandhi on women in politics: A voice from the past

Mahatma Gandhi's radical views on the cleansing role of women in politics and society are relevant today, while the Bill on reservation of seats for women is still being tossed about in Parliament. Noted writer and Gandhian scholar LA. SU. RENGARAJAN comments.


Gandhiji addressing women at Santiniketan in 1940.

"I would boycott that legislature which will not have a proper share of women members"

SO declared Mahatma Gandhi unequivocally over 70 years ago at the Second Round Table Conference convened in London by the British Government in September 1931 to consider framing a new constitution for India. Gandhiji attended the conference as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. All other delegates from India were nominees of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin.

At the RTC's Federal Structure Committee meeting on September 17, 1931, Gandhiji took pains to clarify that, though the Congress was not in favour of any scheme of nominating members to legislative bodies to give adequate representation to minorities, the national organisation was duty-bound to sponsor candidates giving fair representation to minorities including special cases like women. If they were left out, he would "have a clause in the Constitution which would enable the elected Legislature to elect those who should have been elected, but have not been elected or unjustly left out by the electorate."

At the Conference, Gandhiji was disappointed that none was interested in arriving at an agreed minimum common programme for India's future. Each group clamoured for a separate electorate or reservation of seats in legislatures and special privileges. Coming out of prolonged deliberations, a dejected Gandhiji told his colleagues: "The delegates went into the conference as Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Untouchables, and they came out of it as Muslim, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Untouchables. Never at any moment was the Indian nation there!" Then, turning to Sarojini Naidu (who was a nominated delegate), Gandhiji, heaving a humorous sigh of relief, remarked: "Thank God! The women there did not put forward a claim either for separate electorate or for reservation of specific number of seats in Legislatures!"

A reader of the weekly Harijan confronted the Editor (Gandhiji) with the fact that the Congress was reluctant to select women representatives on a large scale for elective bodies and questioned whether it was not necessary on the basis of equality that more women were taken into the various bodies.

Replying in Harijan (April 7, 1946), Gandhiji wrote: "I am not enamoured of equality or any other proportion in such matters. Merit should be the only test. Seeing, however, that it has become the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women, merit being more or less equal, to men even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women. It would be a dangerous thing to insist on membership (in legislature) on the ground of sex. Women, and for that matter any group, should disclaim patronage. They should seek justice, never favours. Therefore, the proper thing is, for women, as indeed for men, to advance the spread of general education through their provincial languages as will fit then for numerous duties of citizenship... " Gandhiji is perhaps the only Indian leader who thought of the power of massive vote bank of women to get rid of corruption and caste-ridden murky politics. In Harijan, April 21, 1946, he exhorted feminists not to "cry out for women's rights but pay attention to enrol as many women as possible as voters, impart or have imparted to them practical education, teach them to think independently, release them from the chain of caste that bind them so as to bring about a change in them which will compel men to realise women's political strength and capacity for sacrifice and give her places of honour. If women workers do this, they will purify the present unclean political atmosphere. ... " Gandhiji's greatest service in the field of social reform, besides his campaign for the eradication of untouchability, was the revolutionary change that he effected in the traditional attitude towards women. The root of the evil, he said, lay not in legal inequalities but in "man's greed of power and fame and deeper still in mutual lust."

During the freedom struggle in the 1930s, Gandhiji exhorted women to take part in Satyagraha movement on par with men. That 17,000 of around 30,000 persons who courted arrest during the Salt Satyagraha were women volunteers in a conspicuous example of their equal role under the leadership of the Mahatma.

In fighting for their rights, however, Gandhiji wanted the women of India not to imitate the West, but to apply "methods suited to the Indian genius and Indian environment." It is from Sita and Draupadi, Savitri and Damayanti, and not of amazons and prudes, that women today can derive strength and guidance for heroic conduct, "the inner control which, while bringing the ideal into current practice, will conserve the best and reject the base," (Young India, October 17, 1929).

In advising Indian women to emulate puranic characters like Sita and Draupadi, Gandhiji was referring to their free will and not subservience to male authority usually associated with them. "Rama would be nowhere without Sita, free and independent even as he was himself", Gandhiji wrote in Young India (February 3, 1927) and added: "But, for robust independence, Draupadi is perhaps a better example..."

A correspondent confronted Gandhiji with the opinion in orthodox quarters that economic independence of women (if given by the right to inherit property) would lead to the spread of immorality among married women and disrupts domestic life. Gandhiji's reply was straight and startling. He wrote: "I would answer the question by a counter question. `Has not independence of man and his holding property led to the spread of immorality among men?' If you answer `Yes', then let it be so also with women. And when women have rights to ownership and the rest like men, it would be found that the enjoyment of such rights is not responsible for their vices or their virtues. Morality, which depends upon the helplessness of a man or women, has not much to recommend it. " (Harijan, June 8, 1940). "And why is there all this morbid anxiety about female purity?" he wondered in an earlier write-up titled "Curious Ideas" in Young India, November 25, 1926. He went on to question: "Have women any say in the matter of male purity? We hear nothing of women's anxiety about men's chastity. Why should men arrogate to themselves the right to regulate female purity? It cannot be superimposed from without.

It is a matter of evolution from within and, therefore, of individual self-effort".

Nevertheless, Gandhiji conceded that at some point there was inherent bifurcation. While both were fundamentally one, it was also true that, in the form and biological functions, there were vital differences. He wrote: "The duty of motherhood, which the vast majority of women will always undertake, requires qualities which man need not process... The art of bringing up the infants of the race is her special role and prerogative. Without her care the race must become extinct."

Gandhiji went on to say: "In my opinion, it is degrading both for man and woman that women should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of that hearth. It is a reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end." At the constructive workers' conference in Madras on January 27, 1946, Gandhi called upon women to enter the legislatures with the idea of serving the people and not politicking on party-basis. But how many of these would be able to enter the legislatures in a spirit of service, and strengthen the panchayat base, he asked. Their aim must be to build from below so that the panchayat foundation would be strong and the structure good. If any mistake occurred while building from the bottom, it could rectified immediately and the harm done would not be much. Addressing a few girls who called on him at New Delhi on April 7, 1947, Gandhiji inter alia said "Woman in our scriptures is called ardhangini (woman as an organic part of man). But, instead of treating her as ardhangini, we treat her as a plaything. Or, in our country she is still being treated like a slave. The birth of a girl spreads gloom, whereas the birth of a boy is considered to be a festive occasion.

So long as this evil custom is not done away with root and branch, women can make no progress whatsoever.

Man and woman will attain equality only when the birth of a girl is celebrated with as much joy as in the case of boy." (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 87. p.229).

Talking to women workers late in April 1947, nine months before his assassination, Gandhiji was confident that "India can proclaim that she can defend herself and make progress not through the atom bomb but through non-violence alone" and that "women alone can take the lead in this, for God had endowed them with great power. If women resolve to bring glory to the nation, within a few months they can totally change the face of the country because of the spiritual background of the Indian women." (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 87, pp 250 & 294).

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