As India prepares to mark Martyr’s Day, the New Delhi chapter of the Sarvodaya International Trust and the India International Centre organised on Saturday, 27 January, a special tribute to Mahatma Gandhi.
The event, held at CD Deshmukh Auditorium, India International Centre, reminded the gathering of the values that the Mahatma stood for, including his views on women empowerment, and how those very values are under a threat in the present day.
Addressing an august gathering of students, thinkers, eminent personalities from academia, and Gandhians, illustrious feminist writer Ritu Menon, who was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2011, spoke on the increasing need for the society to learn from Mahatma.
Menon underlined how we are passing through a time of “extraordinary violence on a daily basis”.
“Every value the Mahatma held is being violated and celebrated by those who have no time for what he believed in and for what he laid his life down for,” she said.
She laid stress on the need to recover Mahatma’s values for the sake of harmony, peace, equality, humanity and compassion, both in our personal and political lives.
Speaking on the topic, ‘When Women Wage Peace’, Menon recited a few lines from the poem “The Voice of The Mountain” by Mamang Dai, a poet from Arunachal Pradesh who was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2011 for her contribution to literature of the northeast.
The gathering, which listened attentively to Menon, was told that in India and in much of south Asia these cycles of violence are both sporadic and protracted.
“There has been an exponential increase in the scale and kinds of violence – social, political, communal, caste and gender – across the country,” Menon said.
She said that women have been resisting violence through non-violent and increasingly public methods in the face of armed conflict for a long time now.
“Women have displayed unconventional protests in many ways such as refusing to change out of the clothes they were wearing after they were abducted during the partition of India and wearing their hair loose during their entire period of mourning for their slain husbands and men-folk in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984,” Menon said.
The author of ‘Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition’, Menon drew attention to the continued imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Northeast India and how it is impacting the lives of people in the region.
“The apprehension and experience of armed violence is an almost everyday reality in many parts of the northeast and several parts of the country,” she said.
Recounting the protests that broke out in the state against the AFSPA, Menon highlighted the non-violent struggle of some groups against the Act.
She cited the example of Manipur’s Meira Paibi, a group which fights alcohol addiction among men and is now also resisting militarisation of the state through protest meetings.
At the same time, she emphasised on the change in the traditional understanding of women as an inherently tolerant being who nurtures peace because of biological or cultural reasons.
Menon pointed out that events in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, Ireland, Kashmir, Jaffna, Karachi, Dhaka and the northeast of India demonstrate the links between militarisation, misogyny and domestic violence.
She cited how some women’s rights groups, such as Jaffna Mothers Front of 1990, the 1988 Women in Black protests of Israel and protests by Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo of Argentina between 1976 and 1983, fought against war and atrocities committed by armed forces.
Citing the example of the troubled northern Sri Lanka, Menon said that a process which includes marginal voices in peace accords has a better chance of succeeding than one reached through force or subjugation.
She also touched upon the ongoing debate over ‘Padmaavat’. “We can see misogyny at work in the protests around ‘Padmaavat’ and Karni Sena,” she said referring to the recent spate of violence around the Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie.
When asked on her views on theological oppression of women, Menon told this correspondent that the problem lies in organised religion.
On the question of criminalisation of triple talaq, as has been demanded by some Muslim women’s groups, Menon said that she doesn’t support “criminalisation”.
Professor Sumangala Damodaran of Ambedkar University and musician Mark Aranha performed a few songs of resistance to mark the closing of the event.
The songs included those written in protest of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre as well as the ones highlighting oppression of the marginal classes. Soulful renditions of “Din Khoonke Hamare” by Priti Sarkar, Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s “Jaane Wale Sipahi Se Pucho” and Bhupen Hazarika’s “Dola” captivated the audience.