On 25 Years of The National Commission For Women

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 12 Apr 2017 12:17:11

We brought out Voice of the Voiceless, a report on the Status of Muslim Women in India. Among its several far reaching recommendations was one for stopping the practice of instant triple talaq and multiple marriages, in accordance with the provisions of the Quran and the Shariat.

On January 31, 2017, the National Commission of Women (NCW) completed a quarter of a century. Many older women of our generation would remember the struggles undertaken by women’s groups, which led to the formation of NCW. It was in 1971 that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had appointed a 10-member committee, which included women like law professor Lotika Sarkar, educationist Sakina Hasan and social worker Neera Dogra, and the iconic gender ideologue Vina Mazumdar, to examine the status of women in India. Consequently, a first Status of Women Report was prepared under the leadership of Phulrenu Guha, the firebrand leader from West Bengal.

The committee presented its report, aptly titled, ‘Towards Equality’ in 1975 to Prof Nurul Hasan, the Minister of Education. It strongly recommended the establishment of a statutory commission for women with a view to bringing about systemic changes in law along with other instruments for ensuring equality for women. The National Commission For Women Act that came into existence in 1990 contained a clause that gave the Commission rights of a civil court but stopped short of enabling it to pronounce sentence and award punishment. At the 1995 Beijing World Conference for Women another strong attempt to give the women’s commission these powers was made. However, it remained an aspiration then as it is now.

Despite the act, it was two years before the government set up the first commission in 1992 with Jayanti Patnaik from Odisha as the Chair. I [Mohini Giri] succeeded her. Since then prominent women such as Vibha Parthasarthi, Poornima Advani, Girija Vyas, Mamta Sharma and presently Lalitha Kumaramangalam have headed the NCW. The effectiveness of the Commission was always directly linked to the effectiveness of the individual who occupied the Chair.

As an entity, the commission’s effectiveness never became embedded in the system.
In this article, we refer to the five years - from 1995 to 2000 - we served as Chair and Member-NCW, respectively. Some incidents we recall turned out to become landmarks. For instance, the time when the Commission used its powers as a Civil Court to summon Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh for his anti gender remarks. Although Singh did not personally appear on account of ill health, he sent his nominee Amar Singh. The entire staff of NCW witnessed this drama that unfolded in the boardroom on that particular occasion.

Whenever we felt that the Commission was being sidelined or trivialised, we took up cudgels against the individual or group responsible for it. One such moment happened during the Janta rule. It was a question of the autonomy of the Commission, which was in serious deficit despite the very clear provision in the Act. Owing to the deeply patriarchal mindset of the mid-nineties the concept of autonomy even for a statutory commission was unimaginable, leave alone for gender as a whole. In a moment of anger I remember how I threw my resignation letter before the then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda. I was convinced that unless we were effective in our work there was no reason to continue in office. I was then half way into my term and many women's groups interceded until I was persuaded to withdraw.

During our tenure, for the very first time, the Commission also took stock of the status of Muslim women, one of the most vulnerable sections of society. A whole decade before the Sachar Committee was appointed, during the first tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the NCW had started with its work on Muslim women. In 1997-98, the Commission held public hearings for Muslim women across the country at 18 centres. Thousands of Muslim women thronged these meetings to share their plight before the Commission.

We listened to them for hours as they deposed before us, enabling us to gather first-hand what the Muslim woman felt in her own voice. In 2000, we brought out ‘Voice of the Voiceless’, a report on the Status of Muslim Women in India. Among its several far reaching recommendations was one for stopping the practice of instant triple talaq and multiple marriages, in accordance with the provisions of the Quran and the Shariat. This recommendation was primarily directed at the ulemas and the Muslim community. Some ground for it had already been prepared by us when we held talks with all stakeholders, including select enlightened Ulemas.

Another significant intervention we heralded was the Rail Chetna Yatra, which took a team of the Commission’s members across India on a train to collect signatures from thousands of women that swarmed the railway platforms to greet them. Lakhs of women signed on a ream of white cloth their demand for 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies. This cotton bale was presented to the Speaker on behalf of half the nation.

Another time when Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval came to us, heads clean shaven, to raise the issue of vandalisation by goondas in the name of protection of culture, we firmly dealt with their concern. This happened on the set of Deepa Mehta's film Water which was on the dismal condition of widows abandoned by their families in Varanasi.

The stories of our successes and failures have been recorded in the many reports we produced, some of which were tabled in parliament. I [Hameed] wrote a book, They Hang: 12 Women in my Portrait Gallery, published in 2002 by Kali for Women, that documented ten landmark cases I had handled, most of which, unfortunately, ended badly for the women. One such case that hit the headlines happened in Mewat, a district in Haryana that is governed on the concepts of jati (Hindu caste) and gotra (Hindu clan) even though it has a 100 per cent Muslim population.

We tore into the badlands, my colleague, the fiery lawyer Padma Seth and I, and tried to educate people about Islam's rejection of caste and creed. While the story ended in tragedy the point we want to make here is that where violence against women (VAW) or violation of gender rights was concerned we were ready to take on any aggression or opposition.

Our efforts of networking with other national level commissions such as National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Minorities (NCM), and the SC ST Welfare Department was a strong testimony of our attempts at forging solidarity. Creating links with state level Women’s Commissions, too, became an integral part of our work. Investigations into individual cases of VAW were done in partnership with the state commissions. The NCW did not hesitate to name and shame states which lagged behind in constituting their respective SCW's.

The question today is where are we after 25 years? How far has the apex body for women, the NCW, come in its journey?
Prof Tahir Mahmood, former Chair of NCM, took stock of this journey in an insightful news article published in February this year. He came to the conclusion that the lack of political will, across party lines, has resulted in the Commissions not fulfilling their expected role.

It is precisely this apprehension which made us propose that Members be appointed through a democratic process. This, of course, was unacceptable in a system where such appointments are political payoffs. So we wait sometimes with patience, other times with agitation. On NCW’s silver anniversary, we recall history as a grim reminder. (WFS) l