‘Vina broke the dichotomy between scholarship and activism’

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Vina Mazumdar, one of the most significant women leaders of post-independent India, passed away on the morning of 30 May 2013. Dr Vina Mazumdar was a scholar who taught political science in Patna, she then joined the University Grants Commission and later the Indian Council of Social Science Research. One of her distinguished students is Dr Muchkund Dubey, former foreign secretary of India.

Dr Mazumdar was the architect of a path breaking Government of India report, Towards equality- a report on the status of women in India. She was one of the founders of the Indian Association of Women’s studies and a founding Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), which became a national hub for scholars and activists. Vina gave us many gifts in terms of ideas, apart from energy. She coined a phrase that Women’s Studies was a movement and therefore she always referred to women’s studies as the women’s studies movement, breaking the dichotomy between scholarship and activism.

We in India were the first to establish this kind of concept to what can be called harmonising activism with scholarship, and inspired other countries with this concept. Vina and CWDS provided leadership not only to what can be called women’s studies and the “intellectual” side of the women’s movement but she inspired and energized many other spaces as she was always a political person even more than a “scholar” or a woman leader. It was politics, an understanding of India’s political history and a pulse on current issues in the political arena of India, that gave her, the report , as well as CWDS a color and a quality which none of the other centers of women’s studies could ever match.

We had a valuable and exciting relationship beginning with the preparation of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) report and continuing for all of the almost four decades of our work. In the early years, from 1975 to about 1990, Vina and I being Delhiwalas, were included in every possible forum, government as well as international that were looking at women’s issues and what can be called at the Women’s Question. If a committee was being formed, whether it was for implementation of the Equal Remuneration Act, or for evaluating Universities of Agricultural Sciences to see whether their home-science departments were in fact enabling women in the rural areas; we were chosen. In those days, every ministry – ministry of labour, ministry of rural development, ministry of education and of course ministry of women and child – would have a committee attached to it, and both Vina and I would be a part of it.

We were on the monitoring committee of STEP (Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women) a new programme that was started in MWCD (ministry of women and child development), as we were in these other committees that I have listed.

We came from extremely different tracks, she was a political scientist and a well known political as well as academic leader, and I was an economist but not as politically significant and come from a somewhat hot house atmosphere of scholarship.

Invariably, when we spoke in these meetings, it was almost like we were signaling each other. As the IAWS began to move with national conferences and as our institutions, the ones that we founded and developed, began to get gelled and as many more actors came on to the scene of what can be called women and their progress, our lives were not as intimately connected. Yet at every conference including the last one that we both attended together in Lucknow- the NCWS, I can still hear Vina’s voice, a very loud commanding one saying, “Hey Devaki! Come here and sit down.” By that time she had begun to find walking a little difficult. So, we took rooms next to each other in Lucknow and could not stop talking to each other. She invited me to a drive back with her to Delhi, so much was our desire to reflect, laugh and share our ideas together. Sometimes, because we were always clubbed in every public and political space we used to call each other either Heckle and Jeckle or Laurel and Hardy and sometimes, the Qutub Minar and Taj Mahal. The last one was a joke, as anyone who came from outside India and wanted to get some insight into what was happening in what used to be called at that time the women’s movement (now moving from gender to feminism) they had to see the two of us. So, that is why the idea of tourist monuments.

Vina and Lotika Sarkar were really what can be called the engines which drove all of us to clarity and some form of excellence. Since, they have followed each other so quickly, I would like to imagine that they are laughing away somewhere, smoking their cigarettes and fighting on issues. Enjoy yourselves, Vina and Monu. Soon some of us will join you.

Devaki Jain is a development economist and activist

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