Cynthia Stephen is a social policy researcher, gender and development specialist, women’s rights activist and an independent journalist. The interview was conducted in December 2020, ranging from issues of social movements, social media, legal awareness, and most importantly, the question of political participation of youth and women in particular, which is her key area of interest and work.
Q1: I think we are having this discussion at the turn of the year, a very tumultuous year which has seen both lows – such as the Delhi pogrom, the pandemic, lockdowns and the consequent mass migration and mass hunger – and also resistance, such as the anti-CAA-NRC and now, the farm protests. What are your reflections on this year?
CS: I agree, it’s been quite a rollercoaster. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that the year that’s gone by is one of the most difficult in some ways, and also it is very startlingly different. On the one hand, we saw the government trying to impose a lot of strong laws which take away people’s rights and on the other hands we had the very interesting and positive development of people’s resistances building up. So, one on the one hand, we could say it was a difficult year for activists and rights-based movements and protests and resistances, but on the other hand, the general population has now risen up. Large sections of the population came together, cutting across all caste, creed, religion, any kind of affiliation to oppose the NPR, and then came the CAA. As we know there is a direct relationship between the NPR and the CAA. When the NPR was introduced in Assam, they hoped that a lot of illegal immigrants would be identified. When that did not happen and 19 lakh Bengali Hindus were found to be excluded from the NPR then they had to find a way to get them included and that is how the CAA came about. And people saw through this ruse and were very rigorous in their resistance and the important part was that it was women who were at the forefront of the resistance against CAA, whether in Shaheen Bagh or dozens of other locations including here in Bangalore, we had a Bilal Bagh but also known as Bangalore Bagh, where lots of women sat for months on end giving continuous resistance even after the COVID-19 lockdown, they followed social distancing norms and protested. In Bangalore, all categories – transport workers, ASHA workers, health workers, teachers, farmers, the public sector, trade union workers, everyone has been continuously engaged in a series of protests. Now we have seen the common man protesting because of the rising gas prices because the government tried to introduce a garbage cess here, which said that every family has to pay an additional 200-600 rupees per household for collecting of solid waste. So people have been in a ferment because of misgovernance and ways in which the government has tried to extract taxes, and the pandemic and the lockdown, which also led to the loss of hundreds of lives and livelihood, reverse mass migration etc. In such a context, the government is continuing to impose new taxes. It’s an amazing situation, it just shows how clueless is the government on the issue of how to deal with the population. This is a copybook case of how not to govern. The bright spots have been the people themselves and resisted and shown their mettle against a very, very repressive government. I also have to particularly mention that the level of violence against women went up many fold. In Karnataka, we are already famous for child marriages, and so the rate of child marriage has gone up, the rate of the number of calls to women’s distress centres and helplines has gone up manifold, up to three-four times the existing volumes. The difficulties of economic hardship, men not being able to work, staying at home, and children are at home, parents are not able to pay their fees or they don’t have the gadgets for online classes, or they cannot pay for the online classes and it all adds up. It has been a very difficult time for families, and that burden has fallen on families.
Q2: So since you mentioned rates of violence – the other important question that emerges from that, since you have worked on data and spoken about it in a recent interview you spoke about the invisibility of women in data. Similar questions have come up in the context of the caste census, where there is an active attempt to hide data, even in COVID-19 cases, where the actual amount of cases would be much higher than what the government would reveal. How do you think this kind of invisibilisation affects how we address violence against women, or even questions of employment?
CS: You see, I am happy you asked this because it touches upon a very important aspect of the quality of life for the average person in the country. The average person in the country is assumed to be male. But there are other considerations – age-wise distribution, young children, and women and so on. So, because of patriarchy ruling the roost, we have a situation where men disproportionately occupy positions of power and decision-making. And the lack of opportunities for women in these areas of power and decision-making is a key reason behind many of the issues we face in our country. The lack of a feminine experience, the lack of women’s lives and experiences is reflected in policy. Gender and policy is my area of involvement for a long time. And in many sectors, there is a preponderance of women – the health sector for example. Imagine the number of nurses who run the health services, female doctors, public health in particular. Whereas in the corporate sector, where there is money involved, it’s headed by male doctors. Even in the area of public health, front-line workers who are responding to COVID-19 directly, there is a huge number of women. But do we find women as the decision-makers in India? And we know that across the world, countries which were headed by women have done very well in tackling COVID-19 (for example – New Zealand, Scandinavian countries, Bangladesh etc.) And that is why we need more and more women in positions of power and governance. It’s not just invisibility, but a total absence. This is a gap which we hope to fill by encouraging younger women to come into leadership. Even in practical terms, women bring insights, knowledge and experiences which have a greater impact upon common people’s lives and that is why we feel that we need more women in positions of power, decision-making and governance. Men should also make it possible. We are not trying to usurp the place of men; there is a need for balance. Gender balance ought to be maintained in these spaces.
Q3: Since you spoke about decision-making and earlier we had spoken about social movements – since you have experience working in political parties, what do you think their role is in terms of their engagement with activism and grassroots movements. How do you think they’ve done so far?
CS: See, my engagement in formal politics has come out of my theoretical engagement with the women’s question. My PhD has to do with the political empowerment of Dalit women, of which we see none. Though the government of Karnataka was the first in the country to implement reservations on caste bases to women (internal reservation), and lots of lots of women came into panchayat elections. There is a glass ceiling however because this only applies up to the zilla parishads. Beyond that, there is no reservation. So the political intent is there to get women engaged. The 1/3rd reservation was quite a far-sighted and powerful legislation. In that sense, mainstream governance has played some part. It was Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal government which actually passed the law. So, JDS and Congress, they were parties which came out of people’s movements. At least in India, we cannot divorce political movements and people’s movements from each other. The Left movements are a case in point. So, there ought to be, rightly, a symbiotic relationship between these two kinds of spaces. But very often, after the institutionalisation of a party leads to compulsions and the fact that power corrupts – this is the level where women get excluded. Though we are a secular democracy, the majoritarian influence is very strong. Religious minorities and the castes which may be large in number but lower in social status or capital are less politically active. For example in Karnataka, we have the Kuruba community, the shepherd community, which is quite numerous. But because their social status is not high, they are not active politically. Only now, they are coming into the political limelight, also because former Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah is from that community. This is the way in which social capital, caste and status in the caste system play a role in power. Obviously, gender also plays a role in this context. As a constitutionally-governed secular democratic country, even women have not only a right but also a duty to get involved in governance and to rise above their socially imposed conditions.
Q4: One question that has been constantly coming up in the idea of social movements is the idea of solidarities between marginalized groups. There have been political experiments, but there also has been a broader question of solidarity – in the sense that unless there is a sense of social solidarity, for example between Dalits and Muslims, there cannot be a successful translation into political solidarities. So what do you think about the idea of solidarities in a theoretical sense and also in the political field?
CS: I think it has successfully worked in many states, particularly in North India, where the Dalit and Muslim alliances have got votes in UP for the Samajwadi Party, and in Bihar also. But one of the aspects is that women have not made much headway in these configurations is because they are not considered as a separate vote bloc. For example, in Tamil Nadu, it’s considered that the women’s vote is a game-changer. The AIADMK had a very strong women’s base because of Jayalalitha and her policies, and also when Mayawati was in power, the violence that used to happen against women was somewhat less. But on the other hand, these solidarities have not been sufficient. The caste superstructure has worked in a way that has kept these solidarities from building. Women in this stage lack the economic independence that is required to be in formal politics. The women who do enter tend to be from political families; the niece, the daughter, mother or sometimes wives of politicians. In the present day, the farmers’ agitation has a lot of women coming in and becoming visible as farmers. I think it was a little bit of intervention and criticism on my part that the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh was considered in the 11th Five Year Plan. Women as an economic contributor to the nation have to be factored in. The economists and political leaders need to realize that women are the economic powerhouse of the country. Now with the doctors and nurses’ resistance, the farmers’ resistance, Angwanwadi workers, garment workers erupting in Bangalore and so on, there is some realisation on these lines.
Q5: I had one last question around representation – so particularly when we talk about success and leadership, very often we are sold a very shallow idea of representation. Where it becomes reduced to identity (for example, that a woman has reached a high level in a business). So could you discuss a little bit about these contradictions around representation?
CS: If you notice, all that I have said have been examples from grassroots and leaders from those spaces. So I don’t believe in these kind of individualised stories – women prime ministers in Sri Lanka, or in India. Did this mean women were empowered as a result? No, obviously. These women belonged to powerful political families, and they got entry into formal politics and leadership. But the common experiences of women and ideas of leadership has to drive policy. Transformative policy change has to come from people from the grassroots. IAS officers who are technocrats are making policy on agriculture, which have little to do with the lived experience of farmers. A mother who has handled a sick infant will know what is lacking in the health system. A farmer who has dealt in dry land farming will know about what kind of policy initiatives are needed. We instead have people specializing in business management, political administration or software making decisions. I feel women understand these things much more; perhaps it is the biological difference or the gender roles we perform, these make us sensitive to the needs of the other sections – aged, children, young people, etc. If you extrapolate that, the affairs of the country at large – for example in international conflict we see very muscular responses which leads to disagreements.
I feel women would handle this in a much more complex and diverse way, towards reconciliation.
Q6: The other major question, apart from the political space, that has come up is of law – and not just the new laws that are introduced, but the experience of going through the legal process for example, in the aftermath of injustice. How even the process itself becomes humiliating itself, like in the Hathras case, or the Delhi pogrom where the Muslim students are being held responsible for the pogrom in which members of their own community majorly were killed. Similarly, we see in Gujarat 2002 where the law itself is being used as a tool against the marginalized. But the law is also a very important tool for marginalized communities to fight for their rights. How do we reconcile these contradictions?
CS: This is where the judiciary becomes very important. What is happening is that the balance of powers which is meant to be even between the judiciary, legislature and executive is disturbed. There is a preponderance of power in the legislature. And this is why a representative judiciary is also important. There are a handful of communities and families who tend to make up the higher judiciary. There are also hardly any women judges at the higher level, or even at the level of trial courts. We need a gender-sensitive judiciary. There is also the issue of diversity in terms of caste, historically disadvantaged marginalized sections who comprise about roughly 27% of the population, and then there are minorities. There is over-representation of these populations in jail. Thus, the system and access to justice is skewed. They’re already marginalized, and the justice system doesn’t take it into account. They’re not able to get better legal representation either. The class aspect also plays a part. The way the death penalty is carried out is also reflective of the preponderance of the marginalized sections reaching the gallows. Therefore, the lack of representation is a very serious reflection of how our system has been governed. Judicial standards of prosecution have really fallen. This is another area where young people need to become more active. The recent raids on a lawyer in the Delhi pogrom case is a reflection of the violation of the privileged relationship between a client and the lawyer. This raid was legally sanctioned by a judge and it’s an illegal act. It’s a serious matter of concern.
Q7: My final question is about the mode of communication that we’re using, particularly in the pandemic. Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of discussions have moved online. Simultaneously, we can see examples of marginalized voices being heavily trolled, doxed and threatened, often on grounds of caste, race, gender, such as how the author Meena Kandasamy was trolled for speaking out about Periyar. Similarly, if any person with a Christian name speaks on Twitter, they’re accused of being “rice bag convert”, and if they have a Muslim name there will be other specific comments. So what has been your experience of the online space and what do you think of this phenomenon?
CS: Actually, considering that I am very vocal and active in the online space, I have been less heavily trolled. But yes there was one instance recently, I spoke something on the rice bag issue and it sparked off a fierce discussion on that question. I decided to take it head-on. If starving people make a decision to go away from what is considered to be a very important heritage aspect of their lives, then there’s something wrong with that heritage. That’s the only logical answer to it. We have to understand that it’s only a tactic. Online trolling is only a tactic to try and blunt dissent. Why Meena has been picked on is because she is a woman and she also is a person who’s quite outspoken in terms of the Tamil issue. In India, regional identities have been a bulwark against the Hindutva civilisational identity that is being imposed on the country. In Karnataka and Andhra, the language movements have been very robust. Periyar has a critique of a Sanskritic civilisational identity which is very sound. All these years, they have tried to make him only a Tamil icon. But he is much more than that. They tried to make Ambedkar only a Dalit icon. But this hasn’t worked. That’s what I was saying in the beginning, it’s people’s movements which have kept these fights alive, in this year as well. The liberatory movements have found voices, faces, spaces to revolt against such hegemonies. This is a very important dialectic that is happening. The battle that they think they have won by setting up the Ayodhya trust etc is not really a victory. People have moved on from that demand. How long will they play the religion and caste card? That’s why the overreaction to any talk about Periyar, or the attempt to raid the Tamil Nadu and West Bengal political space. So, I see more good than bad in the situation. I look forward with hope to the future, particularly in terms of young people. A good case in point is Bhima Koregaon – an event that has been happening for so long as a people’s movement. It’s only now they decide to crack down on it. Yes, the people are incarcerated. But look at the immense support for their cause across the country. So there is some hope.