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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Unfolding of "New conception" of Women’s empowerment | Sunil Ray

Saturday 23 March 2024, by Sunil Roy



It is the crucifixion of humanity in Sandeshkhali of West Bengal that witnessed incessant brutality against women for several years at the patronage of the ruling party of the state. The narratives of barbarism perpetrated by the state agency is certainly not the same as that of the Middle Ages. It is worse than that particularly because such a process of criminalization gained instantaneous protection under the veil of democracy. The nudity of civilization opened the eyes of the nation only to see how other half of its population, the women, are forced into slavery to lose their self-esteem. It was an institutionalized exploitation particularly of women in democracy that continued for years, being patronized by no other than the ruling party of Bengal. Opposition, if any, was meted out by way of tormenting them. The women folk who are living in the margin never knew that they had to live with existential threat, a brutal truth that continues even now, just because they were recipients of money particularly under the ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’ scheme, the celebrated freebies gifted by the ruling party.

While one knows about the instrumental role of Lakshmir Bhandar, for buying loyalty of the womenfolk to have secured vote bank, it went beyond in Sandeshkhali. It forced upon them an act of exchange of their self-dignity, failing which their right to exist ceased. It was not that they never resisted. They did so, but they did it individually, only to be stultified by forcible eviction from their agricultural land, the main source of their livelihood. The existential threat against the marginalized was weaponized by the ruling party in collaboration with the state apparatus to stifle their voices to stage a change that led to build up an empire of the repressive forces of the ruling party at Sandeshkhali. Fascism came into force to run the empire and push the marginalized to what is called “Statelessness “of some sort.

But anarchism, historically speaking, begets antagonism which, once crystallized, turns in to retaliation. This is precisely what Sandeshkhali witnessed - an upheaval to retaliate, the lineage of several peasant movements that destroyed the repressive forces of Bengal in the past. Its footprint is traced in the inexorable forces of history, which is solidarism. Now, they learnt how to resist together against the decade –long repression perpetrated by the ruling party who colonized them by gifting ‘Lakshmir Bhandar’. The war cry of the women was “Smash Lakshmir Bhandar, if you want to survive with dignity and live in peace,” a blatant call to put an end to internal colonialism. The concept of women’s empowerment unfolded here completely in a different terrain, the terrain that echoes how to lead a dignified life with freedom. Its conventional understanding lost its meaning and was reduced to insignificance.

The message is not confined to the Lakshmir Bhandar alone. It is about the entire freebies culture which is chosen as an anti-dote to poverty and is rated as a vehicle to transform the economy. Lesser is talked about economic transformation of the state of West Bengal better it is. The state is ranked 28th position in all 33 states and union territories in terms of per capita income during 2022-23. It speaks volume about its extreme economic backwardness. With so much pomp and show about attracting FDI, the state of West Bengal shares around one per cent of the total FDI flow of the country. The direct fall-out of the poor economic performance is discernable in massive squeezing of the space for employment creation that can fight out impoverishment. Thanks to migration of large number of people especially from rural Bengal to other states in search of livelihood. The state, however, wants to cover up its failure in this regard by gifting freebies. True, the objective is to mask the real intention of the ruling party to create vote bank for them and continue to remain in power. But then, how can one ignore the parasitical impact of the gifting of freebies on the poor who in exchange are morally forced into mortgaging their independence?

Sandeshkhali , like any other rural hinterland in Bengal is full of agricultural and natural resources. Freeing them from the clutches of those who dispossessed the poor, the marginalized ones, and then, calibrating these resources for efficient utilization and creation of employment opportunities for the local unemployed youths, both women and men, can fetch more income that what they are receiving as freebies. Hence, why should they opt for living with existential threat in a parasite economy when they are capable to stand on their feet and live with dignity and freedom? So, why to seek an engagement with the parasite economy?

The other striking message that the resistance movement of Sandeshkhali sends across is impossible for one to brush aside. The resistance movement against injustice perpetrated against humanity is now a must, and, hence, it is an inescapable truth. But it must be based on the forces of solidarity. And, to carry it forward to achieve what it aims at, human values must lay its foundation, the human values that defy Hindu-Muslim binary or caste/ tribe or racial binary. It is solidarity of all deprived against the repressive forces that can create a place for them to live in peace and harmony with no loss of dignity. If the stick that women were holding in their protest march symbolizes resistance against the repressive forces, brooms does indicate cleansing the society from all evil forces, social, economic and political, responsible for the humanity to cry for justice.

(Author: Sunil Ray is former Director, A.N.Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna,. Presently, he is advisor to IMPRI, Delhi and CEDECS, Jaipur.)

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