Karnataka: Selfhood & a struggle for universal justice

Karnataka's defining moments: A desire for selfhood, a struggle for universal justice

Women’s struggles have always aligned with other movements, but their contributions have largely remained unacknowledged

Members of various women's organisations take out a protest march in Bengaluru in 1974, demanding that the government protect their rights. Credit: DH File Photo

Karnataka has been shaped by some of the most significant movements over the past seven decades. There have been numerous agitations by farmers, Dalits, environmental groups — demanding accountability from respective governments.

Interestingly, women have been active participants in all these agitations and have contributed equally to the final outcome of the movement. Unfortunately, their contribution has by and large remained invisible.

Apart from being participants of the major movements that shaped Karnataka, women have also involved themselves in specific movements which has had direct bearing on their own lives and subtly and significantly defined Kannada selfhood.

Karnataka saw several changes being brought which tried to address the gender disparity in public life — the most prominent one being reservation in the gram panchayats. Despite the double oppression of caste and gender, ordinary women in villages have shown extraordinary courage and used the opportunities thrown open to them over the past few decades.

A large number of rural women have not only become politically literate, they have also educated themselves about their power and privileges and have managed to get a toehold in village politics.

However, one still has to wait and watch to understand if women have been politicised or women have feminised politics.

The other quiet revolution that has transformed rural life is the formation of self-help groups (SHGs). The concept of SHGs has caught on among both urban and rural women, with women workers in unorganised sector coming together to form SHGs of their own. However, the flip side of this is that a large section of women are caught in debt traps and women’s groups are now being wooed as vote banks.

Some of the most strident voices that were raised for the betterment of women’s lives in recent years have been the massive protests organised against liquor outlets in villages by women. In 2017, more than 40,000 women participated in protests in Raichur, demanding a closure of liquor shops and ban on sale of liquor. In 2018 and 2019, thousands of women marched hundreds of kilometres from Chitradurga to Bengaluru, many of them barefoot, demanding changes in a system which was hitting the livelihoods of women hard.

Women in history

As renowned historian Gerda Lerner has pointed out, "Women have always made history as much as men have, not just ‘contributed’ to it. Only, they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What’s new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it."

More importantly, women were also part of the significant people’s movements like the Tunga Bhadra Ulisi Horata Okkoota (Save Tungabhadra Campaign) which took place in the Malnad districts of Chikkamagaluru and Shivamogga. They also took part in the farmers’ movement which spread throughout the state in the 80s and several labour movements, including the garment workers strike against the EPF withdrawal in 2016, anganwadi workers agitation, ASHA workers agitation among
others.

Unfortunately, none of these agitations are seen as women registering their dissent and getting their demands fulfilled.

As Arundhati Roy points out, ”There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

In the case of women in India, especially Karnataka, this has been proved right many times over.

During the peak of the farmers’ agitation, women refused to let bank officials confiscate seeds or equipment in many parts of the state, fighting them tooth and nail.

Dalit women have come together in search of identity and their own cultural roots, while also resisting patriarchal and casteist systems. It is also important to note that women were active participants in the struggle against communalism in Karnataka.

However, the grittiest challenge posed to the patriarchal structure has come from women’s writing in Kannada. Women writers, poets and intellectuals have actively involved themselves in the women’s movements — whether it is the demand for a liquour ban, labour rights, anti-rape agitations — and at the same time have become mainstream in the intellectual debates of Karnataka.

It is impossible today to ghettoise Kannada women writing to ‘Women Studies Departments’ because women writers have wrested the space to speak about themselves and the world. More importantly, they have ensured that the world listens to them.

(The author is an educationist and a former senior journalist based in Shivamogga)