In 1985, when the Defence Ministry decided to set up a Nuclear Test Range (NTR) in Baliapal - part of a rich multi-product belt in Balasore, Orissa - the local protests it faced made global news. The protest had women leading from the front. They not only formed the front rung of human barricades to prevent government officials from entering the notified area, the suicide squad that was formed also had a good number of women.
Post-1947, people's protest movements have emerged in every part of India, mainly against displacement owing to dams, mines, industry or wildlife sanctuaries. Between 1951 and 1990, say official figures, 21.3 million people were displaced. Today, the number of displaced people has probably crossed 30 million.
Women - particularly the tribal, landless and rural poor - have participated in great numbers in people's movements because survival issues were at stake: land, water, fuel, fodder and their livelihood from forests. Many of these struggles have catapulted leaders into national prominence but few of these are women. This, even though it is generally accepted that women formed and still form the backbone of such movements.
The feeling of being deprived of due recognition and reward for their contribution to resistance movements has begun to surface among local women participants. Many such women leaders are from Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal - three mineral-rich, backward states and one forest-rich but neglected state. Together, these states have seen the maximum number of people's movements in the past decade especially after the acceleration of globalisation. And now, women from these four states have got together to try and rectify this historical neglect of their contribution to the polity of their states.
At the recent workshop on 'Women's Role and Participation in Protest Movement against Development Projects' in Bhubaneswar, 40 women leaders shared their frustrations and chalked out future strategies to get their due. The workshop, the first of its kind, was based on studies done in these four states between 2002 and 2003. The studies, as well as the workshop, were conducted by the Institute of Socio-Economic Development (ISED), a Bhubaneswar-based NGO, and were supported by the Delhi-based Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
"We were used as numbers and invariably put in the forefront to protect the men from police beatings," recalls Ujalmati of Papal Khunta village about women's participation in the anti-BALCO (Bharat Aluminium Company) agitation in Orissa in the 1980s. "At one point, the police even decided to keep us segregated in the deep Reirakhole jungles because the jails were overflowing. We protested and broke the houses built for the company officials. After this, the company men lost the confidence to carry on work. Ultimately, we won!" recounts the octogenarian.
The female factor thus had its usefulness and was utilised to the hilt by the male leaders. When the armed forces came to quell the agitation in Baliapal, the women said, "We are your mothers, come kill us". The soldiers left them alone and returned.
But when the decision-making time came, these same brave women were given the go-by. In the Baliapal agitation, the decision-making steering committee had a lone woman member - mere tokenism. Jharkhand's Koel Karo hydel power project movement(1950s), and the Netrahat Field Firing Range (1981) struggle also saw women leaders sidetracked when the objectives were achieved.
Underplaying the contribution of women is obviously deeply entrenched. When ISED was studying women's participation in the movements in the four states, it found that most women who actively participated had gone back to domesticity. Besides, they tended to underplay their own invaluable contribution to the struggle, speaking more of the movement than their role in it. In fact, after the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) withdrew from the proposed Gopalpur steel plant in Orissa after facing fierce opposition, the male leaders told the active women: "Now go back home, your services are no more required."
Laxmi Naudiyal, leader of Bhumi Dhar Sangathan in Tehri Garhwal, Uttaranchal, questions this attitude. "We women are the backbone of our economies. Men either drink or migrate to the plains to earn. We manage the household, children, the aged, cattle, fuel, water - everything. When we join an agitation we have to do all the housework and make time for the protests. It's double duty for women, but who recognises that?"
Through the Chipko movement to save the forests (1970s), the Tehri dam protest and their fight for a separate state for the hilly region, the women of Uttaranchal have proved they have the stuff that leaders are made of. Kadambari Saklani, a leader of the anti-Tehri dam movement illustrates the point. She collected money and constructed a temple at the dam site in 1985. And for 16 long years - until 2001 when the temple was submerged - she sat there in protest every single day, motivating hundreds to do the same.
There were no rewards for these women just as there were none for the women who initiated the protest campaign that led to the formation of the state of Chhattisgarh. The men joined the protests later but the women were kept out when strategies were being formulated to guide the struggle. At the negotiating table, the men did the talking while the women leaders were simply missing! The men, say these local women leaders, pushed aside the women to become spokespersons of the agitating group, eyed (and achieved) political mileage somewhere or sometime. And, at times, the men manoeuvred themselves into a position to extract money from the agitation's opposing group - corporate bodies, contractors or the government.
If the women made this difficult then petty squabbles erupted, egos clashed and these very male comrades-in-arm had false police cases filed against the women. "Patriarchal reassertion in all its glory," spits out Rashmi Diwedi, 37, an Ekta Parishad activist. Diwedi works with the 41 villages of the Baiga tribes against their displacement from the Achanakmar Sanctuary in Bilaspur district, Chhattisgarh. "During the Resistance, we are Durga (Goddess of victory); but when the time comes to sit on the dais, we are illiterates, hence unworthy to sit alongside them!" exclaims Subri Oroam of Jharpahad Mahila Mukti Sangathan of Katari village in Jharkhand.
It goes to the credit of these women that they admit that the lack of a clear ideology in their activism is partly responsible for their current marginalisation. While in Orissa most struggles have been incited and backed by the political opposition (usually the Left parties), in Uttaranchal the Sarvodaya ideology has held sway. In both cases, party affiliates usually reaped the benefit of the toil of the women.
But now these women, a handful though they may be, have decided women should work in unanimity to the extent possible, and despite geo-cultural differences. They intend to project a value system that is humanistic and progressive. In addition, they plan to work towards documenting their past and future participation in movements that have made history but have forgotten to acknowledge women's contribution.