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India: Why do men keep us out of politics, asks Divya

Jun 13, 2013

Patriarchy undergirds every sphere of society and political movements are no exception, writes Senthalir S.

Chennai: Patriarchy undergirds every sphere of society and political movements are no exception. Take the case of 23-year-old Divya G.K. of the Students’ Struggle Committee for Tamil Eezham (Tamil Eezhathirkana Maanavar Pooratta Kuzhu). She has played a key role in leading the recent students’ struggle in Tamil Nadu in support of Tamil Eezham in Sri Lanka - an issue that was hitherto always articulated by men.

Divya quickly grabbed media attention with her eloquent speeches but her rise on the political horizon did not go down well with many male-centred political groups. Soon she was facing sexist remarks, hate campaigns in social networking sites and bulk emails decrying her caste and playing the Dalit versus non-Dalit card - Divya happens to be a non-Dalit.

Hailing from Aruppukottai in Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu, she is currently pursuing law in Chennai. Her interests in politics began while she was still in high school, when she became associated with the Students’ Liberation Cultural Association (Maanavar Vidudhalai Panbattu Kazhagam). Recalls Divya, Every first Sunday, the association used to organise book review sessions, which included everything from the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar to books related to Marxism. Besides this, every third Sunday there screenings from world cinema were organised, followed by discussions.”

She joined Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI-ML) when she was in Class 11. “During the final stages of war in Sri Lanka in 2008-09, we were in school. We did not have a space to voice our concerns over what was happening there. There was a vacuum then. It is a different scenario now,” says Divya.

The recent photographs of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s son Balachandran that emerged from Callum Macrae’s ‘No Fire Zone: Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ documentary triggered protests in Chennai in the beginning of March 2013. The indefinite fast declared by eight students of Loyola College on March 8, 2013, lit the spark that turned into wildfire, which raged across the state. Although the protest was withdrawn after a lot of pressure, thousands of students from engineering, medical and arts colleges – and surprisingly even from IIT Madras – joined in the wave of dissent forcing political parties, the government and the media to take notice.

It was then that Divya and her associates decided to form the Students’ Struggle Committee for Tamil Eezham (Tamil Eezhathirkana Maanavar Pooratta Kuzhu) in order to organise students across the state. The police stepped up pressure on the agitating students, citing prohibitory orders and the like, and the Tamil Nadu government declaring holidays in colleges and universities. But the students continued to gather in large numbers, demanding that the world recognise Sri Lanka’s war crimes and genocide. They argued for an independent international investigation into the war and the imposition of an economic embargo on Sri Lanka. Divya puts it this way, “Our main aim was to pressurise the Indian government to take a tough stand against the Sri Lankan government.”

Unfortunately, the impact was limited. The US resolution on Sri Lanka was passed on March 21 in a diluted form. According to Divya, it only provided more time for the Sri Lankan government to Sinhalise and militarise the Tamil areas in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. But the students’ protests across Tamil Nadu did have two significant impacts, according to Divya. One, it forced the state government to pass a resolution calling for economic sanctions against Sri Lanka and a referendum for a separate Tamil Eezham. Two, it touched a chord among the Tamils in Vanni, who gained some confidence to demand their rights.

What was striking, however, was that these protests also brought the dormant patriarchal attitudes to the fore. The emergence of articulate, knowledgeable women like Divya was regarded with unease. Says she, “It is not easy for even senior members within a party to accept women’s leadership at public forums. Most disturbing was the way I was treated by some law students. I was invited to participate in a meeting they had organised in April. But nearly 40 male students gathered on that occasion with the single agenda to control me.”

They gave her an hour’s deadline to dissolve the Students’ Struggle Committee for Tamil Eezham, a committee which was formed with the effort of 39 colleges in 17 districts over 20 days. When she refused to do so, they started abusing her and passing sexist remarks. They even passed a resolution that she should not give interviews to the media or distribute pamphlets without their permission. Her friends finally asked to her to leave the place immediately fearing that she would be beaten up.

Leading the students’ movement was a challenging and unforgettable experience for Divya. She was labeled a Naxalite and even an informer by those who detested her emergence. “For me, those 20 days of struggle proved a new experience. I realised two things: One, a lot of work needs to be done if we are to achieve our political goals. Two, it is extremely difficult for women to work at par with men in these struggles. The intolerance towards me was partly driven by the unprecedented media attention I, as a woman, had received,” she observes.

Divya perceives this as a failure of the society to encourage women to come out and participate in social and political actions. “Families easily allow a boy to take part in a protest but not the girls. Although women may know more about Sri Lanka’s history than men, not many come out to protest because it is not the norm for women to be seen on a social platform. In this way, women are actively discouraged from coming forward to participate in politics. We need to put a lot of effort to bring them out,” she argues.

The other aspect that strikes Divya is the manner in which women’s causes are routinely undermined. “Many political organisations fail to see women’s concerns as important social issues and hence isolate them. But these bodies would, in fact, get strengthened if they were to take a special interest in such issues and go the extra mile to organise women. Today, there is a women’s wing in every organisation but none of them has an agenda to talk about women’s issues or organise and politicise women. This is true even for progressive and Left organisations,” she adds.

The wisdom of this young, politically-conscious woman is striking. Having grown up in the turbulent decade of the Nineties and noughties has provided her with rare insight into the political process. But as a woman she has also keenly sensed the manner in which women within political movements and students’ movements in Tamil Nadu have been systematically marginalised.

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