At a rally to ‘Remember Fukushima’ in 2015, held in London, writer and activist Amrit Wilson stood and raised a simple question:
“Do we care about human life? Do we care about the future? Or do we care about profits by the big corporations? Because the Indian experience shows that that’s what it is really about.”
For anyone aware of the situation in India, those questions ring eerily true. And once you start delving deeper into Wilson’s work, the force of her writing on issues of gender and race especially strikes you even harder.
Living in the UK since the early 1960s, Wilson, who visits India often, is the author of “Finding A Voice – Asian Women In Britain” and “Dreams Questions And Struggles –South Asian Women In Britain”. Founder member of the South Asia Solidarity Group (SASG), and part of Freedom Without Fear – a coalition of organizations and individuals ‘for Black, South Asian and ‘Minority Ethnic’ women to lead discussions on the violence against women and girls’, Wilson’s writings have been published in The Guardian, openDemocracy, Ceasefire magazine and many others.
I reached out to the astute socio-political commentator for a free-wheeling chat, over email, to find about more on what she thinks of multiple issues – this government’s two years in power, the Beef parties we saw last year, to the struggle for women’s rights today. Read on.
Artika Raj (AR): Prior to the 2014 elections, you wrote of how Narendra Modi becoming PM would deal a real blow to women’s rights in India. Two years on with Modi as PM, what is your opinion on the matter today?
Amrit Wilson (AW): I had written that a Modi victory would tighten the powerful grip which the Sangh Parivar organisations already had on India’s institutions and this would affect women’s rights. This is exactly what has happened whether in education where school curricula have been redesigned to introduce the most misogynistic attitudes and patriarchal structures, in universities where Vice Chancellors seek to impose curfews and other ridiculous patriarchal rules, or in the law itself with the retention of the anti-LGBTQ section 377 or AFSPA in Kashmir and the North East.
The last two years have also seen a horrifying increase in violent attacks by emboldened Hindutva gangs on Muslim and Dalit women with atrocities like the digging out and gang rape of a recently-buried Muslim woman’s body. At the same time, the government’s ruthless neoliberal policies have meant, as I had predicted in the Guardian piece, that in the mineral-rich central belt of India, the mainly Adivasi populations are being increasingly displaced with the utmost violence and the land handed over to corporates. An integral part of this process is the torture and rape of Adivasi women.
AR: A call to protest Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK by ‘Freedom Without Fear’, of which you are a founding member, had special mention of beef on the lunch menu – “Plus delicious food (non-vegetarian and vegetarian) including the Beef dishes the Hindu right want to ban!” Many even in India organised beef parties to express dissent. How important are these little acts of subversion to combat the right-wing agenda, in your opinion? Are their other things common people can do to stem its spread?
AW: As a Marxist and a feminist, I believe that no-one is a ‘common’ person, just as no-one is ‘normal’. But yes, I do think that apparently small acts of subversion have an impact. Of course, when carried out collectively against a background of a mass movement, they have infinitely more impact. I am thinking here of what Essar Batool told me recently about her book “Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?” – that for the survivors of that horrifying gang rape 25 years ago – ‘forgetting was a coping mechanism and remembering is resistance’ – in that case, the very act of remembering and speaking confronts the patriarchy of the state and undermines its weapons of intimidation and fear.
AR: As somebody who has been critical of ‘white feminism’ for its inability to be intersectional, how do you see the growth of the feminist movement in India? Do you think it is inclusive enough of differences unique to India such as caste? What needs to be done to make sure it is?
AW: ‘White feminism’ refers not to the feminism of women who happen to be white but to an ideological approach which does not acknowledge the crucial significance of race. I have belonged over the years to feminists groups for and by women of colour. We have continually challenged ‘white feminism’ but we have always seen ourselves as part of the broader feminist movement. This form of engagement assumes that there is always an underlying possibility of change. As for the feminist movement in India, like the movement in the UK, it appears to be anything but monolithic – some sections within it have a far more intersectional approach to women’s oppression than others; this needs to be far more widespread. It is the only way to create a collective feminist identity which acknowledges the huge differences in women’s experiences and recognises the unique contributions of Dalit feminism. Caste is and must be seen as, central to any analysis of Indian society and it is inextricably bound up with gender. This is so even in the South Asian communities in the UK. Forced marriage cases in the UK too are most likely to be linked to a compulsion to maintain so-called caste purity.
AR: From Grunwick to the women protesting AFSPA in Kashmir, to the powerful Pinjra Tod movement on campuses in India, how do you see the evolution of the Asian women as an activist? Has her perception as a docile, homemaker changed both within the community and outside?
AW: Women have always been activists in a variety of ways but this generation of Indian women has risen up in unprecedented numbers. They are far more vocal and visible than in earlier periods and this is something uniquely inspiring. Even under the harshest of conditions, ruthless neoliberalism, the fascistic rule of the BJP, and the increasing power of the worst elements of feudal patriarchy like the Khap Panchayats, Pinjras are being smashed and with them the stereotypes. However, the paymasters of the media have insisted on a continual reconstruction of stereotypes and a parade of reconfigured constructions of the ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’, so the battle will have to continue. Meanwhile, we must draw sustenance from every victory small and big. Speaking of intersectionality, we must also remember that being stereotyped as ‘docile’ and a ‘homemaker’ is primarily a middle class/upper caste experience and women from marginalised groups are often demonised or stigmatised.
AR: In India, press freedom is currently under threat (most recent being the attempted day-long ban on NDTV). Do you think this situation is unique to the current government? Would you feel as free to criticise the government if you were living here?
AW: I think there are two issues here, firstly whether an individual writer is willing to criticise the government and secondly whether media outlets would be willing to print what they have written. For example, since Narendra Modi came to power most newspapers in the UK have been reluctant or unwilling to accept articles critical of him. There has been very little reportage of the daily atrocities committed by the Sangh Parivar. In India, as I said before, the media is kept on a tight rein by the government. Would I feel free to criticise the government if I lived in India? This is a hypothetical question but since I have always been quite happy to write what I believe to be true even if that means criticising the powerful, I don’t think I will stop now, no matter where I happen to live.
AR: Lastly, on the role of the journalist in today’s times. Public perception of the media has undergone a major shift, the most recent case being the 2016 US elections. Where do you think the media is going right and going wrong? Is it fulfilling its purpose as a watchdog, if that is its purpose?
AW: Since a lot of the media globally is now owned by powerful corporates, on one level the media can only be a watchdog for corporate interests. Journalists committed to telling the truth and providing facts have to operate against this background and as the US elections have shown this is not easy. Increasingly people have turned to social media for news – now even this is hugely problematic with the fabrication of a huge amount of ‘fake news’.