Kamala Harris, VP-Elect of the United States of America, has secured a special place in the history of her country. Her election has attained many firsts in the political spectrum of the USA. She comes from a family that justifies the concept of the American Dream. Her mother an Indian, father a Jamaican, Kamala is the first woman from an African-American descendant, the first Indo-American and the first Asian ever to attain such an important position in the United States.
America is a country with a harrowing past of atrocities against Blacks and people of colour, spanning many centuries. Kamala’s election comes at a crucial point when there is widespread tension between different communities and a multifold increase in the cases of police brutalities against the Afro-Americans, similar to that of George Floyd’s murder. Political pundits hope that her administration will work as a binding force against the sharp polarisation that has become a characteristic of the modern world today.
Kamala Harris is not the only woman who has been bestowed upon with a responsibility of such stature. In this piece, we will look into Kamala’s motherland, our own country, the land of goddesses, India, and read about some of the important women leaders who have played a decisive role in the history and politics of India.
Lakhs of freedom fighters struggled and gave their lives to liberate the nation from British oppression. Without the involvement of women, this struggle for freedom could not have achieved its goals. They walked side-by-side, faced the same horrors from the British police as their male counterparts, and were some of the best-known leaders in the face of the emerging Indian Freedom Movement.
“Khoob ladi mardani vo to… Jhansi wali Rani thi…” is a line familiar to many a child and adult in this country. Manikarnika Tambe, popularly known as Jhansi ki Rani, was one of the earliest women leaders who fought against the British empire. She broke the gender roles defined by society at that time. She took over the reins of her kingdom, which was about to be annexed into the British empire. She led her army on the battlefield with her toddler son saddled across her back. She laid her life for her state, fighting for what was rightfully hers. “Main apni Jhansi nahi dungi…” was her call against British oppression. Rani Laxmi Bai became a symbol of resistance and valour for the generations to come.
Sarojini Chattopadhyay Naidu, often referred to as the Nightingale of India, was a popular freedom fighter. She was a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi and a flag bearer of women’s role in the Independence movement. She persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to include women in the Civil Disobedience Movement. In 1925, Sarojini Naidu became the first woman ever to head the Indian National Congress. Later, she became the first woman to hold the position of governor of the United Provinces, soon after Independence.
With higher education from London and Cambridge, she travelled across India advocating freedom of women, gender revolution and nationalism. She worked alongside Annie Besant in the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Her brilliant poetry led Gandhiji to name her the Nightingale of India. She was given the title of Bharat Kokila by Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1966, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, was elected as the Prime Minister of India. Indira was the first woman head of a democratic government, not only in India, but also in the whole world. She was the first lady to lead a modern country. She was a woman of strong stature and resolute will. Indira Gandhi fought her way to the top and maintained her government for more than 11 years. She faced multiple challenges such as the refugee crisis and threat of a US attack. She victoriously led the country into a war with Pakistan and played a crucial role in the formation of Bangladesh. Decisions like the initiation of the nuclear programme despite severe warnings by the US and green-flagging operations like Blue Star gave her the image of an iron lady.
Her social welfare policies, including the nationalisation of banks and moratorium on loans for the poor transformed her into a mass leader. Indira Gandhi was a bold lady who played a crucial role in the making of modern India.
Jayalalithaa was one of the most ambitious political leaders India has seen. From being known as the “Queen of Tamil cinema” to serving as a chief minister for six terms, she became one of the most revered women in south India. In 1991, she became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, becoming the youngest ever chief minister of the state. She had joined the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in 1982, at the heights of her acting career.
She took control of her party in 1987, after the death of her mentor, founder of the party and the political heavyweight M.G.Ramchandran (MGR). She belonged to a humble background, who fought her way up in politics. Jayalalithaa was a gifted orator, with a mastery over multiple languages. She was applauded by Indira Gandhi for her speeches in Rajya Sabha.
After becoming the CM, she took concrete steps to control female child infanticide and foeticide. She started more than 50 police stations, completely run by women officers. Other forms of all-women programmes like libraries and banks were also established. She played a crucial role in the technological development of her state as well, by getting many motor vehicle companies to invest in Chennai. Whether it was prohibiting the selling of chewing tobacco or the compulsory integration of rainwater harvesting systems (RWAs), her modus operandi was resolute, and she got things done on time without any ifs or buts.
Jayalalithaa passed away in 2016 after battling with prolonged sickness.
Mamta Banerjee, or Didi, as she is popularly known, is a household name in today’s politics. A fierce politician and the Chief Minister of West Bengal for 10 years in a row, she broke the electoral hegemony of the Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M) in 2011, which was ruling West Bengal for 35 years without a break.
Prior to her Chief Ministership, she had been an important part of multiple central Cabinets. She held the portfolio of the railway ministry for 10 years. In 1997, she broke away from the Congress Party and formed All India Trinamool Congress. Initially competing in the Municipal election, she fought her way up to the position of Chief Minister. Mamata Banerjee is a well-read woman with multiple Master’s degrees, ranging from law to Islamic studies. She started her political career in her college days by joining the student wing of the Congress party.
The political rise of Mayawati was termed as a miracle of democracy by P.V. Narasimha Rao. A Dalit woman, Mayawati undoubtedly rose from the bottom of the prevailing caste system in India to chief ministership. She has been elected as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh four times now. Mayawati is the National President of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the party that she joined in 1983. She is a law graduate from the University of Delhi and first got elected to the Parliament in 1989. Though her career has been criticised for being corrupt, she has progressively worked towards the upliftment of the most downtrodden communities of UP.
These were some of the most well-known examples of women who have shown exemplary leadership qualities and assisted in the development of our country. But all in all, the representation of women in India is still quite low, even after 73 years of Independence.
Women’s representation in the Indian Parliament is well below the global average. In terms of women’s participation in governance and in the Parliament, India is ranked 148 globally. Only approximately 13% members of both the Houses of Parliament are women. The world average, however, is 20-25%.
Reservation for women in the Parliament is the need of the hour. There have been many talks of introducing the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Parliament for 33% seat reservation. Every major party promises these reforms during elections, but no concrete result has come out yet. It makes sense for male political leaders to not give up a third of the total seats to women legislators.
According to many critics, introducing reservation won’t lead to any actual upliftment of women, because these seats will mostly be contested by the wives and daughters of male political heavyweights. It will remain difficult for independent, worthy women candidates to win elections.
More important than reservation is providing adequate education and a safe childhood to every girl. This will empower them to fight their own battles.