August 31, 2005
Dr. Esther Barrazoni, Ambassador Dan Simpson, Honorable Members of the Board of Trustees,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am deeply honored to have the opportunity of addressing this distinguished audience, on the special occasion of the Opening Convocation and the commencement of the Year of India – Global Focus Program. I thank you for your gracious gesture in deciding to grant me an honorary doctorate for public service in promoting India-US relations. I am particularly happy to be in this historic College, located in the State where the Declaration of Independence was written, where the Constitution of the USA was written, where Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was written.
I have spoken yesterday and today at other forums in Pittsburgh on India’s socio-economic progress and on India-US relations. On this occasion, I would like to dwell on a somewhat different theme.
I am honored to be in a College devoted to the education of women which was established in 1869 – the year John Stuart Mill published ‘The Subjugation of Women’. That was the year which marked both the culmination and beginning of a long struggle for gender equality, a struggle which continues till this day in different parts of the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1869 was also the year Mahatma Gandhi was born.
Gandhi was inspired by American thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau, and he in turn had a deep influence on Revered Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. I remember, as a student, hearing Martin Luther King describing his visit to India not just a visit, but a pilgrimage to the land of Gandhi. Since Mahatma Gandhi started his struggle for freedom and emancipation in South Africa, we in India did not regard our own freedom as complete as long as apartheid was not abolished in South Africa, and as long as the last bastion of colonialism existed in Namibia. I had the honor of being present in 1990 in Namibia, on the day it became free. That was also the first time I had the honour of meeting Nelson Mandela.
I mentioned Gandhi’s year of birth coinciding with the setting up of Chatham College not just because he led a mass movement for India’s freedom, which in turn, marked the beginning of the end of the British empire, and the beginning of the end of colonialism. I mentioned Mahatma Gandhi in this context, since his was a truly mass struggle which brought many Indian women out of the confines of their homes and to the forefront of India’s freedom struggle. It was this equal participation of women in our independence struggle, which led to the Indian Constitution giving equal rights to all its citizens, irrespective of gender, religion, caste or ethnicity or any other factor. What Mahatma Gandhi, and many other great Indian social reformers before him, tried to do was not to make a break with the past, but to restore to Indian women the true legacy of our civilisational heritage, which had been distorted over centuries.
Women had an equal place with men thousands of years ago in India. Some of the finest hymns in the holy books, the Vedas, were written by women sages. Yesterday I visited the Indian Nationality Room in the University of Pittsburgh, which depicted scenes from the famous Nalanda University in the 4th century, which clearly showed that it was a co-educational institution.
One of the most compelling aspects of Hindu spirituality is the concept of Devi, the Devine Mother, revered as the creator and sustainer of the Cosmos; mysterious and unfathomable, and yet accessible to all, if approached with the spirit of surrender and devotion. Yet the Mother Goddess was also the supreme embodiment of Power, Shakti, as we call it, the warrior and fighter of evil, who terrified all who stood in her way.
Even Indian nationhood, endorsed by all sections of our society, defines our country as Bharat Mata, or Mother India. All of you have just heard our National Anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’. This patriotic song inspired our freedom struggle. There was another patriotic song, ‘Vande Mataram’, which also inspired our freedom fighters. This song captures the magic and majesty of our veneration for ‘Bharat Mata’ or Mother India. Let me read to you a translation of a verse from the song:
“Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hungry streams,
Bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields weaving,
Mother of might,
Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Laughing, low and sweet,
Mother, I kiss thy feet,
Mother, to thee I bow.”
Despite this civilizational legacy, and despite laws and legislation in independent India, I regret to say that we still have a long way to go before we can restore women to the status they once enjoyed in our country, a status which was not enjoyed by women in western democracies, till very recently. In India at present, just 8% of seats in our Parliament is occupied by women; less than 6% of Cabinet positions and less than 4% of posts in the Supreme and High Courts of our land are graced by women.
Worst of all, the proportion of women to men is declining in contemporary India. Our national average is just 933 women for every thousand men . The Southern Indian State of Kerala has the best ratio of 1058 while the north Indian State of Haryana has the worst ratio of 861. And my State of origin, West Bengal, which produced so may great social reformers, still has a shameful record of treatment of widows.
Yet there is hope for the future, growing confidence for the future. Women’s movements in India are active, and at various levels – some are national, some are regional; some movements are focused on ending discrimination in wages and providing equal opportunity for jobs; others are working to combat domestic violence, dowry, etc. There were a number of spontaneous women’s movements which were successful. In the late 1980s peasant women fought for and obtained equal rights to ownership of agricultural land in West Bengal. Earlier there was the famous Chipko (which means to embrace or cling to) Movement where women hugged trees to save forest hillsides from being denuded by unscrupulous contractors.
Changes are taking place in India, and these changes are dramatic and far-reaching. In 1992, under the73rd and 74th Amendments to our Constitution, one third of elected representatives to local and village level governments had, by law, to be women. After initial hesitation in face of male opposition in a society which is still largely patriarchal, with opposition even by their fathers, husbands and sometimes even sons, women are becoming with each passing year more confident and assertive. This change in attitude is nothing short of revolutionary. I would like to emphasise that the process of emancipation of women and the empowerment of all disadvantaged sections of our society is irreversible, and that this process, in terms of its rapid momentum as well as scale, is unprecedented.
These momentous changes, taken together with the fact that India is one of the world’s youngest countries, with half its population under the age of 25 years, makes India a country of the future; a country where vast creative energies will be released, which will propel India to a very dynamic high growth trajectory; growth which will be sustainable since it will be equitable and inclusive. In this process, democracy will find even deeper roots in India and our country will become more stable and prosperous, and an even greater force for peace and progress in Asia and the world as a whole.