The Mahila Shanti Sena: New Womens Peace Movement in India

Tens of thousands of women have now been trained in a women's peace corps and their collective efforts are beginning to change the social and political climate in parts of northern India

By Anne M. Pearson | 2004-01-01 12:00:00

Are Gandhian ideals dead in India? Some people have thought so as India's political leadership since India's achievement of independence in 1947 has largely ignored Mahatma Gandhi's prescriptions for economic, political and social development. Even so, apart from such notable figures as Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, both of whom led mass movements for social change respectively in the 1960s and '70s, there have been some stalwart Gandhians who have continued to attempt to put the Mahatma's ideals into practice if in a limited area. One of these figures is 91-year-old Acharya Ramamurti, a man who in his twilight years has recently inaugurated a new social movement aimed at integrating village and district level democracy with nonviolence and the rights of women. His nonpartisan movement has been meeting with spectacular success. Tens of thousands of women have now been trained in a women's peace corps and their collective efforts are beginning to change the social and political climate in parts of northern India.

Gandhi's Call to Women

Gandhi had long believed that women had special capacities for sacrifice and for leadership in peace building. He thought that the world had been too long dominated by "masculine" aggressive qualities and that it was time that the "feminine" qualities came to the fore. He wrote: "Nonviolence is woman's inborn virtue. For ages together man has been trained in violence. To become nonviolent they will have to generate womanly qualities in them. Since I have adopted nonviolence, I am myself becoming womanly day by day. Women are accustomed to making sacrifices for the family, they will now have to learn to make an offering for the country. I am inviting all women... to get enlisted in my nonviolent army." Thousands of Indian women from all walks of life did respond to his call in the 1930s and 1940s to become actively involved in India's struggle for independence. Many left home and many refused marriage in order to dedicate themselves full time to the movement. Yet, after independence the momentum behind the encouragement of women's advancement and leadership in political and social arenas dwindled. With Gandhi's death, women had lost one of their key champions. The linkage between women's advancement, a country's development and the achievement of a culture of peace was obscured.

Women and Governance

Nevertheless, over the decades the Government of India recognized the need to protect the rights of women and minorities through legislation. In recent years, one method the Indian government has used to advance women and the "backward" classes is through the implementation of a system of reservation of electoral seats for women and for the "tribals," "depressed" or "scheduled" castes (a system that has periodically met with violent resistance). In a 1992 amendment to the Indian Constitution, 30 per cent of State district-level electoral seats were reserved for women. Thus it was that in the northeastern state of Bihar, a state with one of India's highest illiteracy rates and population densities, district council elections resulted in 45,000 women being elected in 8,500 panchayats (district and village councils). Most of these women found themselves elected to public office for the first time, and many found themselves ill-equipped for the challenge, for reasons that included illiteracy, inexperience in the process of village councils and inexperience in public decision-making. Acharya Ramamurti saw an opportunity to help make a difference.

"Shramabharati," founded in Jamui, Bihar, in 1952 by Dhirendra Mazumdar, a close associate of Gandhi, and led for the past 40 years by Acharya Ramamurti, has operated on the principle that people must by themselves find solutions to their problems if those solutions are to be meaningful and effective. Shramabharati was established to facilitate local problem-solving, employment, and rural development by offering training workshops in such areas as health, housing, food and agriculture, small engine repair, and literacy education. After some 25 years, the organization began to focus also on the development needs of women and children, particularly in the poorest rural localities of Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh. Shramabharati's abiding vision has been that of building a self-reliant violence-free social order in India.

Ramamurti realized that the unprecedented numbers of women now elected to district councils in Bihar represented an extraordinary opportunity for women to regain the lost momentum of the heady years leading to India's independence. As council members, women could begin to influence policy priorities at the local level in a way that truly met the needs of women, children, families, and neighborhoods. He began to work on the idea of inviting some of the elected women to week-long training workshops to assist them to become better equipped for their new roles. Referring to Gandhi's idea of establishing "peace brigades," he decided to call the trained women the "mahila shanti sena" or women's peace corps.

The Mahila Shanti Sena and the Vaishali Sabha

In a 2000 meeting between McMaster professor of Biology and Peace Studies Dr. Rama Singh and Acharya Ramamurti, the idea was hatched to organize a gathering of Gandhian activists, social workers, academics, and journalists over a three-day period in the village of Vaishali, Bihar to consider the implications of women's roles in panchayatiraj (governance at the district and village level); and the need to promote participatory democracy and peace-building. Such a gathering would immediately follow the first training camp for a women's peace corps and would serve to officially inaugurate the "Mahila Shanti Sena."

Vaishali was chosen as an auspicious location for this event due to its historical association with the Buddha and also Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, as both were the first spiritual leaders to expound the concept of ahimsa or nonviolence, and make the concept the basis of their teachings. Furthermore, the ancient republic of Vaishali was the first kingdom in India to experiment with democracy and it is the area where Gandhi launched his satyagraha (a term he coined, meaning literally "truth force" but which referred to his methods of nonviolent non-cooperation with unjust laws) against the British control over indigo farming.

This inaugural one-day peace training camp was for more than 100 rural women, most of whom had never held any kind of political office, and quite a few of whom were illiterate. It would be followed by the three-day conference and capped by a very large one-day gathering of villagers and area politicians, to be called the "Vaishali Sabha" (Vaishali Assembly).

Soon, plans came to fruition as funding was obtained from UNICEF Bihar, the McMaster Centre for Peace Studies, and Shrambharati itself. A delegation from the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University was invited, as well as some members from the Hamilton community and the Edmonton-based Mahatma Gandhi Foundation for World Peace.

I had the privilege of attending the Vaishali Sabha Conference on Nonviolence, Peace, and Democracy that took place on February 24-27, 2002 -- a time period that coincided with a fresh outbreak of horrendous Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Gujarat. Indeed, while the world press vividly and earnestly reported on this communal violence, there has been next to no international press on the Vaishali Sabha or on what has transpired since its inauguration. As it was, I came expecting to be an observer only, but was afforded the unexpected opportunity to lead a session with Dr. Reva Joshi, a professor of social and educational policy at OISE, on the theme of "Women, Education and Development."

Indian Women Speak

When Reva Joshi and I discussed what we would say and how we would lead this session, we quickly decided that we should plan to say relatively little and instead set up a framework by which the women participants (in particular, the 109 members of the Mahila Shanti Sena) could speak. Up until this point, these women who had come from several districts in Bihar as well as from the state of Assam, had not been given any formal opportunities to speak to the gathering. Instead, over two and a half days sitting on the ground or on chairs under a large colorful tent on the outskirts of the village, we had heard eloquent speeches championing women's education and roles by a series of male speakers. Thus, on the morning of February 26, we began the session with introductory remarks, and then posed the questions we had devised to encourage women to step up and respond. Our questions were: What would you like for your daughters? If you could choose to change something in their circumstances for them, what would it be? What kind of education do you want or need? How can that education be delivered? What is stopping it now? And, if women were leaders of their communities, what would those communities look like?

Through often forceful and impassioned language, personal stories, and songs they had created during their week of training, the women who responded to our questions made it clear that they understand only too well how vital women's education is to the achievement of social justice and political empowerment. They understood that, as Gandhi said, development is a by-product of education.

Among the comments that I recorded from the women were the following (translated from Hindi):

The People's Assembly and the Vaishali Declaration

With such words communicated in a heartfelt manner by women who had direct experience of the effects of poverty, systemic and social violence, lack of education and often lack of encouragement, the tenor of the conference changed and prepared the way for the final day of the "People's Assembly."

Overnight, several thousand, mostly poor rural women, many with young children in tow, traveled by bus, bullock cart and on foot over a several-hundred-kilometer radius to take part in the grand gathering. The organizers had spent several weeks advertising the event and calling on women (mostly) to attend. There were a couple hundred village men too, as well as the handful of local politicians. A new, football field-sized tent had been erected to shelter the participants from the bright warm sun, next to a Buddhist stupa and the oldest existing man-made sacred bathing pool in India. An elaborate stage was prepared, with loudspeakers, from which music began to blare. Lunch boxes had been prepared and were distributed.

At about noon, the meeting began with speeches about local democracy, peace, and women's rights by local and state politicians (some of them women), by members of Shrambharati and other Gandhian activists. The highlight of the day was the public reading of the Vaishali declaration, a declaration embodying a number of Gandhi's principles around the importance of village-level swaraj (self-governance) and consultative decision-making, of economic self-sufficiency and the dignity of work.

The declaration states: "Today... we men and women from the seven present-day districts comprising the ancient republic of Vaishali, have gathered on the sacred peace stupa grounds on the banks of... the ancient lake of Vaishali. ... Today our minds go back to the days, about 3000 years ago, when Vaishali was the capital of our republic and we were its citizens. ... Now, in our villages panchayatiraj has been established. We have gathered here to think, debate and decide on how our panchayats can develop those qualities that were present in the ancient Vaishali republic. Assembled in this Vaishali Sabha today we declare: We will consider our panchayat as a small republic and try to live together with love, respect and peace; We shall try to ensure that every household has a dependable means of livelihood. We will plan and implement ways to make sure that every man and woman has the means to earn an honest living and lead a life of honor. We will resolve our problems and differences through personal dialogue and other peaceful means. ... We pray to God that He may give us the goodwill to develop our panchayat with affection and co-operation as the strong foundation of democracy in India. ... In doing so we hope and believe that the Vaishali Sabha will become a movement, and its message may spread throughout the country so that a new age of peace and nonviolence may begin."

The Movement Spreads

Within two months of the Vaishali Sabha, four peace rallies inspired by the Sabha took place in Bihar, attended by thousands of women. In the past 16 months, Mahila Shanti Sena workshops, both for new trainees and for training trainers, have been conducted in nine districts of Bihar, as well as in the states of Assam, UP, and Gujarat. The over 10,000 women participants thus far trained have been from predominately low caste groups, but have also included women from other castes and non-Hindu affiliations. While the age range has been from 15 to 60, most have been between 18 and 35. The initial training involves lectures, discussions and role-playing around such issues as the status and rights of women, barriers to women's advancement (e.g., child marriage, dowry, economic dependence, alcoholism among men, exploitation by money-len ers, domestic violence) and the identification of possible solutions. Conflict resolution techniques and village council governance are also discussed. After the training, women are expected to return to their villages and begin to discuss the issues with other women, and to begin the process of planning steps to address the issues.

The general objectives of Mahila Shanti Sena movement are: building peaceful neighborhoods; promoting participatory democracy (through capacity building, with a special focus on women); the formation of women's action groups of peace workers (trained in leadership skills, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and prevention); and women's economic empowerment through micro-loans schemes, self-help groups, and through local centers of skills training. The latter two objectives are still in the process of development. Time frames, locations, and specific objectives have been identified and are described, with accomplishments, press, and photos in regular reports from the Shramabharati Organization. At this point, one of their main concerns is sustainable funding.

Acharya Ramamurti in Canada

Acharya Ramamurti was invited by the Centre for Peace Studies to deliver the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Peace on October 2, 2003. His talk was entitled "A Total Culture of Peace." This visit, his first to North America, allowed personal and institutional links to be forged or renewed between Shramabharati and Canada.

Over the next three weeks in Ontario, Mr. Ramamurti visited and lectured at Hindu temples, churches, and universities speaking about the Mahila Shanti Sena and reminding audiences that Gandhi is not just a "hero of the past" but a guide for India today. Gandhi's ideas about vigorous participatory democracy, beginning at the local level and linked to the advancement of women and the removal of the stain of "untouchability" may finally have arrived. Clearly if, as Gandhi held, there can be no peace in the world without the full participation of women, then special attention must be paid to women's educational, social, and economic needs so as to enable women to assume their full rights and responsibilities as citizens of the world (and in this particular context, citizens of democratic India).

Men have failed to bring about a culture of peace; women are our hope for the future, said Acharya Ramamurti. The last years of his life are now dedicated to assisting women to lead India in a renewed experiment with creative social transformation.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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