Women’s Studies: A Threat to The Political Right-Wing?

On March 12th, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the statutory body in charge of determining and maintaining the standards of higher education in India, released new guidelines that drastically cut funds up to 40% for Women Studies Centers across the nation. Why is Women’s Studies (WS) the target of the current government? How does the budget cut affect the discipline of WS? How is feminism a political threat?

Women’s Studies emerged in India as a discipline in the 1970s from the women’s movement which attempted to make women visible in history through the interdisciplinary frameworks of gender, race, and class. It extended feminist ideas in the university and explored issues such as violence, caste and religious discriminations, female feticide, dowry deaths, and pay disparity. It questioned the production and distribution of patriarchal knowledge and refuted the gender binary reinforcing the idea of gender performativity. Centers for WS were set up across India and funded by the UGC under the 12thYear Plan (2012-2017); WS was recognized as an important discipline that needed to be institutionalized and supported for changing the perception of women and highlighting their contribution in socio-economic development.

Despite the UGC recognizing WS as an important discipline, there has been a recurring disapproval of the discipline by critics from right-wing politics. Critics of WS believe that the discipline is an indulgence for women. In 2003, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a party led by the Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP), a right-wing political party heading the current Indian government, sought to rename Women Studies Centers across the nation as Women and Family Studies Centers as part of the 10th Year Plan, hoping that a change in name would deter feminist agendas. A few years later, a survey in the state of Tamilnadu in 2006, under the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK) government, an ally to the NDA, examined WS in many universities across the state and concluded that WS courses were often regarded as “soft options”. It stated that WS ended up getting students who did not get admissions into core disciplines while questioning the discipline’s significance and impact in the real world. 

It is indeed distressing to see how the right-wing questions the significance of WS in a culture where sexual harassment is normalized and trivialized. When Indian women broke their silence on social media with the #MeTooMovement in 2018, the government remained silent and refused to take action on sexual harassers, endorsing male supremacy. With thousands of women, like the journalist Priya Ramani and the actress Tanushree Dutta, shaking the skeletons out of their closets, the #MeToo movement drew attention to patriarchal oppression at home and at the workplace. However, the fundamentalist non-secular right-wing dismissed the cases focusing instead on the “saffronization” of the nation and the glorification of Hinduism.

In the present political scenario, it is not surprising that WS suffers a drastic budget cut. Women and minority studies are a threat to the political right-wing as they question patriarchy and casteism, which are the fundamental tenets of the party. With a cut in funds in higher education, admissions will be limited, and tuition will increase; education will become unaffordable for students from underprivileged backgrounds and higher education will become elitist. The temporariness accorded to Women’s Studies and Dalit Studies, among other social science disciplines, through UGC funds, is a way of institutional marginalization. By withholding funds, the government controls the circulation of feminist thought and reinforces patriarchal oppression. 

The government’s nationalistic vision of “New India” as a superpower with global hegemony is an extension of upper-class Hindu patriarchal ideology; it is imperative therefore that WS is recognized as an important discipline, and women are viewed as equal, in times that celebrate inequality as power. Let’s hope that the upcoming election in May 2019 will bring about an equal and diverse India.


(Photo Credit: She the People)

Biopolitics, and business as usual, in India

The clinical trial is a form of neo-imperialism. Heralding modernity under the banner of science, the West makes the Third World its guinea pig to promote scientific innovation. It exists as the sovereign power, which controls the lives of developing countries, exercising a right over life and death through imperial and capitalist measures, and taking advantage of another’s need for self-empowerment/ perpetuation. The Indian layperson is exploited with the rise of clinical trials, and the body, deprived of its humanity, becomes an instrument to promote political interest; scientific advancement is made at the cost of human life.

In Over 2,500 Deaths During Indian Clinical Trials, Ranjita Biswas disparages clinical trials. She argues clinical trials in India lack standard protocols and unethical practices are rampant in the Indian drug industry. SAM, a health rights forum, draws a petition for transparency in the clinical trials, appealing for equal compensation to participants and informed consent from participants. Chinmoy Mishra, the coordinator of SAM extrapolates: “We are not against clinical trials in the country. But there should not be exploitation of participants. Human life is precious.” What exactly is the value of human life?

Clinical trials exploit the disadvantaged, whose lives are bought for experimentation: after all, who would want to die for the sake of scientific advancement alone?  The rhetoric of “transparency”, “equal compensation”, and “informed consent” rings hollow as it strives to justify the worth of human life in the market. The Supreme Court’s decision to ban clinical trials until the government comes up with a “‘foolproof’ mechanism to regulate experiments”, would probably suspend the deaths resulting from clinical trials, subsequently interrupting scientific development– but for how long? How would India progress/regress if it completely banned clinical trials? How does the political body use the personal body for its advancement? Can there be a “foolproof” mechanism at all for a health experiment? These are some of the pressing questions we need to ask ourselves.

Health rights forums, such as SAM, fix a price tag on the human species and strive in good faith to educate the participants and prevent them from capitalist exploitation. But conversely, such health rights forums work in favor of capitalism by quoting a price for health. It is not “transparency” that SAM champions—it is business. By ascribing health rights to humanity, organizations tend to overlook the disadvantaged position of the participant who is ready to trade health for monetary fulfillment.

Several unacknowledged guinea pigs must die before an experiment succeeds. Unfortunately, science has to feed on human health for the advancement of welfare. Clinical trials queer the individual in complex ways, combining personal and political interests to exploit the body and de-humanize humanity.


(Photo Credit: The Times of India)