A study in distress

P Anima | Updated on January 10, 2018

Game changers: Women’s study centres in their early years strived to give women more agency in policymaking as well as impact other traditional disciplines   -  Reuters

Room to read: Centres, such as the one in JNU, that have managed to be full-fledged departments in universities have fared better   -  Meeta Ahlawat

Women’s studies as a discipline has had a bumpy history in universities, and the disappearance of the Plan system has made the going tougher

On August 23, a little over 200 teachers of women’s studies from across the country gathered in the Capital. Many of them had not met before. They came from Guwahati and Pune, Chandigarh and Tiruchirapalli, Mumbai and Kolkata, and were bound by a common concern: The future of the discipline they taught, and that of theirs.

For young teachers such as Hardik Batra Biswas, who teaches at the Jadavpur University’s School of Women’s Studies (SWS), the impending crisis was no longer just a talking point. If enough were not done swiftly, those like him stood to lose their jobs. Hence, the teachers assembled in strength when the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS), one of the oldest professional bodies of women’s study scholars, organised a national convention to discuss ways to tackle the crisis.

Much of it began when the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP) officially ended in March this year. For most women’s study centres (WSC), the FYP is a vital lifeline. With the plan system itself in archival mode, the future of many teachers at WSCs across the country was under threat. A few teachers were even served termination letters just as the Plan period drew to a close. But on March 29, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced the extension of Plan schemes for another fiscal year, and the financial support for WSCs was ensured till March 2018. Many sighed in relief, and careers got another lease of life, albeit a short one.

But the developments also served as reality check for teachers such as Biswas. Another faculty member who was served a termination letter called it a ‘moment of realisation’ — of the precariousness of their job positions.

Just when things were settling down, the UGC came out with another notice on June 9 that stated that “all the on-going schemes of UGC under the Plan Head would continue upto 30.9.2017”. Their continuance beyond September 30, it said, would be subject to the UGC’s review. As far as the teachers were concerned, this was a punch in the gut.

Many like Biswas had been hired on contract under the 12th FYP, in posts commonly known as ‘plan positions’. “I and two other teaching staff and four non-teaching staff fear the axe if support ends abruptly on September 30,” says Biswas.

Why UGC support matters

Unlike other conventional departments in universities and colleges, many WSCs — at least 163 of them — are dependent entirely on UGC aid. It has to do with the character of WSCs and the circumstances under which they evolved. Women’s studies as a genre and WSCs as places of study have a complex history. Doling out degrees was not what the WSCs initially set out to do. The role aspired for was larger and its impact visceral.

The first WSC preceded the landmark Towards Equality, a status report on women in India published in 1974-75. Mumbai’s SNDT Women’s University started its women’s studies unit, later called the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, in 1974. Maithreyi Krishnaraj, its former director, appears frail. Her speech is measured, but her tone firm. “There is a belief that women’s studies is an indulgence for women. It is not,” she says. Krishnaraj considers the discipline vital in analysing society, primarily its disregard of women’s contribution to economy, policy and environment. “We don’t want women to be just beneficiaries of development, but participants in it,” she says. Early WSCs strived to give women more agency in policymaking. The first centre, says Krishnaraj, functioned out of ‘half a room’ and a ‘small private grant.’ “The UGC grant came later. Among the first documents we produced were a statistics of women in different fields,” she adds.

Towards Equality is key to the women’s movement in India. “It could have been a standard, boring government report. But it wasn’t. It came out with surprising and shocking findings on the status of women,” says Mary E John, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies. Women’s minimal engagement in the workforce and falling sex ratios were disturbing findings after more than 25 years of Independence. “Unlike in the US, where movement in the streets led to WSCs, here it began as a way to address the State on its failures,” points out John. Women, primarily rural women, were the subjects of study. An academic discipline was simply not priority. “It was not meant to teach some women about women. Nobody wanted degrees in women’s studies. In fact, it was considered a foolish idea,” adds John.

WSCs started functioning out of six universities in the mid-’80s. They were ambitious projects, not ghettos, the impact of which was to be felt across disciplines — economics, sociology, philosophy. John’s predecessors were convinced such interventions were plausible. “We believed we could find that resonance. The numbers were coming down and why should that not be on everybody’s agenda?” she asks. But time proved it was not. “We were meant to achieve a lot with very little,” says John. And that was when offering courses, considered too small a role earlier, became an option. In a span of 30 years, WSCs have made a tangential journey. Insisting it was not a discipline but a perspective, it is now fighting to remain a discipline. As scholars like to say, when ‘gendering disciplines’ did not work, they moved towards ‘disciplining gender’.

Their unusual beginnings put WSCs on the fringes of the university system. Physically they were within universities, but outside of it in spirit and purpose. Run entirely on UGC assistance, studies were done with funds allocated from Plan to Plan. Changes happened when WSCs began offering courses. A handful of centres have since been absorbed into the parent universities. The majority still banks on the UGC for sustenance.

The past was also far from rosy. “We were under the non-formal education system. Every five years we got some money. It always came late,” says John. Centres which managed to be full-fledged departments in universities fared better. The centre at JNU, which started in 2001 during John’s tenure, is one such. “JNU is a good story. It is primarily a research university where the faculty-to-student ratio is good,” she says. Campuses were territories and gaining posts for disciplines often rested on clout. WSCs, the perpetual outsiders, didn’t have enough. Some centres had partial successes, wherein a few posts became permanent and the rest continued on Plan. Others were just forced to clip their wings.

That was so until the 12th FYP, which proved to be a windfall. “It saw a nine-fold increase in funding. New central universities were set up,” says John. Existing centres went on expansion. The 12th Plan Guidelines focuses on the ‘Development of Women’s Studies in Universities and Colleges’. While the 11th FYP envisaged upgrading WSCs into full-fledged departments, the 12th Plan aimed to strengthen them. Centres were categorised based on capacities, and ₹198.15 crore was allotted to the 155 WSCs dependent on the UGC grant at the time. Plans were drawn for at least 10 new centres a year.

The bonanza of the 12th Plan has made the prospects of support drying up harder to deal with. “The break has happened too soon,” says John. And little help is expected from elsewhere. A cash-starved higher education system and State universities running on lean budgets are not expected to be of much help. John agrees blame games will not help. “This is the product of the end of Planning. It may not be the big plan to kill women’s studies. But that has been the consequence.”

A lifetime’s work

Biswas has been invested in women’s studies for 12 years. “It is not incidental that I’m doing this,” he says without bitterness about the looming uncertainty. “We are a generation of scholars trained in women’s studies. I did my MPhil and PhD, and published papers. If wehave no space in a university, where do we go?” he asks.

Biswas and his colleagues were made aware of the administration’s helplessness in supporting them if the UGC withdrew the grant by September 30. The teachers organised a convention in the eastern region. They held protests and were supported by the university faculty and students’ union. Attending the national convention, Biswas appears emboldened by the support gained. “I think the ball is slowly rolling in our direction,” he says.

Biswas’s inkling proved right a day after the convention. On August 24, the UGC published a notice clarifying that there is no “move to cut or stop funding/support Women Study Centres being funded by the UGC”.

Almost two weeks after the latest notice, Biswas remains unsure of its impact. Ambiguity remains since the UGC notice refrains from mentioning any dates. Biswas says the university administration has written to the UGC requesting clarity. “We have not heard anything in the affirmative as yet,” he adds. BLink’s attempts to reach the concerned UGC official evinced no response.

Another faculty of women’s studies at a premier centre, who wants to remain anonymous, says the past few months have taken a toll. After spending nearly a decade in women’s studies and appointed under the Plan, a termination letter landed in March. The teacher was reinstated after the UGC subsequently extended the Plan. But not before breaking the faith in the system. Subsequent notices have only added to the confusion. “Teaching is about long-term commitments. We are guiding students through research and are invested in the department. Until it hits you one does not realise the enormity of the crisis. I’m actually a little tired of all this. What can be done when such things happen mid-career?” asks the faculty member.

Uncertain future

Samita Sen, director of SWS at Jadavpur University, is trying to steer the centre through the crisis. Most of her team is bound to be affected. Though the UGC’s latest notice seeks to assuage immediate fears, long-lasting solutions are not yet in sight. “The 12th FYP was a bonanza and we grew by leaps and bounds,” says Sen. From the previous annual grants of ₹30 lakh, the 12th Plan had allotted around ₹80 lakh to the school, which is one of the oldest WSCs. And they had expanded. An MA syllabus is awaiting approval.

“It is all up in the air,” says Sen. Her teachers are guiding PhD students. Courses need attention. “There are all sorts of issues.” Sen has watched and engaged with the changing face of women’s studies. “We have to reduce our dependence on the UGC and integrate into the university structure. Our battles also must be together,” she says. Sen doesn’t know how all of this will pan out. “I wouldn’t even want to hazard the wildest guess.” Till then a discipline hangs by a feeble lifeline.

Published on September 08, 2017

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