Clinton’s South Asian Tour

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India has a population of approximately 900 million people, half of whom are women. The Hindu caste system structures Indian society in a complex hierarchy that can be socially oppressive for the majority of women. Not only are the lower castes and tribal groups socially ostracized and oppressed, but women from these groups face multiple oppressions that are aligned along the lines of gender, caste and class. [includes rush transcript]

Historical and traditional caste, gender, class and religious oppressions were further exacerbated during 300 years of British colonial rule that empowered some higher-caste women through access to education and economy, but simultaneously marginalized those at the bottom. Current economic conditions have worsened the divisions among women.


  • Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing company, publishing Third World studies on women. Kali for Women was founded in 1984 with Ritu Menton and bankrolled by a $100.00 investment to provide a forum for women writers, creative and academic. Today, 15 years later, the two have published over 100 books on women.
  • Shabana Azmi, activist and actress. Star of the films Fire and Water, directed by Deepa Mehta. Banned in India, Fire is the first film to confront lesbianism in a culture adamantly denying such a love could ever exist. Water is the third in a trilogy of films on the “elements” and is set in the northern city of Varanasi, sacred to Hindus. This past January, hard-line Hindu organizations ransacked the movie set, protesting that the film tarnished the city and denigrated Hindu traditions. Protesters were unhappy over reports that the film shows a relationship between a high-caste widow and a low-caste Hindu. They were also angry over rumors that it showed Hindu widows being forced into prostitution because of financial hardship. In 1998, the Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena party led violent protests against the screening of the film Fire, the first in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

SITA: So, what do we have to do today?

RADHA: Wear fancy saris, heavy jewelry, anything we wish.

SITA: Except eat and drink.

RADHA: You don’t have to keep the fast if you don’t want.

SITA: You must be joking. My mother would kill me. And Biji, she’d never stop ringing the bell. Isn’t it amazing? We’re so bound by customs and rituals. Somebody just has to press my button, this button marked “Tradition,” and I start responding like a trained monkey. Do I shock you?


SITA: You’re lovely.

AMY GOODMAN: A scene from the Indian film Fire by Deepa Mehta. It was a bold, taboo-breaking film that ended up being banned in India. Fire is the first film to confront lesbianism in a culture that adamantly denies that such a love can exist.

We’re joined on the telephone right now by Urvashi Butalia. She is co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing company, founded about 16 years ago, publishing Third World studies on women.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, from New Delhi, India. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Urvashi Butalia.

Can you hear us? Well, we’ll have to go back and give her a call.

India has a population of approximately 900 million people, half of which are women. The Hindu caste system structures Indian society in a complex hierarchy that can be socially oppressive for the majority of women. Not only are the lower castes and tribal groups socially ostracized and oppressed, but women from these groups face multiple oppressions that are aligned along the lines of gender, caste and class.

Historical and traditional caste, gender, class and religious oppressions were further exacerbated during 300 years of British colonial rule that empowered some higher-caste women through access to education and economy, but simultaneously marginalized those at the bottom. Current economic conditions have worsened the divisions among women.

One of the people who first — who has focused on this issue, and also focused on how poverty increases — overall poverty increases women’s poverty, is Vandana Shiva. Vandana Shiva is well known for her activism and also for the book she wrote, in fact the publishing house Kali, Asia’s first feminist publishing company, was the first to publish Vandana Shiva, and each book she writes each year is also published by the Kali publishing house.

We are joined again by Urvashi Butalia from New Delhi, the founder of Kali publishing house. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us from New Delhi. Let me start out by asking — you’re in the city where the U.S. president Bill Clinton has recently arrived. What has been the reception for him? I understand, for example, that protests are banned on the streets?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of excitement, as is to be expected at the official level. There have been some attempts at protest, but they haven’t really allowed them to come out and protest because of the heavy security. And I think at a general people’s level, if you like, there isn’t, you know, that much excitement, because people are not really that bothered. But there’s also quite a lot of irritation at the traffic jams and the rerouting the people have to do on their way to work, as always happens when there’s some dignitary or the other visiting.

AMY GOODMAN: In the news headlines, we just read the story of 40 sick villagers being fatally shot last night in India’s disputed northern territory of Kashmir. Later in the week, we’ll talk more about the politics of Kashmir, but you have written extensively, historically, about what happened to women at the time of partition, India’s independence, also the time of the division between Pakistan and India. Can you give us the feminist perspective on how your country was divided and what happened to half the population?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Well, yes. You know, the thing is that the history of partition that we tend to learn in school and at university really takes no account of what happened to ordinary human beings. And one of the key histories that has remained hidden is how women were implicated and involved. And there’s a history of tremendous violence towards women, of the mass rape and abduction and also impregnation in the way that you saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina recently, at the time in 1947, and then both countries, which have constantly been at loggerheads with each other, getting together very quickly after partition to come to an agreement about finding these women who had been abducted or raped and bringing them back, forcibly almost, to their — what they defined as their own countries, which they sort of defined in terms of the religion of the women. So if you were a Hindu woman, but you might have been living in what became Pakistan, you were forced to come back to India. And a lot of women protested about this. A lot of them were then — when they came back or when they were found and brought back to what was seen as their own country, you know, they were not accepted by their families, particularly in India, because there’s a strong taboo in the Hindu religion against what is seen as pollution by means of having sex with a man of the other religion. In a sense, the history of the mass rape of women is very much a part of the history of partition, and we don’t actually hear much about it.

AMY GOODMAN: How have your writings — did you ever finish the book that you were writing on that period 50 years ago?


AMY GOODMAN: And how were your writings received in India?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Well, I was actually amazed at the amount of interest, and — you know, because it’s very difficult to talk to people about that kind of pain and grief. But actually, the reaction was very wonderful, with people of all ages commenting on how glad they were to see the history written down, because they felt in some way that the experiences that they have been holding inside families have been recognized and legitimized. And those experiences form so much, you know, a kind of bedrock of the reality of extreme polarization on questions of religion that we are living in India today. And I think we need to really understand them. And there was a sense that work like mine — mine is not the only book; it was one of the books that have started to come out around this time — that this is helping in some way to open up those debates.

AMY GOODMAN: Urvashi Butalia, we began the segment by playing an excerpt of the film Fire that lit India on fire, at least a small sector of it, when it was released in the last few years. Can you explain why the movie was so controversial in India, why it was banned?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Yes. Well, no, the movie was never banned in India. Fire was — you know, that’s a misconception. Fire ran to back houses in India. What actually happened was that a small group of right-wing fundamentalists, who see themselves as self-appointed guardians of public morality, attacked the cinema theater in Delhi where the show was on and tried to create a problem and insisted that the film be taken off the screens, but in fact it wasn’t. It continued to run. There was huge debate about it in the newspapers, on television and so on. And it ran its life, and then it stopped, and it was replaced by other films.

But I think the more important issue is that what we are seeing in India now is a very unfortunate kind of street censorship by people who take it upon themselves to act as, you know, guardians of public morality and who are obviously extremely conservative and very anti-woman. And therefore, the next film that this same director, Deepa Mehta, was making was the one that actually faced quite a lot of attack, and the shooting has been stopped as a result of it.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Fire, as advertised in this country, I guess the way they sell it is by saying “banned in India.” But can you explain that it also fits into the politics of modern-day India, who is in power today and who the right-wing Hindu group is that fought so hard against it to try to get it banned in India?

URVASHI BUTALIA: You see, the party that is in power is the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP for short, which is a right-wing party that is made up of a number of smaller parties who are — you know, they call themselves the family of parties, or they’re like the Mafia, and they have many different arms. Some of them speak with extremely moderate, but still fairly conservative voices, and the others are the more violent element. So the people who actually attacked Deepa Mehta’s second film was a group which is run by one of the small arms of this party, and that arm is called the Vishwa Hindu Parishath. And that group called itself the cultural arm or a cultural group out to protect the cultural identity of India, by which they mean Hindu India. They don’t mean the diverse, plural country that this country is. So there are many such arms of that particular political party which do different things and speak with different voices, but it all adds up to a fairly — I mean, a very, very conservative, very reactionary agenda, where censorship is becoming a very real fear for both writers and filmmakers and many other people.

AMY GOODMAN: I know in the case of Deepa Mehta, you’re talking about — we were talking about Fire, but she’s also made Earth, the film Earth, which talks about the Muslim-Hindu divisions in India, and then Water, which has been stopped in the making. Is that right?

URVASHI BUTALIA: That’s right, yes.


URVASHI BUTALIA: Well, Earth did reasonably well. I mean, I don’t think it was a big commercial success, but there was no problem with the film and what it was trying to show, because really partition histories are beginning to open up now. Water was stopped because there was all of this stuff that they feared that it was presenting a bad image of India abroad, and because it talked about the treatment of widows. And the people who tried to stop it claimed that, in fact, we don’t treat widows so badly. But that’s nonsense. You know, the position of widows in this country is very bad, and there’s no point in standing behind that.

AMY GOODMAN: The position of widows being?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Being — well, in Hindu religion, quite often what happens is the widow is considered inauspicious, because now the man is dead, and often — you know, there’s been a lot of attempt to reform this, from the 19th century on, with changes in the law and so on. But there are still places like Banaras, otherwise known as Varanasi, where the film was being shot, and another place called Vrindavan, where widows are sent by their families to live out their own life in a great deal of poverty, deprivation. The excuse is that they’re going there to communicate with God, and they will find salvation. But actually what ends up — what happens to them, many of them, is that they are extremely poor, very oppressed, and some, the younger ones, are often either forced into or go into prostitution as a way of earning money to keep body and soul together.

AMY GOODMAN: Urvashi Butalia, we have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back and wrap up the discussion, I wanted to ask you about an issue that’s very hot in the United States, and that’s the issue of abortion and women’s reproductive rights, and where India stands on it. Urvashi Butalia is co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing company. It’s called Kali for Women, founded in 1984, publishes women’s fiction, creative, academic books, has published more than a hundred books over the last decade and a half.

You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman.

RADHA: Sita?

ASHOK: Good. She looks happy these days. Maybe she’s pregnant. You didn’t hear me calling?

RADHA: Yes, I did.

ASHOK: Why didn’t you come?

RADHA: Sita says the concept of duty is overrated.

ASHOK: She’s young. But you know its importance.

AMY GOODMAN: A scene from the film Fire, that is by Deepa Mehta, the Indian film, as she talks about the concept of duty being overrated. Our guest on the phone right now, Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing company, Asia’s first feminist publishing company. It’s called Kali for Women, and she is in New Delhi.

The issue of abortion — is abortion legal in India?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Yes, abortion has been legal since 1972, but more as a way of family planning rather than as a question of choice.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the more conservative forces or religious forces in India? It’s never been an issue?

URVASHI BUTALIA: No, it’s never been an issue in that sense, because I think that despite the fact of it being legal, it’s not — you know, not that many women go in for it, because they still need — they still need to get their families or their husbands, or whoever it is, to — in a sense, to agree, not necessarily legally, but in terms of family relationships and so on. So it hasn’t really been an issue, even though it isn’t, for example, allowed in Islam or in Catholicism, but theoretically it exists for anybody who wishes to use it.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of sonograms is one that is more controversial. Can you explain that?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Yes, that is much more controversial in the sense that, you know, once that technology became available, it was very rapidly misused to find out the sex of the child and often to abort female fetuses. And there was a very, very big campaign carried out by women’s groups, starting in Bombay and then moving all over the country, to get these tests banned, except for medical purposes. And the backlash — or there was a counter-argument that came up from a number of fairly progressive intellectuals, which said that if you can — if you can demand that a woman has a choice in whether or not to have the child, then it is only an extension of that choice that she chooses the sex of the child, and why are you saying that that choice is not legitimate and the first one is? And it was a very difficult sort of argument to deal with, especially because it was coming from the sort of people that women’s groups would have expected to ally with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Urvashi Butalia, we have to wrap up, co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing company in New Delhi. Do you have a website or a way people can get in touch?

URVASHI BUTALIA: Yes, we do. It’s just called, and I’d love for people to visit it.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, more than a hundred books published by the feminist publishing house Kali for Women, of which Urvashi Butalia is a co-founder. And we thank you very much for being with us from New Delhi. As we continue —


AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. As we continue our series on the situation in India, in the next few days we’ll be looking at, among other issues, Union Carbide, one of the worst industrial disasters of the century. Not only have protests been banned in Delhi, in New Delhi, but all over the country there were thousands of activists planning to march from Bhopal to where President Clinton was going to be. He has canceled his trip to the area, but they too have been banned. There’s now discussion of whether they will engage in civil disobedience.

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