Why is the government threatened by women’s studies centres in Indian universities?

Women’s Studies is an interdisciplinary field that grew out of the feminist movement. In India, WS is often seen to be linked to the publication of Towards Equality: A Report on the Status of Women in India in 1974 which brought out the low social status of women in the country. In response, the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) initiated a programme in WS in 1976. Predating this, the Research Centre for Women’s Studies (RCWS) was started in 1974 at the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai. Alongside, in 1981, a Conference on WS was convened in Bombay at the RCWS which resulted in the creation of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) a national forum of individuals engaged in research and activism related to gender.

Women’s Studies was introduced into the National Policy of Education in 1986. The XII Plan records that the University Grants Commission (UGC) has supported Women’s Studies in universities and colleges since the VII Plan period. It also notes that the XI Plan sought to upgrade these into teaching and research departments. Currently, there are 159 Women’s Studies Centres in universities and colleges in India and some outside universities supported by the ICSSR. The XII Plan sought to enhance and expand the Women’s Studies Centres.

Like other such disciplines that grew out of a radical politics, Women’s Studies too, embodies the contradictions inherent when the ideas of an intensely political movement are sought to be institutionalised within a university. There are many critiques, not just in India but also elsewhere, of the ways in which Women’s Studies has quickly acquired a canon and its high priestesses. The presence of such signs of institutionalisation are also ironically the markers of a thriving academic discipline – positions under the UCG plans, demands for publication, and rising numbers of MA and PhD graduates in the discipline. Such institutionalisation notwithstanding, work in women’s studies continues to challenge the status quo and not just in relation to gender and patriarchy.