The golden past of the feminist conference is eclipsed by the present cynicism around depoliticisation of feminism, ‘NGO-isation’ and the cooption of such spaces by the state, large INGOs and donor organisations. With inter-generational conflicts and identity-based mobilisation, the current moment in the Indian women’s movement has been termed by Indian scholars as one of a ‘feminist civil war’. In this article, I reflect on the elements that made past processes such as the National Conferences on Autonomous Women’s Movements in India an empowering experience for activists, and that created spaces where the movement could resolve – or at least make visible – its ‘sticky’ issues. I ask: what can we learn about feminist conferences as a driving force for feminist activism in the past for creating inclusive and safe spaces for dialogue in the future? Can they be the spaces where feminist dilemmas of the time can be resolved? Through examining archival materials and personal reflections in dialogue with theoretical discussions on new feminisms, autonomy, diversity and intersectionality, I argue that the feminist conference had a critical role to play in the personal journeys of activists in the Indian women’s movement, and in collectively resolving some of the tensions in the movement through practices such as endorsement of co-written ‘resolutions’ and ‘declarations’ with purposefully diverse grassroots constituencies. In any new avatar, the feminist conference needs to retain such strengths but also take into account the feminist movement’s new, young membership and a changed context by re-aligning its values, modes and materials of engagement to this landscape, so that dialogue on difficult themes is made possible in productive, caring and pleasurable ways.
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