Delving Into the Vibrant Articulations of Dalit Women on Caste and Gender

A review of 'Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India'.

Categories of caste and gender and their impact on Indian society are undertheorised in all respects. Thus, Dalit feminism also could not gain much attention in the status qouist-academic space that cherishes the homogenous construction of Indian life worlds. S. Anandi and Karin Kapadia’s edited book, Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India, thus departs from this trajectory of caste and gender-blind social sciences/humanities and moves towards a broader canvass that attempts to capture the nuances of caste and gender in the context of India’s polity.

The introduction by Kapadia helps the reader into the nuanced fabric of the entire book. Mapping the major themes that are discussed in the book, she locates them within the field of current important social science debates. The first section of the book tries to understand the environs of the ‘new Dalit women’s politics’. This section contains essays by Anand Teltumbde and Manuela Ciotti.

Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India, edited by S. Anandhi and Karin Kapadia (Routledge, 2017)

Teltumbde in his foreword to the book attempts to examine the political question of Dalit women through revisiting major debates in Dalit history. Questions of religion and culture are explored to understand the roots of social and political locations of Dalit women. He says that Dalit conversions to Buddhism in Maharashtra could not move beyond the culture of dominant castes and therefore failed to provide “an alternate paradigm that was different from that of hegemonic Indian culture”. Thus, the Dalit movement failed to generate any rigorous critique of patriarchy.  He further says that class as a category needs to be re-examined in the backdrop of the major debates related to the agency of Dalit women. The gaps that exist between the debates related to caste, class and gender, for Teltumbde, have to be analysed in order to arrive at a meaningful dialogue on the Dalit women’s question. Telumbde also critiques the Dalit intelligentsia’s understanding of patriarchy. He notes that B.R. Ambedkar’s could not move beyond the orthodox, patriarchal, societal framework when it came to gener equality.

For example, Teltumbde re-reads some of Ambedkar’s exhortations to Dalit women as patriarchal in nature. Teltumbde writes, “The first mention of women in the Dalit movement occurs during the second Mahad conference (December 22-25, 1927) when Dalit women from the surrounding village had come to see Ambedkar as their leader. He welcomed them and specially addressed them, stressing the importance of their role in social reform. If one analyses his speech, however, one finds that while he encouraged these Dalit women to participate along with their men, he used the analogy of the joint responsibility held by a husband and wife for their household, where the husband remains the unquestioned head – the very epitome of patriarchy. He advised the Mahar women to give up their traditional customs and to emulate upper class women in specific ways, particularly in their style of wearing their sari and in the kinds of ornaments they wore … Although Ambedkar urged them to participate in the movement, his exhortation was still within a conservative traditional framework wherein the women were to assist their men. The style of dress of upper caste women was to be emulated because this would not make it possible for caste Hindus to identify Mahar women … Ambedkar’s comments here are not patriarchal. They are Sanskritisational.” (Teltumbde, 2017:57).

While analysing the role of left, Teltumbde argues, “The existence of a separate Dalit movement is always grudged by the mainstream, progressive movement, particularly the Marxist Left, because it takes away its potential feed of members. But these groups do not seem to recognise their own responsibility in creating the condition of this separation”.

On mainstream feminists, Teltumbde says:

“The same could be said of the mainstream feminist movement vis-a-vis the Dalit women’s movement. If mainstream feminists had taken a grassroots approach and focused on the plight of Dalit women, there may not have been need for poor Dalit women to organize separately. Violence (and the threat of violence) against women may be a common feature faced by all women in India, but there is no denying the facts that certain kind of violence are ‘customarily reserved’ by the upper castes solely for Dalit women. For instance, this upper-caste violence includes the extremely filthy verbal abuse of Dalit women and addressing them by sexual epithets, the naked parading of Dalit women, the dismemberment of the corpses of murdered Dalit women, forcing Dalit women to drink urine and eat feces, branding Dalit women, pulling out the teeth, the tongues and the nails of Dalit women to ‘punish’ them and the murder of defenceless Dalit women after proclaiming them ‘witches’. These grotesque, inhuman and extreme forms of upper caste violence are reserved solely for Dalit women”

One of the central problems in Teltumbde’s articulation is that it fails to engage with the historical specificity and distinct, ideological nature of Dalit assertions. Ambedkar’s exhortations to women cannot be subjected to the parameters of feminist ideologies.

Manuela Ciotti’s essays engages with the ways in which Dalit women are being constructed in the north Indian context and strives to interpret the social and political construction of north Indian Dalit women within the pan-Indian Dalit women’s assertions. She argues, “There is a profound link between India’s relation with Dalit minorities and the making of Dalit subjects. This relation could be indexed under at least three rubrics inspired by a social justice agenda: positive discrimination policies, the anti-untouchability legal framework and development measures. Against this background, the making of dalit subjects has been profoundly shaped by liberation movements, religious conversion, social mobility and political mobilization.”

Ciotti argues that “Overall, knowledge production on dalit women has complicated the image of these women as embodiments of supposedly equal gender relations, ‘free sexual mores’, and freedom from oppressive gender regimes in place among higher caste communities among others, while exposing the multifold forms of oppression, margianlisation and violence they endured. Ciotti enquires into the rejection and use of the category of ‘Dalit’ among Dalit women activists. In addition to the understanding related to the category of Dalit, she questions the “trope of dalit women/quintessential victim as the outcome of knowledge production projects and representation in the public sphere. I contended that accounts of dalit women which speak of them as all-round personae and non-victims are rare”.

Ciotti states that her attempt is not to deny the marginalised status of Dalit women. On the contrary, it is to engage with the agency of Dalit women. She excavates the background to the typical representation of Dalit women. It is observed that the Dalit women’s question has to be conceived as “residue of postcolonial studies inquiry”. The absence of Dalit women and Dalits is read as the conceptual force that converts them as the residues of postcolonial approaches. The theoretical dimension of this essay, however, is not linked to its empirical part. The author studies the political agency of Dalit women activists who were associated with the Bahujan Samaj Party. She also analysed these women activists and thus finds the category of Dalit as disempowering rather empowering their social and political mobility. This essay weaves the complex, theoretical and empirical dimensions of the political articulations of Dalit women activists from North India. Nonetheless, the deeply caste-ridden north Indian society and its forms of patriarchy are not given much attention in this essay in a systematic manner.

If the first section of the book is historical and theoretical in nature, the second section  provides perspectives on Dalit women’s theorisation of caste difference and their modes of collectivity against the exploitative caste system.

S. Anandhi’s essay conceptualises the category of ‘the Dalit modern’ against caste hegemony and its contradiction via its appropriation of patriarchal values of Adi Dravidar (Scheduled Caste) men in Tamil Nadu. It responds to the larger questions of caste, gender and patriarchy among the Adi Dravidars. Particularly, it categorises the interrelations of gender and caste through the political consciousness of Adi Dravidar women and their attempt to abolish sexual exploitation. Those women’s vehement critique to the internal – Adi Dravidar patriarchy – as well as the external – Naidu caste based patriarchy – has been interpreted by the author as significant to such Dalit women’s social/political interventions. It is also investigated how they identify with Dalit women’s collectives (sangam). Nevertheless, this essay could not penetrate the fundamental caste ideology and its constructors before delving into a historical mapping of caste tensions within the Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Thus, the author could not tease out the ideology of caste and its pernicious proliferation via creating conflicting concept/practice of internal-caste differences. The critique to the Brahmanic ideology that reproduces caste is absent in this essay. Consequently, it lacks the rigorous analysis on the intricacies of Adi Dravidar women’s assertions.

Hugo Gorringe’s essay explores how Dalit women’s question is being addressed by the largest Dalit party called ‘Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’ in Tamil Nadu. Gorringe tries to tease out the manner in which Dalit women are gaining space within the patriarchal space of leadership. The category of leadership of Dalit women is foregrounded by Gorringe as a conceptual move to measure the contemporaneity of the movement. Moreover, the critical narrative has not been reframed within the framework of caste, patriarchy and social movements. Dynamics of contemporary Dalit movements within the rubric of Indian democracy thus largely focused on this section. Gorringe, as a result, provides specific picture about representation of Dalit women in Tamil Nadu.

On the contrary, Isabelle Guerin and Santosh Kumar’s co-authored essay shows us the fractured space of Dalit women’s politics determined by caste, gender and self-help groups in northern Tamil Nadu. This essay is significant because it evaluates Dalit women question in the background of diverse political-civil societal trends. Yet, authors have not differentiated the conventional, autonomous Dalit movements, Dalit political parties and self-help groups within the Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Authors have not engaged with typologies and conceptual frameworks that have emerged related to diverse forms of political expressions. This essay lacks conceptual clarity to distinguish the salient nature of Dalit women’s political aspirations. Thus, second section of the book can be considered as one that generates different reading regarding the agency of Dalit women.

Caste and gender that fragment the empowerment of Dalit women are the key themes of the third section. Clarinda Still gives a critical account of the interconnections between Dalit women, rape and resuscitation of patriarchy that decide the life chances of Dalit women. Still seeks to explain question of honour and female respectability that condition the lives of Dalit women. Dalitisation of patriarchy, for Still, thus has to be differentiated from Sanskritised appropriation of patriarchy. In other words, Dalit approaches to tackle patriarchy have not gone beyond the oppressive, dominant castes’ patriarchy. Such form of patriarchy is also probed as the amalgam of upper caste gender norms and notion of Dalit dignity. Intergenerational aspirations and putative, caste-class identities are also explored in this essay as part of aforementioned, cultural transitions of Dalit women. Patriarchy and its embedded nature within the caste especially in the south Indian context do differ according to the regional and caste variations within the diverse regions of south India. Such complex, south Indian scenario has not been integrated into this narrative. Still has not compared the empowerment of Dalit women from south India to that of north India.

Radhika Govind’s essay differs from Still due to its ambiguous interlinkage of concepts and empirical approaches. Govind engages with the intersectional dimensions of agency and activism of the Dalit women political activists from UP. Her essay discusses the agency of Dalit women political activists. It is ironical that there are hardly any attempts from the author to revisit the debates related to structure and agency in the wild field of social theory. The postmodernist undercurrent of this essay, therefore, is limited because it operates within the binary opposition between fixed Dalit identity and the open ended, political category of Dalit women. Therefore, theoretical vagueness cripples the entire narrative. Author could not build her narrative on transforming economic ideologies and its relations also restructure the overall development of Dalit women.

Ishita Mehrotra’s essay differs from the economy-blind analysis of Govind. Mehrotra’s essay scrutinises the unfree labour of women and its relation with capitalism and male labour. It discusses larger questions of social structures, labour relations and political agency. Intergenerational differences are deployed by Mehrotra to decode gendered differences related to labour. Broadly, the labour of Dalit women is theorised as something that is caught within unfree labour relations and patron-client relations. There are thought provoking debates that have been raised by scholars such as Jairus Banaji and Tom Brass related to the category of ‘unfree labour’.This essay does not revisit such pioneering debates. Thus, this essay creeps into superficial approach to Dalit women question and its relation with labour. This section may sound as theoretical in its approach, but becomes peripheral analysis due to its non-committal approach towards the preceding, pioneering theoretical interventions connected to caste, gender, agency, labour and so on.

The final section of the book deals with the idea of religion as Dalit political practice. Nathaniel Roberts’s essay unfolds the changing and suffering subject, finding interlinkages between caste-class and gender in slums within Pentecostal discourse. Roberts positions religion as Dalit political practice and analyses the ways in which Dalit women are being interpellated by the Pentecostal discourse in Chennai. The intersectional nature of the life worlds of Dalit women is seen by Roberts through the nodes of caste, class and slum.  Questions of transformation in the context of their social locations are integral in Roberts’ portrayal of Dalit women.  His essay would have been nuanced if he had revisited the global discourse of religion and its role as a political tool for the oppressed. For instance, the relation between Afro-Americans and Christianity, the Burakumins in the social space of Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism and so on. One of the central questions that arises from this section of the book is if conversion has helped Dalits to empower themselves to overcome their stigmatised, caste-bound social locations.

On the other hand, Karin Kapadia writes about the massive religious conversion that happened in Chennai. Kapadia argues that Dalit conversion to Pentecostal Christianity is determined more by “resistance to gender and patriarchal domination” than “rejection of caste domination”. Thus, such conversion is categorised as a “counter-hegemonic identity movement” that responds to interlinkages of the caste and class status of Dalit women. One of the key facets of the essay is that it explores the roots of the success/failure of the alternative/counter religions in confronting caste based oppression.

Uma Chakravarti in her afterword revisits her own past and social location in the background of anti-caste scholarship. She discusses the manner in which socialisation and educational institutions determine the ideology of caste. The idea of self and other, for Chakravarti, is recovered through her perspective on the feminist movement. Narrating her personal experiences thus revamps the category of the political. Reflexivity in this narrative strengthens Chakravarti’s accounts and thus it becomes an open ended path at the end of the book.

This book is an important intervention on caste and gender discourse which accommodates plural Dalit women’s perspectives. It compares those vibrant Dalit women’s articulations with that of the socially regulated political economy of India. The book will be helpful to all those who fight against injustice and the violation of rights of Dalit women.

Smita M. Patil teaches at the School of Gender and Development Studies, Indira Gandhi National University, New Delhi.