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‘Feminist movements were sympathetic, but never took up caste related issues’

‘Feminist movements were sympathetic, but never took up caste related issues’

kasturba savitribai


– An interview with Du Saraswathi

(First published in the Dalit students’ magazine ‘Insight Young Voices’ in 2005 as “Coalition is the philosophy and need of the hour”)

Du Saraswathi is a Bangalore-based writer, poet, artist and an activist. Since her student days, she has been involved with women’s groups, the DSS, peace movements and the struggle of the farmers and the labourers. Here she interacts with Vijay on various issues.

Could you tell us about your experiences as a Dalit student, in your college life?

I studied in a predominantly brahmin college, there were only brahmins around. You could only see Dalits who had come through the reservation category, other wise we could not even step inside the college. Caste exists very subtly in urban areas, and is quite discreet in the cities. For instance, the brahmin girls avoid eating the food which we offer, I never understood that previously. They would say ‘no, we don’t taste other homes salt’.

kasturba savitribai

How did they come to know you are a Dalit?

By my caste certificate, they all knew about that. I never talked about it. I first opened up about my caste when I was in my 2nd year of pre-university college. Jenny and Dr Siddalingiah (from Karnataka Dalit Sangarsha Samiti) came to our college for a talk. Jenny sang and later Siddalingiah joined in. That opened me up and I started to feel proud about my caste.

How did you join social activism?

It was in the college, from my NSS days, that I began to share my experiences as a woman. I began to recognize that patriarchal oppression has been existing for ever. I felt this as a woman. It was also around that time and I began to think about what outlets were available from this oppression and how to resolve this. I got introduced to a women’s group called Vimochana. There I mostly liked the songs and street theatre, not just the theory or lecturing. I feel it is the strength of all the Dalits and this is how we relate to issues around us. One Mr. K. Ramaiah used to write the lyrics and someone would write the play and perform in the streets, and raise money for next performances. That’s how I related with the issues around.

What have been your experiences as a Dalit woman activist?

I first came in contact with Vimochana, which was a center for most of the progressive and radical forces. All the Dalit groups used to meet there, even farmers groups too. I got my exposure being with them. That was my backbone in understanding my Dalit ideology. I was also inspired by people like K. Ramaiah, Devanur Mahadeva, my grandmother and my parents.

You are involved in both feminist as well as the Dalit movement in the context of Karnataka.

I have been emotionally attached with the Dalit movement and have been closely watching the movement and seeking guidance from the people in the movement. I have been working with pourkarmikas (Dalits who work as scavengers in Bangalore Municipal Council). It’s a really a self-respect movement for the people of Karnataka. Comparatively, the DSS (Dalit Sangarsha Samiti) is more gender sensitive when compared to any other movement, because when a girl was raped in Kolar, K Ramaiah wrote a song and DSS took up the case, campaigned all over Karnataka not because she was a Dalit, but she was a woman. Even if you look at the constitution of DSS, they talk of cultural roots and equality. I feel its part of their culture.

What about the ‘mainstream’ feminist movement?

They never took up caste as a serious issue. Feminist movements were sympathetic, showing solidarity but never took issues which are directly linked to the issue of caste.

As a Dalit feminist, how do you look at gender and caste matters in social movements?

It’s a limitation of these movements, but I don’t look at it as a big flaw. I have gained from both the Dalit and feminist movements. Today for Dalits, class and gender questions should be the important questions, for feminist movements it should be caste and class, for Marxists it should be caste and gender. Feminist movements have identified with other movements too, like DSS, KRRS and anything to do with peace. We were the first in Bangalore to organize anti-nuke demonstrations. It is not just being sensitive and sympathetic but we should also address the issues of caste, class and gender which is a burning reality, no peoples’ movement can overlook these aspects.

How do you look at the present status of Dalit movement in Karnataka?

Once very strong, but now Dalit Sangarsha Samiti (DSS) had split into many factions in Karnataka. I do not have problems with the splits. I think we should respect our differences. I respect any kind of political or ideological differences. But then we need to examine carefully these splits as how much they are due to political differences and how much are die to ego clashes. Before these splits, DSS grew into a powerful cultural revolution and also a pressure group. It came to be noticed by the political parties. I think the Janata Party was the first to start using them, till then all the Dalits used to vote for Congress so it was an asset to any political party. Also there was no political clarity amongst the Dalit movement itself. One of the reasons for the splits could be that we could not form a political party due to lack of resources. The Dalit movement was built by raising money from labourers by singing songs; they were not in a position even to support any political party, forget starting their own. When Kanshi Ram first came to Bangalore in 1984-85, he declared that DSS would be destroyed. Sure enough, some from DSS joined the Janata Dal and others BSP.

How do you see Dalit movements twenty years from now?

The more inclusive we become the better for us. It is dangerous for us to remain secluded. I feel it is appropriate time that we start talking of coalition. We should all know our limitations and have patience. I hope by another 20 years we realize the value of equality but that would be the next wonder in this world. I think we should all fight against power centralization and any kind of hierarchy. I believe in collective politics.

Tell us something about your writings.

I published my first poetry collection in 1997. I used to write before that too but never published. It is called ‘Weave like a Spider’. I got an award for that in Mangalore. In 1999, I wrote a personal account about how I was falsely accused in the bank where I was working, describing the trauma which I went through. It is called ‘What will I do now’ (Eggannu masdeere). I had got good responses for both of my works. I also write a column called Sanna thimmi in Kannada. It is about Dalit women in villages and how they relate to issues like globalization, women’s reservation bill, concept of border, bomb, how they look at war or beauty pageants. It is quite satirical.

What are your views on the Women’s Reservation Bill?

Why only 33%? Why not 50%? And definitely for all other backward women too! Those who have benefited should step back to make way for the downtrodden. If we look at the present statistics we see that people who have power, who are well-read, those who hold positions in the government are upper caste, upper class, urban women. There is no doubt on this. Those who have enjoyed the power should step back to make way for the people who deserve it. This applies even to Dalits too. The class question is very important for Dalits. In the background of liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation (LPG) phenomenon, Dalits should not seek answers only by being emotional. They should also understand economics, and by being practical, by looking at our roots we can find answers. Let’s not look at Oxford for the answer for this. The people who have built the philosophy which comes from hard sweat have much more value than people sitting in an arm-chair.

Anything else you would like to say to our young readers?

Looking back at my teenage days, I realize that I was constantly fighting for a space. I would not like someone rejecting our viewpoint just because we were still young, we should have the freedom to even speak stupidly, so-called elders should respect our stupidity and take the essence of what we mean, keep the values which we believe. For Dalits, it is always the inferiority complex which they suffer from. Even I have suffered from this, by feeling hesitant not to talk about my caste. The first thing which hits our mind is that we Dalits are drunkards, meat eaters, dirty people, fools, even modern education makes us feel more of that, but our real strength lies in the fact that we belong as a community. I would like to identify with that kind of life – more collective and group living.

[Vijay is an independent film maker, sculptor, painter and activist based in Bangalore]

Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.



[Courtesy: INSIGHT, March-April 2005]