Last week, social media saw an outburst from a couple of women who identify as feminists. They felt that the caste/gender question had been not been sufficiently addressed in their campus spaces, and that men had been stifling them, particularly the men active in anti-caste groups.
What, in all probability, have been thoughts that came out of frustration and churning finally found expression in the following statement by a woman: If I sign off with my caste certificate, will my words be taken seriously?
The author seemed to imply that caste identity, particularly, a lower caste identity affords more legitimacy to the speaker. Similar thoughts have been aired quite frequently in private and public discussions in various forms. Some choose to disclose their caste identity, some choose not to. Some choose to disclose it when their castes are called out, to make a point that they have transcended caste1. Some do it believing that it is a ‘confession’ of their privilege that sets them free to hitch-hike on (or lead) the struggles of the marginalized2. Some do it in the spirit of acknowledgement of their privileges3 as they grapple with their own privileges and an anti-caste position. Some do it because it is necessary for a political assertion, and not acknowledging it will only reinforce the marginalization they and many similar communities face4. Some marginalized people prefer to never disclose their identity because that can only hamper their upward mobility.
But where does this idea that the ‘lower caste’ identity is what affords you more legitimacy and make people take you seriously come from? From the near-invisibility of assertive Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi men and women from the mainstream? Or from the way these identities have been constantly made subjects of academic study or electoral calculations –in the process always rendering them powerless?
Important as it is in the way it informs your world-view, to disclose your caste identity has never been a precondition for public and political engagement with caste. If that were the case, it would have stopped most savarna people from ever talking about and addressing caste. Ironically, we find ourselves in a situation where most of the powerful public spaces of discussion about caste –particularly in the mainstream literary and academic world – is occupied by those who are caste-privileged. Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi men and women, if any, are a mere smattering, mostly for token representation. And it doesn’t appear that the words of the privileged folks are listened to because they have explicitly acknowledged and engaged with their caste location. Indeed, they seem to find an audience irrespective of whether their caste location has ever been mentioned or not.
The politics that unproblematically carries forward inherited privileges (whether the beneficiary likes it or not) was never down to any single individual’s choice. It was perpetuated systemically and has a history that is continuous and consistent with preserving upper caste privileges in India. On the other hand, anti-caste assertions and politics in India have been, quite tellingly, spearheaded by the underprivileged communities and people, as if social justice was only ever a matter of the underprivileged.
Sadly enough, whenever it was argued from an anti-caste viewpoint that feminism in India (much like the left in India) was caste-blind5, non-inclusive of all women as equal partners, failed to acknowledge the struggles and victories of subaltern women6 while becoming beneficiaries of the same – be it educational rights pioneered by Savitribai Phule to legal reforms for women won on the basis of Adivasi and Bahujan women’s battles7, or worked to erase the struggles of underprivileged women8, it has been reduced to a pitting of caste against gender concerns. Such reductive interpretation of criticisms from the anti-caste perspective has found currency in academic spaces as well as mainstream writings. There is no dearth of examples for feminist or leftist interventions failing, and even clearly aggravating caste struggles. These complex concerns find the rather simplistic formulation in the academic universe of feminist men and women: caste versus gender.
Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women have written – not in peer reviewed journals, mainstream newspapers, or progressive alternative spaces, but mainly in independent, self-created and self-sustained spaces with bare minimum resources as institutional spaces remain inaccessible – about the various ways in which patriarchy functions. They have spared no one – not caste or class-privileged men, or caste/class-privileged women, or Dalit-Bahujan men. One only needs to read Tarabai Shinde, one of the earliest women writers to challenge the status quo of women, and who was closely associated with the Satyashodhak Samaj to know the ways in which gender was problematized. The philosopher of the oppressed people in India, Dr B R Ambedkar, wrote much that probably would not have been palatable to the feminists in the country9. Indeed, his Hindu Code Bill that proposed inheritance rights for women was too radical for his time that it gave rise to furious debates in the Parliament. The cartoon by Shankar and others (see accompanying images), dug up by another scholar, a Dalit and male himself, is testament to the anxiety it created amongst savarna men in the parliament.
Cartoonist: Shankar Pillai. Shankar’s weekly , 1950. Image courtesy: Syam Cartoonist, Facebook Timeline
Cartoonist: Shankar Pillai. Shankar’s weekly, 1949. Image Courtesy: Syam Cartoonist, Facebook Timeline
And yet, a self-identified feminist who also discloses her class-privileges along with her marginalized caste status insists on calling attention to this philosopher’s penis. She writes: “I have a huge problem with slogans like ‘Dalits need Ambedkar, not feminism.’ WTF! Ambedkar was a MAN. He had a penis. You could very well use his writings as part of the ideology. But to say feminism is unnecessary in those spaces is homogenizing and patronizing.”
I read this and wonder: how did we get here? How did we get to this point where a philosopher who insisted on legislative change to address patriarchal controls was dismissed because he has a male sex organ? How did feminism in India get to this juvenile fixation of asserting individual (or is it meant to be collective) ‘agency’ through dismissing viewpoints depending on the anatomy of the author? And how do they resolve the contradiction that the very same people find it unacceptable to openly demand to acknowledge and reflect on one’s caste privileges (or the lack of it) when it is politically appropriate? What feminism allows you to focus on genitalia but refuse to focus on caste identity?
This fixation on the anatomical/biological sex seems uncanny, given that feminism 10110 is about how gender is a fluid social construct. Feminism really has gone much further from simple male-female binaries to a point where the biological determinism of sex has been problematized by the fluidity of sex itself, enabled by the efforts of intersex, transsexual, and transgender people. In that context, and from a situation where there is a broad consensus on the intersections of oppressions, how do some feminists in India arrive at the conclusion that being a ‘man’ invalidates Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to anti-caste, gender struggles? Will they raise their hands for the corollary that only women can ever be feminists? And going by that logic, will they argue that only Dalit-Bahujan women can talk about Dalit-Bahujan women’s oppression? (Not that such a demand has ever been the core concern of Dalit-Bahujan or Adivasi women). If they do get to this point, why worry if you are accorded more legitimacy if you are from the oppressed caste? Negating which is basically what the feminist wondering whether she needs a ‘lower’ caste identity to be taken seriously is doing.
So well, here, we seem to have a curious situation where self-identified feminists dismiss a thinker-philosopher’s legitimacy because he was a man, who also happened to be, I repeat, a leader of the marginalized who fought for radical legislative changes for *all* women enabling them to own property. Simultaneously they seem to be ruing that the marginalized struggles take seriously, only voices from men and women who have identified as the marginalized. What is this place where feminism stands? Where does this come from? Really, how did we get here?
Does it come from any Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi women’s articulation? Or does it have any roots in savarna women’s articulations about the seemingly dichotomous relationship between caste and gender?
Four years have passed since the first part of this article was written.
In the first part, I asked:
‘How do some feminists in India arrive at the conclusion that being a ‘man’ invalidates Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to anti-caste, gender struggles?… Simultaneously they seem to be ruing that the marginalized struggles take seriously, only voices from men and women who have identified as the marginalized. What is this place where feminism stands? Where does this come from? Really, how did we get here?
Does it come from any Dalit, Bahujan or Adivasi women’s articulation? Or does it have any roots in savarna women’s articulations about the seemingly dichotomous relationship between caste and gender?
These questions continue to be relevant, even more so. Feminism in India, imported from the West, and applied to all communities has some interesting characteristics. In its simplest articulation, patriarchy permits violence and other discriminatory treatment against women generally to the advantage of men. In India however, two interesting features coexist with this version of feminism.
When multiple identities other than gender comes into play, the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi men are seen as the key perpetrators of patriarchy, especially against the Dalit woman victims.
The Brahmin woman as the victim of the Brahmin man is not a popular trope, even in the writings of Brahmin women.
This means that it is as easy to criminalise marginalised men as it is difficult to pinpoint the Brahmin man as the source of violence and discrimination against women. This is not a hypothetical danger; the incidents in Kerala surrounding the marriage of Dr Hadiya Asokan illustrated how this variant of feminism makes it easy to criminalise lower caste men.
In short, this case revolved around the conversion of Akhila to Islam and her subsequent change of name to Hadiya and marriage to a Muslim man. 1 A Habeus Corpus filed by her father resulted in the Kerala High Court annulling her marriage and leaving here in her father’s custody. This ruling, going against the right of an adult woman to choose her religion and her partner came under severe criticism and was then taken to the Supreme Court. This was the point at which several progressives intervened on Hadiya’s behalf. University students including those from JNU, DU, HCU etc showed their support for Hadiya. Several of these mobilisations to free Hadiya cast her parents, particularly her father as the islamophobic Hindu man imprisoning his daughter against her will. This, despite the plainly evident fact that it was the state of Kerala that had used its police force to give her ‘protection’ (also to be noted that the National Investigative Agency chose to paint Hadiya’s marriage as Love Jihad, and this case was discussed as such in national media). 2 Progressives pushing this narrative did not stop to wonder how it is that Hadiya’s father could single-handedly install floodlights around her home, put Hadiya under police protection with female police officers watching her all the time, and allow Hindu outfits and people like Rahul Eswar to visit and make videos (but stop the Superintendent of Police and the head of the State’s women’s commission from visiting Hadiya) etc. It seemed that Mr Asokan, the father was larger than the state itself, more powerful, an individual who had absolute control over not just Hadiya but the entire state apparatus.
While these discussions happened, what was conveniently glossed over (until some of us talked about it on social media) was that Hadiya came from an Ezhava family. Her father was an ex-serviceman, and an atheist who was keen on educating his daughter. 3 In overlooking the savarna nature of the judiciary, the state law enforcement bodies and the state women’s commission, the progressives demanding freedom for Hadiya conveniently slipped into a narrative where this Ezhava man was simply an islamophobic patriarchal father imprisoning his daughter!
This made an exceptional patriarch out of the father, as if his actions were incomprehensible and could not be understood at all. What was special about Hadiya’s home that gives it such specific patriarchal nature that is not there in other homes (including that of her supporters) – not just in Kerala, but across the world? Do upper caste men not stop their daughters from being educated anywhere in India? Do they not expect women to be servile to the wishes of the father/man of the family? Do they not imprison their daughters and even kill them? (The answer to all these questions are ‘yes’ if it is not self-evident). This is where it becomes possible to see how such a trope of the criminal lower caste man has already been sanctioned by common sense and academic wisdom. Dalit-Bahujans have long borne the brunt of being the key propagators of patriarchal norms, and the Bahujans especially stand accused of being ‘footsoldiers’ of Hindutva. The narratives, in this case, fit neatly into these mainstream savarna views held by the progressives. Indeed, anyone who wrote humanely about Hadiya’s parents were seen as islamophobes and apologists for Hindutva. 4. Some of us were seen as apologists for the ‘Bahujan father’ when we tried to point out the social location of the family and say that this is a typical situation where a Bahujan man was being criminalised with ease. Radical folks who locate the state as the problem and take pride in being anti-state had no qualms in ignoring the terrifying violation of freedom facilitated by the state and instead put the blame at the doorstep of parents.
This case illustrates that for all its talk of intersectionality, women’s rights movements in India have not made a positive contribution to the Dalit Bahujan in this country. This point that we are at, where it is easy to criminalise men from marginalised communities is a contribution of feminism and righteous radicalism in India, which often is upper caste common sense masquerading as progressiveness. We have got here through convoluted formulations (outlined in the beginning) that has made it acceptable to take Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi individuals as proxies for their communities and in broad brush strokes, criminalise communities. This must be why in this case, a letter was quite inexplicably put out specifically by members of the OBC communities in Kerala dissociating from Asokan’s actions. While upper caste perpetrators of crimes against women are not named or identified by their caste in popular discourse, the treatment meted out to the Bahujans is very different.
It is a variant of the same feminism that allows seeing Dr Ambedkar as a ‘man’, after all, despite his contributions to women’s rights in this country. Feminists who do not think being a man is a disqualification to be one, have no qualms dismissing a champion of rights of the oppressed as a ‘man’ and therefore, not being able to sufficiently imbibe feminist radicalism! As pointed out in the first part, it is almost as if anti-caste activism and women’s rights have to stand in contradiction. From here comes the idea that Dalit Bahujan women are ‘protecting their men’, and the more recent version that these men who are being protected now have to be called out. As if women involved in anti-caste work were oblivious to the working of patriarchy and never spoke up until ‘calling out’ became a thing, and men involved in this work were patriarchs themselves. As if gender equality is so complex that it could not have been embedded in Babasaheb’s works, or practiced by Ambedkarites. When the entire edifice of savarna feminism has allowed upper caste men to slip away from under the radar!
In closer introspection, it is clear that the practice of extending an individual’s crimes to their communities is a burden to be borne only by the bahujans. This then, is in the structure of things, the theoretical formulations and its savarna underpinnings in India.
1 Shivam vij explains his hypothesis here followed by a contemptuous disclosure of his caste identity.
2 Arundhati roy writes in her essay The Doctor and the Saint: “My father was a Hindu, a Brahmo. I never met him until I was an adult. I grew up with my mother, in a Syrian Christian family in Ayemenem”. However, when questioned about her own privileges that enables her to be flag-bearer of anti-caste thought, she writes here: “The point is, whatever my privileges are—or yours for that matter—are we fighting against Brahminism or strengthening it?”
3 Akshay Pathak writes: “The bitter irony of me, belonging to the same ruling class, pointing all this out is not lost on me. I posit this as much as a question to my own self as well as to those who would shy away from marking the brahmin in the caste structure. The self-reflexive analysis of those of us who have a stake in preserving this caste interest is something utterly lacking in all interventions on caste emerging from dominant caste locations. This is an attempt to push in that direction.” See more here.
4 All anti caste leaders, and most anti-caste activists are vocal about their caste identities because their politics is intrinsically tied up with it.
5 For instance, Flavia Agnes, one of the early feminists in India wrote this about the feminist movement in India as early as 1994: “overall, it worked from a presumption that gender lines can be drawn up clearly and sharply in a patriarchal society and within these parameters sexual assault and domestic violence affect women equally across class, culture and religious barriers”. Full article here.
6 Jenny Rowena argues here that feminist readings that denied the “range of arguments and the variety of struggles forwarded by the subaltern women necessarily helps create the image of women incapable of intelligent thought”.
7 Mathura, an Adivasi woman’s legal battle mounted the first challenge to rape laws in India resulting in legislative change that forced ‘consent’ of the victim to be taken into account. The Visakha guidelines, the only legal redress for workplace harassment for women until recently were the result of the legal battle of Bhanwari Devi, a Bahujan woman, against her upper caste rapists.
8 Lata PM writes: “Dalit-Bahujan women like us who were involved with such protests do not find any mention in the ‘official’ histories of women’s movement. We do not find a mention in Sharmila’s book too”. Read more here.
9 Dr Ambedkar was decidedly against prostitution, unlike many feminist groups in India that argue for recognizing it as work and its legalization. He says, ” You marry and settle down to normal domestic life as women as women of other classes do and do not live under conditions that inevitably drag you into prostitution.” This clearly would not be endorsed by most mainstream feminist thinkers and organizations in India.
10 Please see Understanding Gender (2000) by Kamla Bhasin.
11 See https://indiankanoon.org/doc/74329092/ and http://www.scobserver.in/court-case/hadiya-marriage-case for details about the case.
12 A google search using these key words will reveal the nature of the discussions around Love Jihad in Hadiya’s case.
The upper caste nature of atheism in India, and whether atheism is even possible in this country of castes is a different discussion that is not entered into here.
13 Sunny Kapicadu’s take on the situation at Hadiya’s home was met with these accusations.
14 Lately calling out ‘Ambedkarites’ for being patriarchal has become mandatory for the woke anticaste feminist.
Sruthi Herbert is a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.