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Silenced by Manu and ‘Mainstream’ Feminism: Dalit-Bahujan Women and their History

Silenced by Manu and ‘Mainstream’ Feminism: Dalit-Bahujan Women and their History

Lata P M


On Sharmila Rege’s First Death Anniversary, a Satyashodhak Review of her Last Book

(First published in ‘Miloon saarya jani’, online Marathi magazine, in July 2014)

Lata P MLata P. M.

(Translated from Marathi by Minakshee Rode, Nidhin Shobhana)

Dr. Sharmila Rege was the director of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune. On 13th July 2013, Sharmila passed away, after a long battle with cancer. She was well known in academic circles for her engagement with Dr.B.R. Ambedkar’s writings and thoughts. On the occasion of her first death anniversary Lata P.M. writes this Satyashodhak review of Sharmila’s last book ‘Against the Madness of Manu’. Her analysis emerges from an innate knowledge of the region and its struggles.

Dr Sharmila Rege’s last book, ‘Against the Madness of Manu’, was published by Navayana with the consent of Adv. Prakash Ambedkar. The name of the book is a play on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s essay titled ‘Riddle No. 18: Manu’s Madness or the Brahmanic explanation of the origin of mixed castes’.

The cover page of the book borrows a popular image of Ambedkar and Ramabai. The image celebrates the marriage of this historic couple. One would find Gautam Buddha blessing them in the blue background. The image (cover-page) resonates with Ambedkarite literature one would read in Chaityabhumi. Babasaheb deeply reflected on the hold of Manusmriti and Brahmanism in Indian society. The ideology of Manusmriti had consolidated the systems of caste and patriarchy in our country. Babasaheb knew this well. On 25th December 1927, during Mahad Satyagraha in the presence of thousands of people, Dr. Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti. This incident was a breakthrough in our history. It marked a new beginning in our struggles for equality.

The first public critique of Manusmriti came from Mahatma Jotirao Phule in the 19th century. Tarabai Shinde and Mukta Salve analyzed and critiqued patriarchy as a system based on the principles of Manusmriti. However, none of the famous social reformers of the nineteenth century took serious consideration of their analysis. In the 20th century, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar with his rational critique of Ramayana and Mahabharata exposed the reality of Hindu religion.

In the last twenty years, several western scholars have studied Dr. Ambedkar’s works. Nobel laureate Prof. Amartya Sen described Dr. Ambedkar as his role model (though he hardly uses Ambedkar’s works in his books!). The last twenty years have also witnessed many ‘upper caste‘ scholars researching on Babasaheb. Today his speeches and writings have received the status of enduring quotes. His works have provided a fertile ground for many new interventions and books in academic circles.

The Dalit-Bahujan movement which grew across Maharashtra and India after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death popularized his hitherto unknown works. The state was forced to notice these tireless efforts. As a result, expert committees were set up by the government to compile and publish the works of Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Changdev Khairmode, Dhananjay Keer, Raosaheb Kasbe, Arjun Dangle, Yashwant Manohar, Gail Omvedt, Gopal Guru, Anand Teltumbde, Sukhadeo Thorat, Narendra Jadhav, Bhalchandra Mungekar, Hari Narke, Sharad Patil, A.H. Salunke, Laxman Mane, Laxman Gaikwad and innumerable such scholars, activists, researchers and common people have tried to meaningfully popularize Babasaheb’s work.

Similarly, Kumud Pawde, Baby Kamble, Shanta Kamble, Sushila Patekar, Urmila Pawar, Meenakshi Moon, Nanda Meshram, Yashodhara Gaikwad, Kaushalya Bansetri, Hira Bansode, Pragnya Pawar, Saroj Kamble, Abhinaya Ramesh, Lata P.M., Pratima Pardeshi, Sandhya Nare-Pawar, Nutan Malvi, Chaya Khobragade, Kunda P.N., Ashwini Torne, Shilpa Kamble, Shyamal Garud, Nisha Shende, and Dr. Sushma Andhare are some of the many Dalit-Bahujan feminists, poets, and writers who have emerged in Maharashtra. They firmly stand on Phule-Ambedkarite thought. They convincingly situate the origins of their feminism in the works of these two ‘men’ who clearly ruptured systems of masculine and gendered oppression through their work and life.

Today, autobiographies written by Dalit-Bahujan women and men have influenced not just the literary productions in Maharashtra but also research in areas such as women’s studies, history, political science, and sociology. Dalit women’s movement has captured its own autonomous space. Their effort has exposed other savarna women’s movements to issues of caste.

In the past decade, several feminists of ‘upper-caste’ origins have tried to articulate the intersections of caste, gender, and class. They include English writers such as Uma Chakravarti, V. Geetha, Susie Tharu, K. Latha, Vasanth Kannabiran and Kalpana Kannabiran, Sharmila Rege and Marathi writers such as Vidyut Bhagwat, Lata Bhise Sonawane, Wandana Sonalkar and Usha Wagh. Quite often, they base their arguments on the experiences and writings of regional Dalit and Bahujan women writers. The reason for the same is quite evident. While other feminisms frame their analysis on the basis of sexuality and patriarchy, Dalit-Bahujan feminist thought articulate the primacy of caste, class and gender in the Indian context. One could carefully compare it with Black feminism which taught ‘established’ white feminism about gendered racial oppression and gave egalitarian visions for feminism. Similarly, the movements relating to environment and rights, religious and sexual minorities would also have to grapple with the questions raised by Dalit Bahujan feminist articulations. Any materialist and layered analysis of our lived reality has to engage with the voices, analyses and theories of Dalit Bahujan feminists.

The essays and riddles selected by Sharmila Rege for her introduction are pre-requisite readings for any researcher curious to understand the origin and practice of caste system. In this book Sharmila selects essays written by Dr. Ambedkar in the context of Brahminical Patriarchy. She has also included the Hindu Code Bill, speeches in the Constituent Assembly and Dr. Ambedkar’s resignation letter. In her long introduction, she has tried to capture the relevance of and reasons for such a compilation. She also discusses contemporary feminism, the ‘contours’ of Ambedkarite movements, Ambedkarite cultural productions such as songs and poems, and increasing tendencies towards ‘idolizing’ Dr. Ambedkar among Dalits and Buddhists.

There are three sections in this book. In the first section, she introduces Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanisms, Genesis and Development’ and ‘The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman: Who was responsible for it?’. In the second, she introduces and compiles three Riddles namely ‘Riddle No. 18: Manu’s Madness or the Brahminic Explanation of the Origin of the Mixed Castes’, ‘Riddle No. 19: The Change from Paternity to Maternity- What did the Brahmans wish to gain by it?’ and ‘The Riddle of Rama and Krishna’. In the third section she introduces ‘The Hindu Code Bill’, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s speeches in the constituent assembly (titled ‘I belong to the Other Caste’) and ‘The resignation letter’ (titled ‘On the Eve of Resigning from the Cabinet’).

In the introduction of her book, Sharmila tries to explain her position. She claims to uphold the feminist legacy of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar as a non-dalit feminist.

Babasaheb’s riddles: Oppositions and Solidarities

Babasaheb’s riddles were first published by Govt. of Maharashtra in the year 1987. Hindutva forces especially rallied against the Riddles on Rama and Krishna. The following months witnessed a violent upsurge of Brahiminical forces under the banner of the Shiv Sena. The construction of Manu’s statue in Rajasthan High Court Campus occurred during the same turbulent period. While it was the moral responsibility of every egalitarian movement to join hands and fight against this Brahminical uprising, only the Dalit Bahujan movements took the lead.

From 1970s to 1990s Maharashtra and India witnessed an array of Dalit Bahujan struggles. The formation of the Dalit Panther Party, the long struggle waged by Dalits to rename Marathwada University, and agitations for the implementation of the Mandal Commission report played out during this period. Simultaneously, extremely powerful and organic literature was produced in Dalit-Bahujan circles. The writings of Prof. Arun Kamble on Babasaheb’s riddles were very famous in those days.

On the one hand, women and men from progressive movements in Maharashtra were organizing long marches to support Babasaheb’s riddles. Phule-Ambedkarite women who were actively involved with the women’s movement also joined these marches in huge numbers. On the other hand though, the Pune-Bombay circle of Brahminical upper-class feminists found joy in quoting Babasaheb simply as a ‘Dalit social reformer’ and stayed away from the protests.

During the same period, feminists from Marathwada and Vidharba were actively using anti-caste revolutionary idioms in their everyday deliberations –

“कायनंबानुकोन्यामनुनं, पोथीपुस्तकांतठेवलंलिवून, बायांचीअक्कलम्हनेगहान, अशामनुस्म्रुतीचीहोळीमीकरते, दास्याचातुरुंगफोडते”

[‘who knows some person called Manu have written in some book that a woman’s intellect

( अक्कल) is like a mortgaged gear (गहान) I am burning such Manusmriti, breaking the shackles of slavery’]

This period witnessed great energy among Dalit-Bahujan women across progressive movements. Dalit-Bahujan women were entering education and organizing themselves. However, there is very little mention of this vibrant period in Sharmila’s introduction. 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. The reason is quite simple. A work which is based not on Marathi but on English translations of Marathi is hardly adept in mentioning such histories.

Similarly, the tendency to quote only Dalit-Bahujan writers from Pune and Bombay creates an illusion that Western Maharashtra is the vortex of the movement. Sharmila has succumbed to the same tendency. It is indispensible to engage with the works of writers from Marathwada and Vidarbha. How can we forget the fact that Marathwada and Vidarbha were on fire during the ‘riddles’ controversy?

The established women’s movement maintained a calculated silence during the same period. One could say that it took them some time to develop a perspective on what was happening around them! We can also trace silences in the academic works of Dalit and Bahujan intellectuals who primarily retired as government servants. However, one may find indirect mention of the riddles controversy in their autobiographical and fictional works.

What is mainstream feminism?

Sharmila in her 43 page introduction calls her book a limited attempt at ‘re-establishing’ Ambedkar’s thoughts. Her work clearly upholds the view that mainstream feminism is ‘non-Dalit’ feminism. She does not consider Dalit-Bahujan feminist articulations as ‘mainstream’. One should note that Sharmila’s stand is in concurrence with that of Dalit scholar Gopal Guru. Commenting on Sharmila’s book, Gopal Guru observes that she ‘provides a theoretically advanced interpretation of Babasaheb’s thinking on the interstices of caste and feminist questions. Rege’s work assumes significance especially in the context of limited engagement with caste in mainstream feminism’.

Consequently, the question that begs an answer is, ‘what is mainstream feminism’? Is Sharmila Rege the representative of the mainstream in feminism and are Dalit-Bahujan feminists on the side streams? If this is true, it means that the scores of non-Brahmin women who have worked in the feminist movement, wrote, spread its thoughts, and struggled standing firmly on Phule-Ambedkarite thought are not mainstream. It creates an academic illusion that only Brahmin or upper caste women’s movement is ‘mainstream’. Today many Dalit Bahujan activists like me understand how historians and researchers can murder our works by not mentioning them. It then becomes our responsibility to write down our autobiographies, experiences and oral histories. We will have to write our own histories. However, the necessary resources such as fellowships, libraries, research institutes and universities are not accessible to us. Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi women and survivors of violence opine that if established universities take up our projects and give us opportunities then many new doors would open up for researchers.

Various universities have established Women’s Studies Centers. Dr. Vidyut Bhagwat, Dr. Sharmila Rege, and Wandana Sonalkar have tried to convey through their words, the classroom and teaching experience in their universities. Were Sharmila with us today, she would certainly have organized a talk on, ‘Is Mainstream feminism for a minority Brahmin/upper class or is it for Dalit-Bahujans too? Who is to decide?’ based on the questions I have raised here. Unfortunately, she is not with us. But let us hope that her colleagues will definitely take Sharmila’s legacy forward.

One cannot deny the fact that when Brahmins and other upper-castes take up Phule’s and Ambedkar’s thoughts, they receive a holy sanction in academic circles. Unintentionally, when Sharmila presents herself as a non-Dalit representative of the so-called main branch of the feminist stream she tries to free other upper class/caste feminists from their guilt and calculated silence on caste.

About Brahminical and Abrahminical Patriarchies

The main pillars of her introduction are built around her understanding of Brahminical and Abrahminical patriarchies. This conceptual framework is borrowed from Babasaheb’s ‘Manu’s Madness or the Brahminical explanation of the origin of the mixed castes’. Brahminical explanations focus on maintaining ‘purity’ in matrimonial unions by opposing inter-community marriages. She explains the relevance of this explanation using the work of Dinkarrao Javalkar, a powerful voice in the Satyashodhak Movement. In his sarcastic article written in the year 1920, Javalkar forecasts the resolutions of a Brahmin Conference in the year 1950. Sharmila Rege reproduces the fictitious resolutions in her introduction – “Many cases of Brahman women beating up their husbands are being registered in the court. Hence a law must be made to protect Brahmin husbands….. I feel ashamed to tell you that in their blind imitation of the Europeans, Brahmin women smoke, perform in theatres, and shave in salons. In fact, the entire ‘Bavankhani’ (red light area dating to Peshwa period) is full of Brahman women – one Brahman prostitute has even put a board declaring herself to be of a Peshwa pedigree”. (Y D Phadke 1984: 149)

Javalkar had written this sarcastic article after Tilak’s opposition to Vithalbhai Patel in 1918 to legalize inter-caste marriages. Sharmila writes that Javalkar’s imagined conference of 1950 really happened after 59 years in 2009. In this international mega-conference, a resolution was passed that stipulated that Brahmins should marry only among Brahmins for the larger good of the Nation. The ‘real’ conference also prescribed a dress code for Brahmin women. This means Javalkar knew the extent of Brahminical conservatism way ahead of his times. The dogma of Brahmin life seems to continue. Sharmila acknowledges that Javalkar’s sarcastic writing is a pinching response to Brahmin claims of being virtuous and dubbing others as non-virtuous. However, she also concludes that Javalkar’s writings are divorced from Jotirao Phule’s social thought. Jotirao Phule strongly argues that Shudra-Ati Shudra and women are on one side and their battle is against Bhatji and Shetji. Such an insightful rendition gives us a nuanced vision of gender equality.

But in beginning of the 20th century, non-Brahmin male scholars like Javalkar make gendered judgments on western reforms among Brahmin women. They, according to Sharmila, represent ‘invisible patriarchy’ among non-Brahmin men. I think her conclusion is fully applicable to today’s Brahmin women as well. Manusmriti supports exploitation and violence of women and Shudras and Ati-Shudras. Even though women from feminist movements criticize statements like ‘नस्त्रीस्वातंत्र्यमर्हती” from Manusmriti, yet they seem to disagree with Pramila Leela Sampat who declared 25th December (Manusmriti Dahan Diwas) as Indian women’s Liberation Day. While Dalit Bahujan women and political parties like Bahujan Republican Mahasangh celebrate this day, upper class/caste women do not accept that this day marks their symbolic liberation. From this one can understand how deeply women in India have internalized the teachings of Manu.

In her introduction to the final section, Sharmila writes that it is tragic to call Babasaheb (who burnt Manusmriti in 1927) the Modern Manu. In this context, she quotes Shamir Arvind Akolawala’s poem:

“By rejecting King Manu’s Law,

Brought new law for betterment of all women

Pratibhatai and Mayawati preach to the world now.”

During the early fifties, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was saddened by the fact that upper class/caste women in parliament did not support him in the passage of Hindu Code Bill. He mentioned that my people did not have any land or property. Therefore, the major beneficiaries of Hindu Code Bill would be upper caste women and not Dalit women. The bill is their charter of inheritance rights. In one of the chapters in Babasaheb’s biography Dhananjay Keer mentions about an honorary address given by Babasaheb to a huge women’s gathering. In the address Ambedkar mentioned that none of the major women leaders showed any interest in Hindu Code Bill or social empowerment of women. Babasaheb compared the status of Hindu Code bill to milk mixed with poisonous chemicals. It is only recently that the women’s movement has started demanding women’s inheritance rights. Had the women’s movement and its leaders wholeheartedly supported Babasaheb, we might already have been many strides ahead in achieving property rights.

In the past few years, India has witnessed a shift in political power. Hindutva outfits have formed women’s groups at local levels to resurrect the violence entrenched in Manusmriti. The agenda of Brahmanism is actively propagated through classrooms and textbooks. Today, Phule–Ambedkarite thought is more relevant than ever before. There is a grinding need for women’s movement(s) to take a clear stand against women and men who oppose liberation of women and Dalit-Bahujan demand for annihilation of caste. Once again our hard-earned constitutional rights and provisions are being challenged. It would be too late by the time the savarna women’s movement will realize the value of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s contribution and work. Women’s movement should work tirelessly to expose the Brahminical explanations of endogamous marriages at multiple levels.

Let us understand the life and work of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and replace dogmatic religious texts revered in our homes, with the Indian Constitution. We need to critically read, write and share the constitution with our young ones. If English-educated elite feminists and sociologists read this book sequentially they will realize that Ambedkar’s research for riddles had created the ground for Hindu Code Bill. However, such a realization always existed among readers who have engaged with Phule-Ambedkarite literature at the ground level. Phule-Ambedkarite publics from across Maharashtra have always been the readers, connoisseurs and endorsers of Ambedkarite Marathi literature. They organize discussions in community halls. Their knowledge of class, caste and gender developed in open universities like Chaityabhumi and Dikshabhumi, not in any formal universities! Surely, Sharmila’s name would be remembered as a researcher and a translator who tried to make Phule-Ambedkar available to an elite/upper-caste readership.

This article was also published in SAVARI.



Lata Pratibha Madhukar is a Dalit-Bahujan feminist writer, Social Activist and Researcher . She has published three books and several short stories, poems, articles in Marathi, Hindi and English periodicals. She has been active in various social movements for the past 35 years. These include the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, Stree Kathi, Narmada Bachao Andolan, among many others. She is currently doing her PhD on ‘Bahujan women’s role in OBC movement’.

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