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We need to come together and build political spaces for Dalit women: Asha Kowtal

We need to come together and build political spaces for Dalit women: Asha Kowtal

asha savari


In the second and concluding part of the interview with Asha Kowtal, conducted during the National Dalit and Adivasi Women’s Congress held at TISS, Mumbai, on Feb 15-16, 2013, she mulls over the dynamics of the atrocities in Dharmapuri, Maharashtra, Haryana and the pervasive impunity documented all across the country with respect to caste violence. She also discusses the work of her organization NCHDR, its goals and objectives; finally she discusses the importance of political power for Dalit women.

asha savari

Asha Kowtal, as General Secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM), has been actively working to mobilize Dalits, and Dalit women in particular, across states – from Dabra in Haryana to Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu – against caste hegemony and violence.

You can read the first part of the interview here



Asha Kowtal: (continuing with her answer to a question about atrocities on Dalit women featured in the first part of this video interview) But I really honestly, can’t say because these crimes against Dalits have been there forever, almost. So I just see only, probably, the pattern, the location, the nature of the crimes are probably now changing.

Kuffir: The assertion is definitely a part of it because there is no other simple explanation. It is being reported, it is being challenged. As you said, (violence against) the girls who were actually going to school, as different from earlier ages when they would be working in the fields, that kind of violence was not visible perhaps (earlier), in terms of blood and gore. And this new kind of tendency of (‘honour’ related violence) in the southern states. There have been honour killings in the southern states, in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and AP also. In places where grooms were actually stoned to death, that happened in Nizamabad. In Karnataka, last year also, where a father killed his daughter because she had married a Dalit. This honour killing is kind of new because the girls are now interacting with people of other communities. So that aspect is there, and the reaction you can see in Tamil Nadu where they are actually forming alliances to stop inter-caste marriages. How do you look at this whole situation?

Asha Kowtal: Yes, yes. When I visited Dharmapuri and (tried to) understand the whole issue over there. One is that, yes this (was triggered by the) case of inter-caste marriage, but otherwise if you see the whole situation there (in Dharmapuri), there also seems to be something else. There is something else which was underlying that kind of violence. It was definitely, very much well-planned, in advance. This could not have happened just like that.

Kuffir: Sivakami is saying that the petrol was bought in advance, the trucks were engaged a month in advance..

Asha Kowtal: Yes, yes. So all this was a well-planned thing; also the way in which they had attacked: first, they had come and looted, the first batch. After that, the second one was destroying the property, destroying the sources of livelihood. And if you see that, that this colony there – they’re really, economically very well developed, being close to Bangalore, Chennai, Coimbatore. In fact the janata houses, which they had brought down and constructed very good houses for themselves. They all are into running small businesses, working in Bangalore and Coimbatore and Chennai. They have really economically moved much ahead. In fact, the local dominant caste people are not so well off than these communities.

So even when we were speaking to all of them, they also said that maybe (inter-caste marriage) is one of the reasons but more than that they were not able to digest the fact that we (the Dalits) are not taking money from them on credit, we’re not going to their fields for work so they are not really able to digest this. But of course this now being used by Ramadoss and others who are making hate speeches.

Kuffir: The undercurrent was there earlier and they were only justifying it (through the inter-caste marriage) later.

Asha Kowtal: Yes, and he was making use of it for himself.

Kuffir: And he is building social alliances to fight this cause (of opposing inter-caste marriages). Earlier the Gounders wouldn’t probably approach these Vanniyars but they’re coming together at least at the party or the political leadership level. So that aspect is there, and we can understand (through this) how people of different dominant castes come together on this through Khaps in Haryana, people from radically different regions. They also come from UP and Rajasthan sometimes to hold these Khaps, I think. How do we challenge this kind of hostile alliances? If the dominant castes feel threatened in such a fashion – either they have to bow in before this assertion and expansion of mobility because it can’t be stopped or… very bloody costs have to be borne by the Dalits.

Asha Kowtal: I can only speculate, or fear actually that how long can we take violence like this, this kind of attacks and crimes on us. Because even when I was in Dharmapuri and (preparing to) leave, in a discussion with some of the other local leaders – they were saying that this attack was carried out when our boys were not in the village. They had all gone for coaching classes, some had gone out for exams, others had actually gone – because this happened before the festival – to Bangalore or (wherever they worked) to get money.

So most of the men were not around in the village at that time, the younger men and boys were not there. That is why they were able to do this. If our boys were there this would not have happened and then immediately he was telling us, I remember, that in all the houses around there now: ‘we will also keep petrol bombs in our houses, to defend ourselves’. He was saying that when this happened here, the message had gone to all the nearby Dalit localities, so they were also ready for this kind of violence. Violence again could result in more violence from our side also. That is something which always really comes to my mind.

Kuffir: This is one aspect – the police machinery has utterly failed (because) they had enough indications, enough signs when (the Vanniyars) were cutting down trees and stopping even police vehicles. So they had enough indications. Even though there is a certain urgency and a growing Dalit consciousness that this (spate of atrocities) has to be stopped, and as you said there’s some mobilization to take things into their own hands (among the Dalits), and (there’s the police) laxity which goes beyond certain limits. Even when it comes to cases relating to upper caste women the state machinery, despite all the noise they make, is still very lax. How to wake up the state to act in a more responsible manner, how will that happen? There should be a matching response from the state, even if not to the same degree, at least to some degree. But there is total absence of it. Sonia Gandhi came to Dabra…

Asha Kowtal: Jind.

Kuffir: Yes, she knew what was happening there, but she can’t do anything to restrain Hooda, or she doesn’t want to. So political leadership is such that they’re not inclined to deal with this as a serious issue, and they put up all the pretence over the Delhi rape issue. So how do we get the political society and also how do we make it discipline the state machinery, especially the police which seems to have lost its bearings? They don’t seem to have any constitutional spirit in any sense. They don’t seem to be working for the country, they seem to be working for bosses of their own. Most of these attacks, especially the organized attacks, could have been prevented we know, every time.

Asha Kowtal: Very true. Look at this case, which I was telling you about – about Chandrakanth Gaikwad, who was murdered on February 13th. Those boys, for over a month they had been telling the SP that they are facing this kind of threats from these people, they named them also and asked for protection. More than a month. They had the records of the letters they had given; even the locals, everybody knows about this. But they refused protection and finally he lost his life. The other 4-5 boys were just saved. So what you refer to, the laxity of the police – from Haryana to Maharashtra, Karnataka, everywhere, across the country I think this is what you’re seeing.

Police, investigation officers, the judiciary – I just feel like it has seeped completely into every institution. They just don’t really care. It seems like accountability is missing completely. It is such a huge question that you’ve asked, but I feel that if only there is a reversal of power – we have to get the power in our hands. When I say we, Dalitbahujan, when we get into power and control these institutions, maybe we can have something different then, I feel. That’s why it is so important that we, particularly Dalit women, get into governance, to political power. That’s extremely important.

I know that once you get into the system you’re also sold out, you also have to toe the line, but I feel that if we have a good strong strategy within ourselves, Dalitbahujans, and work towards it, to shift the (balance of) power – with this kind of perspective and this kind of thinking we can definitely bring about some change. But with this current setup I just feel so hopeless.

Kuffir: NCDHR and its work has been on a very original path wherein the surveillance (by upper caste) aspect – which we had talked about earlier – has been obviated, has been avoided by building a Dalit alliance across the country and seeking solidarity with other marginalized people and human rights activists across the world. So could you tell us a little about NCDHR and your role in it?

Asha Kowtal: From what I understand NCDHR has been for more than 12 years invested in building Dalit human rights defenders in different states: individuals, activists, lawyers who set up, probably, their own sanghatans, their own institutions and are now independently doing this monitoring and supporting the grassroots level work.

After that period of investing on the ground, NCDHR moved into these three broad campaigns: one, National Dalit Movement for Justice which looks at the whole criminal justice system, enforcement of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act; and in the recent past has been working on amendments to this Act in terms of making it more effective. Second, in the whole area related to budget advocacy and economic rights – (we have) the Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan. That group started looking at doing more research work, budget analysis, bringing out the diversions, the notional allocations in the budgets and then initiating work on that and also policy – making SCP/TSP into a legislation. I think, from the Andhra experience now, they’re actually looking at the Central level.

Then the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch is where we are focusing on the whole issue of Dalit women. Two things – one is that within NCDHR itself, to ensure that focus on women is brought into every activity that is done. If it is budget work also it needs to be looked at from women’s perspective, if it is civil and political rights, into that also we need to bring in the gender focus. That’s one area. And also supporting the state level work. So me and my team – we’re based in Delhi. But most of our activists and others, network partners are in the different states.

Our presence right now is more in the north – Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa. Trying to see how we could associate ourselves with other groups across (the country). Also feel that now the time has come to see how the Dalit women’s movement could join forces, come together; because, first of all, we are very few in number so there is a need that instead of further fragmentation we need to come together and build some political spaces for Dalit women. That is an area, the new agenda for Dalit women that we now have to prioritize and build on.

Kuffir: Finally, coming back to the National Dalit and Adivasi Women’s Congress, you have talked about how inspiring it has been, and also rejuvenating. But apart from that, how do you see this: do you see this Congress as reflecting the thinking happening across the country in the Dalit and Adivasi worlds? How do you see the content of the things said here, the things shared, the tales and the stories? How do you gauge all this?

Asha Kowtal: As I said earlier, it was a good blend. I particularly liked the last two sessions of Dalit women professionals – the lawyers, the journalists, the management professionals, the girls in the media, and then the students. I really felt that that (session) was so powerful. Their energy and perspective was so solid, and I really felt that that’s where the future lies.

How this Dalit and Adivasi women’s movement is going to be in the next 15-20 years is really going to be determined by this group of young girls today. I thought that was fantastic. Also the session on literature, writings. That’s one area where we as activists have not completely immersed ourselves, stayed away from it earlier. That was a very interesting experience. Bringing in women from the Denotified and Nomadic tribes and the Muslim women’s perspective: that was very well thought of, very, very important.

But most of all it was the fact that it was all women, our women, Dalit and Adivasi women. I think that was the real strength of this Congress.

Please read the first part of the interview here.


Please also read the earlier interview with P. Sivakami:

Land is not ancestral property, it has to change hands: Sivakami


 Separate Panchayats for Dalits shall ensure security and development: Sivakami



Transcribed by Kuffir.

Video courtesy: Neel Kranti Media, Ratnesh Kumar and Gurinder Azad.


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