Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What is the politics of the journal?

To ask this question would imply two presumptions made:

  1. The journal is meant to be political and
  2. The contributors are in unanimous agreement regarding the first point.

To ask this question is again not to presume that there is a single coherent line of politics which is to be perpetrated by means of the journal. The journal for the time being is a presentation in the public sphere of certain concerns which are occasioned by the Dalit-Studies class and subsequent discussions. The public sphere available is our university which is also the site of our academic pursuits. We are therefore part of a university sponsored programme to promote the cause of the Dalit. Thus the answer to the question raised in one of the responses- “Is this university sponsored propaganda?” would be, yes it is. Yet the fact that the promotion of this cause is being funded and regulated by the university (or the UGC) should raise significant concerns for the class itself which has by now gotten used to comprehending urban centres of privilege(like the university) as a manifestation of the state’s negligence towards the caste question as such. Does that mean that we, along with our journal stand to be representatives of a changing face of the Indian state which in Dalit representations is often signified as the embodiment of Hindu nationalism and capitalist rationality? We, in the publication of the journal are therefore in a way describing and therefore reinforcing the secular, caste-neutral face of modern urban India. Our criticism is leveled from a vantage point which is commonly attributed to the urban intellectual space- the vantage point of caste-neutrality. This is not a claim to be found in our contributions to the journal. This is rather an obvious political implication of the liberal, civil-society virtues, values, etc. that the journal in spite of the best of our intentions cannot help but bear. The first issue is an embodiment of this liberal ethic. The issue along with all its components turns out to be a collection of informative doctrines which presents the cause of Dalit Studies in a form which is amended to suit public and popular consumption. While there are obvious advantages to this approach, it remains a fact that to inform and to render the information amenable to popular consumption cannot be the only objective of the journal; it can only be one such objective. We have successfully generated a ‘pop’ Dalit studies approach (something akin to pop-history books). Whereas this remains a marvelous way to introduce the subject to the public sphere, it definitely misses out on a certain critical edge which brings us back to the question framed in the title. As we attempt to approach the question, we once again discover ourselves positioned in the framework grounded in the liberal ethic prevalent in the very institution of the journal.

Does this imply that the journal is yet another manifestation of “the politics of despair” which seems to be a constant accompaniment to any and every political struggle in the world today? Is there no avenue for escape from this liberal ‘apolitics’? The answer could well be yes. That makes this introspection unnecessary. But if the answer is no and we are prepared to make an effort to locate ourselves outside this liberal ethic (which is also perpetuated in the state’s interest), then this is a time to recover the critical edge which has remained the radical point of departure from usual practices of social sciences adopted by the discipline of Dalit Studies. Thus to begin with we have to lose our vantage point. We have to confess to our caste subjectivities while framing critical approaches. This is easier said than done. To even conceive of such an approach remains a challenge to be borne by the journal in future. It is not similar to using one formula instead of another. But if we do not manage to attain or come close to a point of exit from the predominant liberal ethic, we cannot even begin to ask the question framed in the title. In that case Jyoti would remain a subject of ‘cruel oppression’ for which our university, our journal and our politics has hardly anything more than sympathy.

There are 2 other ways of dealing with this. One is denying the validity of the titular question, the other being a denial of the two presumptions which foreground the titular question. If these two ways are the desired methods then off course this response is unnecessary and can be rejected immediately.

Ritam Sengupta

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Attacking Caste Neutrality

The journal has come to its concluding issue for this semester. In following the journal one has traced its trajectory over several dimensions of the caste question. Issues as diverse as Dalit Feminism to caste and nutrition to caste and race to caste movements to Dalit literature have been dealt with. In this issue we focus on certain instances where we least expect the question of caste to arise at least in a commonsensical understanding of these instances. The issue therefore focuses on the dimensions of caste neutrality which creates almost impermeable facades to our understanding of inequality in our country.
In question are issues like the subterranean caste questions in Communist ruled states like Kerala, caste operating in spaces like the university (the specific case taken up in this issue being EFLU, our own university), the question of caste in Indian Cinema, the question of Dalit Christian identities and the operation of caste discrimination through apparently value neutral functioning of the economy (SEZs being the point of focus). The issue is accompanied by an exclusive interview of Arundhati Roy- the activist writer. The political imperative of the journal has by now become clear. It is our attempt by means of this issue to strengthen the attacks on this age old social inequality- caste and make cases for change, at the level of policies and society as such.


The editors of this issue are Jimmy, Ria, Geetanjali, Ritam and Asmita. The editors would like to thank Dr. K. Satyanarayana, Mr. K. Balagopal, Ms. Arundhati Roy, Prof. Maya Pandit, Mr. Ratnayya, Mr. Murlidhar Tadi, the office staff of EFLU, the SC/ST cell, Renu Elizabeth Abraham (for the illustration), Reju George Matthew for his inputs and everybody else who helped us with this issue.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Subterranean Caste in Kerala

It might seem hard to believe that discrimination based on caste exists in the modernized social set up in Kerala, the image projected being contrary to the fact, either as part of a well calculated programme of the implementation of caste system or as a social reality that is practiced without being aware of it. With the presence of the Progressive left parties, which sees all struggle as class struggle and only as class struggle, either straight or distorted, the reality of caste discrimination is back grounded, but never eliminated. It still pervades the society, with the perpetrators of it in Kerala being intelligent enough to do it with a fine sense of perfection and skill that it does not attract the atrocity act. Conversation with Prof. Yesudasan, the HOD of Department of English CMS College, Kottayam, Kerala, opened up certain “subterranean operation of caste system in Kerala”. This form of casteism can be broadly identified into politics and religion, though these are not the only manifestations of it.
Kerala has a political set up which leaves the voters with practically no electoral choice- it is either the Congress led United Democratic Front [UDF] or the Left Democratic Front [LDF]. The prevailing notion that the UDF is a pro rich political group has resulted in the flourishing of the Left in the state, which commits the fundamental fallacy of overlooking caste as a reason for social discrimination. In addition, the pride that the society takes in calling itself educated and modern prevents it from blunt caste discrimination as is seen in other states of the country. This does not mean that Kerala society is caste free; neither is the Marxist Party. Caste discrimination still exists, with its long history of poverty and discrimination.
At the higher level, where Chief Minister of Kerala, Com. V.S. Achudananthan is projected as traditional, a non-techno man, ignorant of globalization, caste operates wrapped in what Prof. Yesudasan calls “scientific explanations”. At an intermediate level, Dalit women activists are rarely offered a post in the Party and are compelled to leave the Party, like C.K. Janu, the founder of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha. At a lower level, Marxism, one of the best humanistic ideologies, dehumanizes Dalits to the level of political hooligans, for the benefit of the higher ups in the Party. The diminishing number of membership in the Party in Kerala, as is expressed in the Coimbatore Party Congress 2008 can be traced to such inhuman tendencies.
As Kerala developed, sons of the forest were thrown on to the streets. They are deprived of all modernity, except for the way they dress. Their language is not educated, for that is yet to reach them. But the modern notion of wild life protection has reached them, displacing them of the right to have a living from forest. Neither of the political Fronts has been able to solve their problems. This led to recent agitations like the ones in Changara, referred to by Arundhati Roy in her interview. (Please find the interview at the end of the article). An attitude to extend a helping hand is lacking. But why? Is it because they are expected to tolerate, the strange argument being they are used to it? But who has made them so and why is nothing being done towards their cause? In an era of modernization, democracy and universal brotherhood, this lapse can be traced down to nothing but the operation of an undercurrent of caste discrimination by the rulers.
The two major religions under consideration in the study of caste discrimination in Kerala are Christianity and Islam. Both do not recognize caste. The Muslims of Kerala have their internal divisions based on belief and class, not caste. Christianity has a peculiar attitude to caste and conversion. There are sects within the Christians, who believe in ethnic purity (the Knanaya Community for instance) and others who claim Brahminic identity (saying they were the decedents of the Brahmins who were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas). These Christians and Hindus share the same ritual purity and sacred rules. They harbor a pride and superiority, and practice endogamy to maintain this purity. Yet, there are Christian sects and missionaries who preach brotherhood and equality.
Conversions do happen in Kerala, though it does not concern the religious polity of the state. Interestingly, much of these conversions are either inter sect conversions or inter religious, with the Dalits forming the majority of the converts. This was mainly for a community identity, which was not possible in Kerala. While, in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu the Dalit working class was tied to the land of the landlord and thus fragmented, did not live as a community. Also, Christianity exposed them to modernity and modern education. Even though the plight of the Dalits is better in Kerala compared to other states, the plight of Dalit identity and sense of the Dalit community are more in other states. This unity was brought about by Christianity. The role played by the Pentecost church which is a Dalit church predominantly, has been great towards social reform. Yet what makes the attitude of Christianity in Kerala peculiar is its being modern and casteist simultaneously. The society looks down upon these Dalit churches.There are instances, as Sarah Joseph point out in her novel Othappu, where a converted Christian is allowed to take only a distorted form of the an original Christian name (Ousep for Joseph, Chacko for Jacob etc.). There are churches which consider the Dalits as the object of their charity, providing modern facilities, but hesitate to have a Dalit priest. *some text missing*
Need for Connectivity
In Kerala, the need of the hour is to unite the Dalits, by reforming the education system. Thanks to the lower financial status, majority of the Dalits attend government schools, while the non Dalits prefer English medium schools, more suited for professional courses. Apart from the quality of education, there is a serious ghettoization happening from the grass root level. Reservations are only a token help. What is required is a legitimate share in opportunities to reach a level when reservations are no more required. The scattered Dalit communities are required to unite to claim for itself a culture and tradition which is no inferior but at par with any other similar culture and tradition. As Prof. Yesudasan says, “Not denying education alone is not enough. The education provided should lead to the cultural connectivity and unification of the Dalit community.”

SEZ, Land and Dalits

The alienation and exploitation of tribal and Dalit populations continue in the face of modern India with the latest onslaught on their lives being brought about by the implementation of the SEZ act. There is an ensuing battle in our country to be fought on two fronts. The first enemy is the forces of global capital, which is penetrating our daily lives in every way possible. The second is off-course the more ‘traditional’ instance of caste based discrimination, oppression and exclusion. Neo colonization by means of global capital is taking over our nation, and its ally is clearly upper class elites who have hardly anything material to lose. Dalits have almost always been losers in gambles such as this. 12 out of 14 official deaths in Nandigram were Dalit deaths. All women who were gang raped were Dalit women. Even in cases of movemental operations, limelight and the political imperative seems to lie with upper caste leadership whose civil society operations hardly stall the forces of this colonization in some cases falling prey to them too easily.
According to official data till November 30, 2007 there are a total of 760 SEZs in operation or been approved. There are more awaiting approval. The central government expects over 300000 crores worth private investment in SEZs. A claim of about 3-4 million new jobs being created has been made by the likes of Minister Kamal Nath. Till date around 48,000 hectares of land has been acquired for the SEZ. Yet again there is a tall claim made by the government of about Rs 43,133 crores investment already incurred and around 35,000 jobs being created out of them. Apart from discrepancies in the claim it is also a necessity to point out the fact that for around Rs. 1.24 crores investment in such projects there is 1 job being created. Also significant is the composition in terms of the nature of the industry that these projects are fostering. 65% of the 193 notified SEZs are for IT and IT enabled services; and 15% for pharmaceuticals, textiles and multi-product activities. Over half of the notified SEZs (55%) are to be found in states of South India; 22% in the West, 18% in the North, and 4% in the East. The specialists are definite beneficiaries of these SEZs and unskilled labor might not be that relevant to the nature of the capital-intensive industries being drawn up. The Arjun Sen committee set up by the P.M. himself submitted its report on July 7th, 2007. According to the reports, on January 2005, the total employment in the Indian economy was 457 millions, the unorganized sector accounting for 395 million or 86%. In the unorganized sector, agricultural employment was around 253 million, 142 million being in non-agricultural sector. Point number 7 of the report says,' over the decades while the percentage of the population below the poverty line has come down, in 2004-2005, 77% people, totaling 836 million, had an income less than twice the official poverty line or below Rs 20 per day per capita. These are the poor and vulnerable segment of the Indian population. About 79% of the unorganized workers, 88% of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes, 80% of the OBCs and 84% of the Muslims belong to this category of the poor and vulnerable. Contrary to the trend in the number of people below the official poverty line, the number of people in this segment has steadily increased over the years.' How the employment promises of the SEZ act brings into scope all these people in terms of numbers and qualitative job-profiles remains to be seen. The Arjun Sen Gupta committee has reported government's policy on SEZ, rehabilitation due to dams, urban planning by displacing millions of urban slum dwellers as ‘major areas of concern’. For ‘backward’ states (normally with high concentration of Dalits and tribals), the minimum land requirement has been eased to 200 hectares and 50 hectares respectively for multi-product and sector specific SEZs.
The Madhya Pradesh government has stated in the Supreme Court that there is no available land to be given to those displaced. Given the fact that Madhya Pradesh, has a fair amount of vacant land and still cannot allot any land for rehabilitation of the tribal, other states like Uttar-Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra, Orrissa and Rajasathan and West Bengal are going to find it extremely difficult to relocate any displaced population with most of the land belonging to upper caste landed elites in large chunks. Also, most jungle land to be taken has been the source of livelihood of tribal populations.
Over 1.31 crore people are landless in India. Habitation land is also a luxury for these sections that live on and till communal land or at the mercy of the other. The Uttar-Pradesh government recently passed a notification that all the Dalits who ‘own’ any communal land till May 13 2007 will have legal entitlement to that land. The issue is how many Dalits have possession of the village communal land? Such notifications are hollow palliatives for the grass root level Dalit.
Apart from the displacement and land acquisition, non-existence of the implementation of Land Ceiling Laws has always led to serious plight for Dalits. The biggest farmers and politicians of India have a lot of land, illegally held and almost impossible to acquire by the state. The state governments in conjunction misuse the Supreme Court’s orders with the rural power elite. Dalits and tribals- victims of India's racist caste structure have hardly any scope to claim land unless land ceiling act is implemented. Accessible land is concentrated in the hands of powerful farmer communities, who are politically very mobile and violent. It would be almost impossible to take the land from Jaats, Gujjars, Rajputs, Bhoomihars, Bramins, Kurmis, Reddys, Thewars, Marathas and Yadavas. Caste prejudices of the ruling groups became obvious in the Shaheed Udham Singh Nagar district where 1164 hectare of the ceiling land was not redistributed to Dalits but to immigrants Sikhs from Punjab who allegedly paid huge bribes to powerful bureaucrats and political leaders. The governments have hardly any power to seize chunks of land in Tarai region from the owners who have almost relegated the tribal to a state of bonded labor. Land in masses was acquired by NGOs, big CBOs as well as for Ashrams, Gowshalas (cowherd). India is one of the few countries where land can be had in the name of religious book. There is no ceiling on farmland, land for temples, mosques or Gurudwaras; The NGOs, social movements hardly mention such gross discrepancies. The upper caste leaders of these groups thus are almost inevitably disqualified to speak for Dalit land rights.
The government has promised ‘humane’ displacement and relief and rehabilitation. However, the historical record denies the validity of this claim: an estimated 40 million people (40% of which are Adivasis and 25% Dalits) have lost their land since 1950 to large development projects. At least 75% of them still await rehabilitation.
A new relief and rehabilitation policy has been tabled in Parliament recently. It promises a ‘Social Impact Assessment’ of development projects, which displace human populations involuntarily. It also promises ‘compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement ahead of displacement.’ These assurances encompass landless families who are to be trained to be ‘self-employed’ and/or given jobs in construction projects. The experience of Singur runs counter to this claim where the private enterprise to set up a car factory has clearly said that it needs specialized workers on its firm. Also, landed families losing land to development projects are to be allotted land elsewhere. There are also special R&R measures for displaced SC/ST groups. Yet again these are yet to be employed or even considered in any state policy as such. Additionally, these promised measures are almost paradoxical to the existent SEZ measures and which measures gain priority is really up to the government to decide.
Apart from all of this there are legal violations made in the course of SEZ policies which should have significant negative influence on the Dalit community:
•Relaxation/inapplicability of many labour laws (including under the Industrial
Disputes Act, Contract Labour Act, Factories Act, Minimum Wages Act, Trade Union Act).
•Violation of Panchayat Raj Act (1996) for local self-government.
•Violation of laws granting rights and control to Adivasi communities over their land.
It is also common knowledge that post reforms (after 1991) with the private sector taking over public enterprises; SC/ST employment has gone down in figures. With no laws of the Indian state being applicable to SEZs, there will obviously be no question of jobs being reserved in the SEZs for SC/ST candidates.

A Discussion with K Balagopal, Human Rights Forum

Correspondents from the journal went and spoke to Mr. K. Balagopal of the Human Rights Forum. He informed us about land acquisition in around Hyderabad and the impact on Dalits. Here are some of his observations as reported by our correspondents:
• Andhra Pradesh has been allotted 53 SEZs till now.
• A majority of land to be acquired is being classified as waste land, which is basically cultivated by Dalit farmers.
• Around Hyderabad, 50 acres are being taken under survey no. 88 and 120 acres under survey no. 18. Majority displaced are Dalits.
• Village Mandal Maheshwaram, Rangareddy District is being acquired for the Fab City project. Small farmers who are almost all from the Dalit community are being displaced.
• Village Srinagar is being acquired for the Outer Ring Road project. 35 acres of ‘assigned land’ is being taken over. This land has been allotted to the farmers since the time of Indira Gandhi, a good 30-40 years back. This village comes under survey no. 192. Almost the whole population is Dalit, Lambada, Kuruma or Tenugu. The land is being taken in this case and the previous case by private enterprises for private townships.
• Village Narakgramguda, around 20 km from Hyderabad is being acquired for the Outer Ring Road project. Again the entire population is from the Dalit community.

Caste in Cinema

Caste is a central fault line of modern India. Indian Social Science has a tendency to study it as a displacement of more fundamental identities like class or ethnicity, despite the fact that the public spaces of modern India are inflected by violence against Dalits and subordinated castes and its domestic spaces structured by strict discrimination against caste miscegenation. Portrayal of the conflicts of caste has rarely been part of the commercial mainstream cinema in India. Pitching my argument in this context I’d like to discuss about caste as dealt with in Indian cinema. Taking off from a more recent and popular cinema, Swades is a film which directly addresses the Dalit problematics.
The main story revolves around the protagonist, Mohan Bhargav, played by Shah Rukh Khan, a scientist in NASA. Mohan decides to come back to India in search of Kaveriamma, his namesake mother. The director plays upon the contrast that the location causes: from a highly clinical environment of the NASA research centre, to the Indian capital, to one of the remotest of villages in India. Within the filmic structure the director plays subtly with the obvious. We may fail to register first time, this social condition that we are dealing with, and which, though seems to be “far away” is hardly a few kilometers from the modern spaces we are moving in. The film tries to hit home the fact that modern India is not very far away from the “reality”, which it tries to hide behind the garb of “liberal thinking” and outlook. As we arrive in the village, we become aware of the lack of electricity, telephone connection, a proper school, etc., all of which comes as a stark contrast to the air conditioned caravan, which the protagonist drives, the fancy watch, the electronic foot massager, the expensive brand of cigarette.
The first encounter with the issues of caste and caste-based oppression takes place when we hear the village Head frowning down upon Mohan for having had food cooked from a lower caste. The urban individual is distanced from how the government legislation works at the grassroot level. He is fascinated to watch a Panchayat in progress, behaving like an outsider, only highlighting the fact how distanced an urban individual is from the grassroots, which forms the bulk of the country’s population. The film raises the question of how the governmental policies are being implemented and whether they are reaching all and reaping the benefits for which they were formulated. At the same time it comments on the role of every citizen in nation building, doing away with their differences and reservations. It talks of education and the increasing trend of dropouts which the government is struggling to cope with.
While the film tried to pin down the lacunae of the government to meet these teething problems that are standing in the way of development, it also emphasizes the need for personal awareness of each individual. Education is caught in a thousand year old orthodoxy that leads to children not getting proper education so that they can aim for a better life.
The character of Birsa is an archetype of the caste oppressed populace of modern India. For him when the village is a forbidden territory, how ca he even think of sending his children to school there. Another future crushed under the foot of evil custom. The rampant practice of child-marriage is also an issue that the film has tried to capture by focusing on this one family.
The scene where the entire village is assembled to watch a popular film is another instance of the practice of discrimination. The Dalits and the higher castes sit on either side of the makeshift screen, the Dalits watching the entire movie in the opposite direction. The narration brings home the fact that we as a nation need to unite, doing away with our differences. The director brings this notion together when they show how if the entire village could pool their energies, they can make a huge difference to the life. The film, commercial as it is, plays within the rules of it but makes a strong statement. It makes the point explicit through the use of the visual media as well as the presence of a strong star cast. Swades is one of the few instances when Indian commercial cinema dares to take a bold stance against a wide social condition that has been in existence for over a millennium. However, Indian cinema can boast of a number of such films that deals with this issue.
Mathamma is a documentary capturing a peculiar but exploitative practice of the Arundhati community in Tamil Nadu. It is about the tradition of offering female children to their deity Mathamma, similar to the practice of offering cattle. Then the offered female child becomes a property of the temple and the village. And she is called the Mathamma thereafter. As she becomes a God's consort, the girl is forbidden from marrying anyone else. But she can live with any person whom they wish to, as Devadasis do. Men exploit them sexually and then desert them. The documentary tries to find out the root causes for the tradition being alive today.
In Arohan we witness the continuing struggle, symbolic of the endless battle of the underprivileged and the landless, for justice. Parai reveals the status of Dalit population in India with the South Indian village Siruthondamadevi as a classic example. "An injury to one is an injury to all" (Martin Luther King) is the baseline of the film. Siruthondamadevi, a village in Cuddalore, Tamilnadu, continues to live with the "official" lie that atrocities against minorities are a thing of past. Here 600 odd Dalits are under assault everyday by 6000 strong Oppressor caste. Untouchability, sexual harassment, rape, assault, exploitation of labor against the SC population are shockingly prevalent in this village. Almost 90% of the women are subject to sexual violence with their men helplessly acknowledging the oppressions. The documentary leaves the question on the constitutional concept of "Justice to All". After 56 years of self rule and independence, a major section of the Indian society still lives oppressed in the name of caste.
Break the Shackles challenges the new economic policies posed before Dalits in India. The film focuses on how the three-track policy of globalization, privatization and liberalization, without the interest of social justice in a highly unequal social structure of country like India, becomes more discriminative to the Dalits.
Similarly, Bimal Roy’s Achyut Kanya and Sujata sought to alert public opinion about the ill effects of caste distinctions. Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati is the story of Dukhi,an out-caste, who approaches the village Brahmin requesting him to set an auspicious date for his daughter's upcoming wedding. The Brahmin promises to perform the task in exchange of Dukhi slaving over household chores in return. Already ailing and weak due to a recent fever, Dukhi agrees and begins with cleaning the Brahman's house and stable. Working in scorching sun, hungry and malnourished, the he dies. The corpse lies close to the road used by the Brahmins to go to the village well. The untouchables shun it for fear of police investigation. What can be done with the corpse of an untouchable that no one will touch? Late in the evening, when no one looking, Brahmin ties a noose around its ankle, slides it out of the city limits and sprinkles holy water on the spot on the road to cleanse it of the untouchable’s touch.
Thus, as Saikat Bhattacharya (director) aptly says, “I believe that cinema and cinema alone can bring about the desired emancipation of the masses by awakening them to the maladies of our society.”

Double Identities

The question of conversion to Christianity is significant to the idea of Dalit identity in India. “Untouchablity” in its various idioms-modern and archaic-continues to inflict the Dalit Hindu. Converting to Christianity was meant to dissolve the problems of caste-based discrimination. It emerged with hopes of equality and an improved position in the socio-political hierarchy of the state. This meant that the Dalit Christian would now have access to fundamental rights of education, employment, health, hygiene and most importantly a degree of social respectability, which she was denied as a Hindu. This rationale of conversion is built on debates, continuing from the nationalist era. The arguments against it are strikingly commonsensical in nature. And surprisingly, so-called nationalist leaders like Raja Rammohan Roy and Gandhi were staunch supporters of these. Going by their logic, conversion would mean allowing oneself to subordination by a foreign religion and an alien culture. This posits a threat to national integrity and security. In addition, Christianity as a product of institutions and individuals creates factions. It seduces “simple” Dalits by “other attractions” rather than by its questions of truth and faith. These “other attractions” would mean money, equality, and political importance. Gandhi argued that the concept of conversion was pro-colonial in that it disrupted the traditional structure of the villages and the Hindu unity.
All these accusations point to several factors. The Hindu nationalist presupposes that the Dalit amongst other things is “simple”, intellectually inferior, and lacking in wisdom and experience so much so that one fears their incapacity to discern what is not beneficial for them i.e. conversion. They have been herded like unsuspecting cattle in to a slaughtering house. The question is, has the Dalit never had an option? And in case she did, would it be too unreasonable to imagine that she chose Christianity to escape from a severely casteist structure. Christianity would simply mean a better life. Are the seductions of money too unethical in a situation of inevitable poverty and illiteracy? Through the years, the arguments against conversion-fears of cultural disintegration etc-reflect a cause for Hindu Nationalist consolidation. The reality that Dalit Christians have consistently been denied SC Reservations on the basis that Christianity as a religion has no basis for caste, reaffirms the above idea. Refusal to grant status actively ensures a reduction in the rate of conversion primarily because, as Hindus, Dalits can avail of reservations.
Ambedkar later consolidated that conversion was the only way out of the oppressive nature of the caste structure in India. One cannot think of Christianity in India without thinking about the Dalit predicament. The reality of Christianity in India is a complex one. We need to understand it not only through its tenets of truth and faith and equality before God, but also through the various shades, it has acquired within the construct of the Indian society. On one hand, it offers to the outcaste a sense of community and ways of resisting the ruling cultural system. On the other hand, Christianity in India is not without discrimination either. According to statistics, Dalits comprise 70% of the Christian population in India. They constitute an absolute majority within the specific community in India; despite that, they continue to be deprived by the church itself. This is because, after Christianity gained stronghold, upper castes began converting themselves. Consequently, they took over the administrative services of the church. The inherent casteist attitude continued to manifest as separate churches were built for Dalits, or separate sections were made for them within the church. It has become increasingly difficult for Dalits to rise up the religious order of the church. The fact therefore, remains that even as Christians, Dalits continue to occupy the lower ranks of the social and political chain. In addition, they face discrimination from their Hindu counterparts as well. Dalit Hindus accuse them of betrayal and crossing over to a form of organized religion, which they themselves do not possess.
As a result, the Dalit identity is fractured into two-the private Christian and the public Hindu. The private Christian worships at church, belongs to a community and avails of the benefits of education, which the church offers. The public Hindu possesses an official SC certificate and makes the most of reserved category seats. This finds representation within the structure of our university as well. A majority of the Mala-Madiga student community practices Christianity, but is admitted under the reserved category. The duality of their identity is complicated by its conflicting nature. Ironically, their identities mediate between the Hindu Nationalist cause (at least on paper) and a resistance against the same, between the state and the church. The ethical implications of this is not under question because the Dalit must device a means to undo the crisis of a caste ridden Christianity and a caste ridden Hinduism. For Sowjanya however, a PhD student in EFL-U, the public-private divide in identity does not exist anymore. This is because a majority of the Dalit population in coastal Andhra, especially the community she belongs to-Mala-is Christianized. She mentions that two-three generations before her the church had issues with Christians availing of reservations. However, she and her contemporaries do not face resistance any longer.
New questions emerge in the light of debates over the implementation of OBC reservations and granting of SC status to Dalit Christians. Recently, the Andhra Pradesh CM's proposal to take a Christian petition seeking reservations for Dalit Christians to the Prime Minister opens up possibilities of unprecedented repercussions. One might expect a substantial rise in the Dalit Christian population through conversion, now, because of its two-fold benefits of a progressive religion and reservations. Both the new and existing converts can happily relinquish their Hindu identities. This would mean a significant threat to a major section of the Hindu identity, and therefore, a severe blow to the Nationalist consolidation project.
In the meantime, the Dalit Christian remains split. Her dual identity serves her a temporary respite at the level of the public sector but socially, members of her own community, the church, and the state continue to corner her.

A Story in Multiplicity

On 25th February, 2008, ABVP activists vandalised the Department of History, located in the Faculty of Social Sciences Building, University of Delhi and assaulted the Head of the Department, Prof. S.Z.H Jafri. They demanded the withdrawal of an essay that is part of the existing curriculum on the grounds that it hurt the sentiments of Hindus through its “malicious, capricious, fallacious and offensive” portrayal of Ram and other characters of the Ramayana. The essay in question, namely, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A.K.Ramanujan is one of the readings for the University of Delhi concurrent course on Ancient Indian Culture, a part of the B.A.(Honours) History programme, offered in several colleges from July 2006 onwards. The demand for the removal of this essay has been gaining momentum since January this year. In mid-January, Jafri received two memorandums forwarded from the V.C's office, sent by two bodies namely the National Awareness Forum and Gyan Parishad which raised objections to the inclusion of this essay and more specifically to certain terms used in this essay. In response to this, Jafri organised a Departmental Council meeting and on January 21st issued a note explaining its stand. Soon after on January 29th the ABVP staged a rally, protesting against a compilation of essays put together allegedly by Upinder Singh, a professor at the History department who also happens to be the Prime Minister's daughter. As it turned out this was a misconception and no such book actually exists. Another note was prepared by the Departmental Council to clarify this matter and released on 4th February. It was following this that the attack on Jafri took place. On 26th February, the history students all over the University staged a protest against the atrocities of the ABVP.
The ABVP activists— who according to some reports weren't even students of the University, were supported by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti who had earlier organised campaigns against a national Adolescence Education Programme and the new NCERT books. The protest has been read by some, to be a result of an animosity towards Prof. Jafri for his role in organising the United History Congress, at the University of Delhi, in December 2007, where around 1600 historians gathered and had criticised the content of NCERT textbooks prepared during the N.D.A rule. The fact that the protests happened almost two years after the course had been started renders suspect the reasons provided by the ABVP and associated bodies.
In spite of this discrepancy however, the entire episode exposes certain fault lines in our society. One can see here a struggle/contest over the academic space—one of the most important of all ideological sites. According to the second note prepared by the Departmental Council,
“the aim of the course is to teach University students(who are after all young adults) to be able to analyze a variety of source material academically, analytically and without embarrassment or denigration”.
For the ABVP and other right wing Hindu organisations, this inclusion of a “variety of source material” can only result in an undermining of the Hindu religion.
A.K Ramanujan's essay first appeared in a collection of essays edited by Paula Richman called, “Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in India”, published in India in 1992. In his essay Ramanujan draws attention to the existence of multiple “tellings” of the Ramayana. He favours the term “tellings” over “versions” or “variants”, because the latter terms presuppose the existence of “an invariant, an original or ur-text-usually Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and the most prestigious of them all”. He thus emphasizes the fact that each telling is as privileged as any other. The purpose of his article according to Ramanujan is to figure out,
“how these hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages and religious traditions relate to each other; what gets translated, transplanted, transposed”.
With this end in mind, he offers a glimpse into the multiple tellings of the Ramayana ranging from-Valmiki's Ramayana, Kampan's Iramavataram, the Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri called Paumacariya, a South Indian Folk narrative sung by an Untouchable bard and the Thai Ramakirti or Ramakien. All of these tellings in their own way subvert the accepted telling of the Ramayana. By presenting all these tellings, Ramanujan draws attention to the social, political, cultural conditions of the telling of these narratives—it is in the context of the performance of these tellings that the interpretation of the discourse changes. He says,
“the story may be the same in two tellings, but the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of events may be the same, but the style, details, tone and texture-and therefore the import-may be vastly different”.
While the Hindu right wing admits to plurality of traditions it also considers it essential to curb any deviant telling, which could interrogate and possibly destabilise the privileged telling. Including a text like Ramanujan's in a university curricula would lead to precisely that. At the fundamental level the issue is that of preserving the hegemony of totalising narratives that allow no space for alternate or critical traditions be it of women, tribals or dalits.

Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Ed-Paula Richman, OUP, New Delhi, 1992

Caste Inequality in EFL-U

The objective of doing this survey cum study is not to blame any individuals or the university as such. Rather we tried to look inside the comfortable secular space that an Indian university offers and locate a few discrepancies in this ‘comfort’. What is extremely significant in our findings is the fact that the domain of caste exclusion/discrimination crosses over from the society which lies beyond our walls.
Here are a few of our conclusions:

Regarding Teaching staff:

It is clear from the statistics that as we move from the posts of lecturers to readers and then professors, SC/ST density is falling drastically. There is one Reader from the reserved category. There are no Dalit Professors. The backlog of posts to be filled up under the category of lecturers is also significantly high. One explanation can be that there were no eligible candidates available. Such an explanation is hardly enough to tackle this issue. Why do Dalit candidates never seem to apply for such posts? Does that say anything about modern India? Dalits never seem to be good enough, reservations or no reservations. The slogan against reservations was “I refuse to be treated by a Dalit doctor.” Do we refuse Dalit teachers? Are they incompatible with our learning? Or is it one of the many facades of caste in our everyday lives, even as we make claims to awareness and subsequent consciousness. If Dalits are really to be empowered, they have to be present at every stratum of professions in our society. Till such a situation is not reached, we will continue to live under conditions that remain representative of caste based exclusion which parades as apparent caste neutrality for us.

Caste Inequality in EFL-U

Regarding Non-teaching staff:

The statistics show that as we move down the Groups, we see that Group A has a backlog to recover, Group B too in terms of reserved category posts not being filled up. As we move to the categories of ‘menial’ jobs like Group C and Group D, not only are criteria for reservations met but that in Group D there is an overwhelming majority of SC/ST workers far exceeding reserved numbers. What do we conclude? Traditional jobs meant for the depressed sections in a pre-modern set up seem to pertain to them still, even when our liberal worlds seemed to have exhausted us. Scavengers in the university are not given permanent status except a few who are all from an SC or ST background. In fact the posts are especially reserved for them. They hardly use the hygiene equipment given to them. The temporary employees lose Rs. 100 for every absent day even when the reason for absence is the death of a close relative (as in a recent case with one of the attendants in the new hostel whose husband had passed away). The categories of malis (gardeners), office attendants, NMR Mazdoors, sweepers, assistant plumber, have high SC/ST density. Funnily enough, the mess empoloyees-cooks, etc. are not from lower caste background. Does that mean that we refuse to eat food cooked by Dalit cooks? That is perhaps too strong a conclusion to draw but this is a fact worth pondering over.
An additional aspect to be pointed out is the fact that among the staff quarters allotments, out of 95 quarters a mere 12 belong to SC/ST employees. Given the fact that majority of Dalit employees belong to lower ranks of the administration, they perhaps cannot avail of the quarter facilities.

The university, as the authority has informed us, has constituted a committee to look into recruitment of SC/ST employees, which has been stalled over the last 8 years, following a case filed by the SC/ST Employees Welfare Association in the High Court over backlogs of these kinds (the case was filed after the National Committee for SC/ST visited the institution in 1992 and found several discrepancies in the roster that the institute was supposed to maintain).We sincerely hope that this effort bears fruit.

Caste Inequality in EFL-U (II)

Regarding the students:
The data we collected basically is from the last two academic years and data previous to that was not provided by the academic section of the administration. What are our findings? Reserved seats are at least filled up in the case of students. But that hardly is enough. Somehow there are hardly any Dalit students climbing up into the unreserved charts in the M.A. courses. This is definitely representative of the fact that at the levels previous to post graduate studies there has to be greater attention paid at the stratum of policy making to incorporate more Dalit students into the fold of education. Special attention also needs to be paid to poorer sections of the Dalit population to help them avail of certain privileges they are entitled to legally. The cases are markedly different for MPhil, PhD scholars. But reservations in these courses have started only in 1997. So we need a longer time span to judge whether the trend is a positive or a negative one.
Also there has been a specific case where a Dalit student from the worst of economic backgrounds has been denied access to a prime grant in the university on the flimsiest of grounds and the matter remained overlooked for a long time. Details are not to be published as requested by the concerned people.
Gender biases also seem to be omnipresent amongst reserved category students. The PhD list of 2007-’08 should be an indicator, also the M.A. lists over the two years we are taking into consideration. PGDTE and PGDTS reserved category populations are yet again valid in terms of reserved category seats being filled but the striking male female ratio is overtly biased in favor of males, in some cases there being no female candidates admitted.

Caste Inequality in EFL-U (III)

We students could take a few blames perhaps. When our ‘pets’ defecate all over the hostel premises the expectation is really that the ‘ammas’ or ‘bhaiyas’ are responsible for cleaning it up. We share rooms with people whom we are comfortable with. That is definitely true. But a survey of shared rooms in the 3 hostels indicates that in over 70% of the shared rooms, the roommates are of the same caste. Though choice of roommate may be made on the basis of linguistic or religious or course wise uniformity, it remains a question whether a Bengali Higher caste student (to take one example) would share a room with another Bengali Dalit student. Cultural differences are significant in such choices but these differences might just preclude caste differences too.

Interview with Arundhati Roy

1. Considering the political, educational, cultural and social background of Kerala, which generally appears to be caste free, why did you choose to represent the issue of caste discrimination in Kerala in your novel The God of Small Things ?
Caste free? You must be joking. Just because you don’t have the Ranvir Sena operating in Kerala, just because you don’t have caste massacres, does it make Malayali society caste free? Have we lowered our standards that much? Like most other communities in India, Kerala too functions along elaborately and explicitly drawn lines of caste and religion. It maybe that because of the legacy of the Marxists it is not as up front, as vulgarly on display as it is in other places. But it would be delusional to believe that it does not exist, or that transgressions will be easily tolerated. However, it has to be said that Kerala is not the same as Bihar or Rajasthan when it comes to caste conflict. But I’m waiting to see how the situation in Chengara pans out. If you go to Chengara you will see what you never see in Kerala. A hidden nation of Dalits and Adivasis has risen to claim land on a corporate rubber estate. Go there and you will see what upper caste and upper class Malayali society wants to wish away.

2. What were the responses to the novel from CPM and the Dalits themselves? How do you react to these responses?
The CPM was distinctly uncomfortable. Much of that discomfort was channeled into a bizarre accusation that I had somehow implied in the novel that E.M.S Namboodiripad was running a hotel for tourists, which is so stupid that it didn’t deserve to be answered. The Parliamentary Left has a long history of eluding caste issues and hoping that if they elude them for long enough, they will simply go away. For some reason many people read The God of Small Things as an outright assault on the CPM as well as Communism as an ideology – some went as far as calling me anti-communist. That I think is absurd, and an overreaction. It shows a slightly frightening intolerance of criticism of any kind. While it is perfectly valid to ask what the response of the CPM was (because it is a political party with a clear party line), I feel that asking what ‘Dalits’ thought is a bit insulting and patronizing to Dalits. Surely Dalits are not one homogenous mass with the same opinion about everything. Probably some loved it, some hated it, and most haven’t read it because it hasn’t yet been translated into Malayalam (its happening now). I don’t think we’d easily ask a question like ‘what did Brahmins think of your book?’ or even ‘what do women think of it?’

3. In the novel, Velutha emerges as a victim of caste discrimination. He is a victim with no voice for himself and his body is objectified and eroticized, in a way similar to the African black body in Literature. Is not this romanticizing of Velutha a misrepresentation of Dalit identity?
That, if you don’t mind my saying so, is absolute nonsense. In The God of Small Things, Velutha is not the only victim of caste discrimination. He lost his life. Ammu lost her mind and then her life. Estha lost his voice and Rahel lost everyone she loved. It’s a bit clich├ęd and untrue to look at Velutha as a voiceless victim. If there is a voiceless victim – literally, it’s Esthappen. In fact, you see Velutha as the only really political character – someone who was a Naxalite, someone who was in a protest march, someone whose anger and politics sets him apart from his family and community, someone who was prepared to do something about his anger. How is he voiceless? He is Estha and Rahel’s biggest hero. He teaches them how to look at the world. He tells stories, he makes jokes, and he dares to love. As for his body – yes it is objectified – yes it is a beautiful body – not because he is a Dalit, but because he is a carpenter. A man who labours, whose labour shapes him. But read the book, it is about love, physical love, sexual love. It’s about the love laws, remember? When you write about love, the body is and has to become and be seen as an object of love. But it is not only Velutha whose body is objectified, Ammu’s is too. Her hair, her skin, her breasts. So is Estha’s. And to some extent Rahel’s too. What’s wrong with that? Why should we be so coy? There are lots of bodies in the book. Some less loved than others, but they are also in the book. Baby Kochamma’s, Comrade Pillai’s (whose skin stretches off his bones like chewing gum). To see only Velutha’s is a pre-determined Pavlovian response, anticipating the insult – wanting to see things in a particular way because we’re so used to being insulted (or being insulting) in a particular way. But this is no insult. It’s a celebration. Of love. Of sex.
Having said that, in Kerala, Dalit men labour bare-bodied. In that parochial, sexually inhibited community, you see bare, male Dalit bodies all the time. They are beautiful (because they are formed by labour, not in gymnasiums) But to upper caste people, men as well as women, those bodies don’t exist. They are no threat to anybody. They don’t see Dalits as physical, leave alone sexual beings. It’s as though in that society caste-prejudice overcomes human biology and desire. (Girls without dowry will remain unmarried and will even commit suicide rather than marry out of caste) So, I think to notice, to describe, to write about it is a political and a provocative thing to do. And, if I may say so, it is also the natural thing to do if you are a human being who is not indoctrinated by rigid caste prejudice. How sad a literature that does not objectify bodies – male, female, black, white, upper-caste, out-caste – would be.
This is not to say that objectifying certain bodies and not others does not reveal politics – of caste, of race and gender. It happens all the time. That’s what much of the feminist movement is all about. I’m deeply aware of that. As an early reader of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, I was fully aware of the pitfalls of creating the ‘Dalit Eunuch’. I didn’t do that. I never would. However, I do not believe that the way to evade the treacherous trap of the politics of ‘objectification’ is to produce hard, bilious literature that has been sanitized and drained of love and beauty.
In fact I’m a little skeptical about some Dalit writing which goes to great lengths to describe victim hood, with gratuitous descriptions of smell and stink and humiliation. I feel that that is a sort of inverted plea for compassion and I think it can be counter-productive. I do not believe in the politics of compassion and good intentions. I believe in finding beauty in the saddest places, and honing it into a weapon of war. It is not compassion or pity that attracts Ammu to Velutha. It is not subservience that delivers Velutha to Ammu. It is Ammu’s anger at the society she lives in and is shunned by that seeks out and recognizes Velutha’s anger. They are united in anger as much as in love.

4. How has the CPM in Kerala failed to address the caste issue?
Well Caste does not fit that easily into the Communist Manifesto, so it creates a problem. It’s inadequate to say ‘caste is class’ and leave it at that.

5. Is CPM fully casteist considering
(a) its role in diminishing caste system may be indirectly through Land Reform Act etc)
(b) A major chunk of the educated Dalit youth of Kerala, especially Kottayam district, support CPM in elections?

I would not call it fully casteist. I’d just say it hasn’t done all that it could or should – not even on the implementation of Land Reforms. I suppose the very upper-caste, Brahmanical nature of leadership of the CPM – even if we assume it had/has the best intentions – makes it a bit like well-intentioned white folks arguing politely with the idea of Apartheid. The kindest interpretation could only be that it is paternalistic towards Dalits. Its harshest critics would call it casteist. I would say that it is as opportunistic as any other political party, and prefers to harness rather than overtly challenge the caste-system to create its support base. As for educated Dalits supporting the CPM – that has to do with the rather vast subject of electoral democracy and the options it offers. As it becomes more and more necessary for political parties to have access to vast amounts of money, as the links between the Free Market Capitalism and Democracy grow closer and stronger, choices become limited. If the only choice Dalits in Kerala have is between a party that is aligned to the big modalalis [the rich] and the settled establishment and one that is - at least in name - Marxist, then who should they choose? All over India oppressed and humiliated people are being forced to choose between ‘worse’ and ‘less worse’ - I don’t see it as a real choice, but I understand that it is a choice that people have to make. At least until they come up with real options.

6. In most inter-caste relationships- in real life and also in Literature- the frequency of a lower caste man marrying an upper caste woman is more compared to the other way round. This seems to operate in Velutha's case too. This seems to be an aspiration of the lower caste men to assert their identity and thus a rise up the social ladder. How do you respond to this statement?
I think you can read this in diametrically opposite ways and both would be valid. In many parts of India an upper caste man can pick up a Dalit woman and sexually assault her. It is seen very much as his right, as part of the structure of repression, part of the way of keeping Dalits in their place. Historically white men have raped black women. (The black man sleeping with the white woman is of course the stuff of the white man’s nightmare.) In India, in our communally charged times, even in the goody-goody secular idiom, if an ‘inter-communal’ relationship is portrayed, it is OK if the man is Hindu and the woman Muslim (that way she is absorbed into the Hindu mainstream). On the other hand, in the new hyper-nationalist Bollywood movies, the chorus girls in many songs and dance sequences are white – that way the conquering Indian male announces his arrival as a victor in the white world. In Lagaan, Rang de Basanti – it’s the Indian Man with the white heroine. The other way around would be inconceivable. I remember a South African friend listing how many black leaders – major figures in the anti-Apartheid struggle have got white wives or partners. So, it seems to me that when the black man ‘arrives’ and wishes to announce his ‘arrival’ he adorns himself with a white woman as a badge of victory. But to do it before he has won – when the laws of Apartheid still applied, when the battle was still raging – would have meant something different altogether. It would have been a battle-cry, by both parties in equal partnership, black as well as white.
So in The God of Small Things Velutha and Ammu’s relationship is a battle-cry. There is no way that he could use that relationship to make his way up the caste ladder – instead, she would make her way down – and she did. (All this explanation is only if we really must reduce their relationship to a game of snakes and ladders, which somehow makes me sad.)

7. Is a socially accepted marriage between Syrian Christian and a Paravan [a lower caste] possible in a contemporary Kerala? Do you see inter-caste marriages as a solution to caste system?
Well... no. Not easily. May be. Maybe if the Paravan had made pots of money in the Gulf – or in some extraordinarily enlightened family context. But even then I think it would cause a scandal and the couple would be ostracized and their children too. Prejudice turns very quickly into outright hatred when old hierarchies are challenged.
I don’t think inter-caste marriages can or ever will ever be the solution to the caste-system. But I think that the day we see inter-caste marriages taking place it will indicate that we are winning the battle against caste. I think we still have a long, long, long way to go.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Undoing Silence

In presenting this issue of the wall journal, it seems incumbent upon us to take up a few questions, right at the outset. Gopal Guru ends one of his articles, stating, “The spheres of representation are also spheres of intense political contestation. They are advanced sincerely and seriously contest the representative claims that are made by adversaries with the hegemonic intention of assimilation. But they are also advanced to assign exclusionary boundaries around the dalit constituency. Ambedkar tried, both at the intellectual and political levels, to enlarge the horizon of such claims without fear and favor. The quality is absent in the current instance.”

One thing that the caste system has successfully established, which still exists as a pervasive discriminatory reality, is a systematic inequality. Perpetration of caste violence or discrimination occurs in varied realized modes, which the rhetoric of an assumed caste neutral modernity does not take into account. This becomes much more apparent within the University space where the articulation of this discriminatory reality often assumes academic comportments. The fact that a certain section of students are endowed with certain ‘linguistic skills/abilities’, or are better off at ‘presenting’ themselves, is a direct fall out of these social practices. The realization, that Dalit students have been constantly negotiating spaces in the face of bad governmental policies and dividing practices, has sadly slipped through.

The way in which liberal discourse has a growing daunting confidence in its modernity and the subsequent sequencing of modernity on democracy is brahmanical. Hence the political aspirations of Dalit people are dealt in terms of a subsidized satisfaction from the slippage of liberal democracy. The attempts at collating a journal, which specifically talks about the dissemination of ‘caste realities’, should not vacate an essential dialogic space, failing which, it may fall into the trap of the aforementioned problematic representative domain.
If we try and trace the politics of the journal, it would be that of critically challenging discernable conceptions of power, benefit and desire, which reposes behind the formulation of a language that retains at its core the very hierarchies of caste. Keeping in mind this specific context, we focus on Dalit Women in this issue as their accounts are those of subsequent oppression by varied manifestations of caste, gender and implicit economy. It seems yet more imperative to interrogate caste and the woman question, because most of the Dalit women narratives are those of resistance; resistance to accepted norms, discrimination and oppression both in the private and public domain. Dalit poet Teresamma, a teacher from Guntur, writes:

We go to work for we are poor
But the same silken beds mock us
While we are ravished in broad daylight.
Ill-starred our horoscopes are.
Even our tottering husbands
Lying on the cots in a corner
Hiss and shout for revenge
If we cannot stand their touch.

Teresamma’s poetry points out the thrice articulated mode of oppression and discrimination that Dalit women face. Hence their stories of resistance are those of politically realized social experiences.

In the 70s and 80s, the women’s movement in India focused on mobilizing women across caste, class and ethnic background against violence and discrimination. Women were seen as a single political category. So there was a universalizing approach which held that all women were in powerless positions regardless of their background. But in fact, women are placed in different locations in our social hierarchy. Social context and institutional structures around them play a large role in determining their rights. Their location determines their control and power over public and private resources, political participation, concepts of womanhood and notions about body, sexuality, work and family. In a society like ours where there is such plurality of caste, community, languages, and economic backgrounds, gender does not function in isolation. It is always intersecting with the other identities that define power and powerlessness.

The question of who speaks assumes crucial importance. It is necessary to recognize and address the differences between various groups of women and to understand the specificity of experience. Exploring the categories of women, caste, gender and feminism through this lens will perhaps extend the potential of what we attempt at presenting.

Women and Caste

All liberation movements and manifestos start with a call for unity. Revolutions always require the “oppressed” and the “oppressors” to happen. Binaries are always so dramatic. But what happens to the multiplicities which can’t be simplified so easily? Where do all these subtle shades emerge within the same color? The emergence of the Dalit women’s voice is significant for mainly two reasons: first, it marks the emergence of a new subject, and second, it shows the inadequacy of the concept of generalization. While the Dalit Panthers Manifesto classifies “women” as Dalits, there are vast differences between Dalit women and their upper caste counterparts. Popular misconceptions and ignorance still color the ideas that propel the feminist movement in India.

The Ancient of Days

With the coming of the Aryans, the Dravidians were displaced. Manu declared the role, status, duties, and powers of the four Castes. The objective was obviously to consolidate the position of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, and to ensure the subjugation of the lower castes and the untouchables (who were largely the defeated and enslaved Dravidian people). Thus were devised philosophies and laws which crushed all chances of resistance. Divine sanction behind the Caste system made any revolution impossible. The woman became an important instrument in maintaining it. As Uma Chakravarti says in her essay Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India, control over women’s sexuality became crucial in this aspect. Women from upper caste were forbidden to marry or bear the children for the men of lower castes; so as to prevent caste-mobility; on the pretext of maintaining “purity”. Lower caste women were to serve as slaves and Devadasis, and children born to them were to be considered as lowly. Mixing of castes was the worst crime; the matrimonial columns today still bear the testimony of this command. Hereditary occupations thus became obligatory, and thus the Dalits were stuck with illiteracy, poverty and denial of dignity forever.

The Step Sisters: the Caste-Class-Gender Axis in Modern India

The case of the Dalit women is a complex one. Gender equations can’t be simplified solely on the basis of economic factors. For the upper caste women, empowerment ends with the dream of working and earning. However, “going out and earning” has not altered the gender equations within the Dalit community. There, women have no control over their income. Alcoholism and domestic violence very common. But the kind of domestic violence that a Dalit woman faces is very different from that which happens in an upper caste household. The Dalit woman is at the lowest rank in the hierarchy of caste, class and gender: not only does she face caste discrimination, but she also bears the brunt of anger and frustration from men in her community. There are no complaints, because it’s taken for granted that all Dalit women are beaten up and nothing can be done about it.

The workplace is not a promising arena either. Dalit women are always employed in menial jobs. Uneducated and powerless, they are employed for tasks like scavenging, cleaning toilets, carrying bricks, etc. at a lower wage than men. They become easy targets for abduction, rape and molestation by men of both upper and lower castes. Modernization has only opened up new avenues of exploitation for Dalit women. In a study, Joopaka Subhadra observes, the majority of prostitutes and bar dancers in the metropolitan cities come from the Dalit communities. The Devadasi and Yogin customs continue even today in many parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Of the few who are emancipated, even fewer are rehabilitated, and the rest become prostitutes.

Damsels in Distress

As per the 1981 census, the male-female ratio was particularly low in states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, etc with an average of 0.89. The southern states fared better with an average of 0.97. The ratio is lower among the Hindu scheduled castes and Dalits than the Muslims. The phenomenon has been attributed to the practices of female infanticide. Anthropological data confirms that the rites are performed as soon as the child is born, yet records indicate that more female children died (as compared to male children) beyond the age group of female infanticide ;i.e.; between one to 5 years. Moreover, female-male ratio is lower in the 30+ age group. As Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen concludes; this leads to the conclusion that apart from the custom of infanticide, female children die due to neglect and lack of medical attention. Participation of girls in labor-force can be viewed as an additional possible reason. Women also remain deprived of nutrition and related health improvements. This clearly indicates that distribution of resources is in favor of men.

Society and thought

In the field of Education and the Job sector, Dalit presence is almost negligible. Dalit women are even rarer. The few Dalit women who are educated hardly have any influence to facilitate major changes or gender mobilization. The women who belong to affluent Dalit families face a slightly different problem. These families, having improved economically, want social prestige. For that, it is necessary to adopt the upper caste (class) lifestyle. Thus, the fierce patriarchal norms and practices of the upper caste households are fast spreading among the middle class Dalits. This trend is especially dominant in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Thus, like “respectable” upper caste people, Dalit women are now expected to manage the household and remain indoors.

Dalit women enjoy little social prestige and political representation. Hierarchies operate even within Dalit communities, so often, reservation and other facilities are monopolized by the dominant caste. According to many educated Dalit leaders, women should be allowed 50% reservation instead of 33% in the Parliament, and within that, all communities should enjoy proportional representation. Yet, the danger of silence remains: Prof. Yesudasan points out that even with reservation, the voice of the upper caste women are more likely to overshadow that of the Dalits.

The voice of the Dalit woman is a faint cry. Unlike Brahmanical feminism, Dalit feminism is a more complex entity, and cannot be solved by aping the strategies of Women’s liberalization movements of the West. The problems faced by Dalit women are more difficult to address, because they form a minority within a minority; and are stratified within themselves. Given its recent emergence, the Dalit feminist movement has a long way to go. Attempts are made to raise awareness and spread literacy, and several political organizations are being formed to forward their cause and urge for their development. Individuals have emerged, but for the entire community it’s still a distant target to achieve.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I am not even the ' other ' in the binary

I am Visvakavi Tagore’s
I cannot write love poetry like
Muddupalani and
Get a central space in
The preface of volumes of
Prominent Indian feminist writings
Because my creator, author
Depicted how wrong it was on my part
To pull down
‘The’ noble man into my love
My author even punished me
By imposing death
To my mother!

I am a mathamma girl
I do not want to write like
Muddupalani because
I hate to be a doll
In the society
Because I know that
It is never fun for me
Like peddintimata
To indulge in sexual freedom

I am Bhanwari Devi
I can not write an autobiography
On the predicament
Of having a heavy veil like
Rasundari Devi
My veil was torn into rags
How precious my veil was to me
It was my life
My family and
My community
A fortress to all of us
And it was all we have
When I lost it I lost my life
Therefore I cannot write
Amar Jiban

I am a Vaishnava woman of Bengal
In the 19th century
I was considered bad due to my caste
Though I was married and
Was having a family
Even when I was ascetic
So, I cannot write devotional hymns like
Mirabai or
Molla Atukuri

I would love to do my bhakti
In my home if have a chance
I would never retrieve my role
As an entertainer to
‘The’ woman
By visiting them at their homes
I am happy that
“old popular culture which had rested
on the social ties binding together women
from different classes”[i] has been overthrown
During British colonial period
Now, after I retrieve my subjecthood
I would sit in my home and do bhakti
Who ever wants to see me
Will come and see me
At my Home

I am Alisamma
I can neither write
“soul-stirring” poetry like
Subhadra Kumari Chauhan on
"Jhansi-ki rani”
Nor become a
“first woman satyagrahi” of the country

Because I was burnt alive in the country
For having come forward
To be a witness about Karamchedu massacre
I was reduced to ashes and
My ashes were not sprinkled on the
Sacred waters of the land
Therefore I do not even think that
I run in the veins of this nationahood
Therefore I will never write like her

We are the two women
Killed in Khairlanji
We are mother and daughter
We cannot edit a journal like Bharati
Like Swarnakumari Devi and her daughter
Because we both were beaten
Paraded naked and killed
By an envious mob of ‘the’ men
For in our family all the three
Children studied very well…

[i] Sumantho Beneerjee , “Women’s Popular Culture in Ninteenth Century Bengal”.

-Indira Jalli
(Indira Jalli teaches in an University in Andhra Pradesh)

Who is Sarpanch Agamma?

Moving off a lane, rutted like the matted locks of a possessed woman, our tented vehicle came on to a road, smooth as the combed model of a hair oil ad. As yet, the city's shops had not opened their eyes. It slumbered like a child who had wept herself to sleep. The occasional vehicle squeaked like a pup "kui, kui", as it went on its way. To a mind numbed and irritated by hours in the city's din of traffic; shops, people, markets and irritated noises ... Oh, seeing the city at four in the morning was like walking out of the blazing afternoon and washing one’s face with the cool water of the ranjan pot.
Sangeeta is my good friend. She is angry that I stay in the old city.
"Can't you escape from that risky and tense place?" she scolds me. "It may be all right for you, but: to get in touch with you is an exhausting business", she grumbles. Sangeeta is a city girl. She is a person with many good views about society. She not only thinks, "Society is not good yaar, change karna padta hai”, but also has a desire to document' unrecorded cultures. My other friends marvel that she is a sincere woman who, reacts in a responsible way with social work. Sangeeta is doing a project- on Dalit women in Panchayat Raj. She interviews many people as a part of that project. We are now going to Bobbalonipalle,' near Eturunagaram in Warangal district.
"Ey, will you accompany me please? This whole district is yours - ye poori aap ki estate hai na Rudrama, please come yaar, please?" When Sangeeta is either angry or feels loving to me, she calls me Rudrama.
As she teased me and boosted my ego in different ways I said, "I am not Rudrama, I don't have that scene", consenting to go with her. I felt that with this excuse, I could say "Hi" to my district, and see the beauty of its furrows, its yellow tangedi flowers, its fields and its thumma trees again.
Eturunamagaram is perhaps a hundred miles from Warangal. If we count three hours from the city to Warangal, two hours from there to Bobbalonipalle, and add an hour for
refreshments on the way, it totals six hours. Agreeing that if we start exactly by five, we could reach there by eleven, we planned to leave Sangeeta's house in Nallakunta by that time. During the day, it would take an hour to travel from the old city to her house in the traffic. There wouldn't be traffic on the road at four thirty, and so I asked for the vehicle to come to my house at that time. Breathing in the lights; darkness, heat and cool exuded by the city like a budding flower - Wah kya mazaa a raha hai! I had scolded Sangeeta unnecessarily, "There is no question of waking up at four as long as life is in my body!" In the end, for Sangeeta, for her project, and because of my interest, I had relented. But I had not imagined that the city in the star-studded morning would be so pretty. "Useless sleep - I would have missed all this, let it go", I thought.

With Sangeeta and me the vehicle got out of the city and ran among the towns and villages. Oh, that cool breeze, chatting with Sangeeta, the trees lining the highway, the, ripening crops waving 'ta ta', crossing sunbeams like tender leaves, we reached Eturunagaram. We refreshed ourselves. Sangeeta readied her camera and tape. We went on to Bobbalonipal1e, which lay five kilometers on.
"Why is the name of this village Bobbalonipalle, do you know anything?" asked Sangeeta, whose project pulled apart and dug up everything.
I related the story that I heard in my childhood, with the confidence that this area was mine. "This village was in the forest till recently. It is a village that was given shape by clearing the forest. There were only SC and ST people in this village. These were the only two communities for marriages and quarrels. They had a gudamba still in each house. When the police and excise officials would raid the village, the cowherd would shout 'le le le le le vo voo ...' to signal, 'the police are coming, beware!' When the villagers heard this they would disappear into the forests. Since they were saved by this babbling yodel, the village got the name Bobbalonipalle. Now, there are all castes in the village, and it has become a normal village", I said, looking out through the window glass.
"Not only that, an SC woman has become a sarpanch now", said Sangeeta as the vehicle entered the village.

Passing brick houses plastered with lime and having Mangalore tiled roofs, we went on between houses with country tiles - the road was a bare metalled road, there are heaps of murram on both sides. Stopping near the country-tiled houses, Sangeeta got off, saw two lungis and a pair of trousers sitting on the culvert, and asked, "Where is the village sarpanch's house?" with her half-baked Telugu.
"You have to go ahead and turn left", replied a lungi.
We stopped at two more places - '''Sarpanch is it? You must go further" said people a little surprised. By now, houses with thatched roofs were also there among those with country tiles.
Stopping here, "We have to go to the Sarpanch's house", I asked a woman who was washing clothes near the borewell. .
"Sarpancha? Where does he live here! He lives in Hanamakonda" she said squinting.
"How's that? If the sarpanch doesn't stay in the village, where will she stay? Also, a sarpanch is a woman isn't she? Why is this silly woman saying 'he lives ... '? She must say 'she lives' isn't it?" we said to each other. "This village is an SC woman's village isn't it? Ey, have we come to the right place?"

As we went ahead, we saw a man carrying a buffalo-calf and Sangeeta asked him, "Aiyya, where is the sarpanch's house?"
"The sarpanch's house, look - see the house in the distance - the last house, that is the one", he replied, pointing.
"Why take the vehicle that short distance", we thought and walked past women holding sickles and carrying a cloth on their shoulder to work.
"Who are these new women, and whose house are they going to?" we heard them ask among themselves, gaping at us as never seen before.
"Someone who wants to go to the sarpanch's house", said a woman who came carrying water from the borewell.
"Sarpancha? Why will the sarpanch be found here? He lives in Hanamakonda doesn't he?" said one of the women in the group.
Sangeeta and I looked at each other. "What is this? Is there some mistake in the district list? These people speak of the sarpanch as a man. Have we come to the wrong place?” Sangeeta looked at the list. I had heard that the sarpanch of this village was an SC woman. Anyway, it will be good to verify it I thought and phoned my relative in a nearby village and asked him, "Is the Bobbalonipalle sarpanch a man or a woman? What is his or her name?"
He replied, firmly "The name of the sarpanch of that village is Agamma. She is an SC woman. No doubt at all!"

Walking to the last house, we wondered, "Why are these women switching gender in their talk". The house was not like a house. It was like a hundred foot long shed. The walls are only half the height. The door was like a wicket gate: The yard was sprayed cow-dung water that was green to the eyes and cool to the feet. We stood in front of the door and Sangeeta asked politely, "Is this the sarpanch garu's'house?”, addressing a woman sitting on a sagging rope cot.
"Aa? The sarpanch's house? Why would this be so? “It isn't", she replied, muttering to herself as she got off the cot.
"Aiyyo! Isn't it? They said it was", I said disappointed.
"He doesn't stay here. He only comes occasionally. Only his mother stays here", she replied somewhat fearfully.
"This village's sarpanch is not a man, amma, she is woman, no?" asked Sangeeta to clarify her doubts.
The woman didn't understand Sangeeta's anxiety. :'Yes, my husband's younger brother, he is the person who does all the sarpanch's work", she said haltingly.
"Then who is the sarpanch?" asked Sangeeta. "Ye kya yaar, kya chalra idhar;”, she said looking at me, wondering how, with this search, with asking so many people, with this much going on, it was still not yet clear whether this village sarpanch was a man or a woman. Her project was Dalit gender - wasn't it, and since this didn't get clear, and I saw her becoming dheela, I took the initiative. "The sarpanch's name is Agamma, isn't it?", I asked. “Yes, she is my mother-in-law", she said doubtfully, wondering what would happen. She wasn't able to say "My mother-in-law-is the sarpanch Agamma".
"Amma, we are not authorities. We haven't come from the MROs or Collector's office. We came to speak to SC women sarpanchs", I explained so that her fear would go. I made her sit on the cot and sat myself beside her. When I asked her for water to set her at ease, she went ahead to a pot near the wall and dipped out two tumblers full. Both of us drank the water and talked about this and that. Her fear and anxiety subsided.
"Your mother-in-law is the sarpanch Agamma, isn't she?" Sangeeta asked again. "Aa, yes", she stared back. "Will you call her", we asked her, looking around the house. There were no signs that she was there.
"She isn't at home. She has gone to that church", said the woman, adding, "Some foreign Christian pastors had come to preach".
We went to the church. The church was not among the houses. It was far away.
The church was brimming with people. Unable to bear the crowding, many children were crying. Some tried to pacify the children in the hall; others brought the children out to soothe them. There was a pile of chappals at the door. Near that pile, some old women sat, grumbling, "What is this din, woman? We can't listen to what they are saying? Why did you bring the children?" We moved the chappals out of the way and craned into the door to locate the sarpanch. There was a small stage on which there was a group of worthies in foreign garb, but we couldn't see any village face. We peeled our eyes to see if there was an old woman on the stage, thinking if there was she would be a sarpanch. But there was no woman from that district on the stage. All the people had faces like white chapattis, wearing high heels, midis and lipstick. "So the sarpanch is not on the stage" we sighed dismayed. Not only her daughter-in-law, also the people outside the church said she was there, and she should have been on the stage. We wondered where she was. I asked a man soothing a child, "Is sarpanch Agamma garu here?"
"Sarpancha ...? Agammaa...? She is sitting here in the church" he replied haltingly.
"Where is she sitting? We have come to meet her. Can you call her?" we pleaded. "She was sitting at this door till now, may be she went inside just now", he said. We went to the old women at the door and asked them, "Is sarpanch Agamma garu here?” .
One old woman called out, "O Agamma, some one has come for you", and told us she was sitting by the door.
We were saddened, confused and anxious. How was it that she sat in a comer, near the shoes, anonymous? A sarpanch, without any sign of authority, sitting with the others in that state, was a bitter sight for both of us. We had hoped for more, and looked on the stage ... why would she be seen there? How could we imagine that the woman sitting by the door was the sarpanch? We lost confidence in this situation for a moment.
Recovering, we took her out of the church with difficulty: She was probably sixty. She was dark complexioned and tall. There were rings at the top of the ears, studs halfway down. She had a white thread on her neck with an iron key holding on it. Her wrists had silver clasps on them. She wore an old rough saree that came down to her knees and was tucked behind the back: She saw us and asked, "Who are you? Why did you come? What work do you have with me?", staring at with an expression of fear, innocence and anxiety.
"We have come from the city, avva", we said; changing "amma" to "avva" to set her at ease. "We have come to find out how SC sarpanchas work, what their difficulties are. We came to speak to you. Shall we go to your house? Or away from this din and sit under that tree?" I said pointing to a tree and holding her hand.
What the Bobbalonipalle sarpanch Agammaguru thought, we don't know. "Avvo banchen! I don't know all this. My son only knows everything. Ask him", she freed her hand and hurried back into the church.
"How sad yaar" said Sangeeta, completely defeated, with her head on my shoulder.

- Joopaka Subhadra

Translated by Srivats

Why Is Modern India Vegetarian?

The incident in HCU*, made us wonder about the much larger questions of food and nutrition in India, and how that, in more ways than one, relates in to the religion and caste. It is common knowledge, that Indian cuisine is as diverse as it comes. It is also common knowledge that certain types of food are considered taboo by some and relished by some. How many times have we seen vegetarians look at a meat loaded plate, crinkle their nose, and say, “Erguh! How do you eat that stuff?” How many times have we watched friends eat beef on the sly, because their mothers would “kill them if they found out.” Close home, in campus, when beef was prepared for the participants observing fast for Ramzaan, why was it a hushed up affair?

We are quick to judge some food as bad, unhealthy, and hence, a bad thing. Going by the HCU incident, some food are even considered “contagious”. Dislikes that stem primarily because one is used to a different kind and mode of cooking food, quickly converts into legitimising that dislike in terms of hygiene and health. But have we ever questioned the legitimacy of the standards that we are using to reach these conclusions?

This skewed hierarchy of food is not a result of a recent campaign, but something much simpler, and much more older. “…country can be said to have achieved complete food and nutrition security if each and every person in that country is able to consume a minimum quantum and quality of various ingredients of what I would like to call 'an adequate and balanced diet' on a regular basis,” reads a report ‘Indian Experience on Household Food and Nutritional Security’ by N.P. Nawani. But what constitutes this “balanced diet” is a matter of furious debate.

In India, this balanced diet is measured by the Recommended Dietary Allowance or the RDA, for various age groups, including special groups like infants, nursing mothers and so on. And this measure is not only for nutritional requirements, but also becomes an economic one. Says the Nawani report, “Availability and affordability of such diet, backed by health and educational services in an environmentally sustainable scenario will then enable each member of the society to live a 'good' life; each individual personality getting an opportunity to flower to one's full potential.” RDA thus has direct ramifications on the status of poverty, in determining the per capita incomes that will enable a person to achieve daily intake of the required 2400 K.Cal, and consequentially the minimum wages

The root of the problem, as Veena Shatrugna, Director, National Institute of Nutrition, points out, is one-sided diet itself, that was loaded with cereals—then seen as the cheapest, and the most easily available source of calories. Consequently, this decision, in turn affected the minimum daily wages, the determination of the poverty line, and not to mention, making the Public Distribution System what it is today, i.e. a machinery doling out rice and wheat at cheap rates, but no meat, egg or nuts, or any non-vegetarian food at all. So in a country where vegetarians are a definite minority, we now plan our daily meals based on a notion of a Brahminical notion of a “easily available, balanced diet”, and the cultural production of modern India as vegetarian. This was fine for the upper castes rich, who had the luxury of eating 3-4 kinds of vegetables, and other supplements like nuts, oil etc., along with their rice, but for the poor, this meant serious lack of vital sources of energy. So if the poor man got his plate of rice, and 3 rotis a day, he was expected to be happy and satisfied. The result? We survived, but barely.

The question that now arises is why the nutritionists, and the bureaucrats did not look at alternate sources of proteins, more importantly meat proteins, which, as Dr. Veena Shatrugna, points out, is not just widely consumed, but also highly recommended for anaemic populations such as Indians? Why was there no acknowledgement of differences in cuisines and the palette? The answer seems simple enough, the bureaucrats took the average Indian diet, but the average Indian that they had in mind, was not the majority who ate meat, but the dominant upper class minority. What was an alternative became the norm. The food that the various tribes used eat, says Dr. Shatrugna, was never analysed for its nutrient content. So while we romanticised their customs, did detailed anthropological investigation on how they lived and how they married, there is very little research to evaluate what they eat, and how their food, or the lack of thereof is affecting their health, growth, child birth or birth weight of their children.

The result? 41.9% of adults belonging to the ST and 38.4 % belonging to SCs have Chronic Energy Deficiency, while the pooled average of the nation is 34.8 %. Further, 62.7 % of the children born to Scheduled Caste parents are under-weight, 57.6 % are stunted, while among the other castes it the numbers are 53.1 % and 50.1 %

The women suffer more. Most studies and recommendations are made with the modern working class male, as the average and the requirements of the women are appropriated accordingly. Questions such as different working style, responsibilities, and requirements of the women are not taken into consideration. The birth weight in the low socio-economic groups have not increased significantly since the past 50 years. There pharmaceuticals rally to supplement women with iron, various multi-vitamins during pregnancy, but with no significant impact. NGOs, and activists blame the man- he eats first, the woman is left with the leftovers, but the problem is much simpler, says Dr. Shatrugna. “The low socio-economic groups get 80% of their proteins from cereal. In a scenario where there is not enough food to eat, where is the point in asking the women to eat first?”

What we need now is to a second look at the standards that we have put in place. The items of food that were delegitimised by the RDA—flesh food, egg, etc., must be allowed to become a part of the daily diet of people of all economic strata. The argument that it is beyond the means of the lower caste man, just does not hold. Egg is cheaper than vegetables, then why is egg not distributed via the PDS? Why are we raising a huge outcry over culture and heritage when eggs are being given out under the mid-day meal scheme? Why is eating beef against any religion?

The questions of why food becomes aligned to religion and caste, may still be unanswered. However, in a society that has claims to equality in opportunities and preferences, we need to realise that caste does not work in its open manifestations of discrimination and repression alone.
(Certain students who wanted to put up a beef stall in campus for one of the fest, where prevented from doing so. One of the arguement for the move was that beef is unhealthy. The Dalit Students' Union apporached Dr. Veena Shatrugna for clarity on the nutritional values of beef, and were given a letter certifying that beef was indeed neither unhealthy, nor "contagious".)
Also read Dunkin Jalki's article on food habits in student hostel messes
Thank you James for the links