There are many Castes which allow inter-dining. But it is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of Caste and the consciousness of Caste. I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood alone can create the feeling of being kith and kin and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount the separatist feeling – the feeling of being aliens – created by Caste will not vanish. Among the Hindus inter-marriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of the non-Hindus. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society [is] cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste. [emphasis in the original]
BR Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
Recent critiques of Indian feminism have highlighted the fact that feminism tends not to embrace all women, but is exclusionary. Generated in the main by dalit feminists’ critiques of how practices of caste respectability and caste privilege produce significant inequalities amongst women, such debates have exploded the concept of gender upon which feminist analysis rests and brought to the surface internal tensions in feminist practice. For instance, in writing about the formation of the National Federation of Dalit Women, the political scientist Gopal Guru argued that dalit women experienced two distinct forms of patriarchal control: a dominant form of brahminical patriarchy that rested on conceptions of caste purity, as well as patriarchal control within the dalit community by men who saw ‘their’ women as sexual property. Thus feminist critiques of gender domination and sexual control were themselves criticised as both casteist and monolithic. It is crucial for Indian feminism to engage with debates on caste. Both caste and gender are involved in formations of intimacy and desire, among other things, and indicate how the political life of a citizen depends on deeply personal issues of the body and its expression. Furthermore, arguments that gender is regulated by caste – that gender is in fact unthinkable without addressing questions of caste exploitation and upper-caste privilege – points to the political possibilities of bringing radical anti-caste struggles together with feminist critiques of gender oppression. This is a significant opportunity for understanding brahminical male privilege as a thoroughly “modern” form of power through which the postcolonial Indian state operates, and for bringing together powerful critiques of caste and gender that have historically been separated and disconnected from each other.
The formation of the All India Dalit Women’s Forum in 1994, the National Federation of Dalit Women and Dalit Solidarity in 1995, the emergence of various regional dalit women’s groups, and the AIDWA’s Convention Against Untouchability and Dalit Women’s Oppression held in December 1998, all illustrate critiques of Indian feminism by seeking to link caste relations to gender exploitation. More recently the dalit carried a special issue on “Dalit Feminisms” (March-April 2002) where the contributors explored caste-specific patriarchal arrangements in order to complicate standard assumptions about gender and sexuality. Much like the critique by African-American feminists about the reliance of racial regimes on the sexual violation of women as critically important for reproducing white supremacy, dalit feminists too have focused on sexual violence as important to the reproduction of the brahminical order. Rape, the stripping and parading of women, and other gendered forms of humiliation by upper-caste men are significant because they are gendered practices of violence through which untouchability is perpetuated. In fact sexual violence and the hyper-exploitation of dalit women’s labour are two of the most important issues around which feminists’ awareness of caste has been mobilised.
Both forms of exploitation rely on the ways in which the caste order legitimates intimate access to dalit women. Dalit women’s performance of defiling labour is legitimated by ideas of pollution and stigma that reproduce the inhuman conditions under which struggles for survival take place. The issue of sexual access has become symbolically volatile in at least two ways. One is the struggle by dalit women to publicise their experiences of sexual violence before national and international fora. Thus the Public Hearing on Atrocities Against Dalits with Specific reference to Dalit Women organised in March 1994 by Women’s Voice and the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, the National Public Hearing on Atrocities Against Dalits in India held in Madurai in 1999, Human Rights Watch’s report Broken People, documents of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, as well as the National Federation of Dalit Women’s NGO Declaration on Gender and Racism have all testified to dalit women’s experience of sexual violence as a critical aspect of caste hegemony. On the other hand there is long-standing evidence of brutal violence against dalit men who transgress caste codes to show their desire for upper-caste women. Incidents such as the massacre of dalits in Karamchedu (Andhra Pradesh) in 1991, which was blamed on a dalit boy’s alleged eve-teasing of a Reddy girl that drew national attention in August of that year, or the accounts of the lynching of men and women who engage in inter-caste marriage or relationships reveal how integral politically volatile issues of sexual violence and sexual access are for protecting the caste order. Alternatively, acts such as the eve-teasing of upper-caste women by dalit men as an assertion of masculinity and upward mobility participate in the broader consolidation of caste masculinities that are premised on enactments of sexual violence that legitimate claims to women as sexual property. The consolidation of caste hegemony – especially political and economic dominance – through the policing of intimate sexual relationships between castes shows how fundamental sexual control and desire are to the caste order. Gender relationships within and between caste communities function as a nodal point through which caste supremacy is contested and reproduced.
Clearly such issues have gained visibility in the post-Mandal context where both caste and feminist politics have changed. Growing tensions between dalits, BCs and OBCs, debates within feminist groups about the focus on legal reform and the state, and the growing evidence of women’s active participation in Hindutva-sponsored violence are just a few indicators of the broader political transformations underway since the late 1980s.
The 1980s saw an unprecedented assault on key institutions and ideologies of the modernising Nehruvian state, including constitutional secularism, reservations and welfare measures. Mainly the transformations in political culture over the past two decades have involved a shift in the relationship between the Indian state and its minorities. If earlier, the postcolonial state simultaneously promoted “tolerance” between religious communities and tried to reform caste from within Hinduism in a Gandhian fashion, the last two decades have seen some of the crises that resulted from this contradictory set of strategies. These include the Shah Bano case, the Mandir-Masjid controversy, and the debates over the Uniform Civil Code that challenged constitutionally-defined secularism to expose the unavailability of older models of tolerance. We are led to conclude that the rhetoric of tolerance is by itself inadequate for maintaining civic relations between majority and minority communities, as advocates of constitutional secularism are increasingly dubbed internal enemies of the Indian (Hindu) nation, while Hindutva claims to speak on behalf of an unrecognised demographic majority.
While this has clear implications for religious minorities (chiefly Muslims, and now increasingly, Christians) who have experienced organised violence by the Hindu majority, the Mandal-Masjid years have also seen renewed attempts by the Hindu right to woo OBCs, and as well dalits and adivasis, as part of a reconstituted Hindu public. Arguments about the violent and masculinist character of Hindutva seldom notice the simultaneous political assertion of dalit-bahujans. Both of these events have been enabled by a new and distinct phase in the career of Indian democracy. The rise of Hindutva and a post-Mandal caste politics are shaped by the distinct character of neoliberalism in India, where the state must continue to assert a protective relationship to its largely poor population while withdrawing from its welfare role in practice. These changes are marked by a renewed focus on identity, whether it be the question “who is a Hindu” that has occupied social and political reformers from the late nineteenth-century, or the recent attempts by scholars such as Kancha Ilaiah to make use of the category of the dalit-bahujan to mark a political community united by histories of suffering and exploitation as well as a culture of protest against brahminism. Much as Mahatma Jotiba Phule made use of the term shudratishudra in his writings to include all those who did not belong to the exploitative communities of shetjis and bhatjis, the category of the dalit-bahujan indexes a demographic majority, a stigmatised community that has borne the brunt of the pernicious ideologies of caste. Ironically, the consolidation of a Hindu community with the rise of Hindu nationalism is paralleled by aggressive demands for equality and social justice by historically downtrodden castes.
Caste assertion both within the domain of parliamentary politics and struggles for recognition without illustrate how central caste is to India’s political modernity. Historians have suggested that caste, like religious identity, constituted a peculiarly modern form of ‘difference’. Caste came to be reified during the colonial period as an essential characteristic of Indian society, as an indicator of the importance of “hierarchy” (rather than inequality) in India’s social and political life. Arguments about the “colonial construction” of caste have shown that caste has a history, that caste has always been related to political power and to the frameworks through which the British colonial state understood native society. But such critiques have also been criticised for missing the radical critiques of Hinduism and caste relations (e g, by Phule, Ambedkar, or Periyar) that asserted that colonialism had provided new avenues for the expression of brahminical power; that the brahminical order and colonial rule were in fact complicit in further entrenching the caste order. Instead radical thinkers such as Ambedkar, Periyar, and Phule held caste Hindus responsible for the ritual stigmatisation and political disenfranchisement that characterised caste exploitation. In the Ambedkarite vision, for example, such critiques of caste demanded that caste exploitation be recognised as a form of civic and political inequality requiring redress. The demand that historic discrimination be redressed, that the state engage in a politics of restitution, meant that practices of equalisation were significant. I understand such practices of equalisation as strategies for producing equality.
Historically, the postcolonial state has addressed this demand by understanding caste as a form of socio-economic ‘backwardness’ to be addressed by reservations. But Ambedkar’s demands were of much more revolutionary import. He demanded that caste disabilities that were largely social or religio-ritual in nature be addressed as the perpetration of political inequality. Ambedkar’s ceaseless struggle to politicise everyday caste relations inaugurated the birth of the dalit citizen as a rights-bearing subject. It is the urgency of this political demand that we must distinguish from standard arguments by political scientists who argue that caste’s post-colonial transformations have involved its further politicisation through vote bank politics. Such arguments about caste’s essential destructiveness for the conduct of modern politics renders “caste politics” the preserve and practice of the lower castes, allowing the upper castes freedom from the burdens of caste identity.
The political compromise of the Nehruvian years saw caste as a social evil, one slated to wither away through a process of modernisation. However the post-Mandal conjuncture suggested that caste itself had mutated and changed, that it was integral to conceptions of citizenship and personhood. Broadly, post-Mandal assertions about historic discrimination and struggles for social justice have focused on: a) the demand for recognising caste as a critical component of studies of political modernity, and reservations as a mechanism of social justice rather than a further stigmatisation of lower-castes beneficiaries, as occurred during the Mandal debates; b) the more recent demand for reservation for women and for dalit-bahujan women, politicising differences amongst women; and c) a turn towards transnational discourses of human rights that increasingly equate caste discrimination with broader histories of racism as happened at Durban during the World Conference Against Racism. Thus broadly speaking, we might say that debates about caste and gender are addressed to two audiences: one is a global public where issues of caste and gender discrimination have allowed a comparison of pernicious cultural practices. Within the nation-state, the demand has been to expand the presence of previously marginalised or unrecognised groups within existing forms of political participation. In both spheres, dalit-bahujan feminists have struggled to connect the intimate experience of sexual violation and vulnerability with more public forms of caste exploitation and domination.
If these critiques of gender and sexuality have not typically found a place in Indian feminism’s self-representation until quite recently, might it be that mainstream feminism is another face of brahminism that replicates upper-caste privilege while claiming to represent women as a political constituency? In contrast, caste critiques from the late 19th century and early 20th century, for instance, show a sustained engagement with the centrality of caste in regulating sexual behavior. Contemporary feminist politics can thus be clarified through a critical understanding of the history of caste narratives and caste struggle. What might such histories tell us about the limits of both mainstream feminism and dalit (male) activism?
Indian feminism’s history can be traced through a movement-centric analysis of struggles against sexual violence within and without the home, legal rights and protection for women as a particularly vulnerable political community, and a broader struggle to redefine matters of intimacy as public issues of political import, i e, the personal as political. This history has been the target of critique, especially by dalit feminists who have criticised the narrow conception of sexual violence and of rights, since they do not address forms of caste privilege that allow upper-caste men to claim sexual access to dalit women, or the conditions of labouring women who are not restricted to the domestic sphere.
It is also possible to explore debates about social reform during the 19th century as attempts to modernise gender relations within the upper-caste family. Historically, social reform in colonial India modernised gendered relations in the upper-caste family while often dispossessing lower-caste women of their rights to property and inheritance in attempts to homogenise caste and community-specific laws regarding such practices. This made forms of modernity available to upper-caste women while allowing them to claim that caste was the burden of other struggles for rights and recognition. Nationalism served to further occlude the extent to which the ‘woman’s question’ had been the upper-caste woman’s question.
Beginning with the debates about the abolition of sati in 1829, the reformers’ attention to practices such as widow remarriage and the age of consent focused solely on upper-caste women and their lives. This was accompanied by the quieter transformation of the domestic sphere through women’s education and the percolation of a new sensibility about women’s duty and responsibility within the home. A broader historical perspective on the ambivalent effects of colonial modernity on women’s lives is useful because it suggests that the refusal to include caste as a critical aspect of gender relations has a longer history than might be imagined.
Colonised elites experienced colonial modernity as both profoundly empowering and disabling in its demand that the ‘traditional’ past be jettisoned in toto in favour of a global(ising) language of modernity. Colonial modernity produced ‘the new woman’ as critical to a reformulated patriarchy. This was a patriarchy that, as the historian Tanika Sarkar has argued, was premised on a discourse of rights and the juridical language of ‘consent’ that was unavailable even to the colonised elites. Yet this language of gendered intimacy as a realm of the consensual rather than the coercive, laid claim to a political imagination far removed from the racialised structures of rule Indians experienced in their daily lives.
Or we find in Partha Chatterjee’s justly famous essay, ‘Nationalist Resolution of the Woman’s Question’ that gender (and the domain of the intimate) offered a means for working through the contradictions of colonial modernity. Women (especially women from the middle-classes) came to be embodied with a set of ‘traditional’ expectations about good behavior, respectability, and comportment that they carried within them, which allowed them to negotiate the tortuous thickets of the public world. This ‘compact’ between the nation and its men about the role of women in public life achieved during the early 20th century, came at the cost of excluding a whole set of issues from the agenda of social reform, and it allowed some women to be modern at the expense of others. The ambiguous legacy of colonial modernity was that it came to be restricted to upper-caste women. Caste and gender were the two issues internal to Hindu custom and society that had to be reformed in order for upper-caste male reformers and nationalists to claim a moral-ethical space for anti-colonial nationalism. Though the ‘woman’s question’ as articulated by upper-caste reformers consistently elided issues of caste, radical assaults on caste ideology consistently focused on how caste regulations governed women’s behavior.
Rosalind O’Hanlon, whose work has focused on the emergence of radical low-caste critiques of caste exploitation, has argued that an emergent colonial public sphere in fact produced new kinds of caste domination during the last two decades of the 19th century. This political critique of the ‘modernity’ of brahminism is especially evident in Phule’s writings. Phule’s awareness of the debilitating codes of conduct that disciplined upper-caste women was integral to his critique of caste relations in colonial society; he opened a school for untouchable girls in 1848 and a home for upper-caste widows punished for illicit sexual relations. His challenge to upper-caste men through a critique of their treatment of women, as well as his empathetic identification with oppressed brahmin and upper-caste women, are important. The description of his home is significant, “The enclosed copy of printed notices were [sic] then pasted on the walls of the corners of streets, where the Brahmins reside. From its commencement up to the present time, thirty-five pregnant widows came to this house…”. In fact Phule argued that upper-caste women faced the impossible burden of maintaining caste purity in their person. Thus “softer” forms of gendered domination that upper-caste women faced were no less oppressive than the expropriation of manual and sexual labour experienced by lower-caste women.
A female activist of Phule’s Satyashodak Samaj (Truth-Seeking Society), Tarabai Shinde, in 1882 wrote the revolutionary Stri-Purush Tulana (A Comparison Between Women and Men). This tract was written after an upper-caste widow, Vijayalakshmi, had been convicted of infanticide. As with Phule’s attention to his widows’ home, unfortunate incidents of widows being impregnated by relatives within the family either by force or through consensual relations, were frequent and drew attention to the demand that upper-caste widows not remarry. Stri-Purush Tulana was a critique of gender relations as well as of caste, both of which disempowered women. This serves to mark Shinde’s polemic as one of the first feminist critiques of caste. Nevertheless, it was one that anti-colonial nationalists ignored.
It is no coincidence that descriptions of upper-caste restrictions on widow remarriage and the ensuing torment of widows within families inaugurate Shinde’s account of the effects of caste and gender ideologies. Widows were at once the target of lower castes’ satire against the upper-caste family sphere, visible symbols of the necessity of social reform for upper-caste reformers, and proof of the correctness of religious strictures against remarriage for conservatives. The enforcement of widowhood showed how caste morality was regulated through gender. Widows became the object of upper- and lower-caste reformers’ concern over the course of the 19th century because widows’ maintenance of caste purity was really at issue.
The maintenance of caste boundaries was the crucial factor in the ideology of widowhood. Though the widow might be rendered socially and sexually “dead” – tonsuring her head, forcing her to wear a white or red sari, depriving her of jewelry, demanding that she restrict her passions by controlling her intake of food and spice – she still generated anxiety because she was sexually knowledgeable. Such anxiety supported attempts to restrict the freedom of widows within the joint-family household, and sanctioned the drudgery of widows whose work, though it was essential to the household, was consistently marginalised. The historian Uma Chakravarty writes, “The widow’s institutionalised marginality, a liminal state between being physically alive and being socially dead, was the ultimate cultural outcome of the deprivation of her sexuality as well as her personhood”. As well, the extraction of the labour of widows by the families who maintained them enabled other women’s freedom from toil within the family. Though widows were outside the ideologies of marriage and domesticity, they served as a reminder that coercive conceptions of protection and affection were only ever episodically available to women – that these were contingent on the husband’s physical presence. Thus upper-caste ideologies of sexual purity kept widows within upper-caste homes and offered them questionable forms of ‘protection’ whose other face was the violence of upper-caste ideologies of respectability.
The centrality of caste ideology in regulating sexual behavior was also commented upon by BR Ambedkar and EV Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar), both of whom spoke from outside Indian nationalism’s discursive frame.
In the heyday of dalit mobilisation during the 1920s and 1930s, Ambedkar wrote that intermarriage was the most important way of annihilating caste, since it alone acknowledged the relationship between the maintenance of caste purity and the control of women’s sexuality. This emphasis on the sexual underpinnings of caste society is important, but what is more significant is Ambedkar’s acknowledgment of desire between castes. For him, breaking the caste rules of kinship alone would undo untouchability. If inter-caste marriages were to take place as acts of choice – which they would have to, since caste ideologies did not permit them (the suggestion was that such unions went against nature) – such choice raised the possibility that men and women of different castes might desire each other. For Ambedkar, inter-caste marriage was to be differentiated from the prevalent forms of illicit union (sexual violation, really) that dalit activists had virulently campaigned against. For example, Ambedkar included intercaste marriage in the Hindu Code Bill as Hindu marriages rather than as civil marriages registered under the Special Marriages Act.
The woman’s question was also central to Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, begun in 1925. Periyar had been a staunch Congressite and a supporter of the Congress until 1925 when he broke away to launch the Self-Respect Movement, or Suyamariyadai Iyakkam. The very term “self respect” indicates the utopian vision of a casteless and perhaps atheist society based on human dignity and self worth.
Much as Phule had done 50 years earlier, Periyar focused on the regulation of sexuality through caste codes. Periyar institutionalised the self-respect marriage, one where activists married across castes, did away with all rituals (in fact Periyar often had couples marry at times that were supposed to be inauspicious according to the Hindu almanac), and treated their marriages as an occasion for political speech-making and caste critique. S Anandhi and V Geetha’s work shows that these were attempts to critique the gender hierarchies inherent in the structure of the Hindu marriage, thereby politicising marriage. The SRM’s attempts to reduce the financial burden of weddings was connected to the attempts to rethink marriage itself as a partnership of two political comrades who had decided to marry, relieving families of any part in the performance of the marriage. The use of Self-Respect slogans and banners to adorn cinemas and other public places where Self-Respect marriages took place, and the exchange of ‘vows’ that sought to respect the public and political lives of Self-Respect activists as much as it sought to re-imagine their private lives as one of mutual desire, challenged caste orthodoxy. Periyar’s attempts to integrate caste and gender issues politically through the form of the Self-Respect marriage lead to imaginings of a different future, one where issues of caste, gender, and sexuality could be reconfigured and rearranged for the mutual respect and pleasure of men and women.
These brief examples show that gender ideology was critical in controlling caste boundaries, an issue that comes through clearly in critiques by dalit and lower-caste thinkers. Caste ideologies draw on biological metaphors of stigma and defilement to enable differentiated conceptions of personhood. However, such prescriptions are also routinely violated by the intimacy that such hierarchies enable, as radical attempts to annihilate caste noted. Because caste distinctions legitimate forms of socio-political control through the regulation of kinship, upper-caste men had access to dalit women, for instance, while they demanded that ‘their’ women preserve caste purity through the purity of lineage. Dalit and non-brahmin critiques of caste recognised the hypocrisy of caste’s sexual economy. (I do not mean to suggest that such critiques went unopposed, or that they were successful. For example there were members of the Non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra who were invested in emulating upper-caste standards of sexual behaviour and respectable conduct as a form of upward mobility.) As with the organisation of sexuality and race in the American South or South Africa under apartheid, the regulation of sexual access across caste and race by law distinguished this state of affairs. Compromised as feminism has been by its caste and class coordinates, this historical memory is considered the province of those invested in caste politics, i e, dalit-bahujans. In the process, a profound analysis of how caste, gender, and sexuality work together has remained unacknowledged. What would it mean for contemporary feminist politics to acknowledge a critique of caste and gender that has emerged outside of an identifiably ‘feminist’ framework?
Excavating an alternative history of gender and sexuality, one that complicates basic feminist preconceptions about how patriarchy operates or where to locate gender oppression, provides evidence of long-standing Indian debates about gender inequality. Such genealogies are powerful for countering chauvinistic Hindutva arguments about feminism as a Western import. At the same time, such radical political critiques of the caste/gender order necessarily complicate the search for authentic sexual practices and pleasures unsullied by the perversions of the West – what we might call the “Kamasutra syndrome”. In fact, if such critiques were to become central to the Indian feminist canon, it would be the responsibility of feminists – dalit-bahujan and otherwise – to craft a critique of gender and sexuality that addresses caste as critical to the ways in which gender relations become visible in social space. This is a form of responsibility that neither privileges dalit-bahujan experience as extraordinary, nor one that practices a form of caste amnesia as the precondition of being secular and modern. Rather, it is a means of acknowledging entangled and shared histories through which women often exploit other women as the precondition of their own freedoms, where men are engaged in complicated negotiations of masculinity, and where men’s claims to women as sexual property has to be understood through the lens of both caste privilege and gender domination.