‘Dalit women have been left behind by the Dalit movement and the women’s movement’

Written by Vimal Thorat | Published on: May 1, 2001

Both the Dalit movement and the women’s  movement have consciously ignored the Dalit women’s issue. When was the Republican Party of India and it’s several wings  — Gavai wing, Ambedkar wing, Athavale wing or the earlier, Khobragade wing — ever interested in tackling the concerns or oppressions perpetuated with such brutality on Dalit women? Even today the BSP that is articulate on caste identity sidelines, or handles extremely peripherally the issues concerning Dalit women.

We have now two generations of articulate, committed Dalit women professionals who are lecturers, professors, activists. But their articulation threatens the Dalit male leadership. They will find no place on their committees! Their presence itself will be a threat to their articulations that refuse to articulate the issue of brutal violence against Dalit women, gender violence and nuts and bolts issues like the right to water and a life of dignity. Forty years after the Dalit movement, where is the women’s share? (Hamari bhagyadari kahan hai?

Dalit identity politics articulates caste identity sharply but resists, deliberately, understanding and articulating the gender dimensions of caste itself (that sees all women not just Dalit women) in a certain light. Worse, it completely shuts out patriarchal attitudes of Dalit men vis–à–vis their women. This patriarchal attitude sideline women from forums and especially from decision–making bodies. The Dalit movement has thrown up so many women but articulate women are not invited by Dalit forums, especially the political parties. Why? This betrayal of Dalit women’s issues by the Dalit movement is matched by the utter disregard and tokenism with which Dalit women’s issues are taken up by the women’s movement.

What are we talking about here? Issues that Dalit women grapple with span the area of brute caste violence, caste driven gender violence, political articulation and participation in the public arena, and even caste enforced prostitution.  Within the plight of the girl child in India, the malnutrition and lack of educational opportunities experienced by a Dalit and adivasi girl is worse hunger and even more restricting conditions and no access to schools. So it is not simply gender inequalities that we are talking about but inequalities within inequalities. It is the Dalit woman who is on the frontline, suffering hunger, deprivation, indignity, sexual violence. How can her voice be silenced?

Equally well, at the start of the women’s movement, in the late seventies and eighties, we tried to work within the women’s movement but repeatedly found the reluctance to tackle head on either Dalit women’s issues or for that matter Muslim women’s issues. To a marginal extent, Muslim women’s issues have been reflected as a result of their programme to take on communalism but caste still presents a threatening barrier.

This failure to reflect Dalit women’s issues stems from a reluctance to grapple with caste. Like the rest of the left movement, caste gets subsumed in class inequality. They also have an allergy to study Ambedkar! 
Nevertheless, the Dalit women’s articulations are growing. After the formation of the NFDW in 1995, there have been two conferences in Dhule and in Mumbai, 1997 (that was opposed by the Shiv Sena), three in Delhi and two in Chennai. Our ranks are swelling. There is great enthusiasm for the movement.

We believe that only after these distinct articulations are made and space created for our voices and issues that a broader alliance will get forged again. We have been kept out, left behind, denied by our own movement (the Dalit movement) and also by the women’s movement. 
Both are cynically quiet when Dalit women, who enter the political space at the panchayat level, are compelled to face acts of brutal humiliation, violation and violence. Why? 

In Haryana and Rajasthan, Dalit women are not allowed to lift their ghunghat. In Sonipat, Haryana the elected sarpanch who is a Dalit woman has been forcibly denied entry by caste bullies. She will pollute the panchayat office if she enters, they say! What is the Dalit political leadership, the rest of the political leadership and the women’s movement, doing about this? No one has even raised the issue let alone supporting it. 

In Gujarat this year, a Dalit mahila sarpanch was prohibited from hoisting the flag on August 15 last year. What kind of ‘nationalism’ are we talking about? Two years back, in a similar incident in Madhya Pradesh, an elected Dalit woman sarpanch was stripped and paraded around the village for daring to hoist the Indian flag. Civil liberties organisations took up the issue but where were the RPI, the BSP, the women’s movement then? 

(As told to Teesta Setalvad).

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8  No. 69, Cover Story 2