The Question of Bahujan Women

Who Are Bahujan Women?


Excerpted from

The Shudras Vision for a New Path Penguin will be launched on 22 Feb

Shudra, OBC and Bahujan are categories that are often used to talk about various communities clubbed within the Shudra varna in the four-varna hierarchy. But I am using ‘Bahujan’ here in the way that the general media uses it, to refer to Shudras/OBCs, not including SCs and STs.

This essay aims to engage with the women who belong to these various contested categories. Bahujan women, as I refer to them, have had a rich tradition of resistance against caste, patriarchy and Brahminism. Mainstream historical and even Dwija-led feminist narratives have expunged the revolutionary struggles of Bahujan women from the annals of social history.

However, their revolutionary struggles have been kept alive through oral traditions and local booklets and pamphlets produced and reproduced during anti-caste movements. These are being revived by Bahujan scholars. The Bahujan feminist standpoint locates itself differentially from the Dalit feminist and Dwija feminist discourses. Bahujan women are uniquely located within the caste–gender matrix.

Above the Dalits and below the savarna Dwijas, they are the middle castes. Thus, while they are unquestionably subordinate to men of their own caste and savarna men, they also share a differential power relationship with female members of both the Dalit and savarna castes. With the former, they share a dominant power relation while they have a subordinate position in the power matrix vis-à-vis the latter.

The English word ‘caste’ encompasses two levels of an integrated system: varna, the four main categories or endogamous groups called jatis, and the multitudinous subdivisions within each varna. Varna is broadly organized as a four-tiered socioeconomic system determined by the familial line, although not all four varnas are present in every region of India.

The caste system outlined in the ancient Hindu scripture, the Manusmriti, prescribed social status along with occupation. The highest varna (caste) is the Brahmins, who traditionally worked as Hindu temple priests, followed by the Kshatriyas (the warrior caste), the Vaishyas (the merchant/trader caste) and the Shudras (the servant caste).1 These castes are the main source constructing caste hierarchies and untouchability. The first three remain in the top order of society as it functions now. They impose restrictions on social intercourse with them. The Hindus believe that the Shudras were born out of the feet of Brahma, as is stated in the Apastamba Dharma Sutra.2 The popular understanding among scholars and academicians about the origin of the Shudras is that they were the indigenous people of India who were captured and co-opted by the Aryans into the fold of Hindu religion.

According to Ram Sharan Sharma, ‘large sections of people, Aryans and pre-Aryans, were reduced to that position, partly through external and partly through internal conflicts. Since the conflicts centred mainly around the possession of cattle, and perhaps latterly of land and its produce, those who were dispossessed of these and impoverished came to be reckoned as the fourth class in the new society’. Sharma claims that during Rig Vedic times there was no caste system, and the fourth varna, the Shudras, was not yet developed. He maintains that ‘the Rg Vedic society had no recognizable sudra order’.3 He further claims that the Shudras were a tribe. Sharma produces an account of the caste/varna system with agriculture as the mode of production where the Shudras were collectively forced into being the ‘servile class’ or the ‘labouring class’. Once the Rig Vedic pastoral society gave way to a Vedic agricultural and seminomadic society, the four varnas and the caste system stabilized. However, there are other theories of caste and varna as well.

Ambedkar on Shudras

In contrast to this view, Ambedkar provides a fresh perspective on the origin of the Shudras in his treatise ‘Who Were the Shudras?’4 According to him:

The Shudras were one of the Aryan communities of the Solar race . . . There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins in which the Brahmins were subjected to many tyrannies and indignities. As a result of the hatred towards the Shudras generated by tyrannies and oppressions, Brahmins refused to perform the upanayana (the sacred thread-wearing ceremony) for the Shudras. Owing to the denial of upanayana, the Shudras who were Kshatriyas became socially degraded, fell below the rank of the Vaishyas and thus came to form the fourth varna.5

He states that ‘under the system of Chaturvarnya, the Shudra is not only placed at the bottom of the gradation, but he is subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities so as to prevent him from rising above the condition fixed for him by law’.

Ambedkar notes that ‘the present-day Shudras are a collection of castes drawn from heterogeneous stocks and are racially different from the original Shudras of Indo-Aryan society’.7 He states that the original Shudras of the Indo-Aryan society were a particular community, which has ceased to be an identifiable, separate community in present times. They were subjected to a ‘legal system of pains and penalties’ devised by the Brahmins to control the Shudras. According to Ambedkar, the Shudras of the Indo-Aryan times were degraded to a great extent, consequently leading to a change in the connotation of the word ‘Shudra’. He claims that ‘the word Shudra lost its original meaning of being the name of a particular community and became a general name for low-class people without civilization, without culture, without respect and without a position’.8 Shudras are not a homogeneous category, but a conglomeration of various castes. A few of the dominant Shudra castes claim Kshatriya status, while various others are grouped as Other Backward Classes (OBC).9

The OBC is an administrative and constitutional category that came about as a result of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, especially for the use of reservations in public services and education. The Bahujan identity is both a political category as well as a social one whereby Shudras could claim a homogeneous identity that is essentially anti-Brahmin and anti-caste, with a larger identity of its own to claim a larger share.



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