GenderAnd Development: Mainstream feminists have not foregrounded the very real issues of Dalit women in the setting of feminist agendas

Dakshayini Velayudhan was the only Dalit woman of the 15 who were part of the Constituent Assembly to finalise the draft of the Indian Constitution. She was, then, just 34. She was also the first Dalit woman to graduate and earn a certificate in teacher’s training from Madras University. One of the key reasons for her to enter politics is believed to be the repeated discrimination against her in higher education. In 1945, she was nominated to the legislative council of Cochin. In 1946, she was elected to the Constituent Assembly. In her speech in the Constituent Assembly on August 28, 1947, she said, “As long as the Scheduled Castes, or the Harijans or by whatever name they may be called are economic slaves of other people, there is no meaning demanding either separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage. Personally speaking, I am not in favour of any kind of reservation in any place whatsoever.”

Dakshayini identified two important issues for Dalits — the denial of civil rights through slavery practices, and the economic condition which kept them down as a people.

Seventy years later, these scourges still haunt the lives of Dalits including those of over 100 million Dalit women in India. Conversion to Christianity and Buddhism led to many positive changes in the living conditions of some of these women. This includes access to education which led to some form of employment due to reservations in the lower levels of government. Yet, the vast majority of Dalit women and girls continue to struggle under the multiple burdens of class, gender, caste, religion, age, asset less-ness and the sexual and occupational stereotyping.

The roots to this lie in the first millennial traditional Brahminical law code, the Manusmriti, which continues to shape the unwritten norms in Indian society. It enjoins social, economic and political practices as a religious duty which are severely discriminatory of women and the non-dwija (twice-born, privileged groups). For instance, it says that the ‘untouchables’ should only live in huts, not own any domestic assets, only cook in clay pots, wear only cast-off clothing, and own no property. The twice born had the first rights over their labour and anything they own, as they are created to be slaves.

This continues to have a lingering impact on the totally deprived life experiences of Dalits, especially women, who still struggle to access drinking water from the common water sources in villages, work for starvation wages as landless labourers or take to prostitution or manual scavenging. These last two occupations, of course, are highly stigmatised, causing social and religious ostracism and exclusion.

Young Dalit girls in higher education, often, face isolation, low-self-esteem caused by loneliness, deprivation and lack of social support systems in universities. They face cultural, linguistic and colour-based discrimination. They are also targeted by classmates, teachers and hostel mates. One of the recent example is that of a 19-year-old Dalit nursing student who was forced to consume toilet cleaner by her seniors at the hostel of Al Qamal College of Nursing in Kalaburgi, Karnataka in May last year, seriously damaging her internal organs.

In the Indian educational system, they also face severe gender harassment as they walk or travel by public transport to their schools and colleges. The hostels for these girls, run by the government, are often places of great insecurity and violence as evident in the Delta Meghwal case in Rajasthan. Delta was a 17-year-old Dalit girl who was raped and killed in her hostel by one of the male teachers on March 29, last year. Similarly, close to 16 girls were raped in Haryana in December, 2012 around the time of the protests following the Delhi gangrape case. Yet, these incidents of rape were hardly reported despite a national level organisation of Dalit women following up on the cases.

According to a young Dalit woman research scholar, some of the faculty members seem to feel that Dalit students are not capable of dealing with theory. Which is why questions during viva exams relate mostly to questions about the experiences of their ‘Dalitness’ in the institutional context rather than the content of their dissertations. Another ‘fair-complexioned’ Dalit researcher (who chose not to be identified) who also spoke and wrote good English, was often asked by her teachers in a central institute, ’Are you really a Dalit?’ reflecting the stereotypical understanding of Dalits as being dark-skinned and unable to speak in English.

Emotional issues, always on the horizon in the case of young people, are a particularly fraught area for Dalit girls and women. Dominant caste boys often vie for their attention, and after a positive response from the girls, often cut off the relationship, citing opposition from their families due to caste. Many of the young girls say that young Dalit men are more interested in non-Dalit girls. This arena of human relationships for young Dalit girls is a minefield, full of pitfalls like exploitation, betrayal, loss, and loneliness. Which is why they often focus more on their work or studies and tend to withdraw from committed relationships.

Also, where the girls have boyfriends from a non-Dalit background, the boys are uncomfortable with the girls asserting their Dalit identity. This is the reason why, often, these relationships don’t survive long. This is evident in many cases including a well-known one in Hyderabad Central University a few years ago, where a Dalit girl who had been in a long relationship with a non-Dalit fellow student, committed suicide in her hostel room after he refused to marry her citing his family’s non-acceptance of her caste identity.

Thus, one sees that Dalit girls with a higher education are often, despite wanting to be in committed and long term relationships and to be married, tend not to have this option fulfilled in their lives.

Moreover, the families of a number of these girls are also vulnerable to displacement, migration, and malnutrition due to low-paying and hazardous jobs. They are, often, subject to severe violence, atrocities and rape during land struggles or caste violence in villages and urban slums. This, often when the dominant castes erupt in rage as they see Dalit families slowly acquiring household assets like bicycles, TVs or fans due to a family member getting employment outside the village. The low response from the police, media or administration to any of the egregious violations they face is another recurring theme in the case of Dalit women.

A number of Dalit women have also reported online trolling and abuses each time they voice their opinion. Encouragement and support received from a larger community of like-minded people is a great strength for these women on social platforms. But the constant abuses forces them to be offline.

The government’s attempt to enhance the political participation of marginalised sections of women has had some success. But, it is clear that Dalit women’s strengths as community leaders with resourcefulness and energy have not been fully harnessed by the system. Dalit women elected representatives in panchayats have often faced hostile reactions from their fellow panchayat members though there are ample cases of Dalit women showing enough mettle to perform well and even get re-elected on a non-reserved ticket due to their competence. Their presence in politics and governance at higher levels is very low as more privileged sections hog the spaces with better social and economic capital.

One of the most important exclusions face by Dalit women is that their issues are almost never part of the struggles by feminists in India. Solidarity on the key issue of autonomy and choice, employment with dignity, wages, physical security should be automatic. But the reality is that the mainstream feminists have not foregrounded these very real issues of Dalit women and girls in the setting of feminist agendas. Thus, there is a fresh articulation of their own issues by young women from deprived backgrounds, both Dalit and Adivasi, which is in their language and based on their own experiences. While some use the term Dalit Feminism for these articulations, others have evolved a new terminology – Marginalised Indian Womanism – for their articulations. Feminism in India has not been able to fully encapsulate their experiences, and so a new term is in order, they feel. As more and more young Dalit women enter academic, political and governance through sheer talent and persistence write and articulate their ideas and visions with their sensitivity and persistence, this will surely bring in salutary and much needed freshness into our jaded institutions.