A category of women who have consistently been ignored in the popular imagination is the Dalit woman. Rarely are they a part of national conversations and public discourse around modern feminism and the gender justice demagoguery.

By Guru Prakash

A category of women who have consistently been ignored in the popular imagination is the Dalit woman. Rarely are they a part of national conversations and public discourse around modern feminism and the gender justice demagoguery.

We don’t know much about Dalit women beyond the oft-repeated adage that they ‘suffer from the double jeopardy of both gender and caste’. This reflects the collective failure of our society.

The feminist school of thought in India has created an inordinate amount of scholarship around the likes of Rajia Sultan and Chand Bibi. Dalit women like Savitribai Phule, Rani Jhalkari Bai and others also did phenomenal work in their lifetimes.

Sadly, the established academic architecture has systematically ignored their contributions.

It is indeed a great disservice to the scholarship around feminism to exclude the monumental initiatives of these women who confronted the prevailing supremacy of caste and gender.


She is probably considered the first-ever Dalit woman poet in the known history. Inspired from the legendary Basavanna who gave a call for struggle against regressive social conventions in Karnataka, Kalavve whose full name was Urilinga Peddigala Punya Stri Kalavve went on to become a leading voice of reform against caste discrimination and degenerating position of woman. Her commitment and strict observance of vows are recorded in vachanas. In her observations, one common thread is the purity of heart through faith in spiritual declarations.

Janabai and Soyarabai

Both belonged to the socially disadvantaged communities in Maharashtra and followed the ideas propagated by the Bhakti movement. During the thirteenth and fourteenth century, they raised voices against social orthodoxy and the inherent cleavages in the social order that attributed a substandard way of life to the marginalized communities. One of the poems of Soyarabai is worth quoting here where she says,

You say some bodies are untouchable.

Tell me what you say of the Soul.

You say defilement is born in the body.

If menstrual blood makes me impure,

Tell me who was not born of that blood.

This blood of mine fertilizes the world.

Tell me who was not sprung from this source.

Soyara says: this impurity is the cornerstone of your world.

If this is not forward-looking and progressive enough than what is? In our quest to seek western validation, we never made an effort to turn the searchlight inwards and explore the endless treasure that our civilization had to offer.

Savitri Bai Phule

Savitri Bai Phule was born in Maharashtra and dedicated her life to the cause of education of girl child and the rights of the widows. Coming from the socially backward community as her name indicates ‘Phule’ comes from ‘Phul’ that means flower in English and her community engaged in gardening activities. One of her significant poems is Arise and Learn, where she says:

We will educate our children and teach ourselves as well.

We will acquire knowledge of religion and righteousness.

Let the thirst for books and learning dance in every vein.

Let each one struggle and forever erase our low caste stain.

Even she does not find a notable mention in the plethora of work around women’s studies programs in our universities.

Rani Jhalkari Bai

Rani Jhalkari Bai was born in Kori community near Jhansi in 1830 and later went on to become one of the closest confidantes of Rani Lakshmi Bai who is popularly known as Jhansi ki Rani after her territory’s heroic confrontation with the British forces. One of the British Generals after witnessing the ferocious battle led by Jhalkari Bai commented that “one per cent of Indian women were like Jhalkari; the British would soon have to leave India.”

Dakshayani Velayudhan

She was the sole Dalit woman member of the Constituent assembly who played an active role in shaping the rights and privileges of the Dalit women in the Constitution of India. In one of her many debates, she said, “I submit that a Constituent Assembly not only frames a Constitution but also gives the people a new framework for life. To frame such a Constitution is an easy task because there are many models for us to imitate…but to renew a people on a new foundation requires the synthetic vision of a planner…what we want is not all kinds of safeguards. It is the moral safeguards that give us real protection..what we want is the immediate removal of our social disabilities. Our freedom can be obtained only from Indians and not only from the British Government. “

Some of us may be aware of Durga Bai Deshmukh another woman member of the Constituent assembly as many public places like metro stations and conference halls are named after her. A Dalit woman also deserves to stay in public memory as others.

The likes of Ramvilas Paswan, Mayawati and the newbie Chandrashekhar Ravan who are indulging in Dalit politics in pursuance of power must try to read and commemorate figures like these whose lives were a message of social integration and harmony through spiritual endeavours

We need our own version of feminism that is inclusive of everyone regardless of caste and community. The feminism that does not shy away from celebrating the social diversity of the movement for gender justice and equality. Such inspirations are still at large from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Surat to Silchar. This Women’s Day let us try and identify the Savitri Bai’s and Jhalkari Bai’s in our community and neighbourhood and pay respect to the lady who is a repository of strength, wisdom and beauty at the same time.

The author is a fellow at India Foundation and Assistant Professor at Patna University.

Courtesy: India Today