People’s Movements and the Caste Question – WSS Seminar Report, Session 1

May 21, 2016


The following selection is from the national seminar entitled “Resisting Caste and Patriarchy: Building Alliances” held by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), in December 2015.


The inspiration for this seminar came from an initiative that started in 2013-2014, when members of WSS made a series of visits to villages in several districts of Haryana to investigate reports of sexual assaults and killings of Dalit girls. The team met and interviewed many of the survivors and their families. Intensive discussions with a team of young Dalit lawyers and activists provided additional insights into the situation.

The effort culminated in a report titled ‘Speak – the Truth is Still Alive: Land, Caste and Sexual Violence Against Dalit Girls and Women in Haryana’. The report sought to analyse the continuing onslaught of sexual violence on Dalit women , to better understand the interlinkages of caste and patriarchy as well as the economic underpinnings of this kind of violence, to expose the institutional mechanisms that provide immunity and impunity to perpetrators and collude with them to intimidate and ilence those who are struggling for justice.

Discussions during the writing and publication of the report threw up the need for a sharper analysis of caste-based sexual violence in society, particularly the deep-seated caste and patriarchal biases within governance and administrative structures. Consequently, WSS members began a study circle, looking at select writings of Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and Lohia, and to study and discuss feminist reflections on caste and patriarchy. These discussions surfaced the unevenness in the understanding of the caste question even within WSS and again highlighted the long-felt need to understand the question of structured sexual violence on Dalit women in order to develop effective strategies to challenge and resist caste-based violence.

The tensions between women’s movements and Dalit women on the issue of sexuality came to the surface at the National Conference of Autonomous Movements in Kolkata in 2006 during the debate on the bar dancers’ struggle in Mumbai. While sexuality rights activists saw bar dancers as feminist agents making a ‘choice’ about the work they do, Dalit women’s groups framed the issue as caste-based sexual exploitation that drew its origins from traditions where Dalit girls and women were bonded into sex work as devadasis and joginis. The issue was again discussed in the meeting on “Gender and Caste” organised in Mumbai in 2009 by SNDT Women Studies Centre, Akshara, Awaaz-e-Niswan, Forum against Oppression of Women (FAOW) and Dalit activists Urmila Pawar and Ashalata Kamble. These debates all pointed to the importance of framing and conceptualising Dalit women’s sexuality and labour differently from that of non-Dalit women.

In the course of our internal discussions, we tried to articulate the gaps and grey areas in feminist debates on caste and patriarchy, and draw on lessons from the histories of engagement with questions of caste and gender by and within different mass movements and women’s movements. It was obvious that the disappearance of “annihilation of caste” from the agenda of contemporary movements was an inevitable consequence of the marginalisation of Dalit women in political struggles and sociaal processes. Thus, complex issues arising from Dalit women’s labour in various relations of production have been reduced to the question of choice or coercion in sex work, with little exploration of the ways in which caste, class and patriarchy have worked together to exploit and stigmatise dalit women across the spectrum of work and labour relations.

Progressive groups and social movements across the spectrum are struggling with uncertainty and lack of clarity on advancing the agenda of annihilation of caste in the context of changing land and labour relations, neo-liberal capitalism, the appropriation of natural resources, increasing state violence and the dominance of Hindutva. The decision to organise a national seminar around these issues was taken at the WSS annual meeting in Lucknow in 2015.

Our objective in organising this National Seminar on Caste and Patriarchy is to strengthen our dialogues and alliances around Babasaheb Ambedkar’s foundational insight – that the annihilation of caste cannot be fulfilled without the annihilation of patriarchy. Our objective was to explore the question of how our struggles against patriarchy, caste and religious orthodoxy could draw from Ambedkar’s legacy to redefine feminism in the Indian context. Our effort was to create a space to explore and discuss questions around re-framing our perspectives on the intersections of caste and patriarchy with structural inequalities so as to take on the challenge of annihilation of caste.

Rajni introduced the theme of the seminar and recalled the historical legacies of struggles against caste, patriarchy and class in the nineteenth century – Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, and also Marx and Lenin. This was followed by a Marathi song by activists from the Kabir Kala Manch.

Kalyani (one of the three national convenors of WSS) welcomed everyone present and appreciated the trouble taken by participants to come from all over India. She reminded the group that this meeting was the latest link in the long history of engagements with the linkages and intersections of caste and patriarchy by women’s movements. Recent instances are the 2009 meeting in Mumbai, the Kolkata women’s movement conference in 2007, apart from numerous internal discussions. Much has been learnt, our understanding has expanded and some new alliances have been forged, but new questions and dilemmas have also emerged.

Kalyani described the events leading up to this meeting, beginning from 2013 when the issue of sexual violence against Dalit girls and women in the state of Haryana shocked the public. Thanks to the efforts of organisations like PMARC, which collated information on over 100 rapes of Dalit women, a majority of them in Haryana, the situation could no longer be ignored by politicians and the mainstream media. Members of WSS were part of a fact-finding visit along with other Dalit organisations to investigate a case of rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Jind district, the facts of which wetre being suppressed by all the investigating agencies involved. The experience led to a meeting with some Dalit feminist activists to explore possibilities for strategic interventions. WSS also launched its own fact-finding exercise and efforts to better understand the intersections of caste and patriarchy, and the economic underpinnings of this kind of violence. The WSS Report “Speak! The Truth is Still Alive” has tried to capture this process.

At the same time, we realised that our understanding was insufficient and that there was an ongoing need to question our own assumptions and perspectives. The idea of a national meeting to go deeper into these issues was ratified at the WSS annual meeting in Lucknow in July 2015.

Kalyani concluded with the hope that this meeting would lead to stronger alliances to fight both caste and patriarchy. She thanked everyone present and remembered those who could not come but wanted to be here – Ranjana due to her accident, and participants from Chennai who could not come because of being caught up with flood relief.

Session 1. People’s movements and the caste question

Moderators: Kiran Shaheen, Rajni Tilak

Kiran flagged off the session by describing the lead-up to the meeting and introducing the speakers. Rajni set the context, recalling Ambedkar’s 1936 essay On the Annihilation of Caste, written for the Jaat-paat Todak Mandal in Lahore and rejected by them for its full-frontal attack on Hinduism. She emphasised that the issues raised in that speech remain centrally relevant to all struggles today, including left organisations and women’s groups.

1. Kavita Krishnan, AIPWA, Delhi

Kavita began by asking what kind of theoretical and political framework is needed today for thinking about caste and what Marxism has to offer. She was of the view that there has been a superficial understanding, even a misconception incuding within Left movements that ‘class’ is simply an economic category tied to Trade Union activism, and that gender is merely a ‘social’ issue. Instead, gender is very much linked to labour and the very organisation of labour cannot be understood without caste. Women’s unpaid work is central to both class and patriarchy – women are the permanently bonded labour of the family.

Kavita described her experiences of political organising in Bihar from the 1970s onwards and how it challenged preconceived ideas about class relations. In the land and labour struggles, for instance, the issues were not only centred on wages alone. Rather, the sexual exploitation of Dalit women as instruments of control and exploitation took on special urgency – women’s narratives described an “ensemble of social humiliations”, how to speak, where to sit, what happened in the fields as they laboured or what happened at the time of marriage. Elections and voting were times of violation and violence towards those who sought to upset social hierarchies.

Massacres by upper-caste armies like the Ranbir Sena turned violence into a spectacle, through the violation of women’s dignity (eg public display of the naked bodies of women victims) as a calculated strategy to crush Dalit assertion. Under these conditions, Dalit women were struggling to leave stigmatised labour practices. Women activists also share patriarchal biases when they see women’s work as an inescapable element of the female condition. This is why “economic” struggles are not just economic, but involve “domestic discipline” and “caste discipline” as imposed by upper classes, upper castes and families. Also the freedom under capitalism is just nominal, there are no genuine choices to choose, change work, rather Dalits are ‘bonded’ to work.

Kavita gave the example of Dalit girls in Tamil Nadu garment factories being prevented from using mobile phones, kept in hostels like prisons – families support this to keep them from “going astray” while employers are trying to block women from organising. Referring to Jagmati’s work with AIDWA, marriage is a key institution to reinforce caste. The Sangh Parivar is exploiting precisely these issues – we need to be aware of this and create our own strategies for resistance.

Kavita concluded with several inspiring examples of women’s deeply-felt articulations of the link between their unpaid labour and their exploitation by both families and employers in their current work in Bihar.

2. Sujatha Surepally, Karimnagar, Telangana

Sujatha began by contextualising her reflections in the light of decades of participation in various movements and the last 7 years in particular of the Telengana movement, which had raised possibilities of a more radical politics. However, whenever issues of caste and gender are raised, the leaders would say that these would be addressed after gaining power.

In the Telengana movement women’s issues and caste issues have not been discussed or addressed even after state formation, though this was what was promised. Women’s role has been reduced to dressing up like dolls for the local Bathukamma festival. She finds a general discomfort with addressing caste and gender across groups, no matter how “radical” they claim to be. Caste and gender issues are usually only raised by Dalits and women themselves – but not always from the perspective of “annihilation of caste”.

Women’s groups and Dalit groups have both failed to address caste from Ambedkar’s radical position. Rather women’s groups stick with “women only” issues and SC/ST associations refuse to raise gender issues. Left radical groups may speak of revolution, but leave caste and gender out of their frameworks and processes. For instance, Dalit women have been the real leaders of all the land struggles and anti-SEZ movements in Telengana but have not been acknowledged as leaders. There is so much here that remains quite undocumented.

Left movements see SEZs only as a class/economic issue and not in terms of the caste-patriarchycapitalism nexus. In the CPI association of women teachers male leaders try to control women under the guise of “guidance” resulting in the ridiculous sight of a dais full of men at a women teacher’s convention! She has tried to raise these issues in many forums but has been always been silenced and told that the presence of women as members is proof that equality has been addressed.

In any case the class struggle must take priority. Radical left movements are willing to protest against violence against “good women” but are silent when women who are violated are labelled as drunk or promiscuous. The same goes for Dalit groups and many women’s groups.

Leftist women’s groups also marginalise single women, divorced women, and sex workers. Women have to suffer moral abuse and character assassination. They have not questioned the institution of marriage, do not raise issues of sexual emancipation. Caste and gender issues still tend to be thought of as ‘social’ not ‘economic’. Women’s movements cannot explain why there are so few Dalit and Adivasi women in the leadership. Student activists – women from radical student groups have potential for leadership but disappear from the scene after marriage in spite of all the radical grooming. It is hard for upper-caste and privileged women to internalise that marriage supports both caste and patriarchy – they can’t practice their politics inside the institution of marriage. Urban elite feminists have in recent years increased their interactions with Dalit women but alliance-building remains very difficult since there is no larger strategic plan.

(Kiran intervened at this point to give a recap of the issues and the history — growing understanding of links between colonialism, caste, class, gender; Ambedkar’s conceptual framework for understanding caste oppression; and caste questions raised by Bodhgaya movement for women’s land rights, and Maoist movements and mobilisation of Dalit agricultural workers.)

3. Sumati, Mehnatkash Mahila Sangathan, Delhi

Sumati began by welcoming this meeting as it was critical in today’s context, which has seen multiple attacks on all democratic forces, and the weakening of our unity. This is therefore a welcome effort to build alliances. At the same time she felt that her own understanding of caste issues might be limited and that she would have prefered to listen than speak.

It would not be fair to brand the Left as “brahminical”. Left movements have taken up caste issues at some historical movements (eg militant struggles of agricultural workers in Bihar, AP, Jharkhand) but seem to have weakened in recent years – have also become isolated from other movements. But it is true that some parties like CPI/CPM mainly have tended to think of caste as part of the superstructure which would be resolved after the class revolution. Caste has been central to Naxalite mobilisations on issues of land, wages, and dignity/honour. Some leaders like Anuradha Gandhi have recognised that caste and class do not form a mechanical unity but need to look for fresh perspectives. But Maoists have not analysed and theorised these struggles from a feminist perspective. Left has also failed in class struggle – they have not hesitated to ally with pro-capitalist, feudal and casteist parties (eg Congress, JDU and RJD in Bihar) on the logic of an anti-BJP alliance. They have not interrogated theoretical gaps – eg have not understood the caste question in terms of Ambedkar’s analysis (caste as division of labourers as well as division of labour). But there has been some questioning from within.

In the urban context in Delhi, caste is central to workers’ exploitation since daily wage workers are largely Dalit, albeit this is less visible way than in rural areas. Caste, class and gender all play out in experiences of women domestic workers. Yet, neither gender or caste have been raised explicitly in the context of worker’s rights. Caste discrimination continues to block access to education for Dalit girls. Neither women’s movements or workers’ movements have been able to oppose violence against Dalit girls in Haryana. The call of “azaadi” has been raised by the women’s movement but not for Dalit workers. Nor does the trade union movement raise caste issues.

The contemporary challenge is to build a broad alliance of all oppressed groups (women, Dalits, lowest segments of OBCs, the EBCs) in the context of the present dire situation, where we need to find new ways to oppose Hindutva as well as fight feudal and capitalist forces. In Bawana and Trilokpuri fascist Hindutva forces have mobilised Dalits against Muslims. We need to come together to oppose such efforts.

4. Sandhya Gokhale, FAOW, Mumbai

Sandhya began with a brief historical overview of the Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW) and its engagement with questions of caste and patriarchy. FAOW was formed as an outcome of the growing frustration of women who were trying to raise their issues within larger movements and parties in the 1980s. The Mathura rape case (Mathura was a young adivasi girl) was the trigger. FAOW was formed after a lot of debate on institutional form – how to avoid hierarchies and have more equal structures, and the trap of “democratic centralism”. It also includes a large number of women from autonomous groups. The issues raised by FAOW came directly from the women who were part of the collective eg sexual assault, domestic violence, marital rape. Lesbian/queer issues came into the FAOW space in the same way. However, caste was not adequately theorised or addressed.

FAOW sees it as essential for marginalised groups to have their own organisations and institutions, where they can become politicised and gain confidence to raise own issues and theorise their own struggles. She cited the examples of Awaaz-e-Niswan, and Labia.

The silence on caste in women’s movements is also linked to the caste/class composition of the leadership. Dalit women have also been silenced by the patriarchy of their own organisations. It was in the Calicut Conference in the1990s that caste questions were raised for first time. Muslim women’s issues had been raised around personal law reform by 1985 and the Shahbano case, but not on caste. Queer politics entered with the case of the two Dalit police women in MP who got married in 1987. But it did not occur to anyone at the time that they were Dalit – it was their lesbian identity that took centre-stage.

Ambedkar’s proposition of inter-caste marriages as a strategy for annihilation of caste cannot succeed because it perpetuates the institution of marriage and the reproduction of property. Neither women’s movements and Dalit movements have challenged marriage. Sandhya emphasised the need to interrogate the linkages between marriage, capitalism, patriarchy and caste through a feminist lens.

Sandhya pointed out that capitalism and patriarchy are both rooted in marriage – this is the platform on which all movements should come together. She saw FAOW’s intervention in the UCC debates in 1995 as part of their challenge to the institutions of family/marriage – they refused the idea of a Common Civil Code and demanded gender just laws, going outside the box of hetero-normative marriage and family to rights of all, and demanding that the state should recognise and support rights of women who walk out of marriages.

The ban on dance bar women in Bombay in 2005 marked another important moment in their history. 70,000 bar dancers were thrown on the streets as they found from the FAOW survey and conversations with 800 women. FAOW worked with the bar dancers’ union to challenge the ban in court. The Supreme Court overturned the ban in 2013, but women were not compensated. Rather, they were criminalised and labelled as “bad women”. They were thrown on the streets because people refused to rent houses to them.

According to the FAOW survey, 62% of the bar dancers interviewed were from migrant and nomadic groups, who are traditional entertainer communities, Dalit or lower caste, but others were from various other castes. Feminists failed to see the dance bar ban as an instance of caste discrimination, creating a rift with Dalit women who felt it was perpetuating caste oppression. It is important to recall here that Ambedkar opposed these professions but did not call for a ban. Our strategy can’t be either/or – we have to oppose the ban to protect women from violence, and workers’ rights are as important as protection. The struggle against caste-based sexual exploitation cannot deny the working rights of women. We could have gone further if dalit groups and feminist groups had allied.

The opposition to the beef ban can transform into a fight against caste if women, Dalits and Muslims come together to challenge it unitedly. Similar possibilities can be found in building alliances between women, Dalits and Muslims around the demand for anti-discrimination laws, and joint actions by women’s movements, Dalit movements and Muslim women’s groups on the issue of violence against sex workers.

Rajni intervened briefly to point out that there could be different interpretations of these questions, with corresponding implications for alliance building an consensus-building. Dalit feminist perspectives must be adequately and accurately represented in these dialogues.

4. Jyoti Jagtap, Kabir Kala Manch, Pune

Jyoti started with a tongue-in-cheek salutation:

“Aadha aakash cheenne ke larai mein jo saathi hain unko salaam – jo hamare hisse ke aakash ko is samay pakde hain unko bhi salam.”

(“I greet those who are our comrades in the fight to claim half the sky – and I also greet those who are still hanging on to our share of the sky.”)

Jyoti spoke about the kind of work she does as a cultural activist with Kabir Kala Manch, with a focus on songs and literature as vehicles of both oppression and liberation. Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar highlighted contradictions in Hinduism. Mahatma Phule and “powada” counter cultures, provided cultural symbols that could bring non-Brahmin communities together, in the same way that songs about Shivaji gave identity and pride to brahmins and upper castes. Ambedkar gave a detailed analysis of how Hinduism has institutionalised patriarchy, with critiques of Ramayana and Mahabharata, so Rama’s treatment of Sita was exposed as a classic expression of patriarchal oppression. Many local stories derived from the Ramayana are accepted by Dalits also. She gave the example of Rave village which claims to be the place where Sita gave birth to her children and was refused the atta she asked for, after which Sita cursed the village that they would never be able to grow wheat – until recently, this village never even tried to grow wheat. The proliferation of religious serials on TV, as vehicles for promoting Hindu ideology, can be challenged as a violation of the Constitution since they promote both patriarchy and religious divisions.

If we want to bring true democracy we have to challenge this flawed/fraud democracy, the idea that the fascist state is the “giver” of democracy, it is ridiculous to demand democracy from an antidemocratic state. Babasaheb’s demand for education for Dalits, job quotas have not worked because Dalits have been kept out of higher education. Left opposition to privatisation of education is on the grounds that it will exacerbate class hierarchies, but we have to recognise that privatisation is also reifying the caste system, keeping dalits out since it is beyond their means. A united demand for equality and reform of education can be a platform for alliances between feminists, Dalit groups, Left groups. Dalit women are helpless without education – forced to stay in violent families. Dalit feminists must lead the movement against privatisation of education. They have to control institutions of knowledge creation – it is the only platform for liberation, not economic liberation as the left thinks is the case.

It is true that Dalits also cling to their own caste organisations because they see this as the only protection in a hostile environment. Women who challenge oppression are branded as “bad characters”; paid work is seen as a label of bad women. Ambedkar’s demands for the Hindu Code Bill remain unfulfilled – we need to make these the basis of our struggles, involving radical proposals that challenge marriage. We should not allow the state to abdicate responsibility, eg in divorce – not giving any support for women to leave marriages.

On the subject of reservations, she said that Leftists opposed caste-quotas within women’s quota in the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament. We need Dalit quotas within women’s organisations also. We have to support the leadership of Dalit women, Dalit women have a much more aggresssive fighting spirit against patriarchy and the caste system than non-Dalit women.


In the discussion following these presentations, Sujata Parmita commented that in her study of the bar girls in Bombay, those who were not from traditional castes like the Bedias were Muslims and Dalits. Sonal Sharma wanted more information on the kinds of alliances and intersections that have been possible in recent times and wondered whether any parallels could be drawn from black and ‘white’ feminist struggles in the US. Sujata Surepally responded by saying that she had started a magazine in Telugu to deal centrally with class and caste issues but did not get any contributors! She felt there has been a lot of tokenism though the last one year has seen some positive discussions.

Speaking as the moderator, Rajni said that this session set the stage for the seminar. The experiencs of the Left movements, Telengana movement are illustrative of the failure to address the structural roots of both caste and patriarchy. The presentations have highlighted how we practice and strengthen exploitation in our daily practices and lives. Interpetations of Ambedkar’s view on marriage needs more study and analysis. She thanked the speakers for inspiring us to make a new start and come together across historical barriers in the cause of a common goal.

Kiran reflected on historical trends in struggles and mobilisations against caste, class and patriarchy. Both concepts and practices have been enriched from experience and are bridges for potential alliances. This is a continuing process. At the same time we should recognise our own limitations in the face of the structural challenges that we are confronted with.

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