CHENNAI: Sure, there are several indicators of women’s development. If you were to visit the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, you’ll find many women working on international research projects. You see this and think there’s been some growth. Yet, some 50 kilometres away, you’ll find that the practice of witch-hunting is still prevalent. A widow would be branded as the witch so that the villagers could take away her property. Go farther, a Dalit woman would be raped for the very reason that she is Dalit and paraded around naked.”
That is journalist Narmada Devi Casteless paraphrasing Atish Dabholkar, director of Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (Italy) and nephew of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, as she sets off the panel discussion on the intersectionality of gender and caste-based violence — a part of Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence. “This is a spectrum; on one end, you have women from the privileged section and, on the other, there are women who face community and caste-based oppression in addition to gender-based oppression. If we — be it media, NGOs working in the domain, Periyarists and Ambekarists and others — don’t clearly understand this spectrum, there’s no room for women’s empowerment,” she offers.
At this point in the history of feminism, one might think that there’s enough understanding about this intersectionality that writes its own course. Then again, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have had people questioning the mention of caste dynamics in cases like the one we had in Hathras; not to mention the need for the numerous explainers or this panel discussion.
Every once in a while, when the numerous statistics and crime reports don’t work, women have a simple means of expressing to the men in their lives, the sheer magnitude of the violence their gender faces: “Every single woman I know has been subjected to gender violence, often more than once.” A panelist for this discussion, writer Shalin Maria Lawrence picks up this reference, but with a little addition to it. “I’m sure all of us in this panel have experienced gender-based violence. And almost all of us have faced gender and caste-based violence. This, even when all of us have achieved something in our line of work or hit those milestones; there’s no end to the caste-gender violence they face. What casteist slurs I had coming my way when I was 10 years old continue to come my way even when I’m 37 and with two books to my name,” she details, pointing out that there’s a pattern when it comes to violence against Dalit-Bahujan women and it spills over into every aspect of how it’s handled or addressed.
Priyadharsini, journalist, filmmaker and founder of The Blue Club, offered the term ‘systemic’ to add to this line of discussion. “Muraipaduthapattathu. That’s why this needs more attention. Take any rape of a Dalit woman or Rohit Vemula issue or the evictions (slum clearance) in Chennai, they are all ongoing issues. We live in a country where every minute so many Dalit men are attacked or the women raped. Yet, only one or two cases get media attention. For, 71 per cent of people in Indian media are upper caste men; it’s not even upper-caste women. Even this 71 per cent is made up of people from just a few castes and is not a representation of all upper castes. This means we only get to see the viewpoints of those from very few dominant castes,” she reasons. She too picks up the ‘every woman in my life’ scale but goes the other way with it to illustrate her point. She has never met a fellow Dalit woman in media.
To show how this affects the way news is reported, she offers a case study. “If you take the Hathras issue, the victim’s family had trouble with the dominant caste started in 2012. While the Dalits had been reaching out to the police to file complaints since then, there had been no action. That is why we only ever got to know about this issue in 2020. So, what were the police or judge or any of the authorities doing to address this? This is why we have to talk about Dalit-Bahujan women separately. For, in the first Hathras rape case, when the parents took it up with the police, they were told that the case cannot be registered under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. There’s only one thing to note here: it’s the Thakurs and Rajputs who are the dominant castes in that area and 90 per cent of the police force is people from these castes. This is true of all states. From the police station to the chief justice, it is the men from the locally dominant caste who hold the positions of power. When this is the situation, a Dalit woman’s rape must be seen through this ‘systemic’ lens only,” she explains.
Adding to this discourse, Priya of People’s Watch puts forth a reminder that gender violence against Dalit women should not be seen superficially. It is not just about a Dalit woman pitted against a dominant caste man; he has his community, the government and politicians backing him up. “Oru periya kootu sathi aaga dhan Dalit pengal meethana vanmurai nadakirathu. While some issues reach the public sphere, thanks to media attention and protests, many many more remain unearthed. Meanwhile, be it in our families, schools and colleges, workplaces or political parties, equality for women is still questionable,” she points out.
As much as the constitution guarantees equality, true implementation can only be made possible through political representation, she offers, but follows it by saying even here, representation is only namesake. “The 33 per cent reservation for women in politics still remains only on paper. In the Assembly Elections of 2016, of the 234 constituencies (46 of them are reserved segments) in the state, only 21 elected a woman MLA. Only 8 of them are Dalit. For the elections, top parties like AIADMK only fielded 29 women for the race, while the DMK had only 18. While the local elections have 50 per cent reservation, Dalit women who do get elected are only seen as Dalits and not as the panchayat leader or people’s representative. Their authority is questioned at every turn,” she details. The New Indian Express illustrated the mistreatment and abuse that Dalit women panchayat leaders face — not being allowed to hoist the national flag, sit in chairs, preside over meetings, use their office space or even sign off on documents — in a detailed report titled Pride and Prejudice on September 20. “Meanwhile, crimes against Dalit men and women have only been increasing. Even as we fight for equality, we continue to live in such violent conditions,” she adds.
From the grand scale of decision making, poet Sukirtha Rani brings it back to the problems of everyday life. Be it access to the water pot in the school or using the common road to reach the segregated cemetery, caste-based violence permeates every aspect of life. So much so, that ‘common’ no longer means as much, given that Dalits are deprived of it, she notes. While we speak about the eradication of caste, there’s the need to look further at the root cause, she suggests. “Where does caste come from? Dr Ambedkar put it beautifully that caste is a manifestation of religion. So religion gives rise to caste, and caste forms the basis for patriarchy and female oppression. It is not enough to just look at caste eradication to put a stop to violence against Dalits. It wouldn’t do to only talk about ending patriarchy to allow women’s empowerment. We have to look at the root of the problem. When it comes to India, Hinduism is the most prevalent religion. So, we cannot address caste violence or patriarchy without talking about the religion itself. Yet, how many people fighting caste discrimnation have questioned Sanatana Dharma? It’s only Dalit organisations and rationalist movements that do so,” she says.
While Priyadharsini talked about representation within media organisations, Sukirtha Rani takes it to much bigger terms. Arguing that women’s history and culture were drawn up by men, she suggests that there is a need to shed this singular identity that has been thrust upon them. “There’s the axiom: pennukkum mannukkagavum sandai nadanthathu. As much the land is a property, women too were seen as things to be owned. Yet, this is touted with such pride. Kalacharam stipulates the qualities of a woman, but there’s no equivalent for men. In that case, how would it be something that offers justice for women? So, history has to be rewritten for women; the term kalacharam must be removed from that history. Women should revisit and reevaluate the history they have been fed. Only when there is an understanding of the self, there is self-expression and the need to find freedom,” she emphasises.
Yet, it seems to be difficult enough to rewrite contemporary times. Poet and journalist Kavin Malar shares a particular feedback she received while trying to publish a poem titled Vanpunar (violent). Its last line goes: ini nee vallaangu seyya cheri vaazh pengal evarum ilar (there are no more cheri women for you to violate). She was asked if the words ‘cheri vaazh’ could be removed. “The poem is, generally, about violence against women; why do you only want to mention cheri vaazh women? Why can’t the poem fit everyone? I, then, told them that every ‘incident’ illustrated in the poem is from true crimes against Dalit women and that was the very reason why I wrote it. It eventually went with the line intact in a local magazine. Keeping the line is not going to make much of a difference to them; yet, there was that insistence on changing it. That seems to be the mentality across media,” she suggests. Writing an analysis about women in Pa Ranjith’s movie, she was criticised for making it too “communal”. Not that there have not been similar analyses of movies and characters by Savarna men and women. A series of essays on BJP’s links to specific rape/violence against women cases for a women’s magazine got her remark that it was “being politicised”.
Even the online harassment she has faced has been markedly different from what is generally directed at Savarna women, she adds. “Fifteen years ago, to get a quote for a story, journalists only went to Brahmins. In this many years, this has changed a lot. Many people of the intermediate castes have come in and Dalits find a minuscule representation. The change in power dynamics did not go down well and there are Brahmins still in the industry who try to recover the lost power and pride. In print media, it is rare for women to head a magazine that is not a women’s magazine. As far as I know, it was Dr Jeyarani Kamaraj who did it first (here) with Puthiya Vaazhviyal. Yet, when she herself had just entered the industry as a news reporter, she was subjected to all the prejudice,” she recounts. This leaves room for appropriation too, she says, narrating the time when she witnessed a Brahmin woman volunteering to be the editor of a Dalit political party’s women’s magazine.
Vincent Raj aka Evidence Kathir offers that representation is further made difficult due to the lack of accurate information and statistics, and skewed justice system. Even the NCRB data only provides numbers based on FIRs filed. This, when Amnesty International finds that only 20 per cent of rape cases are actually reported. Past this inaccuracy, data on crimes against Dalit women is even more sketchy, he says. “After the Nirbhaya case, the new law was framed after getting affidavits from 80,000. Yet, there was barely any public reaction or outcry with Ariyalur Nandhini’s case or when Rajalakshmi was decapitated. The criminal justice system has a big place for casteism. Not just the victims, caste plays a role in the perpetrator too. Swathi’s assailant was found to be a Dalit man and justice was swiftly delivered. In Nandhini’s case, it was two Hindutva gangs.
The judgement for Bilkis Banu case of 2002 and Nirbhaya case of 2012 were both delivered in 2017, one day after another. In the former, after a brutal rape and the murder of 17 people, the RSS-Hindutva perpetrators got life sentences. For the Nirbhaya case, it was a death sentence. This way, on the national level, Muslims are targeted, while it is Dalits in the state level,” he details. Not stopping with discussing violence, he questions the access to resources and leadership representation in the democracy too has to be brought to question. How many Dalit women own land? “As much as we talk about human rights violation, we do not talk about denial of rights. Criminal justice is just a component; talking about it too is a means to keep us from talking about economic or political justice,” he offers.
Prajnya’s Sudaroli, who championed the panel discussion, reveals that it took her two years to bring out her dream session in such terms. Sure enough, it was a dream panel — one that can henceforth be used to show the world that representation can be done right. Yet, like Shalin notes, this is not something that the rest of the world is not aware of; it is only that it continues to ignore or actively deny. Perhaps, it’ll take a lot more than two years to bring the larger dream to life.
All for one
Two journalists, one poet, one writer, one lawyer and a human rights activist — all of them from the Dalit-Bahujan community and five of the six, women. The discussion was put together and facilitated by women too. This one panel has done much for representation than so many fighting for the same.