Gender & Caste is a significant contribution to the ongoing efforts at understanding the imbrications of caste related issues with other political concerns. It represents the first attempt at bringing together essays that are exploring the critical interconnections between caste and gender. And precisely for that reason it is striking that this anthology on caste is the first in the series “Issues in Contemporary Indian Feminism” edited by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and published by Kali for Women in association with the Book Review Literary Trust, New Delhi. Emphasizing the contemporary importance of the subject, the editor Anupama Rao notes in her introduction to the book that the dalit understanding of feminism carries with it a potential to reframe the “mainstream” understanding of feminism. According to her, “Dalitbahujan feminists have gone further than merely arguing that Indian feminism is incomplete and exclusive. Rather they are suggesting that we rethink the genealogy of Indian feminism in order to engage meaningfully with dalit women’s “difference” from the ideal subjects of feminist politics” (p.2)
The 24 essays collected into the book are ones that have appeared in print earlier either as responses to certain incidents, or as pamphlets, newspaper articles, theoretical explorations, book reviews, as argument strands within anthologies or monographs. These are grouped into five themes: ‘Dalit Women, Difference and Dalit Women’s Movements,’ ‘Voice, Literature,’ ‘History and Anthropology,’ ‘Violence and Sexuality’ and ‘Land & Labour.’ Read together these essays provide an insight both into the historical process as well as the present provocations by which the dalit woman has become a recognizable political identity. To my mind this is the most important function of the book. As noteworthy is the fact that the anthology includes essays which while retaining the focus on the dalit woman, pay attention to the positioning of the upper caste women in the larger societal structures of patriarchy and the caste system. The introductory essay as well as the ones by Susie Tharu, Sharmila Rege and Uma Chakravarti for instance explore the different implications that space, desire, politics and reforms have for the upper caste women on the one hand and for the dalit women on the other. These studies are significant in a context in which “caste” is usually understood as lower caste. Such an equation has the effect of ignoring the simultaneously differentiated and connected nature of the social and political space occupied by women of the upper and lower castes. Other essays, such as by Gabriele Dietrich, Bela Malik, Pranjali Bandhu, Gail Omvedt and Pratima Pardeshi, convey a sense of the serious and engaged conversation about feminism between upper caste and dalit women.
What is striking about the book is also that the essays emerge from different disciplinary formations such as Political Science, History, Literature, Sociology and Anthropology. In fact in the articulation of the issue of caste, these essays also contribute to the interrogation of assumptions that are fundamental to the disciplines from which they emerge. This is most evident in the contributions made by Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar, Kancha Ilaiah, M.S.S.Pandian, Mary John and Anupama Rao. In fact, the range of disciplines covered by the anthology is also a rich indicator of both the critical importance of the subject matter addressed as also the impact of the dalit movement. Clearly, in the post Mandal period, the examination of the caste question has moved well beyond sociological studies, where caste and caste practices figured predominantly but were devoid of critical affirmative politics. The select bibliography at the end of the book (which is a part of the design of the series) is very useful and this too provides an indication of the inter-disciplinary nature of caste studies. The rich collection of essays in this anthology by intellectual-activists who have been grappling with questions of caste and gender does address a range of issues. However, the anthology also leaves the reader asking for much more. Admittedly the present mode of focusing on the caste question has a relatively short history when compared to say the articulation of the “women’s question”. Caste debates acquired a new political life and energy in the post-Mandal period. The gap in time therefore between the astute and radical critique of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the present is telling in many ways. In itself it is an indicator of the dynamics of caste that in the post-Independence period. Ambedkar’s insights were not stitched into the consolidation of our theoretical frameworks, whether of caste or of the myriad political questions that he himself addressed and which continue to be relevant in our time. In our re-engagement with Ambedkar in the academic realm today, it seems as though our analyses haven’t moved substantially beyond his. For instance, even as we attest to Ambedkar’s theory of inter-caste marriages as a means of breaking the hold of the caste system, we have not engaged with the contemporary and complex debates about inter-caste marriages where the predominant trend points to upper caste women marrying dalit men with inter-caste marriages the other way around being few and far between. What does this pattern signify for dalit women and what insights does it provide about caste and gender?
One of the most important dimensions of the dalit struggle has been in relation to education. This is evident in the efforts of Phule as well as Ambedkar. The more recent Mandal agitation too revolved around the meaning of education and the right of backward caste groups to education. Given the importance of this subject, the absence of any critical thinking in the anthology on the contemporary nature (in terms of access and content) of education for women from different castes is glaring.
In fact, a close look at the selections in the anthology reveals that there is no essay that engages with the socio-political and economic scenario of say the last five years. Therefore, there is no piece on the effect of different state and NGO sponsored development programmes on the lives of the dalit and backward caste women. What in fact is the impact of these programmes for dalit and caste politics itself? What does the process of marketization by sidestepping issues of land reforms (that would benefit dalit women directly) imply? But more surprising than the absence of these kinds of pieces is the non-inclusion in the anthology of any essay that engages with the recent and ongoing debate on providing 33% reservations for women in legislative bodies. One would assume that this discussion is directly about gender and caste. It is of course not a debate about reservations for SC / ST women. But to omit discussion on as contemporary and relevant a subject as the women’s reservations debate is to fold back the definition of caste once again into dalit and to limit the kind of much needed exploration about the interconnection between caste (upper and lower) and gender itself.
Another aspect of the book which one is struck by is that the studies that focus on particular locations are in the main from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. S.Anandhi, V.Geetha, Uma Chakravarti, Vasanth Kannabiran and Kalpana Kannabiran, Kancha Ilaiah and P.Sainath provide nuanced accounts and analyses that emerge from the specific contexts of these three states. This kind of specificity enables attention to the details of the issue in terms of the caste and political configuration specific to the region. This is an extremely significant factor because while the lower castes, especially the dalits, are at the receiving end through out the country, the caste group that dominates varies from region to region. This in itself often becomes an important factor in understanding the caste dynamics of the region and the nature of alignments that are formed. The fact that the anthology restricts itself to three states in the main does become a limitation especially in a context in which the region itself has become a political category.
Obviously, the issues are aplenty and no single anthology can exhaustively cover them.
Gender and Caste does make an effort and is therefore important. But given the complexity of the task involved in this book as well as in the entire series itself, one cannot but be intrigued by the framing that the series note provides to the book. It states that “[T]he editors of the individual volumes are experts in their areas.” Apart from the fact that a large part of the feminist enterprise was to question and undermine the notion of expertise, one wonders about the possibility of having experts in fields that are so richly fragmented and contested. More importantly, there are, as the introduction to the book notes, “divergent stakes of women’s relationships to feminism.” Gender &Caste seeks to map some of these.
Rekha Pappu is Coordinator of Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad.