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Tribute to a Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Welder

Sharmila Rege (1964-2013)

Sociologist, feminist scholar, writer and activist Sharmila Rege was successful in bringing the structural violence of caste and its linkages with sexuality and labour into the feminist discourse. She made the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women's Studies Centre of Pune University into a vibrant hub which not only gained from other disciplines but also created a bilingual system of teaching and training along with a unique syllabus that deserves to be emulated widely.

We are unable yet to come to terms with the untimely passing of our dear friend Sharmila Rege. Her many lives included being a member of the advisory group for the Review of Women’s Studies (RWS) of the Economic & Political Weekly. Indeed, one of her last public offerings was to have made possible the most recent RWS on Caste and Gender (4 May 2013). This collection of essays brings together some of Sharmila’s abiding interests – the structural violence of caste and its linkages with sexuality and labour. The questions posed in the brief introduction are the questions the corpus of Sharmila’s oeuvre leaves us with – and without – any immediate answers: How may we imagine the transformatory role of the dalit feminist perspective? How will (or should) mainstream Indian feminism respond to this fundamental challenge? How do we deepen the debate on intersectionality and move forward to build solidarities? Sharmila was deeply concerned and troubled by the multiple, often divisive, political imperatives flowing from the developments of the 1990s. Her academic and activist engagements called repeatedly for re-thinking and new imaginations, plural and multi-vocal conversations, debate, argument and creative differences.

In the United States (US), an edited volume titled This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (published in 1983) was part of a transformative moment in the US women’s movement’s relationship to the politics of race and colour, one of the most divisive issues of the time. It is the image of the “bridge” evoked by its editors Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (pioneering feminists who also died much too soon) that applies so perfectly to Sharmila and her work. Sharmila was a bridge in every way conceivable – in her writing, her teaching and her activism. Bridges are needed precisely because we are separated from each other, and can only be joined when we recognise and acknowledge the presence of disagreement if not antagonism. Sharmila’s work on caste and gender took the form of a series of dialogues – between movements, and between women, divided by their caste location and experiences. This was already in evidence in her classic essay on a dalit feminist standpoint, which offered one diagnosis of what ailed the Indian women’s movement.

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