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‘New’ Dalit Women and Their ‘Improper’ Politics

Shailaja Paik ( teaches at the University of Cincinnati, United States.

Dalit Women: Vanguard of an Alternative Politics in India edited by S Anandhi and Karin Kapadia, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017; pp xviii + 350, ₹995.

Scholarly attention on the marginalised histories of Dalit communities in India has been steadily growing, especially since the turbulent contestations over the Mandal Commission report in the 1990s. These investigations have also inadvertently concentrated almost exclusively on Dalit men. Only very recently, however, have scholars begun to provide a corrective, and produced books devoted to the understanding of the internal dynamics of gender inequalities within Dalit communities in different regions of India. I have argued elsewhere that centring attention on the twice Dalit—“Dalit women”—allows for the most inclusive and productive politics, and developing new feminist frameworks and critiques of power structures (Paik 2014a: 75, 2014b). In a similar vein, the essays in this volume focus on particular ethnographic evidences in rural and urban Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh (UP) to illustrate the varied ways in which different Dalit women are oppressed and how they simultaneously resist, build solidarities, face challenges and engage in negotiations with patriarchy, engendering an alternative politics. Most significantly, the authors illuminate the complexities of Dalit women’s subjectivities and agentic capacities, while analysing the role of class politics, sub-caste discrimination, constitution of honour, creation of new Dalit cultures and communities, and “burgeoning proto-feminist politics” (p 30).

The editors of this volume, S Anandhi and Karin Kapadia, bravely “ask (the reader) to rethink” the ways in which different Dalit women are exploited because of their “caste, class, gender, and religion” and “subjected to multiple, interconnecting oppressions” (p 3). The volume makes significant contributions revealing: (i) how Dalits challenge the “naturalisation of caste differences” (p 17); (ii) how urban upwardly mobile Dalit men readily adopt urban values, assert patriarchal authority, and reinforce chastity and new norms of “respectability;” (iii) how Dalit women challenge “neo-patriarchy” and mobilise more widely; (iv) how upward mobility also enables urban petit bourgeois Dalit women’s alternative politics and “innovate[ve] novel ways of being women” (p 25); (v) how Dalit women seek emotional support in women’s prayer groups, for example in Pentecostal Christianity, which radically transforms their “agentive suffering” (p 29) into a political act “and use their difficulties creatively” (p 30). This, the editors agree, is “the first step towards a more radical political consciousness” (p 30).

Dalits and ‘Sanskritisation’

The volume begins with a foreword by the Dalit Studies intellectual, Anand Teltumbde, who discusses the “male-centric evolution of the Dalit movement across India” (p 56) and the “complicity of the state in perpetuat[ing] caste atrocities” (p 63). He points out the oppression of Dalit women by upper castes as well as Dalit men, which feminist scholars have already analysed and theorised. Thus, and unfortunately, by overlooking earlier scholarship and arguing against the ethnographic evidence of an “alternative politics” provided by scholars in the volume, Teltumbde asserts in a sweeping manner that “Dalits could not break away from the dominant caste culture and could not create an alternate paradigm that was different from that of hegemonic Hindu culture. As a result, the status of their women has remained unchanged within their castes, afflicted by the patriarchal mores of the Hindus” (p 54, emphasis added). Teltumbde is unable to recognise the changing tide of history that has brought out Dalit women and men from the darkness of prehistory into light. He does not provide us evidence to support his claims and neglects the radical history of Dalit women, men, and their movements in different parts of India over the last century as well as the “improper” politics emphasised in the volume itself.

Teltumbde argues that, “even after the advent of Babasaheb Ambedkar, there were no women to be seen in either of the two Mahad conferences (of 19–20 March and 25–27 December 1927)” (p 56, emphasis in original). Ironically, however, he contradicts himself in the following sentence when he notes the participation of Dalit women in the second Mahad Conference (p 56). He once again, unfortunately, ignores the wider historical context and the significant work of historians, including Eleanor Zelliot (2004), Anupama Rao (2009), and myself (Paik 2014b, 2016), as also sociologist Sharmila Rege (2006) among a few others who have already analysed the importance of the Mahad Conference for women. Rao (2009: 67–68) has underscored the onus “on Dalit women to reform themselves” and “resignify the gendered habitus” that was so “critical to Dalit self-fashioning.” Building on these works, I have provided evidence from vernacular Marathi newspapers that documented the Mahad Satyagraha to articulate a “new Dalit womanhood,” and I theorise Dalit women’s deployment of the “body politics” of wearing the full sari like that of the high-caste woman and jewellery for remaking the self and the community (Paik 2014b: 168–70). Instead of falling into the oft-repeated traps of interpreting such activity as “Sanskritisation” as Teltumbde’s approach suggests, I argue that

(By) adopting the style of upper-caste women, Dalit women contested and challenged Brahmani (Brahmanical) practices, selectively appropriated them, and made them Dalit. By featuring themselves as paragons of womanly virtue, they politically performed the “traditional,” normative sari to claim an Indian subjectivity. Such highly politicised body politics, thus constituted a rebellion. In order to constitute themselves anew, they intentionally desired forms of full dress that were previously a privilege afforded to upper-caste women alone. (Paik 2014b: 169)

We need to understand the deeper significance of Ambedkar’s politics of attire along similar lines. In adopting the Western-style suit and tie, he was not merely imitating the most powerful European man but making an embodied claim to political subjectivity. Yet, Teltumbde ignores how scholars have amply critiqued and departed from M N Srinivas’s (1952) “Sanskritisation” and Michael Moffatt’s (1979) “consensus” tropes to consistently examine the assertion of Dalits and Adivasis in different parts of India.

‘New’ Dalit Women

Historically, Dalit radicals have centred on the “remaking” of Dalit women and forging a new womanhood in colonial India (Paik 2014b, 2016). The essays in the volume focus on the triumphalist construction of Dalit women subjects in postcolonial India. They depart from the “victimisation model” to investigate the micropolitics and microprocesses of contestations and negotiations that transformed Dalit women. Attacking the scholarly representation of Dalit women as “victims” and “living untouchability,” Manuela Ciotti investigates “how Dalit women might turn their disadvantageous conditions into agentic practices and positive identities” (p 84) in the context of urban Chamar women of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Lucknow. To her, middle-classness was a key factor in shaping their political agency as well as their own formation of their “difference” (p 82). Unlike the other essays, however, the actual voices of BSP women are absent in Ciotti’s piece. Working on Dalit Chamar women of the Liberated Women’s Group (UP, Radhika Govinda argues that, “different Dalit women speak differently” (p 239).

There are thus crucial differences between urban, educated, middle-class, and aspiring to middle-class, and rural Dalit women labourers. While Ciotti’s BSP women reject the Dalit label, VMS women proudly embrace it (p 230). Also, unlike the BSP women activists who started out as “housewives” and joined the party after encouragement from their husbands, VMS women got involved “because they were poor” and they “needed jobs to support themselves and their children” (p 231). They questioned the organisation’s own caste politics against Dalit women (p 234). Unfortunately, Govinda neglects the works of scholars who have drawn upon the framework of intersectionality (Rege 2000 among others) and although she evokes it in the beginning of her essay, she does not integrate the framework with the evidence she analyses.

Ishita Mehrotra also focuses on rural Dalit women labourers in rural UP to show how “through the feminisation of unfree labour, Dalit women labourers are required to subsidise Dalit male labour and the new dignity of Dalit men and also facilitate male capitalist accumulation” (p 246). Dalit women “negotiate” and use the “weapons of the weak” to “work the system” rather than openly opposing it. They pose very limited challenge and their work continues to benefit Dalit men and male capitalist accumulation more generally (p 270).

Like Mehrotra, Anandhi focuses on a rural village albeit in Tamil Nadu. She examines the differences between women of two Dalit sub-castes: Adidravidar and Arunthathiyar in a Tamil Nadu village to demonstrate how an Adidravidar women’s collective resisted stigma, demanded equal rights to resources, and challenged the upper-caste patriarchy of the Naidus, as well as patriarchy within Dalit families. They also assisted Arunthathiyar women to struggle for land rights and protest against the Mathamma dedication practice. Their activism, thus, transcended caste, and “created a new politics of belonging” to “conduct politics differently from men” (p 120). One of her main findings resonates with that of Hugo Gorringe, Kapadia, and Clarinda Still who argue that upward social mobility has adversely affected the autonomy of Dalit women.

Both Gorringe and Still argue that Dalits have appropriated a “discourse of honor, propriety, and morality” (p 132) and “adopted honor-oriented upper-caste gender norms wholesale” (p 217). Gorringe’s chapter captures the ambivalence of the Liberation Panther Party, the largest Dalit party in Tamil Nadu of 1999 that is visible in other parts of India. When they became a political party, they created a women’s wing to articulate women’s concerns, but at the same time marginalised women. The main party of men neglected the concerns of Dalit women and often reduced them to the role of cooks and decorators (p 142). Dalit men also resort to “hyper-masculinity, valorise(ing) male physical strength” (p 146), rhetorically prioritising women for leadership roles (p 151), and reinforcing patriarchy.

In a similar vein, Still argues that attitudes vis-à-vis the modesty of women are in fact central to the patriarchal nature of “Indian’s new brand of modernity” (p 189). The upwardly mobile Madiga Dalits of rural Andhra Pradesh, she studies, are seeking honour and becoming more patriarchal. Due to the “trade-off” between empowerment and respect” (p 190), “Dalit practices are both diverging and conversing with those of the dominant castes” (p 196). “Dalits are not simply adopting “upper-caste values of honor,” they “are crafting an identity which is in opposition to the caste Hindus” (p 196), for example through beef-eating and drumming. To Still, this process however, is not “Sanskritisation” but “Dalitisation of patriarchy” as Dalits are “appropriating and converting the cultural currency of honor” (p 197). She argues that Dalit women lose autonomy, and divorce is becoming difficult for them (p 200).

Notwithstanding their sensitivity to the complexities of the present-day experiences of Dalit women, Still and Gorringe unfortunately miss the historical depth of this complexity by assuming that there is a single, bourgeois modernity. They do not explain how Dalits actually Dalitise patriarchy or transform upper-caste honourable practices. It seems that the patriarchal practices remain the same but agencies change. As I have shown in my work, we need to pay attention to Dalit “intentions” and “strategies” for building self-respect and dignity in specific historically contingent conjunctures (Paik 2014b).

Nathaniel Roberts examines “slum Christianity” (p 280) and the local content of Pentecostal discourse in a Dalit slum in northern Chennai to demonstrate how Dalit women creatively use their difficulties to bring about their own transformation. They turn “suffering” into an active experience (p 280) and in fact, radically change the conventional notions of caste discrimination by focusing on the “rescue” of the “unwanted” (p 289) poor “from the wicked and evil people,” or those “cast out like garbage” (p 290). They agree—unlike their Hindu neighbours—that “caste domination can and will be overcome” (p 299).

Similarly, Kapadia’s essay reveals how caste/race, gender, religion, and class constitute each other. She demonstrates how Pentecostal Christian Dalit women in Chennai “reject their former Dalit identity” (p 306) and create a new culture for the community, including their proto-feminism. Dalit women lead an “improper politics” and challenge their “own enforced identities as oppressed wives and despised Dalits” (p 329). Working on rural Tamil Nadu, Isabelle Guerin and Santosh Kumar reveal how caste, gender, and class biases operate between Dalit and non-Dalit women to understand how “solidarity, competition, and rivalry coexist” (p 158). Like the positive stories of other authors, they show that Dalit women resist; however, most importantly, they conclude that non-Dalits do not intend to challenge caste prejudice or “weaken their own dominant position” (p 182).

Standing with Dalit Women

The afterword by Uma Chakravarti aptly illuminates the problems between non-Dalit and Dalit women and men scholars and activists on attending to the centrality of caste, class, and gender in understanding the Indian social system. I agree with her that “the need of the hour is mutual understanding and the development of a framework for working together” as well as “the political choices we make, and how we shape the debates and activism” (p 347). Kapadia and Anandhi also concur with Chakravarti that “such a strong and vigorous Dalit women’s feminist politics would mean the beginning of the end of caste in India” (p 32). However, it is not “proper” politics to burden Dalit women alone with their responsibility of ending the practices and politics of caste and untouchability in India. To develop a new framework, we also need to investigate the role, perspective, histories, and politics of non-Dalits who have oppressed Dalits and consistently worked to solidify caste prejudice and discrimination. Aware of earlier problems, Anandhi and Kapadia correctly assert “right here and now we stand together with Dalit women in solidarity,” while pointing out the “multi-modal praxis of Dalit subaltern women that is challenging and transforming the conditions of their subalternity” (p 32). Such “proper” political practices and shared political visions will enable the creation of bonds between seemingly disparate groups (Paik 2014a).1

Significantly, the volume is a testimony to the ways in which non-Dalit female scholars have worked to examine the centrality of gender to caste and Dalit women’s anti-caste activism. As caste continues to trump gender, we see that the emphasis on caste violence subdues critiques of domestic violence. I appreciate the work of the male scholars—Roberts, Kumar, and Gorringe—in understanding the worlds that Dalit women inhabit. I must point out that of the nine chapters, six and a half have been the work of women. More work on these lines may not only make Dalits the subjects of non-Indian and upper-caste scholarship, but hopefully, also develop bonds of sentiment between different groups of women and men. The chapters focus on Tamil Nadu and UP—two states with significant histories of anti-caste radicalism. This calls for more work on other developed and underdeveloped states in India. We can hope that the continued scholarly and activist engagement with “alternative politics” may produce both Dalit and non-Dalit women leaders in future and alternative worlds.

I underscore that the Dalits’ contemporary micropolitics, inscription of honour, self-respect, hypermasculinity, and restriction of women, need to be understood within larger historical contexts, contingencies, and deep histories of assertion, strife against stigma, social and sexual humiliation of Dalit women, and emasculation of Dalit men over the centuries. Social scientists face limitations due to their primary concern with the contemporary period. Nonetheless, the volume contributes to Dalit women’s political practices that are actually reshaping the larger fields of South Asian Studies, India Studies, Dalit Studies, and Gender Studies because their perspectives are deeply democratic. Unlike non-Dalits, the Dalits work on practices of “neighborliness and communicated experience” (Paik 2016) and provide the most encompassing and empathetic perspective through, for example, Pentecostal Christianity as Roberts argues, praying for the “wellbeing of their [non-Dalit] neighbours” (p 287). Non-Dalits should be practising a similar dukkha (suffering) as in Buddhism and “social suffering” as Ambedkar would call it, work on a compassionate fellowship, reverence towards Dalits, and stand with them.


1 I have analysed and participated in such dialogues between Dalit and African–American women in the United States.


Moffatt, M (1979): An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Paik, Shailaja (2014a): “Building Bridges: Articulating Dalit and African-American Women’s Solidarity,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol 42, Nos 3–4, pp 74–96.

— (2014b): Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination, New York: Routledge.

(2016): “Forging a New Dalit Womanhood in Colonial Western India: Discourse on Modernity, Rights, Education, and Emancipation,” Journal of Women’s History, Vol 28, No 4, pp 14–40.

Rao, Anupama (2009): The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rege, Sharmila (2000): “‘Real Feminism’ and Dalit Women,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 35, No 6, pp 492–95.

— (2006): “Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios,” New Delhi: Zubaan.

Srinivas, M N (1952): Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zelliot, Eleanor (2004): Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement, New Delhi: Blumoon.

Updated On : 20th Jun, 2018


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