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Reading Dalit Women: Memories of Rural Lives in Maharashtra

 Reading Dalit Women: Memories of Rural Lives in Maharashtra Karin Kapadia At almost 400 pages of dense text, Sharmila Rege


Rege’s book provides important insights

Reading Dalit Women: Memories

of Rural Lives in Maharashtra
into the beleaguered lives of these women. Her method is to summarise parts of each autobiography, presenting them in her own words, with translated extracts from the Marathi originals. The book is pref-Karin Kapadia aced by Rege’s long introduction on the

t almost 400 pages of dense text, Sharmila Rege’s book is pretty daunting, yet it is an important and rewarding read for all those interested in dalits, in women or simply in the complexities of contemporary India. Most of the book consists of the autobiographical narratives of eight dalit Marathi women – including the well known activist Kumud Pawde. Given that the oldest author was born in 1919 and the youngest in 1970 the book constitutes a dalit oral history as well. The particular value of Rege’s book is that these remarkable dalit Marathi autobiographies have not been translated before – they are translated here by Maya Pandit and also by Rege. The eight narratives vary considerably but all are gripping, powerful and deeply troubling because of the enormous sufferings endured by these women, and other women in their communities. Certainly dalit men suffer too, in these accounts, but it is always women who bear the brunt of abject poverty, painful hunger and the bitter humiliations of caste-based discrimination.

What emerges, unfortunately, from these accounts is the fact that the most cruel and inhuman treatment these women faced was that meted out by their

Economic & Political Weekly december 15, 2007

Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios by Sharmila Rege; Zubaan, New Delhi, 2006; pp xvi+388, Rs 495.

own dalit men. This points to an extremely uncomfortable fact that is usually ignored in academic discussions of the situation of dalits. I hasten to add that this fact needs to be seen within its wider Indian context – the subordination of women within family and community continues to be a tolerated and accepted fact of life in most Indian communities even today, with the exploitation of women (in varying degrees and taking many forms) being widespread across all classes, castes and religions. So what we see in these dalit women’s narratives has to be viewed against the very dismal wider context of women’s continued second class citizenship in contemporary India. I emphasise this aspect of intra-dalit gender relations because it is not an aspect that Rege chooses to linger on in her introduction. Yet, though Rege clearly wishes us to focus instead on the remarkable achievements of these brave women, who survived despite impossible odds, the huge importance of dalit gender relations in these narratives cannot be ignored.

“consumption” of dalit autobiographies. But this introductory chapter hardly touches on the narratives themselves. The reader is therefore left with a rather sharp disjunction between the introduction and the minutiae of descriptive detail that overwhelm her in the eight accounts. The book would have worked better if Rege had provided far more editorial explanation and comment throughout each autobiography to guide us through the unfamiliar contexts they describe. This would have greatly facilitated our reading of these narratives.

Rege’s introduction, which runs to almost a quarter of the book, is interesting, helpful and wide-ranging. However I would question one of her central assumptions in this discussion. This is her view that “Satyashodak, non-brahman and Ambedkarite counterpublics” exist today (p 31) and that the reader must necessarily “use the context of…the Satyashodak, non-brahman and dalit movement in Maharashtra” to interpret or “translate” the eight texts (p 77). I query this central assumption, because it is surely mistaken to assume that mainstream “non-brahman” interests in Maharashtra have been identical with “dalit” interests in the period in question (roughly 1919 to 2000). Such


an assumption, I suggest, is mistaken, not merely because recent history has shown us how wide the political gap is between non-brahmins and dalits in much of India (Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh provide striking instances in the last couple of years), but also because it is surely doubtful that the majority of non-brahmins identified with dalit interests at any point in the 20th century.

Competing Identities

Notions of caste and class identity have been too powerful for that. But I sympathise with Rege, and understand why she argues that it is lower caste/class unity – cutting across caste and sub-caste – that has been the motor of social progress in the past hundred years. Clearly such a putative political unity is going to provide the only way forward at the present time, when the polarisation of India into the rich and the poor is well under way. But – despite luminaries such as Phule and Ambedkar – dalit interests were never viewed as identical with those of the nondalit lower castes, either in the past or today – this is borne out by the sharp caste discrimination from non-brahmins detailed in the narratives themselves. A genuine “dalitbahujan” front – namely, the political unity of the lower caste and dalit “majority” of India’s population – though a beautiful ideal is still only a very distant dream.

Rege’s introduction is admirably forthright on the sensitive issue of the views on dalit women held by many upperclass/upper-caste feminists. Applauding V Geetha and Rajadurai’s critique of “some” “brahmanical” feminists who fail to recognise their own brahmanism, Rege observes, “The upper caste status of the feminist modern is thus signified as absence of caste in claiming to represent the ideal subject of feminist politics. Many feminists…often see their feminism as being unmarked by caste…” (p 51). Rege further emphasises that because many upper-class feminists do not recognise how upper-caste (“brahmanical”) their own cultural conditioning is, they do not realise how irrelevant much of their experience, analysis and theory is for dalit women. This is an important issue that needs emphasising even today. But it is an old story: 70 years ago, in 1938, the Marathi dalit women who attended the Nagpur conference of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) wrote back that they were deeply upset and affronted by “(the) Savarna sisters’ behaviour towards their untouchable sisters, (which) was distant, cold, mean and of lowly attitude” (p 55). During the lunch the dalit delegates “had been asked to sit aside and had felt humiliated” (p 55). The “need for a separate organisation of untouchable women” was felt and in 1942 a Dalit Mahila Federation was constituted (p 55).

Paradoxes of Subordination

While reading this book I was repeatedly astonished to note how different the lives of these Maharashtrian dalit women were from the Tamil dalit women whose rural lives I documented in the late 1980s. Whereas the impoverished dalit women I knew were confident, assertive and with a remarkably strong control of their own lives and their own sexuality, several of the Marathi autobiographies make it clear

december 15, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


that Marathi dalit women often survived only at the mercy of their husbands, who, despite extreme poverty, followed uppercaste notions of family “honour”. Thus we learn in Vimaltai’s autobiography that “Vimaltai’s mother and Vahini (her sisterin-law) were amazed (by the ‘understanding’ shown by Vimaltai’s activist husband) … and compared him to other men in the community who could kill their wives even if they just heard aspersions being cast on their character” (p 384). Vimaltai emphasises that women in her community were virtually the slaves of men, who could kill them at will, if male “honour” was – ostensibly – at stake. This is so distant from the Tamil dalit contexts that I documented as to be utterly inconceivable. On the one hand this raises a rather puzzling question: given that there is usually a close correlation between economic status and community norms, why did such “high-caste/class” notions of “honour” exist among these desperately poor people?

Women’s subordination is generally greatly mitigated among the very poor, largely because impoverished women in India have to be much more independent and mobile as breadwinners than betteoff women. Here editorial elucidation from Rege would have been very helpful to explain this paradox. On the other hand, the radical difference between Marathi and Tamil dalit cultural norms, even when the dalits in question are of the same class (the landless poor), makes it very clear that it is impossible to speak of universal, homogenised “dalit” cultural values. This suggests that it is equally impossible to speak of any universal, homogenised “dalit standpoint” as has been increasingly the case in feminist discussions, including those of Rege, who has argued that there is a “dalit feminist standpoint position”. The argument that all dalit women share a unified point of view may be intended to facilitate solidarity and unity among them. But however desirable such unified “standpoints” may be, they are not supported by the facts – either with regard to “women” in general or with regard to “dalit women”. Social reality rarely supports overarching theories, whether feminist, economic or political, because social reality is hugely diverse,

Economic & Political Weekly december 15, 2007

constantly in flux and full of disjunctions and discrepancies.

An Absent Solidarity?

Finally, Rege describes these autobiographies as “testimonios”, explaining her choice of this term as follows: “ … dalit life narratives are in fact testimonios, which forge a right to speak for and beyond the individual, and contest, explicitly or implicitly, the ‘official forgetting’ of histories of caste oppression, struggles and resistance” (p 13). This is entirely right, but her statement has broader implications. If an individual dalit writer can “speak for and beyond the individual”, displacing the bourgeois “I” with the collectivity of the dalit community, then, surely other writers of non-dalit origins can also contribute to the good cause and “fight the good fight” in solidarity with dalits, for an end to caste discrimination? In other words, surely one does not need to be born a dalit in order to speak and act against the inhuman brutalities of casteism? Not to speak for dalits, because that is to presume to represent those who can and should represent themselves, but to speak in support of, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, in human solidarity. As Rege, herself a non-dalit, admirably does in and through this important book.

Rege is concerned, quite rightly, not just with the human solidarity with dalits that we all need to demonstrate in our everyday lives, but also with the political solidarity that the various dalit castes themselves need to create between themselves and with the “bahujan” – other impoverished non-dalit lower castes. However, for dalit women, she points out, the first political step needs to be “(t)he assertion of autonomous dalit women’s organisations … (due to) the brahmanism of the feminist movement and the patriarchal practices of dalit (male) politics” (p 65; italics added). This is very true. Oddly, however, Rege refers to Gabriele Dietrich’s work (which is largely on Tamil dalits) when she briefly mentions “(t)he troubled relationship between the dalit movement and the women’s movement” (p 68). Why is there no reference here to critiques made within the Maharashtrian context of this “troubled relationship”? Surely they must exist? And

– I have to add – there is no “the dalit movement” either in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere in India – instead there are a number of disparate and (sadly) often antagonistic dalit movements, singularly lacking in political solidarity.

It is a tribute to the richness of Rege’s analytical discussion in her introduction and to the powerful evocations of the dalit life-worlds that her eight authors open up to our view, that it has been possible to raise these broader debates in this brief review.


Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum


We are organising a conference titled ‘Employment Opportunities and Public Employment Policy in Globalising India’ during March 24-25, 2008. The objectives are to analyse employment situation in the post-liberalised Indian Economy and also to discuss public employment policy initiatives with special emphasis on National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005. We invite papers covering the various issues related to unemployment during the post-reform period. We particularly welcome papers on the themes: (a) Growth and Employment in Globalizing India: An Assessment; (b) Public Employment Policy in India in Historical Perspective; (c) Design and Implementation of NREGA: Macro and Spatial Dimension;

(d) Specific State Level Experience of NREGA; and (e) Improving the Design and Effectiveness of NREGA.

The Scholars interested to present papers should send a detailed abstract by January 31, 2008 by e-mail or by post to the Conference Coordinator. Final copies of accepted papers should be submitted by March 1, 2008. Young scholars are particularly encouraged to apply. CDS will cover the cost of travel and local hospitality.

For details, please contact the Coordinator, Dr Pinaki Chakraborty, Associate Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Prasanth Nagar, Uloor, Thiruvananthapuram 695011, Kerala. Phone: 0471-2448881/2/3 – Fax: 0471-2447137 – Email:

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