Women and caste

Print edition : July 05, 2019

A Jat demonstration demanding reservation for the community in New Delhi in May 2015. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, whose family members were killed in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra. A file photograph. Photo: Vivek Bendre

"Gendering Caste" examines the role of women in the perpetuation of caste and the need to go beyond the conventional dichotomy of purity and pollution.

THE study of caste in India has attracted much interest over the years for a number of reasons. Its capacity to renew itself in new and myriad forms and identities now preoccupies sociologists, historians and feminists, including members of the political class. New caste identities have emerged in the social, economic and, more importantly, political arena. The traditional forms of caste divisions still exist. But the emergence of numerically strong caste groups belonging mostly to the backward classes is creating a completely new discourse in social, economic and political terms.

In Gendering Caste, the feminist historian and academic Uma Chakravarti, who has had a close association with the women’s movement in India, examines the need to look at caste beyond the conventional dichotomy of purity and pollution. The book is part of a series titled “Theorising Feminism” published by Sage and edited by Maithreyi Krishnaraj. It looks specifically at how caste and gender work in extricable ways to reinforce patriarchy and perpetuate inequalities through the institutionalisation of roles designed for women, manifested in modern forms. Among the themes it deals with are the questions of how the Indian caste system views women and how women view the system of social stratification in contemporary India.

In the early 1990s, when it became clear that reservation for backward classes was going to be a reality, the uproar against it by the “forward castes”, especially in north India, was a sociological event in itself. The southern States, which had a well-entrenched system of affirmative action for backward classes and a long history of social reform movements, did not have a problem with reservation. Delhi, with its vast network of undergraduate colleges where young people from the north poured in for higher studies, was the epicentre of the anti-Mandal protests.

Uma Chakravarti begins with a narration of the protests. She had met girl students, presumably from upper-caste backgrounds, among the protesters who held placards that read “We don’t want unemployed husbands”. This appeared to her as a self-regulatory code that was a consequence of internalising the ideology of mandatory endogamous marriages. That marriages should take place within the caste and even the sub-caste is a fundamental ideological construct of the caste system.

The writer says ancient Brahmanical texts, which validate inequality in the name of tradition, continue to be held as sacred, apparently even by castes at the lower end of the spectrum. It is testimony to the social, economic and political power that the upper castes continue to wield. The policy of reservation, if anything, has been a drop in the ocean, she says.

Uma Chakravarti argues that the economic underpinnings of caste in the application of hierarchy and stratification remain relevant today. The traditional way of looking at caste “based on the irreconcilable opposition of purity and pollution”, an idea popularised by Louis Dumont, is “unmindful of the material dimensions of the caste system”. Caste is, and always was, a mechanism to justify the appropriation and control of material resources by certain groups who with the help of religious texts such as the Dharmashastras are able to convince the other groups of their innate superiority. Women are conduits in the process.

The role of marriage and its centrality in perpetuating and reinforcing the “assumed immortality of the male line”, the “vansa”, also needs to be looked at more critically, the writer says. If the productive power of the lower castes was appropriated, she writes, the “reproductive power” of women was controlled by the upper castes. Women were the “gateways”, the purveyors and the custodians of the hierarchy. As a living example of the “lived reality” and resilience of caste, Uma Chakravarti repeatedly refers to the words inscribed on the placard held by upper-caste girl students in Delhi University during the agitation against reservation.

The role of women as central to the perpetuation of caste has been ignored somewhat, she writes. Feminist historians and the women’s movement need to look at these aspects if caste has to be done away with in the real sense. A wide “sisterhood” is possible only if there is a better understanding of, for instance, how Dalit women perceive their oppression.

The writer draws attention to the use of violence in enforcing unequal relations and a stratified social structure as an intrinsic component of the caste system. She examines, too, the use of rape and violence against women for the subjugation of expressions of assertion among the “low born”. Gendering Caste looks at random examples of assertion and defiance cited in Hindu epics and Jain and Buddhist texts by the lower order castes and notes how such assertions were suppressed with violence. She also draws the readers’ attention to more contemporary forms of caste violence.

Brutal reprisal

Notwithstanding the pledge of equality enshrined in the Constitution, recourse to violence has also been increasing, especially as Dalits and others attempt to translate the promise of equality into substantive reality.

The Khairlanji incident, where a Maharashtra Dalit family was murdered, and the burning of Dalit homes at Mirchpur in Hisar, Haryana, show how even a little assertion of equality is met with brutal reprisal. Honour killings punishing inter-caste marriages in most cases involve unions between women from the upper castes and men from lower castes or backward classes. The reprisal is often violently directed at women who have supposedly transgressed tradition and thus compromised their role as “gatekeepers” of ritual and lineage.

The writer observes that Brahmanical patriarchy’s obsessive concern with controlling female sexuality in order to ensure the reproduction of pure blood, described as the earliest evidence of genetic engineering, has survived across all caste groups, high and low, and that changes in legal forms and liberal ideologies have not been able to break its hold. Tragically, lower castes, especially in northern India, also monitor female sexuality for purposes of exogamy without quite realising that these norms are derived from the very structures that oppress them in other ways.

Fear of reprisal is weaker in places with histories of affirmative action, strong social reform movements and political movements by the Left. The presence, growth and survival of the Left parties in a sense testify to their success in raising class issues and building solidarities beyond caste identities while also raising issues of caste oppression. The perception that one can only understand what caste oppression is if one belongs to an oppressed caste has often proved to be a limitation in organising the poor on class lines. While most caste-based organisations have men at the helm, it might be worthwhile to study how women perceive identity politics.

New matrix of ties

There has been a sea change in the nature of caste oppression. The increasing assertiveness of “socially backward castes” in both economic and political terms and their wooing by mainstream bourgeois political parties have created a completely new matrix of relations.

Earlier, there used to be silent scorn for those who sought admissions or got jobs under a “quota”. Today, not only is that scorn, by the so-called “meritorious” caste Hindus, more apparent, there is a persistent demand for inclusion in reserved categories by such groups. On the one hand there is increasing resistance to reservation in jobs and educational institutions in the name of “merit”. On the other hand, some socially and economically forward caste groups in north India have demanded either tribal status or recognition as “backward castes” in order to benefit from such reservation.

The introduction of 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections in government jobs and educational institutions by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was not an innocuous move. It was meant to win back the upper caste sections who had “moved away” from the party following a certain position the government had been earlier compelled to take vis-a-vis the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The move seems to have paid rich dividends for the party in the recently concluded Lok Sabha election.

Gendering Caste does not look at the new developments in the demand for affirmative action. It goes beyond gender in some senses and also looks at some of the turning points in the history of caste violence like that of Keezhvenmani (Tamil Nadu) where 44 Dalits were burnt alive in 1968 or Belchi (Bihar) where 11 Dalits were killed in 1977. While such pogroms occur less frequently, brutal killings in the name of honour, in the name of the cow, harassment of Dalit students and professionals and the wilful destruction of property belonging to Dalits are new manifestations of caste-related discrimination and violence. The book covers some of the recent instances of violence against Dalits.

Feedback from women’s organisations that work with survivors of caste violence would have enhanced the rich material in the book. It has been the specific experience of women’s organisations working on cases of “honour crime” that such violence is not just an expression of the inherent violence in “caste patriarchy”, but also a reflection of the weakening control of the patriarchs and other social satraps over the lives of young people.

While there may have been a temporary obfuscation of the contradictions between various caste groups in the nationalistic surge evinced in the recently concluded election, it would be facile to assume that the contradictions of caste, class and gender will disappear permanently as each category seeks to assert its space and realise its aspirations in an increasingly unequal polity.

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