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Monday, August 15, 2011

Glimpses of 65th Independence Day celebration in Kalimpong at Mela Ground... India, The Idea Of Nation And The Subaltern Indian Woman

To have a glimpse on performance of Kalimpong Girls high school 

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India, The Idea Of Nation And The Subaltern Indian Woman
Cynthia Stephen, 17 August 11, The idea of India as a nation has undergone extensive critique in recent years. Two such incisive critiques, Nationalism without a Nation in India (Aloysius,1999) and Debrahmanising History (Braj Ranjan Mani, 2006) were instrumental in bringing a fresh subaltern perspective to the idea/reality that is India. Thus while the mainstream view sets the start of the Independence movement in the middle of the 19th century, referring to the 1857 revolt as the “First war of Indian Independence”, others point to the anti-colonial struggle by the adivasis in central India many years earlier, and continuing parallel to, but independent of the “mainstream” anti-colonial struggle as constituting the first rebellion of the indigenous population against the colonisers. Thus social location and political position are likely to mediate understanding of India’s history, present and future, just as they also impact the role, position and location of the subaltern (Dalit, adivasi, tribal, minority or OBC) woman in today’s India.
The 1880s saw a major debate between the colonials who saw in India an “infantile civilization”, and the Brahminical Pandits and upper-castes, on the prevalent practice in India of Sati, ritual in which the widow was burned on the funeral pyre of her husband. Raja Rammohan Roy, sensitized to the repugnance of the practice by his mentor William Carey (among many other things, a pioneering and eminent scholar/linguist of several Indian languages), called on the colonial government to ban the practice. The Indian socio-religious elites were opposed to the banning of the practice as they said Sati epitomized the height of Indian civilization and culture. The issue was framed as one of Modernity Vs Tradition, one that set up an opposition between Religion and Secular Values. This is one of several issues that throw into sharp relief the issue of the status and position of women in India, and highlighting the relationship between the situation of women in Indian society and the formation of the Indian national consciousness.
In Part 1 of this Paper I will show how the caste-class elites who “led” the movement look at woman’s question – her status, caste and location and how it becomes a metaphor for, and an examplar of, the idea of India. The elite-led anti-colonial struggle in India used gender imagery to construct an image of the Indian nation as one of a hapless woman, needing to be rescued from the (Masculine clutches of) colonial power. It had a powerful impact, which continues to resonate across the centuries and the length and breadth of India. In Part 2, I will show how this has come from the past to affect the day-to-day lives of millions of its poor and marginalized, especially its women. In Part 3, its caste-class-gender implications will become clearer as the argument is used to appraise contemporary Indian political trends and suggest some learnings.
Part 1: The Anti-Colonial Struggle and the Caste-Class History of the Congress
The history of the so-called Indian Independence movement, led by the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress which began as and still remains a party of the elite and upper-classes, is rife with sacrifices made of the interests of the subaltern classes, their leaders and women in particular, in the interests of the larger cause of Independence. One of the most blatant examples is the Poona Pact. Dr. B. R Ambedkar, champion of the cause of social and political justice for the masses, was forced by severe blackmail, by the use of caste, communal and religious pressure by Gandhi, the Congress, and the media into signing an unsatisfactory agreement, which ended any hope that the depressed classes, specifically the SC/ST population, will any time at present or in the future be able to raise up independent political leaders without being beholden to the dominant castes.
Thus we see that the anti-colonial struggle in India was less a “freedom” struggle and more a struggle to wrest political and economic power over India by the elite class of India. Earlier, they had been divided along class, caste, regional and linguistic lines and scattered all over the country in a hundred little principalities. A bonanza had come their way through the colonials: the uniting of the huge Indian landmass into a cohesive administrative and economic entity; the growing restiveness of the times, including the spread of modern thoughts on human rights and colonial conquest; and the compulsions of the Second world war on the colonisers, hastening the need for the British to exit India. Colonial endeavour and education had exposed them to enough modern thought to see the potential of their grabbing political power, combining to give the political elites of India the hope that they could now actually dream of ruling over a fiefdom of thier own. Two of the many gifts of the colonial powers, which included scholars, lawyers, linguists and historians - were most helpful to these : access to English, enabling them to get up-to-date knowledge in Economics, law, politics and statecraft; and the construct of a pervasive Brahmanical socio-cultural regime - in short, a dim vision of an Indian nation.
Construction or Constriction?
Variously, Max Mueller, A O Hume, Annie Besant, M. K. Gandhi, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Tilak, Ranade, and many others conjured up a vision of an imaginary past, a golden age of India where Sanskrit-speaking gods dwelt, where the Vedas were the scriptures, where women were worshipped, where philosophical, theological, scientific and technological knowledge and expertise abounded, and where honour, truth, and justice were always upheld as the Dharma. Gandhi valorized Sanatana Dharma, upheld Varnashrama Dharma, and worked to bring “Ram Rajya” to reality. Religious imagery attracted the loyalty and participation of the common people in cities and small towns. These were usually local elites and land owners, from the upper and middle castes who then committed to the struggle for political freedom from colonial rule. This group also ran the media of the time – English and regional language papers, which then proceeded to disseminate far and wide the news of movement and the activities of these leaders. In no time, the masses, beholden to the local caste-class elites for both identity and livelihood, were also drawn into the equation and the recipe for a “popular” struggle was well set. The situation and role of women in the freedom struggle, and that of the outcastes – the “Harijans”, as Gandhi termed them – also formed a very visible and decisive role in the shaping of the present-day India, as we will see below.
Writers such as Bankim Chandra wrote several novels which captured the popular imagination and his poems, especially “Vande Mataram”, a hymn in praise/worship of the Motherland, here depicted as a verdant fertile land, yielding much fruit, pure and glowing with light, adorned with fragrant flowers. This image of the land as a goddess became the order of the day. Depictions of the map of the country, with J&K as the crowned head of the goddess, the Southern Peninsula as the lower part of the body, adorned with the sari, Gujarat being the right arm, holding the palm out in benediction came quickly. From there, to depict Mother India – Bharat Mata riding on a Lion as the incarnation of the Divine Female, Durga or Shakti – was just a flourish of the artist’s paintbrush. As this image was part of the popular religious imagination of the politically powerful East of India, and as Calcutta was at the time an important political and economic capital, this image became the dominant “popular” visual representation of the aspiration of the people of India. Soon Congressmen such as Tilak, and Deen Dayal Upadhyay - part of the Hindu Mahasabha which was then part of the Congress – began to speak of the Indian identity in a tone different from that of the Congress.
Gandhi’s Construction of India:
Dr. Etienne Rassendran, Professor of English at St. Joseph’s Autonomous College in Bangalore, explains how Gandhi constructed the values of the anti-colonial struggle, especially that of Satyagraha, on the idealized lines of that of the life of a Hindu Widow: her life – and that of the satyagrahi - would be one of renunciation and sacrifice, shorn of all adornment, ascetic. Gandhi was insistent, that widows and ‘redeemed’ devadasis (temple dancers/prostitutes) should not remarry, even if they were minor children. Thus sexual abstinence was also an ideal, with restrictions in food and a Spartan lifestyle, till the goal of freedom from the colonizers was realized. He upheld Varnashrama Dharma, and did not favour the changing of one’s caste-based occupation, one’s dharmic duty, even though he spoke against untouchability. He gave the name “Harijan” to the scavenger community, with the idea of “elevating” their image to that of the “children of God”. He named a paper that he published “The Harijan” even undertook to clean latrines, the work of untouchables. However, he said that a Harijan should not seek to give up scavenging, as it was his dharma, but should try to do it to the best of his ability. While the term “harijans” did find official acceptance and was used in government schemes, now the people reject this term, pointing out that it was actually a slur, implying that they were “illegitimate”. Thus they prefer to call themselves Dalit, meaning broken.
Gandhi’s term for his imagined Utopia was Ram Rajya, harking back to the time of Rama, the Purushottama, that is, the Ultimate Man. The role envisioned for women, of course, was of chaste, pious and submissive Sita, a recidivist image that the women of India are forced to live up to right up to the present day. The anthems of Gandhi’s mobilization are also telling – the bhajans “Raghupathi Raghav Raja Ram” and “Vaishnava Janato” - redolent of Vaishnavaite traditions, very mainstream, upper-caste and far from the beliefs and praxis of the Indian masses.
The India of Golwalkar and Savarkar
In keeping with the European zeitgeist, influential Indian thinkers of the time took the work of Max Mueller seriously enough to propose that the Brahmins of India, being the Asian branch of the Aryan race, were the true rulers of the world, the veritable “bhudevatas”, as termed in their scriptures. Thus Cultural Nationalism – Fascism - reared its head, its votaries mainly the Brahmin elite of Central India. The ideologues of this group, Hegdewar and Golwalkar, wrote influential books and monographs, and mobilized youth from a generation already reared on the idea of an ancient civilization which was held in the grip of a cruel and rapacious colonial power. The image of a nation as an enslaved mother, yearning for freedom evoked the corresponding image of her sons under the colonial yoke, who had to rediscover their masculine identity to fight for the honour of the enslaved motherland. The cultural productions of this school included the very popular and influential novels of Bankim Chandra including Ananda Math (which contains the hymn to the Motherland – Vande Mataram, and books such as “We, or our Nation Defined” and “A Bunch of Thoughts” by Golwalkar. The formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was mediated by these developments.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a well-known opponent of access to education for women and the lower castes, and a conservative on the woman’s question, played an important role in the discourse. His paper “Kesari” (Saffron) waged a continuous campaign on these issues. Parimala Rao, in her recent book (Published by Critical Quest) on Tilak’s position on women’s education, exposes the popular image of Tilak as a Nationalist. She quotes from the actual texts of the paper how he opposes education for women and the lower castes. Thus Tilak’s oft-quoted epigram –“Swaraj is my birthright and I will have it” strikes a more ominous note, than the patriotic tone that has popularly been read into it. And it was Tilak who popularized the practice, now spread all over India, of the public celebration of Ganesh Chaturti, as a strategy to mobilize people and unite them in a community celebration and generate heightened activities under which covert anti-colonial activities were undertaken.
Thus the nascent idea of India of the caste-class elites was backward-looking, Brahmanically inspired, conservative and anti-modern and anti-woman in its world-view. Women were stereotyped as goddesses, mothers and as Sati-Savitri types, whose realm was the home and who needed only to tend the family, hearth and home, bear sons for the service of the community and the nation, and play a supportive but subordinate role in the struggle.
The Subalterns’ Vision of India
The emancipatory discourse had taken a different tone among the subalterns in central India. Under the dynamic, sagacious leadership of Jotirao Phule, an educated youth from the subaltern class and his courageous and illustrious wife Savitribai – who both mobilized support among all sections in an effort to end the hegemony of the feudal classes: the Brahman-supported Peshwas who oppressed the lower classes in all spheres – social, economic, political, religious. They campaigned for the spread of primary education among the poorer sections and for government funding; set up schools for girls from the oppressed communities; wrote and published strident critiques of the repressive Brahmanical ideology; challenged the sexist and inhuman double standards practiced by the dominant castes against their women and girls, and set up the Satya Shodak Samaj (Society of Truthseekers) to counter the spread of conservatism by the Brahmanical elite through their “reformist” Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Prarthana Samaj.
In short, they were soon able to galvanise a movement and start a process of education and social change in Central India, which was far superior to the work of the Brahmin reformers. In this they had to contend with opposition from the conservative social elites including Ranade and Tilak, who was a public and bitterly opponent of education of women and the lower castes.
In contrast with the elite vision of India, the more vigourous and forward-looking imagination of the subalterns and the oppressed envisaged an India in which education, equality, and justice would prevail. Architects of this image included Jotirao and Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai – a much-maligned, brave, and iconoclastic Brahmin widow who broke many taboos and showed a stunning capacity for leadership and institution-building, and Bhimrao Ambedkar, a multifaceted personality whose resplendent scholarship was second to none among his contemporaries, and whose sharp intellect still brings dividends to the Indian masses he loved and struggled for Bahiskrut Bharat - also the name of the paper he published (Bahiskrut means excluded). It is to these personalities we must turn to find an agenda to emancipate those still oppressed by the caste, class, gender and communal nature of today’s Indian polity.
However, before we do that we need to re-examine the rhetoric used by the Congress, and more specifically Gandhi, to mobilize the masses against the colonial powers, to pinpoint where the seed of today’s unequal India was sown.
To go back briefly to Dr. Etienne Rassendran’s analogy of the Sathyagraha and the life of a Hindu widow, one sees that the strategy also drew on Vedic, Vedantic, and Jaina traditions, all of which Gandhi could claim as a heritage. The asceticism and abstemious lifestyle of Jainism, which included inflicting violence on oneself as a means of service to the community, was used by Gandhi as a political weapon. In effect it was a serious form of emotional blackmail against anyone who disagreed with his assessment of a situation – whether they were communal rioters, the British political establishment, or Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, leader of the large and voiceless excluded people of India –who came up against this tactic and was thus coerced against his will and better judgement to sign what is now known as the Poona Pact. [For a detailed treatment of this topic, see the last chapter of Debrahmanising History (Mani, 2006)]. As a result, till today, the Scheduled castes (now known as Dalits) and Scheduled tribes now have only a few reserved seats in the legislatures and Parliament, to be elected from which they will need the votes of the socially dominant community. It pits leaders from the scheduled castes against each other, thus making it almost impossible for an independent and empowered leadership and voice to emerge from the Dalit community.
Further – and more important for our discussion - the self-mortification of the Satyagrahi is similar to the structurally imposed gender and religious violence on the Hindu widow of the day, who was deprived of creature comforts and could hope for nothing more but a life of servitude, though considered an improvement over the extremity of Sati - the same practice earlier interpreted by the colonials as a sign of an immature civilization but which its votaries held to be the epitome of its culture and identity.
Part 2: Jathi, Varna, and Caste and Gender Discrimination
Jathi, caste as a social category or identity, distinct from a religious identity probably existed even much before Brahminism became dominant in Indian society. The Jathi is a well-known internal indicator or marker used in Indian society to denote membership of a people-group, which has its own name, is usually endogamous, and distinguished from others by language, region, clan, belief system, food habits, dress, etc. To this day, ask an Indian from a city to describe himself or herself, and the person will usually speak of his/her occupation or profession. Ask a villager the same question, and more often than not the respondent will name his or her caste identity. Most jathis have their own caste panchayats, their own systems of clans, of internal organization, administration and social control.
It took a scholar of the eminence of Ambedkar to unpack the real structure of the caste framework of Indian society. Till he went into the matter, the prevailing scholarly understanding was that it was a benign system of social organization which enabled a peaceful and harmonious society and sustenance of the uniqueness of “Indian civilization”. As laid out by him, it is seen that the four-fold Varna system, derived from the Brahminical scriptures, divides the whole of the mainstream population into the Brahmins of the priestly class, the Kshatriyas or the warrior/ruling class, the Vysyas of the trading class, and the Sudras or the artisanal castes. This hierarchical division confers a ritual status to the people group: the first three are Twice-born, in keeping with the Karma Theory, which postulates that the soul of a person undergoes countless rebirths. If one is reborn as a human into these three categories, one has the potential to attain ‘moksha’ (salvation) in this lifetime.
Thus the practice of casteism – which grades human beings on the basis of their position in this hierarchy - becomes one of the main tenets of Brahminism or the Vedic religion. As time passed, and the influence of this practice covered India, one’s caste became a means not only of identifying oneself but also a touchstone which mediated one’s relationship with the Other. All those born in castes other than one’s own, had to be either revered, or discriminated against, depending upon their relative position in the caste hierarchy. This practice, so degrading and contrary to the basic principles of natural justice, continues to the present day with a few modifications, even in cities, though in theory abolished by the Constitution of India. Even though the twice born castes are just 12% of India’s population, they fill almost all the positions of power in the government, judiciary, private, education and voluntary sector, and their religio- cultural practices are rule the roost at all levels in these spheres to this day.
The Sudras – the service and artisanal classes such as weavers, masons, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters, etc were treated as untouchables by the other groups (with exceptions in some regions), but as they provided service to the three other castes, their presence within the village limits was ‘tolerated’.
The so-called out-castes were the Ati-shudras – (“most untouchable”) or casteless ones, also known as the Panchamas – the fifth category. Ayotheedas Pandithar, a pioneering scholar of yesteryear, found that the reasons for the total exclusion of these people was that their ancestors put up the most enduring resistance to the advance of the philosophy and practice of Brahminism. Despite decades of affirmative policies being manadated by the Constitution, the majority of the people from these groups still face severe discrimination, and continue to live on the fringes of the village in their own ghettos, called variously wada, cheri, or peta, engaged in the most ill-paid, menial, dirty and ‘ritually polluting’ tasks: sanitation including manual scavenging of human and animal waste and dead animals, skinning the hide and tanning, digging graves, and bringing news of death. The impact of this imposed work and the culture of exclusion and discrimination has been deeply entrenched at all levels of these communities. They have been forced, through centuries of refined forms of social and cultural engineering, to accept the assigned status of casteless non-persons, and beasts of unpleasant burden
It is also a fact that those who are again at the bottom of the social heap among the dalits – Arundhathiars, the Madigas, the Mangs, the Chakkiliyar – are very much worse off than the other dalits groups such as the Mahars, the Malas, the Holeyas, again the impact of exclusion from economic, social and educational mobility. The Madigas and others like them mainly engage in what are seen as unclean occupations, making them prone to be even more downtrodden than the rest, taking inequality to a refined level. The impact of this discrimination is measurable in the demographic figures for this group, which are about the worst in the world, especially for the children. The system works to perpetuate this by subjecting children from this group to casteist discrimination, forcing them to drop out and join their parents in their work, despite the government of India trumpeting from the heights of the UN building that India has outlawed untouchability in its Constitution. To some extent they have also internalised these inequitable values which relegates them to the bottom of the heap in Indian society. But this has not exempted them from themselves practicing untouchability against the weakest among themselves. The situation of dalit women and children, especially the girl child, are worse off than almost anywhere in the world, in spite of the fact that situation of women in India is among the worst in the world. One of the important reasons is that there still is in operation to this day, just as in the 1st millennium when it was first codified – the law of Manu or the Manu Smriti, which lays the rule for the treatment of women, among other lesser beings such as the shudra and the beast of burden. The Manu Smriti records the practice – still extant - that at no time should a woman be allowed independent existence. In childhood she must be under her father, after marriage under her husband, and in old age under her son, because she is unworthy of freedom (Na stree swatantryam arhati). Thus women are seen as lesser beings in every way. Caste and biology determines, at birth, the status of the individual in what was believed to be immutable, the law of Dharma. Hence inequality and discrimination, by birth, were a given in the existing religious and Brahminical social order.
People’s Resistance to Casteism:
But how have the Dalits and Sudras of India fought against these circumstances, which have heaped discrimination on to their daily struggle for existence?
Faith and belief is an important component of caste discrimination. Rationalized and justified on the basis of the religious scriptures of the Brahmins, discrimination becomes part of the daily life experience and enters the belief system of the entire community and the individual. Revolts against casteism, therefore, came in the form of various cultural movements, including the Bhakti movement over a period of several centuries in the first and second millennia, and the Veerashaiva movement in the 14th C. Sufism, the Varkari cult, and the cults of Ravidas and Kabir were also important elements in this gentle cultural backlash. In Punjab, Sikhism formed an important element of the revolt. In the twentieth Century, the Dalits, tribals and some OBC groups converted to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (this led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who said: “Our struggle is not for wealth or power but to reclaim the human personality….. it is in every sense spiritual”.
Terrorising the Other
Such initiatives by the subalterns is fiercely opposed by the caste overlords by all possible means: Many states in the Indian union have passed anti-conversion laws to deter attempt by the subaltern groups especially Dalits to take collective decisions for their own self determination including assertion or conversion, and often such attempts are met with severe sectarian violence: the Karamchedu, Chundur incidents in Andhra Pradesh, Kandhamal (Orissa), all over MP, parts of Gujarat, widespread in Karnataka and Kerala can be seen as attempts by the powerful to punish the weaker sections for daring to exercise agency, and to limit their attempts to assert their identity.
Thus recent large-scale aginst Dalits and tribals who convert, especially to Christianity, is seen as an actually a form of punishment by the Brahminical establishment, and carried out by the RSS-inspired Sangh Parivar outfits such as the Bajrang Dal, Sri Ram Sena, Dharm Raksha Samiti, etc. against the outcastes: “How dare these slaves make independent decisions that they do not want to be discriminated against, can we let them go unpunished?”
These caste pogroms feature two main forms of hate: collective humiliation and economic destruction. In the first case, the women are stripped, paraded naked, raped and molested in public, and two, the basis of their livelihood or survival are attacked – qualified /employed youth are targeted and killed, economic assets like household goods and vehicles damaged, houses burnt, and wells poisoned with pouring in kerosene. The affected population is forced to migrate to other places losing all they have in the process. The role of police and political forces is very much suspect in the process, and routinely, justice is denied by non-register of cases, sloppy or non-existent investigation, and poor prosecution, so that the perpetrators go scot-free while the victims of the violence are terrorized, impoverished and further demoralized.
Thus the system works to perpetuate the terrorizing of the Othered population – the Untouchables and the poorer Most Backward Castes (MBCs) – by targeting the body of the woman as representative of the community which needs to be “taught a lesson”. The resilience of the community, especially of the women, which has survived these atrocities with little redress for centuries, has to be noted in this context. Contrast this with the punishment of anyone perceived to have caused any slight to a caste woman by a male from a lower caste – severe retribution – usually death - is swift and sure. Not because they love or honour their women more, but because the honour of their community resides in the woman’s body. In fact, this honour is valued higher than the life or the body of the individual – as is shown by the numerous (dis)honour killings of non-dalits men or women who dare to fall in love with a person forbidden by convention – a cousin, same village or gotra, or lower or other caste.
Part 3
How does one relate, between the India of the National struggle and the life experiences of the Subaltern/Othered woman? As shown earlier, the popular image of India of the upper-caste-led anti-colonial struggle is that of a chaste Goddess, the mother, beautiful, verdant, fertile and enslaved. She could even be the veritable Sita, kidnapped and in the custody of the harsh colonial powers, awaiting emancipation from her plight by a young, powerful and virile army led by Lord Ram. She is personified as Bharat Mata in the calendar art style popularised in the early 20th C by Ravi Varma, or depicted as Shakti, the Divine female. In the Gandhian scheme, the focus has been on the self-sacrificing, pure and ascetic satyagrahi, who stakes his body, mind and spiritual resources in the struggle to free the nation from colonial power: a space in which followers of the Brahminical/Vedic faith would feel most comfortable, though there is room for other persuasions and communities.
In contrast, the person of the Other India, the outcaste, is cast in the role of the unworthy usurper, one who tries to grasp what is not his to take: this was how the real leaders of the depressed Classes were made to feel in the closing years of the anti-colonial struggle. The hate and resentment piled on Ambedkar in the days preceding the signing of the Poona pact were unbelievable. The Congress mobilized the “harijan” leaders in their camp to lead the charge against Ambedkar who had to stand alone and isolated during the Poona Pact standoff: The reason given by Gandhi for undertaking the Fast unto death on the issue is interesting: he did it as a “Man of Religion”.
Therefore, the question of the position and status of subaltern Indian woman can be better studied by situating the entire question of social exclusion in Indian society in the context of “who is a citizen?” This is not such a simple question. Even in ancient Greece, where these questions were intensely debated and discussed for the first time, the citizen was not everyman, the common man or every individual. The citizen was a male of a certain age, “free”, that is, not a slave, for slavery was a fact of life in ancient Greece. But if the slave were hardworking or resourceful, he slave could purchase his freedom from his master. Therefore, even in the earliest imagined vision of democracy, class and gender played a pivotal role in the social order. This is similar to the status of women in patriarchal societies, which deny them the capacity or legal status to make independent decisions. Powerful males would make those decisions for them. In other words, they are “Othered” from making decisions, even about their own lives.
Discrimination is the denial of agency and dignity to an individual or group of individuals based on a perceived accident of birth, occupation, language, religious affiliation or any other primordial identity. Thus, as discussed above, the denial of education to girls and assignment of unpaid domestic labour to women from girlhood; the assignment of unclean tasks to dalits and consequent economic and social marginalization; and the denial of autonomy in matters of mobility, choice of marital partner, work, etc to women and the lower castes and tribals especially to Dalits.
The impulse for self-determination and autonomy by the common people of India took the form of the Bhakti movements which were both personal and theological/ religious. The move towards emancipation took on newer forms during late colonial rule. The education system introduced by the colonials exposed some Indians to contemporary political trends. Jotiba Phule’s reading of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man kindled the social critic in him and inspired him to strike the first blow for women’s equality by training his wife, Savitribai, to study and start a school for girls in Pune, Maharashtra, as early as 1848. The work and writings of Phule were an inspiration to Dr. B. R Ambedkar, iconic leader of the masses in India who was also responsible for drafting the secular Indian Constitution which mandates Equality and freedom from discrimination on any basis. That the same Congress found him to be the one most suitable for the task, just a few years after the bitter wrangle of the Poona Pact, is testimony to his capacities and sense of duty and commitment to justice. he completed the mammoth task in record time against huge odds, and one of the world’s finest and most voluminous Constitutions was drafted and adopted – after extensive discussions and debates – in less than three years, its core values of Equality, Justice and Fraternity, a challenge to the existing in-equitious social order in this country. Ambedkar was made the Law Minister in the first cabinet, headed by Nehru.
But the forces of conservatism and caste were firmly in place in the halls of power. In just a few months, Ambedkar faced a huge challenge to his draft of the Hindu Code Bill, a progressive legislation that attempted to give property rights to women. He was accused of promoting division and hatred, especially from the women of the upper castes and classes in Parliament, and resigned from the Cabinet. Parliament later legislated equal rights for women in property rights: the Bill was passed in four stages after much amendment, revealing Ambedkar’s far-sight and underscoring how the establishment resists change from “outside”; another instance of how women’s rights are used by conservatives to suppress the progressive and subaltern voices in India.
Even though it has been amended often and successfully withstood the Constitutional Review undertaken by the NDA, this does not mean that the Constitution and its values of Equality, Justice and nondiscrimination are safe from attack: Brahminical superstructures of power and authority work tirelessly to legitimize its thier own identity and undermine the aspirations and rights of the traditionally “Others” in society. Fundamental rights and freedoms accorded to us by the Constitution are under assault by those who hark back to the so-called ancient Dharmic practices which legitimized inequality by birth.
Governance : the Coming Era of the Subalterns
However, the processes of change are also at work. Parliament enacted the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1994, ensuring reservation of one-third of the seats for women in the local government bodies: something revolutionary, given the odds. Since its enactment, it has proved an important tools to increase participation of women in governance, which they have consistently been deprived of. It mandates that women from the SC, ST, Minorities and Backward Classes to get proportional reservation on a rotational basis, as well as be eligible for the post of President of the local governance body, thus reinforcing and legitimizing their full participation as citizens in the process of formal governance. In the 25 years since, millions of women have joined the processes of local government. Barring initial hiccups the system has proved to be quite favourable to the women desoite persistent reports of severe caste and gender violence in certain regions, involving public humiliation of assertive women or dalit men who assert on rights as elected representatives.
But the draft of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which takes the representation of women further and gives women one-third reservation in the law-making bodies at state and centre – has had a stormy record. It has been in process for over 15 years, finally being was passed during UPA 1 in the Rajya Sabha, and stuck but it will not become law until passed in the Lok Sabha. The point on which it is stuck is a very important one for our discussion.
The law-makers (overwhelmingly uppercaste males) are opposed to any change in the existing system of reservation, despite claims by almost all political parties that they support the law “in principle”. In practice, their opposition is because one third of the seats will be reserved for women, with constitutionally mandated proportions for Dalit and Tribal women, by rotation, with way of predicting which seat will be reserved at every election. Ruling class males, presently elected from their fiefdoms, face a real threat to their positions and their traditional strongholds, even though they are known to field their women – wives, daughters, daughters-in-law – to keep their preferred constituencies safe.
But even more seriously opposed to this process are powerful politicians, representatives of the middle castes – known officially as the Other Backward Castes (OBCs, almost all shudra groups), who have only in the past couple of decades or so tasted success and political power. They rightly feel that the powerful dominant upper-caste political lobby will fill the women’s seats with their own women, thus cutting into the representation of the OBC sections, which have no reservations so far in the law-making bodies. Few women from the middle castes have ever been seen in the arena of governance. Further, we have seen economic and social development of only a few prominent sections among the OBCs. Recent studies reveal that some MBCs are more backward than Dalits in some instances. Hence the demand that there be proportional representation for the OBC women in the seats is genuine.
The mills of time and progress have ground, slow and steady, and processes toward greater diversity and representation in Governance, still dominated by traditional caste and gender elites are gradually becoming stronger. The May 2011 state elections in 5 states threw up two women Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu and most importantly in West Bengal, where 34 years of Left rule ended with the victory of the Trinamool Congress. There are women CMs in the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and of course leading the Congress as well. Barring Mayawati, CM of UP, the others are from politically and socially powerful groups.
Change is inescapable in the dated but still-dominant vision of the Indian nation as a “pure, chaste, upper-caste mother under the protection of the sons and fathers from the community”. As the trends towards democratization of Parliament picks up, numbers of women in Parliament will grow closer to the ground reality, though not totally fully. Chances are that soon the subalterns, who are at present silent and almost invisible in state governance, politics and decision-making especially women, will take their rightful places as representatives of the people and the nation.
1. Nationalism without a Nation In India – G. Aloysius, Critical Quest
2. Debrahmanising History – Braj Ranjan Mani, Manohar Publications
3. Educate women and lose Nationality - Parimala Rao
, Critical Quest
Cynthia Stephen is an Independent Researcher and writer based in Bangalore, India

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