Editor’s Note: This month, that is April 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Dalit History, where we invite various articles about historical moments in Dalit movements as well as Dalits (Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule) in history who have been part of the anti-caste movement in India. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1942, the All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference was held in Nagpur with participation of over 25,000 women from Shudra and Dalit castes. In this conference, Ambedkar made a speech stressing on the importance of education for Dalit women and of their presence in the public sphere through more Dalit women’s organisations. It is in this speech where his infamous quote, “I measure the progress of a society by the progress of the women of the society,” was first heard, which is used by many Ambedkarites as well as feminist circles without much knowledge of the context. The context was nothing but Dalit and Shudra women in numbers such as 25,000 marking their visibility in the public sphere.
Quoting Ambedkar without quoting the strength portrayed by Dalit women here is another instance of a gross erasure of them from the history of caste oppression and feminist liberation at the same time. This also makes it easier for them to appropriate the figure of Ambedkar in liberal circles without having to deal with the radical demands made by these women; a complete neglect towards the contribution of Dr. Babasaheb BR Ambedkar to the feminist movement in India. Sharmila Rege in her introduction to her book, Against the Madness of Manu, reveals how “Current feminist debate and curricula are almost disengaged from Ambedkar’s writings and politics. In contrast, Gandhi, Nehru and Lohia enjoy a long-standing space in the same discourse.”
First of all, I think it is important to mention how Sulochnabai Dongre and Ramabai were associated with All India Women’s Congress prior to the commencement of All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference. However, she along with Ramabai and other Dalit feminists, chose to leave the All India Women’s Congress as a result of social exclusion faced by Dalit women where Savarna feminists asked them to eat separately from them.
During a “feminist” conference, separate tables were put out for them during meals in AIWC, 1937 by educationist Jaibai Choudhari. This reveals that their casteist nature travels far beyond their “sisterhood” or any sort of feminist consciousness. Resolutions like Sarda Act and demand for divorce were still under the larger Hindu and nationalist agenda which could not have been oriented towards the development of Dalit women in the first place.
In a joint parliamentary committee, regarding the reservations of some seats for women in legislative bodies was rejected by three women representatives of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (mind you, she is an actual rajkumari), Dr. Muthulakshmy Reddy and Mrs. Hamid Ali. On reading these proceedings, we also find Dr. BR Ambedkar inquiring to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur if any reservation on communal basis is needed to which she says and I quote,
“We have always said we do not want reservation, but, as I say, if reservations are to be forced down on us as so many things have been forced down on us against our wishes, then the only conditions on which we would recommend the acceptance of reservation to our organizations would be through a system of joint electorates and direct election, and if these seats were on a purely non-communal basis, that is to say, that we have to right to put on woman of our choice.”
She later goes on to say that, “By merit and merit alone do we wish to find – and we are confident we shall find – a place in the Councils and Federal Legislatures of our country.” Now, the brahminical tendency of elevating merit grossly against reservation that can be seen is not a new tendency among savarna women. Moreover, the demand of AIWC, “Equality and no privileges, a fair field and no favour” shows us that they understand reservation as a privilege and not as positive discrimination or a political right of bahujans. To put it plain and simple, they did not have a concept which acknowledges the subjectivity of Dalit and bahujan women. Their feminism, even today, is not meant for the peculiar problems in personal and political life faced by Dalit women.
All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference was theorising caste and gender before the conception of the word “intersectional feminism”. One of the many demands strongly put by the women present in the conference was free and compulsory education for girls from depressed classes. Forwarding the message of Savitribai Phule, Dalit women also recognized the importance of education in understanding the oppression and how education becomes a weapon against the social order.
Establishment of hostels in each province with ability to accommodate at least 100 girls was listed as one of the foremost concerns, which is deeply connected with the Ambedkarite emphasis on education. Shailaja Paik, historicises the struggles for Dalit women’s access to education and reveals the convergences and contradictions between Dalits’ and upper castes’ agendas of education, streeshikshan (women’s education) and the reform of women.
Sulochnabai Dongre, as the president of All India Depressed Classes Women’s conference, pointed out that, “One important question is of birth control. In this respect educated women can be successful because they can realise the evils of it. It is no use multiplying sickly, ill-fed and illiterate children at the cost of mother’s health. To stop this evil every woman should consider this question seriously and should act soon. To solve this problem female education on extensive scale is essential.”
In doing so, Dongre did two things. Firstly, she grasped the enmeshed nature of female education, reproductive health, thereby forwarding an idea of dignified life for Dalit women highlighting a convergence between the public and the private self. She enforced the idea of self control of women over their body and especially the reproductive rights which are still being debated in 2020.
Secondly, discussing women’s sexuality and contraception as a right does not match with the idea of ideal domestic Hindu woman/wife. Rather, it is a threat to this idea and to the Hindu society which maintains caste purity through implementing the sexual/moral codes onto high-caste, Hindu women. Therefore, something like the demand for contraception and discussing women’s sexuality in the public sphere threatens the Hindu mechanism of the Hindu Social Order.
While advocating for introducing birth control and contraceptives, Ambedkar insisted on women’s sole ownership of her body. He focused his argument not on population growth but the increasing mortality rate of women during childbirth and the result of unwanted pregnancies in families under abject poverty. Gandhi considered birth control as a sin, a western concept which harms the Indian culture and the family setup and insisted on self control. Moreover, he feared its ill effect on the moral sexual conduct of Indians.
On the other hand, Ambedkar mocks the existing form of birth control as self banishment or Brahmachari. He says that, “Self Banishment from any sexual enjoyment is not possible among young and married couples.” It isn’t human nature, he says, and believing it to work is an ignorant understanding of human nature itself. In doing so, he takes away the imposed Hindu sexual morality on the topic of birth control and treats it as a basic human tendency or a need.
He says just as food appetite differs among different people, so does sexual appetite. This is a vital step in providing women a weapon to conceive only at their will. Ambedkar stresses that this has no moral implications. Moreover, he says that a woman should have the choice of terminating an unwanted pregnancy; “If a mother is disinclined to have a child, for any reason whatsoever.” This shows an unconditional freedom of choice for women no matter what the reason and that reason does not have to pass a legitimacy test or a moral one.
Ambedkar formulated marriage with total absence of any internal hierarchy. In one of his speeches addressing to Dalit community in Maharashtra, he said, “Don’t thrust marriage in your girls, it hinders their progress. After marriage, a woman should be an equal partner, a friend to her husband. She should not be the slave of her husband.” In the Hindu Code Bill, he formulated marriage as a contract one enters devoid of any spiritual or sacramental elevation to it.
As we have already seen, feminist movement in India from the 1970s saw similar debates yet totally forgot Ambedkar who advocated strongly for Hindu women and their rights. This seems to be nothing else but an attempt to erase any intellectual credibility to Ambedkar and rise of feminist movement blinded to any conscious-raising towards anti-caste philosophy.
Ambedkar introduced the Maternity Benefit Bill in 1928 in Bombay Presidency and demanded for a compensation for the absence of pregnant women during pregnancy and a month after childbirth. Not surprisingly, this Bill was opposed by several members of the Indian National Congress Party expressing their concerns over the loss faced by factory owners because of this Bill, to which Ambedkar’s answer was no less than a feminist theorisation of labour as done much later by Marxist feminists. He explained that on employing women in these factories itself, a certain profit is generated owing to the wage gap between men and women and the surplus labour provided by women workers as compared to men. He also denied any reduction in wages of these labourers after implementing the Maternity Benefit Act.
Much like Engels, he understood the effect of the terrible living as well as working conditions of the workers working in mines and connected it with their health and social status. In Indian Mines (Amendment) Bill, he imposed an obligation upon the mine owners to provide pit-head baths ‘equipped with shower baths and locker rooms’. He insisted on ‘separate places and rooms for the use of women in mines where women are employed’. He explained how the showers to getting cleaned at the time of going home is bound to improve self-respect of the miners. He also kept in mind about the soaps and said separate soaps to be provided to all workers.
Other Key Resolutions
Several other resolutions were also passed in the All India Depressed Classes Women Conference like women belonging to depressed classes and their rights regarding divorce must be recognised by law. Right to divorce also is inherently against the Hindu ethics which are embedded in family and cannot bear Hindu women critiquing it, more so demanding to leave their husbands at will. This transforms the orthodox Hindu conception of family as sacramental and sacred to a modern contractual form of marriage elevating its legal status than the sacred one.
This is a feminist deliberation against the Hindu Family centric structure as well as against the Dalit patriarchy. Dalit women as agential beings demand an exit from the oppressive Dalit patriarchy. It attacks both at the same time. This is also to understand that when the dominant intersectional theory of feminism theorises Dalit women as victims of different layers of oppression, this is an example to show how Dalit women can resist to these different layers at the same time as well.
Ambedkar in one of his speeches said instructing Dalit women to ‘not to feed their drunkard husbands and sons’. In doing so, Ambedkar raised a sense of personhood and dignified domestic labour of Dalit women. At the same time, Dalit women and Dalits in general, realise that their labour is owned by them and they can refuse to perform it and threaten the dominant structure, which here is Dalit patriarchy.
It was also decided that this Conference resoluted for the betterment of the economic condition: the right of female workers in the mills, bidi factories, municipalities and railways such as entitlement of 21 days of casual leave, an adequate compensation to her and her children in cases of injury or death, and equal wages for all workers. These demands stand firm on affirming the caste implications within industrial setup regarding labour which reproduces itself through gender in cases of Dalit women forming a cumulative series of oppression.
These problems also stem from the casteist nature of women’s organisation and other trade unions which did not take into account the specific and more complex nature of lower caste labour. Later, in Towards a Theory of Caste and Class, Gail Omvedt makes a persistent relationship with caste and class and says that caste is “‘a material reality’ with ‘a material base’; it is not only a form but a concrete material content, and it had historically shaped the very basis of Indian society and continues to have crucial economic implications even today.”
Certainly, there are common sensibilities between the fundamental ethics in the writings of Ambedkar and the feminist literature and feminist politics. Both I feel are writing against a cruel oppressive structure. In the process of studying and theorising it, the anti caste and feminist literature, complements each other and performs the function of revealing caste and patriarchy as structures to explain its mechanism taking all of its part out, piece by piece.
- The Rise of New Dalit Women in Indian Historiography by Shailaja Paik
- Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy by B R Ambedkar
- Volume 10 of BR Ambedkar Speeches and Writings published by Govt of Maharashtra
- The Guardian
- The Better India
Vaishali Khandekar is a queer dalit feminist and is currently pursuing her masters in Sociology. You can find her on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Forward Press