Development issues in India are mostly the issues of oppressed castes. They are the ones without access to resources such as land, material or intellectual property, education or livelihoods. According to the Central Statistical Institute of India, there are 3.3 million NGOs registered in India. This field is understood to be working on bringing equality, but when educated people from Dalit Bahujan communities enter these environments, they often face discrimination.
This article is based on interviews with five Dalit Bahujan women working in the development sector in Mumbai. “Why is it that only physical violence against Dalit women is acknowledged and not the humiliating attacks on their intellectual capacity? This is an important question to be debated. Hence the issues of Dalit women should not be stereotyped as relating only to sexual or physical violence,” asserts Praveena Thali. Accordingly, this article talks about subtle caste violence Dalit Bahujan women face in development workspaces.
Dalit Bahujan women have always been working in public spaces. Mahatma Phule in his poem ‘Kulambini’ brings out the differences between the life of a Brahmin woman and of a Bahujan woman. His poem tells us how a woman from the farmer community works in the household as well as in the farm without the help of any domestic workers. On the other hand, a Brahmin woman bears the responsibility of only the household where a number of domestic workers help her. The labour of Dalit Bahujan women has always been in demand, but this demand was confined to manual work.
When Dalit Bahujan women get access to higher education and enter intellectual work spaces, this act itself breaks the rules of the varna and caste system, where intellectual work spaces are designated to and reserved for Brahmin men only.
‘Spaces of Oppressor Castes’ and the issues of ‘Oppressed Castes’
Experiences of women interviewed show that the leading positions in organisations in development sector are acquired by oppressor caste people and they use Dalit Bahujans as their data.
“I have seen many women’s studies conferences where Dalit Bahujan women are made to work in the field to gather data, and upper caste academia uses that data to build their theories. Dalit Bahujan women don’t feel confident enough to theorise based on their own data,” said Sonali Mhaske, who has four years of experience working in the development sector. She worked as a research assistant in an organisation where she had to work in rural Maharashtra to collect data.
She interviewed people from tribal and nomadic tribal communities, but she could not use that data as the copyright belonged to the oppressor caste owner of the organisation. She was in need of money so she had to work without raising the question of who gets the credit. This shows how Dalit Bahujan women are made to share their experiences but are not encouraged or trained to process and analyse data and build theories. These places deny them intellectual credit for their work and limit the value of their efforts to money.
Dissociating Oneself from Caste
“Once my Brahmin colleague said, ‘I don’t consider myself a Brahmin that is why I don’t feel any guilt about actions committed by that community.’ If it were so simple to disassociate from one’s caste, all Dalit Bahujan people would have readily stated that they don’t consider themselves to be a part of this or that caste and the caste system would have simply ceased to exist. They would not have had to struggle against it for centuries after centuries. That a Brahmin person can make such a statement is also a privilege that their caste allows them. They see themselves as casteless and caste is an issue for others,” said one of the women interviewed (the interviewee wishes to remain anonymous).
Experiences of the women interviewed show that their oppressor caste colleagues do not talk about caste discrimination much in their private, professional or social media ecosystems. They never see caste as a problem that they have created. For them, casteism or caste dicrimination is a ‘Dalit issue’. Presence of Dalit-Bahujan persons with consciouness about casteism in the workspace leads to discussion on caste discrimination.
Otherwise issues such as gender or child rights are seen in isolation or separate from caste issues. Only some, especially if it is a horrific atrocity, leads to them to talk about caste. Even when such discussions happen, they are limited to Dalit, Bahujan or Muslim identity issues. They are never considered as issues created by Brahmins and upper castes who are the perpetrators.
They rarely bring in the perspective that the source of oppression or exploitation that exists in Indian society is the caste system. Instead of doing that, they hide the issue of castes from their stakeholders. Oppressor caste graduates of social work colleges look at issues of oppressed castes through the lens of sympathy or ‘helping others’, but fail to put efforts to understand the roots of the caste system.
Leadership Roles and Cultural Caste Capital
“Your caste decides what responsibilities you will get,” said Megha, who has been working in the development sector since the last two years.
What parents do when a person is born, how much they earn, whether that person will receive education, how much education they will receive, which school they will attend, what they will eat, where they will live, whether in a small or a big house, their profession, whom they will marry, what clothes they will wear, who will make it to their friend circle, how they will travel—whether on the edge of a train door, in an AC or general compartment, whether they will ever travel in an airplane, which restaurants they will visit—this and countless other things are predetermined by a person’s caste. Prosperity of a Dalit Bahujan person or the poverty of a Brahmin person is an anomaly.
A Dalit Bahujan graduate is an exception and a Brahmin who is not a graduate is also an exception. A Dalit Bahujan person who speaks English is an exception and a Brahmin person who does not is an exception. The best and the most expensive of all of these ‘luxuries’ are readily available to a person belonging to the highest caste in the caste order and their lives are always the easiest. How much respect a person receives, in particular, is decided according to their caste and the most respect in any situation is always accorded to a person belonging to a Brahmin caste.
Experiences of interviewed Dalit Bahujan women show that cultural capital plays a very important role in these work spaces. It makes various tasks easier for culturally privileged oppressor caste people. At the same time Dalit Bahujan women have to work hard even to enter that space and prove themselves equal to oppressor caste people. Even if they do manage to enter these spaces, ascending to any leadership position is always a struggle.
People from oppressor castes often get financial support from their families if they want to work on developing different skills or to simply take a break from employment. If they face emotional or mental health issues while working, various resources are easily available for them to deal with the same. As a result, they can easily occupy spaces and reach leadership positions.
“They will not work as community organisers, they will prefer to work as program coordinator or as project head, they do not prefer to do grass root work. They have a top down approach. They consider themselves as superior. They feel we ‘know’ we have education so we will work for ‘others’. This approach itself is a casteist approach. If you look at the caste class position of project head of different organizations you will understand,” said Sonali, currently pursuing MA in Women’s Studies and has three years of experience working in the development sector.
The experiences of women interviewed for the article shows that a person coming from the oppressor caste is taken more seriously, they get more attention and priority while allocating responsibilities.
Bahujan student trainees and oppressor caste student trainees are treated differently in these spaces. You will rarely meet an oppressor caste person who can’t use computers or can’t speak English. English decides your worth in these places. Your colleagues often judge your knowledge on the basis of how much English you know.
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Location of the Offices
Most of the NGOs’ offices are located in elite areas but their stakeholders live in slum areas. Oppressor caste employees can afford accommodation in the places nearer to the offices, but Dalit Bahujan women have to take accommodation far away from the office where they can get it at a lower rent. Caste decides your address in the city and hence, they have to put in more effort and time for travelling to those elite locations.
Traveling to these offices located in elite areas becomes a daily hectic task for Dalit Bahujan women. A woman interviewed for this article, while sharing about her experience of traveling to the office, said she had to walk, then take a bus, then a train and then an auto and again had to walk, and her oppressor caste colleague even when owning a house in Mumbai took a house on rent in the area nearer to the office to save time and energy.
Also, women from oppressed castes easily gets jobs in which they have to stay and do field work in remote areas where no oppressor caste person chooses to go. Such areas often lack facilities like physical security, hospitals, internet, public transport, etc.
Manifestation and Exercise of Power through ‘Spaces’
In such offices you will find specific areas reserved for the consumption of non-vegetarian food, which further perpetuates inequality of access and creation of ‘purity’ of the food i.e., the restaurants nearby the offices mostly serve Brahminised food. “Oppressor caste colleagues will be very conscious about their food and diet. Their discussion about food again gives us an inferior feeling,” said Sonali.
Dalit Bahujan women often have to accept jobs with low wages because they desperately need jobs to support their families trapped in poverty. Even if the amount offered to a person from an oppressor caste and to a women from an oppressed caste looks equal, the salary of a woman from an oppressed caste is not hers as a individual because she bears the economical responsibility of whole family.
The salary of women from oppressor castes adds to generational wealth and of a woman from oppressed castes fights to alleviate generational poverty. Hence, even if women from oppressed castes are given equal salaries to that of salary of women from oppressor caste, they can’t afford to live the same material lives.
Gendered Casteism clothed in mainstream
“Feminists like Flavia Agnes who belong to a minority community has talked about how being a feminist entailed conforming to savarna Hindu women’s dressing style, food habits, and cultural symbols,” writes Jenny Rowena.
Elitist materialistic notions of female beauty is intricately linked to upper class lifestyles. Dalit Bahujan women in development sector workspaces have to compete or adjust and live constant comparison and evaluation of this notion of beauty. Minakshee Rode says,
“Branded clothes, heavy accessories, and have regular manicure and pedicure, bleaching for fair and clear skin and you should be in proper shape. How can Dalit Bahujan women ever match these metropolitan elite standards – especially when there is no such financial, cultural and socially privileged opportunities available for most of them? Therefore, when implanted in foreign and elitist settings it requires not just adopting a novel culture but also results in attempts of getting rid of our original Dalit identity which is largely viewed as a stigma to carry.”
It has been seen in all of the interviews that oppressor caste colleagues can have more influence in spaces created by oppressor caste people or spaces created and lead by Bahujan women. They influence those places through inherited privileges which are visible in actions such as speaking often, asking more questions, jumping over the professional hierarchy in the organization, extensive English vocabulary, location of the offices and subtle discrimination takes places where it becomes difficult for Dalit Bahujan women to raise their voices against that.
Organisations working in the development sectors claim that they work for and support equality, but if we look closely, it is easy to see that Brahmins have hegemony over nearly all the organisations and resources. Dalit Bahujan women who have been crushed and rejected by this casteist and patriarchal society face casteism in these spaces too. There is an urgent need to build a system of redressal for this daily injustice and struggle.
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