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A body against the world of caste monsters

By Smita Patil

The idea of body is certain form of construction. It equips us to imagine the endless possibilities related to our subjectivity and identity. What is the nature of the imagination related to our body? Who are the people that determine the construction of imagination around the body? It acquires profound sense in the articulations related to gender. Geographical contours too produce certain cultures of bodies. Experiential accounts that are embedded in the bodies complicate the borders of the individuals and communities. Patriarchy operates via certain enclosures of bodies. Feminist scholars have been probing the transformations of racialised, labouring, commodified, maternal, abled/ disabled, performative bodies and so on. However, I am keen to explore the category of the body in the context of the body of the Dalit women. Has the body of the Dalit women changed due to the shifting nature of ideological nature of the caste? Or is it the same body that undergoes constant insult, violence, repression and oppression, stigma by the upper-dominant caste-class wo/men? In addition to it, how does Dalit women’s body confront the brutal, vulgar public patriarchy? What happens to Dalit women’s body in the backdrop of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic conditions? Brahmanical-neoliberal capitalist spaces are appropriating these bodies into labyrinth of precarity. Thus, everyday casteist practices are being sharpened in subtle ways. In order to understand the caste based patriarchal changes, one should engage with the peculiar voices of Dalit women.

Culture of Hindu religion conditions the relations between caste, gender and labour. Devadasi system and its persistence in post-colonial India unfold the contradictions between the categories of independent nation, modern laws and rudimentary customs. Devadasis from the lower castes represent the primitive nature of the caste system. Patriarchal, priestly power structures their oppression to legitimize the status-quoist religion. Their body and sexuality are regulated for the upper caste/dominant men/patriarchal ethos through the maintenance of such a cruel system. Sexual exploitation of Dalit women is connected to the Brahmanical patriarchy of the Hindu religion. Dominant caste-community categorizes these Dalit women as those without character and values. Vestiges of devadasi system still lurks in different parts of India due to the lack of self-realization processes. Who they are? Why are they there?  It is also due to non-awareness about the rights of the citizens and changing social-political scenario across the globe that they are pushed into the world of prostitution. Thus, the question of touch and untouchability is erased through the acceptance of religious sanctions. Purity of the religion is maintained through the manipulation of the body of the Dalit women. The trope of the body of the Dalit women is being circulated to destabilize the social and the political. Some of the narratives of Dalit women indicate the unbearable nature of their existence.

Narrative 1: I am from a poor Dalit family. My parents were illiterate and ignorant. They offered me to the local deity, Yellamma. As part of puberty ritual, they organized a marriage like ceremony. Those moments were the beginning of my oppressed life. The head priest in the village used to regularly rape me and it also gave space to the other priests. Sexual exploitation in the name of the religion ruined me. A group of men and women used to visit the temple. They noticed my deplorable condition in the temple. They were part of an organization against religious orthodoxy and obscurantism. They saved me from such a vicious circle. I am still not able to come out of the trauma. I am grateful to them for saving me from such a horrendous tradition. Many women like me are either sold into brothels as prostitute, remain beggar in the roadside without any basic facilitates, etc.

This narrative shows how slavery of the Dalit women is created even in the era of modern political systems. It demonstrates the way dominant religion thrives through the regulation of the gender orders and sexuality of the Dalit women. Mainstream women’s movements are not able to understand the gravity of caste-gendered labour. They have not engaged with the critical political traditions of Dalit movements. There is a kind of ideological gap that exists between the hegemonic feminist movements and Dalit movements/Dalit feminist groups. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his pioneering talk (BAWS: 2006, Volume 18, part I, pp. 548–551) at Kamatipura Vasti emphasised that Dalit women should discard such professions and live a dignified life. Those Dalit women who understood his message left prostitution. Those bodies of resistance created a new era of self-dignity in the history of the Dalit women in particular and in the history of the Dalit movement in general. Organic intellectuals such as Uttam Kamble critiqued the tradition of Devadasi system. He was part of the movements that struggled to stop the devadasi system. Conscientious Dalits opposed such culture of ignominy. They produced different perspectives and practices against the public culture that stereotype the body of Dalit women. One of the central questions that needs to be asked here is whether such a notion of the body of the Dalit women is understood in the so-called objective spaces of the nation-state.

Recently, the Supreme Court of India in its verdict stated that a sex worker must be treated with dignity (The Leaflet, dated May 28, 2022). Categories of sex work and sex workers are contested. Most of the sex workers are from the Dalit community. Dalit feminists are critical of the mainstream women movements’ approach towards sex work. Dalit feminist groups argue that mainstream women’s movements through supporting the category and practice of sex work are pushing Dalit women into the sex work. They further contend that such a position strengthens the oppression of the Dalit women, imposes caste on their body and helps caste-based patriarchy to grow in Indian society. Dalit women activists argue that a nefarious network of capitalistic forces and NGOs are pushing the illiterate Dalit women into ‘sex work’ by using the jargons like choice, agency and autonomy related to sex work. Funding also impacts the greedy non-Dalit and Dalit women NGO activists. Thus, they become the slaves of the Brahminical-patriarchal-capitalist logic that sells the body of the Dalit women in the name of sex work. Dalit women thus are pushed into the realm of infectious diseases and endless penury.

Narrative 2: I am pushed into prostitution due to poverty. After the death of my husband, I was looking for a work. Friends of my husband told me that they will help me find work. One among them took me to a brothel. Initially, I could not understand that place. When I realized it is a brothel, I tried to come out of that place. But there was constant surveillance on me by the brothel owner. I could not come out from this kind of work due to lack of a house to stay, or any support from family or friends. I had to support my children. I wanted to educate my children. I knew that such a dream was deviant in nature. My ambition was hindered by our lower caste location and related backwardness. Other caste people always reminded me that I was from lower caste and therefore I should not have such dreams. Policies exist on a paper. It hardly exists in practice. Future of my children haunts me. Corona and lockdown led us to days of hunger. I started hating my body which lacks any respect, dignity (izzat) in the society. I hate the lustful touch. We have nothing in our life. We have no future and one day I will die like cats and dogs.

Pandemic dragged these Dalit women into economic impoverishment. Scavenger women who are mostly Dalits had to bear the brunt of caste, touch and stigmatized labour during the pandemic. Cleanliness became the privilege of the upper caste-rich sections. It also reproduced the notions of the caste-based purity and pollution. Majority of the Dalit women who are into this work are due to lack of education. Manual scavenging is a very difficult form of work for Dalit women. Our young generation are into contractual manual scavenging. Our community men die due to the dangerous gas from the manhole. None is bothered about our loss. The power of caste and vested interests of dominant castes determine our plight. Why do Dalits/ Dalit women engage in contractual manual scavenging and not other castes?

Narrative 3: I used to clean the toilets in a girls’ hostel. The male supervisor harassed us as he was a dominant caste person. He asked for money and sexual favors from scavenging women. Girls in the hostel talked to me in a rude manner due to lower caste location. The girls call us by name. They also shout at us. We are contractual workers. Our work environment reminds us of our social location.

Caste follows the body of the Dalit women. Gender becomes complicated in the presence of caste. Social and political mobility of Dalit women therefore is tied in the constructed space of their body. Medical and capitalistic transformations penetrate the body that is already tainted by the caste. Those bodies are continuously observed through the hidden dictates of caste, capital and dominant-political community. Is it possible to generate a new vocabulary of assertion through a close reading of their own bodies by the Dalit women?  Does it have to engage in a critical dialogue with the experiences of the non-Dalit bodies? Does such an identification have the potential to unravel the intersections of caste, gender and patriarchy? From Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder to brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras, these incidents show cruelty of the caste-based patriarchy and lawlessness. Further her funeral was done by the authorities in a hidden manner. From these dastardly casteist incidents to that of the murder of the Dalit child in Rajasthan for touching the water pot of the upper /dominant caste teacher show the continuity of the barbaric caste ideology-practice. This foregrounds the growing imposition of casteist mentality of the upper castes on the body of Dalits/ Dalit women. This demonstrates the gaps that exist in the theory and practices of democracy and related systems. Dalits are in their continuous struggles to annihilate the caste.

Smita M Patil
teaches at School of Gender and Development Studies, IGNOU, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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