Center for South Asian Studies | University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Rege Excerpt

Excerpted from Sharmila Rege: Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testomonios. New Delhi, Zubaan. Pages 1-4; 1,666 words.

go back to Recent Scholarly Perspectives on Caste


The growing number of recently published translations of dalit writings (mainly life narratives),1 tempt one to think that a rupture of kinds may be taking place in our teaching and learning of caste studies. Two decades ago, for many of us studying social sciences in regional universities in India, caste was considered mainly a ‘sociological’ subject. Undeniably, it was central to courses on Indian society. At the time, these were neatly compartmentalised into ‘social structure’ and ‘social change’ over two academic terms. The study of caste too was compartmentalised into reading studies on the features of the caste system in one term and modernisation and sanskritisation of caste in the other. Writings on/by Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar were not in the list of readings and most of us remained largely ignorant of the abrahmani2 / non-brahmanical perspectives on caste. The Satyashodak and Ambedkarite movements did not have a place in courses on social movements and the post-independence dalit, tribal and women’s movements were often cluttered into one module. Not surprisingly, there were no selections from dalit literature and life narratives in our readings or classes and therefore the epistemological challenge posed by the dalit movement and literature to received social science frameworks was lost to us. A decade later, as teachers of sociology, we realised that the assumed Archimedean standpoint for the objective study of caste had persisted and caste in our classrooms continued to be practices much in the same way.Indian sociology, as Deshpande (2003) has argued, seems to have done little to counter the tendency for caste to vanish from view in those very contexts where it has been most effective. Indian sociology seems to have invited us to ‘see’ caste only in villages, rituals, rites and so on and by doing so, seems to have suggested that caste had no active role in everyday urban life. Since the ‘upper castes’3 have dominated urban middle class arenas such as universities and research institutes, caste identity has hardly ever been an issue for public discussion. As an upper caste, middle class student on campus, I recall being part of a group that though discussions about caste identities to be retrograde. In the women’s movement too, caste was rarely discussed as it was assumed that caste identities could be transcended by the larger identity of sisterhood among all women. The marginalisation of the non-brahmanical perspectives and experience in the institutionalised scholarship on caste has blurred our understanding of the relations between structural continuities and contemporary change in the social institution of caste. Engagement with anti-caste organisations and emergent dalit theoretical perspectives helped throw light on the pernicious divide between the ‘theoretical brahmans’ and ‘empirical shudras’ that social science practice in the last fifty years has continued to foster (Guru 2002) thus ensuring that classical models of caste as a consensual system based on complementarity persisted. The challenges posed in the last decade and more to the scholarship on caste further underlined the now apparent disjuncture between academic knowledge systems and social practices of caste. An engagement with these challenges initiated reflections both at the personal and political levels; calling forth transformative pedagogies that interrogate institutionalised disciplinary and curricular practices related to caste.

One important challenge to the scholarship on caste came in the form of the post-Mandal violence by savarna elite students. It posed a direct challenge to the assumption that caste identities in urban India were personal and private matters. The burden of caste in our universities and classrooms, as in other institutions, has always weighed more heavily on the dalit and bahujan student. The elite savarna students who decried the reservation policy claimed that it was the ‘lower castes’ who reiterated caste identities and that the upper caste student was secular and did not observe caste practices. The anti-Mandal protests challenged this assumption of / about the elite savarna students and drew attention to the new modes of reproduction of caste, whether it was through the idiom of citizenship or merit. The second important challenge came with the emergence of dalit feminist assertions and critiques of the dalit and women’s movements, both at the regional and national levels. In the early nineties, dalit feminist articulations, especially on the issue of quotas within quotas, challenged the conceptions of ‘genderless caste’ and ‘casteless gender’. The advocacy of dalit human rights in the context of the Durban Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination posed yet another challenge. As Kannabiran (2001) has argued, the inclusion of caste within the definition of racism by rewriting caste as a knowledge system had posed a challenge to sociological categories. Some sociologists like Gupta (2001) responded to these efforts to forge a common platform against caste and race discrimination by underlining caste and race as not only dissimilar but also incomparable. In the debate that followed, sociological categories were set as if against accounts that derived directly from lived experience and the politics of that experience.

These issues of the 1990s also posed serious challenges to the women’s movement and feminist scholarship in India. Elite, savarna girl students protesting against Mandal displayed their anxiety (evident in the placards they used in their protests) about finding ‘educated’ husbands, thus expressing publicly their commitment to caste endogamy (Chakravarti 2003). The writings and manifestoes of different dalit women’s groups underlined the fact that the unmarked feminism of the 1970s had, in fact, been in theory and praxis a kind of brahmanical feminism. The NGO Declaration on Gender and Racism issued in 2001 by the National Federation of Dalit Women4 suggested new directions for feminist internationalism. In the debates that followed, the absence of feminist comparative work on issues of race and caste became apparent. Over the last two decades, women’s studies in India has raised important questions about the invisibility, distortion and maginalisation of gender as a category of analysis in mainstream disciplines and their practices of canonisation. Despite feminist critiques of mainstream social sciences, the classical frameworks of caste have left their imprint on women’s studies too. Dalit feminist critiques of the 1990s posed challenges to feminist canons, curricular protocols and alliances with brahmanical power and privilege. Except for a few notable exceptions, women’s studies scholars did not seriously engage with dalit feminist critiques, and reflections on the transcoding of caste in feminist discourse and practices have been rare. Reflections on caste in the curricular protocols of women’s studies have been even fewer. This lack of engagement cannot be dismissed easily; either by the savarna feminist justification of being ‘frozen in guilt’ (what can ‘we’ say now, let ‘them’ speak) or by a resigned dalit feminist position that sees a ‘fit of caste identities and ideological positions’ (brahman and ‘upper caste’ women will be brahmanical). The former assumes that caste is solely the concern of dalit women and bypasses the need for all women to critically interrogate the complex histories of caste and gender oppression. The latter resigns itself to assuming the impossibility of transcending caste identities, thereby amounting to a slippage between brahman and brahmanical and non-brahman and non-brahmanical. As John (2000) commenting on the resurgence of caste and minority issues within ‘women’s issues’ argues, ‘The revival of reservations for women in the 1990s—after Mandal, Ayodhya and globalisation—offers us the chance to  conceive of alternate modernities. This is nothing less than an opportunity to link rather than oppose—women’s rights to rights based on caste, class or minority status in the broader context of a common democratic struggle’ (p. 3829). The recognition of caste as not just a retrograde past but an oppressive past reproduced as forms of inequality in modern society requires therefore that we integrate questoins of caste with those of class and gender. For feminist pedagogues and activists who see to engage with these challenges, it is politically and academically an exciting moment of reflection. It requires thinking out classroom practices in which the social and hetergeneity of students is articulated and engages with to search out new dimensions of the battles of our times.

1 The term life narrative has been used in this text as a wide-ranging term for exploring diverse modes around the autographical.
2 The word non-brahmanical as used in this text refers to an English translation of ‘abrahmani’ and is different from ‘brahmaneter’ literally meaning all except the brahmans and which has been translated as non-brahman. The concept abrahmani has been articulated in the voluminous work of comrade Sharad Patil, the founder of the Satyashodak Communist Party, and continues to be rigorously debated (see especially Patil 1988). Patil argues that the epistemological conflict in Indian Philosophy is between brahmani and abrahmani schools and that these categories have evolved from the history of social conflict in Indian society. He argues that the Sankhya, Lokayata, Buddhist, Kauala, Shaiva, Tantra and in the modern period Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar schools of thought represent the abrahmani tradition. The category abrahmani suggests perspectives emerging from, and directed towards the annihilation of caste, class and the oppression of women, and is thus more specific than categories like transformative and progressive. Patil (1988) in discussing the parameters of abrahmani and brahmani literature clarifies how Ramnayana and Mahabharata are brahmani literature not because their subjects are kshitriyas and brahmans but because of their justification and propagation of varna-ashrama-dharma. He explains how the brahmani school may include brahmani non-brahmans and the abrahmani may include abrahmani brahmans. Recently scholars have mapped the possibilities of bringing abrahmani perspectives into the academy especially in doing feminist history and understanding Indian society from non-brahmanical perspectives (Bhagwat and Pardeshi 1998; Ilaiah 2001 and Dahiwale 2004).
3 Words like ‘Untouchables’, ‘upper and lower castes’, have been put within quotes the first time they appear in the text, following the practice of scholars who explicitly distance themselves from the ideology in which these linguistic practices emerge.
4 For details of the Declaration on Gender and Racism issued at the World Conference Against Racism, 28 August – 7 September 2001, Durban, South Africa, See Rao (2003).

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