Forced to fight their own fight: how Dalit women are caught in the crossfire between misogyny and casteism in India

The insults heaped on political leader Mayawati – mainly from women – show the ugly intersection of two kinds of hatred present in Indian society

Indian Dalit women shout slogans during a protest against the gang rape of four Dalit girls in Haryana’s Hisar district in May 2014. Tsering Topgyal / AP
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Tomorrow marks 71 years since Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. One of the clearest signs of his increasing irrelevance in India may be the way he has been all but excised from the debate over casteism. The Dalits, for centuries at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system, do not invoke Gandhi's attempt to champion their cause. And Hindu nationalists, who are currently in government, ignore Gandhi's measured counsel of love and egalitarianism.

A telling example of the marginalisation of the freedom fighter's philosophy in India today is a recent controversy. A female politician of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party spoke in derogatory terms about the woman who leads the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is dedicated to the concerns of the Dalits. The BJP's Sadhana Singh said the BSP's Mayawati was "neither a man nor a woman…worse than a eunuch". Ms Mayawati's apparent offence was to have cut a deal with another regional political party, ahead of national elections in the summer. Ms Singh initially refused to apologise but later expressed regret for her comments.

Mayawati, then chief minister of Uttar Pradash, on the campaign trail in 2012
Mayawati, then chief minister of Uttar Pradash, on the campaign trail in 2012

The incident could be dismissed as no more than the BJP’s preparation for a bare-knuckle political fight to win re-election in April this year, but the subtext is a great deal more complicated. Ms Mayawati has been the target of exactly the same sort of insults by female BJP politicians before. In 2014, the well-heeled Mumbai fashion designer and BJP spokeswoman Shaina Chudasama questioned Ms Mayawati’s gender, saying she did not know whether the BSP leader was “a he or a she".

The persistent attempt to de-feminise Ms Mayawati speaks volumes about how the Hindu caste system and misogyny intersect in Indian politics and society today. The insults heaped on Ms Mayawati by BJP women born into a higher caste are not really about her physical appearance and lifestyle, even if the comments have largely focused on the way she looks and the fact she wears her hair short, eschews most forms of adornment and is unmarried.

The attempt to de-feminise Ms Mayawati is really about preventing Dalit women from daring to speak up or behave differently. Ridicule and shame are meant to cow Dalit women. As the four-time chief minister of the populous and politically significant northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Ms Mayawati projected a tough, no-nonsense image as administrator, albeit one who was said to be venal and autocratic. The hope of her critics is that women like her do not challenge the Brahmin-based patriarchy, which keeps all Hindu women – but Dalit women in particular – firmly in their place.

How? Well, Dalit women are doubly oppressed. They suffer both caste and gender violence and abuse and it often goes unremarked and unpunished. In December 2012, when a young woman's gang rape on a bus in Delhi and subsequent death triggered public outrage in India and horror around the world, little attention was paid to an equally ugly reality: that just a few months before, the rapes of more than 22 Dalit women in the state of Haryana were reported over a 30-day span. There had been some protests and calls to action by Dalit activists but the country as a whole paid little heed, even as Indians expressed horror over the savagery of the Delhi rape.

Rightly, there was revulsion and disgust over the case of the Delhi student but the disparity in reactions led many to question the hypocrisy. Sumedha Bodh, of the Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan (National Dalit Women's Movement), said: "After Nirbhaya [the victim's moniker, meaning "fearless"], so many people came forward. Why didn't they do so for rape among Dalits? We have realised that mainstream feminists are also casteists in some way or the other. Our fight is different from theirs."

Members of the Indian Dalit community block a train at a station during a countrywide strike against the Supreme Court order that allegedly diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh state on April 2, 2018.
A Supreme Court order banned automatic arrests of people involved in cases of alleged harassment of members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes community. / AFP PHOTO / -
Members of the Indian Dalit community block a train at a station during a countrywide strike against the Supreme Court order that allegedly diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh state April 2018. AFP

For other Dalit activists, such as Manisha Mashaal of the NGO Swabhimaan Society, it was a moment of awakening: “Forget getting justice, so many cases of violence against us are not even acknowledged. It makes my blood boil to see how we still have to fight for these basic fights… how somehow the rape of Dalit women even today does not bring the country out on the streets…We are forced to fight our own fight."

The awakening has triggered some action, but mainly among Dalit women. The Swabhimaan Society questioned why 110 cases of the rape and murder of Dalit women between 2010 and 2018 in 14 districts of Haryana ended in a deal between the victims’ families and alleged perpetrators. Last year another Dalit women’s group submitted a report packed with incidents of violence against Dalit women to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Sampat Pal Devi and her Gulabi Gang. Sampat pal Devi the commander of Gulabi Gang fights for women empowerment, justice and rights among the poor people of Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. Sampat Pal Devi comes from a poor family in Bundelkhand - the poorest region of India. The region is fraught with abject poverty, gross under development, lack of law and order, and stark casteism in which the Brahmins and other higher caste people treat their low caste brethren with disdain. Out of such situation when Sampat Pal Devi decided to speak up for the poor, she has been winning heart felt gratitude of the poor as well as enmity of the high caste people and grudging respect of the law enforcement officials who used to be largely inactive in these badlands of North India. Initially, she began with helping distressed women - victims of domestic violence and dowry system, but soon started getting other cases of nature of land dispute and under development. She emerged as a fiery leader in 2007, when she beat up the OC of the local police station while demanding release of a dalit woman kept locked up in the cell for thirteen days without being charged with a case.Today, she has a huge fan following of some 25 hundreds of thousands of women (spread across 8 districts of the state of UP) who have come to be known as Gulabi Gang or Pink Vigilante Women for their vibrant pink sarees - the costume of the gang; and fiery nature of dealing with injustice. When verbal negotiations for justice fail they resort to beating up. Sampat Devi is viewed as a messiah with the promise of bringing back law and order for the poor, in these mafia troubled areas. Today, perpetrators are simply scared of her as she does not hesitate to challenge law and order and even system - to win justice for the poor. More complaints related to domestic violence and other problems are registered now with the police than they ever used to be. She being one of the Other Backward Caste people in the region i
Sampat Pal Devi heads the vigilante Gulabi Gang, fighting for female empowerment, justice and rights for lower castes

A larger point emerges from these twin outrages faced by Dalit women – the unheard stories of sexual violence and the BJP’s attempt to target their most prominent public figure, Ms Mayawati. Anthropologist Manuela Ciotti, who has conducted extensive research on Dalit women over two decades, suggests that a Dalit woman who becomes politically active is deliberately rebelling “against gender expectations placed on sections of Indian women”. Female members of the BSP, says Dr Ciotti, “are far from the violent and aggressive female figures found within Hindu right organisations” but uphold a distinctive form of feminism. Within the BSP, “women workers are elevated to a non-sexual status by virtue of an ideology of brotherhood/sisterhood”. That extends to terms of reference, with party members calling each other “brother” and sister”, implying the kind of respect that comes from being a blood relative.

What this means is that Dalit women are claiming identities undefined by their relationship to men. It is a brave attempt to break free of the twin binds of caste and misogyny.