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.
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."
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.
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.