The National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress 2013 was something that was long overdue. I am yet to absorb the 'explosion of knowledge and power' that I experienced and when Anoop bhai said we could share our experiences I was glad to sit down and reflect.
Many people asked questions like why the need to organize separately for Dalit/Adivasi women, how will it contribute to the betterment of women and what after the congress, where will it lead to? But as I see it, the Congress was not just a meeting of Dalit/Adivasi women, rather it was a socio-political act. While the Congress denied the agency of privileged (read upper-caste) feminists and men to speak for Dalit/Adivasi women it simultaneously asserted and reclaimed the legacy of Savitri Bai, Rama Bai, Babasaheb, Birsa Munda, Phule within the women's movement. It was also a platform to forge solidarity and strengthen the fight against caste and patriarchy.
In academics one is always expected to be presenting something in the conferences and be the speaker, whether we have substance or not - we are privileged only because we are 'educated'. But here was a chance to 'Listen' to the women- the real women who are living out the reality of caste, patriarchy and various forms of domination every minute and fighting against it, putting up resistance to it every minute.
The Congress was a conflux of poets, activists, professionals, journalists, academicians and students from villages and cities from all corners of India. The speakers filled my heart with many emotions – I felt the rage, the frustration, the power and strength but most of all I felt hopeful. As an individual determined to fulfil Babasaheb's dream of annihilation of caste, I sometimes become hopeless with India. At times the dream of a caste-free and gender equal India becomes blurry with agitation that trickles down as tears when I read and hear stories of men, women and children who suffer the agonies of caste and patriarchy. The speakers nurtured the eternal flame of 'Hope' - for a better society through their stories of struggles and successes - within me.
Anita Bharati's poetry encapsulated the reality of mainstream feminist movement in a few lines when she questions the upper caste feminists for their silence on the issues of Dalit women. That is the beauty and power of poetry that refuses to speak of rivers, mountains and flowers and rather chooses to speak about women who have to cross these rivers and mountains barefoot and whose lives are not so flowery.
There were moments when the speakers got emotional while addressing the congress. Emotions are often given a negative connotation within academics. The academic methodology is based on popular notions of rationale and logic that reject the authenticity of emotions. It is an agreed upon notion within academics that if you get emotional it is your weakness, but it is the sheer intensity of the struggles that lead to these momentary breakdowns. The platform provided a space where academics was redefined for many of us as I feel academics cannot engage with human reality without emotions. The Congress was not purely academic but much more- it was a powerful narration of reality which made academics seem smaller.
It is the sheer inability of mainstream academics in India to capture the realities of life - I say mainstream India because here it is the prerogative of the upper castes - to summarize the reality of all communities and all genders without epistemological standpoint. In India there is an 'objective' analysis that is so detached and so 'cold' from the reality because the 'experience holders' are shunned as emotional and substituted by 'objective and unbiased analysts'. Doing sociology in caste and gender studies I often wonder how many feminists have actually read Dalit women's writings when they speak of Dalit feminism? Reading articles of Guru and Rege on 'Dalit Women Talk Differently' is not enough to help one understand their realities. It is a fact that doing sociology of caste, gender and tribes we hardly ever get to read the 'real authors' belonging to Dalit/Adivasi backgrounds who have an epistemological standpoint, this fact needs to be changed to make sociology more liberated and the experience of doing sociology more emancipatory, personally and academically.
About 70% of Dalits live in the villages. I have read and heard discourses about the Indian village mostly by people who themselves are urban dwellers/upper castes/male, even the NGO approach to 'village development' is so aloof from the reality of Dalits and women in the villages. The Indian obsession with Gandhi's idea of Gram Swaraj surfaces in very conversation of an ideal village. As against this Ambedkar advised people to leave the villages and go for the cities to escape the caste based life systems. For long until Sivakami spoke the words 'I have a dream of a village' I was against the idea of a village as it is a hotbed for the caste system to thrive. Sivakami dreams of a village with 'common work share' against Gandhi's varnaashrama dharma and the 12 balutedar system. It was the first time I was hearing a 'Dalit woman' speak about her own idea of a village! It is such an irony that we hardly hear what Dalits themselves have to say about villages when 70% of them live there. I have never before heard of what a Dalit woman thinks of the idea of a village. Sivakami dreams of a playground, a meeting area where politics will be discussed and have health clinics in the village for women - of all castes. Sivakami challenges the idea of Gram Swaraj in its entirety, rejecting the caste and gender based hierarchies of village. She dreams of village as a liberating space for both women and Dalits.
The value of 'payback to the society' was reiterated by many speakers in the Congress. I am reminded of Ambedkar's quote 'An educated man without character and humility is more dangerous than a beast'. I am aware of the fact that the middle class can easily get swayed away from the goals of a just and equal society and be corrupted by the 'rewards of an unjust society'. The Congress gave me an opportunity to reflect on my privileged position in society as an 'educated middle class OBC woman' and my responsibility and contribution towards Ambedkar's dream of annihilation of caste.
Please also read other related articles:
National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress: Concept note from TISS, Insight and DTSW International Forum
National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress - Programme Schedule: by Organizing Committee
Dalit and Adivasi Women Warriors Question Caste and Gender Oppression: by Sujatha Surepally
Prachi Beula says:
I completed my Masters in Dalit and Tribal Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences where I got introduced to the Phule-Ambedkarite Movement. Currently I am writing my M.Phil thesis on 'Women's Liberation in India: A Dalit and Shudra Peoples Contribution' from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Social Systems. As an individual I strive to fulfill Babasaheb's dream of Annihilation of Caste and Women's Liberation.
[Pictures courtesy: Manju Rao, Aqui Thami and Nilesh Kumar]