Asha Kowtal has been seeking, organizing and raising the voice of Dalit women across India and the world. As General Secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) she has been actively working to mobilize Dalits, and Dalit women in particular, across states - from Dabra in Haryana to Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu - against caste hegemony and violence.
In her chosen path of activism that is rooted in anti-caste movements, she is a bridge between senior anti-caste women leaders and young aspiring Dalit and Adivasi women who are gearing towards doing their part in annihilating caste and creating a gender-just society.
In this interview, the second in the series of interviews conducted during the National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress held at TISS, Mumbai, on Feb 15-16, 2013, Asha Kowtal talks to Kuffir about the historic Congress and the solidarities forming between marginalized women activists and academics as well as the new possibilities for anti-caste women leadership. She also dwells extensively on her experience with the Haryana gang rape protests led by Dalit women activists and the challenges that hamper the efforts to mitigate sexual violence when it brutally intersects with caste and gender.
As mentioned earlier, this is the second of the series of interviews with many Dalit, Adivasi and Pasmanda women leaders conducted during the Congress. Round Table India and SAVARI shall regularly publish the rest of the interviews in the weeks ahead.
Kuffir: This conference, the National Dalit & Adivasi Women's Congress, is the first of its kind: what are your views on it? Do you think it's a step towards further joining of forces, a positive step? How do you see it?
Asha Kowtal: To be very honest, when I first heard about this National Dalit & Adivasi Women's Congress I was excited thinking (about) such a group coming together for the first time ever and I was also wondering about what can really come out from this process. Nevertheless, I was excited because I knew that I would meet many like-minded women, probably facing similar challenges, confronting the same problems. And, perhaps, each of them coming with some (unique) experience of their own, and that it would be a very good space to learn and share. That was what I had in my mind.
I was a little bit (unsure) whether it would be an academic discourse where paper presentations would be done and how can we link that up with the kind of work that I am involved with: working on the field and trying to build new models (for empowerment). But the two days (of the Congress) are gone now, and looking back at it I really felt that this process brought some kind of inspiration and motivation back to me.
I was telling some of the other younger friends that this (Congress) has been such an inspiration, and they've been saying, 'No, you've been such an inspiration; your work has been such an inspiration'. So when I heard that, I was thinking that somehow we've been able to derive strength from each other and appear as sources of inspiration.
The second aspect was that, usually for me, when I go to such conferences or meetings of such large gatherings I tend to be a bit more reserved and don't come out so much. But here I felt it was so different, I suddenly felt that I was in the midst of our women. That sense of community and that sense of solidarity, of coming together (happened) because of the experiences, I think.
So it was a non-threatening space, for sure. There was nobody who was a super-expert and somebody (else) who was not. I think it was a beautiful place of learning and I definitely see it as a very positive step, because going back I feel so much rejuvenated and energized from this process. So it was good, but as somebody said this is just a beginning and now we really need to see how these different people coming from different backgrounds, different areas, skills and expertise and knowledge – if we are able to bring it all together there would be something amazingly powerful. So I think we really need to start working on the next steps of this Congress.
Kuffir: The historic significance of this has not yet been fully absorbed by all of us, I think.
Asha Kowtal: Yes.
Kuffir: Apart from that, one point you made was very significant because Abhinaya Kamble was also making the same point – about the surveilling gaze of the upper caste being very absent and there seems to be a sheer sense of community here.
Asha Kowtal: Very true.
Kuffir: How do you think we have arrived at the kind of situation where all spaces seem to be so dominated by the upper castes and we have not been able to build spaces where we are free of this kind of surveillance? Even the civil society. Or the voluntary sector where you are (working) seem to be surveilled to a great extent by the upper castes? How did this come to pass, despite the growing strength of Dalit and Adivasi middle class, even the tiny middle class, this is happening again and again and it has grown. And we are also trying to find spaces. This event can be seen as the culmination of decades of effort. Can you talk a little about the historicity or the sense of history it conveys?
Asha Kowtal: Yes, from my experiences in the circles that I have been also engaging with – there are two things. One, (as a) woman in many of these kinds of circles, at many of these kinds of symposiums and gatherings, I would probably end up being the one woman, or one of two women from that particular group. So being a minority woman in a large group of men itself (would) make me take a step back. Retracting, thinking twice, just because of the dominant male (presence) itself.
Now compare that with a similar situation with a larger women's group who are coming with their own dominant identity which gives them a sense of power in their speech, their body language, the way they conduct themselves, the kind of expressions...and everything. That also has a similar thing (effect) for us that we have to step back and retract. But that we did not find in this two day process. That's why I said that it was non-threatening.
You refer to the voluntary sector and the civil society, you see all the institutions - whatever these organizations, these NGOs and the international NGOs (INGOs), research institutions – all of them are led by dominant caste people, men and women also. So obviously under that kind of leadership, the money is with them, the programme strategies that they make – the five year plans, the ten year plans – the kind of initiatives they undertake, all come from this background, because ultimately (it's) your ideological standpoint and your worldview and your political perspective (that) is determining everything that you do through your institutions, organizations.
That has been a fact; studies have been done now to say Dalit, Adivasi and minority women leadership in NGO sector, smaller organizations, is absolutely dismal. We would probably remain as animator or (at) programme executive, programme officer level. Now we are coming up into middle and senior management positions within the NGO sector. But in the leadership – it's not there. It's not there.
So I think the history of this whole sector has been definitely upper caste men and women who have dominated the scene. That's why today, I guess, we're in this situation where we're actually saying that this (Congress) is one huge step that we have taken.
Kuffir: But it's only one conference (yet).
Asha Kowtal: Yes, it's just one conference.
Kuffir: You have seen what recently happened in Haryana, you were also talking about your field experiences, what will you take back from this conference, this National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress in TISS, to the women of Haryana at large, and to Dabra? In what way could what has happened here affect those people?
Asha Kowtal: That's an important question that you raise and it always plays on my mind. I was happy to see our activists and young Dalit women who led the Yatra (please read: Dalit Mahila Garima Yatra: Updates from the Karwan) late last year were also here and participated to a full level in a conference like this. It was really good.
I would just say that the challenges we are facing in Haryana are manifold. Even (though) three months have passed now, we're still..still only trying to move the cases to the legal process, to the trials and everything. I think that struggle from the ground is one area. But the fact is that this kind of a space has given a much wider exposure to us and to the other younger Dalit women activists in Haryana. So they know that their fight in Haryana is not just their own, that there are struggles all across, that there are women just like them who are emerging as leaders and there is a possibility for them to now take up full leadership and face these challenges. For sure, it has been a good learning experience for me and for other women activists from Haryana.
Secondly, this has also given us the kind of (opportunities for) associations with other people (activists/academics): like so many people presented papers, researches they have done, younger students who are doing their PhDs, and who want to get into research work. Like, for example, we've been thinking that we need to do a proper quality study on sexual violence on Dalit women and their barriers to justice. So, I could see here that there would be many young women who would probably take up that kind of research for us.
We have been challenging (dominant positions) at different places using data, that is again dependent on the National Crime Records Bureau, and maybe another study we had done. There is a need for us to take up new research areas and I'm sure groups, like students from TISS and other research institutions, who were here – they can be also roped in.
I met some of the other panelists and also some of the participants from Jamia Milia Islamia, from JNU, from DU and they all have actually offered to come to our office, get involved with fact findings, (explore) what can they contribute for the advocacy work. So, for sure, I don't see this as something which will just get washed out. So now that we've built these links, together we've to see how we can take it to follow up work of the Haryana rape survivors.
Kuffir: Haryana was on the top of our minds, not just Delhi. It still is on the top of our minds and I remember what you had said during the Haryana period, how horrible those events were and how courageous the girls were, and how that Yatra was. Could you recount for us those experiences in Haryana?
Asha Kowtal: The Yatra was ten days long, where we covered about nine districts and we met families and the survivors themselves. One thing is that we set out to see how we could build a larger collective strength within Haryana, meet these survivors and their families, and (determine) how can we take up those cases. But, apart from that, what we came across was – every single day, different kinds of atrocities were coming to us. Literally coming to us.
We would wake up in the morning and sometimes we would find people outside the door. They had heard, they had seen in the papers that the 'Yatra is coming like this (coming this way), and they are talking about Dalit issues, violence against Dalits', and they actually came looking for us.
I was just struck by that, because if we had not gone there, probably, nobody would have heard of these cases and they'd just be gone. So we actually included all those cases in the petitions that we filed with the district administration.
Heinous crimes, like we mention – a 70 year old man who was beaten up, his eyes were pulled out. Interestingly, there were Jat women in that fight (incident), in that village. They urinated in his mouth, (of that) old man. So this kind of horrifying cases which probably would have never come out at all..
We came across a family, in Fatehabad, who were, believe it or not, protesting for six months outside the DC office, all by themselves! There was no movement to help them, no NGO, no activists, no nothing. They, by themselves, had been sitting there, claiming that 'our house was burnt down, our legs were chopped, wife was beaten' etc. And you know what was it that the District administration would offer them?
I was always telling my colleagues that I don't think any of us would have the strength to take up that kind of struggle single-handedly. That actually reminds me of the amazing resilience and struggle of our communities everywhere, they are actually struggling all alone, everywhere. What is the little role that you and I can play in supporting that struggle..
Apart from the rape cases that were reported in the newspapers, there were so many other cases also which came to us during the time of the Yatra. During the Yatra, per se, we were able to meet families, we had awareness programmes, we had night meetings in the communities, we shared (information) about the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, we spoke about how there are legal mechanisms. And we also had local leaders coming together, (creating) a sense that 'there are other groups who are with you in this struggle, you're not alone'. That kind of building of solidarity happened.
We had meetings with all the District Commissioners in all the districts, we filed petitions; we had meetings with the administration and the survivors themselves so that they actually were able to talk and put forward their demands. Assurances were made, but nothing much they have done. Compensations have been given. Literally, it's like the system, the entire system – how they can just get away.. (We) have been saying this, how impunity is just going unchallenged. Enjoyed by a few.
They feel that – 'Achcha rape hua hai, this is the money, take it and get lost'. The whole mindset that is there. Or – 'No, no, there is no money for this, we don't have budget for this.' That's the attitude. (The attitude seems to say) violence, or atrocity has happened? Rape, a gang rape has happened? Ok, take this money, go away.
With that kind of a mindset or attitude within the entire system, - that's why I think the challenges are becoming much more. We have tried to get a Supreme Court case, we have put in all these cases in the Supreme Court, we don't know. The hearing has still not yet come. We have been working closely with the families, (telling them) that we should keep up the legal process.
In the Kalsi case, we have pushed for a CBI inquiry into that case because the mother also was found murdered. That case has been followed up. We have been trying to see if we can get a hostel facility for the children and a job for the father himself. So, in each case we have been trying differently to support.
But I definitely feel that the movements and the groups within Haryana – now I think that process really needs to be strengthened, particularly the students' groups. Younger women – (we need to think of) how we can get them involved, so that (we don't need to have) somebody from Delhi going there, or somebody from some other state going there (when atrocities happen). Their own state level strong movement will emerge now.
Kuffir: You've talked about violence against Dalits, and against Dalit women in particular. There was a recent article by Mr. Anand Teltumbde where he saw neo-liberalism as a cause of increased violence. But we studied the figures the article quoted, it seemed that the rate of increase was more during the pre-liberalization period, from, say, 1971 to 1991. From 1991 to 2011, the increase was 170%, which (matches) the normal rate of (increase in) violence, or crime. From 1971 to 1991, the increase was over 340%. So the larger causes are not understood by most analyses now. There is a lack of data, of course, a huge lack of data. NCDHR has been doing a remarkable job of bringing up data for the last one decade or so. Beyond all this, what do you see as the primary causes, apart from caste?
Asha Kowtal: I definitely agree with you that data, what we have, is unreliable. Honestly I cannot believe the data that the NCRB is bringing up year after year. And also perhaps one of the reasons that the numbers are showing up higher is also because cases, probably, are only now getting registered and reported and getting counted which was (not) happening earlier in the period that you mentioned. That is probably one of the reasons it is showing up as more.
Secondly, people have been talking about another aspect of the whole backlash violence, that growing assertion has brought this kind of violence. And also that if there is no atrocity reported from certain areas that means it has been completely silenced, snuffed out.. the resistance. That's why those cases are not coming up. That has also been another area (that needs to be studied).
From what I've seen, like earlier I had worked with Dalit women sarpanches and also with these (atrocities) cases, there is definitely this trend of backlash violence. Especially when we look at the Dalit women sarpanches after being elected and coming to some position of power, there is a very severe violence on them. So I would go with this (idea) that backlash violence is definitely increasing. Assertion has brought about later violence. And in Haryana also, as you said, probably they (Dalit girls) were not going out (earlier), the mobility has also probably brought out a greater risk. But I honestly can't say, because these crimes against Dalits have been there forever, almost. So I just see only, probably, the pattern, the location, the nature of the crimes are probably now changing.
To be continued.
Please also read the earlier interview with P. Sivakami:
Transcribed by Kuffir.
Video courtesy: Neel Kranti Media, Ratnesh Kumar and Gurinder Azad.
Image courtesy: Nilesh Kumar.