Wandana Sonalkar’s timely and elegant translation of Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon’s account of the Ambedkar movement and its key women activists, Amhihi Itihas Ghadavila—first published by Stree Uvac in Marathi in 1989—extends the frame of a masculinist dalit history which is typically narrated as ‘history before and after Ambedkar’. But the volume simultaneously reproduces a movement-centric account of dalit political subjectivity. As Sonalkar notes, ‘[The book] was written at a time preceding the recent political assertion of dalit women’s separate identity. . . This book documents the historical roots of that process in modern times. However the paradigm in which it is written belongs to an earlier stage of this process. It largely takes the ideology of the Ambedkar movement as given . . .’ (p. 9). Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is not merely a political leader, of course, but the constitutive ground for writing the history of how the untouchable became dalit.
Dalits’ millenial suffering, their memories of historic humiliation and injustice, found expression in Ambedkar’s cogent analyses and angry exhortations. He is the starting point for dalit history and its main protagonist. We Also Made History replicates this temporal structure, albeit with a difference.
The difference lies in the volume’s focus on women’s contribution to the imagination of a distinctively dalit future, but also in the text’s structure and organization. The first half of We Also Made History documents women’s involvement in associational politics between 1927–1956. The second half comprises forty-four oral interviews with women activists. This time span correlates with Ambedkar’s leadership of the Mahad satyagraha, and culminates with the Buddhist conversion on October 14, 1956, and Ambedkar’s death shortly thereafter, on December 6, 1956. Events of popular significance—dalit activism in Vidarbha and the Konkan from the turn of the twentieth century; the Mahad water satyagraha where the Manusmriti was publicly burnt; struggles to enter the Parvati temple in Poona and the Kala Ram temple in Nasik between 1929–1935; the conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi in 1932 and the ensuing Poona Pact, conversion—punctuate the narrative. However the focal point of the book is the reform of the dalit intimate which was undertaken in conjunction with, and as a crucial aspect of the refashioning of the dalit self.
It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of this collection, long a key resource for scholars of the dalit movement in Maharashtra. In addition to evidence of women’s involvement in and advancement of the Ambedkarite cause, the volume raises difficult questions about history and memory, history as testimony, and about genre itself since what is at issue is the representation of dalit subalternity. By counterposing oral interviews against the narration of action, events, and information, Pawar and Moon forefront the struggles of individual women activists and the affective charge which Ambedkar’s movement held for them. The authors’ commitment to the formal constraints of disciplinary history—the mobilization of evidence, accepted citational practice and ultimately, the telos of dalit self-making—is undercut, and purposefully so, by the interruption of what Ranajit Guha has called the ‘small voice’ of history. These individual memories and forms of witnessing cannot be shoehorned into a standard historical narrative, but they nevertheless constitute the conditions of possibility for writing dalit history. Sonalkar notes, for instance that ‘. . . this book . . . is primarily a work of history, but it also tells us how history becomes a part of culture, and is blended with myth and ideology to shape new identities and bring confidence to an oppressed section of society’ (p. 33). By staging the (necessary) dissonance between history and memory, and between collective action and self-making, We Also Made History forces the reader to grapple with the elision of the woman activist from accounts of dalit politics, and to identify with her not merely as a collective subject but through the proper name. Indeed as Sonalkar notes, the politics of naming—calling out women’s names, noting their presence at major events, and listing individual participants—is a form of homage that Pawar and Moon themselves undertake. In the book, activists like Babytai Kamble, Shantabai Dani, Anjinabai Deshbhratar, Jaibai Chaudhari, or Ramabai Ambedkar each appear twice: first as (general) participants in Ambedkar’s movement and again as singular individuals. Their social recognition rights previous wrongs, and returns dignity and self-respect to the women who appear neither in standard accounts of Indian feminism nor in the masculinist narrative of dalit conscientization.
The volume’s focus on a heroic history of self-making is at odds, however, with the text’s insistent exploration of the sexual reproduction of caste and untouchability’s pernicious and particularly stigmatizing effects on women. While these are connected issues, they are not reducible each to the other: the former points to the structural interdependence of caste and gender as analytic categories, while the latter points to the reliance of the caste order on the visible (and permissible) exploitation of dalit women’s sexuality. Together and separately these issues suggest new perspectives for a dalit history of gender; offer ways to understand why the dalit political subject has been gendered male as historian Y.D. Phadke aptly noted in an otherwise ungenerous introduction to the Marathi edition, and challenge the alignment of the feminist subject with the liberal, upper-caste individual.
In her introduction, Sonalkar argues that ‘the question of the right to speak and the right of self-representation in political bodies; the question of educational opportunity and of education as a path to emancipation of the dalits, and the sexual exploitation of dalit women’ (p. 20) continue to be pressing contemporary issues. Indeed they have gained salience in the post-Mandal period, when the possibility of democratization through caste has become increasingly clarified as the distinctive trajectory of Indian democracy. This is an order produced by the constitutional commitment to the social redistribution of resources and opportunities through group rights. Indeed as the noted legal scholar, Marc Galanter has argued, the reservations regime is ‘very much a domestic product, produced with little guidance or borrowing from abroad’, a unique kind of civil rights law that addresses caste as a collective structure of deprivation and impoverishment.1 While the reservations regime and the power of the franchise have together facilitated emergent forms of ‘dalit power’, it has also exacerbated violent conflict between dalits and OBCs. Both are key aspects of the politics of recognition and redistribution that characterizes the post-Mandal era.
So far as gender issues are concerned, the last two decades have challenged the focus of mainstream Indian feminism on the postcolonial state as a guarantor of women’s rights (against familial and community violence) and as a more focused target of critique than the complex domains of custom and community, which play a crucial role in the constitution of female subjectivity.2 As the specificity of dalit, adivasi, or Muslim women’s oppression has become more evident and hence more deeply politicized, the relationship between woman and community—or, the dalit woman’s identity as both dalit and as woman—has provided the occasion for a signal rethinking of feminist politics and the meaning of women’s rights. Are women a political collectivity? Can sexual difference ground claims to political enfranchisement, as has been argued for European and American trajectories of female suffrage? Or does women’s conflicted location between state and community produce a new set of dilemmas for Indian feminism? Dalit feminism has emerged in this broader political context as a distinctive voice that is agonistic to both mainstream feminism, and to dalit patriarchy. As I have argued elsewhere, the challenge of dalit feminism is nothing less than to rethink the genealogy of Indian feminism and its imagination of the subject of feminist politics as both Hindu and upper-caste.3 Sonalkar also attributes interest in the dalit past (and its complex and contradictory unravelings) to this moment. That past cannot be teleologically collapsed into the present. Rather, it reveals alternate political imaginaries, roads not taken, and contradictory articulations of caste and gender that are as much the result of a distinctive regional history as they are the reflection of an ignored, subaltern history of anti-caste radicalism.
The popular memory of the Peshwai, a brahminical state, which explicitly promulgated a juridical order of fines and punishments for caste and gender infraction, played an important role in the development of anti-caste critique in western India. These critiques came to fruition in the extensive writings of Jotirao Phule (1827–1890), whose focus on the lived experience of caste exploitation and efforts to constitute a new political collective, the shudra-atishudra, drew significantly upon a rewritten history of caste conflict as the geohistorical universal of Hindu history. Thus from quite early on, claims upon (alternative) historical consciousness was a primary site for the reconstitution of the caste self, while sexual violence and gender exploitation played a critical role in the explanation of the shudra-atishudra’s defeat and historic humiliation.
The Satyashodak’s Samaj’s experiments with a new marriage form rejecting Brahmin priests together with anti-caste activists’ focus on the brahmin widow—Tarabai Shinde’s Stri Purush Tulana was written in 1884 in response to the colonial state’s criminalization of Vijayalakshmi, a brahmin widow accused of infanticide—produced a sophisticated critique of marriage as the hinge for the social and sexual reproduction of caste. Ambedkar also focused on marriage and argued, ‘The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste’.4 Pawar and Moon note, for example, the extensive attention that was paid to intercaste marriage in the pages of Bahishkrit Bharat and Janata. Indeed an emergent print public, the performative medium of the Ambedkari jalsa, Bahishkrit Parishads or Untouchable Conferences, and later, meetings of the Independent Labour Party and the Scheduled Caste Federation were important conduits that linked a new generation of educated dalit activists with the community.
Sexual servitude, sexual respectability, and later, female education were major issues for dalit gender reform. In this, the ‘untouchable’ status of the community—which led both to women’s excessive sexualization and stigmatization—was significant. The issue of dedicated girls, or muralis, became a major issue when Shivubai Lakshman Sonkamble-Jadhav, herself a murali, published a piece in the pages of the Somavanshiya Mitra in 1910 criticizing men who dedicated their daughters and the men who frequented muralis. As conflict over ritual dedication expanded to involve Christian missionaries, upper-caste reformers, colonial officials and dalit (male) activists, it would become increasingly clear that sexual respectability was the main focus of the debate, to the detriment of Shivubai’s sophisticate structural analysis of sexual servitude. Similarly, Ambedkar’s exhortations across the 1920s and the 1930s that women dress respectably, give up physical markers of caste, and ‘traditional’ practices such as performing in tamashas or participating in ritual prostitution enunciated norms of bourgeois respectability. Unlike cultural nationalism, which emphasized the affective continuity between women, religion and tradition, however, the reform of dalit women was premised on the rejection of tradition, which was associated with caste hierarchy and inequality. While demands to end sexual promiscuity and embrace the nuclear family often held women responsible for their stigmatized status, it is also the case that reform of the dalit intimate—because it challenged caste power and privilege—offered a more expansive critique of gender relations across the boundaries of the social and the political, and the public and private, than envisioned by upper-caste reformers (and feminists). We Also Made History illuminates this complex past.
As the three national women’s organizations—the Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women in India, and the All-India Women’s Conference—were formed between 1917 and 1927, dalit women began to form Mahila Mandals (first established January 1928), and later, in 1930, organized parallel sessions of the All-India Depressed Classes Congress. In 1936 the C.P. (Berar) Untouchable Women’s Provincial Congress resolved to reserve one of three seats for Scheduled Caste women in provincial legislative councils, and demanded the appointment of women as honorary magistrates. With the formation of the Independent Labour Party, this period also witnessed increased militancy around labour issues—demands for equal wages for female mill workers, support for compulsory education for dalit girls through scholarships, and struggles to educate young women before they were pushed into marriage. Anjinabai Deshbratar, Shevantibai Ogale, Subhadrabai Ramtek, and Anusuyabai Ingole led these struggles. The formation of the Dalit Mahila Federation in 1942, presided over by Sulochanabai Dongre, was the last of the dalit feminist organizations, which grew and matured in the late colonial period. Dalit women took up issues that concerned the marginal status of the community when they participated in the 1946 satyagrahas against the denial of separate representation to the scheduled castes, and the landless struggles of the 1960s. Though they took up the theme of religious superstition and patriarchy within the community, as workers, dalit women were intensely focused on access to education and economic parity with men.
Ambedkar’s exhortations to women—to seek education, find self-expression, and demand their political rights—is a running theme of the book. However the personal narratives illustrate the great costs, including physical violence, of women’s political activism. They also portray aspects of the dalit everyday—fashion, class differences between dalits, popular culture, perspectives on Gandhi and anticolonial nationalism—that emerge in the form of remembrance, stray comments, and narratives about place and location that shaped the personality of the dalit woman activist. These require reading on their own terms as life stories, but they are also examples of lives that were retold (and perhaps re-imagined) after Ambedkar. Self-narration poses complex questions about the authenticity or truth-value of memory, as against its constructed, or literary aspects. To some extent, the authors of We Also Made History addressed this dilemma by cross checking individual accounts against journalist reportage, and other archival material. However there are also significant continuities in narrative style between the personal accounts in We Also Made History, and dalit autobiographies (whether by men or women) produced over the last three decades, including Urmila Pawar’s own recent autobiography, Aidaan.
We Also Made History leaves the reader to experience this aporia between history and memory. And it does so by staging divergent formations of feminist subjectivity. What we see here is a model of female enfranchisement, which does not posit the political rights of women against community, which is the general model of female suffrage. Instead, the text does two things. It asks us to explore the sexual reproduction of caste power. And it asks, persistently, about the (imagined) subject of feminist politics. Wandana Sonalkar (and Zubaan Books) are to be commended for bringing this text before a wide audience.
Anupama Rao is Assistant Professor, South Asian History, University of Michigan, USA.