Caste, the academy and Dalit women

By Kalpana Kannabiran

THE ONGOING debate on caste and race is taking place in the context of a larger advocacy on discrimination and Dalit human rights and has centred on the articulation of caste as discrimination, and the various forms of that discrimination - exclusion, untouchability, denial of constitutional rights and guarantees, violent subjugation and histories of slavery - as resonant of internationally recognised forms of racism. This article will focus on two aspects of the issue: questions for the sociology of caste and the articulation of caste as race by Dalit women.

Caste has formed the centrepiece of sociology for close to a century now. While the practice of caste has been opposed and consistently resisted by movements in the country, caste as a knowledge system in sociology has tended to follow the well-worn paths of a ``depoliticised'' social anthropology, creating sharp disjunctures between social practice and knowledge systems within the academy. Further, the disaggregation of social practice in the curriculum of sociology, into various ``topics'' and ``papers'', by situating caste for instance in Indian society or in social institutions, and the politics of caste within social movements, erases the potential for a radical pedagogy, and renders invisible the radical politics of anti-caste movements within the academy even while ``teaching'' them. While this has undoubtedly begun to change, with sociologists such as Sharmila Rege raising these issues within the university system, the power of traditional authority on caste is difficult to dismantle. We also know from our experience over the last half century at least that sociologists have periodically been called into the service of the state, particularly to supply ``knowledge of society' that could then inform policy. And this knowledge must, by definition lend itself to disaggregation and be apolitical, in short, the knowledge that the sociologists generate is expected to keep the status quo.

In reiterating its stand that caste and race are not only dissimilar, but also practices that cannot be compared, let alone brought within the purview of the same international instruments, the Indian Government is relying on this knowledge that has been produced by the discipline of sociology. Several pieces that have appeared in the print media have made an often dismissive reference to sociology, in the course of asserting that their concern is not with ``sociological categories'' but with lived experience. This feeds directly into a ``separate spheres'' argument and allows sociology to continue with its project of producing knowledge in the service of power, legitimising the exercise in the process. It is time now to call the academy into question, and to engage with systems and processes that produce knowledge, by providing alternative paradigms of knowledge, theory and understanding, and asserting their legitimacy within the academy.

It is time to remind ourselves that the theorising of caste has its intellectual history, not in the ``scientific'' work of anthropologists of European origin and their ``native'' heirs, but in the political work of Indian ideologues who were committed to the establishment of an egalitarian social order, and who in that endeavour saw caste as the single most powerful obstacle to the realisation of that commitment - Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar, to name the most influential ones. Phule's accounts of caste in the 19th century are grim. Ambedkar's concerns in the 20th century centred on finding ways in which Independence could bring freedom to the oppressed, affirmative action and positive discrimination being a first step.

At the time that Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar were articulating an understanding of caste in terms of lived experience and political reality, Risley and Guha were attempting in their own ways, a ``scientific'' racial classification of caste, from their respective locations within colonial administration, a fact that must enter the account. Andre Beteille's assertion of the conclusiveness of Boas' findings on the clear separability of race as biology from social grouping is questionable, and far from settled. Guillaumin gives us a radically divergent and more plausible view, one that is strengthened and validated by the recent findings of the Human Genome Project that variations in genome sequences between ethnic (`racial') groups is negligible. The physical differences between races can perhaps be accounted for by reference to environment and habitat, not biology. To restate the case, race is a social, not a biological construct.

Arguments on homogeneity, the measures of likeness and commonalities and the parameters of comparison are settled within the academy, hence interventions must engage with these arguments, if for no other reason than to have a long term impact on the content of education. One of the arguments (naturally from scholars of caste) put forth against the move to bring caste within the purview of the Racism Convention has been that the Scheduled Castes are not a homogenous category. Outside the realm of this scholarship, but within the realm of reality, no social group is completely homogenous across region and time. The Scheduled Castes are no exception. Yet, it is perfectly legitimate to assert the commonality of experience across cultural, linguistic, regional, national and ethnic diversity. Ambedkar's coining of the word Dalit was part of this exercise in unifying the oppressed and forging a common cause. The current move to bring caste within the ambit of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is not a move by the United Nations alone. It is far more importantly an assertion by Dalit groups across the country, part of an effort to realise the visions of anti-caste movements.

The second concern of this article is to underscore the efforts of the National Federation of Dalit Women in bringing this issue into focus. In the draft Declaration on Gender and Racism drafted in February, the Federation resolved to fight the specific oppression of women from marginalised groups, whose situation as Dalit/indigenous/minority is only compounded by their being women. Apart from the fact of social exclusion at various levels, the NFDW asserted that ``Descent based discrimination based on caste results in the violent appropriation of and sexual control over Dalit women by men of the dominant castes, evident in the systematic rape of Dalit women and the perpetuation of forced prostitution in the name of religion through the devadasi system''.

In a context of increasing religious nationalism, fundamentalism and dominant caste chauvinism, of globalisation and its disastrous consequences for the poor (almost exclusively Dalit), of an abdication of democratic governance by the state, the declaration asserts that the situation of Dalit women is particularly troubling. The draft Declaration calls upon Governments to review and reform national laws related to violence against women, to gather statistical information on the status of Dalit women, to offer them protection, to redistribute land to women of marginalised groups, and to work alongside the international community on issues of discrimination. An extremely significant point in the declaration, and one that ties in with the first part of this article, is the concern of the NFDW over the engineering of partisan, hegemonic representations of history in textbooks and curricula at all levels.

The effort of the Federation to forge a broad-based common platform with other groups that suffer systematic exclusion in an increasingly virulent right wing environment is both courageous and radical, while at the same time engaging with and calling into question the disaggregation of knowledge within the academy. The campaign for the inclusion of caste within the definition of racism is, in fact, a rewriting of caste as a knowledge system that derives directly from lived experience and the politics of that experience.

(The writer works with Asmita Resource Centre for Women and teaches sociology and human rights at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad).

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Referred by: Mukandan CM
Published on: June 21, 2001
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