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How three generations of Dalit women writers saw their identities and struggle?

#GenderAnd Culture: From Dalit to Ambedkarite Consciousness, the changing constructions of Dalit Feminist consciousness

Written by Maya Pandit |
Updated: December 27, 2017 9:52:40 am

Dalit women writers have traversed a long path over the last four decades. During this time their consciousness of what it means to be a Dalit woman has evolved in many ways as reflected in their writing. One notices an increasingly creative vibrancy and political vitality in this development. Though there has been a strong oral tradition of women’s articulations in Marathi, their entry into the written literary discourse came quite late, from around 1970 onwards as they had been denied access to literacy and education. Since then they haven’t looked back. From Baby Kamble, the first Dalit women to write her autobiography, to the new generation women writers like Pradnya Pawar, Chaya Koregaonkar, Shilpa Kamble, one can see a clear progression in the way they have interpreted and re-constructed the realities of their gendered existence. Dalit feminism has come a long way, with many milestones, in the process. This change can be perceived in the way they have defined their identities, perceived their agency and interpreted social reality.  From looking at themselves as Dalit women who were identified with their communities, they have now arrived at a point, which defines themselves as Neo-Buddhist, with multifaceted identities. It might be interesting to see the landmarks in the changing nature of their feminist consciousness as articulated in their writing.

The first generation: The ‘struggle for Truth’  

The first generation of Dalit women such as Baby Kamble, Shantabai Dani, Shantabai Kamble were direct followers of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and active participants in his movement. They had assimilated his message: educate and agitate.  Baby Kamble and Shantabai Dani were actively involved in the Ambedkarite agitational politics, whereas Shantabai Kamble had made education as her field for active intervention. They were keenly aware of the amalgamated structures of caste and patriarchy that built up hierarchies among labourers along the caste and gender axis. This was a hallmark of their political consciousness. In Baby Kamble’s words, the Dalit movement, for them, represented the ‘struggle for Truth’ that Babasaheb had initiated. This ‘Truth’ represented memories of hunger and food, humiliation and degradation, labour practices and cultural traditions of their communities, which they valourised and denounced respectively.  The most significant aspect was their indomitable spirit, which took pride in their being Dalit Mahar women and which protested strongly against Hindu religious doctrine and the caste oppression it had generated. Their portrayal of the graded patriarchy among the Dalit communities reflected a rare and humane maturity. They did not denounce their men, but tried to explain the violence directed at them as the only outlet available to their men suffering under the yoke of caste oppression. Significantly, they were markedly different from their male counterparts, both in the perception of gendered inequalities and a sense of agency.

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Male Dalit writers, like Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad hardly ever saw their women as agencies of socio-political transformation. Unlike the men, these women explored their community culture in a more nuanced and sensitive manner, exploring myths, superstitions and lived practices against which Babasaheb had asked them to rebel. Baby Kamble’s exploration into the myth of Tulsi Vivah in the Brahmanical culture as against in the subaltern culture is a case in point. It brought out a completely different cultural history.

A voice—modern, individual, acutely sentient and deliberately audacious

By the time this second generation of Dalit women writers arrived on the scene around the eighties, the society had changed significantly. Urbanisation and industrialisation had brought out the ugly face of a fractured modernity. The rural landscape was witnessing the disastrous impact of a green revolution that had forced thousands of landless labourers, mostly Dalit, to migrate to the cities in search of work. And yet conversion to Buddhism had given them a rare confidence.  This generation of writers like Prof. Kumud Pawde, a Sanskrit scholar, Jyoti Lanjewar, the fiery poet, and Urmila Pawar, a creative writer whose autobiography Aydan won accolades, represented the strong sense of political and cultural identity as educated middle class Dalit women. Their experiential worlds had expanded, the language was vibrant and their resistant voices stronger. They were quite “different” from their predecessors in the way they saw their lives constructed by a fractured modernity. Their voice is modern, intensely individual, acutely sentient and deliberately audacious.  They challenged the Varna system and proposed a critique of patriarchal ideologies and practices in their own communities as well as in the society around them. They were strongly ‘feminist’ and in that they were distinctly different from their men; but at the same time, they were quite ‘different’ from the upper class/ upper caste women in the feminist movement who demanded reforms in rape laws and in the family institution as their political agenda. But did not see caste as one of the foundational principles of social structures that generated that violence. This is where the Dalit women’s consciousness registered a strong protest. Their incisive critique of the Savarna feminist movement of the eighties exposed the inadequacies, and emphasised the organic connection between caste and gender oppression. They provided alternative perceptions of the construction of Dalit women’s identities in post-independence India, where the nexus between caste, and patriarchy dominated.

Pawde’s account of the anti-caste rot in educational and social institutions exposed the moral corruption in the fabric of the civil society. Jyoti Lanjewar and Hira Bansode asserted their protest in their poetry, which transformed the very idiom of protest. They explored the mythological symbols such as Draupadi to launch ferocious attacks on the patriarchal Hindu sensibility.  Their reinterpretation of traditional myths and historical symbols marked the distinctiveness of their voice. Urmila Pawar’s Aydan brought out her keen perception of how the new modernity had transformed and intensified their gendered and caste oppression. “Caste is hidden like a prowling beast in the forest,” she said. “It can pounce any time on you!” The histories these writers constructed, proclaimed their ‘difference’ from the predecessors, male Dalit writers as well as contemporary feminist positions.

Located in the urban centres like Aurangabad, Nagpur and Mumbai, they exposed how caste and patriarchy were not frozen in time but actively operated in a deadlier form in contemporary society. They, however, shared the Savarna feminist assumptions about sexual politics that played out in the arena of family, marriage and other social institutions. The way they began to challenge the dominant notions of female sexuality invited the wrath of many from within and outside the Dalit movement.

The rise of the Neo-Buddhist: Assertion of being equal, even better 

During and after the nineties, one witnesses a proliferation of female voices speaking from diverse locations and communities. One major ideological and political change is that they do not call themselves Dalit anymore; after the conversion, they argue, they are Neo-Buddhist or Ambedkarites. After conversion, the term ‘Dalit’ becomes a misnomer. Now this identity is a distinct ‘political’ assertion of being equal and even better. The voice of the contemporary Ambedkarite women, like Pradnya Pawar, Chaya Koregaonkar, Shilpa Kamble, is quite different. They refuse to be confined to the culture of a narrow identity politics. This is not to say that they do not engage with patriarchy, caste issues and modernity.  Sexuality is a major field of engagement. But there also is a strong awareness of the changing scenario of globalisation and how it has further intensified both class and caste divides. They expose the limits of identity politics of Dalit organisations, which for them appears to be sinking into a mire of religious dogmatism that the movement had rejected earlier. Through their writing they offer a close scrutiny of the changing forms of patriarchal reorganization in the contemporary society and what it entails for women both in the private and public spaces. There is, of course, a strong sense of the women’s agency.

There is a new sense of tradition and contemporary reality that these writers propose. Pradnya Pawar’s play Dhatanta Khairlanji depicts both contradictions in the inter-caste strife and the new nexus between media and upper castes in exploiting violence against Dalits for their own selfish ends.  Unlike her predecessors, Pradnya does not write about mythological women. Her long poem on Vithabai, a famous Tamasha folk artist, beautifully highlights the history of exploitation of Dalit women in the folk performative traditions, which transforms their tragic individual histories into the art of dance.  Her short stories are explorations into the lives of white collared generations of contemporary neo-Buddhist men and women in the metropolis caught in the vortex of completely new identity crises. What happens when a bank worker discovers her mother was a prostitute? What are the new ways in which social institutions re-cast dominant forms of controlling women’s sexuality and relationships? What happens when upper caste women start doing the job of lower caste women as in the beauty industry?

There is a new political perception as well. Shilpa Kamble sees the issues of poverty, class exploitation and caste violence from an Ambedkarite point of view but then feels an intense need to address Karl Marx, which establishes a link with the initial positions of the Dalit Panther leaders such as Baburao Bagul and Namdeo Dhasal. She explores the world of the Neo-Buddhist NGOs. The preoccupations of the Ambedkarite woman living in the urban ethos of the metropolis come alive in her position. This woman questions all traditional inequalities and explores new ones produced by globalisation. The world in her Marathi novel Nilya Dolyanchi Mulgi, thickly populated by people in slums, is presented through the eyes of a sensitive young girl trying to come to terms with the memory of subjugation and struggle for equality. Chaya Koregaokar, another Mumbai-based poet, is a major voice in the contemporary Ambedkarite articulations.

These new women writers have certainly changed the map of the subaltern women’s writing through their ideological positions and literary contestations. They have been targeted for their critique of Dalit patriarchy as ‘Western’. How these new voices will flourish in the future is anybody’s guess but they certainly seem to have opened up new directions of creative articulations.

#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read our work here.

Maya Pandit is a translator of Dalit writing, poet and an activist in the women's movement. The views expressed are her own.

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