Monday, November 24, 2008

Dalit women's issue can not be left to men only

Samvad : Ms Rajni Tilak, Director, Centre for Alternative Dalit media and Dalit right activist

Ms Rajni Tilak, 50, is a Dalit human rights activist, writer, feminist. A fiercely independent woman, she has been a grassroots activist all along, supporting various issues of social and national concern. With her own admission, she says that she was born in a conservative family. She was the first to form a -progressive Student Organization in ITI Shahadara Delhi. Her education was very difficult, as her father never liked the idea of getting her educated beyond 11th standard. Her Mother however, was a strong votary of her education and she continued and finished her BA Rajni Tilak is now organising Dalit women and is also working with Center for Alternative Dalit Media (CADM). In a conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, she explains why the Dalit movement need to rethink on the issue of women empowerment.

VB: Rajni, could you tell me your back ground. What were the conditions from which we grew up and how you cope with the social inequality? Dalits may be maltreated with the upper caste Hindus but when the family pattern is concern, they follow the same brahmanical feudal tendencies towards their woman. What is your impression about your society?

RT: I was a member of Progressive Dalit Organisation in 1978 and was instrumental in forming a college student union in ITI Shahdara, New Delhi. My father was a traditionalist and did not want me to go to college and hence my education was discontinued from 11th onward. My mother however, was progressive and allowed me to join technical courses in ITI for stenography and dress designing. I did BA as a private student and started school for Dalit students in slums of Seelampur. Most of our stduents were Dalits and Muslims. We organised the Anganwadi workers in Delhi and made a trade union of theirs. About 4000 Anganwadi workers were demanding for a proper pay scale as they were just being provided with an honorarium for their work, with no social security. Then I was appointed in a government service in Mumbai and later on transferred to Delhi, where I started working with Saheli a women’s right group.

VB: What were your experiences with Saheli. Traditionally, the women’s group in India have rarely questioned the patriarchal structure of society and secondly most of them have been out of touch with the Dalit woman who is the most oppressed as she has to face two stigmas in the society: one being a woman and other of a Dalit. Please comment?

RT: Actually, at Saheli, women’s issues were never meant for the poor women. They were for the high society basically counseling the upper middle classes regarding the marriage, divorce. They would often term that women don’t have caste. they all are oppressed. How could I agree to such a notion? How can u say that the all women are same? The same upper caste women would never allow the dalit women to roam near them.

VB : Rajani, what were your objection to Women’s reservation bill?

RT : You know the first thing they have to realise is the difference between a Dalit women and caste women. After years of struggle for social justice, now members from lower sections of society are making it to Parliament and state assemblies. This is not an old phenomenon but a post 90s situation. Now, the brahmanical forces are apprehensive of this unity and majority of the down trodden in the top decision making body. So, they have come with the argument of women’s reservation. The point is that they are not interested in women’s emancipation. Hindutva cannot emancipate women. Secondly, our problem is that dalit women are not educated and don’t easily come up. If reservation were not made for them, the entire women’s seat would be taken over by the upper caste women. It will again be the brahmanical rule in India through their women. The women from minorities, and other backward classes have the similar problem and hence the government must ensure reservation of seats for them as well.

VB : But Rajni, don’t you think that when a Bhagwati Devi, who is a Mushhar,( a Dalit community in Bihar and UP, who were among the most oppressed, eating rat was their profession), can come to Parliament without any reservation, Dalit and other women can also make it there. Don’t you think that in actual, our political class as a whole doesn’t want women’s reservation as most of them fear to lose their seats of Parliament. Don’t you think that even if reservation is provided for Dalits, OBCs and Minority women, it would be the beti-bahu-biwi brigade who will gain and not the grass root activists like you. How do you confront this issue?

RT: Yes, I agree with this. Women’s situation in the Dalit movement is really bad. It is still in the grip of brahmanical standard, middle class values where women is considered as an object and if you challenge these notion than you are treated as faminist. The problem is that Dalits are borrowing all the rubbish of brahmanism as if our goal is brahmanism. Our problem is that we don’t except that we are exploited in the society. We need more struggles for women’s emancipation. So far we are unable to come out of the brahmanical Sanskaras, which means some women may be economically independent but not independent for decision making. So, we need to reject this Hippocratic value system in the name of culture but unfortunately, these things are coming without any fight and hence it cannot change the system. For changing the system we have to reject the religious code because religion is the root of exploitation of women and at present the women’s who form our political leadership whether Dalits or non Dalits are unable to come out of this patriarchal structure.

VB: Coming to your patriarchal point, let me narrate an often-used phrase among the Dalit intellectuals. ‘Roji-beti’ ka rishta, they would often term whenever they are questioned about a dialogue among various Dalit groups. Don’t you think that as a rationalist dalit activist, such terminology’s which make women as product are contemptuous and must be rejected henceforth?

RT : Yes, ofcourse. I find it strange that while the upper caste women are getting in to love marriages, self arrange system, our society is more and more isolating itself from others. We have our own ghettoes. The same people, who cry loud on this, would find it difficult to digest if their daughter get married outside their caste fold and without family permission. I have seen how many of them tried to stop the marriages of their daughters and relatives if she did it without their prior permission. Dalit males are more rigid in their attitude towards their women.

VB : Don’t you think that we are too much in symbolism than working at the grassroots. I mean to say : many Ambedkarite would ask about your biradari and caste and religion before believing you. Dr Ambedkar was an iconoclast yet the number of his statutes are increasing.. His disciples are satisfied with them only?

RT: Yes, the fact is that these so-called Ambekdarites have lost touch with the masses. When you lose touch with masses, you lose your legitimacy and to legitimise yourself you are in the symbol business. We have seen people criticising Brahmanical religion yet

On the 6th December and 14th April worship Babasaheb like any other godly idols. Is it correct? Why to follow the Brahmanical pattern. We need to strengthen our identity and assertion of identity is not in symbols but in ideology. Unfortunately, the ideological part is missing from those who make much hype on symbol still people are fighting at the grassroots and reading literature on Ambedkar and by Ambedkar.

VB: Do you think we need to highlight contribution of other people who fought for Dalit rights and social justice apart from Dr Ambedkar?

RT: Baba Saheb Ambedkar is the root of Dalit identity and we must propagate him to enlighten the Dalit communities yet there is also a dire need to focus on other great Dalit intellectuals and leaders like Jyoti Ba Phule, Savitri Bai Phule, EV Ramaswamy Naicar, Srinarayan Guru and other local heroes who have never been highlighted. And that’s why our National Federation of Dalit Women, we decided to bring more about women Dalit leaders. I wrote a book on Savitri Bai Phule which was very well received as people want to read about the struggles of these people and who else could be the best person to be followed regarding women’s education than Savitri Bai Phule who fought against the upper caste tyranny on Dalit women for educating them.

VB : What are you doing to popularise the Dalit literature ?

RT : We are already doing many thing through CADAM which is Center for Alternative Dalit Media. It was an alternative media to voice the issues of Dalits. We decided to print literature on Dalits intellectuals and leaders and provide them to masses on cheaper rates. Our monthly journal ‘Abheemooknayak’ is already reaching to a large number of Dalit activists and we plan to popularise books through this channel. We want to publish small booklets so that people can easily read them and keep them safe. Big books are costly as well as people don’t read them.

VB : What do you think the impact of Economic Policies on Dalits ? Many Dalit ideologues support economic liberlisation as an instrument, which will liberlise Dalits ?

RT : How can the economic policies help the Dalits ? It has already hit them with shrinking government and public sector? Will the private companies or multinationals go for job reservations for Dalits ? In the villages their traditional occupations are under threat? I don’t understand how people come to conclusion that economic liberlisation will help liberlise dalits ? Today, our economic sovergnity is under threat. The multinationals are coming and they will rule the country through the local ruling elite.

None of them will offer jobs to dalits. The jobs will only be in the fourth class. Another important point to mention is education sector, which is going to be costlier. Where will poor dalits, agricultural labour, landless worker send his children if government schools are closed ? Even the middle classes will find it difficult to work. There is no place for health security. Government hospitals are good for nothing yet they used to provide some satisfactions. Today everything government is considered bad. Today the concept of welfare state is considered to be outdated but can we do justice with dalits without being a welfare state? How can any one supporting the NEP will be a supporter of Dalit cause. Dalits are getting more marginalised in the new pattern of things and we must expose them and oppose them vociferously.

VB: What do you think about the role of International institutions, especially Ambedkarites living abroad? And how could they help the existing dalit movement in India.

RT: So far the International Dalits have never helped the grassroots movements in India. They should institute some fellowships and other financial help to those who have been working for the Dalit cause, so that they don’t depend on others. Let me make it clear that NGOs could be good at education, literacy, developmental work but they cannot make a movement. A movement could only built by the inherent ideological strength of the people. Fortunately Dalits have that ideological strength in the form of Ambedkarite movement, Periyar’s movement in Tamilnadu and that of Jyotiba Phule’s movement in Maharastra. Dalit movement has to be radical in approach and anti brahmanism is the root of dalit movement and dalit ideology.

VB: What about political power for Dalits? Don’t you think without social transformation things are getting worst?

RT: We must be politically conscious but not ambitious. From ambition I don’t mean we should not be ambitious but the internal unity and inner dalit dialogue is getting hampered with various ambitious people in different communities. Their political ambition is the root of all the problems and failure of different communities coming together. Rather than political ambition, if we mobilise people on social basis, I am sure the unity will be stronger than the political unity. Look at 1992 SPBSP combine had attained political unity but social unity was never there and hence it broke with the egos of our political leaders. Dalits issue is not simply with politics and political representation. It is a social battle. a battle of honour and human rights of every dalits so

we have to fight a long term battle. The NGO culture in Dalits need to rejected, as it will be harmful for the movement. NGOs can do good work in different fields but definitely they cannot make a movement. And for the liberation of Dalits we need strong radical anti brahmin movement which should be based on rationality. In the absence of a movement we will not be able to make a pressure on the government.

VB : Finally, Rajni, do you think that time has come now for dalit women to ask for their reservation with in dalit quota?

RT : Yes, it is important that Dalit women be given reservation within Dalit quota otherwise the male chauvinism will kill the dalit movement. It will remain as brahmanic as any body else.. Perhaps more brahmanic then the bramins themselves as we have not allowed our women to come forward. In the absence of women quota, rigidity against women will continue as everybody want to use his quota for his son. It is important that we raise this issue now but the problem is if I raise this question many people will term me a faminist or talking against the interest of Dalits. Is it wrong to talk for the liberation of Dalit women and demand for reservation with in the quota.

VB : Almost 15 years later Mandal II again threatened the very dignity of the Dalits even when they were not at all benefited from it. Interestingly, this time, there was not much protest even from the upper castes. A handful of urban elite led by the uppercaste doctors of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, this time it was a media event. As a person doing much work with the issue of alternative media, what do you think, should, the intellectuals of Dalit movements as well as those of the other marginalized communities do? Where did the upper caste media fault reporting the Mandal events ?

Rajni : Actually whenever people talk of reservation there is a wrong feeling about SCs and STs getting benefited from it. The same thing happened with the anti mandal agitation which had nothing to do with the Dalits, as it was more for the OBCs. Today, reservation is for women also but when the doctors agitated they unnecessarily brought the issue of Dalits as if they were getting benefited from the current sort of reservation. Media showed a bias against the Dalit doctors. When they protested in Patna, it was reported that they attacked the media. Media itself became a party in the entire campaign against the Dalits.

It is not that Dalit did not respond to this. Unfortunately, it is the Dalits only who were visible supporting the reservation issue. The OBCs who were to be benefited from this were seen no where. Where were they ? Perhaps, they did not want to come along with the Dalits. I am shocked that Gujars who fought for separate reservation in Rajasthan asking quota from tribal quota did not join the protest in support of quota at the AIIMS. Perhaps because the Gujars themselves practice untouchability with the Dalits and would never like to stand with them. In this entire exercise women are completely left behind. Dalit/OBC/minority women did not even know whether something was being done for them. None of our leaders talked about it.

VB: Even after the Durban summit, gender issue remains on the margin with in the Dalit movement. Does the issue of gender really threaten the Dalit movement as some of the ‘thinkers’ perceive. What should the movement and its leaders do to change this situation. Do you think that this is an important issue and need priority.

Rajni: This is unfortunate because men feel insecure. It is this fear that women are being pitted against them to thwart the movement is a completely brahmanical idea of patriarchy. How can we allow such brahmanical values dominate our movement. It is important that we allow women to participate in higher level bodies. Allow them to participate in the movements from very beginning and you will never find any shortage of women leaders in the movement.

VB : What do you really think of empowerment ? In Uttar-Pradesh, BSP is in power with Mayawati as chief Minister. The upper castes are happy on the ‘social engineering’ done by bahinji but the fact is that the real losers are the Dalits as their participation has reduced. The assault on them continue without any reduction and Brahmins are enjoying the most glorious moments of their life in UP and its power game. Where are Dalits and dalit women in particular in this entire exercise.

Rajni: Actually what Mayawati is doing is ‘mainstreaming’ the Dalit politics but the problem lies in this ‘mainstreaming’ as it ignore the demands and issues of the Dalit masses and caters the need of the ‘others’. She is doing everything that every other party is doing. There is nothing called social engineering. Congress was doing it earlier. BJP has done it, Samajwadi Party was doing it. However, I can not call Mayawati, a feminist leader in any term as women are rarely the strength of BSP. She has rarely spoken in term of woman, neither does she want to be categorized as woman’s leader only. But that apart, there is no extra effort on her part to give women a chance in her party. That is painful. There are not even one percent women leaders in BSP. A leader can put her vision into the party and people will follow that but unfortunately that has not happened. People feel community empowerment is more important than woman. A woman is never part of our power structure whether in party or in community.

However whatever she ( Mayawati) is doing it is more as politics of tokenism yet despite this for millions of Dalit masses she is a hope. Hope that she would get them justice, a woman who could be prime minister of India and is fighting against every odd. It is dangerous and the biggest damage is being done to Ambedkarite values and ideas. How can there be a politics sitting with the exploiters and casteist people. How can we claim to be legatee of Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and others if we sit with those whose very ideas are very antithesis of the foundation of Dalit movement. But this is not the end. I am hopeful that people will learn from these experiments and will find new alternatives in future.

VB : In the past one decade we have seen the growth of the Dalit writers. There is talk of ‘ Dalit Sahitya’. Lot of new definitions came up. Particularly in Hindi, a number of women writers are also coming up. What difference you see between the traditional writings by the Dalit activists and new writing emerging from the Dalit women. What is the difference between the perception of the Dalit women with that of the mainstream Dalit writings.

Rajni : Many in the women’s movement today support the rights of the women to ‘use’ their bodies. Now we are using legitimate words like ‘Sex workers’ and fight for their rights. From a Dalit perspective where do you differ. Agreed that women have a right to ‘use’ their bodies but the main question is how many of them are really using it freely and independently. And in the din of all these, are we not forgetting the grave fact that a majority of women brought up in the brothels do not go out of their own choices but are due to trafficking. Most of the Dalit and Advasi girls are not there out of their choice but because of forces operating in the villages, who make money at the cost of the dignity and choices of Dalit and Adivasi women and perhaps that is a clear difference of perception here with that of Dalit women.

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