Home Features Interviews Prof. Anupama Rao: Babasaheb Ambedkar, Thanthai Periyar, Mahatma Jyotibha Phule were Radical Feminists
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Prof. Anupama Rao: Babasaheb Ambedkar, Thanthai Periyar, Mahatma Jyotibha Phule were Radical Feminists

Dalit Camera:  In recent times the dalit women are asserting that there is caste within gender and they are very strongly bringing it in the front, at least in Andhra Pradesh where we could cover this is happening. And the transgenders, even recently there was a transgenders gathering in Hyderabad and I think they are planning to have a national level debate, this is new and is not supported by NGOs. They are just activists who are gathering and trying to politicize the issue of transgender where they also address caste. Their entire pamphlet talks about how within the transgenders the people who beg on the streets are all dalits and from other OBC castes. However, there is another section in academics where they claim that caste does not have gender and gender does not have caste. I would like to know how you see it.

Anupama Rao: The most robust anti-caste thinking on this issue really says that the social order of caste is predicated, it is dependent on the sexual regulation of caste. The social reality of caste and the sexual reproduction of caste relationships are intimately connected. So, you look at somebody like Phule, like Periyar, you look at someone like Ambedkar, they are all in a sense radical feminists. They are radical feminists at a time when upper-caste men who are acting on behalf of women, and I don’t call them feminists, upper-caste men who are acting on behalf of women, debating the question of women’s rights and so on and so forth, are deeply implicated in Brahminical Victorian models, patriarchal models of companionate marriage, monogamy and so on and so forth. So, it is one could say that for the upper-caste men in the late 19th-20th centuries the investment in women’s rights is a form of sympathy, as you would be sympathetic to an animal in pain. This is almost a kind of a project of correction, it is a project of sympathy, it is a distanced relationship to the women’s question as well.

On the other hand if you look at people like Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar, these a radical feminists because they associate the very existence of caste on the sexual regulation of women. Phule is extremely interesting because he takes up the question of upper-caste widows, and he talks about them, and he talks about this is a model of predation within the upper-caste homes. He talks about widows who were getting impregnated by brothers-in-law and fathers-in-law or widows who are in a state of enormous social constraint who cannot express sexual desire. He takes this up as a question of vulnerability, as a question of sexual subjecthood, but I think he sees that also as integral to the order of Brahmanism.

Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar, these a radical feminists because they associate the very existence of caste on the sexual regulation of women.

Ambedkar makes the argument that it is death and dying women or killing women off when they are in surplus which actually maintains caste relationships. It can kind of equalizes relationships between different castes, when you get rid of excess women. Marriage, sexual control and the sexual regulation of women are seen to be essential to the reproduction of caste and to the reproduction of caste endogamy. So you have on the part of all of these radical anti-caste thinkers projects to reimagine marriage. These projects are absolutely enormously important.

Phule comes up with the idea of “Satyashodhak marriage” which is kind of a companionate marriage between equals. Periyar is very radical, when do you have the self-respect marriage, who are the people who are having self-respect marriages, Ambedkar is talking about inter-caste marriage, so, marriage and sexuality, marriage and sexual control become a very important fulcrum for thinking about caste annihilation. That you cannot annihilate caste, this again i think is so very profound in anti-caste thought, that these are thinkers that think the intimacy of caste relationships. Because caste is about intimacy and it is about the withholding of intimacy and sociality from those with whom you could be intimate, how do you do this? You express sexual desire as violence, you do not express it either as lust or love. What do you do, you do not eat with people, which is an essential aspect of who we are as human beings. So, marriage and food, the two important things that we do on a daily basis, that makes us social beings, are withheld in an order of caste. It is a very simple argument that they are putting forth, it is also an enormously complicated argument because they are then able to think about how sexuality and caste are structured and embedded within a structure of inequality. If you want to think about a systemic form of thought, one that is able to move from the sexual to the social to the economic to the political and is trying to stitch all of these things together and the religious ritual; that is what an anti-caste thought is doing. So in that sense the question of sexuality is at the heart of the question of caste.

Now this takes us to also your contemporary question, which is to say, how do we think about what is happening with caste and gender? One way that people have thought about it, and I think it is a rather inadequate way, is this notion of intersectionality, the Kimberle Crenshaw argument which is to say that there is an interconnection between different orders of inequality. So let us say, caste, race and gender or race, class and sexuality that these are all interconnected, intersectional ways of thinking about forms of dispossession, inequality, social differentiation and so on. This is a little bit inadequate because what we really need to think about is the supplemental way in which caste and gender structure eachother. That is to say that they appear to us as orders of incommensurability, which is to say that the caste movement must take up a different kind of politics from a movement for sexual rights, that feminism and the object of feminism is very different from the order of anti-caste struggle; and so I think what we see is the establishment of an incommensurable politics to caste and gender. Rather than the very complicated ways in which when we take up questions of caste, questions of gender and sexuality end up getting excluded; when we take up questions of gender, of feminist problems, of domestic violence and so on and so forth, questions of caste tend to get missed.

We have to be able to think about the fact that every struggle for equality might be producing a form of inequality in it’s wake.

One would have to argue that there are cases where perhaps the question of caste trumps the question of gender, just as there may be instances where gender trumps the question of caste. But I think those are contextual questions of how you organize a political struggle. So to say that these things are connected is not very helpful because I think in terms of politics how will you organize a political struggle that can be salient. There may be times when you take up a question which is profoundly gender but you make it essential to an anti-caste movement in order to mobilize around it. There may be at the moments where an anti-caste movement is unable to give the place to questions of gender and sexuality, and I think it often happens too. So we have to be able to think about the fact that every struggle for equality might be producing a form of inequality in it’s wake. And this is why the task of critique, like the task of politics, is a consistent task. That every politics will produce perhaps a form of inequality. And I think you were saying this yesterday that while you may take up the question of dalits rights and you may forget about the dalit muslim women, you may forget about somebody who identifies as a third gender or non-gendered, or transgender, somebody who is fluidly sexual, and that sexual fluidity becomes extremely difficult for anti-caste struggles that tend very often to be publicly masculinist. And so there are forms of internal violence, sort of epistemic and physical but I think also in the sense that every struggle for inequality could produce in it’s wake a new structuring of inequality. That I think is something we have to be vigilant about constantly otherwise, we become extremely comfortable and settled in our political positions and we assume that that political position has a kind of self-righteousness and moral value rather than constantly challenging what that politics in itself might produce in it’s wake. We have been massive histories of this, that Marxism produces deep forms of inequality, blindness, social and epistemic violence in its wake. This is a movement of total emancipation, it is a movement that organizes, in a sense, the world in the interwar period but it produces enormous inequality in it’s wake. So that kind of political vigilance, I think, every movement including the dalit movement has to practice.

Prof. Anupama Raoteaches in Department of History, Columbia University. Her book, The Caste Question (University of California Press, 2009) theorizes caste subalternity, with specific focus on the role of anti-caste thought (and its thinkers) in producing alternative genealogies of political subject-formation through the vernacularization of political universals. She has also written on the themes of colonialism and humanitarianism, and on non-Western histories of gender and sexuality. Recent publications include: Discipline and the Other Body (Duke University Press, 2006); “Death of a Kotwal: Injury and the Politics of Recognition,” Subaltern Studies XII; Violence, Vulnerability and Embodiment (co-editor, special issues of Gender and History, 2004), and Gender and Caste: Issues in Indian Feminism (Kali for Women, 2003). https://history.barnard.edu/profiles/anupama-rao , arao@barnard.edu

Video: Ravichandran Bathran, Transcription: Archana Bidargaddi, Video Date: 31-Oct, 2014