“To the backward classes, I am a Devi.”
BSP supremo Mayawati in 2016.
Goddess. A divine aura is often conferred on the Indian woman in common speech. The reality that fills daily lives, though, is the spectre of a broken body. Not broken by its fragility, but by deliberate violence. Mayawati has faced this violence—a political opponent’s sexually-loaded barb in 2016, a physical assault by armed goons of another rival in 1995. She came out strongly on both occasions, calling herself a Devi of the Dalits as a riposte. She would often refer to those abuses as a Dalit, as a woman. These are wounds women face, subjects of debates on women, for women and by women, from which, many rhetorical questions arise, activists say. Women, especially Dalits, ask—is it patriarchy, or is there a double violence, that of caste? And as Uttar Pradesh gets ready for assembly polls, similar questions crop up. Are women a caste or a constituency? There has already been social engineering of caste. Now, there is talk of reorganising caste. Where does gender stand in all this? How do ordinary women, caught between caste and gender, or outside of it, express their political aspirations at the ballot box?