India has a long tradition of caste and religion-based politics in which national constructs of masculinity and feminity are played up for political gains by all parties yet marginalised groups like women and Dalit women in particular have no representation.
In the aftermath of the alleged rape of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village by Dalit youths, Maratha leaders called for a silent march, putting their three key demands – justice to the girl, amend/scrap the SC/ST atrocities act and reservation for Maratha community.
Maratha constitutes about 33% of the state’s population and are considered landed elites.
In response to Maratha agitation, Dalit political lobbies rejected the demands on grounds that Dalits and their women faced had been discriminations over centuries by Marathas.
Dalit groups called it a political propaganda that has nothing to do with realities. A few days ago, Maharashtra government asked the centre to look into possibilities of amending the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989). Left parties in the state have called for a “Khairalanji Day” to appease Dalits countering the Marathas claims over the issue.
Amid all these development, the real question of gender has been bifurcated on caste lines
Undermining the gender question
The public debates around the ongoing Maratha agitation have divided women into two castes.
The Marathas are looking for short-term political gains and not focusing on the comprehensive issue of ‘gender politics of equality and justice’.
Dalits are also making a separate case for their women. Men on both sides are reflecting their patriarchal positions of deciding the ‘politics of women’.
The nation feels outraged when its women are attacked by the perceived 'others' because national identity is built upon notions of inclusivity and exclusivity.
To maintain the purity of national identity it is important to control women's reproductive potential. Thus women become the embodiment and protector of national identity devoid of her own agency. Imagining women as Bharat Mata, depicting her body co-terminus with India's map, is both reductionist and dehumanising.
Nation here does not mean only political borders but also includes micro nations based upon caste, region, religion, language, and ethnicity and so on.
The Kopardi rape and murder is not the first case of rape and murder of a Maratha woman. Then why this one, out of many such incidents, became the starting point for a mass movement against entire Dalit community? Because, perhaps this is the first case of ‘our’ woman raped by 'others' (Dalits).
While all such horrific incidents of rape and murder should trigger such mass movements, anger and demands for justice, it is not clear why the anger is towards the entire Dalit community? One is not even denying that SC / ST Bill may need a review and be amended but to connect that with the rape is to deny the deceased victim her gendered identity and only see her as an embodiment of her caste. Her rape was not a violation of her bodily integrity but an attack on her caste.
SC/ST Act was introduced to prevent several caste-based atrocities, primary sexual violence against Dalit women. Now, suddenly due to the misdeeds of some men from their caste, Dalit women stand to lose the protection of the said law. Where do women stand in this debate? Where are their voices in this mass movement led mostly by upper caste men against Dalit men. Perhaps they are just collateral damage in this caste struggle.
Essence of democracy lies in its debate and discussion which must always include the gender perspective at the crossroads of caste and class. Civil society groups and feminist academia must question public debates and commentaries where established social criteria based on patriarchal structure takes precedence over complex gender perspective.
Kartikey Shukla is a TISS gradate and a Young India Fellow. Sanjukta Basu is a feminist writer, photographer and TED Fellow.