Sonali Sharma is a PhD candidate from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, India. Sonali is a student of History who is interested in aspects of gender and exclusion in Indian society. Their research so far as part of Mphil and Phd has been focused on women from Western India and they hope to expand it to trans-regional/ trans-national analyses as well. Currently, their research focuses on the discourse of women from alternative (to dominant, mainstream nationalist) socio-political ideologies in the pre-Independence period in India.
Outside the Fold: Personal Narratives of Mahar Women in Marathi
Hinduism in India has been ridden with caste-based division of society since time immemorial. In the fourfold caste system, Brahmans figure at the top of the hierarchy whereas the Sudras are at the bottom. In this hierarchical social structure, Dalits or ‘untouchables’ figured outside the pale of Hinduism. B.R. Ambedkar struggled for socio-religious, political and economic uplift of Dalits in India. Dalits, especially the Mahaar community to which he belonged, loyally responded to his leadership, participating in his movements for social equality and later joining him in his conversion to Buddhism (1956) in overwhelmingly large numbers.
In the case of Dalits in Western India, as Gopal Guru has pointed out, Mahaar women were the first among landless labourers mobilised by Ambedkar to protest against their age-old oppression by Hindus, and gained confidence to speak up for themselves early in the 1920s as compared to Charmakar/Matang (other low castes in Western India) women. Ambedkar encouraged Dalit women to become educated, participate in public life and gain self-respect. Unfortunately, the project of tracing historical evidence of Dalit women’s political activity has been difficult, as Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon discovered, as the contemporary mainstream newspapers and periodicals virtually boycotted the Ambedkar movement and so, the news of activists- both men and women- were rarely given much publicity.[i] Accounts of Ambedkar’s movement written after his death in 1956 have not explicitly brought out the role of women.[ii] Ultimately, Ambedkar’s newspapers and periodicals proved to be a rich source material on women’s activism.[iii] Therefore, in the context of this exclusion of women from the history of Ambedkar’s movement, writings by Dalit women activists become significant, as they make up for these silences.
Writings by Dalit women are a protest against the exclusion from public and literary sphere, academics, and political parties. They can be located within the long Marathi tradition of protest writing against the caste system. It was Ambedkar who provided the intellectual and ideological foundations for a sustained critique of the caste system. These women were not literary artists and, therefore, their writings evade the parameters of autobiographies. Sharmila Rege has argued that as literature Dalit narratives are like ‘testimonios’ that summoned the truth (about poverty, helplessness of pre-Ambedkarite era and ‘progress’ of the Ambedkarite era) from the past.[iv] However, reading these narratives only in those terms understates the militancy, forcefulness and criticism of a male dominated politics that these women express in them. Dalit women speak more easily and directly as compared to high caste women, and tell their stories without fictionalizing it.[v] Asha Mundale has added that Dalit women can be sharp and quick-witted with their words and tend to use the language familiar to their caste.[vi] They write about both the individual and the community since these two selves are not separate for them.
Double Oppression of Mahaar women
Baby Kamble, (1929-2012) an activist in the Ambedkarite movement and one of the many people from the ‘untouchable’ castes to convert to Buddhism, wrote about lives of Mahaars as a community that was ridden with poverty, superstition and oppression by higher castes who had pushed the community to the fringes of society and condemned them to inhuman existence; and how Ambedkar awakened the hitherto sleeping, lifeless Mahaars and made them aware of and how to fight for their rights and how to live with dignity as a human. Her autobiography Jina Amucha (Our Lives, 1986)is a detailed memoir of the whole community and transcends the boundaries of personal narratives.
Kamble has used different styles of expression in the text and gives vent to a whole range of feelings instead of merely stating facts about the plight of her community. While speaking of the plight of the Mahaars, she is sympathetic, emotional and uses the spoken language of her community (usually a version of Marathi) to describe their thinking and other details of their lives and switches to an accusatory tone while talking about caste-Hindu oppression. This comes across as Kamble describes how several mandates by Hindus regulated every aspect of Mahaar life. Despite their abject poverty Mahars emulated the customs of the high caste even though the latter did not want them within sight as it was considered a bad omen and a close interaction would be ‘polluting’ and would require ritual ‘cleansing’.[vii]
She provides a heartrending account of Mahaar women who bore with double oppression of caste Hindus and Mahaar patriarchy. Women had to endure gruesome forms of violence and did not have the option to escape. Kamble experienced the same predicament and hid her manuscript in unsuspecting places (for twenty years) because her husband “was a good man but like many of his time, he considered women to be inferior. I was scared of him and his reaction.”[viii] But Mahaar women, she says, did not consider leaving their husbands and remarrying because the ‘husbandness’ would be the same in all men.[ix]
When she speaks of Ambedkar, her tone changes to pride, reverence and devotion, as he gave them a possibility of good life making him “superior to god”.[x] Attending Ambedkar’s meetings gave her an acute sense of the agony many Dalits, especially women, had suffered which compelled her to give vent to her sense of outrage by writing about it.[xi] Her autobiography is valuable as a sociological treatise, a historical and political record, a feminist critique, a protest against Hinduism and not just an account of a bitter reality.
Political Activism of Mahaar Women
Shantabai Dani (1919-2001) was a well- educated Mahaar woman who studied up to two years of graduation before plunging herself into Ambedkar’s movement. Her autobiography Ratradin Amha (Us, Day and Night, 1990) dictated by her to her friend Bhavana Bhargave, is about the dynamics of Dalit politics and the struggle and success of a Dalit woman, ‘dalit among dalits’, from deplorable conditions to an active participant in the betterment of the ‘untouchables’.
As a primary school teacher, she found it preposterous that the stigma of belonging to an ‘untouchable’ caste still followed her even though she did not have the mannerisms and attire associated with Mahaars. She was well educated and respected, and therefore found the concept of ‘pollution’ absolutely illogical.[xii] Once she began to understand the whole scope of the movement, she joined Ambedkar’s political organization, the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) as she felt that her education needs to be channelled towards the betterment of Dalits.[xiii] From party propaganda to electoral contests, Shantabai spoke militantly about Ambedkar’s views ranging from annihilation of caste distinctions to conversion in the face of massive backlash from Ambedkar’s opponents and drew Dalit women in large numbers to SCF.[xiv]
Shantabai proudly describes the historic moment of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur in 1956 and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of his followers joining him in the process[xv] and expresses her remorse at his death (two months later), the loss of an overarching leadership to which everybody owed allegiance and the gradual disintegration of the Dalit movement.
She chooses to focus on her socio-political activism and achievements which undoubtedly are impressive rather than details of poverty and life as an ‘untouchable’. She is aware of her uniqueness in being one of the most educated women leaders of her time (among Mahaars) and displays better sense of judgment in politics as opposed to the new generation of educated leaders who played the power game within the Party and side-lined her from politics, but could not boast of a mass base.
Both women see Ambedkar as a saviour of the Mahaars who made a space for them in the politics of the country. Yet, there is a discernible difference in the manner in which both women speak of Ambedkar. While Kamble equates him with God who did for the Mahaars what Hindu gods could not, Shantabai having closely worked with him, was more in awe of his achievements, ideology, persona and command over his people. It was Ambedkar who inspired them to fight and to write, as his ideas instilled in them a sense of identity. Their writings depict awareness of age-old injustice they silently experienced as well as expansion of their mental horizons. As Dalit women joined the discourse on social equality, these autobiographies became important documents that dismantle dominant socio-political ideologies by writing their own liberation.
[i] Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon eds. Aamhihi Itihaas Ghadvila (We Also Made History), Stri Uvach Prakashan, Mumbai, 1989. Preface.
[ii] Vasant Moon has argued that Dr. YD Phadke has written a book in English titled ‘Women in Maharashtra’, and has not even mentioned Dalit women in the account of women’s movements. Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon eds We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, tr. Wandana Sonalkar, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2008.
[iv] Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit women’s Testimonios, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2006. p 13
[v] Afterword by Gopal Guru in Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke, tr from Marathi by Maya Pandit, Orient Longman, Chennai, 2008.
[vi] Asha Mundale’s op. cit. in Veena Deo’s ‘Representations of Dalit Women’ in Manu Bhagavan and Anne Feldhaus eds. Claiming Power from Below: Dalit and Subaltern Questions in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008. pg 167
[vii] Baby Kamble (1986), Jina Amucha (Our Lives), Mansammaan Prakashan, Pune, Second edition 1990. Pg 51-3
[ix] Interview with Maya Pandit, in Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke tr from Marathi by Maya Pandit, Orient Longman, Chennai, 2008 pgs 136-157
[x] Ibid. pg 123
[xi] Interview with Maya Pandit, in Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke tr from Marathi by Maya Pandit, Orient Longman, Chennai, 2008 pgs 136-157
[xii] Ibid. pp 32-34
[xiii] Ibid. pg 49
[xv] Shantabai Dani, Ratradin Amha (Us, Day and Night), Bhavasarita Prakashan, Nasik, 1990. pg 135
Times Of India
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Kamble Baby (1986), Jina Amucha (Our Lives), Mansammaan Prakashan, Pune, Second edition 1990.
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