What do the wedding of a Bollywood star and the judgement in a defamation suit filed by a powerful man accused of sexual harassment have in common? Well, everything that is wrong with how feminist millennials understand caste and how it operates in India.
I have isolated these two seemingly unrelated events because I see them being circulated and shared widely on social media by my feminist friends. In the first event, on February 18, actor Dia Mirza about having an environmentally sustainable wedding with biodegradable products and minimal waste, which was in line with her public image as the goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme. Where she seems to have won over my feminist friends, however, is by saying she had a woman priest – a friend’s aunt – officiate her wedding.
Mirza wrote that her friend “painstakingly went through several hours of training to imbibe the essence of the scriptures so that she could assist Sheela Atta and translate the shlokas”.
Let me unpack the multiple levels on which such performances appear woke and emancipatory, whereas they are heinously casteist and riddled with toxicity. The first level is that such attempts seemingly revolutionary acts only address the question of gender with respect to women priests, not the exclusion of Dalits and Adivasis from priesthood, temples and all things considered sacred in and by the Hindu religion such as the learning of Sanskrit. They do not admit how Dalit women are in the name of such “traditions” as Jogini. They do not acknowledge the millennia of exclusion, oppression and humiliation suffered by Dalits who have been discriminated against because of their lower caste, and ignore what Dalit intellectuals such as BR Ambedkar have been saying about the Hindu religion: that annihilation of caste without the annihilation of Hindu religion isn’t possible.
Such acts show the limits of emancipation that can be attempted by modern Indian feminists, that the only kind of priest they consider revolutionary is a woman priest. How about imagining a wedding with a Dalit priest? Or even better, how about acknowledging that Hindu rituals carry the history and weight of caste discrimination? How about rejecting a Hindu marriage, and opting for a non-religious ceremony instead?
Cultural theorist and Marxist scholar Raymond Williams asserts that “tradition is in practice the most evident expression of the dominant and hegemonic pressures and limits”. Tradition is not static, it changes to survive. But in the case of Hindu tradition that doesn’t necessarily mean it has become egalitarian. Williams argues that hegemony operates through “selective tradition” – certain meanings are carried forward while certain meanings are excluded. We see this in Mirza’s wedding: the caste-based Hindu ritualistic wedding remains intact while the gender of the priest changes to signify modernity and progress, and this ensures the Hindu marriage tradition can exist in the future.
The second level is that when feminist millennials share such posts on social media, they encourage the same caste blindness perpetuated by celebrities and popular names. Why is it so difficult to reject this kind of tokenism which is radical enough only to introduce a female priest but entirely ignores the question of caste? Why is it that “pain” is associated with an upper caste person learning the shastras, but not with Dalits who are being murdered annually because of their caste?
In the second event, my feminist friends have been celebrating a Delhi court’s acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani, who had been sued for defamation by her former editor, MJ Akbar. Ramani had reported during the Me Too movement being sexually harassed by Akbar in the early 1990s. The court ruled that a woman can report sexual harassment on any platform and even after decades. It also observed in the context of Ramani’s delayed accusation that women are often unable to immediately report harassment. Institutional and legal mechanisms such as the Vishaka guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act of 2013 did not exist when Akbar harassed Ramani. The Vishaka guidelines were drafted by the Supreme Court in 1997 after the rape of Bhanwari Devi in 1992. She was a Dalit social worker and Rajasthan government employee who was gangraped by dominant caste men because she dared to raise awareness about the prohibition of child marriage.
Further, Ramani’s public revelation of harassment came at a time when a list was created by the Dalit student Raya Sarkar in 2017, encouraging women to list popular academics, intellectuals and public figures who had been sexually harassing women for years and who could not be and were not institutionally held accountable for their actions despite legal provisions, precisely for the reasons outlined in the Ramani judgement. The most vociferous rejection of Sarkar’s list came from mostly upper caste feminist academics who seemed to be protecting the interests of their friends and fellow academics named in the list, showing that the armchair feminism of academia is often a sham. Rather than foster an environment where young women academics could feel safe, these watchguards of Indian feminism attempted to destroy a student-led movement that could have led to the radical dislodging of academics with a history of practising sexual harassment. So today, when my feminist friends celebrate Ramani’s victory, they forget the suffering and courage of Dalit women like Bhanwari Devi and Raya Sarkar whose actions made this victory possible.
The insufficiencies of Indian feminism and liberalism are that they never take caste into account. They never consider caste as a social reality which affects millions of Dalits and Adivasis, through ever-changing practices of untouchability and discrimination described in the autobiographies of Dalit women writers like Bama’s Karakku, Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke, and Urmila Pawar’s The Weave of My Life. On social media, attention to Dalit lives is always an afterthought, the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter a mere appearance of inclusivity adopted by upper castes who dominate the discourse on caste.
Dalit scholar that Dalit women are subjugated by two distinct forms of patriarchy – by Brahmanical men who stigmatise Dalit women and Dalit men who intimately control sexual economy and labour. Moreover, historian that in response to these forms of patriarchy, Dalit women have begun to articulate a Dalit feminist position which also critiques the “exclusive and partial constitution of Indian feminist politics” by showing the ‘Indian’ feminist is upper caste and deliberately ignores caste-based discrimination in favour of gender. Dalit feminists also critique anti-caste politics which replicate Brahmanical patriarchy.
T Sowjanya that “Dalit feminism can be perceived through three major streams – Dalit feminist activism, Dalit women's writing, and the theoritical formulation of Dalit feminism". She asserts that “Dalit feminism indicates the position of Dalit women at both the intersections of gender and caste and feminist movement and Dalit movement.” Sowjanya further argues, “Marginalization of Dalit women within the mainstream feminist organizations and the male dominance in mainstream Dalit movement resulted in the Dalit women's need to formulate Dalit feminism.”
Dalit feminism allows for the critique of the participation of upper caste women and the silence of upper caste feminists such as over the lynching of Dalits in Khairlanji in 2006. The task at hand is not to leave Dalit feminism to Dalit women, or expect only Dalits to be outraged at and raise their voices against caste-based atrocities and murders. Rather, the task is to adopt the critical lens of Dalit feminism, which will enable the investigation and correction of the upper caste millennials’ cultural practices, attitudes, habits that replicate the age-old forms of caste discrimination.
Aarushi Punia is a doctoral research scholar in English Literature at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.