05/10/2016 9:29 PM IST | Updated 08/10/2016 9:13 AM IST

Maratha Uprising: How Caste Hijacked A Gender Issue

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Co-authored by Kartikey Shukla*

India has a long tradition of caste- and religion-based politics in which national constructs of masculinity and femininity are played up for political gains by all parties. Yet, marginalized groups such as women—and Dalit women in particular—have no self-representation. They remain mere embodiments of the micro nations they belong to. In the aftermath of the alleged rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village by Dalit youths, Maratha leaders called for MookYatra (Silent march) putting their three key demands—justice for the victim, amendment/scrapping of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and reservation for the Maratha community. Marathas constitute about 33% of the state's population and are considered to be landed elites. Maratha leaders across all political parties joined hand to support the cause (and to maintain their vote bank, no doubt).

This is a case of "our" (Maratha) woman raped by "them" (Dalits)... Her rape is seen not as a violation of her body but as an attack on her caste.

In response to Maratha agitation, Dalit political lobbies countered that their community faced centuries-long discrimination at the hands of Marathas. They called the Maratha movement political propaganda that had nothing to do with realities. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government asked the Centre to look into possibilities of amendments in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Left parties in the state have called for a "Khairlanji Day" to appease Dalits. Amidst all these development, the 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 in a manner that is far from helpful. From the Maratha side, they are just looking for short-term political gains and not focusing on the comprehensive issue of "gender politics of equality and justice." The 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.

Indian society has long demonstrated a tendency to sideline real issues, with politicians jumping into the fray to make matters slant somehow in their favour. Women are divided by societal structures, including caste, class and tribe, where male members use their power to show their political strength even as they undermine female aspirations and deny them their fundamental rights.

It is surprising that opinion pieces in leading newspapers (see for example, here and here) have failed to consider the gender aspects of the debate even though the starting point of the Maratha protests is not a caste-based event but violation of a woman's bodily integrity.

The nation feels outraged when its women are attacked by perceived "others" because national identity is built upon notions of inclusivity and exclusivity. In order to maintain the purity of national identity it is important to control women's reproductive potential. Thus women become the embodiments and protectors of national identity—and devoid of their own agency. Imagining women as Bharat Mata, depicting her body co-terminus with India's map, for example, is both reductionist and dehumanizing.

When we say "nation" here, we are not only referring to political borders but "micro-nations" based upon caste, region, religion, language, ethnicity and so on. The Kopardi rape and murder is not the first such crime perpetrated against a Maratha woman. So, why has this particular instance created a mass movement against the entire Dalit community? Because, perhaps this is the first case of "our" (Maratha) woman raped by "them" (Dalits).

Now, suddenly, due to the misdeeds of some men from their caste, Dalit women stand to lose the protection of the SC/ST Act. Where do women stand in this debate?

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 to only see her as an embodiment of her caste. Her rape is seen not as a violation of her body but as an attack on her caste.

The SC/ST Act was introduced to prevent several caste-based atrocities, including 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.

Genderless public debate

The essence of a democracy lies in its debate and discussion, which must always include the gender perspective at the crossroads of caste and class

Women should organize themselves as a political force rather than under the banner of any particular party. Women pressure groups should come forward to take the streets by raising their demands irrespective of their social orientation. They should guard against getting their complex identities hijacked by reductionist and homogenized groups. Civil society groups and feminists in academia must question such public debates and commentaries where established social criteria based on patriarchal structures take precedence over a more complex gender perspective.

* Kartikey Shukla is a TISS gradate and a Young India Fellow.

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