I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved (B.R. Ambedkar)
To commemorate 131Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April, this time several programmes and memorial meetings are being organized by the political parties belonging to Left, Right, Secular and Social Justice Parties. Besides, this time Phule-Ambedkar Jayanti is being celebrated together with much compassion and commitment across India including on social media platforms. Despite of the social justice parties and more importantly Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have witnessed huge electoral setbacks in UP elections 2022; the importance and significance of Phule-Ambedkar thoughts are perhaps becoming more widespread in the larger public spheres. The Ambedkar Jayanti is now being celebrated by the global audiences and it has captured the public imagination at the international level. In this respect, intellectuals and party ideologies of different shades of thinking had highlighted the significance of Ambedkar’s views on caste, religion, nation and his contributions on making of the Indian Constitution. So far, in my view his commitments and struggles towards gender justice and women’s empowerment has not been seriously explored in the mainstream academic circles and public sphere at large. On said occasion, this essay is an attempt to engage with Ambedkar’s views on women’s question.
Historically speaking, for the first time Babaseheb Ambedkar had advocated women’s question seriously and underlined that the progress of the society could be measured in terms of how women have progressed in the community at large. Unless a woman gets proper rights and representations in the realm of education, politics and public institutions, any modern and democratic society cannot progress. It was Babasaheb who carried forward the legacy of Gautam Bhudha, Joytiba Phule, Periyar and Pandita Rama Bai in the late colonial India by articulating the rights of women in various public spaces. To note that feminist bahujan icons like Savitri Bai Phule and Fatima Sheikh who for the first time had opened the school for girls’ education in colonial India. To put forward the legacy of said bahujan intellectuals and articulate the concerns of ‘secluded women’ of our society, Babasaheb mentions several provisions in the Constitution of India to establish equality between men and women. Due to his efforts, the universal adult franchise (equal voting rights) was given to the women in India even before the European countries.
However, it is unfortunate that current electoral politics have not ensured the proper representation of women in politics, education, workplaces and the public sphere. The empirical studies have demonstrated that still women are underrepresented in the realm of politics, education and civil services. According to the 2018 Economic Survey, only 9 percent women were members of legislative assemblies in different States of India. The 2022 Assembly elections results of five States which has just concluded indicated that women (especially marginalized groups) have not got their due political representations in the legislative assemblies, in spite of the tall claim made by the political parties during the course of elections campaign. Before coming to the present political situations, let me discuss Babasaheb’s struggles for championing the cause of women.
Dr. Ambedkar publicly burnt a copy of Manusmiriti (on 25 December, 1927) mainly because it restricts the rights of shudras and women and not given the status of human to them. For the first time, Babasaheb had advocated the provision for ‘maternity leave’ for women in the Bombay legislative assembly. In short, he was deeply committed to women’s empowerment before any nationalist thinkers thought of. However, the mainstream feminists (especially dominated by the upper-caste women) have had not recognized and given academic attention to consider Ambedkar as a feminist and the great champion of women’s rights. Put differently, no nationalist leader including Mahatma Gandhi can stand with Ambedkar as far as women’s rights is concerned.
It is a fact that both public and private spheres are dominated by male chauvinism and women often experiences discriminations in everyday life due to their gender identity and sexuality. That is why most of feminists argued that there is a need to dismantle the boundaries between the public and the private and push the agenda of democratization in the larger society so that women can enjoy their rights in everyday life. Keeping the larger problems and everyday experience of women in mind, Ambedkar’s perspective on women’s rights and equality must be taken seriously. The fact cannot be denied that after 75 years of the journey of India’s democracy, women (especially marginalized sections) are underrepresented in the public institutions and face huge discriminations in both private and public spheres. The questions need to be asked here who are responsible for the plight and disempowerment of the lower caste women. Is it the Indian society (which is brahmanical patriarchy in nature) or the Indian State and its institutions?
Due to the efforts of the progressive women’s organizations there is increasing awareness about women’s rights and education. As a result, most political parties have now started talking about women issues sincerely and launching various programmes in the larger public sphere. The recent slogans during the UP election campaign like Ladki hu mai lad sakti hu (we are girls and now we can fight ourselves) given by the Congress party which has made a positive impact on the society and politics. However, discriminations, violence and exclusion of the underprivileged section of women (Dalit and minorities) are continuing unabated in both private in the public sphere. These are questions that need to be seriously examined in the context of electoral politics. Having said that let us examine feminists’ views and their engagement with Ambedkar on questions of caste, gender and brahmanical patriarchy.
Unlike the upper caste feminists (savarna feminists), for Ambedkarite feminists like Sharmila Rege and Gopal Guru both have had argued that the ‘Dalit women talk differently’ and they have been doubly discriminated. For instance, they have been the victim of the patriarchy (within the community) and encountered discriminations because of their caste locations, in the larger Hindu brahmanical social order. For Dalit feminists, the mainstream women’s discourse, often dominated by the upper caste women’s experience and they do not take caste and untouchability seriously that is deeply rooted in the brahmanical patriarchal society like India. In other words, women are not a homogenous category (heterogeneity exists among the women on the lines of caste, religion and class) and all women do not experience similar kinds of oppression and violence in everyday lives. For instance, when Dalit and minorities section of the women have witnessed oppression and sexual assault from the communal and brahmanical forces; the Hindu women’s organizations (such as Durga Vahini, women’s wing of the Vishav Hindu Parishad, VHP) often sided with communal and patriarchal forces rather than standing with the marginalized section of women. The recent attacked on Muskan Khan (hijab wearing Muslim girl) in Karnataka’s college campus can be taken as a case in point. It is an empirical fact that marginalized sections of women are doubly discriminated because of their gender identity and communalization of women’s bodies in the larger public sphere. The Bulli Bai app (used as derogatory tools against influential Muslim women on social media platform) can be understood in this respect.
Leave aside for a while,(the Hindu Right views on caste and patriarchy), even the Parliamentary left and secularist forces ( who often see gender question from class perspective) had also not taken Ambedkar’s vision of the women’s liberation seriously. That is why; Dalit-bahujan feminists often blamed that upper caste (savarna feminist) for being selective while foregrounding the women’s issues and problems in the public sphere. On the basis of my earlier observations in the university spaces (like JNU and Delhi University), I have seen that most of the upper caste feminists (belonging to the Left parties) also underrated the category like caste while dealing with women questions. For instance, if the lower caste and minorities section of the women get harassed and experienced discriminations by the upper caste males, it often gets diluted and not discussed seriously in the public domain. For instance, rape of Dalit women (which took place all most every day in the Indian society) often get neglected by the upper caste women’s organizations and political parties alike.
Let me come to the present ruling government led by PM Modi on women’s issues who often made a claim that the BJP has given more importance to Ambedkar than any political parties (especially Congress who ruled the country for more than 60 years). While earlier inaugurating the Ambedkar memorial building, PM Modi said that Ambedkar’s views on women need to be taken into account. He said that Babasaheb wanted that the Hindu Code Bill should be passed in the parliament (which advocated rights of Hindu women, related to the property and divorce widow remarriages) but Nehru had shown reluctance. However, it is a historical fact that it was the Hindu orthodox organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jan Sangh led by Shayama Prasad Mukherjee including then the President of India Rajendra Prasad who had opposed the Hindu Code Bill. Hence, it is entirely incorrect to hold Nehru responsible alone for not passing the original draft of the Hindu Code Bill conceptualized by Babasaheb, as PM Modi has underlined in his memorial lecture.
The question need to be asked, if PM Modi and the BJP so committed to Ambdkar’s views on women why they deliberately kept silence when the marginalized section of women (belonging to Dalit and minorities) have faced sexual attack by the goons of the communal forces. The Hathras rape case in UP and Udupi’s hijab row (Karnataka) can be cited as examples. Hence, it appears that the present government has constructed memorials and buildings in the name of Ambedkar to get the Dalit votes rather than addressing the issues and problems of the lower caste women for whom Babasaheb was committed and launched several struggles in his life time. Hence, merely giving charity and distributing the rations and token money amidst elections is contrary to what Ambedkar thought about women’s empowerment. He was deeply committed to providing rights rather than symbolic tokenism (doing charity in the name of welfarism), as done by the ruling dispensation vis-a-vis marginalizing sections of women to get electoral dividends. If the BJP is so committed to empower women, why the party has not shown its commitment to pass the ‘Women Reservation Bill’ which is still languishing in the parliament?
Besides, even the mainstream secular and left forces have also not seriously bothered about Ambedkar’s views on caste and gender issues, as stated above. For a long period of time, the mainstream left forces have had seen the women question from the class perspective and often undermined caste-based discriminations experienced by Dalit women. In addition, discourse of the upper caste feminists often gets more attention in the party led women organizations rather than concern of the Dalit-bahujan women. The representations of Dalit and minority women in the Left parties such as CPM and CPI led women organizations are not worthy to appreciate. However, due to the autonomous social movements launched by Dalit-bahujan women’s organization, secular and Left parties have now changed its position from class to intersectionality of caste and gender. Still, a lot needs to be done in this direction by the left-secular political dispensation to accommodate genuine concern of the subaltern women.
To realize the goal of gender just society on the occasion of 131 Jayanti of Ambedkar , genuine concerns of women need to be foregrounded rather than giving slogans and rhetorical speeches, as done by the consecutive ruling political parties. A section of scholars having right-wing political leaning underlined that the BJP has able to manage Dalit votes (in just concluded UP elections 2022) because; it followed the legacy of Ambedkar and has done good works for Dalits, women and poor more than the social justice parties. However, empirical studies have shown that Dalit-bahujan women are the victims of caste and gender based violence in political and public spheres. Violence and sexual assault on women during the Panchayat elections (2021) in Uttar Pradesh can be cited as a case in point. To note that fifty percent populations constituted by women are still underrepresented in the realm of politics, economy, education and jobs. The electoral politics and especially political party like the BJP has treated women not as the right bearer of citizens ( as enshrined in the Constitution of India) but see them as subjects (merely populations) by providing some tokenism( for instance, distributing rations, and giving token money) to get electoral benefits. This point could be noticed in UP elections. In short, the BJP- RSS combine is now trying to ‘saffronise’ Ambdkar’s thoughts (by doing selected interpretations of Babasaheb’s writings often putting out of context) to get electoral benefits rather than to empower the Dalit-bahujan women.
To fight against this kind of narrow and communal electoral politics; it is necessary to build up the larger solidarity among the feminist, progressive forces and Ambedkarites in the civil society. While doing so, it is also necessary to challenge both brahmanical patriarchy and anti-women mindsets (of communal forces) that exist in both public and private spheres in times to come. Hence, keeping these above critical issues witnessed by subaltern women in mind, the fresh reading of Ambedkar’s views on women’s question needs to be genuinely explored on the said occasion.
Note: The author is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. I am grateful to B.A. second year’s girls students of Bashir Khan, Mahila Mahavidhalay (where I am teaching currently) who have underlined the importance of B.R. Ambedkar’s views on women in the classroom discussions.