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Dalit Women in Politics: Cynthia Stephen on Brahminism, patriarchy in politics – and the need for change

If we look at our country’s politics, there has been no one from the scheduled castes who has become the Prime Minister of India till date, let alone a scheduled caste woman. Political engagement of Dalits is necessary, but more importantly, it has to include Dalit women leadership in political spaces. The panel on ‘Dalit Women in Politics: Past, Present and Future‘— organised by The Blue Club, a collective for providing mentorship and support to women filmmakers, and All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) — was put together with the above vision in mind. More than 60 Dalit women leaders from across India participated in the conference. Firstpost will be publishing some of the important speeches from this panel.

This is the ninth of the series of speeches.


Greetings. I’m glad to be here. My speech is divided into three parts: a theoretical understanding of the issue; my practical experience in the field; and a vision for the future.

India is celebrated as the largest democratic republic. But is it really a democracy or an apology for one? In recent years – say the last 30 years, after the opening up of the economy – we have seen the play of money in politics. So now it is more a capitalist democracy than a republican democracy. On paper, yes, in theory, yes, but in practice, it is a capitalist democracy.

The defining nature of our politics — I have been writing a number of articles on this subject, they are all available in the archives of a website called countercurrents.org. Of these, I refer to a particular article called India, the Idea of Nation and the Subaltern Indian Woman.’ In it, I speak of the imagining of India in the freedom movement. The concept of Bharat Mata, the idea of Mother India, the song Vande Mataram, which was considered the anthem of the freedom movement. The nation is imagined as a fertile, beautiful, and fruitful woman – “Sujalam, suphalam, malayaja, sheetalam…” It’s an image of fertility, prosperity, abundance. Do these descriptions fit Dalit women? They are poor, hard worked, undernourished and living in hardship… Is it possible for that image and this image to coincide? That is what I discuss in the article. Therefore – where does this come from?

Dalit Women in Politics: Cynthia Stephen on Brahminism, patriarchy in politics — and the need for change

Cynthia Stephen. Image courtesy of the author.

Some of you may have seen a depiction of the map of India – I have seen it in my younger days – India is depicted as a goddess, wearing a saree, with the left arm showing the northeast, the head is J&K, and the rest of India is her body. So what is the source of this imagery? Fundamentally, this is a male, brahminical and patriarchal imagination. So even before the freedom struggle, this was the imagination. If you look at the Indian National Congress, its leadership was almost entirely male, Brahmin, professional and business class/caste, one doesn’t need to explain further. The one shining star who stands out in this scenario is our Babasaheb. By destiny he was the man of the hour, his merit and brilliance caused him to be selected to frame the Constitution of India and thus we have on paper, and in intention, the constitutional guarantees of Equality and Non-discrimination. Because of him, Indian women got the vote without having to struggle for it, unlike women in other countries like the US and UK who had to undergo a lot of struggle to get the right to vote. Because he framed a constitution which enabled us, at least in theory, and in spirit, not to have to undergo the same experiences. In his speech presenting the Constitution to the Parliament, he said that if this Constitution is seen to fail it is not because the Constitution is bad but rather because we have failed it. He also says that the Parliament is like a palace built on a dunghill. He said this even though the Constitution was his most important work, his life’s main achievement, because he knew that the society which will implement it has a core of Brahminism and patriarchy. That’s why he said that even though we have a political democracy we lack a social democracy.

But this was not all, he did a great deal of policy work on agriculture, in finance, in the labour legislation, which had many pro-worker provisions including for women.

In contrast, we have our governments which have been fooling us for 25 years on the issue of reservations for women in governance. How does one then break this logjam, how do we take this forward? Based on the valuable experiences of women like Ruth Manorama, and Sujatha Surepally who have spoken before me, I would like to share some learnings. And I might as well make the announcement at this juncture that I too am going to contest the elections from Bangalore, I haven’t yet chosen the constituency and will keep it in suspense for now.

Both Ruth and I have some involvement in the JD(S) – she in the present and me in the past, and I will be failing in my duty if I don’t share my experiences. I apologise in advance to Ruth as I may say things which are critical of her party.

I was invited to join the JD(S) about eight years ago when there were local body elections in Bangalore, and they wanted to invite Christians to join the party; they set up a Christian minority cell as some of the long-standing Christian leaders in the party had urged them to do so. The JD(S) in general was a comfortable space for women, in contrast with the offices of other political parties. I was encouraged to apply for a ticket to contest the corporator’s seat in the Bangalore corporation. The kind of games people play around ticket distribution and election campaigns, especially to give due representation to minorities and weaker sections is just unbelievable. Seeing this I decided not to contest. I realised that they would not give tickets in places we are sure to win. They give tickets in places where we are sure to lose, so that we can continue to be under their control. Also, they started the Christian minority wing but during the launch and on another important occasion I realised that their attitude to the Christian leaders was to give calculated insults and hence was not positive.

However, after seeing my biodata, the President of the Bangalore Urban Unit quickly gave me the position of General Secretary in the unit, and I worked in it for several months, participated in bike rallies, led demonstrations and attended meetings. Some Christians asked me what I was doing as a Christian, in a Gowda dominated party which only promoted Gowdas. Though some of the party office-bearers recognised my work and abilities, the top leaders were not so. Around this time, I got the position of the State Programme Director of Mahila Samakhya Karnataka, a quasi-government institution. I informed my Party Unit president of this and said I could no longer continue. Some time after my primary membership lapsed and I did not renew it.

Around the time that my contract with the Mahila Samakhya ended, in 2014, the state government decided to update the Panchayat Raj Act, which gave reservations to women in local bodies, as 25 years had passed since its passing; this was the same law which was the basis for the 73rd amendment to the constitution by Rajiv Gandhi’s government. A subcommittee was formed to carry out this redrafting, under the leadership of Mr Ramesh Kumar, who is the present Speaker in the Karnataka Assembly. The drafting took about a year, and in the year 2015, it was passed in the assembly and became law. I was able to contribute significantly to the draft especially in relation to women’s participation.

So I felt that this was my area of strength – helping to draft laws, write policy, etc. and I can contribute best in that. But certain events convinced me that I should contest the elections at this time. So that is where things stand now.

Now, what is the need of the hour?

An article I wrote in 2006 has been posted recently on medium.com. This is a kind of manifesto for Dalit women. It’s called Dalit Women’s Movement: Leadership and Beyond, and it states what Dalit women bring to the table when they come — they bring a perspective from the ground. We are the most vulnerable, [take] any issue – land reforms, water, communal issue, macro-economic policy, Dalit women are the most affected. So without listening to their experiences, our voices, it is not possible. That is why Dalit women need to be where decisions are made, that is why they need to be in political leadership, not only in political leadership where policies need to be framed or implemented.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 10:20:35 IST

Updated: March 15, 2019 — 5:02 am
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