Reviewing Caste – A Dalit Woman’s Perspective
By Amritpal Kaur

Caste, as Babasaheb said, is a notion but what makes it a complex phenomenon to understand is the fact that it is also a notional reality. Caste is never singular, it is a plural social mechanism. There is no such thing as a caste. There are always castes that constitute the infamous oppressive social system of Indian society, the caste system. It is surprisingly an onerous task to acknowledge how a mere notion or a belief (that first originated in the minds of the priestly class) could become a shape-shifting monstrous reality that has remained successfully unchanged in its oppressive psychology of inflicting subjugation on the fellow humans. The caste system is the best example of how a belief can be changed into an institutionalised belief system by making it sacred through self-regulating codes.

Most societies are class-based and new social classes emerge from time to time as a result of internal conflicts. But a class-based society is intercommunicating and interchangeable. But caste, being an enclosed class, does not allow any social communication between two enclosed classes, hence resulting in the formation of new enclosed classes i.e castes from time to time. Thus, the caste system is an enclosed class system that divides these enclosed classes into watertight compartments i.e castes, leaving zero scopes for social and cultural endosmosis. This results in perpetually disadvantaged groups that not only are denied dignity and self-respect but also access to basic human resources, jobs and education.

Most of the scholars have intellectualized the caste system by excessively concentrating on three factors:- ritual purity, material constraints and power equations. But none, except Babasaheb, could realise the real reason behind the intactness of the caste system through centuries, despite many internal and external challenges i.e the subjugation of women. Power equation and material deprivation are a means to keep an unquestionable control of the upper castes over the lower castes so that they remain vulnerable on the path of daily survival and thus, are not able to retaliate. Ritual purity has also been explained as the only dimension of purity pollution concept where the untouchables and all women (being impure) are excluded from the ritual processions as their presence (touch and shadow) destabilizes the ritual purity related to the caste purity. There is a two-dimensional reality to the concept of caste purity, one is ritual purity and the other is blood purity.

Surprisingly, all women are excluded from ritual ceremonies but ritualization of religious culture is incomplete without their unconscious participation. They are considered impure to participate in rituals but considered pure only if they abide by all the rituals prescribed to them. Thus, ritual purity cannot be seen as a mere exclusion of women from rituals but as a more inclusive involvement of women in maintaining caste hierarchy. The absence of women in rituals is related to their being born impure as women but making sure that their vaginas remain pure/ untouched/ unpenetrated before marriage (with a fear that the man might belong to a different caste) is the only means to ensure the purity of the blood of caste or clarity of the male lineage. So, to maintain the purity of the caste, its ritual purity is ensured and to maintain the purity of blood of the caste, purity of vagina is sought.

The subjugation of women in almost all societies is a universal phenomenon known as patriarchy. But in Indian society, patriarchy and the caste system have religious interconnectedness. Just as the caste system is hierarchical, patriarchy is also graded. In the Indian context, patriarchy can be understood in three correlations:- our family structure and households, kinship and caste and culture and religion. It can be evaluated by how the economic power of men and their domination of production was crucially linked to and determined by the organisation of the family and household. The household has emerged as an important constituent of both production and patriarchy. Along with the household, kinship i.e family ties or blood relation networks are central to both, the exercise of male power in the familial and social context as well as women’s status or lack of it at home and outside. Both labour and reproduction involve the exploitation of human labour (Dalit men and all women which includes the domestic labour of upper-caste women and domestic and economic labour of Dalit women) on one hand and female reproductive capacity on the other hand. The caste system is central to both forms of exploitation and further adds the concept of ritualizing female sexuality i.e her sexual prowess and procreative power. The religious patriarchy i.e the Brahmanical patriarchy fixes upper-caste women in purity and Dalit women in pollution. Both, the purity of savarna women and pollution of Dalit women’s sexuality (at the will of upper-caste men) are a means to keep the caste hierarchies intact.

Indian society is largely composed of hierarchical systems within families and communities. Patriarchy is one of them and the relational patriarchies between women within one family are a more adverse and continuous source in maintaining the caste hierarchy. Here women are pitted against one another and not all women are powerless at all the time.

Their position in the family, community and social hierarchy holds a special position in determining their susceptibility to sexual exploitation. Multi Hierarchies in the Indian society can be broken down into age, sex, ordinal position (designation according to number), kinship relationships, caste, lineage, wealth, occupations and relationships to ruling power (within the community). Factors like kinship, labour, sexuality, access to material resources and caste as a product of endogamous marriages have over time moulded the relationship between gender and caste.

The common binding factor of multi hierarchies including the caste system is sustained endogamous marriage practice. The distance from caste as a notion to caste as a notional reality in the form of caste system has been well traversed through Endogamy which has been sustained through Brahmanical patriarchy. Endogamy is the bridge that has kept the caste system alive and very much relevant in our daily practices. The flexibility of this bridge is determined by locking up the sexuality of savarna women and Dalit women under the notions of purity and pollution, respectively. Babasaheb, in Castes in India, explains how Brahmanical patriarchy was working in past through three uxorial (relating to wife) customs namely, sati, enforced widowhood and child marriage. These customs were the means to sustain Endogamy by curbing all choices of women. Although these customs are rarely practised today, Endogamy still persists and hence the caste system. Today, the quality of a woman i.e virginity and sexual prowess and procreative powers are ritualized so that these can be legitimately used to maintain the purity, continuity and immortality of the male vansha. The cultural conflict between excessive stress on a woman’s virginity before marriage and modernisation has resulted in a sudden upsurge in cases of hymenoplasty i.e a minor surgical procedure where hymen (a membrane covering the entrance or opening of a woman’s vagina, the presence or absence of which determines the status of her virginity) is repaired or reconstructed. This helps to maintain the notion of virginity of a woman and thus purity of her father’s caste.

To become a caste, a class has to enclose itself from other classes and to keep itself culturally different or superior, it has to perform strict rules of Endogamy. In order to keep Endogamy functioning smoothly, there has to be a fixed mechanism through which any attempt of escaping Endogamy is dealt with strictly. This mechanism is known as exogamy.

According to Babasaheb, the marriages in Indian society are based on the laws of exogamy and not on Endogamy, as thought otherwise. All Exogamous unions are dealt with more severely as compared to breaching Endogamy (inter-caste or inter-religious) so that Endogamy can run smoothly. The smooth running of endogamous unions is the basis for caste maintenance.

In Indian society, the parental (ancestral to be more precise) attributes are more important than individual ones and elders decide who their children are not supposed to marry.

The laws of exogamy include two main rules, the sagotras and the sapindas. Sagotras are the members belonging to the same gotra or ancestor whereas sapindas include members belonging to a fixed number of generations (five paternal and three maternal generations). People belonging to the same gotra and fixed generations are considered to share common ancestors. Therefore their unions are prohibited as they are considered cousins. All these relations form the kinship unit also called the exogamous unit. Every endogamous unit has its Exogamous unit that is always ready to instil violence on any breach of the law. Breaching of exogamy disturbs the clarity of male vansha and if the male vansha becomes unclear the continuity of Endogamy is disrupted. For e.g, if a daughter is born through an Exogamous union, her relation with her parents is completely altered. Her mother also becomes her maternal aunt and her father her paternal uncle.

Hence, the Indian marriage system must be endogamous but based on the laws of exogamy so that the clarity, purity and continuity of male vansha or lineage must be maintained. This is ensured by taking away all choices from women, especially their right to choose their life (sexual) partner. Any defiance or breach of this system is punished by instilling sexual atrocities on all women, the difference lies in the fact that savarna women are exploited inside their families and Dalit women in public.

They have succumbed to all kinds of oppression, economic, social, cultural, educational, sexual, emotional, legal as well as political so that they are left with no weapon to retaliate.

Women in our marriages are mere receptacles and transmitters as objects. They have no vansha or identity of their own. They are identified by the caste of the men they are related to.

Despite having many constitutional rights, women are still denied their right to choose. Lack of choice can never produce dignified individuals. Where there is the erosion of choice (Dalits and women), dignity cannot be thought of. It is made sure that their right to choice succumbs to the concept of caste/class honour. Endogamous Marriages in Indian society are based on unequal partnership of identities and a woman has to adopt the culture of her husband’s family for social and familial acceptance. Why have women been denied any culture of their own? So that they can be used as culture vectors to keep the culture of male vansha alive. They are intentionally made into cultureless beings so that they are kept devoid of any ideological base to enhance their personalities. She is not even allowed to bring up her children on her terms. She must follow the conditions laid down to her by her in-laws. How can a woman instil any revolutionary ideas in the upbringing of her children without her husband’s permission? Can she?

The upper caste male has the maximum power in the caste hierarchy for being both an upper caste and a male.

Brahmanical patriarchy provides unlimited power (religious) to him to instil vaginal violence on all women whenever there is a challenge to his status quo. The purity pollution dimension of the caste system demands a thorough re-examination by keeping the pure and impure status of vaginas of upper caste and Dalit women respectively, at the nucleus of all explanations of caste. Babasaheb was of the opinion that inter-caste marriages or mixing of blood are the only way to annihilate the caste system. Despite being rapid urbanisation and the proliferation of nuclear families, caste/community-based marriages remain prevalent. An increase in educational levels correlates to a decrease in endogamous marriages, but in India educational level of individuals appears to have no bearing on the likelihood of marrying someone from a different caste.

Social cohesion, which is a key indicator of assimilation between various social groups, results in inter-caste marriages as a norm. Before inter-caste marriages become a norm in India, it is important that the Dalits break endogamous practices among themselves first. There is no point in taking high leaps and marrying women from the upper castes when our women need more help to build their identities. Dalit men and women must join hands to walk on a path of mutual cultural and moral Revolution. The subjugation of women is central to the reproduction and sustenance of the caste system and emancipation of women, especially women at the bottom of the caste hierarchy is crucial to any struggle against caste.

In India, one cannot fight for women’s liberation unless one challenges Brahmanical domination and caste hierarchy and Brahmanical patriarchy as a means for this domination. It is essential to know why and how Brahmanical patriarchy allows upper-caste men to lock up their women while enjoying easy and unlimited access to the lowest women in the hierarchy. It is the need of the hour to understand the centrality of caste to the operation of gender inequality in Indian society. Babasaheb clearly understood the subjugation relation of women and caste hierarchy and that is why he was of the opinion that it is equally important to frame a code (Hindu code bill) for laws of marriage, adoption, divorce and inheritance based on equality among castes and between men and women just as it was important to frame a constitution based on equality of citizenship. Caste cannot be annihilated unless there is a sexual revolution. A sexual revolution cannot occur without an ideological revolution. Today, ideological revolution requires a re-understanding of caste, from a woman’s perspective. It is the moral responsibility of educated Dalit women to initiate ideological revolution by breaking the pen-penis friendship (as old as the caste system) that has successfully erased the location of women in maintaining the caste system. It’s important that we explain caste our way, a more inclusive way, the way we experience caste through our vaginas.

Amritpal Kaur, Institute of Ambedkar Studies, Jalandhar, Punjab.

Original Contents by Velivada