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Interview: Manjula Pradeep

Manjula Pradeep is a lawyer and former Executive Director of the Navsarjan Trust, a grassroots organisation working to empower Dalits throughout India. She is presently working as a freelancer and Senior Consultant at Manuski, a Pune-based organisation that “develops leadership in marginalised communities across India.”

In this interview, she lays out the connections between caste, sexuality and gender from a variety of different standpoints.

Sonia: Generally, when we think about the ways that caste and sexuality intersect, the first thing that comes to mind is the multiple angles from which Dalit women are oppressed – due to their caste as well as their gender. Can you tell us about the ways in which gender-based marginalisation differs based on caste?

Manjula: It’s very clear that a woman’s caste very much puts restrictions on her sexuality in India. As we know, there is graded hierarchy in caste-based society and the entire notion of “purity and pollution” creates a sense of superiority and inferiority amongst the masses in India. The higher you are in the caste ladder, the more superior and pure you are. This means that you have more opportunities as a man to explore your sexuality. But the sexuality of women in all castes in India is controlled through customs, traditions and practices. Therefore a Brahmin woman, despite coming from the top caste, is equally bounded by her caste traditions just like women from other castes. Her sexuality is controlled as she represents the “purest” caste and her community would not like her to lose her purity by sexually relating with men from other castes that are lower than the Brahmins. However, Brahmin men do not have any restrictions on their sexual choices.

The Dalit women, who come lowest in the caste ladder and are the most discriminated amongst the discriminated, live a life of social exclusion and stigma attached to their bodies. They are treated as impure; they try to assert their rights but their bodies are used by the dominant caste men who commit mass rapes, attack Dalit women, strip them naked and parade them, and kill them to show their anger against the assertion of Dalit communities.

S: What are some historical examples of the ways in which society regulates the sexuality of Dalit women?

M: Certain age-old caste-based practices also signify the status of lower caste women in India. One of these practices is the Devadasi practice, i.e. “Temple Prostitution”. In this practice, which has been going on for centuries, young Dalit girls are forced to become temple prostitutes, which is a kind of sexual slavery still existing in modern India. In the past, there was a tradition of Dalit women sleeping with a dominant caste man from their husband’s village on their wedding night. In Kerala, before colonial rule, there was a breast tax called Mula Karam, which was one among the many oppressive taxes that was levied on the lower caste. Through this tax, a woman was granted the right to cover her breasts only if she paid a fee to the government. Prostitution as a caste-based occupation has also been prevalent for a long time amongst the women of Bedia community who are located on the border of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. These practices and traditions not only signify the vulnerability of lower caste women, but also show that they do not have the right and control over their own bodies. Hence, the entire essence of being a human being and enjoyment of one’s right to freedom is snatched from the hands of lower caste women, due to the caste system and patriarchy.

S: Why are marriage and sexuality so heavily regulated for Indian women of all castes? What purpose does this regulation serve?

M: Ultimately, a woman’s body is controlled by the Indian society to ensure the purity of the castes, as women are the ones who give birth to new offspring. A study titled “Understanding Untouchability” was conducted by Navsarjan Trust in 2010, covering 1589 villages of Gujarat. One of the findings of this study was that 98% of the respondents did not approve of inter-caste marriages.

The role of caste panchayats, i.e. Caste councils also governs the social customs and rituals in India. The caste councils generate fear amongst the people as they create boundaries around individuals with regard to marriage, selection of partner, etc. Due to the fear of caste panchayats, the male members of the family even commit honour killings, especially of their daughters for breaking the caste boundaries and loving a man outside her caste. The majority of women in Indian society are forced to carry family honour and prestige.

Heterosexual identity in itself also represents the continuity of the caste system as the burden of childbirth remains on women in Indian society; they have to ensure that the caste lineage will continue through their fertility. Hence, issues relating to different sexual identities which do not fall into the caste lineage are rejected and condemned not in one particular religion, but across religions – as caste intersects in all religions in India.

S: Tell us a little about your own background and what made you decide to become a lawyer.

M: I come from a Dalit family from Uttar Pradesh. My father was a government officer and was transferred to Vadodara, the city where I was born. Since my childhood, I felt that I was not accepted and welcomed as a second girl child. I also was sexually abused by four men in my neighbourhood when I was four years old. Hence I grew up with a sense of rejection and loneliness. My father always lived with an insecurity of people knowing about our caste background, so he gave us a surname which is a first name. While dealing with challenges of caste and gender in my family and around me, I started questioning why there was discrimination against me as a daughter and not towards my brothers. I could also see the pain that my young and beautiful mother underwent from my father. I was the only sibling who protected her until my father’s death in 2012. I grew up as a rebel in the family and challenged the traditions and practices which were imposed on us as women.

After joining Navsarjan in 1992 as the first woman employee, I gained lot of grassroot experience in Gujarat. That made me realise the issues and problems of Dalits more closely. I could also see the fear and helplessness of the community against the oppression that they were going through from the dominant castes. In 1993, a case of torture of Dalit youth in police custody opened my eyes about the vulnerability of Dalits even from the system which is there to protect them from violence and atrocities. This youth’s dead body was found hanging in his small hut the day after the incident. His old mother Valiben, who was a widow, registered a complaint against the two police officers of Dhandhuka town. I was mesmerised by her spirit and determination to fight for justice. While working on this case, I started reading the post-mortem report and could not understand many legal terms. I was asked to read a book on medical jurisprudence and there I realised that I should pursue a law degree. Valiben who became Valima for me also inspired me with her words that “I want justice and not money,” when the accused police officers tried to bribe her with 400,000 rupees.

S: In an interview you said that this incident in 2008 (the Patan rape case which you fought and won for a college girl who was being raped by six male professors), changed your life. Can you tell us how? 

M: I took leadership of Navsarjan in November 2004. Being a part of an organisation and leading an organisation is very different, which I realised when I contested for the position of Executive Director of Navsarjan against four Dalit men who were my colleagues. My relationship with them changed after I got the majority of votes from my colleagues. It was quite a challenging time for me as I faced lot of problems within the organisation: I was labelled as a woman with bad character and was equated with Hitler. I also realised that I had to prove myself, prove that I was capable of leading the organisation, i.e. a double burden of caste and gender. Until the infamous Patan rape case, Navsarjan had tried to address the issue of violence against women, but it remained limited to domestic violence, and cases of rape and sexual abuse were usually taken on, but none of them reached a conviction.

The Patan rape case shook me from inside. When I met the young rape survivor, I could not bear to see her pain and decided that whatever happens I would ensure that she got justice. It was not only justice for this rape survivor, but also for those young girls who had been victims of sexual abuse by these professors for the past decade. This case became a stepping stone for Navsarjan, as the intersections between caste and gender became prominent in the organisation. The entire team got motivated as the case was also political in nature. It was in the constituency of the ex chief minister Anandiben Patel, who was at that time Education Minister, and Mr. Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat. I was pressurised a lot by the Gujarat government since I took over the custody of the rape survivor. There were situations where I felt that there would be an out of court settlement in the case. The moral, social and legal support that the rape survivor got from the team at Navsarjan and me, and the support from the media also made the case strong. After a year and one month, we got life imprisonment in this case, a historical moment in Gujarat. Among the six professors, two were from Dalit communities and one of them was the nephew of a Dalit politician from the BJP who is currently a Member of Parliament.

While dealing with this case, the team members of Navsarjan also started taking up other cases of sexual trafficking, rape and sexual abuse of not only Dalit girls and women, but also of tribal women and women across castes and religions. So there was a major shift in the organisation’s strategy. I also decided to build and strengthen the leadership of marginalised women and set up women’s rights councils in different parts of Gujarat.

S: How can we begin to deconstruct the power structures that perpetuate the marginalisation of Dalit and Adivasi womanhood and femininity? How can people from other castes use their relative power to support the sexual and reproductive rights of Dalit and Adivasi women and other marginalised genders?

M: The power structures are deeply rooted in the caste system and patriarchy. Hence it’s quite challenging to deconstruct them, but it’s possible if women across castes build solidarity and sisterhood, questioning the inhumane traditions and practices that they are forced into by men through the caste and religious councils. I think the caste and religious councils play a very important role by creating a hindrance in the social transformation process and the empowerment of women.

Dalit and Adivasi women are perceived as weak because of their multiple identities. But they are the strongest as they fight against both patriarchy and the caste system. Those who believe and stand up for the rights of Dalit and Adivasi women have to get out of their own caste identity and get into the shoes of Dalit, Adivasi and marginalised women and support their rights. People who have relative power have not been showing solidarity with these women. They do not question dominant caste men when Dalit, Adivasi and marginalised women are raped or sexually abused. Why do the women of the dominant castes protect their husbands, sons and brothers who are accused of committing rape on Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised women? They should condemn these acts, instead of labelling the Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalised women as women of bad character. Can we see marginalised women with the eyes of equality and respect? This is what the Dalit, Adivasi and marginalised women are looking for. They don’t want to be treated as impure and discriminated against by other communities. Dominant caste women have to realise that ultimately it’s the game of power, where men from their communities not only misuse marginalised communities and women but also dominant caste women themselves.

S: In the work that you do, do you come across people who do not conform to the norms of gender or of sexuality? People of different sexual identities who may not call themselves lesbian or gay or transgender, but who do not subscribe to mainstream ways of expressing gender or sexuality. How are they accepted in the Dalit community? And outside the Dalit community, do they face a sort of double discrimination? 

M: In my more than 25 years of experience in the field of human rights, I feel that much more needs to be done with regards to gender and sexuality. There is a lack of sensitivity towards people from different genders and sexual orientations. Those who are from Dalit communities and have a non-heterosexual sexual orientation are ridiculed and also become a target of enjoyment and mockery, especially by the men. Women who are lesbian tend not to reveal their sexual orientation as they are afraid of further marginalisation by their community. The discrimination, isolation, rejection and violence faced by the Dalits from sexual minorities is not protected under any law, as the laws are based on heterosexual identities, whether it’s the Atrocities Act or The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. Homosexuals and people of other sexual identities are not recognised as a vulnerable social category.

S: Do you see any examples of solidarity building between the movements for Dalit rights and those for sexual and reproductive rights?

M: Those who work on Dalit rights and those who work on sexual and reproductive rights are beginning to build solidarity. Women leaders from the Dalit rights movement are discussing and sharing the need to highlight issues of sexual and reproductive rights within the movement, and they are also working closely with the activists and leaders from sexual minorities. A historic event “Chalo Nagpur” is an initiative to bring women from different marginalised communities on one platform and to challenge the right wing forces and Brahmanical ideology which is impacting the lives of millions of people in India. I am also a member of Common Health, a collective which focuses on sexual and reproductive rights. The collective is aiming to create a tool to identify the ways in which marginalised women are discriminated against when they attempt to assert their reproductive rights. I am also an associate with CREA, and I do trainings on caste and sexuality for women leaders in India.

But I think much more needs to be done as ultimately we are all seeking fulfilment of the rights conferred to us in the Constitution of India.
Cover Image: Manjula Pradeeep

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Article written by:

Sonia Dhawan is on the Programmes team at TARSHI. She is interested in increasing accessibility to accurate information about sexual & reproductive health & rights and promoting cross-cultural dialogue between Indian and US feminist movements.

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