• Dalit and Adivasi Women Question Oppression

    Sujatha Surepally on the National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress, 2013

    July 6, 2016

    Sujatha Surepally

    Impressions from the first National Dalit and Adivasi Women's Congress held on February 15-16, 2013, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

    2Durga Bai / via

    We live in nature! We die in Nature! It's our life, if you occupy our land where should we go and how do we live? Whose land is this?

    The hall is echoing with the furious voice of Dayamani Barla, a veteran Adivasi activist from Jharkhand. She is trying to unite people against mining in Jharkhand, around 108 mining companies are waiting to destroy Adivasi life in the name of mining, first they come for coal, next they say power houses, it continues, we are pushed out and out further. How do we live without our land? During her spectacular speech which carries on for an hour, there pin drop silence all around as everyone identifies with her pain and agony. At the end of it, what is she is trying to convey? ‘Humko Jeene Do!’ (Let us live our own life!) If this is called development, we care a damn about it! Blanket statement.

    The two-day-long Dalit and Adivasi women's conference at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai (15-16th Feb, 2013) started with the question of Adivasi struggle for survival, where they have to confront the state and its policies. From then on different women articulated a wide range of issues. Razia Patel, who represents a minority among a minority in her religion, with her co-religionists afraid of speaking of, listening to, or seeing the truth. It's very astonishing but true that caste exists even among Muslims and some are discriminated against.

    Samata Mane is still not able to understand issues involved with her identity: nomadic tribe or denotified tribe; most of the time she doesn't belong to any, searching for an identity which the state forces them to identify with, reconcile with. She posed a question to all of us: where are we in this society? Which identity will you give us, SC, ST, or Criminal Tribe? We don't have ration cards or voter cards, where do we belong in this country?

    Manisha Tokle, a Dalit activist from Maharashtra, blasts the government, saying: why do you allot money in the name of Scheduled Castes and Sscheduled Tribes when you overlook whether it is properly used? The tenders go to the non-Dalits and Dalits are always the receivers, whom should we ask this question? Sunita Munda, an Adivasi from JNU, asked educated people to come back and save their community, which is neglected by the state and the people from their own community. Why do they need NGOs to come and work for them? This question she raises while working with an NGO.

    bannerThe conference was a saga of self-reflections, disappointing times and struggles, a long list of inhuman treatment meted out by the other communities and the state. The conference also remembered ideological questions, the state's casteist behaviour through its agents; ultimately all of which effects these women. For example, 95% of female manual scavengers suffer at the hands of their own Dalit community; men and society always treat them inhumanely.

    Dalit women's bodies are sold and tortured in the name of being Joginis, Matangis and Devadasis. These narratives are painful to listen to and the mind reeling. What can we do? Many of these women are warriors on the ground, but they never get recognition, their stories and resistance are never reported in the media. In fact, they are to be rightly seen as role models for our times. There may be many more, but who will trace them and bring them out to the world and show that in spite of all the odds, difficult times, threats from all angles, ill-treatment by so called society and the intellectuals, they are fighting with the system? That's the beauty of these communities, that's the culture of these brave souls and that's their identity. If one can understand from the heart and mind, all questions raised by them are weapons aimed at the non-Dalits and non-Adivasis. Phule, Ambedkar, Savithribai are the revolutionary icons today and forever for them.

    This was the first time, that a Dalit-Adivasi women's congress is organized in India, and all the speakers were from those communities. Getting them on one platform is a herculean task for anyone; Those who conceived of this noble idea should be saluted. What the impact and the results will be is not important now, the process is important and the initiation is the big step; this first step is the most important step. Lots of pain has been taken by the young activists, Anoop and Gurinder from Insight Foundation, who were the faces known to many; but there was an entire team of girls (Pradnya Bhim Sindhu, Aqui Thami, Rashmi Verbena Birwa, Manju Priya and others) and boys who worked for more than two months, round the clock, to gather speakers, papers, manage the organizational issues and logistics with minimum resources.

    Our 'Dalit diva' Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Kuffir (Round Table India), Ratnesh Kumar (Neel Kranti) etc were busy documenting the voices and the entire process with dedication and commitment. This would be the first such big conference held in India; this should be the time for reflection for the dominant castes, state and intellectuals who divide these sections in the name of cultural identities.

    For many teachers, activists and students, this dais provided a platform to speak without any hesitation, editions and additions about their personal/professional experiences confronting caste, class and gender discrimination. Why do we have to suffer like this even after 65 years of independence? Some people ask innocently: is there caste in India? If anyone thinks caste discrimination and ill-treatment of Adivasis are myths, they should definitely listen to these real life experiences.


    It's evident everywhere– in literature, in educational institutions, media, policy, implementation, legislation and bureaucracy, perhaps even in the air, and deep down in the layers of earth under India that there is caste, there is discrimination against Adivasis, and women are the worst hit. A man asked a question from the floor: ‘what do Dalit and Adivasi women expect?’ How do we understand this question? It again reminds me of: oh! ‘Is there still caste in India today?’ To answer this question, where do we begin? Shall we say, we are discriminated against, from womb to tomb?

    Why are our bodies targeted? Why do only we clean other humans' shit? Why do Khairlanjis happen to only us in open public places, while the whole village enjoys seeing it? What answer do you have for gang rapes in Haryana on only Dalit women? Why do paramilitary and security troops play with our bodies and destroy our lives in the forests, Northeastern states and borders? Why do our women panchayat leaders get stripped and paraded naked even after being in the political system? Will it happen to any dominant caste woman and man in this country, openly, in public? Why do Laximpetas happen in this shining India, this modern, global, Ram Raj? Why are the Gujarat massacres plotted to kill our brothers and sisters by our own people? We can give thousands of examples but people are still ignorant about CASTE and its DIRTY picture.

    Dalit and Adivasi women are struggling for their identity, struggling for nature – are they struggling only for themselves, putting their own lives and families at risk? Are they not leading movements to make a better society? If they are fighting for the land, it's not just for them but it's for the universe. They are the professors of biodiversity, they are the saviors of nature, they want to keep it safe for future generations, they are not asking for a share in the wealth of the rich. Even today, I repeat, even today they are asking for minimum basic needs to survive. 65 years of independence failed to provide health, education and basic social security for them in this country.

    Is this not a concern of all parties and ideologies which want to rule? Why do they want to rule and for whom? On whose votes do they come to power? Their number is not enough for 10% of vote share in electoral politics. Many countries have special courts for indigenous tribes; they have adopted self-rule and separate judicial systems. No one can enter into their zones, and they give respect to their indigenous peoples. Why does India not follow them when we have large numbers of Adivasis? The working class is the backbone of any society, 70% of working class is toiling in this country, only some are benefited (by the state's policies) and their number is very low.

    At the end, a few teachers expressed their concern that many Dalit and Adivasi students are not able to sustain their studies and there dropout rates are high due to lack of soft skills, technical know-how etc. What does this convey to us? Why are they lacking these skills which are not necessary to survive in an (educational) institution or if needed, institutions must put extra efforts to teach them, isn't it? When these communities are lacking basic minimum education, food to survive how can we think of inculcating these skills? How many rural govt schools or colleges have basic minimum infrastructure?


    How much of insecurity surrounds the question of sending girl children to faraway places? can these sections afford to give them private education which is in the hands of dominant castes? When the society is not humane enough to treat them as human beings, how do they learn these skills and where will they work? Our children are suffering in professional courses like law, engineering and medical courses, they are in the hands of casteist professors and managements. How do the rest of the students feel? Will they feel comfortable? Whoever survived till now, speaking a little bit against injustice, writing about it: it's due to their hard work, in spite of being in toughest environments, from all angles.

    The conference opened a Pandora's box- now the so called labour producing educational institutions must think about the questions raised by every speaker. They should review all the research programmes and assess where they are headed. They must introspect on the reasons for not producing an intellectual class which will critically think and reduce the gaps in society. There will not be any research without critical thinking; higher education, research institutions are not govt policy evaluating centers, their inputs must guide the state and society at large.

    Yes, we need such conferences in every university to sensitize them, give confidence to Dalit, Adivasi students; it's our responsibility to express our views to correct the system which is totally corrupt. This is the only alternative now. We are born to struggle, struggle till the end!

    Pictures courtesy: Nilesh Kumar

    This post first appeared on Round Table India

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