Dr. Anandita Pan Is Mapping Dalit Feminism And History!

For Dalit History Month, we spoke with Dr Anandita Pan to understand the path of Dalit feminism and the future of Dalit Literature.

On the 132nd Birth Anniversary of BR Ambedkar, for Dalit History Month, we spoke with Dr Anandita Pan to understand the path of Dalit feminism and what is its future.

Having done her Bachelor, Master and PhD in English Literature from highly reputed universities, Dr Anandita Pan is currently working as an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research) Bhopal.

Dr Anandita Pan has also won the President’s Best Paper Award at the 16th National Conference on Women’s Studies, organized by Indian Association for Women’s Studies.

Aside from authoring research papers, she has written a book called Mapping Dalit Feminism which talks about caste and gender, as well as who can become a Dalit feminist. She is currently working on her second book, Aesthics in India.

Dalit Literature has been always present…

What subject are you involved with currently, under humanities and social sciences?

I am currently focusing on Dalit feminism, and am expanding to include the Bengal partition as well as the scope of caste and gender and history. Recently, Bengali Dalit writing has gained new space in Dalit literature and feminist writing after being outside mainstream attention due to the Marxist Enlightenment movement.

My research encapsulates the notion of Dalit feminism and caste generation. I am also expanding my research into the #metoo movement discussion of caste and gender in social media. It is important to have discussions and ensure that they don’t fall into stereotypes and are more realistic and intensive.

Dalit literature isn’t mainstream but we see a rise in Dalit literature and thinkers, is this recent or has Dalit literature been ever-present?

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I have realized that Dalit writing and casteism have always been a matter of conversation, it hasn’t been mainstream but it has existed as long as a society. A consolidated stream of Dalit thought, such as the Dalit Sahitya Parishad is coming up, and we see emerging thinkers such as Namdeo Dhasal, and Baburao Bagul.

Writings of Dalit feminism go back to the Therigatha, where Buddhist women were talking about gender and caste. We also have writings from prominent activists such as Ambedkar, Periyar, and Phule. Writing is part of activism, it isn’t fiction alone but critical experiences and opinions.

Mapping Dalit Feminism asks who can be a Dalit Feminist

Your first book, Mapping Dalit Feminism, is the first of its kind where you as the author tried to map trajectories in the rise of Dalit feminism and the intersectionality framing it. How did you go about developing the book?

What motivated me was an article called “Dalit Women Write Differently” by Sharmila Rege and that was a lightbulb moment for me. My topic for research changed with it and the article showed me the relevance of Dalit feminism I started the journey of unlearning previous notions and imbibing literature from a new point of view.

It needed a conscious process of identifying my privileges and looking at lacunas in the current Dalit discourse. Mapping Dalit Feminism takes a critical look at Indian women’s narratives from the 19th century and analyzes multiple autobiographies written by Dalit men, which pins the ‘Dalit’ self as primarily male and downplays the patriarchal oppression of Dalit women.

This has been juxtaposed with Dalit women’s autobiographies from different times and regions. The book investigates the idea of self, identity, representation and epistemology which exposes the savarnanization of the “Indian woman” and the masculinization of the ‘Dalit’. It also talks about who can be a Dalit feminist and how.

From a handful of women feminist icons, we saw women’s voices increasingly coming to the fore in the wake of human rights and women’s emancipation. However, as intersectionality would have it, Dalit Women’s voices only grew more pronounced in the early 90s. With roughly 3 decades of emerging Dalit feminism, how did you come to research Dalit literature?

In my book, Mapping Dalit Feminism, I address the question of who can become a Dalit feminist. What I realized is that, if we are restricting activism to a few groups, we end up ghettoizing it, and arguing wrongly that only Dalit persons can bring about activism for themselves.

Being a Dalit feminist, I learnt from Sharmila Rege, is all about identifying your position and privilege and drawing attention to the people whose voices must be heard instead of speaking for them. It is true that Dalit feminism emerged in the 90s through organisations such as Dalit Mahila Samiti, their writings and narratives go far beyond in terms of marriage, endogamy, caste and more.

Intersectionality is vast yet essential

As a scholar, you have used multiple mediums of parameters to explain intersectionality. What does intersectionality in today’s world mean and why academia must become more open to it?

Through my book, it was important for me to reflect on intersectionality in terms of Dalit feminism. Intersectionality is a useful term for a lot of discussions but it can also be confusing in terms of the infinite axis that can exist in discourse and how it can be impossible to cover so many bases in research.

Many consider it just a buzzword. I believe it is still an invaluable methodology to expand on the current discussions surrounding Dalit feminism.

When we are talking about Dalit feminism, we come to see Brahmanical Patriarchy and we see the details of the class, gender, caste, and sexuality all that is at play in current society. For eg, while Dalit feminism addresses the issues of Dalit women, on many fronts, it may alienate Dalit queers who are also very much part of feminism.

Many Dalit women are also queer and a collective dialogue against patriarchy has to also consist of breaking heteronormative roles, gender stereotypes and sexualities. In Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon explained that ‘feminism is a dynamic concept’.

The more we look at it, the more intersectionality we see and more narratives must be included which is tedious but essential if we are to include the rights of each and every person fighting for them.

Indian history, especially women’s history, has been from the point of view of Savarna women, how do you as a scholar find the truth?

This is an ongoing dilemma, while we are exposed to limited Dalit literature in our academic institutes, it covers very little intersectionality and reflects more of tokenism than a genuine attempt at covering all viewpoints. As a practising academician, what I stick to doing is consciously creating a syllabus that is actively critical of Savarna’s predominance.

It is important to assess our current syllabus and curate it in a way which is honest and thorough. There also needs to be an intention behind the syllabus and the intention should be to expand on knowledge over thinly covering non-mainstream discourse. The challenging of the status quo cannot happen unless more depth is there in Dalit history literature.

Dalit History Month is important to address issues faced by Dalit women

What does Dalit History Month mean to you?

It can be like having Mother’s Day or Black History Month, a tokenism of sorts to hold a minor celebration while otherwise overlooking the strenuous experiences around the year experienced by the one being celebrated. On one hand, celebrating it in a way which is superficial and tokenistic is wrong, I believe that celebrating Dalit History Month can fuel lots of discussions and debates regarding Dalit history.

It can be a catalyst or a spark. Whether academically or otherwise, the more people come in contact with it, the more they begin to question it and explore it. In that aspect, Dalit History Month can be like a book, especially in lieu of academicians and thinkers coming out to speak specifically on it, allowing anyone with the curiosity to learn firsthand.

Though we see increasing coverage of caste-based violence, especially that perpetrated against women, there is the underlying truth that violence has always been the main element of segregation and subjugation. How do you pinpoint the cause of violence and do you believe it is on the decline or is it ever present?

Violence is the one of the most prominent forms of oppression in different classes, unfortunately, it continues to increase. It takes different dimensions. When we talk about violence, the way it gets meted out on different castes of women is different, and the redressal towards these acts is also different.

The nature of caste-based violence against Dalit women is very brutal and public. Untouchable women are often seen as more sexually immoral or available. Usually in such cases of caste-based violence, the redressal and nature of public anger are very different.

It is often biased. For example, in the Mathura rape case or the Bhanwari Devi rape case, where the immediate assumption was against the victims. Such cases are often politicized too much on the Savarna pretext, it becomes a reduction on not just the victims but the whole community.

In the example of denotified tribes, many are called thieves, making them more vulnerable to police suspicion and violence. A lot of statistical data shows how violence against women in such communities is also higher.

How can one approach Dalit feminism?

Research is enlightening, in some ways it can be detached from the grassroots. How can one, especially as an educator, ensure that Dalit literature or research findings in the same are accessible to those outside the campus?

This reminds me of the documentary by Paromita Vohra called Unlimited Girls where she interviews academicians, researchers, historians and all those involved in grassroots activism. I agree that research can be a jargonized activity, divorced from the grassroots.

One of how this can be addressed is to have more translations of written works. In simpler terms, more mainstream languages can reach more people. A lot of Dalit writings remain untranslated therefore this is one way to bridge the gap.

The campus itself is struggling with gender, caste and class biases. It is important, like I said, to assess the intention of a syllabus and to make it more balanced. At home, all of us can observe the intersectionality and subjugation to play to understand its roots and consciously not recreate it, study and otherwise. Another key is to keep reading, listening and learning about intersectionality and be sensitive to it.

To all who are new to feminism, intersectionality and Dalit feminism, what would you like to specifically advise?

Firstly, it is important to understand that feminism isn’t man-hate. As Ambedkar said, it is important to annihilate caste to eradicate it so it isn’t only about a group of people. Feminism is also not just about women but gender, which continues to oppress everybody, not just women even though they continue to be the chiefly oppressed by it.

It needs to expand to be able to represent everybody. We are reading, we should also be careful to not be selective in what we read. My supervisor had advised me at the beginning of my study to read Dalit politics before Dalit feminism.

I started with the Manusmriti and it gave me a clearer picture of what the status quo is built on and got a better point of contrast for all the changes the Dalit movement is trying to bring about.

Final thoughts

Speaking with Anandita Pan on the 132nd Birth Anniversary of BR Ambedkar, it appeared clearer why feminism continues to evolve under the scope of caste and class.

We are exposed to the status quo every day, violent forces are holding it together across a time that seeks change. Dalit feminism is a key intersection of social inequalities and something we should all fight for.

Want a copy of these books?

If you’d like to pick up Mapping Dalit Feminism written by Anadita Pan, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.

If you’d like to pick up Seeing Like a Feminist written by Nivedita Menon, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.

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Ria Tirkey

I am Ria from New Delhi. I'm a student of political science and law and I have a lot to say apparently. read more...

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