Dalit Women’s Tryst with Indian Political System: In conversation with Cynthia Stephen

Conversation: 2 #WomenwhoLead

A conversation with Cynthia Stephen as a part of a series of interactions with eminent personalities in our effort to enhance the understanding of the current situation pertaining to women in Indian politics. This interview is an ode to Savitri Bai Phule, first Indian feminist, an educator and leader in her own right.

Cynthia has worked tirelessly and continues to voice her concerns and fight for the cause of women and especially Dalit women. She is a researcher, who had also undertaken fieldwork for her doctoral thesis on Political empowerment of Dalit Women in India. She writes fiercely, is an optimist, and demands an overhaul of the systemic forces which keeps new entrants, the young, the Dalit and the women out of the power corridors. In the light of her work with the government as a Director of the Mahila Samakhya in Karnataka, and from outside as an activist/writer and an aspiring political contestant, there are many lessons in her experience. She shares generously in this conversation. We ask her our first question:

What are the key reasons for the abysmal representation of Dalit Womxn in Indian Politics and how do you compare this with the journey of womxn of colour in the western world?

Cynthia Stephen: While there are many similarities in the situation of Dalit women and bl*ck womxn, these situations are at best analogous but not exactly similar. There are far more powerful systems at work in the lives of Dalit women. The barriers placed in front of them are almost insurmountable by themselves.

For a race, there is some sort of possibilities, in a certain manner of speaking, for people to be able to transcend the discrimination through an exhibit of hard work, talent and capabilities.

These opportunities are not present in the case of caste, and especially not to Dalit womxn in India.Stating it squarely, this is due to Brahminical patriarchy.  It has enormous implications and connotations for people in general in India and on Dalit Womxn in particular.

Can you elaborate on these real life implications of Brahaminical patriarchy and lived experiences of Dalit womxn, which leads to their social, economic and political exclusion?

Cynthia: Even before we address the social, economic and political exclusion of Dalit women it is important to understand a rather more fundamental issue. The position of women within the structure of Indian society is dictated by ancient texts and scriptures, of which Manu Smriti is the most prominent one. We follow Manu Smriti in our personal lives, not in an abstract sense but in a rather existential sense. It is an ancient text which lists norms that the society is expected to follow, based on the caste system of that time. However, we still follow it in current times.

A real-life example of Manu Smriti being followed is seen around us. A widowed mother is still expected to stay with her son, despite having a daughter who could either be more resourceful than the son or in another case benefit from the presence of her mother in her home in raising kids or also emotionally. But the mother in most cases refuse. We have divided these gender roles based on norms that repeatedly teach us that women derive their relevance from the man in her life. A woman’s life is spent in male oversight, from father in the childhood to son in the old-age. These norms that women should not have an independent status comes from Manu Smriti.  It does not give equal citizenship to women. It has constructed a privileged system for males. Discretion, entitlements and rights of the upper-caste Hindu male dominate the society. The system automatically discriminates against non-dominant caste males and women of all castes.

Within this pattern of societal structure and hierarchy, the entire system is geared to transferring power and resources to the male up in the brahminical social order. Subjugation comes down the ladder, entitlements and privileges are distributed up to the top of the ladder. As B.R. Ambedkar put, ” Caste system is not the Division of labour, it is a division of labourers”.  The system only gives a certain kind of responsibility, validity, legitimacy to the people who are at the bottom. This is the reason that we see close to negligible Dalit womxn in any kind of positions of power and decision making. It is only because of the constitutional structure and certain level of people’s movement that brought Mayawati, a Dalit woman, to the helm of power and political rule in a state like Uttar Pradesh. Though now the socio-political situations have changed and her politics is becoming rapidly irrelevant in the present time. The system very quickly delegitimises a woman in public life. These aspects of patriarchy are the barriers behind Dalit women’s exclusion at all levels.

As you mentioned that womxn of colour have some possibilities to transcend beyond racism to a certain level. Which of these factors are absent from the lives of Dalit Womxn?

Cynthia: To understand the social factors at play in the lives of Black women, it is important to understand the role of mothers and women in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. During that period, the black women were very active in their churches as community leaders and had a big role in mobilizing, motivating and supporting each other in the struggle.

Rosa Parks, famously known as the “mother of the freedom movement” and “the first lady of civil rights” sparked the beginning of the first direct campaign in the post-war civil rights movement. She refused to give up her seat to a white man in the bus, was chosen to see through a court challenge following her arrest related to the matter, and this inspired people to boycott Montgomery buses for over a year. This was not an act of spontaneity in my understanding. She was already a part of large community-based leaders who were organising and resisting and working to build each other up. In contrast to the Dalit women, there is a lack of support to women’s internal social organisation. Ironically, the most active and strongest women networks in India are that of Dalit women, they still do not receive the extent of recognition received by the black women’s movement in the west. As a result of the lack of support structure for Dalit women’s mobilisation, these mobilisations are de-legitimised in Indian society and not given the value it deserves.

What role do Dalit women play or should play at the grassroots levels of decision making? How do you think Dalit women’s education has helped them in political activism? Do you think Dalit women in urban areas consider political careers?

Cynthia: Women are getting increasingly active in the political sphere. A large number of independent women are getting into the fray right from panchayat to parliament. I believe, this is the way ahead. Women want to get involved in politics. For instance, every political party has a large-base and active women wing. But the same parties are not inclined towards giving a proportionate number of tickets to women, or even put women in powerful positions within the party, with the exception of  the women wing itself or the women who come from political party’s first family.

An organisation which I was a part of, Mahila Samakhya in Karnatak, federated women from the grassroots up to the taluk level. Lakhs of women became a part of this network, who are still involved in their communities and work as leaders on different public issues. Some of them are also willing to enter grassroots politics. Howerver beyond district/taluk level there is a glass ceiling which women are unable to break. It is not in women’s hand- they are active, mobilised, but there is a point beyond which is it hard for them to break the ceiling. This cap is held by the resources, funds, power, decision making consolidated in the hands of the patriarchs, who are at the assembly and parliament level. The system as it exists hasn’t been fair in giving due representation to vulnerable of all categories – indigenous, queer, tribal, dalit, women, young people etc. We need a complete revamp and overhaul of the system.

Decentralisation and federal structure are only adopted on papers not in implementation.

Cynthia: The funds are devolved only upto the MLA level. The MLA becomes the most powerful person ( an arbitrator) and power is centralised. There is a constitutional mandate and an intent to distribute power to people. But the system is giving a backlash by providing a framework but simultaneously hollowing it out by drawing out all the resources and placing it in the hands of the elected males, and this is where money power seeps into politics.

Women do not control the finances, have no agency even over the portion that they themselves earn. How do this impact women’s political aspirations? (We at NETRI believe, “Economic empowerment without political agency is a lie”).

Cynthia: Traditionally, the property has always been owned by the male of the family. This is one of the major characteristics of patriarchy. Property goes from the father to the son. In the current times, some women who work on the farms of their husbands, only give their labour, and the system extracts her labour and surplus. Women are working, but men control the resources and make all the decisions. Hence, they command the reins in any industry where women are employed. From textile to agriculture. Women rarely climb to the powerful positions within the larger economic framework.  The SHG network was different and truly empowered women in the beginning but then cracks began to show. Women started borrowing for family and ended up with the burden of loans. There is systemic subjugation, exploitation and extraction of women at every level. Their vote, labour, income, employment, womb, everything becomes the subject of exploitation.

Through the 73rd and 74th Amendment, seats got reserved for women in panchayats and municipalities and were enmeshed within the existing caste-based reservation. What impact/lack thereof has reservation made on Dalit women’s representation in politics? And your comments on Sarpanch-Pati in the life of an elected Dalit woman?

Cynthia: Reservation is not a disability. It is a safeguard for constitutional entitlement. The constitutional intention is to ensure equality, participation and representation. It was a strategy to ensure equitable representation in democratic institutions where the vulnerable were excluded. At least at the grassroots major part of the goal got achieved.

In my opinion, it worked marvellously and wonderfully well, at least definitely in Karnataka. We have seen a lot of positive change. Initially, local power blocs, usually comprising of dominant caste males who desired to retain their position, tried to ensure that the wife of one of their Dalit supporters is put in the seat so that they can control her through the husband. Gradually, their establishment was challenged as reservation continued and women started coming to the forefront.

Subsequently, women were trained by NGOs and government before and after the elections.  An organisation like Mahila Samakhya, of which I was a part, were at the forefront of providing citizenship education and training to women from all categories, who continue to be active in their communities. Female human resources with governance experience are available at the grassroots. Some of these women who came on a reserved seat first time, later challenged a non-Dalit, man in the consecutive elections when the seat got un-reserved according to the rotation system.

How does dynasty in politics impact Dalit women’s chances of representation?

Cynthia: Privilege that dynasty brings to the family member of an existing politician is immense. And people naturalise and normalise it by citing examples that father who is a doctor, engineers will want his children to follow the same profession. It is completely intolerable and non-sensical to compare apples with the oranges. These fields are professional fields of endeavour. One to undergo lots of education, examinations, cut-off eligibility criteria and intensive course of training to follow in the footsteps of their parents. In politics, no such requirements are to be fulfilled.

It is a feudal, regressive mindset which tries to justify their position through these theories which normalise dynasty.  Patriarchy propagates hierarchy, lineage and transferring privilege to next-generation (usually males).  As an activist, woman and a democrat, I do not condone such normalisation.As we see, traditionally, Dalits were not in a position of power, Dalit women barely have the advantage of dynastic inheritance.

While women are motivated, how organisations like NETRI should channelise our resources to address their issues?

The issue is not with women. They are motivated enough. We have been concentrating our resources in equipping women, but I believe what we need to rather focus on building pressure groups which will push the government to bring reforms that will change the face of power and politics in India. There is a need to address the people in Election Commission, Supreme Court, within Political parties and all the constitutional authorities in a systemic manner.India may be numerically the largest democracy, but it is the most skewed and gender unbalanced and biased democracy in the world. This is a disgrace to us as a country.

First is the issue of the dynasty, but second is more structural. In the first past the post system, candidates end up winning by thinnest margins. By a swing of a few hundred, the vote of the majority of the people in a constituency is rendered waste. In this system, who is the winner really? Who is the leader? The losers are the voters, certainly. We need to take a re-look at this system. Electoral funding is another major issue that needs to be challenged in the current times with increasing opacity.

Organisations like NETRI must keep mobilising and training and supporting women but it has to be a two-pronged approach. We must build pressure from the outside too.

Could you share your story about your decision to file nomination for contesting in the General Elections of 2019 for an MP seat and the aftermaths?

Cynthia: Mainstream political parties do not want to encourage real people to contest. Though I am not unknown in Bangalore, none of the national parties was even giving time to listen to my application or hear out why I thought I was a worthy candidate? Parties had other considerations too. Instead of choosing to be an independent candidate, based on some suggestions, I decided to join a new party, and they offered me a ticket. But as it was not a national party ( also very new), I was asked to bring 10 proposers for my candidacy.  National party candidates are required to get only 2 proposers. I see it as the establishment’s attempts to keep out the new challengers. But as I persisted, I would admit it was my inexperience and lack of resources required for filing a nomination for contesting at MP level. And the fact that I did not study the document process myself, that led to some mishap.

At the last hour, the lawyers who I had relied upon for my filing backed out. On the day of the nomination I submitted my documents, I was given a few hours, which is a standard practice provided to catch up with any missing papers, as I was to submit my bank statement. I got back to them, not with 10 but 11 proposers, whose details and papers were also complete up to the mark and were to be submitted in a desired number of copies. At the last moment, the Election commission said, “it should have been done yesterday, we cannot take it today”. This is deliberate exclusion of the already excluded. These practices oppress the oppressed, keep them out of the system.

It was injustice on the part of the election commission. A few other independent candidates filed an appeal against the EC in the court, I missed the opportunity of being a part of that delegation by a few hours. Although, it was a huge learning experience. And I hope all these experiences I shared add some constructive value to NETRI’s future work.

Cynthia Stephen, is a Bangalore based independent researcher on Gender, Poverty, Development and Policy Issues. She is an activist and writer, with over 30 years of experience in the field.

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Feature Image- Source: Madhubani Painting of Savitribai Phule, By Malvika 
Rai, Delhi

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