In her book ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’, Sujatha Gidla unflinchingly presents her first-hand account of discrimination faced by Dalit Christians to shed light on historical and contemporary discussions surrounding intersectionality, Dalit feminism and caste-based exploitation, writes PRAJITH PRAKASH.
SUJATHA Gidla’s book, ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’ traces the history of her Dalit Christian family over nearly a century through the lens of gender, caste and political roles. The book sheds light on historical and contemporary discussions surrounding intersectionality, Dalit feminism and caste-based exploitation. It is a first-hand account of the discrimination faced by Dalit Christians and sheds light on how the caste system acted as an exploitative force when it was coupled with colonialism.
Gidla belongs to the Kambham family, belonging to the Mala caste, once considered to be untouchable. It formed a significant part of her early childhood, and her caste along with the discrimination and ostracization it brought became her lived reality. The family tried its best to challenge the barrier placed by their caste through western education and clothing, but they failed to break the shackles which held back their upward mobility within the societal structure. They were not allowed to live in localities which were designated for the upper castes and often had to hide their caste identity when they travelled outside their villages. From academic spaces to political ones, the caste-based discrimination continued, and they lived in a constant state of battle with small victories that were sparse and had little effect on improving their lives.
The book consists majorly of two accounts, the stories of Gidla’s mother, Manjula and her uncle K.G. Satyamurthy. Satyamurthy, also known as Satyam, was Gidla’s maternal uncle and a famous poet as well as a revolutionary. He was one of the founders of the People’s War group of Naxalites, and wrote many revolutionary works under the pen name ‘Sivasagar’.
Critique of popular political leaders’ treatment of Dalits in independent India
Satyam’s account highlights the shared oppression faced by Dalits, and traces their voice through colonial and independent India. Even within spaces which were created to fight oppression, Dalits struggled to find their voice. Upon joining the Communist party, Satyam found himself constantly fighting with the leadership to give adequate representation and support towards Dalits.
He attempted to bring individuals from the Paki community into the communist fold as part of a theatre troupe. This move was heavily opposed by communist leaders who did not wish to be associated with the Pakis, the latrine cleaners: the lowest rung of the caste structure. It is interesting to note how a political organisation created for the purposes of uplifting the oppressed and rejected religious practices still believed in selectively recognising the rights of Dalits.
A strong critique is made against the leaders of post-independence India. Mahatma Gandhi, who continues to be considered a God-like figure, made no attempt to break the caste system. He merely tried to reform the way it worked and looked at Dalit oppression very superficially. The upper castes were not chastised for their actions, but rather, Dalits were instructed to adopt a non-provocative stance.
Atrocities committed by the Nehru government is another important piece of Telangana history that the book discusses. The government used the help of armed peasants and the communist guerrillas to overthrow the Nizam of Telangana and brought the state under the fold of the Union of India. Subsequently, the government turned on these peasant warriors and there emerged a period of State sponsored atrocities where the Indian army attacked, looted and raped alleged Communist sympathisers. A majority of the individuals targeted were Dalits who were only trying to create a respectable place for themselves within society. Instead, their rebellion against oppressive landlords was crushed by the Indian State.
This incident is a reminder of how caste hierarchies are often reinforced by the State to the present day, with caste politics a tactic used by every single political party to garner votes during elections. There is no attempt made to break caste barrier for fears of losing electoral support and as a result, the discrimination against Dalits continues.
Intersectionality of gender and caste
While shedding light on pertinent Dalit issues and ostracization they faced in society, the book also manages to capture the intersectionality that exists between caste and gender. The book contains graphic representation of violence that takes place during political and social movements. This kind of violence emerged as a result of ideological differences and an attempt by upper castes to reinforce caste hierarchy. However, throughout the book, there also exist accounts of violence faced by Dalit females. They are victims of their caste and victims of their gender, and were subjected to oppression by both the upper castes as well as by men within their own families.
Mahatma Gandhi did not chastise the upper castes for their actions, but rather, Dalits were instructed to adopt a non-provocative stance.
The book goes on to analyse caste through a feminist lens and how there was a significant gender struggle going on within the caste struggle. Gidla’s mother, Manjula, despite being well educated and working as a teacher, was still subjected to the everyday puppet strings of patriarchy. She recounts how in her university days, she was subjected to harassment by the caste men, who would never harass upper caste women, however provocatively they dressed.
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After completing her education, Manjula got a well-paying job with which she managed her household, but her academic struggles were not acknowledged by her family. Despite being economically independent, she was still subjected to unequal labour and her earnings were leached off her by her family.
At this juncture, Gidla then moves on to discussing about the agency a Dalit woman has over her own body. This agency is absent throughout the narratives discussed in the book and highlights the struggles faced by lower caste women. Manjula lived in constant fear of displeasing her family. In spite of her education and job, she did not fall within the perfect bride stereotype because she was dark, from a poor family, and her brothers were communists. When a suitor was found for her, the decision that she would marry him was made by her brothers. Gidla writes that “when her engagement fell through, [Manjula] was labelled as rejected merchandise” and “the honour of the whole family was spoiled”. However, there were no such implications for the man.
Dalit women are victims of their caste and victims of their gender, and were subjected to oppression by both the upper castes as well as by men within their own families.
The tying of women’s bodies to family honour continues to be seen in the modern age through honour killings. Such a killing is done to save the prestige of a family or done in order to make it an example for others. Manjula’s younger brother Carey was the quintessential torchbearer of patriarchy. “Carey told her outright what to do and slapped her when he thought she was straying”. He tried his best to stop her from having male friends while he had relationships with multiple women. Unlike Manjula’s expectations, Carey continued to try and reinforce his patriarchal ideas even after her marriage. This included instructing her husband to not be kind to her and treat her more sternly. Later during her marriage, she was subjected to constant physical abuse and torture by her husband. However, she refused to consider the possibility of leaving her husband.
There is an underlying commentary on how the public affects the private. It is perceived as backlash from society and often from natal families that forces women to stay in abusive relationships. Societal perceptions continue to be patriarchal, with women struggling to find a place for their rights.
Also read: NCWL’s report details 12 landmark cases of caste-based sexual violence from 1985-2021 across 10 states in India
The reservation debate
Among the many focus points of the book, there exists an argument made for reservations for non-Hindu Dalits. A large number of lower caste individuals across the subcontinent attempted to break the caste cycle by converting to other religions. The conversion of upper castes to these same religions heralded the permeation of caste structures within non-Hindu religions, with the upper castes using their social, political and economic capital to re-establish caste hierarchies.
This permeation of caste is often ignored during discussions of reservations for non-Hindu Dalits. One of the primary arguments made against the provision of caste based reservations for people who have converted to other religions is that upon conversion, a person ceases to be a part of the oppressive caste structure on account of them now being a part of a religion that does not recognise caste.
However, the author uses personal accounts in order to refute this argument. An underlying theme being that religion underlines caste identity. Irrespective of conversion, the caste a person is born in remains constant across religions. This is seen when Manjula joins university for education. Being a converted Christian, she is treated differently by other converted Christian women who have an air of superiority and a distinct class privilege. She observed how many “Brahmin boys who fawned over these girls would look at her with disgust.” When she attempted to be a part of this Christian women group, she was shunned by them on the grounds that they were Brahmins who converted to Christianity and she was a Dalit. This account is unmistakable evidence of how the caste system has managed to seep itself into different religions and continues to oppress individuals.
The Communist party spearheaded the movement for reservation for Dalit Christians in Telangana and managed to obtain one percent reservation in jobs in government institutions and agencies in the state, something which is yet to be introduced in the rest of the country.
A 2008 report prepared for the National Commission for Minorities found that 42 percent of Dalit Muslims and 32 percent of Dalit Christians are in the BPL (below poverty line) category. While the government of India had, in 1950, allowed for recognition of Scheduled castes within converts to Sikhism and Buddhism through an extension of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 in 1956 and 1990 respectively, Muslims and Christians continue to be excluded in reservation policies.
In January 2020, a plea was filed before the Supreme Court by the National Council of Dalit Christians, to make reservations religion neutral. The counsel for the petitioner submitted that change in religion does not change social exclusion. Caste hierarchy continues to hold fort within Christianity even though the religion forbids it.
The exclusion of individuals from caste-based reservations based on religion can also be construed as discriminatory and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. With successive governments failing to remove the religion bar to caste reservations, the decision of the judiciary will have far-reaching effects. The petition is currently pending before the Supreme Court, and a favourable verdict is expected to significantly benefit the Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim communities in the country.
Also read: Rethinking the Debate on Reservations
Gidla’s work is a raw, powerful and a strong commentary on multiple historical atrocities committed against Dalits. This caste based discrimination continues to this day, with many individuals still struggling to break free from the restrictions imposed by their caste. Many jobs considered to be impure and unclean continue to be performed by Dalits and they struggle to move upwards along class, economic and cultural lines.
A 2008 report prepared for the National Commission for Minorities found that 42 percent of Dalit Muslims and 32 percent of Dalit Christians are in the Below Poverty Line category. While the government of India allows for recognition of Scheduled castes within converts to Sikhism and Buddhism, Dalit Muslims and Christians continue to be excluded in reservation policies.
Ants Among Elephants is an important publication when you take into account the lack of adequate Dalit representation in literature. The feminist lens through which the stories are shared help gain an insight into the never ending Dalit struggle while acknowledging the importance of intersectionality and the marginalisation of women within the caste hierarchies.
(Prajith Prakash is an undergraduate student pursuing B.B.A., LL.B (Hons.) from Jindal Global Law School. The views expressed are personal.)