In 1998, the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Pune had published an English translation of Pratima Pardeshi’s seminal text on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts and position on women’s liberation and rights in India. As part of our special issue to commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti 2022, we will be republishing the full 84-page translation in three parts, of which this is the second.
The Hindu Code Bill for the liberation of women
Dr. Ambedkar sought to change the laws of Manu which were misogynistic and reduced a woman to a commodity. Thus in the post-independence period as the architect of the Indian constitution, he granted to women the basic rights to justice, equality and security, however it may be underlined here that he did not see this as an end in itself.
It is mainly to challenge and change the law of Manu and to grant women the basic rights to property that Dr. Ambedkar drafted the Hindu Code Bill. The Hindu Code Bill in a sense marks the end of the law of Manu and brings forth a text that has possibilities for the liberation of women. Dr. Ambedkar in a powerful symbolic gesture publically burnt the Manusmriti; for within this text was the justification for the enslavement of the shudras and women. Some activists in the women’s movement do not grant this and argue that Dr. Ambedkar had burnt the manusmriti not in support of women’s liberation but rather in the context of caste (For instance such as argument had been put forth by Dr. Neelam Gorhe at a seminar on ‘Dalit Women’ organised by the Department of Sociology, 1994). To make such bold and unfounded statement is being unjust to the thought of Dr. Ambedkar or else really amounts to a failure to understand the same. For Dr. Ambedkar, the issue of caste and that of the subordination of women are inseparable and do not present a dichotomy. It must be underlined that he had appealed to women to join the struggle for the annihilation of caste because he saw the caste system as being exploitative to women. The detailed analysis of the Law of Manu and the exploitation of women was not surely an exercise in intellectual rigour for Dr. Ambedkar!
Women are the central core of the Hindu Code Bill and through the laws on property, marriage and divorce; he sought to enhance the cause of women. For instance, he argues that under the prevailing Hindu Law, the man could marry as many times and that this was unjust and had to be changed to a uniform principle of monogamy for both men and women. Since according to this Hindu Law, marriage was a sacrament, a break in this or divorce was not possible. Dr. Ambedkar saw this as unjust and sought to amend it. By 1937 Act of Inheritance, women did not have an equal share in the property. Dr. Ambedkar sought to amend this and to grant to daughters a share equal to that of the sons. He asks the question “what does this Bill seek to do?” and answers that this Bill keeps the old things in their place and seeks to give primacy to the new… It grants to every Hindu the right to make a will of his property and therefore if the daughter gets a share in the property, the conservatives could do very little against it. For they had the right to derecognize their daughter from the share in the property by making a will of the same. (This is extracted from the speech of Dr. Ambedkar at the Parliament of Siddharth College, June 11, 1950 and which appears in Satyashodhak Marxwadi, April 1983)
Hence it is apparent that Dr. Ambedkar is opposed to the prevailing Hindu Law because it denies women the right to property; it denies women the right of divorce while granting to men the right to several marriages and that he condemns these laws as patriarchal and seeks to amend this through the Hindu Code Bill. He stressed that in the interests of Indian women, it was important that the Bill be passed. The correspondence between him and Pandit Nehru stands as ample evidence for the same. He writes to Nehru that the Bill had for him an extraordinary importance and appeals to him to leave no stone unturned to convince the opponents and to pass the Bill. That the core of this Hindu Code Bill was the liberation of women and that the efforts of Dr. Ambedkar were to this end is apparent.
The caste panchayat is a product of the caste system and is an institution which regulates and exploits women. The law of the panchayat is an oral law and the ‘panch’, the administrators of justice are invariably men. The panchayat is male dominated and justice can easily be bought and sold herein. Yet several feminist activists and scholars have supported the institution of the caste panchayat. They see the legal process as time and money consuming and therefore not easily accessible to women. They argue that the bureaucracy is inhuman and corrupt and often at the end of the long wait, justice may not be delivered at all. On the other hand, they see the caste panchayat as being less time consuming, easily accessible and as giving ‘justice’ in a quicker time framework. For example, Rekha Thakur, activist and researcher of the Bahujan Mahila Aaghadi argues “the Bahujan woman is exploited more outside the home than inside it. The mechanisms which regulate her lie outside the family. Within the family, she is relatively more free than the higher caste women. Since the burden of purity of lineage was not on her shoulders she had access to separation from the husband and to remarriage. The discord within the family could be referred by her outside the four walls of the home. The caste panchayat became the mediating institution and would administer justice. Hence the legal right to divorce has not given much; customarily this right as such had been available to her.” (Extracted from Rekha Thakur’s ‘Samaan Nagari Kayadyala Tattvata Virodh Hava! [Uniform Civil Code Should Be Principally Opposed !], unpublished).
Dr. Ambedkar’s prime reason in becoming a part of the Ministry was to get the Hindu Code Bill passed. On realizing that the Government was postponing the issue, he resigned from the ministry. In a clarification about his resignation, he says that he joined the ministry only for the Hindu Code Bill, but that he had been harassed in this context. Thus the compromise that he made of going into the Constitutional Committee was sheerly in the interests of the Bill. For, he firmly believed that women had to be liberated from the prevailing patriarchal brahmanical law and the oral law of the caste panchayat. He saw this Bill as an important event in the life of the newly emergent nation and yet it had not been taken up in any of the significant conferences. Probably the Hindu Code Bill would remain the single most important law to come before the parliament. He concludes that any law that does not address the hierarchy and gender prevalent in Indian society and only seeks to ameliorate economic conditions is akin to building castles in the air. In the patriarchal feudal society, women were bonded through the caste based laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance. The colonial rule had led to the emergence of new classes and a new caste- class society emerged. Education for women, participation in the social production, a focus on conjugality and better status for women came up as demands from this new society. Hence the historic contribution of Dr. Ambedkar lies in his sustained efforts towards getting the Hindu Code Bill passed, as a basic requirement towards the fulfillment of these new demands. In a sense this marked the journey of the law from a caste based patriarchal law to a individualistic and class based societal law. (Extracted from ‘Mee Mantripadacha Rajinama Ka Dila?’ [Why did I Resign from the Minister’s Post?, From Bha. Di. Phadke (ed). Dr. Ambedkaranche Samaj Chintan).
In these writings of Dr. Ambedkar, one can trace the theme of what he conceptualized as non- brahmanical perspective on women’s liberation.
Such a perspective aims not at mere improvements in the economic status but gives primacy to a revolutionary agenda of annihilation of caste and the subordination of women. Often his presentation of the Hindu Code Bill is misconceived as his manifesto on women’s liberation. Though, he refers to the bill as incomparable in its importance to any other Bill, the Bill is never conceived by him as an end but only a beginning. He compromised and joined the Ministry because he saw the granting of freedom of property, however limited as a beginning of the liberation of women. But this does not mean that his views on the liberation of women were limited to the issues of economic freedom only. One only has to recall here his insights into the relationship between the caste system and the subordination of women, his sustained attacks on patriarchy through his writings and speeches and it becomes apparent that the Bill presented for him a counter revolutionary position to the prevalent Law of Manu. That he dared to resign on the question of women is an unparalled act even among the leaders of the women’s movement in India. Thus, the Hindu Code Bill was conceived by Dr. Ambedkar as a way out of the impasse that the women’s question was in and he never meant it as a manifesto for the liberation of women in India. That is why even in his letter of resignation from his post of Law Minister, he underlines the fact that the Bill is significant only because it proposes a law that is more progressive than the two other prevalent laws.
Several positions are being put forth on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. While some believe that through it the manifesto of women’s liberation was been put forth; others argue that it was not really drafted by Dr. Ambedkar and that it marks the codification of the colonial process of making laws based on the religious texts and in consultation with the Sanskrit pundits. Madhu Kishwar and Rekha Thakur’s views would subscribe to this latter position. While Gail Omvedt argues that in noting that the Hindu Code Bill was heralded by Dr. Ambedkar, we overlook the fact that the A.I.W.C. had lobbied for this demand since 1925. Such a comment arises from an ill-founded comparison between the creation of the Bill and those who suggested changes therein. Moreover there is a fundamental difference in the position of Dr. Ambedkar and the A.I.W.C; for Dr. Ambedkar the Bill marked a progressive step in the larger programme of the liberation of women while for the A.I.W.C., it was a matter of political manouvre. This is apparent from the fact that neither did they come out in support of the Bill when Dr. Ambedkar presented it to the Parliament nor did they condemn the morcha organized by the women of the Jan Sangha in opposition to the Bill. For what reason then should we glorify the fact that the demand had been taken up by the A.I.W.C.? It is surprising that the two issues; the contribution of Dr. Ambedkar to the Bill and that of the A.I.W.C. should be mixed up at all!
The perspective on and agenda for the struggle for the liberation of women
In refuting the biologist explanation of caste, Dr. Ambedkar underlined the linkages between the caste system and the subordination of women. In arguing that castes were created to perpetuate inequalities, he further argues that within the caste hierarchy every caste expresses pride in its own identity. Every caste is therefore active in keeping its difference and maintaining its own identity. It is not only that they restrict dining and marriage to the caste circle but each caste also wears clothing that symbolizes the identity of the caste. Food habits, rituals of marriage and clothing have been regulated by the caste system. This readily marks the untouchable from the savarna. While issues of food and marriage rituals are issues of an intra-caste nature, the issue of clothing is treated in more details by Dr. Ambedkar. Clothing marked the untouchable as so and hence Dr. Ambedkar appeals to the people to denounce the clothing marked for them by the caste system. In his discourse on clothing he underlines the need to denounce caste based clothing both for wiping out the identity of the untouchable attached to it and for leading a life of self- respect.
The untouchable women are marked as lowly from their costume. The brahmanical tradition has thrust upon them costume of half (above the knees) sarees and heavy and cheap jewellery which marks them as untouchable. These traditions were designed to keep these women enslaved. He thus appeals to the women to deny these symbols of enslavement. In a speech at the Mahad Satyagraha Parishad, he said, “You all must vow to leave behind the old and dirty customs. To state the truth there is no branding on the forehead of the untouchable which would mark him so. But it is through the customs that people are able to mark the caste of a person. I am of the opinion that these customs have in the earlier times been thrust upon us.” (Bahishkrut Bharat, 1928). Thus Dr. Ambedkar underlines the need for the women of the lower castes to keep a neat and clean appearance so as to wipe away the caste markings that are thrust upon them and is in no way asking them to beautify themselves.
In any political struggle the issue of identity is significant. Several times identities come to be used for political purposes. Rather than going into a debate on what really constitutes identities, it is important that we study the identities of the different politically progressive trends in contemporary politics. For instance several movements have emerged in the recent past which are putting at the central position- the OBC, Matang, Non-buddhist Dalits, women or the dalit identities. Identities are not created overnight nor can they be thrust upon. The crux of identity politics must be progressive. Identities are real only if they are rooted in the struggles to end the vested political, social and cultural interests.
Another important issue in the context of identities, is the need to ask the question which identity is being forged? Is it brahmanical, patriarchal, inegalitarian? If it is so or it is only an identity of political opportunism, we will have to condemn it. The dalit identity, even in the pre-Ambedkar era has always drawn from the non-brahmanical tradition. From Shivram Janoba Kamble, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, Mahatma Phule to Dr. Ambedkar we see the continuity in the non-brahmanical roots of the dalit identity. The contemporary dalit movement also draws upon Phule-Ambedkarism and such a dalit identity which has emerged from the history of a long struggle is a revolutionary identity. This identity has not emerged overnight and the dalit community will not be willing to easily give up this identity for it is based on a history of mass struggles. That women were also a part of this history is apparent from the fact that due to the efforts of social reformers such as Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Gopalbaba Valangekar, V.R. Shinde, Shivram Janoba Kamble, Shahu Maharaj, Munpande Kalicharan, Nanda Gavali; women were always present in large numbers at the public meetings. (The oral Narratives of Women in the Ambedkarite movement have been documented in Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (eds.) Amhihi Itihaas Ghadivila [We also Made History])
The dalit movement in countering the different caste based atrocities had taken up several struggles of identity. Dr. Ambedkar himself lead the Chavdaar Lake Satyagraha and the entry into the Kalaram temple. These were broad based struggles of identity. His appeal to deny caste based costume is also part of this broad based identitarian struggle. In the Dalit Mahila Parishads, several resolutions were passed which called upon dalit women to stay away from the Tamashas and to refuse to carry the gas lamps on their heads, for these practices marked them as lowly and contemptuous. That is to say Dr. Ambedkar saw the question of the dalit women’s identity of self respect as crucial to social reform and to the revolutionary struggle. Thus his conception of identity was broad based and therefore dalit women constituted an intrinsic part of his thought and struggle.
In any social movement, there is always a long term programme and a short term agenda. In the early phases of the movement, it is likely that the short term agenda comes to be taken up. That is to say even if the ideology of the movement is broad based some short term goals may be pursued, for struggles for the long term goals cannot be built out of nothing. This seems to be true of Dr. Ambedkar’s revolutionary programme too. Thus, struggles such as those of the temple entry were taken up by him to enhance in the minds of the dalits the anger against the injustice done to them (G.B. Sardar, Maharashtratil Samajik Prabodhanachi Vatchal, [The Path of Social Enlightenment in Maharashtra] p57). It is important to note here that temple entry was for him a short term programme and the annihilation of caste the long term one.
That the liberation of women is linked to the long term programme of the annihilation of castes and classes and that such a struggle is likely to be long drawn was apparent to Dr. Ambedkar and thus the programme that appealed to the dalit women to give up their caste based costumes with a view towards wiping away the markers of untouchability; was no doubt a short term programme in his agenda for women’s liberation. That the denial of these caste based costumes and customs will not lead to the annihilation of castes was obvious to a thinker and leader of his calibre. This position of his should not be misconstrued as a brahmanisation of dalit women for we only need to recall that if brahmanisation of women had been his position; he would not have underlined the fact that the question of the dalit women was a political question and would not have organized political parishads to this purpose. That he saw the abolition of castes as primarily women’s struggle needs to be noted here.
Consciousness raising among untouchable women
There are several occasions on which Dr. Ambedkar addressed the untouchable women and from these speeches it is apparent that he conceived their question; whether the personal or the social as being essentially a political question. That is why, he time and again underlined the abolition of untouchability as the women’s responsibility and argued that men would take a longer time to achieve this end. To this purpose, he always organized separate political meetings of women and it is this precedent that lead to the formation of the Dalit Mahila Federation.
Dr. Ambedkar’s speech to the Dalit Mahila Federation in 1942 is important in this context. In this speech he conceives the participation of women in a movement as a measure of its relative success or failure. In the same speech, he says, “I am conscious of the fact that if women are conscientised the untouchable community will progress. I believe that women should organize and this will play a major role in bringing an end to social evils. I tell this from my own experience. When I decided to work with the dalit question, I had resolved that the women should be brought forth along with men. That is why the Parishads are always accompanied by the organization of Mahila Parishads. The progress of the dalit community should be measured in terms of the progress made by the womenfolk. Every girl must stand alongside her husband, not as his slave but as his contemporary, as his friend…” (Extracted from Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (eds.) Amhihi Itihaas Ghadvila [We Also Made History])
Thus through these speeches Dr. Ambedkar
a) Argues for the formation of independent women’s organizations.
b) Underlines that social progress is possible only if women come forward.
c) Reinstates his belief in man-woman equality.
d) Considers the progress of dalit women as the measure of the progress made by the dalit community.
e) Highlights that women should enter the struggles as equals and not only because their fathers, brothers or husbands are a part of the struggle. He is opposed to her entering the struggle as his slave or follower and underlines that she must be an equal and a friend.
Through these speeches the faith that Dr. Ambedkar had in the capability of the exploited women is apparent. It is through the propagation of his ideas and his work that dalit women began to awaken, orgnise and revolt. In the satyagraha and in the morcha women participated in large numbers. This is the first time in history that dalit women came out in the public in support of their social and cultural demands. Prior to this women had come out in the public in the struggles led by Mahatma Gandhi; but in what could be called as transformative or revolutionary struggles, it is in the Ambedkarite movement that the women first took to the streets. The credit for promoting this organization among dalit women goes to Dr. Ambedkar.
This political conscientisation that Dr. Ambedkar brought about is reflected in the programmes and the leadership of the Dalit Mahila Federation. The speech by the General Secretary of the Dalit Mahila Federation, Ayu. Indirabai Patil speaks for the same. She says, “…Hindu religion has corrupted our minds such that we think that giving into the whims and fancies of the husband and managing the hearth and the home is all the work we need to do. We have the important task to removing these ideas of enslavement from the minds of our sisters.” Similarly, Sulochanabai Dongre who was the Chairperson demands, “Our women must get representation in all the local District level Boards…And under specific conditions women should have the right to seek divorce, polygyny should be banned by the law and that dalit women should accept the principle of family planning. For the progress in the education of dalit women, hostels be started in every place.”
Thus began the journey of the organization of dalit women for their identity, their existence and for a humane society. Society began to recognize that in the political sphere too women could operate with courage, daring and efficiency. These women realized that their struggle was for their identity and they began to publicly react to any insulting and derogatory behavior from the savarna men and women. This was a direct resultant of their participation in the new knowledges and their political conscientisation. At the proceedings of one of the Akhil Bhartiya Mahila Parishad, savarna women discriminated against the two dalit women delegates by setting plates separately for them. At this January 1938 Conference, these two dalit women publicly condemned this act. This act of the savarna women was called ‘lowly and mean’ and dalit women were asked to keep their self pride and identity.
This torch of struggle had been lit by Dr. Ambedkar for he believed in the strength that lay dormant in women. The incident of 7th April 1930 at the Temple Entry is a case in point. At the time of temple entry when one of the priests pushed a young dalit girl, she slapped him (Y.D.Phadke in ‘Dr. Ambedkar Aani Kalaram Satyagraha’). Such incidents had kindled the fire for self respect. At the political Parishads organized by Dr. Ambedkar not only were separate Mahila Parishads organized but also the Parishad passed several resolutions condemning the atrocities against dalit women. These were mainly resolutions against those practices that enslaved women. The Parishad in an important resolution condemned the practice of child marriage and discussed the biological and psychological ill effects of the same. It was proposed that the age at marriage be fixed at a minimum of twenty two for boys and sixteen for girls (Bahishkrut Bharat, 1927). Considering the fact that the dowry question could be lethal for women, the Mahar Panch Committee had resolved that the expenses at marriage should not exceed a maximum of sixteen rupees. The details of how these sixteen rupees were to be distributed were also given. For example, five rupees were assigned for the ritual of Sakashgandha, nine rupees for the engagement, two rupees for the marriage and it was enjoined that the parents should not give any ornaments to their daughters. This resolution is extremely significant.
All this went towards kindling tremendous self confidence in the dalit women. They refused to make any compromises when it came to their political work. They time and again proved to the community the importance of their liberation. In Nagpur, Jaibai Chaudhari qualified as a teacher and took up a job in a school. But the savarna and Christian students refused to be taught by a dalit teacher. She was advised to convert to Christianity; to which she courageously refused. She resigned her post, realizing that the issue at stake was not so simple as to get resolved by her conversion. This strength came from the collective struggles of dalit women. Probably realizing that the question was of the real struggle, the annihilation of castes, she started the Chokhamela Girls’ school. She remained active in the struggles of dalit women to the end of her life.
In 1920, the Bahishkrut Samaj Parishad passed a resolution that girls be given free and compulsory primary education and on the occasion, Tulsabai Bansode and the young Rukmini Kotangale delivered effective speeches in support of the demand. Thus it is apparent that though the programmes taken up by the dalit women’s movement were short term; their ideological position was committed to the annihilation of caste system.
Dr Ambedkar’s opposition to the atrocities against women
Dr. Ambedkar having had a deep faith in the capabilities of women, always stood in opposition to the atrocities against them. The first phase of the Ambedkarite struggle was dedicated to enkindling self respect in the minds of dalit men and women and ensuring for them a humanitarian treatment from the society. He stood against the domination and exploitation of any varna by the other.
In 1956, amidst a gathering of lakhs of people, he embraced Buddhism and gave to the Neo- Buddhists the gift of the twenty-two vows. These vows deny all the inegalitarian practices, customs and forms of worship. One of the vows, “I shall abstain from alcohol” was in part to protect the women who were at the receiving end of the ill effects of this alcohol. In his conceptualization of the Dhamma, there is an insistence on ethics. A religion such as this, Dr. Ambedkar opined would render more justice to women. The freedom and access to knowledge for women encoded in Buddhism played a significant role in his thoughts on the Dhamma.
His opposition to the atrocities against women is also apparent in the speech that he delivered to a gathering of prostitutes. At this gathering of devadasis, vaghya and muralis, in 1938, he said, “Stop practicing prostitution. Poverty is not something we should fear. It has been with us ever since our birth. So do not practice this occupation for the fear of poverty.” That poverty should drive women to selling their bodies is perceived as an atrocity against women by him. It is in keeping with these principles that he refused to accept the money donated by Patthe Bapurao, a Brahmin tamasha artist and argued that the money was gotten from making Pavalabai, a dalit woman to dance on the tamasha floor. It is dalit women who are most exploited by caste based prostitution such as practice of devadasi and this is strongly condemned by Dr. Ambedkar.
The preface to Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women’ gives us clues on how he stood in opposition to the atrocities against women. He entitles the preface as ‘Tearful words’ and makes a reference therein to an important story. The story goes that, in a particular village there had been a notification for one and all to excommunicate completely a Buddhist monk. A brahmin women breaks this injunction and gives water to the thirsty monk. The men of the village beat up the woman to teach her a lesson. Dr. Ambedkar is opposed to this violence against women and grieves for the position of women in such a society.
Dr. Ambedkar: the true heir to the legacy of Mahatma Phule
Dr. Ambedkar carried forth the legacy of the non- brahmanical thought of Mahatma Phule. This is also true in the context of the liberation of women. The importance of education for girls, the prevention of infanticide, the traumas of a deserted woman were all issues that inform the work of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar as they did that of Mahatma Phule.
Dr. Ambedkar felt deeply on the issue of orphaned children and unwed mothers and he had also proposed the starting of a home for them at Aurangabad. He used to say, “Bring the small children here to this home, all of them poor and the orphaned, those deserted by the destitute and unwed mothers. I will personally take care of them.” (Pawar and Moon: Op.cit). This goes to show that he did not take the traditional view on the issue of unwed mothers. He opined that the deserted women are left all alone to fend for themselves in a society that stigmatises them and that he could do his bit by taking care of the children of such mothers. He places no stigma on unwed motherhood and this needs to be noted.
Savitribai and Jotiba Phule could not beget any progeny of their own. In those times there must have been pressures on Jotiba to remarry and beget children. Yet they deny these pressures and adopt a child of an abused widow. In the context of Hinduism the presence of a son as the torchbearer of the lineage is extraordinary and any woman who cannot bear a son comes to be thus humiliated. Yet Phule does not remarry. As Gail Omvedt points out, “Instead of insisting on a heir of their own blood and lineage they adopt the child of a widow (naturally an ‘illegitimate’ child) . Neither do they adopt the child of a close relative as was the prevalent practice.” (Gail Omvedt in Mahatma Jotiba Phule aani Streemukticha Vichaar, p.15). The issue being highlighted is that they did not see the begetting of progeny as the ultimate aim of conjugal life. Dr. Ambedkar also has a similar position on the issue. In dialogue with one of the activists of the movement, he asks him how he would feel if his wife were to desert him on the issue of failure to produce progeny and explains to him that the child is as much the wife’s need as his (Moon and Pawar, Op.cit.).
In the same vein, Dr. Ambedkar also seems to carry forward the legacy of Mahatma Phule on the issue of education for girls. In a letter to a friend of his father, he upholds education for women (Thomas Mathew in ‘Krantipratik Ambedkar’). Ever after his return to India he strives to throw open the doors of education for the shudras and women. Even in his acceptance of Buddhism that this religion gave women access to knowledge played a crucial role. In his speeches, he repeatedly underlines the importance of education for women. At the Mahad Satyagraha Parishad, in a speech to the gathering of women, he says, “You must also educate your daughters. Knowledge and education are not for men alone. These are important for women too…If you want your next generation to progress, then you must educate your daughters.” If a woman is educated, the whole family is as if put in touch with knowledge and education and a reform in ideas and ideologies become possible. It is with this faith that Dr. Ambedkar calls upon the women to take on the responsibility of spreading knowledge and education in society. In this way, he emerges as the true and most deserving heir to the legacy of Mahatma Phule.
(The rest of this text will be published tomorrow.)