Pradnya Pawar, who to her credit has five anthologies packed full of searing Dalit anger and feminist overtones, is the representative of this transition that still maintains its connect with its poignant past. “The volcano was there in dada’s (her father) writings; the volcano is still right in here. Only his expression was different," the poet, activist and feminist says in an interview ahead of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on 14 April. Edited excerpts:
Your poetry has a distinctly feminist personality and angst. Where does this anger come from? How does one contextualize the feminine character of your expression?
The anger comes from my own experiences as a Dalit girl, woman and a professional, as well as from what I see happening around me. I grew up in the social and political milieu reverberating with the angry rebellion of the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra. The entire Marathwada region and to some extent other parts of Maharashtra were simmering with the demand to rename the Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Through my father and his associates, I had an immediate exposure to these issues. I was a school-going child but I absorbed whatever I could. And there were Dalit writers, early feminists, who wrote about the atrocities against Dalits, particularly Dalit women. That expression of heartfelt anger became part of my being and has stayed with me.
What I have experienced and seen happen to women, and not only Dalit women, is what has been the historical truth—that it is the women who are the most vulnerable targets of oppression, atrocities, wars, political movements and all such acts of organized mobilization.
From the two women victims in Khairlanji, Maharashtra, in 2006 to the Unnao rape victim (in Uttar Pradesh where a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator has been charged with rape) to the eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, who was gang-raped and murdered, it is the women who bear the brunt of atrocities. This violence against women has many layers. In Khairlanji, it was because they were Dalits. The Kathua girl was picked up because she was a Muslim. But the Unnao victim is a Hindu. Why was she picked up? Because the men who preside over this system consider women as their personal property to be exploited at their will. The severity of my personal, social, cultural and political experiences as a woman has only sharpened. How can my poetry remain mute when the rape and murder accused of an eight-year-old are defended?
But isn’t the issue of victimization of women much more nuanced? Even within the communities and castes that are at the receiving end of violence and injustice for what they are, their own women are discriminated against. This holds true for Dalit women or Muslim women or even Brahmin women.
Absolutely. In fact, a Dalit woman experiences multiple layers of victimization and discrimination. And it applies to Dalit women irrespective of their social, intellectual and economic standing. I have been a professor for 28 years and I have experienced these multiple layers of discrimination as a Dalit person, as a woman and as a Dalit woman!
Ironically, several men from among Dalits who call themselves progressive and reformist, and many of them are so indeed, have perpetrated this kind of gender discrimination. There have been other Dalit women writers who have experienced this and written about it. Woman, as a gender, faces multiple threats at the macro and micro levels. Globalization represents the macro-level threat when woman has become an economic commodity to be exploited by the capitalist forces. Within societies and communities and castes down the line, this objectification assumes social, communal, cultural, and personal connotations and angularities. The poetry that I write or others of my ilk write is in fact an attempt to put together a collage of these complexities.
You are a second-generation activist and writer who has consciously and instinctively deployed the medium of writing as a weapon of self-actualization as well as social cause. Do you think the issues and the society your father wrote about have undergone a positive change?
Whether or not the society has undergone a positive change depends on the location we are talking about. At the macro level, the caste system that my father wrote about does not exist 100% as it did during his time. But if you are living in a village or small town, then caste is a reality like it was. Also, there is another way by which caste has staged a comeback.
The economic concerns born out of globalization and ascendance of capitalism are accentuating the caste and communal identities, and people are coming together along caste lines to either hold on to their economic benefits or demand economic benefits. For instance, the Maratha caste mobilization for quota. Caste continues to operate at multiple levels. In the India of 2018, there are 564 villages where lower castes are not allowed to take water from public taps and public places, and they must not be seen in public wearing new clothes. A lower-caste couple in Uttar Pradesh had to fight for their wedding procession to pass through Thakur-dominated parts. And they are not even Dalit or Buddhist. They are a Hindu caste. A young Dalit was killed in Gujarat because he rode a horse. These are manifestations of caste.
Do you agree with the recent Supreme Court order that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is much abused?
There are ways to look at this Act, the context in which it was made and the very reasons for caste-based reservations. The Act was introduced because the SC/STs (Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes) were rightly acknowledged as the weaker communities deserving of protection. The reservations were enshrined in the Constitution because they were rightly thought to be well-deserved.
Sadly, the Supreme Court has apparently not situated its order and observations in this context. There is well-documented evidence that the Act is not used in the first place for the purposes it has been put in place. In 2016, of the total cases of atrocities against the SCs, 89.6% were pending settlement at various stages. This proportion was 87% for cases registered by the STs. This means the Act is not being used as effectively as it should be, so how does the question of misuse arise? Unfortunately, there is an ongoing infantilization of the SC/STs in which the Supreme Court has also perhaps unwittingly participated by observing that the SC and ST allow the Act to be abused and that they don’t know how to use it.
You have been a critic of the Congress regime too. What differentiates the BJP regime from the previous dispensation in terms of their respective approaches to Dalits?
There isn’t much of a difference in approach. But today’s social, cultural and political climate is way different from what it was 20 years back.
I have frequently criticized the Congress party and its politics from public platforms in the presence of Congress leaders. They would at least listen. In today’s climate, I am made to fear for myself, for my children, if I choose to speak my mind. When I returned my awards in 2016, it was a protest against this climate which, sadly, gets sanction from the very top. I, and many of my women friends, were branded Naxals even when we protested against the Khairlanji killings.
But today, in addition to being branded, one is directly attacked. There is definitely a very real and fearful climate that harbours ill-will against minorities, Dalits, women and even students who choose to think differently. What happened with Rohith Vemula or what is happening at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai represents an attempt to deny even education and upward mobility to the weaker sections.
How do you look at the politics prosecuted by parties formed in the name of Dalits and supposedly espousing the Dalit cause?
Some five years back, I was among those critics of established Dalit politics who would dismiss the big and small Dalit parties and splinter groups as corrupt parties co-opted either by the Congress or BJP. In the first place, I never had any hopes from political parties that claimed to represent only Dalits. Because parties which claim to represent only one particular caste or group or community tend to get stuck in the politics of identity. They become prisoners of their identities. Babasaheb Ambedkar never believed in this kind of politics.
But what is happening now gives people like me a lot of hope. The way a young politician like Jignesh Mevani (Gujarat MLA) is trying to base his politics on the coalition of Dalits, OBCs (Other Backward Classes), farmers, labourers and women, is a welcome change. There is hope even in the new course of politics that established leaders like Prakash Ambedkar are practising now.
People like Mevani and Ambedkar have identified the common enemy of Dalits, farmers, students, women, labourers, as being one, and they are fighting that enemy. What is most remarkable is that the theoretical and ideological exposition of the caste system that Babasaheb made in his Annihilation of Caste in 1936 has now been acknowledged and become part of the national discourse.