Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s burning of Manusmriti speaks volumes on his formulation of the intersectionality of gender and caste. Manusmriti is a document that still wields enormous power over Indian society. It is the primary text that formalised and legitimised patriarchy and caste. The text “normalises” misogyny with its codes of control on women’s mobility and reproduction. According to Manu, women are a sex composed of anger, meanness, treachery, heartlessness and natural disloyalty. Manu says, “Women are the edge of a razor, poison, snakes, and fire all rolled into one.” Manu’s law also constructs a shudra man as subhuman and legitimises violence against “untouchables” (Manu, IX 17).
In Indian society, caste and gender are not mutually exclusive constructs. They are intertwined and inseparable, and cannot sustain independent of each other. How does a person in Indian society know their caste identity? They inherit it from the father, or the father figure. Using Friedrich Engels’ theory of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, a man can identify his children by marrying a woman and controlling her sexuality by restricting her mobility and ensuring that she is impregnated only by him in order to bequeath his property to them. Similarly, Manu advises upper-caste men to guard their women closely so that no other man plants his seed in their wife/woman in order to ensure purity and continuity of caste. If this control over women is subverted, caste dies a quick death.
In order to continue the caste system, women are controlled in the name of sexual purity and wifely devotion or pativrata dharma, to be upheld both before and after marriage. Glorification of motherhood, a concept limited only to the caste-endogamous marriage, is another way. A caste Hindu woman who becomes a mother out of wedlock is not glorified but shunned, even killed.
This theorisation of intersections of caste and gender — and the caste-endogamous marriage as the central tenet of Hindu sociology — is the exceptional and monumental contribution of Ambedkar. Feminism in India cannot be complete without incorporating it.
Manu enjoys great influence and respectability in Indian society even today. Concepts of sexual purity, marriage-centered socialisation, monogamy and endogamy, all of which aim to control women’s sexuality, have devolved from Manusmriti. Differentiating married women from unmarried, pativrata (devoted wife) from prostitute, brahmin women from dalit, originated from Manu’s law. The ritual of tying a thread around a woman’s neck in marriage as a signifier of husband’s ownership over wife is akin to man’s ownership over livestock. It is only a tiny minority of middle class women who do not follow this ritual.
The value of a woman is determined by her caste purity. Dalit women do not have value on a par with brahmin women, and are assaulted by caste Hindus. Yet, theorisation of brahminical patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean absence of dalit patriarchy which, in turn, is nothing but an extension of the brahminical patriarchy. The dalit movement’s exhortations driven by a position that dalit women face violence from upper castes and not from family are not based on Ambedkar’s theorisation of caste. Ambedkar never accepted that there has been a radical alternative thought within or among dalits in traditional society.
Ambedkar proposed inter-caste marriages and inter-caste dining as antidotes to caste. This particular aspect of his theorisation is the most misunderstood one in the post-Ambedkarite dalit movement. Annihilation of caste through inter-caste marriages is possible when a large number of marriages take place to efface the societal memory of caste identity. That the miniscule number of inter-caste marriages which took place in the framework of “romantic love” could not solve the caste question is an empirical fact. The children born out of this small number of marriages continued to inherit the caste identity of the father figure uncritically. This happened because the marriages unilaterally subverted caste-endogamy but not the patriarchal nature of the institution of marriage.
The dalit movement, meanwhile, has reduced an intellectual giant like Ambedkar to a mantra for inter-caste marriage. By using Ambedkar’s ideas as formulae and not as an episteme, it has excluded formulations of sexism, patriarchy and heteronormativity. Thus dalit women, dalit gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transwomen and dalit disabled persons are excluded from the movement. Dalit ideologues have distorted Ambedkar by portraying his aim to fight caste only in isolation. In fact, Ambedkar said fighting caste in isolation is impossible. Caste and patriarchy should be annihilated together.
The construction of the dalit man’s access to a brahmin woman’s sexuality (inter-caste marriage) as a defeat of brahmins is based on patriarchal ideology. While the dalit man’s access to savarna women results in violence, if the dalit movement constructs this as a form of ownership over the savarna woman’s body, women’s autonomy will be a far-fetched dream.
Similarly, construction of the dalit woman solely as a victim of rape and sexual violence at the hands of upper-caste men is nothing but a denial of her subjectivity and political agency.
The dalit movement has not engaged with questions regarding the position of dalit women in inter-caste marriages. Instead, it has constructed dalit women who marry savarna men as betrayers of the dalit movement and engaged in their character assassination. Setting the brahiminical ideals of glorification of motherhood, brahminical femininity, dress code, moral code (sexual purity) and body image as the norms for dalit women, the dalit movement has been upholding Manu unapologetically. Considering women as a category “internal” to a community is not based on Ambedkar’s ideas but on the brahminical framework of Manu. In a brahminical patriarchal family, women are made to sacrifice their rights for the sake of husband and children. The dalit movement demands dalit women sacrifice their rights for the “larger” cause of fighting caste.
It is high time individuals and progressive movements reflect on the Manu inside them and burn him down in order to embrace Ambedkar.