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Bahujan patriarchy? Savarna feminists 'over-state' gender rights in Dalit communities

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 
Dr Manisha Bangar is a practicing senior consultant gastroenterologist and transplant hepatologist, with around 20 years of clinica-cum-research and teaching experience. In terms of her medical qualification, she completed MBBS, MD and DM. She was a governing council member of the Indian National Association for Study of the Liver (INASL), and member of the Task Force for Hepatitis B and Non-Alcoholic SteatoHepatitis (NASH) diseases of the South Asian Association for Study of the Liver (SAASL).
Dr Bangar, despite her professional occupations, has been actively engaged in social as well as political activities. She unsuccessfully contested from the Nagpur parliamentary constituency in 2019 on the People’s Party of India ticket. She was appointed as the national vice-president of the People’s Party of India in November 2018 and is also a former national vice-president of the All-India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMSCEF).
Though she hails from an illustrious family of Phule-Ambedkarite in Nagpur, the journey has not been comfortable as far as establishing herself as a leader at the top is concerned. She was born and brought up in Nagpur where she got to meet senior leaders and activists because of her family background. She devoted her time to strengthening her academics but also engaged with the activities of her parents and grandparents who were dedicated Ambedkarites.
She was made president of the Mulniwasi Mahila Sangh and vice-president of BAMSCEF 2007. After that she has been actively engaged in grassroots mobilisation of Bahujan women for their rights and conducted numerous workshops on women’s health and nutritious issues in various parts of the country, particularly Madhya Pradesh and western Maharashtra. She has also spoken at various forums internationally.
She established a digital media platform, National India News Network, in 2017 to give voice to the issues of the indigenous population, especially on gender and health. Its subscription has exceeded one-and-a-half million, and attracts viewers from more than 30 countries. The impact of National India News in providing a platform to the voices of the indigenous peoples, women and other marginalized communities was presented in a symposium on caste and media at the Harvard University in February 2020.
It is ironic that despite all her competencies she still finds ‘resistance’ from men at the top. When she could become vice president of BAMSCEF for so long, what stopped the organisation or its leaders to give her the opportunity to lead? It is actually disappointing that the question here is not of ‘finding credible, capable person’ but of looking inward and using the services of those who are already there at the helm of affairs for so long.
Dr Bangar today is a well-known voice globally and her presence will only help strengthen the movement. She inherited Ambedkarism as a way of life. Her mother was a professor at the Nagpur University. Dr Ambedkar left a huge impression. “Ours was an open space for bidi mazdoors and working-class people”, she told me. They have been living in Indora, in Nagpur, a locality where people faced discrimination which they fought. Her family was helping people in different ways. Struggle actually shaped her identity. She worked competently in her profession but never left the cause of Ambedkarism and issues of Bahujan women.
Her family inculcated strong discipline in her as she was determined to achieve professional success and hence time management was important for her. “I am a streamlined person and wanted to use my time in a very planned way but I did not want to waste my time in trial-and-error methods as I did not have. After marriage, I made it clear to my husband about my social commitment”, she said.
According to her, the issue with a number of Bahujan people is that they have not acquainted with the body knowledge of Ambedkar-Phule-Periyar. They don’t have their own way of thinking. Most of the knowledge is heresy and this results in following the same prejudiced pattern. She gives her own example as why things are so clear to her: The reason is that her approach to Buddhism was rationalist and not ritualistic.
Dr Ambedkar provided her the strength to understand manifestation of discrimination. It shows how people can actually embrace the Phule-Ambedkarite philosophy at the very personal level and get liberated. It is essential, as often it is found people speak about Phule-Ambedkarism, but at the personal level all the habits and behaviour remain enslaved to Brahmanical rituals.
“There was no discrimination in my house because it was part of a movement. If you don’t get a husband but don’t leave your jobs, remain independent, it isn’t too much feminism. There was nothing about feminism about it. It was alien to us. Our life as Phule-Ambedkiartes was much beyond feminism. My father used to do all the work when my mother was working. My aunts were very strong. There was never any domestic violence. I was always given priority over my brother”, she said.
Dr Bangar inherited the great legacy of her maternal aunt Sulochana Bai Dongre who presided over the first women’s conference organised in Nagpur, under the auspices of All India Scheduled Caste Federation in 1942. “My maternal aunt used to visit other district places in and around Amarawati to make women aware about their rights. My nana, i.e., maternal grandfather, cooperated with her. Even during her pregnancy, she travelled and risked her life. They travelled to Pune, CP-Berar. She had an elementary knowledge of English but was very committed.”
A historic women’s conference of 1942 presided over by Sulochana Bai Dongre ensured that women become a deciding factor. Women spoke and passed resolutions which were so powerful and remarkable as they became the basis for the Hindu Code Bill later. They spoke of Inheritance right to maternity leaves and labour leaves. Dr Ambedkar ensured that all this happened, and told them, “You are going to lead and I will just sit.” Indeed, it is the women who led, who spoke and passed the resolution. Dr Ambedkar just spoke at the end.
Dr Bangar felt that education is the most powerful weapon for Bahujan women to protect their identity, and through it they can fight their battle and would not allow themselves to be exploited by the savarna exploiters. Many a time, the issue of women’s rights with in the Dalit community is over-stated by the savarna ‘feminists’ or ‘liberals’, she said, as most of them rarely speak about the atrocious male domination in their own spaces and families. Hence, Ambedkarites and Dalits become easy targets for them.
Her response to the issue of ‘Bahujan patriarchy’ is extremely important and needs to be understood. Bahujan patriarchy comes to play not at the base level. There is a big difference between savarna patriarchy and Bahujan patriarchy, she explained.
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*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat, twitter: @freetohumanity. This is the first part of a conversation with Dr Manisha Bangar

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