Friday, May 20, 2011

Voices from the Subaltern - Chapter Eight

Voices from the Subaltern

Education and Empowerment
Among Rural Dalit (Untouchable) Women

Moses Seenarine
Date: 1/31/99; Revised: 2/26/03

Chapter 8 - From the Ground Up : Recommendations

The section contain a presentation of findings on respondents’ class status and MSK economic development programs, and contradictions in the empowerment processes. The findings reveal that the class status of respondents has remained the same, although as a consequence of their resistance and empowerment, there are notable changes in their caste status. Part three includes recommendations to the Mahila Samakhya program, women's development programs policy makers, and the Indian government respectively.

Organizing Women: Recommendations to the Mahila Samakhya Program

    The Mahila Samakhya program is funded by one of the most progressive donors in the international development and women's development fields; nonetheless, the program's development model needs to be challenged in order to improve its design and implementation.. The data reveals that the power and influence of the Mahila Samakhya Karnataka program in Bidar district varies over time. While the program initially served to inspire Dalit women to organise themselves, its very success led to political consequences, and subsequently to a “cooling off” phase.
    Despite a certain amount of back-pedalling and de-mobilisation of rural women, and the almost exclusive focus on analysing gender roles and identity, the program is leading to the unintended consequences among the women who are in addition taking on class and caste issues like land rights and cultural empowerment. Yet, the findings reveal that even after five years of active participation in activities organised by the Mahila Samakhya program in Karnataka, practically all of the respondents are below the poverty line.
    At the start of the project in 1989, program implementation in Bidar district was greatly facilitated by taking over an already existing local development program run by the privately owned organisation, AIKYA. By early 1991, the program was able to hold a huge meeting in which 1,200 women were involved, with 100 acting as ushers and caretakers. By incorporating AIKYA’s infrastructure and staff, the Bidar district program got implemented faster than the other two districts in the State.
    Nevertheless, this resulted in MSK's inability to act independently of AIKYA, which is further reinforced through the use of AIKYA as the main training agency. AIKYA’s director and staff are largely in control of the MSK program, determining what training program participants, teachers, and staff receive, rather than the MSK administrators themselves. Given the widespread existence of corruption within NGOs, discussed earlier, the funding of local programs needs to become more decentralised. Sanghas should be funded directly, which would free up the MSK district and state offices to provide support, training and evaluation, rather than having these diverse responsibilities become reduced to concerns over appropriation decisions at the district and state levels.
    The issue of caste is important, both in terms of program planners ignoring caste issues in policy and training, and in the dominance of caste Hindus employed as national, state and district level program administrators and staff. If the government continues to fund only those groups headed by "upper" castes and middle class women, then these already educated and privileged women will keep on benefiting the most from women's empowerment programs.
    Given the nature of class oppression and casteism in India, the program should make all effort to hire planners, administrators and staff from the same gender, class and caste background of program participants. Riano argues that any program or community process implementing participation goals ought to recognize the cultural and social forces underlying the dynamics of interaction in the community or group involved (1994). Multicultural insights need to inform feminist paradigms in women in development projects, as well as the reverse. This is not to say that Dalit women staff will not be autocratic, corrupt, or casteist themselves; or that non-Dalit women cannot become good administrators. There should be openness and procedures for accountability regardless of who is in charge. The point being made is that Dalit women staff may be more sympathetic to the problems of poor Dalit women.
    In support to the above, the lone Dalit woman district administrator and the few Dalit Sahayoginis, teachers and Sangha leaders, have all been the most successful in terms of organising local Dalit women, since they are perceived as being similar to program participants, not some government officer or social worker. Nevertheless, it is important that the women democratically elect their leaders themselves, like the Women's Federation model.
    Although respondents are generating their own curriculum when they get together, the program should employ Dalit educators to write a more relevant curriculum, instead of using the government's textbooks in its educational programs. While MSK's recruitment policy have served to reinforce caste differences at the local level, significantly, in meetings when the women get together, they are ignoring caste differences. Instead of highlighting distinctions among Dalit women by recruiting women from specific SC and ST colonies, rural women's development programs should try to encourage and organise all Dalit and Adivasi women who are willing to participate in the program.
    Like the Women's Development Program (WDP) discussed earlier, MSK has a hidden family planning agenda in the guise of "women's empowerment”. It seems that whenever the women organise themselves enough to gain some political leverage against class and caste injustice, the program always backs away from these issues. This implies that program policies and staff are not really interested in empowering the poor, but in channelling disadvantaged women’s energies into non-threatening pursuits by restricting their activities to literacy, savings and small scale businesses.
    While there is the need for people to empower themselves, nevertheless, the women cannot do it all on their own. At a minimum, there needs to be in place various forms of networks and support that isolated rural women can rely on to help them present their grievances to relevant authorities and through the courts.
    Despite the rhetoric of MSK policy and program planners, there is an absence of decision making power allowed to program participants in MSK, who cannot be empowered from the top-down. This shows that the language of empowerment as used by MSK is meant only in theory, not for practice. There needs to be more accountability of administrators to program participants built into these programs, especially at the national and state levels where most of the important decisions are made. Empowerment as a process not only requires a new thinking of people's participation and decision making, but correspondingly a new way of structuring organisations that sets out to empower others, with emphasis placed on decentralisation and maintaining a flat, horizontal, circular structure as opposed to hierarchical, vertical ones.
    Similar to the MSK program, an evaluation of the Bidar district’s Total Literacy Campaign found that neoliterates have mixed feelings about the role of volunteers and officials of the program, and that there are more difficulties in preserving the gains already made by neoliterates. If follow up action is not taken up immediately, the gains may not be consolidated, and the entire effort put in the campaign would become in vain (Karnataka Cultural and Educational Development Trust 1994). More long-term NFE projects could provide the necessary time and support for educationally underprivileged women to not only learn functional literacy skills, but enable them moreover to be able to compete on equal terms in higher education and white-collar employment.

Micro-Credit: Recommendations to Women in Development Policy Makers
    Although globalisation is usually characterised as a homogenising force, it "fuses with local conditions in diverse ways, thereby generating, not eroding, striking differences among social formations" (Bahl 1997:1342). This means that far from replacing "traditional" norms and forms of control with more modern, "egalitarian" ones, capitalism's increasing encroachment into the rural economy is reinforcing traditional sources of wealth, power, and prestige, and contributing to the maintenance of mechanisms for exclusionary and discriminatory practices.
    Consequently, it is the case that in many low income countries, the most disadvantaged segment of the population, poor women, are forced to bear the brunt of national, economic growth-oriented strategies in terms of contributing both free domestic labour and underpaid wage labour, and experiencing decreased economic and social status as the country readjusts to demands of the global economy. Concurrently, poor women's bodies are also blamed in part for the failure of economic growth policies as long as their fertility leads to increased population growth and thereby affects the gross domestic product per capita.
    As a consequence, micro credit and small scale business development schemes are becoming popular as a poverty reduction strategy for governments, donor agencies, and NGOs. This model of poor women's empowerment is opposite to models which emphasise organising strategies, such as a women's union. Empowerment must mean more than micro-enterprise, entrepreneurial self-reliance and justifications for limiting the state's provision of welfare services and employment.
    The findings show that training for micro credit schemes is not enough to empower women, since the women face many obstacles in getting access to land, business loans, markets, and customers. Even if women are able to borrow small business loans (Rs. 10,000 or $US 300), it is difficult to turn these small loans into a profitable enterprise.     Moreover, small business programs encourage women to make consumer products for trendy world markets, such as silk garments, garlands, rugs and baskets. Such programs fail to acknowledge that these markets are subject to rapid changes, driven by the fashion industry, advertising, and popular culture, and poor women are not provided with further training or capital to constantly re-adjust to these rapid changes. If women are going to spend more time engaged in these capitalist enterprises, supports for health care, child care, and domestic production will help them to manage.

The Need for A Dalit Curriculum: Recommendations to the Indian Government
    There is a paucity of studies on the influence of caste on learning among Dalits in India; nevertheless there is a considerable body of research on minority or multicultural education in Western societies (Banks 1987; 1988; Gollnick and Chinn 1990; Ramsey, Vold and Williams 1989; Teidt and Teidt 1990), on the cultural bases of education (Giroux 1991; Pai 1990), and on how multicultural education can be used to empower minority students (Sleeter 1991). In general, multicultural educators stress that the school curriculum should reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity within the society and not idealised views of the life and culture within a nation-state. These studies on multiculturalism and ethnic minorities in the West are comparable to the issue of casteism confronting the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in India, and a lot of the concerns in the Western literature are helpful in understanding Dalit educational issues.
    Commenting on the American context, Ogbu (1978) argues that the dominated status of a minority group such as African Americans, exposes them to conditions that predispose children to school failure even before they start going to school, for example in their lack of mainstream language skills and cultural capital. The required changes to reverse this pattern of failure in schools entails not only personal redefinitions of the way teachers interact with the children and the communities they serve, but institutional redefinitions as well, since students from "dominated" societal groups are "empowered" or "disabled" in part through their interactions with teachers and schools.
    To better understand the cultural context of educational institutions, Cummins (1993) outlines four structural elements in the organisation of schooling which contributes to the degree of minority students' empowerment or disempowerment: (i) the incorporation of minority students' culture and language, (ii) inclusion of minority communities in the education of their children, (iii) pedagogical assumptions operating in the classroom, and (iv) the assessment of minority students. While a detailed study of these four issues is beyond the scope of this book, a brief discussion of the first issue on minority students' culture and language provides a context through which the others could be understood.
    A significant amount of research data indicate that the extent to which "dominated" minority students' language and culture are incorporated into the school program serves as an important predictor of academic success among these students (Campos and Keatinge 1984; Cummins 1983; Rosier and Holm 1980). Success in school for students reflect both the academic learning developed through instruction and the reinforcement of their cultural identity (Cummins 1993).
    In addition to research on the multi-cultural dimensions of education mentioned above, studies that have been conducted using anti-discrimination materials, interracial contact, and special units on minority groups, indicate that children's racial prejudices can be modified by school experiences specifically designed for this purpose. For instance, one group of studies (Trager and Yarrow 1952; Johnson 1966; Litcher and Johnson 1969; cited in Banks 1988) found that children exposed to a democratic curriculum expressed more positive racial attitudes, and those exposed to an ethnocentric curriculum developed more negative racial feelings. In seven further studies reported by Stephan (1985, cited in Banks 1988), the use of multiethnic school curricula has resulted in the reduction of prejudice.
    Similar to the situation in US schools, educational institutions in India are Hinduized and Anglicised, meaning they represent the values of caste Hindu and English societies. Education is very much a part of local and national politics (Acharya 1981; 1989) and Indian schools are expected to blend Dalit and other "minority" students into the Hindu mainstream through compulsory education and emphasis on Hindu culture, history and civics. This curriculum ignores the history and practice of casteism, sexism and class domination throughout India.
    In recent times, the victory of the Hindu fundamentalist party, the BJP, in national elections hints that the notion of a secular state is being abandoned at the polls. Although the BJP ruling group includes a few token Dalit women and men, the party openly expresses the desire to establish a Hindu state. This has resulted in all sorts of antagonisms against non-Hindus and conversions from Hinduism, from the distruction of Babri masjid in UP and enforced migration of millions of Muslims from Bombay in 1992, to the recent burnings of Churches, and rapes and killings of Christians and Dalits all over India.
    State governments run by the BJP have already made several changes in school syllabi that reflect the crude communal bias that characterise their Brahminical agenda and Hindutva view of history. In Madhya Pradesh, they re-wrote the entire textbooks from nursery to the post-graduate level with a Hindu emphasis. Efforts are also underway in other states including Rajasthan, UP, and Kanataka, where Christian schools are accused, ironically, of promoting religion in schools. The BJP governments are making further proposals to include sanskrit as "compulsory" from Class three to Class ten, and giving the Vedas and Upanishads their "due place in the curriculum" in all levels of education.
    In December, 1998, the BJP State government in UP set in process the "spiritualising, nationalising and Indianising" of education by instructing all of the primary schools in the state to begin their day with Hindu prayers. Children, regardless of their religious background, have to recite the "Saraswathi Vandana" in the mornings and the Bhojan Mantra before their afternoon meal. Muslim children are often asked to lead the prayers and there are punishments meted out for not praying. Children are made to give the hand extended salute of the Hindu right wing group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and in some places they have to respond with "Vande Mataram" at the time of the roll call (Frontline 1998a). The RSS was banned following its assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
    The RSS-funded organization, Vidya Bharathi, has 30,000 shakhas (branches), 2,500 pracharaks (propagandists) and almost three million volunteers. In 1996, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) conducted an evaluation of school textbooks, including those prescribed in Vidya Bharati schools in the country. It was reported that there were 6,000 such schools with 1.2 million students on their rolls under the tutelage of 40,000 teachers. The NCERT made the alarming diagnosis that many of the Vidya Bharati textbooks were "designed to promote bigotry and religious fanaticism in the name of inculcating knowledge of culture in the young generation". The evaluation found it a matter of "serious concern" that such material was being utilised for instruction in schools which, "presumably, have been accorded recognition" (Frontline 1998b). The ruling government is attempting to bring the Vidya Bharati and RSS ideology to the centre stage of the national education system.
    But even within the existing national system, Indian historian Thapar notes that barring a few exceptions "history is still generally taught in Indian schools as it was half a century ago” (Frontline 1997). India’s history books and texts are full of historical errors, biases, prejudices, outdated theories and assumptions, and glorified stories of "upper" caste kings and priests, and of the supposed inferiority of the “lower” castes and women. Further, Dalit life histories, knowledge and languages are excluded from the curriculum. There is very limited coverage of other religions and cultures, such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Christianity, in history texts and the curriculum in general. There is widespread support and justification of casteist culture and Hindu epics on the one hand, and condemnation of Dalit and tribal cultures on the other hand, in literary texts, mainstream media and the popular press.
    Moreover, "upper" caste teachers, curriculum and texts are all silent on the issue of caste discrimination, as if it does not exist. The predominant caste Hindu, village school teachers customarily reinforce caste rules which forbid eating with or touching Dalits, and almost never live in or visit the Dalit colony in the village. Dalit students are treated as inferior because of their birth and are not expected to excel in school (Desai and Uchat 1981; Ilaiah 1996; Kamila 1985). The passing rates from these village schools are poor, and the well-off, "upper" caste students often go to better schools or buy their graduation certificates. Even though there has been over four decades of reforms aimed at reversing the pattern of school failure among disadvantaged groups in India, the dropout rate among Dalit females and males remains extremely high, as discussed in chapter three.
    It should be clearly understood that caste empowerment among Dalits is different from casteism. It is the backlash from the "upper" and "forward" castes against the Dalit upsurge that is casteist, not the upsurge itself. Casteism is caste prejudice plus power, so in India, only caste Hindus can perpetuate casteism because of their control over political, economic and social institutions. This does not mean that people from a variety of backgrounds and orientations are incapable of prejudice or exempt from confronting casteism and discrimination on any level.
    In planning the improvement of Indian society and schools, the inclusion of minority cultural features may include strategies like taking into account Dalits' learning styles and patterns of interaction, and the incorporation of different minority languages, folk stories, histories, and arts into the school curriculum. Inclusion of majority communities' cultures, comprised of Dalit, Adivasi (tribal), Sudra ("low" caste Hindu), and women, should furthermore involve a careful rewriting of school curriculum and texts to eliminate all reference to ideologies and justifications which support the unjust, patriarchal Hindu caste system and control by minority "upper" caste Hindus.
    Caste is not only a socio-economic structure of discrimination, but a religiously sanctioned form of apartheid as well. The Indian caste system is integrally connected to Hinduism, and the question of what Hinduism looks like without caste is an important one that needs to be addressed by the State and activists alike. The elimination of all references to Hinduism in the curriculum would go a long way towards eliminating caste aparthied in India, and Dalits and young women should not be compelled to learn curriculum that justify their subordinate gender and caste positions. Likewise, the inclusion of subaltern perspectives on the history and origin of caste, untouchability, and sexism, discussed in chapter six, is necessary to bring about real changes in aparthied India.
    Significantly, the problem of cultural amnesia and remembrance among Dalits likewise needs to addressed by planners and educators alike, in view of the fact that the working of the caste system has always tried to create mental states of self-doubt, self-denial and self-hatred among the "lower" caste individual, and so these attitudes are internalised and collectivised. The pain of being born in humiliated communities often leads to self-hate, and for many upwardly mobile Dalits, to the painful severing of ties with their community and a conscious effort to forget their past.
    There needs to be future research which focus on the cultural aspects of Dalit women's lives, on the relationship between gender and culture, on the influence of Ambedkar and Buddhism among Dalit women, and on determining what a Dalit-centric curriculum would look like. Political pressure likewise need to be applied at all levels to have the various Scheduled Castes and Tribes commissions and agencies formulate and introduce Dalit cultural and curriculum issues into India's public schools.
    Notwithstanding, Dalits are not passively waiting for the Indian state to act. Activists in the Dalit movement are not only refusing to forget their past, but are vigorously engaged in a deliberate effort to remember it through revival of folk culture and Ambedkarism, as new forms of self-respect (Berremen 1979; Nagaraj 1993). The movement by the economically oppressed to set aside numerous, complex, deep rooted divisions and subcaste differences in order to adopt a Dalit identity is itself a form of class or subaltern consciousness.
    Nagaraj (1993) comments on Dalits struggle in Karnataka for cultural rights:
In senses more than one the notion of culture includes realms of religion also in this context. Attempts to seek equal space to affirm the existing religious practices have also led to blood bath and massive violence. Similarly the decision to not participate in a religious and cultural event which has demeaning roles for Dalits can attract violence. For the last two decades or so Dalits are increasingly declining to participate in the village festival where there is no respectable role for them and this has landed them into serious trouble with caste Hindus (1993:36).
This statement suggests that in rejecting religiously demeaning representations, an active construction of cultural roles is occurring among some Dalits on account of exposure to new rights and violent resistance from caste Hindus.
    For instance, Dalits are defining their own cultural space in celebrating Ambedkar's Birthday on April 14th with a huge day-long celebration in Bidar town and all over the state. The spread of Buddhism in the district and state among Dalits is another example of cultural opposition to Hinduism. In several weddings, it was reported that village elders bless the couple without Hindu ceremonies or rituals (Nagaraj 1993; Pinto 1996).
    The continued refusal by the State to recognise the true role and nature of Hinduism and caste in Indian society insinuate that the State itself is casteist and is not really serious about dismantling the unjust caste system, despite the fact that secularism is enshrined in its constitution and law. The continued existence of the caste system functions as a source of humiliation not only for Dalits in India, but for India's standing in public opinion world-wide, and for the South Asian diaspora as well.
    With the increasing caste-class conflict between Dalits and caste Hindus, an authoritarian Hindu state could prove disastrous for the emerging Dalit movement, and women's movement, by wiping out the small gains made since independence. Increasing social conflict give rise to political and economic instability, which hampers growth and development. For India to become a truly modern state, with upward social mobility and raising standard of living for all, the caste system has to be replaced by an equitable, meritocratic system   
    Dalit women and men contribute enormous amount of labour, money and energies to India's national development, yet their efforts are not recognised or valued. Anti-discrimination laws and reservation policies are not being implemented, and it is very difficult for Dalit women to gain access to justice or reserved positions for Dalits or women in employment and education sectors.
    The constitution needs to be implemented; in addition there should be reservations for advantaged, "upper" caste Hindu groups in proportion to their numbers, above which they cannot exceed. And since they are already ahead in terms of education and economic status, "upper" caste Hindus should be given less political power relative to their numbers. This strategy addresses the power issue from the perspective of disempowering dominant groups in addition to empowering dominated groups.
    Dalit women suffer from the interconnections of multiple oppressions of class, caste, and gender at all levels (household, village, district, state, national and global) by both men and women, from all castes and classes. As a consequence, affirmative action programs and policies should be designed specifically to improve the status of rural Dalit women, and such policies and programs need to take into account the specific nature of the interconnections of gender, caste and class oppressions at all levels, along with the need to incorporate Dalit women themselves into decision-making and leadership.

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