The inheritance of caste

I have just started reading Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist – so far, highly readable and recommended for anyone in India or studying India. Though I have lived in India a few times and thought about/talked about this a lot, the introductory section brought to light new realizations for me – there have been a lot of gendered traditions that I have come which I often assumed were due to either social norm, or perhaps lack of enforcement of a written law; I am rather dismayed to learn that actually, a lot of it has to do with the laws themselves, too – and the, as Menon calls it, “naturalization of two dominant patriarchies – upper-caste and British colonial” – which is clearly reflected in both the written law and the discourse that happens in recorded parliamentary and judiciary sessions around it.

Anyway, as I figure out more about the origins (well, I don’t know about ultimate origins, but at least the more recent origins) of why things are the way they are for women here (and everywhere), I’m going to blog about them. Mind you, this will not really appear in any particular order, just as and when it’s addressing a topic that I have been wondering about (or angry about…likely, both) recently.

So – onto the inheritance of caste coming from a father, how that came about (this is also explicitly an interesting topic in the light of recent events surrounding Rohith Vemula and his mother, Radhika Vemula, and ironic how much the ruling that led to father’s caste inheritance is mirrors the plight and public attempts at humiliation of the Vemula family by the State) – and how interrelated caste and gender are in the political discourse:

Supreme court judgment of 2005 – Shobha Devi

Take for instance, the Supreme Court judgment (of 2005) which ruled that a child inherits the father’s caste. It thus held illegal the election of an upper-caste man’s daughter from a constituency reserved for a candidate belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. In her petition defending her elections which had been challenged by the defeated candidates, Shobha Hymavati Devi had argued that her father had not legally married her mother (belonging to the Bagatha, a Scheduled Tribe), whom he had abandoned along with his children by her. Therefore, since Shobha Devi was brought up by her mother in her community, she should be considered to have inherited her mother’s caste. The Justices of the Supreme Court were not impressed by this reasoning. Indeed, they expressed their ‘dismay’ that a politician, in her bid for political office, would stoop so low as to ‘brand her five siblings and herself illegitimate and her mother, a concubine.’

There are two implicit assumptions at play in this judgment – once, that ‘illegitimacy’ is something that any respectable person would try to hide, and so a declaration of illegitimacy could only be a ploy to hold on to office. Two, the three upper-caste judges constituting the Bench seem to share the general, upper-caste, anti-affirmative action understanding in India that a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) identitiy is an underserved advantage that must be limited as far as possible. Thus, while the judgment has the potential to be read subversively as establishing a precedent to recognize women’s rights in common law marriage as well as to legitimize inter-caste marriage, its underlying assumptions establish it instead, as a precedent for naturalizing caste identities passed on through patriarchy.

Menon goes on to outline other examples of patriarchy very clearly being held up by courts and states in the country –

  • the defeated Bill that sought to deny Kashmiri women the right to permanent citizenship of their state if they married outside of it,
  • MP’s “Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna” where “the state government takes over the role of the father in perpetuating marriage as an inevitable and unavoidable fate for all” and started instituting virginity tests (as a way to make sure that a couple wasn’t already married and trying to get the state to pay for their wedding….the assumption being that all unmarried women are virgins obv!) – where does one start to question this one – the assumption that it’s a father that gives a daughter (property) away in the first place (oh how I loathe the word kanyadan), that she is assumed to be a virgin, or that now the state is taking over the whole arranged marriage business?,
  • Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code – whereby a husband can bring a criminal case against another man for having an affair with his wife (where the wife is not culpable), but of course, a woman can’t use this same provision against another woman. Obviously, “the assumption is that the wife is the husband’s property, a passive object over which no other man has rights”

Indeed, as Menon points out, even the man who wanted to annihilate caste thought that it could best be done through…more marriage?

The real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of caste. -Ambedkar (1936: 67)

Enlightened for his era…but how unfortunately still coming from gendered assumptions. (Why does the gender inequality always come as the last to be recognized, even though it affects the most people in the world? Women are not even a minority! Well, Simone de Beauvoir has good answers to this one – in fact, it’s the analogous reason to one of the theories behind why India doesn’t split up – too many intersecting social cleavages. Women wear way too many other hats in their societies, and are too isolated in the realm of their familial identities and histories (religion, caste, husband supporter, in-law supporter, mother….) to band together and let the “woman” identity be the most salient.)

I’ll leave it to another post to elucidate more of Menon’s thoughts on the male and the state’s general need to control women’s bodies. Of particular interest globally, as a concept, I would think, given the recent burkini ban (and accompanying enforcement) in France.

controlling bodies

“100 years later women’s bodies are still being controlled by men”



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