Dr Sujatha Surepally is an activist and academician. She is currently a Professor and Dean at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Head of the Department of Sociology at University College of Arts, Social Sciences with Satavahana University, Karimnagar, Telangana. She is the founder of Dalit Womens’ Collective, Tangedu Mahila Sagam, and Saavithri Bai Phule Knowledge Center. Dr Sujatha Surepally is also the co-founding member of the National Council of Women Leaders.
The Balancing Act
For women from any marginalized community, stepping out into the social world is challenging, including the fields of activism and education. When a woman steps out, all sorts of blame follow her because she is assumed to be not giving full time to her family, following customs , traditions etc. Sometimes, one needs to work out till late hours but from a patriarchal lens, that time is only meant to be dedicated to the family, parents, and in-laws. Marginalised women, due to barriers of intersectionality, do not have much choice to decide their career and we see early marriages in these communities.
Women are allowed to go to pujas anytime, family functions, and night barats anytime, and are expected to attend to household chores (which is unaccounted labour) full-time; all those are legitimate, ‘allowed’ activities, not the ones where you want to go to do things as per your choice, participate in the struggles of the oppressed.
This creates a lot of family pressure. As per my observations, this is also one of the reasons for why most women in activism are single.
None of my family members are into activism. My activism developed in the 1990s when I entered university. Pursuing MPhil and PhD in Sociology gave me the opportunity to understand the dynamics of society from a caste and gender point of view. My research on Dalit women’s empowerment gave me insights into the framework that allows the state to ignore caste realities and the vulnerabilities of Dalit women.
Being brought up in an urban middle-class family, I was deliberately kept away from the Dalit community by my father who was probably trying to protect me from discrimination. He probably an Ambedkarite and a first-generation officer who passed away in our early days but because of him, we could get into higher education.
I feel worthy because of my prestigious, noble profession. I get to interact with rural children and contribute to the academic world. Whatever struggle I face on the field, I ensure to record it academically.
When you go out as a marginalised woman, then you are always kept on the margins. We are usually the token representative most of the time, not the organisers but mere invitees. We do participate in many events out of concern, interest, and respect. However, our voices and decisions are hardly considered as we are not a part of the decision-making process. This exists both in the world of activism and academics. Academics, like politics, is mostly occupied by men. Women do get opportunities but not as per their capabilities.
I have experienced that caste and gender play a major role in all the phases and aspects of life. In the beginning stages, you want to share your concerns, show your solidarity, or learn something, and only after a decade or so you begin to understand the politics of social movements, NGOs, and political parties. This creates dissatisfaction. But by then you learn to handle things.
When you are a working woman like me, especially, in the government sector, it’s very difficult. It is easy to corner you any time when your activism comes in academics.
In seeking justice for the victims, you have to question the stakeholders, the state, and the people involved in the crimes, and be on the offensive, which can hamper your growth and create obstacles in your success.
If you choose to work with the marginalised people and caste, you will directly confront the state. So, being an employee I always had pressure from colleagues, from the state, from the university. It is always a negotiation because the job is my bread and butter. I cannot just quit. If you are working in a private sector, it is even more difficult as you can be fired at any time.
As an Ambedkarite and a Dalit woman, I feel I have greater respnsbility of giving back to the society but it is like walking on the tightrope to balance the goverment job and activism.
For upper caste people, there is a special treatment in both these fields where they are praised for their contributions to the society and are rewarded.
Questioning versus Critiquing
As a government servant, I am often told that you cannot question the government.
I always make my point clear that I draw the salary from the government but the money comes from the people. So, I am accountable to the people and their issues.
Caste and gender have everything to do with the state. Women’s issues, caste issues, and land issues are directly linked to the state.
There are also ‘page three’ kinds of activism, which are fashionable, like giving fruits on Sundays, on birthdays, meeting old people, distributing books or bananas and getting photographed; there will not be any confrontation in such activism. I am not undermining them but these actions will only bring minor relief and are not going to change any thing in the system.
My major discomfort with mainstream politics and activism is that I go to everybody’s meetings but when it comes to caste and Dalit women, the privileged castes and groups do not turn up. They give excuses like it is a very sensitive and delicate issue, implying that it is not ‘our’ issue. Sometimes, they do come but its very rare.
When there is any caste issue, we are just a few, mostly I am the only female on the ground. Of course, the privliged caste activists do candlelight marches, make posters, and hold protests for press coverage, which are also important, but you do not find people on the battleground, confronting the state and the police.
As an activist, even if I get threats and cases get filed against me, I get immediate support from friends who organise protests and the media, which boosts my energy. I built this network over time by attending to public issues, talking, and writing but I am afraid that not every activist gets this kind of support.
There should be a support mechanism for the women activists coming from marginalized backgrounds: legal support, mental health support, and personal support. Alliances and support mechanisms work out when you collaborate with others.
He said, ‘you live it or leave it’
I was a victim of social media trolling. Police cases were filed against me by opponents and Hindu bhakts. My pictures were shared everywhere with sexually abusive messages, calls, and videos. There were death threats too.
They put my pictures alongside Gauri Lankesh’s and called me names like Shurpanakha because Dalit women are stereotyped to be dark and fat and are body-shamed.
When I tried to file a case, the police officials said to file a defamation case and not a cyber crime case. Another officer said, ‘you live it or leave it’ and to just block everything and be comfortable. They took the case but nothing has been pursued so far.
Annihilation of Caste talks about how religion is the root cause for the opppression and untouchability. So, how can I talk about the liberation of women without talking about Manuvaad, which is rooted in the Hinduism? If I talk about caste untouchability, how do I not talk about religious backwardness? At least, during Ambedkar’s time, he could write what he did. His speeches were recorded. But now we cannot talk about a single line.
There was a typical case in my university. Some students burnt Manusmriti in our University on 25 December, when Ambedkar burnt it in 1927, and the RSS attacked them. I was not even on the campus, not even in the town. And they started conspiring that Sujatha was behind it and that she told the students to burn Bharat Mata.
I still do not know what Bharat Mata looks like, how anybody can burn Bharat Mata.
Still, a case was filed against the students and there was a commission set up against me on the campus and outside the campus.
I had to go to Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and stand as a Member of Assembly to escape the political mess I was deliberately put in. When I went there, things were not much different. Some people in the party had disaapointing attitudes. They started saying that I am a radical, a revolutionary, just to ensure that I do not get a ticket. Being a widow or an unmarried woman may get some respect in our society but not a single woman by choice.
Feminism and Alliances
When I question patriarchy within Dalit communities and support Dalit women abused by Dalit men, I face a lot of opposition. People say Sujatha does not want the Dalit movement to grow.
I am considered as anti-men and a ‘feminist’ (a euphemism for saying, ‘backed by savarna feminists’), as if being a ‘feminist’ is a negative thing but it alienates me from people, ideologically.
When it comes to feminism, I wrote an article in a local Telugu leading daily news paper where I said that unlike caste-privileged women, discrimination against Dalit women is from ‘womb to tomb’. If a Dalit woman is brutally raped, butchered, and abused, nobody comes forward but when it is a Savarna woman or a dominant backward caste woman, everybody gets emotional, thousands and lakhs of people rally on the road. Again, this is a very sensitive issue where if the accused is a Dalit or a Muslim man or anyone from the marginalized section, they are immediately jailed or killed or encountered.
As you get deeper into activism, you get to see new challenges. Say, when Savarna women face patriarchal oppression, they get rid of their circle and come out of the family, and there is a whole world waiting for them. They only see gender discrimination because they are almost at the top of the hierarchy.
For us, being single is challenging, being an activist is challenging, being a writer is challenging, and being a leader is further challenging because everywhere you go, you are covered in layers and layers of discrimination.
Savarna women are involved in our struggles, I am not excluding them. I am not against them. But their issues are different, their framework of the world is different, their understanding is different.
I will put it like this: the more marginalized you are, the more challenges, and more struggles you will face irrespective of your job, your studies, your location.
Feminism does not exist in isolation. Feminism is all about working together, having conversations, forging alliances. I want to assimilate my struggles and teach Savarna people and show them the way to support us. No movement can sustain itself by just shouting ‘Dalit women’, ‘Dalit women’ without joining any other alliances. You will remain an isolated voice. I believe in collaborations.
Scheduled Castes have many sub-castes. Sometimes, when I speak up, my sub-caste is brought up and used against me like I am antagonising the other sub-castes (I belong to the sub-castes, ‘Baindla’). When abuses come from one’s own community, it hurts more.
Casteism is not limited to Savarna and dominant caste people only, it exists among Dalits as well. Just like patiriarchy exists among men and women across all castes. Forms may vary but discrimination exists and obstructs growth.
We have to work on a Dalit femnist standpoint. Dalit issue is not limited to reservations, political participation, and employment. It extends to equality, freedom, and liberty within and outside one’s community. Till the Dalit movement realises this, takes Dalit women along, the movement will remain incomplete.
Dharma of the Marginalised
My focus has been on education, employment and empowerment of Dalit women. I also work with the transgender community. But I am most disappointed with educated, employed Dalit men and women.
My whole activism is to say that if you are born in a marginalized community, especially if you are a woman, you should be in activism as a non-negotiable thing.
In whatever way you can contribute, do it. Contribute as a writer or paint about the social issues, but do not just enjoy your privileges, which have come to you due to the great battles and struggles of the community.
Every individual is supposed to be sensitive towards human rights issues. But if you are a person from a marginalised location, it is your responsibility, your Dharma to give back to the people.
Note: This article is based on the interview between Dr Sujhatha Surepally and Preeti Nangal and has been edited for coherence. This article is part of the Tête-à-Tête series, which covers the lives, challenges, and achievements of NCWL grassroots workers. The rest of the series can be accessed here and on our social media handles (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).