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Reflections on the Great Unexpected Auto Debate

July 27, 2008

Little did I think when I put up this image, that it would lead to such a rich set of comments on class, caste and gender.

The picture had been circulating on the web, in blogs and email lists for some time, and without comment, as a funny, jokey kind of thing. Autos and trucks (in Delhi anyway,) are renowned, as Aman pointed out in his comment, for pithy, witty, quirky, dolorous, amorous etc. comments on life. Briefly glimpsed, their ability to linger in our minds is a reflection of their literary quality.

When this one was sent to me, the reason I posted it on kafila was initially light-hearted too, since we consider autos to be our mascots, as representing kafila’s philosophy and relationship to the city in some way – small, cheeky, full of “attitude”, winding nimbly through the mass of traffic, a resistant challenge to the idea of a shiny, “world-city-like-paris-and-singapore” that our various governments want to turn all our cities into, by neatly removing the poor, the workers, the slums etc.

The auto is our banner of revolt against glittery cities owned by private cars. (Hence “our” autos, as symbols of kafila, not because we own the driver, the owner or the vehicle itself – nothing “feudal” about the use of “our”, which was the charge made by one commentator).

Okay, we didn’t discuss all of this explicitly when the banner was decided, but the moment our friend Amitabh came up with the autos, it was an immediate and joyous recognition. (Except for Shivam, but I’ll leave that to him to explain if he wants!)

So my initial comment was light-hearted, and so, I think, were the first few comments from kafilawala/is. Especially, the style of my ‘Author is Dead’ comment was intentionally self-mocking of a certain kind of academic discourse that many of us participate in, although the substance was serious. Gradually though, precisely because the readership of Kafila is intensely aware of questions of class, caste and gender and of power relations in general, the discussion on the image took off in ways that I certainly had not envisaged. And I can see now that this happened precisely because the auto is the quintessential point of friction between the middle classes and the working classes; a point of friction that is also deeply gendered since largely women use autos and exclusively (in Delhi) men drive them.

And to talk of class in India is inevitably, and accurately, to talk of caste.

So in retrospect I am not surprised by the emotions evoked in and by the discussion, the engagements and sometimes the talking across that happened, especially between our readers Manash and Nameless.
But only in retrospect. At the time I was taken totally by surprise.

But now, with the wisdom of hindsight, and aware with trepidation that I am flouting the express injunction of Nameless, I am tempted to unravel the dense thicket of themes that emerged, to see where they go.

a) The question of desire. Who is the desiring subject, who the object? My initial translation (“It is forbidden to sit with your boyfriend and claim he is your brother”) turned out to be somewhat hasty. Because of course, as Sania and Atreyee noted, it could be both “It is forbidden to sit with your boyfriend and call (him) brother” as well as “… and call (me) brother.” In this case, is it in fact a prohibition at all, or rather, a claim to the status of sexual subject being made by the driver? Is it the passenger addressed by the statement who is assumed to be the desiring subject or the driver himself? What about the desire that might be assumed to flow from the female passenger towards the driver, as pointed out by Nameless and Cynthia? Why is this “reverse” flow not assumed in the first instance?

b) Which brings us to the question of class. Atreyee drew our attention to the fact that the “author” of that statement would be the owner of the vehicle, actually, not the driver, though the driver bears the burden of authorship because of his physical presence in the auto. This brings in a new dimension of class through the fact that the owner would be of a higher class and social status than the driver, (if the two are different, as in most cases, they are). Is what is happening then, moral policing, as I had assumed, or the owner’s classist mockery of the driver’s doomed desire?

Class also appears in the assumption, till the entry of Nameless, that the participants in the discussion are all elite men and women, who would address the auto-driver with a distancing ‘bhaiya’. The assumption was not misplaced of course, given that this discussion is in English and it is on a blog, neither the most accessible of media for the common Indian. But Nameless, the English-educated woman with relatives who could be auto-drivers, ‘made the subaltern speak’, in a sense. Her poignant words struck me to the heart:

“I have also noticed my upper caste women friends, starting to get afraid of men who look so much like the men I have known all my life; and I have never been able to share their fears. And I am tired of seeing the faces of my relatives in movies after movies as villains and rapists.”

Her intervention brought the auto-driver into our conversation; we are ruffled, intensely awkward (shh, shut up yaar, he’s listening…)

c) The question of representation. But does this mean that we cannot speak of him, of the auto, of the statement in the auto, of ourselves as implicated in various ways in and around these questions? Nameless would have us “leave the subaltern subject alone” and “turn the gaze on ourselves”. She demands, why have we chosen this sign, why not focus on signs that reveal our own sexism and conformity?

Come on, Nameless, be fair. This is a blog that has been around for over a year. Many signs and many practices have been interrogated here, many self-critical feelings articulated. Indeed, even in this debate you can see the growing self-criticism of the participants, commentators start thinking about our own status as elite and as elite women, the way we respond to the ”auto-driver” and to working class men in general, to how the city treats “outsiders”, etc.

If we left the subaltern subject alone, our blog would be only about ourselves, i.e. English speaking urban upper class people, and then what sort of critique would you have come up with? That “you people can’t see beyond yourselves”. There have been posts and discussions in kafila about “servants” and how middle class Indians treat them, about Dalit politics, about big dams and “development” projects and their oustees, about how the city drives out its workers and the poor – you would say all of these discussions are illegitimate, since the subaltern subject should be studiously not written about. If we were seeking to or claiming to represent the subaltern, your grouse would be legitimate, but in fact we have never claimed to represent anyone but ourselves – elite people aware of our positionality and our privileges, trying to be honest, and to engage critically with the world around us, deeply aware of our own responsibility for the way it is.

d) The question of patriarchy. If the statement is read as a moral warning against promiscuity, then patriarchy is central to it. Nameless holds that “casteism makes you see patriarchy in lower caste/class groups” – we are and have been, on this site and elsewhere, extremely critical of patriarchy everywhere. In this case, since we were discussing the auto, it happened to be the patriarchy in a particular section of the population. Surely, surely, as a critically thinking woman you cannot be suggesting that there is patriarchy only among the “elites”? This is a worse “binary” than any you have accused us of – the mirror image of the kind of upper class/castes who say “we educated people are progressive, just look at the retrogressive ways of the poor/lower castes.”

Ranju Radha while conceding that there might be patriarchy among lower castes, holds that it is a result of the prevalence of brahminical ideology. “The discourse of moral policing comes from the gender-insensitive/caste-class divided Indian society.”

This makes patriarchy a mere by-product of other oppressive structures and practices of power, whereas a feminist politics would insist that patriarchy has its own separate dynamic.

Feminism is precisely about locating the ways in which patriarchy is produced in different locations. About recognizing the ways in which class, caste and community (or in another context, race) solidarity, can splinter the possibility of gender solidarity. About coming to terms with the fact that the mere existence of biological women does not necessarily create a feminist politics, but also with the equally disturbing fact that in every society, patriarchy operates in its own distinctive way. “Here” it is moral policing, “there” it is the pressure to be sexually active and available; “here” it is to be clothed from head to foot, “there”, to expose a fashionably thin (acquired at any cost) body…

17 Comments
  1. Anant permalink
    July 27, 2008 3:51 PM

    On desire and desiring subjects and objects of desire — this website below is an intriguing archive. The link I am posting is just to one of the pictures posted by a woman offended in some unspeakable/unrepresentable manner by the guy in the picture. At other posts in the same blog — there are animated discussions on why it is that the “offending” men appear to “belong to a particular social class.”
    http://blog.blanknoise.org/2005/04/he-did-not-touch-me.html

  2. July 27, 2008 4:23 PM

    (Except for Shivam, but I’ll leave that to him to explain if he wants!)

    Just that my daily chore of haggling with autowallahs didn’t let me appreciate it. I would have been fine with buses :)

    But I’ve come around to loving them by now, and in any case if I have to run to or from big media, I do so in an auto :)

  3. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    July 27, 2008 6:16 PM

    Thanks Anant, for drawing that site to our attention. It’s an interesting debate there, in that it is neatly polarised along class-gender lines – the women are uniformly elitist and most of the men deny the reality of sexual harassment! I am appalled by the picture of the unsuspecting man that begins that debate – there he is, identified as a harasser in a space that he does not have access to, for “not looking, not touching, not meeting her eyes, not speaking”. His only crime seems to be that he looks, as one of the comments puts it, “not upper caste or Hindu, or as if he speaks bad, or no English”.
    Thanks again.

  4. Jasmeen Patheja permalink
    July 27, 2008 10:19 PM

    I am not sure I could agree with you here. ofcourse one has to take into account one’s own notion of ‘stereotyping the perpetrator’ and be critical of it- which is something that we at Blank Noise are constantly attempting to do- question our own reactions.

    When i say that he didnt do anything nor say anything but it still made me awkward, I am drawing attention to the intangibility of that experience- it was in the way he looked at body parts and the fact that I could tell from a distance he was. I am quite certain that I would have reacted the same way if someone else ‘ englsih speaking’ , economically stable, looked at me or my body parts in the similar manner.
    But in a larger sense this is a question that needs to be asked. Thanks for drawing attention.

  5. Anant permalink
    July 28, 2008 8:22 AM

    Some quick reflections on the debate and its moorings. First it seems to me that we have sort of begun to overlook an aspect that Nivedita brought up right in the beginning albeit in a tongue in cheek sort of way – death of the author. i.e. the ‘impossibility’ of determining intention. (I put it in quotes because the belief that it is possible or even desirable to do determine intention is quite prevalent and comes from a legitimate valid political orientation).

    If it is impossible to determine the intention of the author – whether it is the owner or the driver or even the sign painter or the painter’s chums – why do we attempt to delineate so many different interpretations ? Towards what political ends ? And if it does serve some legitimate political end, how should we really move towards that end through this debate ? (Incidentally, at least in South India, the owner of the autorickshaw often is not very distant in social class from the driver).

    That brings me to the second and more substantive point I want to make here. The sign appears in the confines of an autorickshaw. It does not appear on let us say the back of a truck. It arises from a particular kind of transaction – the transaction between a passenger and the driver within the micro spatiality of that autorickshaw (and shapes that transaction). It is a place of temporary coming together of very different kinds of subject positions from the larger urban space. It hails – if you want to put it that way – the subject that is occupying the passenger seat. And colors a variety of exchanges – from the exchange of glances (the auto driver can see the passenger through the rear view mirror and chuckle to himself) to arguments over the payment of fare.

    When that picture travels on the web it leaves some of these material entrapments behind and takes on others. In a limited sense Nivedita is right that we are actually talking only about ourselves and our positionality. I say limited because really, what is our positionality in relation to all these shifting contexts and entanglements ? How do we fix it ? Or rather how should we fix it if at all ?

    Let me return to the material entrapment of the sign for a moment. If our reading of the sign is for trying to map the different ways in which patriarchy is produced in different localities then any further discussion on this should take into account how the sign becomes part of the mobile production of the autorickshaw itself. But we must actually take it a little further and ask towards what end do we want to map this ? To produce what kinds of complicitous or subversive or counter discourses ? And through what kinds of spaces do these narratives and artifacts that we produce will be traveling ?

    Postcolonial feminism teaches us that we can only produce partial knowledges, yet such partial knowledges can be mobilized and deployed strategically. In the discussion over the past few days – it has become apparent that these can and do circulate in such diverse locations as the kitchens and bedrooms of intercaste couples to elite office spaces and of course this cyberspace itself connects all of us English speaking big city dwellers. There is much more that has remains invisible or latent for now. Given that potential, the question to ask ourselves I think is how do we 1) go beyond the question of author’s intention 2) and be self reflexive about the complicitousness/subversiveness of our representational/narrative strategies.

    Let me end this with some explanation of where this is all coming from. The specifics do not matter, but this has to do with a peculiar crisis that I found myself in the midst of some years ago. A young brahmin woman junior lawyer, a widow, committed suicide -leaving a note accusing her senior who is a successful lawyer belonging to the OBCs of sexual harasment. Caste based power networks and exchange of sexual favors in the judicial process were quite prevalent in the particular court where they worked. (Amazing how common this really is).
    How should the women’s movement respond to this ? (Amazing again how this was immediately classified as a women’s issue). Not that the women’s movement is monolithic and yes it is intriguing how personal and collective dilemmas and histories of different constituents of the movement shape how they strategically choose their roles even while acting in solidarity.

    But what was interesting to me in this particular instance was that the main course of action or struggle became the sexual harassment at work places act. This piece of legislation useful as it could be as a pretext to produce empowering discourses in some contexts proved woefully unequal to the task in this context. The court premises where lawyers mill around and the dusty lawyers offices where two juniors and one part time typist work are not quite work places in the eye of the law.

    Complicating this further – was the fact that the man accused of harassment in the suicide note of a woman with a history of emotional insecurity happens to be an OBC. Taking a stance against him can easily be interpreted as casteism of upper caste elite women activists and this caused acute degree of ambivalence. (What if this whole story of harassment by an OBC was a figment of a neurotic Brahmin woman’s sexual anxieties?)

    And finally there was the issue of who would pursue the case ? her inlaws ? her parents ? who gets to speak for a dead woman to seek justice whether as punishment to the accused or as compensation ?

    As I reflect on this instance I am of course struck by the differences in the positions of the different constituents of the womens movement on this case. But more importantly, remembering it with regret in light of these discussions on the auto rickshaw makes me acutely aware of the need to craft acts and artifacts of critical knowledges that can be inserted into those concrete spaces where patriarchy is reproduced in complex forms.

    To put it simply, it makes me aware of the need to gear the interpretation of the autorickshaw sign towards enabling interventions where it matters.

  6. Ranju Radha permalink
    July 28, 2008 1:44 PM

    A quick response

    I dont think any one defending patriarchy among Dalit/subaltern here. Rather pointng out that as patriarchy operates in differing forms in different situations, caste also operate differently in differnt situations. Both inthe foto posts (Kafila and blank noise) the subject of the discussion seems to be Sublatern male gaze. It s quite easily available and comfortable for the “upper” caste women to take up. See how easily the foto of the alleged male gazer available for a discourse. This is the case with tribal/dalit women and the way elite women-led NGOs take up their issues. The same caste power structure is re-created by these discouses of elite wo/men on sublatern subjects. I think, this s what nameless argued.
    Why is it that the sublatern men become the sole locus point to discuss patriarchy? What is the politics behind that? Is it the caste feminist gaze?
    As you all are aware these discourse are not just an isolated case. Anandi’s article in EPW on Dalit assertion and the apt reply to the casteist tones of that piece by Dr. Laxman of MIDS is a classic example, where the sublatern has shown to the “elite” feminists that they can not only speak, but also theorise. This is what perhaps indigestable for many.
    and on the question of sexual harassment in work places, the feminists have yet to wake up to or fight for Dalit women who are sexually harassed/raped in private and public realms. when will our critical thinkng become receptable to the discourese of Dalit/subaltern wo/men as well?
    best

  7. Ranju Radha permalink
    July 28, 2008 2:02 PM

    read it as>>

    when will our critical thinkng become receptive to the discourese of Dalit/subaltern wo/men as well?

  8. rameshwar permalink
    July 28, 2008 2:17 PM

    hi nivedita, what is ‘positionality’? how is it different from ‘position’ or ‘location’? Am asking as I have heard people talk of ‘intentionality’, or ‘relationality’ and even ‘relationalities’ and never understood what they meant, and how that’s is different from non-’ality’ version of the same word. Would be grateful for some clarity.

  9. nameless permalink
    July 28, 2008 7:57 PM

    Dear Nivedita Menon,

    Thanks for the in-depth engagement. It is really fortunate that we can agree on at least a certain things before going forward and thrashing out our differences. The post on ‘moral police in our autos’, was the first post i read in this blog. I had reached here through some forward quite accidentally. So i have no idea about the history of the blog, etc. But the minute i see this blog with its non-english name and the auto as its icon, i see once again the strange and un-easy relationship of the Indian intellectual elite with subaltern cultural practices and the subaltern subject. As it is a very complex issue, i am not going into this, the only point i want to make is this: – The choice of the auto as your icon – as a symbol against the glitzy private car city can also be problematized in various ways. The smooth light-heartedness and the progressiveness that you perceive when choosing it does not automatically strike a person like me, for whom the auto is connected to a very difficult and tough livelihood choice.

    Actually i am talking about this from a very intuitive level, in terms of the feelings that strike me in the first instance – I now know that these feelings have their roots in my own political location, which is different from yours. However, I am not going into the Auto as icon of an English academic blog at this point. Instead i will talk about your response to my response in this blog.

    You say that you were starting to be self critical and “thinking about your own status as elite and as elite women, the way we respond to the ”auto-driver” and to working class men in general, to how the city treats “outsiders”, etc.” – You also point to other subjects where you have been self critical – as in the middle class treatment of “servants”, etc. You also ask me whether you should stop talking about the subaltern and end up being accused of speaking about your own elite selves. And you also poignantly point to the way you are trying to engage with all these complexities.

    However, in spite of all this – and this is what i was pointing to – you still ended up speaking about the subaltern subject in terms of :
    1. So in the auto driver you see less patriarchy /more patriarchal > to be celebrated as a gesture of quite subversion (Menon) or to be condemned as terribly patriarchal (Bhattacharjee); the usual everlasting way in which the subaltern “other” has always been studied.
    2. You reduced the entire gender game to two positions, with two players only – the subaltern man and/the elite woman > This is what Black feminist thought describes with the famous statement – All Men Are Black, All Women are White
    3. You saw sexual desire in terms of the desiring subaltern male subject and / the un-desiring elite female subject > If you can talk from a position where the auto driver is always/already undesirable (but you feel he is encroaching on you with his desire for you ) – does it not reveal your caste position, which is taken to be a normal position – the elite woman has no desire for the auto driver, it is him who is crazy after her (just as in the Amitabh Ad Cynthia pointed to). I was protesting against the very normal, commonsensical way in which you speak of all these issues, leaving out all “other” desires, readers, subject positions, etc etc. And I think the elite engagement with the subaltern “other” often reproduces these power structures systematically. I can point to other examples from this blog itself , where you handle the subaltern in terms of “smirking, whispering, patronizing, cozening.. trying to get down to their level and trying to put them at ease” (Franz Fanon, Black Skin,White masks). This is a very important aspect of the Indian intellectual tradition itself, and I think we cannot sit back in the complacency of “we are sensitive, we are deeply aware.”

    This was what I was talking against – starting from a very intuitive feeling of anger and disgust, but overcoming it and gaining strength by talking about things as theoretical as possible, without appearing to be dismissive in any way and seriously engaging with your political position. Maybe I was not successful or maybe you are not being fair in reducing my attempt as a dismissive one, where I am portrayed as dictating terms to the elite thinker.

    Actually the minute I start speaking, I think you are already seeing a dismissal of your politics in my position. I think this must also be due to the historical way in which gender questions have been cut down with the use of caste by men. However, my position is not that and I thought my posts would make that clear.

    Actually my objection is not talking about patriarchy among subaltern men, as I have said earlier too, a feminist like me cannot afford to do this. I was objecting to the various ways in which you were going on with the debate.

    My primary question was this - “Is it not casteism which makes you see more or less patriarchy in a subaltern subject.”
    However, when you reword it, you write it as  “Nameless holds that “casteism makes you see patriarchy in lower caste/class groups”
    By leaving out the words “more or less” from my sentence, you are also leaving out my urgent point about the lack/excess (more/less) that I see in your own reading. By doing this you reduce me to someone who has no stake in the gender debate. I can understand the reasons that push an elite feminist to jump to this conclusion, however, I hope it will change.

    Thanks a lot for the serious engagement and hope to have more debates.

    regards

  10. anant permalink
    July 28, 2008 8:48 PM

    >and on the question of sexual harassment in >work places, the feminists have yet to wake up
    >to or fight for Dalit women who are sexually >harassed/raped in private and public realms. >when will our critical thinkng become receptable >to the discourese of Dalit/subaltern wo/men as >well

    Dear Ranju,
    I am glad you bring this up. This was in fact the decisive factor in the course that the case I mentioned took. It was nine years ago. I did not mention it, as I did not mention many other issues simply because in a discursive terrain, where caste and gender appear to be as indelible as birth marks there are definite limits on what one is permitted to say. My limits are set by something like – brahmin sounding name, middle class sounding access to internet and male sounding English. Or some such combination.

    The narrow legalist institutionalist approach that finally appeared to be the only course to take was a direct consequence of this challenge:
    >when will our critical thinkng become receptable >to the discourese of Dalit/subaltern wo/men as >well

    Since nobody knew how to answer that rhetorical question, practical options were very limited and the discourse that prevaield was that this was a brahmin female’s assault on a successful lower caste male. Since this left almost everyone feeling uncomfortable, the most infrcutuous course of action – legal reform and rule making was taken up to assuage.

    I take your point. But I am uneasy about taking these identities as given a priori. We make them through and out of how we act. I have serious ethical and political objections to the blank noise photo as well to a discussion of the auto rickshaw driver’s sexuality as if we can know zilch about it. These are dangerous indulgences and you are right – such indulgences come easily to some than to others.

    But I dont know how and why we are all convinced that the man in the blanknoise picture was subaltern, lower caste, non Hindu, non English speaking to start with. In fact that picture caught my eye because it resembled someone I know very closely – the son of a powerful landowning dominant caste family, with a graduate degree to boot. This is equally true of the dalitness of autodrivers. Seriously, I dont know what the caste composition of autodrivers in Delhi is. But I can tell you confidently that the majority of autodrivers in Hyderabad come from powerful castes. Not brahmins but most certainly not dalits. Dalits are more likely to pull rickshaws! This doesnt lessen the problem with discussing the autodrivers sexuality. It is just that subalternity comes out of what we believe we can get away with and actually do manage to get away with.

  11. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    July 29, 2008 10:26 AM

    Heads I win; tails you lose. Huh?

  12. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    July 29, 2008 11:33 AM

    1. Anant in his first long response to this post, has raised a question that in my opinion, goes to the heart of the debate:
    “If it is impossible to determine the intention of the author – whether it is the owner or the driver or even the sign painter or the painter’s chums – why do we attempt to delineate so many different interpretations ? Towards what political ends ?”
    The question ultimately is of course, what is at stake when we theorise our present or past, our “own” practices or those of the “other”. In the case of kafila (if I may momentarily speak for all of us), but certainly for myself, our intention is to intervene, and to participate in transformatory practices, at whatever level, and without any inflated sense of our own effectivity. In this context I would read Marx’s Thesis XI on Feuerbach (“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however, is to change it”), as urging a changing of the world in and through the act of interpretation and re-interpretation, where “interpretation” is not an act conducted purely at the level of “thinking inside the head”. In Marx’s idea of interpretation in Thesis XI, read in the light of the previous ten theses, there is a crucial interventionist, material dimension to “interpretation”, and a dialectical relationship between “interpretation” and “the world”.
    (And to forestall an obvious rejoinder – many of us in kafila are also “activist” in the simple sense of the term, apart from writing on kafila).
    Anyway, to take Anant’s point forward, if our intention is to transform social practices, then it has been a significant feminist move in the past decade or so at least, to recognize that the reality of “sexual harassment” does not lie necessarily inside the act itself, but its offensiveness is produced by the cultural context that gives it meaning. The “male gaze” for instance, is pretty much a discredited idea now, because the assumption that the gaze is necessarily only male implies the passivity of the reader/listener/viewer. Hence, in the context of this discussion, the need to formulate policies on sexual harassment that are location-specific (what constitutes sexual harassment in the classroom is not the same as in an employment situation, is not the same as in a bus, as inside the family. All stares are not sexually harassing, some may arise from cultural incomprehension, etc.) This is why I am full of trepidation at the proposed sexual harassment law that will necessarily over-ride the nuanced policies that some of our universities have set up.
    What we do when we point to the multiplicity of meanings and their possible receptions, is draw the boundaries of the political differently. We open up the possibility of intervention not from a position of unchangeable clarity, but more tentatively, feeling our way step-by-step so that we can respond to (for example) sexual harassment from a set of positions that go beyond merely our gendered identities, but address class and caste and race, etc.

    2. Rameshwar, this might be a relevant place to respond to your query – I’m not entirely sure you are not being sarcastic, but what the hell, I’ll take the chance! – by using ‘positionality’ rather than ‘position’, I was trying to go beyond the actual position a person may be seen to occupy (female, upper-caste, upper-class, Hindu etc), which also has a fixed character to it, and gesture rather, towards the implications of these identities, how they are produced, their contextually produced meanings, what they may mean in terms of access/non-access to power and to valued cultural attributes etc. ‘Positionality’ thus, I think, produces a sense of continuity, context, movement, intersecting identities and so on, in a way that ‘position’ does not.

    3.Ranju Radha, do we really disagree so much? I have read the debate between Anandhi and Lakshmanan, and what struck me then too, was the growing closure of possible dialogue between “feminists” and “Dalitbahujan activists” as if the two can never be the same, as if the concerns of the two can never be the same. Would your response be different if a Dalit woman speaks of sexual harassment within the community? Is that the problem, that feminists like Anandhi and me should only speak of sexual harassment by “our own” men? Is it really true that feminists have not woken up to the fact that dalit women are sexually harassed and raped? (I dont think so) Is it actually totally impossible to speak of sexual harassment and violence without closing caste and community ranks? There are feminists and feminists, just as there are disagreements among Dalit intellectuals on globalization and its impact, for instance, or for that matter on feminism. So there are casteist feminists of course, just as there are sexist Dalits, but the constant conflation in many such discussions, of “elite women-led NGOs” with “feminism” does a disservice to the possibility of dialogue with the disparate and multivocal politics of feminism.

    4. Nameless, you say, “Actually the minute I start speaking, I think you are already seeing a dismissal of your politics in my position”.
    Forgive me, but you give me every reason to do so. For instance, you begin this time with statements like “But the minute i see this blog with its non-english name and the auto as its icon, i see once again the strange and un-easy relationship of the Indian intellectual elite with subaltern cultural practices and the subaltern subject…The smooth light-heartedness and the progressiveness that you perceive when choosing it does not automatically strike a person like me, for whom the auto is connected to a very difficult and tough livelihood choice.”
    What can you possibly mean? Apparently when I say the auto represents a challenge to the idea of a city from which the poor have been purged, you do not see in that an acknowledgment that the auto is a “tough livelihood choice.” When I acknowledge our elite positioning, you do not see that we ourselves recognize that we have “an uneasy relationship to subaltern cultural practices”. You make a great deal of my unintentional dropping of a few words from a phrase you used and see it as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent you; you take one look at the banner and the name of our blog and you make certain assumptions that override my every attempt at engaging with you. Your mind is made up, our politics can only ever be tainted by our socio-cultural-economic location.
    That belief is your prerogative, and a perfectly valid political stance, I admit, and I respect it. But what it does mean is that there is no point in further engagement, whatever I say will only be ever read by you in the light of your pre-formed dismissal of my politics.

  13. anant permalink
    July 29, 2008 1:05 PM

    Nivedita,

    I am sticking my neck out because I am sensing that I have higher stakes in this debate than what I had anticipated. Chop it if you must. !

    I share your intention, I shared Nameless’s flash of anger and I want us to move beyond the sense of despair, finality that Ranju’s last sentence signaled – at least for me.

    All of us, all of us, including Nameless and Ranju and you and me – who have to move through all kinds of places through our everyday lives carry with us unreflected upon norms of gender, patriarchy, professional and corporate cultures. It is that unreflected upon stuff – call it habitus, call it performativity, it is that stuff that we must seize every opportunity to interrogate – to create new ways of seeing, speaking, writing and acting.

    To think that Nameless sees your “unintentional dropping of a few words from a phrase [she] used as a DELIBERATE attempt to misrepresent her ” is to miss that opportunity. It is precisely because it is unintentional that it becomes an issue here.

    That those few words (actually just two) words which were the most significant for her meaning did not ring a bell for many of us, not that you deliberately ignored them, but really that they did not ring a bell — they did not alert us to a ‘completely different meaning’ — that is what she is making a great deal out of.

    How to valuate that new meaning, and whether or not a failure to recognize it instantly is evidence of the incommensurability of two class caste gender positionings — there is no preformulated answer to that. It can only be a shared project or nothing at all. And if it is a shared project, we will come up with the tools to make them commensurable.

    I dont know what I can say – bell hooks on speaking from the radical margin ? chandra under western eyes ? richa on playing with fire…there are gaps and problems everywhere but we can and must find the clues.

    P.S. speaking of heads and choppings, (aditya’s one liner is making me see heads everywhere)
    does anyone else remember the last lines of Manmohan Singh’s first budget speech in 1991 ?

    Sar faroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil me hai
    Dekhna hai zor kitna bazoo a qatil me hai!!

    That he successfully invoked a revolutionary tribute to Bhagat Singh to present an IMF dictated budget should have alerted us to where he was heading.

  14. Ranju Radha permalink
    July 29, 2008 1:35 PM

    >>Is it actually totally impossible to speak of >>sexual harassment and violence without >>closing caste and community ranks?

    I dont understand why u r keen on closing down the aspect of caste/community? Do u think women are above caste/community?
    I think this is the dilemma of “upper” caste feminist (not all perhaps) that s reflectd even in the issue of women’s reservation.
    Sexism/casteism has to be fought with, but not forgetting the larger context and certainly not masking one aspect or other. Just as gender aspcet cannot be ignored by Dalit movement, caste/community aspect should be taken into account by the feminist movement.
    None should deny each other the scope of a dialogue.

  15. nameless permalink
    July 29, 2008 2:53 PM

    dear nivedita menon,

    I take one look at the banner and make certain conclusions because this is my usual experience – walk into a ford funded NGO and you see a massive picture of a tribal woman in her “traditional dress”. Enter a feminist organization populated by upper caste women and you see posters showing you faces of women who never visit that organization. This is so common. This explains the prejudice when i enter this blue page and see that a set of very elite academic thinkers are choosing the auto as their symbol.
    However, i am talking in spite and against that prejudice (and the feelings that it evokes), instead of being stuck in it.
    But you are not ready to concede that. Not only do you have no prejudices, but you cannot also accept the fact that i am working against mine.

    and i surely cannot agree with your argument about the auto as your icon.

    i don’t think you are using the auto as a symbol of tough living in a dreadful city. in your english academic blog, the auto becomes an exotic symbol. let me explain:

    this is how you describe the auto :
    small, cheeky, full of “attitude”, winding nimbly through the mass of traffic, a resistant challenge to the idea of a shiny, “world-city-like-paris-and-singapore” that our various governments want to turn all our cities into, by neatly removing the poor, the workers, the slums etc.

    cheeky? full of attitude? resistant? challenge to the idea of a shiny city?????

    i am not saying you can’t describe the auto like this. but this description is from your perspective, not the auto drivers.

    because, the families of drivers, live under the constant fear that their earning member might be killed any day on the streets. every auto driver has a history of more than five to six accidents on the road in their career, with immense consequences. these are some very dramatic facts, there are many more like – people dropping out of driving because they are unable to pay their debts. the exploitation by owners, the inability to really make it big by driving an auto, the day to day reality of a hand to mouth survival, the pressures of the city, etc etc… i don’t think such a situation can be well described with the adjectives you used.

    so it is not the auto and the politics that surround it that you are talking about here. you are talking about the auto from your own perspective, and sadly you tend to romanticize a particular subaltern cultural text, livelihood, subject position, whatever. This romantization is of no use to the subaltern subject, but it works to embellish your identity and politics in various ways.

    2. the question you posed to ranju radha : the problem, that feminists like Anandhi and me should only speak of sexual harassment by “our own” men?

    a quick answer: YES because as upper caste women you cannot speak about a subaltern men without caste prejudices intervening. it is there even when you say you are being self-critical, making fun of yourself, etc etc. i have spent a lot of time and energy trying to prove that, so don’t want to repeat it.
    this is the same case with Anandi’s analysis also (as ranju radha has pointed out). i would not stand by Lakshman, because for him feminism is not an issue, however, what he is pointing to is entirely TRUE.
    dalit bahujan feminists has to take it forward.

    actually the need to point out to all this is NOT TO DISMISS FEMINISM but to dismantle its caste blindness. so though i am prejudiced, according to you, what me and some others are saying here will actually work towards the very transformation that you are aiming at.

    regards

    ps:
    anant: as far as i have heard, the rickshaw is almost extinct in hyderabad and it is the obc and minority men who drive auto rickshaws there. there might be some lower class reddys etc. but they are a minority among auto drivers.

    jasmin: i have often noticed that many urban women are highly desensitized to the urban male gaze, which does not stand out and disturb them. similarly they are hyper sensitive to the gaze of the subaltern man, with whom they are already placed in a position of power and against whom they are highly prejudiced.

  16. Manash Bhattacharjee permalink
    July 29, 2008 4:18 PM

    I wonder how the scene would have been if everyone involved in this debate was physically present – probably over a drink!!

  17. July 29, 2008 4:29 PM

    This thread is temporarily being closed.

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