M.N. Panini, “Social Justice and Women’s Rights: A Sociological Perspective”


Equality is the equality of all but social justice is proportional. Taking the example of laddoos, equality would mean that each person would get an equal share. Social justice looks at proportions. If the proportion of women is 10%, they will get 10% of the laddoos. Diabetics would not get laddoos because it is harmful to them. Social justice invokes particular principles in order to examine the proportion present.

Kanshi Ram says that the Dalits are the oppressed. He included the tribals, the SCs, STs and other minorities in this category. The Dalits along with the Bahujans (the OBC category) formed the majority. His idea of social justice is that the majority would have to grab power and rule resulting in the ‘upper castes’ becoming the minorities. He believed that it was below the dignity of the Dalits to ask for reservation; they should grab it.


Kancha Illiah follows Kanshi Ram but considers the reservation policy as an empowerment through reservation that leads to social justice. However, in practice there is a clash of interests. If we look into Mandalisation, social justice proponents argue that the SC category should also include those who belong to the Christian faith. Christian Dalits have not been given reservations benefits on par with the SCs because of vested interests. The non-Christian SCs fear that Dalit Christians would corner all the benefits if SC reservations are extended to them. A new development in reservation politics, is that of sub-castes that are claiming special quotas within the SC quota, for example the claim of the Madigas in Andhra Pradesh. The Malas that are connected to agriculture suffer less from pollution and other evils and they were able to become upwardly mobile. The Madigas feel deprived because the Malas, who suffer less from pollution evils are able to get corner benefits of reservations at their expense. This is why they demand a special SC quota for them with the existing reservation category.

Another example for the working of social justice is the debate between the Meenas and the Gujjars. The Meenas have been considered as a ST and they have a list of successful IAS candidates qualifying from this community. The Meenas have been able to make progress because of the ST status and so the Gujjars want to be re-classified as a ST, apart from the Meenas.


The Government’s new approach to social justice is through the principle of diversity, which resembles affirmative action of the USA. Public institutions, according to this principle should reflect the diversity in terms of caste, religion, sex etc. But some are insisting that diversity is not enough. We need to go further and demand further reservations in the private sector. This has already been done in private educational institutions where they must reflect diversity in the admission of students.

How do women’s rights impinge on the idea of social justice?

While examining this question, the JDU president Sharad Yadav said that this only benefitted par kati, a term that refers pejoratively to cut hair women of elite classes. It is regarded as a move by elite females to get power for themselves, a move that would not benefit women of the backward classes at all. Taking the Delhi rape case as an example, the rape of an upper class women causes so much media coverage but what happened in the Khairalanji (in Madhya Pradesh) episode of a dalit family subjected to rape and murder? Mulayamsingh Yadav has an intense fear that the position of men will be undermined. He also projected himself as the protector of masculinity. Mulayamsingh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav vetoed the Bill which has been stuck in the parliament for 17 years. The other parties yielded to their bullying according to their own hidden agendas. They could not openly oppose the bill and so they did not fight the Yadavs.


The growing disenchantment with globalization and modernization is also undermining women’s reservations. The Yadavs, Jats and other dominant castes think that western ideals are loosening the traditional beliefs of society in favour of western ideals. The Jats wanted the Parliament to pass an amendment to the Constitution to ban inter-gotra marriages. The Jats consider marrying within the gotra (or clan) to be incestuous, like brother-sister marriage. They also want to prohibit young women from carrying cell phones because the chances of them falling in love with men of the same gotra, and men from other castes would be higher.

Women are not a caste or community like other religious minorities or castes. The trend of Indian politics has stressed social justice as justice for religious communities and castes. Egalitarianism in India has been about bringing forth equality between communities. In order to promote social justice, Ambedkar said that to make the unequals equal, we would need caste/community reservations. There are different kinds of interpretations of Ambedkar’s thought, but I look at it more as a community-based egalitarianism. These are categories that appear to be concrete entities but actually serve the interests of its dominant leaders in the name of cultural rights.


The late Asghar Ali Engineer fought the imams of Bohra community because they insisted that only the marriages sanctioned by them are legitimate. They banned women from participating in inter-religious marriages. Upendra Baxi defended the Bohra imams because the population of the Bohra community was depleting and to preserve the Bohra culture it is necessary to impose the ban, even if the freedom of Bohra women is compromised in the process. Kanch Illiah rightly argues that women of the upper castes are untouchables in their own homes. They are made to do menial tasks and are also oppressed. But if you look at the condition of Dalit and OBC women, in the present conjecture, they face a peculiar problem. They face caste discrimination from the upper castes and along with it they suffer from a different sort of oppression from within their caste. They have the freedom to go out and work, but this frees their husbands and sons from the responsibility to their families. This means the dalit women become principal earners of the family and have to take whatever job that comes, even if it offers very low wages. Should these women have to join their men folk in the fight against the caste system? Or should they struggle for equal rights within their caste first? Invariably, what occurs is that these women join the larger issue of caste oppression and give support to the menfolk. Consequently they end up promoting patriarchy within their own caste.

For example, in the Bijapur district of Karnataka, the men were agitating against nude worship. They said that nude worship is bad because it denigrates dalit women. They said that their women are also ‘respectable’ just as women of upper castes. Other castes also supported this movement and questioned the practice of nude procession of the Yellamma cult. These ideas of the Dalits coincide with the patriarchal ideas and interests of the non-Dalit castes as well. Dalit women, in order to fight caste oppression, have to accept patriarchy within their own caste.


For dalit women, the history of struggles for equality of the upper caste women is no guide. Now, upper caste women have gained a certain amount of independence from patriarchy and they talk about glass ceilings in employment; they are staking their claims to equality with women in regard to job opportunities and positions. The dalit women have to fight the patriarchy from within and also patriarchy in the wider society. What is happening is that now, cultural sensitivities have been sharpened through modern media, Dalit women do not have the capabilities to escape patriarchy like the elite women. The horrors of Muzzafarpur, Mangalore and Kerala show that communalism is so much on the rise that OBC women do not have the opportunities to fight against patriarchy like their elite sisters.

How do we move from social justice to the idea of equality? On the one hand, fundamentalism is on the rise, leading to fusion of caste and community identities, but at the same time there is fissioning of identities as in the context of Mala and Madiga conflict. Community and caste identities are becoming fluid. Moreover, when a community or a caste is struggling against equality, it adopts a language of change and a progressive language used to fight the oppressors. But this language subtly changes when the fight is yielding results. The language of caste/community identity now becomes elitist and this brings about ideas that prescribe codes of respectability on women, because women now become the symbols of their newfound community honour.


There was an ‘I’m a Slut’ movement in Delhi. They asked why women should cater to patriarchal notions of respectability. They wore provocative clothing and protested. In Russia, the ‘Pussy Riot’ movement propagated women’s rights this way. Is it alright to fight the caste/community mentalities, by attacking the very notion of sexuality? According to these movements that call for sexual liberation, unless this is done, women will still be immersed in patriarchal language and conversation. The question that needs to be asked is: does equality of women mean sexual equality? Another approach to women’s equality is Gandhi’s. Gandhi regarded widows as his role models because of the sacrifices they made for the sake of society. He wanted to be a widow. This meant that the sexuality of women was suppressed. Is it right for Gandhi to promote Brahmacharya among women as another alternative?



Meera: There are two layers in women’s rights. One of them is the body. What we increasingly find is that women are finding these themes to come together. Once the issue is solved by these movements, women realize that they are united by their bodies. Culture defines the body instead of shaping the mind.

Prof. Panini: I am not that much into feminist writings also because feminism has sprouted in new directions, with which I could not catch up. But if you are talking about women coming together for an ideology, is an ideological fuel available? Feminists find that oppressions of women from different castes/communities are different. Moreover, if you move from women’s rights to gender rights, that is, rights of gays and lesbians, which have been recognised by courts in India, the problem becomes complex… But I do not think our traditions would tolerate that. You have trouble in terms of bodies. When women come to the forefront of social discourse, their bodies become symbols of community values and traditions. They become the preservers. They do not escape patriarchy. Are women as individuals the same as men as individuals? Can you regard women in a gender-neutral way? Or are they different kind of individuals? For me, women are treated more as persons as defined socially. The idea of equality props up again when we talk about culturally different individuals.


Question: The Western women’s rights movements depicted sexual rights and rights of the body in a particular way. Dalit women are also trying to do the same where the individual body of the woman is examined. Typically, the way the elite movement has emerged, it never supports the idea of justice for everyone. It is very anti poor and marginalised. It is maybe because the movement emerged in urban areas that dalit women have not been able to catch up.

Prof. Panini: Dumont says that the East is a hierarchical society where we are all encompassed in the hierarchical system. Women’s struggles as individuals in the West take on a different trajectory as compared to women here. They have to fight at two levels here: against their caste and outside their caste. In the West, women are treated as individual citizens. When the Constitution talks about women, it considers them as constituting ‘the weaker sections of society’, including children. The government of India used to have a department of social welfare that took care of women’s associations and organisations. This shows how women’s rights were subordinated. Their main concern was regarding the welfare of women as good wives and mothers. This has changed subsequently.


I’m going to make a wide generalisation and say that most movements come from urban areas. Most of the impulses to change in history have been from urban areas. Ideologies also change and the language itself shifts from the language of protest to the language of the elite.The Dravida Khazagham movement, earlier had anti-north, anti-caste, and pro-Tamil ideologies. What does DMK stand for now? Its goals shift from opposing institutions to maintaining them. Movements are ideas in motion and ideas are fluid, posing problems to theoreticians. How can you say that women’s movements should be only like this or that? Can we say that ‘Pussy Riot’ is a challenge to patriarchy as such? Come to think of it, let us imagine a world where women have sexual liberation. What kind of society would that be? If women attain sexual liberation, are we creating an egalitarian society where there is no rape or discrimination? What would happen to religious groups and communities?

Gayathri: Your question regarding Brahmacharya, where self-denial is another form of repression itself, is problematic. Can that be an alternative to patriarchy because that is a part of patriarchy itself?


Prof. Panini: Brahmacharya applies also equally to men, and not only to women. One of my eldest uncles was an English teacher in Mysore University and one of his gurus, who was very skilled in Ayurvedic practices as well as in Hindustani classical music, preached Brahmacharya. My uncle also decided to follow his practice of Brahmacharya. Anand Mat, Bankir Chandra’s novel, depicts Brahmacharya being an essential part of the freedom movement as it is a transcending of bodies and carnal desires. When we talk about sexuality, why not talk about this aspect as well?

Sharvari: Your presentation makes it seem like the entire locus of the problem is sexuality. Brahmacharya does not result in bringing about equality. Women’s equality has been argued as being based on larger features, like the lack of physical strength.

Prof. Panini: I refer you to Akkamahadevi who decided to be nude and she was protesting against society. Ramanujam’s translations depict Akkamahadevi as a wonderfully talented poet even as she fought for social justice through her nudity. This could be one of the alternatives. How does the woman assert her status in a society of men?

Asim: I feel that the language of rights and reservations appeals to our paternalism in some sense. Can we imagine equality without this fix of paternalistic language? This language itself is a problem that is appealing to upper class men who are large hearted and would give these rights to the lower classes. Prof. Panini: Kanshi Ram says that you should organise yourself and grab power. He did not believe that you need to ask for it. You need reservation to do this.

Asim: But we still need reservation to grab power. Is there another imagination?

Prof. Panini: I don’t know.

Sreenivasan: Maybe the only way is legal. As a society gets more westernised, women get more westernised too. Therefore, maybe the only solution would be legal.

Prof. Panini: But does the law itself make women equal?

Sundar: I am very interested in castes and communities but we have not talked about families. If there is a principle where there is one against others, it is in family. With my family members, I am not able to maintain the disinterestedness that is important when it comes to bringing about equality.

Prof. Panini: Family is THE institution that promotes inequality. Everyone wants reforms in castes but not the family. Only now, the feminists are asking questions about family.


Nikhil: The question of discrimination is not an empirical argument that examines the facts but more of an ontological argument. There is no exit to this emancipatory rhetoric; when can we say we have moved out of this? How do you come out with the theory of discrimination? You cannot make an ontological claim regarding discrimination.

Prof. Panini: From what I gather, wherever there is difference, there is inequality.

Nikhil: Difference does not in a necessary way connote inequality.


Prof. Panini: But difference sociologically leads to deference. Some differences become more socially prominent deference. This is the problem with equality. It is created by society. I have not exhausted the various ramifications of the idea. The sociologist Pogge says that the lifespan of the lower classes are not as much as the upper classes. This means that you are denying them the right to live. Dalits do not enjoy the same rights to live as the upper castes do. My radical dalit friend once said that they can have 100% reservation: because the Brahmins had reservation for the past 5000 years, they could now have reservation for the next 5000 years.



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