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Caste and Gender: Hindrances in Achieving Citizenship

Author: Aditya Shah

BA (Law, Politics & Society), Ambedkar University, Delhi


Citizenship is a relation between the state and all its citizens. The citizens are rendered certain rights, as specified by British sociologist T.H. Marshall, ‘civil, political and social’ rights, thus, a full and equal membership in a political community. But the terms ‘full’ and ‘equal’ are relevant in India only on theoretical basis as even today there is the existence of a caste and gender bias which makes ‘achieving citizenship’ an elusive idea. There certainly are special protection laws in the constitution of the nation, but even after 71 years of its adoption its pragmatic presence is not as vivid as it was imagined.

Caste as a stigma is present in the Indian society through several religions and throughout the nation, like a termite it eats away the unity of the citizens. It creates a sense of difference in the minds of the people and divides them because of which the people from subjugated castes (Dalits) are deprived of their basic right of dignity as a human. A further distinction is made to women, especially if they are dalit. There are several instances which show that how that dalit men and women have been mistreated over the years by people from the upper castes and the fundamental elements of citizenship are not rendered to them. The aim of this write-up is to bring forth these acts of atrocities through articles, books, documentaries and daily newspapers and exhibit the relation between one’s caste and gender and one’s achievement of true citizenship.


The Stigma of Being a Dalit

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was one of the first Dalits to speak up for the dalits in the constituent assembly and brought in light the illogical reasoning behind these acts. Through his critically acclaimed undelivered speech the ‘Annihilation of caste’, he presented the atrocities faced by the dalits as ‘untouchables’ and through his efforts he made equality a necessity for equal citizenship. Through his writing ‘Waiting for a Visa’ he brings forth his own experiences as a dalit which explores the exclusion they face just because of their caste; “I learnt that a Hindu tongawalla, no better than a menial, has a dignity by which he can look upon himself as a person who is superior to all untouchables even though he maybe a Barrister-at-law”.But citizenship, is about inclusion

and not about exclusion and because of certain man-made societal differences, they are left out and become second class citizens.

In the Indian constitution, there are provisions which safeguard the rights of the unprivileged such as Article 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) as well as through Article 17 (Abolition of untouchability) as fundamental rights. But despite this, Dalit men and women are often treated as an outcaste and this leads them to become victims of an identity crisis. The basic elements of citizenship, such as Rights, duties, membership and participation are not fully granted. In the words of Anupama Roy the citizens are treated on a ‘masking and marking’ basis and the dalit men and women are marked for life. This paradox of inequality is inherent in citizenship. Broadly there are two types of markers- Below Poverty Line (BPL) or Religion or caste based, by making them visible and legible to the state, this strategy furthers the goal of inclusion and lends substance to their notionally equal civic status, on the other hand, it also stigmatizes them as well as the welfare services to which they are entitled. This raises a profound question that to what extent the constitutional provisions and related institutions has articulated citizenship claims in the public sphere? If inquired at a practical level, there are several stories of forgotten lives which make it evident that dalits are not given the recognition they deserve.

At the Political level

The public sphere of citizenship in India is certainly subsided. Political participation, an important way of exercising one’s citizenship, is not at an equal level as the dalits do not have the social and cultural capital. Moreover, lack of support and knowledge often gives them a sense of inferiority and they develop a low self-esteem. As explained by Gopal Guru in his work ‘Citizenship in exile: a dalit case (2005)’, it is believed that the dalit only join politics as a rescue from their obscure conditions and a huge bungalow and a car with a red light on top is satisfactory and enough for them. Thus, they are always under the shadow of judgement by the upper caste. Moreover, if the polling booths are in the upper caste areas then they are not even allowed to enter and they lose their voting right as well, which is the basic form of participating as a citizen. Similar examples could be found in the documentary ‘India untouched’ by Stalin K. Through his documentary to remote places in India it has been exhibited that the political positions are mainly occupied by people from upper caste, who once coming into power rarely work for the upliftment of the lower castes. There is no feeling of brotherhood thus, no membership as a part of the social community. Even the political parties only use the Dalit reformation idea as an appeasement policy and most of the time get into arguments and no proper solution is achieved, like what happened in Madhya Pradesh when a dalit man was set on fire and the political parties kept accusing each other of negligence (24th Jan. 2020, The Indian Express). It should be realized that in such matters, parties should come together and act as a galvanizer for the fight for justice.


At the Social level

The stigma related to caste is in every region and every religion of India. Several instances through several resources prove that the dalit are deprived of the basic right to a dignified life. The stigma of being an ‘Untouchable’ is also associated with them. Many political leaders such as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi have shown their agitation against it but it has still survived to the 21st century. It has been present in the Indian society for centuries. At the time of the Peshwas in the Maratha country, the untouchable was not allowed to use the public streets if an upper caste Hindu was coming along, lest he should pollute the Hindu by his shadow, and was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or neck to separate him from the crowd. Ambedkar said that “ Every Congressman who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class”. The work associated with the untouchables are the most demeaning out of which the most demeaning is the work of manual scavenging. Although the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act,1993 declared the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines an offence, still it is a practice in rural India. Harsh Mander in his book ‘Unheard Voices’ brings forth a heart-stirring story of woman from Andhra Pradesh who is one of the estimated one million workers involved in manual scavenging. Through this story he explores the life of such people who deal with the night soil as a part of their profession and often depend on intoxicants such as tobacco and country liquor to deal with this harsh reality which further shortens their life.These caste based professions can become life threatening as well, like what happened in the Una Flogging Incident in 2016. In July 2016, in Una town of Gujarat, four young Dalit men were stripped, paraded on the streets, and beaten up by a group of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) for skinning a dead cow. A video of the victims, some of them tied to a car, being attacked with iron rods and sticks was widely circulated on social media. Several other violent incidents can be seen in daily newspapers like, when two Dalits were tortured in Rajasthan on the suspicion of stealing cash. Several men beat them up and even inserted screwdriver into the private parts of one of them (21st Feb., 2020, The Hindu) (pic.) and in another case, a dalit biryani vendor was assaulted in Greater Noida for selling biryani in a particular area (16 Dec., 2019, The Hindu).



Thus, the dalit have always been oppressed with shame and sometimes with violence under the pretext of their subjugated position and often due to their caste based profession. This excludes them from the ‘sense of belonging’ to their country and countrymen and without ‘equality and integration’, true citizenship cannot be achieved.

Gendered Citizenship in India

A particular section of our Indian society is often ignored when it comes to attaining citizenship. It is the ‘women’ of our society who are deprived of certain basic means of participating in the society, if not at a constitutional level, but certainly at a social level. In this particular domain, there is immediate need for a sense of self identification and political participation. There are provisions which guarantee the formal membership of women but the substantive membership seems to be lacking till today.

Historically, citizenship was a privilege to those who took part in civil activities and women were not a part of those activities and thus, were left as Second Citizens. In the distinction of citizenship as ‘active’ and ‘passive’, the women can be said to be in the latter part as a number of women are not able to participate in the public and private sphere and without adequate means of participation, citizenship cannot be achieved. It has been argued that Citizenship is gender blind as modern societies are steeped in patriarchal traditions, which promote male domination and privileges. It is true that the Constitution entails several provisions which safeguards their rights such as Article 15 (1) states that the state promises equality irrespective of the citizen’s religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them and Article 16 (2) states no citizen shall be devoid of an employment opportunity on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them but still women do not work in the public sphere in the same proportion as men. Article 23 prohibits traffic in human beings as well as forced labour, but still girls and women are pushed into prostitution. Article 51 inserted in 1976 by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment imposes a fundamental duty on every citizen to renounce practices derogatory to women, but still there are cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. Thus, it is evident that the substantive membership has yet not been received by the women yet.

Participation of Women – Essential for Citizenship

Girls and women are said to be at homes and to cater for the needs of the family. It is a good way to contribute towards one’s families. But this does not mean that she shall be deprived of education or to work outside or can be sent off through marriage without her choice. A woman has the same right as men to participate in the society, through studying, working and through her vote.

Unlike women of western countries, the Indian women got their Voting rights along with the Independence and with proper education, it is certain that the person can make better decisions, but the girls of rural areas are often deprived of basic education. In the schools as well they are not given the importance they deserve. In Haryana, a nine-year-old dalit girl was made to go around the school, with her face blackened as she did not score well (10th Dec. 2019, The Hindu) (pic.). In another incident, in Gujarat, the girls of an institution had to go through a menstruation check to prevent other girls from becoming impure (18th Feb. 2020, The Hindu) (pic.). Such acts outrage the modesty of a woman and the dignity of being a human. The work done by women at home is believed to be easy as compared to a man working outside home. This mentality generates a sense of inferiority towards the female gender and they often become victims of domestic violence. And even if the woman wishes to work then she is pushed into the unorganized sector with an unequal pay as compared to a man. And if in the organized sector, she is expected to carry out the work of home as well and may find themselves in a conflict of roles. This attitude of difference is not in adherence with the idea of achieving an equal citizenship.



Through the documentary ‘India Untouched’ Stalin K presents the adversities that women of lower castes suffer without any justice. It has been shown that women in rural areas from lower castes are tortured and many a times raped by the men from upper castes from superior political positions. In an incident in Bihar, a woman was set on fire as she resisted rape by her neighbor (10th Dec. 2019, The Hindu).(pic.) Those women never received justice, a reason of which could be the absence of women in political position to empathize and work for their justice. Another reason could be the stigma associated with being a ‘victim of rape’ and the lack of knowledge of their rights.

Harsh Mander, through a story in his book ‘Unheard Voices’ presents the story of a girl from the ‘Bedia’ community, a community in which girls are pushed into sex-work as a ritual. Popular in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the girls are involved in sex-work from a very young age because of which they do not get education and literacy rate among Bedia women is 7.8 per cent while among Bedia men it is 27.25 per cent, and all because of accident of their birth as a girl, in this particular caste. Many women, who are not well read and due to lack of jobs take up prostitution as a means of living, sometimes forcibly. In the documentary ‘Tales of the Night fairies’ by Shohini Ghosh it has been shown that how the women are ill-treated by men and the police as well who have no sympathy towards them. Whatever may be the profession, one certainly has the inalienable rights as labourers. Ignored by the State, these women themselves formed an organization and fought for their rights and for AIDS prevention through theatrical plays and songs. Although enisled by the society, these women thrive for a chance for participation which is the essence of Citizenship.

Thus, it is true that the definition of Citizenship is not fixed and is certainly an elusive idea, but humans as citizens form a nation, therefore, citizenship is closely associated with Humanity. It is necessary for the state and fellow citizens to treat each other with respect, irrespective of caste or gender and include each other as members of the same family, as through only Equality and Integration, true citizenship will be achieved and our nation can prosper to greater heights.

[1] Harsh Mander, ‘Unheard Voices’ p 173-187 (Penguin Books India 2001).


[2] ‘Tales of the Night fairies’ documentary https://youtu.be/Ystke5m8now . [3] ‘India Untouched’ documentary https://youtu.be/PZb4lGYkjrg .

[4] Anupama Roy (Political Theory: An introduction, 2008). [5] Neera Desai and Usha Thakkar, ‘Women in Indian Society’, 2001. [6] Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Annihilation of caste’ (1936).

[7] Harsh Mander, ‘Unheard Voices’ p. 37-46 (Penguin Books India 2001). [8] Niraja Gopal Jayal, ‘Reconfiguring Citizenship in contemporary India’ (p.15, 2019). [9] ‘India Untouched’ documentary https://youtu.be/PZb4lGYkjrg . [10] Niraja Gopal Jayal, ‘Reconfiguring Citizenship in contemporary India’ (2019). [11] Gopal Guru, ‘Citizenship in exile: A dalit case’ (2005). [12] B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Waiting for a visa’ 1936 (1990).

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