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Resurrecting Seva (Social Service): Dalit and Low-caste Women Party Activists as Producers and Consumers of Political Culture and Practice in Urban North India

  • Manuela Ciotti
Abstract

This article examines Dalit (ex-untouchable) and low-caste women activists within the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Underrepresented in Indian political history, these women frequently portray political activities as seva or social service, thus recalling upper caste/class notions of self-sacrifice and philanthropy of colonial memory. Seva, however, finds no place within the history of Dalit politics articulated through a language of rights. This article argues there exists an interlocking relation between the resurgence of seva and the process of upward class mobility that was a precondition to both the creation of the BSP and women's political participation within it. Further, it suggests that women activists appropriate and re-enact gender idioms and models coined in colonial India, refashioning them for the exigencies of contemporary politics. In turn, this points to the presence of shared structures of gendered political agency cutting across time, class, and caste among Dalit/low-caste communities usually considered as “other.” In addition, this ethnographic focus on agency challenges the usual trope of Dalit/low-caste women as “victims,” offering a critique of the burgeoning field of Dalit studies.

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