• stumble
  • youtube
  • linkedin

Archives for : Sharmila Rege

Tribute- Sharmila Rege (1964-2013) Pursuing Knowledge for Social Transformation

Economic @ Political Weekly, Vol – XLVIII No. 32, August 10, 2013 | D N Dhanagare

In her classroom teaching Sharmila Rege constantly focused on how the interaction of students with the lived experiences of activists in social/ protest movements and also with the masses could deepen their understanding of social reality as well as the close linkages between theory and ideology on the one hand and between theory, ideology and praxis on the other. She believed that gender studies and dalit studies were organically linked.

D N Dhanagare (, a distinguished sociologist, is a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

As a teacher I had never imagined that I would be called upon to write an obituary of my much younger student who later became a colleague.

While writing about my over three-decade long association with Sharmila Rege it is difficult to be rational and detached. But howsoever difficult, an attempt has to be made to document the personal as well as professional gains and losses of not only the disciplines of sociology and feminist sociology but the entire social science community. It is with a heavy heart that I turn to my task.

Soon after I joined the faculty of Pune University’s department of sociology, the University Grants Commission (UGC) selected it under the University Leadership Programme (ULP). All of us sociology teachers were then required to visit colleges where sociology was taught as an optional subject (at the general as well as major level) and deliver some model lectures on topics selected from the undergraduate sociology syllabus. I remember holding four or five such sessions for BA students in Fergusson College Pune where Sharmila was doing her undergraduate studies. I observed her taking copious notes and showing a great deal of interest and learnt that she was planning to pursue a career in sociology. I did not know at that time that she was equally involved in protest movements, including the student movement. She completed her MA and MPhil with flying colours and immediately started teaching at St Mira’s College in Pune. Shortly before that the UGC panel on Women’s Studies had recommended our department’s proposal for a Women’s Studies Centre (WSC) in Pune University and the UGC approved it around mid-1987.

As part of our department’s MA syllabus a course on “Sociology of Women” was being taught as an optional offering. However, it was being taught within a characteristically naïve sociological framework. After Vidyut Bhagwat, a well-known activist in the women’s movement in Pune joined the WSC as the first faculty member she brought major feminist theorists into the teaching of the course/s on women’s studies. This marked the first paradigm shift in the pedagogical practices of sociology and the WSC in Pune University. Soon thereafter when the WSC was given another faculty post Sharmila joined us in early 1991. But she was a teacher-colleague with a difference. For her, life was a mission for the pursuit of knowledge to be used for social transformation. Later she reinterpreted the desired transformation, not only within the procrustean Marxist framework of “revolution through class struggle”, since she found it inadequate for dealing with caste and gender issues. Her writings later gave a new epistemic and theoretical foundation to the feminist and the dalit-satyashodhak movements while passionately continuing with her experiments through her pedagogical practices at the WSC in Pune University. Thus, Sharmila brought the second paradigm shift in the teaching and research activities of WSC.

Creating a New Space

Her moving from St Mira’s to the WSC in Pune University, from there to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai for a period and back again to the WSC in Pune University does not project only her career trajectory. It shows her ceaseless search for knowledge with a purpose and deep commitment to gender studies and dalit studies that she thought were organically linked in the Indian context. Especially while teaching such courses as “Caste, Class and Gender”, “Counter-Culture” and “Feminism and Feminist Theory” she convincingly demonstrated how the classroom could be turned into an activist’s arena, and how by experimenting with pedagogy one can train and ignite young minds, and prepare them for the purpose of societal transformation.

In her classroom teaching she constantly focused on how the interaction of students with the lived experiences of activists in social/protest movements and also with the masses could deepen their understanding of social reality as well as the close linkages between theory and ideology on the one hand and between theory, ideology and praxis on the other. At the same time she drew our attention to a peculiar “crisis” in the social science community in India: the crisis inherent in institutional and pedagogical shortcomings of our disciplinary training as it did not enable us to make sustainable knowledge claims. She emphasised the need to make knowledge claims accountable and knowledge products analytically useful as also practically feasible to alter conditions of social existence.

When her article on lavani and tamasha (folk dance and theatre traditionally popular in Maharashtra) appeared in the Contributions to Indian Sociology (Vol 29, Nos 1-2, 1995) it had begun to become clear that she was exploring new areas of research and at the same time creating a space for studies of popular culture within the sociology of culture as also in gender studies. This paper showed how folk forms of cultural expressions tended to sexually exploit women performers. Similarly, forms of popular culture could also emerge as means to conscientise and mobilise the marginalised. She called it “counter politics”. Rege’s concerns were thus historically situated precisely at the time when boundaries between disciplines began to lose both meaning and purpose.

She was looking for opportunities to draw academia closer to the feminist and bahujansamaj dalit perspectives that have been posing challenges to mainstream social sciences. Her deep commitment to this cause was at times misconstrued as her “self-imposed alienation” from the mainstream of the sociology profession to which she truly belonged. But her sincere engagement with the task of opening a dialogue between gender studies and sociology could be understood only by a few.

In a short life span of 48 years, she spent nearly half with the sociology department of Pune University – two years as a student and 22 years as a faculty member. During her association with the WSC she produced an enormous amount of research work that includes Sociology of Gender: The Challenge of Feminist Sociological Knowledge (ed. Sage 2003); Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Testimonies of Dalit Women in Maharashtra (ed. Zubaan Publications 2006), and Against Madness of Manu: B R Ambedkar on Brahmanical Patriarchy (edited, New Delhi Navayana Publications). True, all the three volumes are edited works. However, her scholarly and extensive introductions prove beyond any shadow of doubt that to be creative and original one does not have to be a prolific writer. Between 1994 and 2010, Sharmila published as many as nine articles in the Economic & Political Weekly, two in Sociological Bulletin and two in Seminar. Her article in Contributions to Indian Sociology is highly cited in studies in popular culture and in my opinion made a niche for her in the field of social sciences in India. Besides these research articles in acclaimed research journals, she wrote nine articles in volumes edited by scholars like Maitreyi Chaudhuri, Sujata Patel, Kumkum Ray, Mary E John, and Anupama Rao and published by Oxford (OUP), Sage, Orient Longman, Penguin, Kali for Women, and others. With the help of Bhagwat and under joint authorship she also wrote several monographs and booklets in Marathi and English which were published and circulated by the WSC for the benefit of students, some of whom came to the WSC as first generation learners.

Interdisciplinary Efforts

After Bhagwat’s retirement from the WSC many well-wishers presumed that the centre’s activities would slacken. Instead, the pace of Sharmila’s multifaceted engagements with research further accelerated. She successfully negotiated her major project: Reimagining Higher Education on the Site of Women’s Studies in India (2008-12) with the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust that awarded a hefty grant of Rs 8,715,000 to the WSC for a period of three years. In collaboration with a Bangalore-based centre, Sharmila implemented a number of her innovative ideas about developing bridge courses, modular training programmes for integrating training with criticality and employability of social science education in India which has been under the scanner for quite some time. Her effort was driven by a strong desire to create awareness among social sciences of the interdisciplinary field of gender studies, dalit studies, studies of sexuality and body and cultural studies and that any isolation from them would be to their disadvantage in the long run. Two years ago she received a research grant from Zubaan Publications for her project on Oral Histories of Women’s Movement. She had also just received another grant from the Indian Council of Social Sciences and Research (ICSSR) to identify measures for Integrating Equality and Quality in Higher Education (for the period 2013-15). However, her sudden demise has left this work for her colleagues Anagha Tambe and Swati Dehadray in the WSC to carry forward and bring it to fruition.

For a variety of reasons Sharmila was not inclined to work on academic committees that multiply by the day. Yet in the interest of institution-building, especially for the long-term agenda of the WSC she agreed to work in the ICSSR as a member (2005-08) and also on its Research Committee, as a member of the UGC-appointed Committee on Parity in Scholarships and Fellowships; and also on the UGC’s Expert Committee on Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, and as a member of the editorial board of the Indian Journal of Gender Studies. Besides this, she was also associated with the UGC Committee on Women’s Studies, the committees of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Central University at Gandhinagar, and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

For her incomparable scholarly work and contributions Rege was awarded and decorated with the prestigious G Ram Reddy Award – 2012 for Social Sciences, the Malcolm Adiseshiah Award – 2006 (from MIDS, Chennai) for contributions to development studies, and also life membership of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. She was invited to deliver the Ambedkar Memorial Lecture at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai (2009-10), and another at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi (April 2010). Usha Mehta, Neera Desai, Leela Dube, Vina Majumdar and Maithreyi Krishna Raj are mentioned as pioneers in the field of gender and women’s studies in India especially after the publication of the Status of Women in India Report. Now alongwith Uma Chakravarti, Bina Agrawal, Padmini Swaminathan, Jashodhara A Bagchi, and others, the name of Sharmila Rege will surely be taken as belonging to the category of “non-conformist pace-setters” (to use Ramkrishna Mukherjee’s metaphor).

In a recent perceptive article Pratima Pardeshi while paying tribute to Sharmila (Loksatta, 21 July 2103, Pune edition, Lokranga) described her as a satyashodhak buddhijeevi (intellectual in the satyashodhak movement) that redefined “real indigenous culture” in India and promoted practices of popular culture. Pardeshi, a well-known dalit-feminist activist is absolutely right in saying that

Sharmila was an exampler of how to continue selfless pursuit of truth and knowledge, and apply the products of knowledge to the everyday life of the common people. Sharmila’s real contribution lies in her drawing the critical feminist discourse (that normally remains confined in the portals of university departments and their faculty – seminars and workshops) into the dalit movement and the feminist movement. Sharmila untiringly endeavoured to avoid the ghettoisation of the dalit and gender questions and to get the satyashodhak agenda into the mainstream of social science discourse. To achieve this she tried to build bridges with the Dr Ambedkar Academy, the Vidrohi Cultural Movement, the Satyashodhak Vidyarthi Sanghatana and became organically linked to them all, not just as a sympathiser but as a real activist – one with them.

The real question is whether different ideological streams and factions within these organisations among the dalit and feminist movements (especially in Maharashtra), considered and treated Sharmila as a genuine “insider” or as an “outsider within”?

Exposing Gender Blindness

As her teacher and supervisor of her doctoral thesis, I always felt diffident while working with her. She was specialising in gender studies and was doing serous readings in the feminist theory about which I did not have even rudimentary familiarity. Using the gender perspective she critically evaluated theoretical formulations of classical thinkers from Comte, Marx and Engels, and Spencer down to Durkheim, Max Weber and also some of the more contemporary sociological thinkers, and exposed their “gender blindness”. The sarcasm implied in the title of her PhD thesis “From Mainstream to Male-stream Sociology” beautifully summed up her position. She joined the WSC in 1991, and registered as a research student. But soon thereafter I had to go to the ICSSR as member secretary. She insisted that I supervise her work. Reading her draft chapters was a great learning experience for me. For Sharmila it almost turned out to be a self-learning process that she handled with great ability and maturity. The pressure of my administrative work in ICSSR often resulted in delays in going through and commenting on her chapters and returning them to her. But she never became impatient. In fact it was through reading her chapters that I was introduced to the main debates and controversies within the feminist theoretical discourse. Only the delays on my part often left me with a sense of excessive guilt; now that will always keep pricking me for the rest of my life.

My only complaint about her is that she did not revise her thesis and get it published as a book. But from 1995 onwards when she obtained her PhD she became known as a scholar for her few but critical writings. Publication for her was not an end in itself; it was an effective tool for pedagogical practices. She refused to consider my suggestion of not stepping down from the chair professorship to which she was elevated directly from her post as lecturer in the sociology department in Pune University. That would have served two purposes simultaneously: it could have averted the eventual and unfortunate separation of the WSC from the Sociology department and she would have been in a better position to build bridges between mainstream social sciences and gender and dalit studies that she thought was her life’s mission. I knew her priorities. She never separated the personal, professional and political. But that was Rege – decent but determined, willing for a dialogue but uncompromising when it came to her values and principles.

We all, especially I, have every reason to be angry with her for leaving us in such grief but all of us will remain grateful to her for the legacy she has left behind – a legacy of commitment to a cause and an unassailable commitment to quality, of maintaining an unimpeachable record of intellectual integrity and honesty and above all her unparalleled passion for teaching. For her colleagues, students, researchers and in fact all of us who knew her as a leading feminist theorist-activist teacher, carrying her torch forward will be the real tribute to her memory.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Related posts

#RIP- Feminist and Sociologist who studied intersection of gender, caste


File photo of Sharmila Rege.
The HinduFile photo of Sharmila Rege.

Sharmila Rege – 1964-2013

Sharmila Rege, the scholar whose work on the interplay of patriarchy and caste oppression broke new ground for both sociology and women’s studies in India, died in Pune on Saturday aged 48. She had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Dr. Rege rewrote the book on feminist studies by showing that patriarchy here is about caste and about keeping its hierarchies intact. Delving into the history and politics of social movements, particularly of lower caste struggles, she showed that gender and caste are intertwined deeply.

Her books, Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios, and Against the Madness of Manu: B.R Ambedkar‘s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, as well as several essays and activist interventions nudged the feminist debate in India towards critical engagement with questions of caste.

As chair of the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Pune, Dr. Rege shaped young minds and, according to her students and colleagues, lived life as if she had no aim other than to study and help others study.

“She was most tolerant towards students, scholars and research assistants who couldn’t conduct themselves to her extreme and exacting standards. She was as much concerned about the passing of knowledge to the next generations as improving it. In this sense, pedagogy for her was politics itself,” Dalit scholar Chittibabu Padavala told The Hindu.

Known as a devoted teacher, her students also spoke of her humility and warmth. In 2002, she established a day care centre for children in the women’s studies department

Feminists and scholars across the country paid their respects to her and spoke of her critical contribution to social sciences in various forums.

“Rest in peace dearest friend, clearly the world is not yet a just world but we must keep fighting for it to be,” said historian Prof Uma Chakravarti.

Dr. Rege received the Malcolm Adiseshiah award for distinguished contribution to development studies from the Madras Institute of Development Studies in 2006.

She always signed off her emails with the words of Ambedkar: “My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle.”

“So characteristic to leave an enduring message for justice,” says Uma Chakravarti.

After finishing the manuscript of Against the Madness of Manu, in which she positioned Ambedkar as the central figure for the women’s movement in India, she told her students and colleagues that now that the book was complete, she could die peacefully.

“This was when nothing was diagnosed and everything was outwardly fine. Somewhere, she had the premonition that she was not going to live long,” said her close friend and fellow academic, Prof Kushal Deb from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Related posts

Manu, FIaw-Giver- Gender, and their centrality in Ambedkar’s work #Bookreview

For equality Ambedkar tried a fundamental reform of Hindu personal laws, in vain
Manu, FIaw-Giver
Matters of gender, and their centrality in Ambedkar’s work
Against The Madness Of Manu: B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings On Brahmanical Patriarchy


Here is a book that offers something new and stimulating, and it matters little if you are already acq­u­a­inted with the scholarship around Bab­asaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar or not. Sharmila Rege, well known for her collection of ‘testimonies’ by Dalit women and her writings on caste and gender, has gleaned from the huge corpus that now constitutes Ambedkar’s leg­acy a selection of his writings, which she has ably introduced and commented on.

While the figure of Ambedkar has burst forth in public life across the country in the last two decades, his writings have been rather slow in finding their place, whether in movements or academe. And as Sharmila Rege points out, his thinking on gender has been engaged with the least, which is what she has sought to rectify in this volume. She argues convincingly in the introduction that feminists must reclaim Ambedkar. He already enjoys a huge following in popular culture in Maharashtra, one in which posters, music and pamphlets bring out his life and work in ways that she finds both “confusing and diverse”. Some feminist scholars have rediscovered the centrality of caste for understanding gender discrimination since the 1990s, as in studies of the non-Brahmin movement, or in the historical emergence of “Brahminical patriarchy” in early India. Ambedkar himself was, as the writings included in this volume amply attest, deeply convinced that the subordination of women was an essential facet of the creation of a caste system, and it is a failing that current scholarship and anthologies on his work have not brought this out.

Ambedkar argued in an essay that Brahminical endogamy was imitated by others to become our caste system.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first one, entitled Caste as Endogamy, introduces two pieces by Ambedkar, the first written as early as 1916. Ambedkar intervenes in the anthropology of the time to show how “unnatural” and yet durable was the creation of a class (of Brahmins) that superimposed marriage within the group when exog­amy (marrying out) was the norm hitherto and elsewhere. It is this endogamy that was, according to Ambedkar, subsequently imitated by other classes to become a caste system that has given India its cultural unity. The next essay written much later opposes the widespread view that it is the Buddha’s misogyny that led to the downfall of women after the Vedic period, and places the onus squarely on the Manusmriti. The second section, from which the book takes its title, shows us Ambedkar locking horns with several religious texts and figures. ‘Manu’s Madness’ can be found in his categorisations of various kinds of castes (especially so-called mixed castes), marriages and forms of kinship, where his obsession with hierarchy is mirrored by the “graded violence” (this is Rege’s apt term) that is meted out to a woman based on her caste location. Another short critical piece on Rama and Krishna included here, which was first published posthumously in 1987, triggered widespread protests, leading to its initial withdrawal, followed by counter-protests and its subsequent republication. The third section takes us to the eve of Indian independence, the Constituent Assembly and the first years of the new nation seen from the prism of the fate of the Hindu Code Bill. Ambedkar was India’s first Law Minister and it was he who took it upon himself to subject Hindu personal laws to a fundamental overhaul in the name of gender equality. Yet, as he put it in his presentation to the Constituent Assembly, there was nothing radical in the proposals, all that was being attempted, he said euphemistically, was “repairing those parts of the Hindu system which are almost become dilapidated”. This section has an excellent choice of pieces to convey the extent of what he attemp­ted, the pain in seeing the Bill stalled, fragmented and diluted over a period of four long years, and the reasons he fina­lly gave for resigning.

Instances of Manu’s madness can be found in the gradations of punitive measures invited by violations of strict social codes.

This book of under 250 pages manages to cover an enormous terrain along with commentary that delves into Ambedkar’s life and times, offering valuable and thought-provoking interpretations of his work. Questions are thrown up for this reader—about the method of seeking the meaning of caste through speculations about its origin in a distant time; about the very focus on the “rise and fall of Ind­ian womanhood” and why this was such an obsession; on the explicit role that sexuality played in classical texts in suturing the links between caste and gender, and so on. But these kinds of que­stions demand that we engage more with Ambedkar, and read this excellent book from which there is much to learn.
(Mary E. John is senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. Her recent publication is Women’s Studies in India: A Reader)


Related posts