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Single Dalit Mother and her Children's Caste: Normalising Patriarchal Caste Identities?

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

In a recent verdict the Delhi High Court denied issuing Scheduled Caste (SC) certificate to the children of a single mother who is an Air Force officer from Assam belonging to the same caste community. The verdict stated that a certificate can only be given unless it is substantially proved that the children have endured deprivations, indignities and other handicaps suffered by individuals and groups belonging to that particular community. The appellant [woman] has two children born from her marriage to her colleague in the Air Force who belongs to a so-called Forward Caste community. The couple divorced in 2009 and the appellant remained the sole guardian of the children who continued to stay with her. Viewing this, the High Court Bench stated that the children enjoyed a secure and sheltered upbringing and also benefitted from excellent schooling thanks to the appellant’s official position in the Indian Air Force. Further, they also pointed out that the children have been using the father’s surname even after the divorce projecting a Forward Caste identity to the society at large. Finally the judgment stated that by issuing caste certificates to the appellant’s children it would be denying a deserving Scheduled Caste person of an opportunity to access Scheduled Caste seats reserved in higher education and service.

Do caste deprivations disappear with class achievements?

There are many implicit assumptions at play in this judgment which is problematic. Firstly, the assumption that the woman’s high ranking position in government service supersedes her caste status making her and her children immune to experiences of differential treatment and stigma faced by many scheduled caste persons at the workplace for accessing reservations (Patel, 2014). It is important to note that the experience of mobility for the Scheduled Caste groups has been vastly different when compared to other caste groups, specifically at the workplace. For example, Jodhka and Prakash note,

“For the SCs economic mobility does not always lead to the disappearance of the prejudice of the dominant groups; and that despite occupying high positions of authority their seniors and colleagues identify them through their group of origin, making it difficult for them to integrate socially in the work place” (2016: 180).

There is enough evidence in the way of sociological studies to demonstrate that caste relates to class in diverse ways. However, the markers of caste are less visible than those of class, as is the experience of discrimination and suffering based on caste. Caste markers are consciously shed by scheduled caste persons to avoid being targeted or ridiculed. For instance, Patel (2014) observed that SCs at both higher and lower positions are subjected to “deriding” and “demeaning” comments and use of terms such as “reserved” and “quota” to refer to the persons who fall under the reserved category by their non-SC counterparts (p. 186). Furthermore, she also observed instances of highly prejudiced behaviour of upper and middle castes towards their SC colleagues in government offices. She states, “jokes, instances of their inefficiency, their lack of class and culture specific tastes, their subordinates disregard for them are brought up every now and then by way of light entertainment at their cost” (Patel 2014: 191).

Furthermore, despite availability of reservations in the government sector on a proportional basis to the scheduled caste population the Dalits were seen to be concentrated in Group C and Group D services, with very low representation in proportion to their population in Group A and Group B[i] (Thorat, Tagade and Naik 2016). Srinivas (2016: 54) also notes that reservations are implemented adequately only in the lower cadre level (Group III and Group IV), and posts in the categories of Group I and Group II are not filled even when eligible candidates are available. Corroborating Patel’s observations, Still (2015) also notes that, there are strong feelings of resentment among the caste shaped middle and upper classes towards the affirmative action policies, that bring new entrants (in this case, SCs) into these classes, This has led the upper-caste/middle classes to turn inwards to protect their own interests.

The corporate world is not very different. It is equally, if not more, difficult to gain access and remain in the upper echelons of the corporate industry for SC persons. As Ajit, Donker, and Saxena (2012) point out in their study, close to 65% Indian corporate board members belong to the Forward Caste group. They emphatically state that “the Indian corporate board belongs to the ‘old boys club’ based on caste affiliation than on other criteria such as experience or merit” (Ajit, Donker and Saxena 2012: 42). They further highlight that caste affiliation is important for networking in the Indian corporate industry and that in the tiny world of corporate India interactions take place only within their caste kinship (ibid). Needless to say, women form a negligible part of this group and women from the Scheduled Caste community are entirely absent.

In addition to this, several sociological works have not only highlighted the discrimination perpetuated by caste identity but also how being a Scheduled Caste in itself restricts one’s access to education, especially in higher education and in employment, among those associated with the middle and/or upper classes. Therefore, the Court’s common-sensical and upper-caste understanding of deprivations experienced by a woman belonging to the scheduled caste community not only trivialises her struggles and experiences but also sets the wrong precedent.

Reinforcing Patriarchal Caste Norms

By denying the caste of the mother (the sole guardian) to her children and by pointing out the use of father’s surname by the children the Court lays bare the underlying assumptions of the judgment which is strongly rooted in patriarchy. A similar judgment was passed by the Supreme Court of India in 2005 in which it held that a child inherits the caste of her father. Menon (2012) briefly discusses this in her book Seeing like a Feminist, wherein the Court declared illegal the election of Shoba Hymavathi Devi, daughter of an upper-caste man from a constituency reserved for a Scheduled Tribe candidate. Shoba Devi in her petition (which was challenged by the defeated party) argued that her father was never legally married to her mother, who belonged to the Bagatha, a Scheduled Tribe, and had abandoned her and her children borne from their union. Therefore, Shoba Devi contested that she and her siblings were entirely raised by her mother in her community and should inherit her caste. An unimpressed Bench consisting of three upper caste judges struck down the petition and conveyed their “dismay” that a politician in her attempt to occupy political office will go to the extent of “branding herself and her five siblings as illegitimate and her mother, a concubine[ii].” Menon then argues that the Court with its judgment establishes “a precedent for naturalising caste identities passed on through patriarchy” (2012: 35). The Delhi High Court seems to be replicating the earlier Supreme Court judgment with its verdict by denying the single mother’s caste to her children in this case.

Moreover, it can be contested that the children’s use of the father’s surname was to gain acceptability and avoid any caste-based discrimination that comes with using a Scheduled Caste surname. Being part of the middle class specifically for the SCs requires more than just securing economic capital it also involves performance of certain social and cultural practices mainly guided by upper caste norms and values, who largely constitute this class. It is not uncommon for socially mobile SCs seeking to enter and those already part of the middle classes to emulate these practices to gain acceptability. Therefore the judgment is not only ill-informed regarding the lived experiences and daily struggles of scheduled caste persons everywhere and a scheduled caste single mother in this case; it also seeks to reproduce a highly regressive, patriarchal mindset as the norm creating roadblocks for single women and mothers stuck in a legal quandary wanting to avail legal recourse.

'Single Dalit Woman Parent: Triple Disadvantages

Scholars of Dalit and women's studies have continuously highlighted the multiple deprivations that arise out of being a woman and a scheduled caste person (Guru, 1995; Rege, 1998; 2014; Chakravarthi, 2018). While the judgment seems to have been given solely keeping in view the appellant’s socio-economic class, it seems to have conveniently overlooked the everyday experiences of a scheduled caste woman who is a single mother and the myriad disadvantages she faces as being one. It is not a wildly unimaginable to presuppose that a single woman parent, particularly from a Scheduled Caste community (even one in a high ranking occupation) has access to limited resources and networks at her disposal. Resources and networks that are readily available to an upper-caste male in a high ranking occupation in the government by the virtue of his caste, gender and overall social location. By suggesting that the children have had a sheltered upbringing and attended good schools simply due to the appellant’s occupational position the Court assumes that they did not suffer any stigma and/or differential treatment at school as the children of single mother from the Scheduled Caste community. Nor does it take into account the historical deprivations the Dalit mother herself had experienced during her upbringing and in her socialisation in the school and in the workplace or even in her marriage. When the father himself is absent from the lives of the children, would his caste name make any difference to the sense of so-called caste advantage to the children? In other words, would it not be the caste of the single mother that shall rightfully be accrued to the children when the father ceased to be part of the child's family and upbringing.

Point in case would be Rao (2013) and Wankhede’s (2013) studies that show institutional discrimination persists even in these prestigious and exclusive institutions in different spheres. Wankhede (2013) observes that studies on Scheduled Castes in higher education lack in-depth understanding and analysis of “social discrimination”, “casteism”, and “untouchability” and their impact on educational and social achievement (Wankhede 2013: 185). Further, institutional discrimination by both fellow students and teachers by “labelling” a particular student based on his or her caste group in premier institutions is highlighted by Rao (2013) in his study of an IIT. His study at a premier higher educational institution shows how “stigmatised groups” such as the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students encounter discrimination through “labelling” and “stereotyping” as “not capable”, “not meritorious”, “bound to fail” by both fellow students and teachers (2013: 200).


The intersection of oppression or discrimination that arises from being a single woman, a single parent, and woman from the SC community is multi-fold and tends to have a spill-over effect on the lives of their family members. These forms of oppression do not act independently of each other; instead they create a system of oppression that mirror the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination (Knudsen 2007). Therefore it is crucial to bear in mind the everyday experiences of women belonging to marginalised communities are complex and intertwined with several social variables that act in tandem to constrain their movement up the social ladder of mobility. Therefore one needs to look at the lives of women from the marginalized groups such as the Scheduled Castes as “a complex relational understanding of social location, experience and history” (Mohanty, 2003: 244). The Court seems to have deemed unnecessary to probe the everyday lived experiences of the appellant and her children at the workplace and school respectively to gain a wider panorama of understanding of the case. The Court seems to have looked at only one variable, which is the appellant’s occupational position before disfavouring her petition.

Finally, the part of the judgment which states that issuing the appellant’s children Scheduled Caste certificates would result in eliminating opportunity to “a genuine Scheduled Caste person to claim entitlement to limited scheduled caste seats reserved in public education and employment and would undercut the goal of equality enshrined in the Constitution” assumes a upper-caste and anti-affirmative action tone (Singh, 2020). Drawing from Menon’s argument such an understanding presumes, that reservations, for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India are an undue and undeserved advantage that must be restricted as much as possible.

Notes [i] This variation in representation of scheduled castes in different levels of government service was observed also at the state level in Tamil Nadu touted to be one of the socially progressive large states in the country (Nivedita 2017). [ii] ‘Upper Caste Woman’s Marriage to Dalit no ticket for Poll Quota’, The Tribune, Chandigarh, 1 February 2005; ‘Child will inherit only father’s caste: court’, The Hindu, New Delhi, 29 January 2005. References Ajit, D., Donker, H., & Saxena, R. (2012). ‘Corporate boards in India: blocked by caste’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47 (32): 39 – 43. Chakravarti, U. (2018). Gendering caste: Through a feminist lens. Delhi: Sage. Guru, G. (1995). Dalit women talk differently. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30 (41): 2548 – 2550. Jodhka, Surinder S., and Prakash, A. (2016). The Indian middle class. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Knudsen, S. V. (2006). ‘Intersectionality–A theoretical inspiration in the analysis of minority cultures and identities in textbooks’, In Eric Bruillard (ed.) Caught in the Web or Lost in the Textbook, Paris: Jouve, pp. 61 – 76. pdf/knudsen.pdf Menon, N. (2012). Seeing like a feminist. London: Penguin Books. Mohanty, C. T. (1988). ‘Under western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses’, Feminist review, (30), 61-88. Nivedita. N. (2017). Educational Pathways of Scheduled Caste Women Administrators in Chennai: Exploring Caste, Gender and Social Mobility Processes. MPhil. Unpublished. JNU, New Delhi. Patel, T. (2014). Reservation goes backstage: Reservation in jobs and education. In Paramjit S. Judge (ed.), Readings in Indian sociology: Towards sociology of Dalits. New Delhi: Sage Publications Rao, S. Srinivasa. (2013). ‘Structural exclusion in everyday institutional like: Labelling of stigmatised groups in an IIT’, In G. B. Nambissan, & S. S. Rao (eds.), Sociology of education in India: Changing contours and emerging concerns, New Delhi: Oxford, pp. 199 – 223. Rege, Sharmila (1998). ‘Dalit women talk differently: A critique of 'difference' and towards a Dalit feminist standpoint position’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33 (44): WS39 - WS46. _____. (2014). Writing caste/writing gender: Narrating Dalit women's testimonies. New Delhi: Zubaan. Singh, S. R. (2020, September 20-21). The Hindu Group Publishing Private Limited. Retrieved from The Hindu: Srinivas, Gurram. (2016). Dalit middle class: Mobility, identity and politics of caste. Jaipur: Rawat Publications. Still, C. (ed.). (2015). Dalits in neoliberal India: Mobility or marginalisation? New Delhi: Routledge. Thorat, S., Tagade, N., & Naik, A. K. (2016). ‘Prejudice against Reservation Policies-How and Why’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51(8): 61 – 69. Wankhede, G. G. (2013). ‘Caste and social discrimination: nature, forms and consequences in education’, In G.B. Nambissan, & S. S. Rao (eds.) Sociology of education in India: changing contours and emerging concerns. New Delhi: Oxford, pp.182 – 198.

Nivedita N.

Research Scholar

Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies,

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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