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.