Dalit Pride Marches On


Dalit Pride Marches On

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

In Varanasi, right behind the historic Banaras Hindu University (BHU), lies a small village called Seer Govardhanpur. In the vicinity of the village is the famous Ravidas Mandir. It is situated in the middle in such a way that the residential quarters and shops radiate away from it. The temple is not only an important part of the social fabric of the village. Over the years, it has also acquired a symbolic presence: Being dedicated to the 14th-century lower-caste Bhakti poet, Ravidas, it has come to represent Dalit assertion.

Last year when I went to Varanasi during my research, I met a young man named Ashok Kumar. He has been an old resident of Seer Govardhanpur and is a paper supplier to many local presses dotting Varanasi’s literary landscape. One evening, I accompanied Ashok to a small gathering behind the temple, where other men from the village would sit around after a day’s work to talk and smoke bidis. As I approached, Ashok introduced me to his friends as the “person from Delhi who has been asking a lot of questions.”

Around this time, the Patel agitation in Gujarat led by Hardik Patel was in full swing, and the events there were being keenly followed in Seer Govardhanpur. Ashok told me then, the unfolding of the Patel agitation was going to have large-scale repercussions that would echo through the country. For people like Ashok and others from the Chamar community, the argument for reservations on the basis of economic status rather than caste – the spectre of which was raised following the Patel agitation – underscores fears they have had for a while. That the present establishment just isn’t interested in understanding the forms of discrimination the Dalits of today are being subjected to. “You have to recognise that Dalit oppression is not just history, but also the present,” Ashok told me. “Token appreciation of Ambedkar and mouthing a few words in his favour won’t help.”

Ashok’s opinion turned out to be prophetic. Whether it’s the movement that started in Una, or the agitation against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai, or even the outcry over the death of Rohith Vemula, this assertion of Dalit identity has heralded its arrival. From the scorching plains of Telangana to the non-descript towns of Gujarat to the fields of Punjab, you can see it in young people like Jignesh Mevani, who has taken on the mantle of leadership in Una, and Chamar pop sensation Ginni Mahi.

The Dalit uprising is a sleeping dragon rearing its head – and will soon be joined by another, far more agitated dragon. The oppressed Muslim.

How did we turn this corner? The answer, as always, lies within. In June this year, scholars from the Carnegie Mellon University published a fascinating study of India’s higher education in the American Economic Review. According to this study, years of reservation has finally led to a situation where the gross enrolment rate of scheduled castes more than doubled in the years between 2000 and 2014. (Gross enrolment rate is a statistical measure which is used to understand the actual number of students enrolled in an institute in a given academic year.) This is a scheduled caste youth armed with an awareness of their rights and an education. Introduce the spark of discrimination, right inside the very institutes of which they are a part, and you have yourself a Molotov cocktail.

Ashok Kumar, for instance, told me how when he was a student, he asked one of his professors to help him out with the mathematical portion of accounts, a subject he was weak at. The professor agreed and Ashok and a few friends – all of whom are Chamars – were to go to his house every weekend morning for private classes. The lessons would be conducted in the large veranda of his house. The other students, however, would study in the afternoon – and inside the professor’s house.

“At first I did not understand what was happening,” Ashok said. He was too preoccupied with just making it to class – he stayed so far away from the professor’s house that he had to wake up really early. “My friend later explained that the professor’s surname was Upadhyay, a Brahmin. If we had gone inside the house, we would have ‘polluted’ it. So we had to sit outside in the veranda, in the heat.”

Even our upper-caste teachers and superiors – who supposedly have the benefit of being educated – continue to show students “their place”. As more and more people like Ashok enter academic institutions, they not only begin to understand the subtle ways of discrimination, but also learn the means to speak out against it in confrontational and disruptive ways. A masterstroke was visible in Una, where Dalit youth refused to dispose of cow carcasses, letting them rot in the streets. This symbolic act, powerful at so many levels, let Dalits detach themselves from a profession that was traditionally yoked to their surnames. More than anything, it was a refusal to recognise the sacrality of the cow, and by extension, that of Hinduism.

The Dalit uprising is a sleeping dragon rearing its head – and will soon be joined by another, far more agitated dragon. The oppressed Muslim. We witnessed it in Una, when large numbers of people from the minority community came out in support of Dalits. And we are bound to see it repeated on the national stage soon. In the upcoming Uttar Pradesh polls, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati is already mulling a political marriage between these two historically disenfranchised communities. If she can pull it off, upper-caste Hindu leaders had better be watching their backs.

Back in Varanasi, I call Ashok to chat with him about Una. He and his friends in Seer Govardhanpur are jubilant. Ashok is even planning to go to Gujarat, participate in the upcoming rallies there, and become a part of the movement. Before hanging up, he tells me something crucial: The wind of change has begun to blow. And once it gathers force and velocity, it will become unstoppable.