The month of April saw students and faculty at JUDE observe Dalit History Month. It was a time of raising awareness among others, among ourselves, of introspection, and of celebrating resistance, writes Debagata Bose of UG1. Photographs courtesy Md Shahnawaz of UG2.
Your letter of the 24th addressed instant to the Sjt. Sant Ram has been shown to us. We were a little disappointed to read it. Perhaps you are not fully aware of the situation that has arisen here. Almost all the Hindus in Punjab are against your being invited to this province. The Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal has been subjected to the bitterest criticism and has received censorious rebuke from all quarters.
B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936)
With a little help and guidance from members of faculty, the students of the Department of English, Jadavpur University, celebrated Dalit History Month in April 2017. It was, at least partially, in the hope of raising awareness among ourselves and among others of issues of systemic oppression, as well as with the aim of critically examining our own perspectives and privileges.
To this end, members of JUDE had decided upon “sessions” to be held every week, totalling eight sessions in a month. We had initially planned on film screenings and discussions, but some rigorous brainstorming led us to add a few more programmes. We decided to include “reading sessions” to be led by students, and to invite Issai da, who had been a major participant in the struggle against caste oppression, to share his experiences.
Our observance of Dalit History Month began with Dr. Nilanjana Deb giving an introductory lecture to the subject – I deliberately stress upon the word “introductory” because a issue as vast as this cannot be understood in an entire semester, let alone a forty-minute session. However, Dr. Deb set the gears turning with the “Parai” drum-beats and a strong call to students to step out of their comfort zones, to rise up against this blight upon our society. She moved on to give a brief account of the history of oppression that Dalits have faced and how people like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and others have risen up against this She ended with “Fan Baba Sahib Di”, a song by the new voice of ‘Dalit pop’ in the country, Ginni Mahi aka Gurkanwal Bharti, a 17-year old whose songs mainly celebrate the lives of Sant Ravidas (founder of the sect to which she belongs) and Dr Ambedkar. Through these songs she talks about her community and about social change.
From there, the students took over with their reading session, discussing excerpts from texts such as Munshi Premchand’s Godaan (1936) and historical incidents that often get lost in mainstream media and can only be found in blogs: a case in point being the story of Nangeli, depicted by Ajay Shekhar’s “Breast-Tax in Kerala History: Nangeli and Mulachiparambu.”
The second session was held in the same week, where we screened Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013), which is about a thirteen-year old boy. The story set in Akolner, Ahmednagar, depicts the caste oppression he has to fight daily. The film is proof of how the Dalit movement has impacted cinema. Our third session was dedicated towards the completion of the reading session. Students from the department shared instances of caste oppression that they have themselves witnessed.
The fourth session was the one for which we experienced the biggest turnout: it was the one where we would screen Inki Surat Ko Pehchano Bhai, followed by Rashmon Issai sharing his experiences as a member of the Dalit community himself.
Issai-da, one of the Departmental indispensibles, was a part of the Dalit movement not by choice, but because of circumstances over which he had no control. His choice to protest against the oppression that he and the members of his community faced was, however, a conscious one – a choice to protest again an unfair system that denied an entire community basic human rights while being a part of a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. Dalits in his village are, to this date, not allowed to drive cars or motorbikes. They are denied access to certain buildings, community wells, and even basic services such as shaving. Issai da spoke to us about the systematic cycle of oppression that has been, and is still being perpetrated against the members of the Dalit community in country. An interesting idea which he put forward was that he had removed the surname from his and the names of his children, thereby effectively removing the identity of being a “Dalit”, and continuing to function within the same society.
We, the students of JUDE, look forward to holding more sessions celebrating Dalit resistance – it is a duty which we, as individuals capable of making a choice, should aim to fulfil to the best of our abilities.