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Makers of Modern Dalit History

Eighteen ‘Dalit’ icons covering at least five thousand years of our history – from the epochal narrators -Ved Vyasa  of the Mahabharata  and  Valmiki of the Ramayana,  the medieval saints  Namdev ,Ravi Das and Kabir , the  freedom fighter Rani Jhalkaribai, the educational reformer Savitribai Phule , the revolutionary Udham Singh  and  the law ministers of India and Pakistan  Dr Ambedkar   and  Jogendranath Mondal respectively, and many more  have been brought together by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan  in this  powerful discourse on how Indian history  from the times of the epics to the present  has been shaped by Dalits.

Before we delve into each of these personalities , it’s important to understand that the authors are trying to ‘change gears from Incredible India to Incredible Indians , especially those whom mainstream texts have not given the ‘space’ due to them . Whether it was by ‘deliberate design  or  default’ is a question that needs to be addressed independently :  for the purposes of this review , suffice it to say that this is an  honest attempt to   address   this anomaly and bring a perspective to the discourse. 

We  begin with the  life and times of  sages  Ved Vyas and  Valmiki :   the creators of the  grand meta-narratives  which define Bharat and    bust the factoid  that all the texts of ancient India were  Brahmanical – either in their origin , or writing or   different philosophical strands , including the most powerful 700 verses of the Bhagwad Geeta , or the Song celestial. There was no attempt ever to hide, or  to dress up their social origins , and it certainly shows how  societal roles were shaped by interest and competency rather than the circumstances of birth. However,  it must be acknowledged  that by the end of the first millennium of the CE , circumstances of birth became the dominant factor.

So,  we have Nandanar ,   the  twelfth century  saint   (one of the three)   to whom Ambedkar dedicated his book ‘The Untouchables’. There are numerous legends about his devotion ,including one in which he asks Shiva  to direct  Nandi  to move aside for  a better view of the Lord Himself . Gurram Jashuva , the rebel Telugu poet , whose writing style became the standard format for the literary fraternity   modelled  his lament on Kalidasa’s famous Mehgdootam .  Jashuva’s poem ‘is  a  message sent by an untouchable man to Lod Shiva in Varanasi’.

Varanasi is also home to  both Kabir and Guru  Ravidas : they were contemporaries , and  it’s also believed that the two   met Guru Nanak during his Varanasi sojourn. He soon started writing in Gurumukhi , and forty -one of his verses were included in the Guru Granth Saheb .He   was also the spiritual mentor to the royal princess  Meerabai, who wrote ‘When Ravi Das , the perfect Master I meet /the sewered twig joined the tree /my Master revealed the secret of the Name/the flame of mine merged into the Flame’.

While Namdev is well known and well regarded as a saint, the authors introduce us to his nurse and companion   Sant Janabai – who was a spiritual savant in her own right, and played an important role in his spiritual journey  elevation , and he in turn introduced her to many of the contemporary seekers. It was a wonderful relationship between  two – she was at one level her maid, and at another , her mentor. She was also  a contemporary of Soyarabai , whose devotion  to  Pandurang Vitthal was also legendary .

Let’s now move from the medieval to the modern. Rani Jhalkari Bai, of the Kori or Koli  caste  was the closest associate of her queen Laxmi Bai, and showed her mettle in the first war of Independence .  She was at her best astride a mount with a sword in her hand, and led the   troops of Jhansi  in the guise of her queen to give Laxmi Bai the chance to escape from the fort in the historic battle of 1857 ! In 1990, the then governor of Arunachal Pradesh Mata Prasad penned a drama on her fearless exploits under the title ‘Jhalkaribai Natak’.

Savitri  Phule and her husband Jyotirao have done  more for the education  of girls, the dignity of widows and emancipation of the depressed classes than any of their peers.  Hers was the first school to admit a child widow  in Marathwada in 1847, and  then there was no looking back . She was also the first woman in Indian history to light her husband’s funeral pyre , and took over the mantle of leading the Satyashodka Samaj which  Jyotirao had started. She lost her life in the plague of 1897 – for she was a frontline worker , who took the charge of her  clinic head- on .

By the beginning of the twentieth century , Ayyankali  had emerged as a  subaltern hero in Kerala . His community, the Pulayars  were  considered ‘rural slaves’ and faced  every possible exclusion .  Ayyankali established community courts for mediation and dispute resolution , schools for education  and was nominated to the Travancore assembly in 1912  where he argued  for permission for  Dalit children  to enrol in  public schools . At the dawn of Independence , Dakshayni Velayudhan , the first and only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly made a very interesting observation ‘ as long as the scheduled castes or the Harijans , or by whatever name they are called  are economic slaves of other people , there is no meaning demanding separate electorates or joint electorates or any other kind of electorates with this kind of percentage . Personally speaking , I am not in favour of any kind of reservation’.

Jogendranath Mandal was born into the Namasudra caste , but rose to be a minister in the undivided Bengal , and then Pakistan , but in his 8013-word letter of resignation – the longest in  recorded history, he  gave vent to his frustration against the repression of Hindus and depressed classes in Pakistan  and  a clear violation of the commitment given to him when Jinnah lured him to support the Muslim League against the Congress

Next,  we have Babu Jagjivan Ram , a powerful  political orator who narrowly missed out on being  India’s first Dalit prime minster .  By all accounts, he was  a formidable minister who served the country with distinction as a Cabinet minister in several portfolios, but his crowning glory was  India’s decisive victory in the 1971 war  when he was helming the Defence Ministry .

Growing up in the Doab region of Punjab , one could see , hear and feel the impact of  Kanshi Ram ,the political entrepreneur.  He rose to fame and prominence when he took up the matter of replacing Buddha and Ambedkar Jayanti with those of Tilak  and Gokhale as public  holidays . Starting his political career with DS4( Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti) and the  All India Backward  and Minorities , he  went on to  establish the BSP, and mentored Mayawati who later went on to become one of the youngest and most powerful CMs of UP.

The first Dalit President of India  K R Narayanan made a mark for himself - first as an exceptionally bright student , as a researcher , a journalist  and then as a stellar diplomat. While working for the Bombay edition of the  Times of India he met Mahatma Gandhi , and  they both agreed that ‘casteism and communalism were two sides of the same coin’.

The penultimate  entry is on  Udham Singh , who was inspired by Bhagat Singh   to avenge  the Jallianwala Baugh massacre by fatally attacking  the  Governor of Punjab  O’Dwyer  who had ‘blood on his hands’. Like his muse, he kissed the gallows and his last words were  ‘Inqilab Zindabad’.

The final tribute is reserved for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar  , the maker of our Constitution , the inspiration for all Indians, an ideologue for linguistic states , a prolific thinker and writer  who made it quite clear that political equality , without social justice and fraternity would be meaningless . For him social democracy was ‘ a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life . These are not to treated as separate items in a trinity . They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy’.

This is a book that deserves to be read , cover to cover , many times over!





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