Not many people know them but village-based Dalit writers in Uttar Pradesh are quietly raising community awareness and holding meetings to protest the recent escalation in violence against the Scheduled Castes.
Makhdumpur is a village in Uttar Pradesh's Bhadohi district. Adjoining it is a cluster of huts inhabited by people of the Nat caste, one of the lowest among Dalits. Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi visited a hut in the settlement just before the recent State Assembly elections. He spent some time inside the hut, interacted with the residents, shared a meal with them and then went on his way. After the victory of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the elevation of Akhilesh Yadav as Chief Minister, the hut was vandalised and burnt down by a mob claiming its affiliation to the Yadav caste. Though the act was a grave offence against Dalits, neither Mr. Gandhi nor Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) leader and former Chief Minister Ms Mayawati condemned it. In fact, atrocities against poor and vulnerable Dalits by powerful middle castes and supporters of the SP have been on the rise in the State but there have hardly been any protests by political parties.
Mainstream intellectuals and the media too have not reacted to the Makhdumpur violence. However, since the incident, some protestors have been holding meetings in Allahabad, Bhadohi and Varanasi highlighting instances of escalating violence against Dalits and also exchanging booklets on the issue.
Insights into issues
So, who are these protestors? They are Dalit intellectuals who write popular booklets on Dalit issues, which they self-publish. These publications are sold in large numbers in fairs organised in honour of Dalit heroes. They are also stocked by Dalit Chetna Mandaps — small bookshops catering exclusively to Dalits. From these outlets, the booklets (which are printed on cheap newsprint and cost between 50 paise and Rs.20) reach political rallies organised by the BSP. The literature can be easily tucked in the waistbands of dhotis worn by Dalit rickshawpullers or menial workers.
The authors of these booklets usually live in the provincial towns of Balia, Ghazipur, Etawa, Allahabad, Bahraich, Gonda, Aligarh and Hathras. Most of these authors are not well-educated and teach in local schools in these towns. Some of them are also BSP activists. Although most of them belong to the Dalit castes, some are also from the OBC social group.
Interestingly, the booklets do not feature the biographies of celebrated Dalit icons. Instead they offer social critiques against Brahminism, caste histories, narratives of struggles of Dalits, and so on. Some of them also publish songs and poems written by Dalit poets like A.R. Akela from Aligarh. Published from towns, the books are affordable and have found a new readership among Dalits who find them educative, addressing their sense of identity and nurturing their desire to read. However, the very reasons that attract Dalit readers to the books also offend the upper castes who feel insulted by the criticisms. At times they even lodge complaints against the authors who end up facing police and legal actions.
The authors don't just write in a different style from Dalit authors living in Delhi. The subjects they deal with are those that directly affect Dalits living in villages and small towns. Exploitation, oppression and land issues are the most commonly discussed topics, and the authors even organise agitations, demonstrations and protests around these subjects.
Some of them also bring out newspapers and newsletters for Dalits. One such popular writer, Dev Kumar, who lives in Duari village in Kanpur, led a demonstration against the acquisition of land belonging to Dalits. While Dev Kumar is fighting for the liberation of the Balmiki caste of Kanpur, Guru Prasad Madan, a lawyer living in Ajuha village close to Allahabad is a prominent figure who is fighting against the exploitation and oppression of Dalits in his region.
In the mould of Antonio Gramsci's “Organic Intellectuals,” the authors are playing the role of agents of change in the lives of Dalits. Though they have played a strong role in strengthening the BSP in U.P., hardly any was granted recognition either with positions or with awards during the BSP regime.
Today when everyone is silent on the issue of the rise in the incidents of violence and crime against Dalits in U.P., at least the popular writers are registering their protest, even if they are like the flickering lights of candles in the darkness.
(The writer teaches at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Jhusi, Allahabad, and is an analyst of Dalit issues.)