A month to reminisce Dalit contribution to history

A month to reminisce Dalit contribution to history

For the Dalit community in India, April is truly a festive season. The birth anniversary of two great leaders - Dr B R Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule - is celebrated this month. Around 'Ambedkar Jayanti', which is on April 14, the Dalit community purchases new clothes and prepares good food. Moreover, the occasion motivates them to carry on their fight for social equality in a caste-based society.

But this April began with the uprising of about 25 percent of  India's population - the Dalits. They called for a 'Bharat Bandh' to protest against the dilution of the atrocities law on April 2.

"This is not the first time that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has been attacked," said Dr Karthik Navayan, a human rights activist. "There has always been an aversion to laws that have provisions to protects Dalits and Adivasis," he added.

The protest on April 2 had turned violent and claimed about 11 lives, most of whom were Dalits. This triggered more protests across the country.

"Right now, the impunity rate under the Act is very high," said Sanghapalli Aruna, one of the founding members of the Dalit History Month.

"Once the Act get diluted, there would be a sharp increase in the atrocities against the communities. The BJP, on one hand, claims that they are the only party which honoured Ambedkar more than others and in another way, they are getting rid of the constitutional rights of Dalits. If they are trying to break the Constitution, we determined to break the government," Sanghapalli told DH.

"A strong legal battle and a pan India mass movement will surely create an atmosphere where all stakeholders will recognise the importance of PoA and hopefully, the judicial system and their attempt to dilute a legislation will be dropped," Karthik claimed.

Dalit filmmaker Somnath Waghmare points out that "the movement against the Supreme Court's curtailment of the power of SC/ST PoA Act is a movement in the ongoing struggle for social justice and equality."

Dalit History Month

The life of the most backward community has seen several such events throughout history. The new generation of Ambedkartites has been challenging the academic community for ignoring the community's contribution to nation-building.

"We have always witnessed the appropriation of history that dismisses and distorts the history of the Dalits and the marginalised," said Karthik. "Therefore, it is essential for the Dalits to narrate their own history," he added.

It was three years ago that a group in the US started celebrating 'Ambedkar's month' - April - as 'Dalit History Month'. The recent movement for a strong SC/ST PoA Act would be the latest addition to the celebration of the History Month.

The 'Dalit History Month' is dedicated to historical events, movements and personalities of backward communities with the motive of regaining strength by remembering their historical contributions.

"During my childhood, we had only 'Ambedkar Jayanti' to celebrate," said Sanghapalli Aruna. "We got new clothes and good food to eat as part of the celebration. Since April has so much significance in our life, we planned to celebrate the entire month aiming to bring the community together," Sanghapalli added.

The Manifestation of Dalit contribution

The 'Black History Month' is the inspiration for celebrating the 'Dalit History Month'. The first attempt was made in Boston in 2015. A group of like-minded people gathered at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and decided to emphasise the Dalit contribution in the history of India. They began collecting the writings of Dalit historians in order to edit the Wikipedia articles related to the community. A new category 'Dalit History' was added along with the general Indian history articles.

"For thousands of years, the knowledge production has been with the upper caste, hence the contribution of our community was always ignored or misrepresented," said Sanghapalli. "In the digital era, the Wikipedia is the primary source of knowledge. Therefore, we thought of editing existing articles and producing more content on the online encyclopedia."

According to Karthik, the 'Dalit History Month' celebration is an attempt to 'deconstruct the 'savarna' narratives'.

This group designed posters portraying the contribution of various backward caste leaders and movements. The social media helped them promote these posters and that garnered much attention.

 

[One of the posts on the Facebook page of Dalit History Month]

 

"The celebration of the history during the birth anniversary month of Babasaheb is giving positive energy to backward communities," said Somnath who is the director of the documentary 'The Battle of Bhima Koregaon - an Unending Journey.'

Alternative media reflect the Dalit voice

With mainstream media ignoring the community, Dalit History Month Collective and others are highly dependent on social media and independent online platforms to articulate their voice. Their activities are finding a space on social media. Sanghapalli said the social media is forcing the mainstream media to take up some of the Dalit-related items.

The 'Dalit History Month Collective' uses the website Medium to populate content and share it on social media. This year, they have also created a timeline featuring all the events in Dalit history including the birthdays of individuals, movements, tragedies, atrocities etc.

"The internet has opened a window for marginalised people to articulate their histories and contributions to a wider audience, which have been ignored by the mainstream media," said Waghmare. "The celebration of 'Dalit History Month' is one such attempt to overcome the 'savarna' (upper caste) history narration. This will be of great help for the coming generation," he said.

Diversity in programmes

This year, several Dalit and backward groups are organising programmes across the globe to observe important historical events like birthdays of Mahatma Phule (April 11) and Ambedkar. The 'Project Mukti', an organisation that aims to give digital security training to vulnerable communities, has collected mini-grants to help interested people organise programmes. They have invited proposals from groups, movements and individuals to conduct various events.

You can see a diversity in programmes happening around the globe, especially in India. "We make sure that lessons of Dalit history would be imparted along with 'Ambedkar Jayanti' celebrations," said Sanghapalli who is also the executive director of 'Project Mukti'.

The history month also focuses on school children and women to make them aware of the community's history. "Most importantly, this has provided a larger space to Dalit women that have led to the construction of an alternative discourse on intersection, caste and gender through Dalit women's lens," said Karthik.

Among the scheduled events, there will be a programme for women in Saharanpur which would talk about Dalit Women's History, photo exhibitions in Delhi and Chennai and Buddha statue installation.

There are also those who are trying to promote Dalit literature. One such book is 'Karukku', written in Tamil. It is the first autobiography of a Dalit woman and the book is celebrating 25 years of publication.

Creating awareness about atrocities

According to Karthik Navayan, an awareness drive about the atrocities and PoA law would be possible under the platform of history month. "'Dalit History Month' can create a transnational space through its platform and highlight factual errors and misinterpretation of POA," argued Karthik Navayan.

"Often legalities pertaining to Dalits and marginalised are misinterpreted or remains uninformed to the people from the community. 'Dalit History Month' can facilitate in building a strong narrative and awareness on the legal framework that Dalits are entitled to," said Karthik.

Somnath asks the progressive people from upper castes to create awareness among their respective communities. "Dalits have been fighting for a better India in non-violently," claims Somnath. "They (the progressive people) have the responsibility to educate their people not to resort to violence against the marginalised communities," he said.

"Our story may have begun in violence but we continue forward by emphasizing our assertion and resistance," concludes the dalithistory.com description about themselves.

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