The first thing that strikes you as you read “Makers of Modern Dalit History” by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan is objective and bipartisan approach in their choice of Dalit leaders. Authors quote Shri Kanshiram and Shri Guruji of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with the same respect. They quote other Dalit intellectuals who hate Hindu Dharma and spew venom on it, unflinchingly.
The second thing that strikes you as you read on is lack of anger or I could say control over bitterness as they write about the struggle of these great icons against all odds and atrocities they faced. Third is their deep faith in Bharat and in the Hindu society whose many members behaved despicably towards their less fortunate members who are the pillars of our society.
A few days back, when I appreciated an article about Maharshi Ved Vyas based on the book by the authors, many Hindus objected to his being labelled as a Dalit. One can always split hair, one can contest claims. But, can one deny what we did to our own? Ved Vyasa’s story, infact, buttresses the argument that one could transcend or change one’s varna based on one’s prakriti and Karma or inclination and change one’s varna in Hindu society. For too long, we Indians have happily fallen for divisions along caste lines and reduced our heroes to caste or regional heroes. I wish the writers had dwelt at some length to dispel the notion that caste is equal to varna and presented a good critique of both.
This book can be looked upon in two ways. One –as an inspiration for Scheduled Castes and deprived sections of the society to be aspirational, be positive and work hard to break out of the depressing conditions they live in. Two–a lesson for the Hindu society at large–how not to treat their own less privileged brethren. Every Hindu must read it to understand how their forefathers treated their own; ones who not only kept their surroundings clean but also fought shoulder to shoulder with them to protect our society against the ruthless invaders. We must question ourselves, why and how such inhuman treatment is still meted out and possible.
As you read the heart rending stories of the Dalit heroes/heroines, you will feel miserable that some of us in Hindu society have questioned the rationale for reservations for Dalits. One can argue about creamy layers, etc., or discuss possible solutions. But, the fact remains that even today, Dalits don’t get respect and space in the society they deserve. Wounds are old, deep and still seeping.
Though the authors have avoided invoking pathos when describing the lives of different leaders in different periods, you cannot but feel disturbed at what we have done to our own brethren for centuries and still do it even if in small pockets. One wonders at their steadfastness to their Dharma. One salutes them that they never left Hindu fold despite facing such atrocities. Stones, mud and dirt used to be thrown at Savitribai Phule, the pioneer in women’s education, specially that of Dalit women. In Kerala, during the times of Ayyankali, Dalits were expected to maintain a physical distance of at least 64 steps from the Nairs and 128 steps from Namboodiris. There are stories abound, of great Dalit devotees who were never allowed to enter temples. Sant Janabai gave up her mortal remains at the gates of Vithoba temple which she was not allowed to enter all her lifetime. To the credit of the authors they have mentioned how Hindu leaders, including Dalit leaders, and organisations have tried to reform our society and worked for equitable treatment of our lesser fortunate brethren. They have given examples of privileged members and leaders of Hindu society who supported Dalits in education and helped them break the barriers.
Dr B R Ambedkar is the tallest leader for Dalits to whom they look up to. However, while reading about other political leaders in this book, I felt that Babu Jagjivan Ram did not get the respectful space in political narrative that he deserved. Some of the profiles being sketchy shows lack of information available about many of the icons. It shows how mainstream narrative, including the self proclaimed champions of equality, the Left sidelined Dalit heroes. Of the 18 leaders in this book, four are from Maharashtra, five are from the Southern part of Bharat. I wonder whether it is because there was more caste discrimination in these regions; or is it that Dalits were more conscious there? There are many short profiles of the new age Dalit leaders like Narendra Jadhav, Milind Kamble and Kalpana Saroj, etc., that are uplifting.
One can argue about creamy layers, etc., or discuss possible solutions. But, the fact remains that even today, Dalits don’t get respect and space in the society they deserve. Wounds are old, deep and still seeping
One can quibble whether talking of ancient rishis like Ved Vyasa and Valmiki as Dalits or as makers of ‘modern Dalit history’ is correct, as they were not treated as Dalits in those times. However, there is no doubt that they are a great inspiration for Dalit brethren who wish to break out of shadows like a Dr Ambedkar of modern times and assert themselves. So, there is no reason for us to question their choice and words used to describe them. Just as there is renewed assessment of Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to the nation, we need to relook at our own history with our own rooted intelligence.
The lengthy introduction indicates deep research that has gone into writing this book. It prepares you for the shocks you may feel when you get into the lives and times of the Dalit icons. Authors Sudarshan and Guru Prakash need to be congratulated for bringing the inspiring lives of the great sons and daughters of Bharat to our attention who did not waver from their path despite all the atrocities and insults heaped on them. I am sure, they will be bringing out more of such inspiring stories. They deserve praise for being objective and positive. Their urge to be inclusive and transmit a message of optimism by highlighting the life lessons of the great leaders. It is a lesson for all our leaders who play divisive politics and exploit people cynically as vote banks; not as people whom they must serve to bring in social harmony. We can hope for social harmony or samarasataa only if we provide the right atmosphere and opportunities to all the members of our society irrespective of caste and creed.