Earlier this week, the nation observed Ambedkar Jayanti to mark the 125th birth anniversary of the leader of India's oppressed castes. Other than the usual garlanding of his statue, this year saw a month-long radical history project that has brought about a long overdue resurgence of Dalit pride. The Dalit History Month (DHM) is rewriting Indian history to include the immense, yet invisible, contributions made to it by Dalits.
A brainchild of a group of young Dalit activists who felt frustrated at traditional media for not giving them space, DHM has collated a vast number of stories from Dalits across the subcontinent to put together a fascinating timeline of their history that dates back to 1500 BC. Using a mix of savvy social media marketing skills, good old-fashioned legwork and activism, these youngsters are enabling the oppressed so-called "fifth" caste to feel a sense of pride in their history.
Leading the charge on social media campaign is US-based Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a transmedia storyteller and technologist, who believes story is the most important unit of social change. She goes by the handle @dalitdiva on Twitter and Facebook and believes that inspirational stories of Dalit experiences will slowly hack away at age-old perceptions of caste. With five other associates, she has worked to refocus the world's attention on her community's invisible history. "We put a call out to people through our website and the social media, to send us whatever they had -anecdotes, facts, customs and mores of our community. The response was incredible; our lists were seen by over 90,000 people in one single week!" she says.
In a lively Skype chat, Soundararajan and other founder-members of the project - Manisha Devi, state coordinator of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch), Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, Dalit rights activist and doctoral fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Global Ganga, the avuncular US-based Dalit activist - talk about what makes the retelling of their history so meaningful. "In school, history was never about us - and always about them," says Lohitakshi. "When we started compiling our history, I wondered why for so many years, people had not even heard about our saints, poets, freedom fighters and activists." Soundararajan and her associates also noted how patchy the Wikipedia entries on Dalit story were. "So we had a successful Wikipedia hackathon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to amend and add to these articles," says Soundararajan. On Facebook and Twitter, DHM has been posting stories and anecdotes of Dalit heroes. "Our retelling of Dalit history has challenged the National Geographic version of India... and it feels awesome!" she says.
Take for example, the story of Ayyankali·, the Dalit firebrand from Kerala and a contemporary of Ambedkar, whose rebellion against caste discrimination began with an ox cart and some proper clothes. At a time when Dalits weren't allowed to wear stitched clothes or walk on public roads, he drove an ox cart wearing caste Hindu garb. His bold move launched the Southern Kerala movement for Dalit rights that won in 1900 the right for Dalits to walk on public roads. Another story is of 13-year-old Purnav Malavath, an Adivasi girl from Telangana, and 16-year-old Anand Kumar, a Dalit boy from Khammam, two of the youngest climbers to scale Mount Everest in 2014. Upon summiting, the duo unfurled not just the Tricolour, but also a picture of Ambedkar.
They've received many moving testimonies of experiences of caste apartheid. Manisha Devi says, "When I was in Class III, my science teacher made me stand up to talk about the structure of the heart as she said we Dalits were used to slaughtering pigs and chickens in our homes... I felt so ashamed." She talks about the rampant sexual abuse that Dalit women in Haryana continue to face. "It's a double curse, being a woman and a Dalit." Soundararajan and company have noticed a shared camaraderie amongst people deemed polluting by the Indian caste system, regardless of which part of India they're from.
Stories of Dalits who have accomplished extraordinary things have a power beyond their subtext of atrocity and poverty. "There's a seed of pain that unites us, but learning about the inspirational actions of our forebears gives us pride and joy," says Soundararajan. Lohitakshi also points out how these stories demonstrate the egalitarian and inclusive nature of Dalit society. "It has historically been a free space for women and LGBT people… something modern society could learn from!" she says. "For me, the best outcome of DHM has been that for the first time in my life, I'm proud to call myself a Dalit."
DHM will see over 20 events across the world. One of them was the display of the Dalit history timeline in a kiosk on Delhi's Parliament Street on Ambedkar Jayanti. "Once this month is over, we'll collate the data that has poured in and tell stories through our website and social media. By next year, we hope to triple the interest in Dalit history," says Soundararajan. The road ahead is long and bumpy, but she and her friends are optimistic. She says, "We're hoping to make Dalit history a viable topic of academic inquiry and general discourse. For it is only by telling stories of our past that we can hope to end this caste apartheid in our lifetime."
For more, visit dalitnation.com. Read the Dalit History timeline on tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/423929/Dalit-History-Month. Follow Dalit History Month on Facebook and Twitter. Next fortnight, the story of India's first solar-powered 'smart' microgrid in rural Rajasthan, which has enabled villages far from the conventional grid to access cheap and reliable power.
Disclaimer: The article on India's Water Man, who has brought water into the parched villages of Rajasthan, will be carried on a later date