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This April, The Lions Write Their Own History #DalitHistoryMonth

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By Shambhavi Saxena:

April is Dalit History Month. You may not have known about it, but your chance to get on board is NOW. Started as a hackathon organized by Dalit activists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the initiative is a “parallel model of scholarship to academic institutions that study Dalits without Dalits in collaborative or lead roles of research.” The project includes an impressive timeline stretching from 1500-1100 BCE (when the Rigveda was composed, establishing the caste system as natural and divinely ordained) till March 2015, when the First Global Conference on Dalit Rights was held in Washington, D.C.

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Figures like the Nishada archer Ekalavaya of the Mahabharat, the weaver-poet and giver of dohas Sant Kabir Das of Kashi, Periyar, and of course Jyotirao Phule and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, find their place along the timeline besides various others you and I have probably never heard of. The massive project documents social organization and movements, spiritual and theological alternatives to the Brahmanical system, and defines political events and dates. These are things they simply won’t teach you at school. However, thanks to the group of activists working tirelessly on their laptops, the time to “educate, agitate and organize”, as Ambedkar once put it, is undoubtedly upon us.

There’s an old African proverb that goes “until the lion writes his own story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. It is this understanding that makes alternative historiographies so central to marginalized and maligned groups’ narratives of resistance. Rewriting history and recognizing the multiplicity of perspectives is a deeply personal, but also political, act that has been recorded at various times in various pockets of human civilization. Derek Walcott’s “The Sea Is History” engages with the lost-to-records story of African slaves in the West Indies, while many vernacular publications counter the officially recorded history of British India. As does the Black History Month, celebrated every February in America, after being officially recognized by the US government in 1976. Similarly, Dalit history’s existence outside of Savarna-dominated institutions is indispensable to socio-political resistance, and its (deliberate) absence from dominant discourse is about to be changed.

One of the mobilizers behind Dalit History Month, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, tweeting images and text of the same from the handle @dalitdiva, has circulated snippets of Dalit history across the twitterverse and beyond. This has sparked a fair amount of conversation – some favourable, others just your garden variety of what she terms “brahminsplaining”, which is both amusing, but also infuriating when you consider the purpose of this project. Marginalised castes and women were historically denied access to knowledge systems, depending solely on the word of self-serving upper-caste priests. Justifiable anger and challenges to this arbitrarily constructed social system began as early as the 12th Century A.D. when Basavanna led the first anti-caste, anti-patriarchal struggle in Karnataka. About 900 years later, the anger still lives as a driving force for political action. Attempts by privileged sections to invalidate that anger remain a major irritant, as it does with any social movement, “because,” as Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “[in order to] to protect [their] core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief”.

Twitter user Richard Fox Young describes Dalit History Month as “a loud ‘NO!’ 2the attempted ERASURE of marginalized peoples from Indian History” (sic). If we are to counter that erasure we must remember not only great social leaders like Phule and Ambedkar, but that India’s tenth president K. R. Narayanan was the first and only Dalit to be elected to that office; that Dalits as a social group were consulted for the 10th Five-Year-Plan as late as 2002; that Dalit literature – both fiction and non-fiction – exists in volumes but remains on the margins; that Savarna students with generations of socio-economic affluence and stability behind them accused the targets of the Mandal Commission’s Affirmative Action of using their caste identities to gain privileges; that we burn effigies of Ravana when many Dalits look upon him as a heroic figure; that upper caste men can urinate in a Dalit’s mouth with impunity; that innumerable Dalit women are victims of rape and trafficking, and that many of us act like these are inconsequential matters in the larger scheme of things.

The hackathon, which primarily targeted Wikipedia pages, has made Dalit History more widely accessible. To be sure, the only excuse for ignorance, now, is being comfortably cushioned by your class and caste privilege that facilitates a kind of laziness when it comes to being informed about social groups other than your own. It is my opinion that the carefully compiled Dalit History Project is something we can all learn from, and grow as a more forward-thinking, sensitized, sensitive and inclusive community in India, and we should make the best of the resources being provided to us in such a readable and interesting format.

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  1. Olaf

    Franz Fanon, Ambedkar the way forward.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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