This April, The Lions Write Their Own History #DalitHistoryMonth

Posted on April 14, 2015 in Society, Specials, Staff Picks

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.


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.