When Mayawati entered office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995, it was the first time ever that a Dalit woman held the post. Her entry into politics brought the focus on Dalit issues and identity in a big way.
Having influential figures from any marginalised community in the public eye often pushes us to return to our country’s history, to ask why they are the exception to a rule. And it’s true that many names have been left out of our ‘General Knowledge’, because they were Dalit, or women, or both.
For example, not many of us know Savitribai Phule, the 19th century reformer who fought hard for women’s right to education, and was the first female teacher in the first school for women. It was only recently that we began to celebrate her as an Indian feminist icon.
Phule and others may have been dropped from our most well circulated history texts, but this Women’s Day, let’s remember and celebrate these true icons:
Clothing has for long been a marker of identity. In 19th century Kerala, upper-caste Nairs and Namboodiris forced woman from the Ezhava community to pay a ‘breast tax’ for covering their upper bodies. It was a practice in humiliation and control, and one that Nangeli outright opposed.
Artist Orijit Sen captures her powerful protest in an illustration titled “A Travancore Tale”. It shows how she responded to upper-caste tax collectors by cutting off her breasts. Her death sparked a chain of events that led to the abolition of the ‘breast tax’, and Nangeli is till date revered as a hero by her community.
Which Indian school kid hasn’t pored over a painting of the Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, riding into battle, sword in hand? That image could just as easily have been of Jhalkaribai, who bore resemblance to the warrior queen.
Jhalkaribai was a Dalit woman from a small village in Bundelkhand. She had fought off tigers and dacoits, and when Rani Laxmibai learnt of this, she was drafted into the women’s army. In fact, it was Jhalkaribai who disguised herself as Rani Laxmibai, and led the queen’s forces against the British.
At the same time that Laxmibai was fighting the British in Jhansi, another woman warrior emerged in Awadh – Uda Devi. She was part of Begum Hazrat Mahal’s army’s, and rode into war in 1857, where she took down 32 British soldiers before she was slain on the battlefield.
At the time, the leader of the British troops, one Colin Campbell, recorded his surprise at the extensive damage this woman warrior had done, and even today this fierce Dalit martyr is remembered by the Pasis of Pilibhit.
The first heroine of Malayalam cinema was a Dalit woman. Yup, that’s right. P. K. Rosy acted in J. C. Daniel’s 1928 silent film “Vigathakumaran”. Not only was she traversing the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ by being one of the few women on screen, there was also a huge furore about her playing the role of “Sarojini”, an upper-caste woman. Rosamma, as she was once known, stands at the beginning of a rich regional cinematic tradition, and it’s not for nothing that the P. K. Rosy Memorial Lecture series was held at Jamia Milia Islamia in 2013.
In 2011, Dalit women from Jalaun, Hamirpur and Lalitpur (Uttar Pradesh) came together to form ‘Paani Panchayats’ and address the issue of water shortage in the region. Dalit communities in the region have least access to clean water and must contend with water sources where solid and liquid waste is indiscriminately dumped. But now, there are over 3,000 women involved in reviving local water bodies.
A US-based activist and transmedia artist, Thenmozhi Soundararajan helped launch #DalitWomenFight, an independent collective against caste apartheid and caste-based sexual violence. Offline, it organises marches, and online, it curates artwork around these issues. Soundararajan has also worked with several other Dalit activists and scholars, to put together an extensive timeline of Dalit history.
Also known as ‘the Lady Mohammed Ali of India’, E. Thulasi Helen is a boxer from Chennai. In 2013, Norwegian directors Beathe Hofseth and Susann Ostigaard told her story in the documentary “Light Fly, Fly High“. It highlighted the various hurdles in her path as a Dalit woman boxer, including the sexual and emotional abuse she and others faced when pursuing sport. Today, Helen is a boxer in her own right, and has even defeated Olympian and world champion Mary Kom.
In a brahminical-patriarchal order, Dalit women face both caste- and sex-based violence. And when many of our institutions are extensions of that brahminical-patriarchal order, getting justice is difficult. And that’s why Dalit women lawyers like Gauri Kumari are fighting back. According to a report by Swadhikar, she has helped set up a network of dalit women elected representatives in the Munger district of Bihar.
After ‘gau rakshaks’ publicly flogged Dalit men in Una, Gujarat, hundreds of flocked to the city to stage their protest, and take a historic pledge not to dispose of dead cattle – a task that has for centuries been foisted on Dalit people because of the caste-hierarchy. The Una march saw massive participation from Dalit women. It also drew powerful women figures like Manjula Pradeep of the Navsarjan Trust, and activist Manisha Mashaal.
When Hyderabad Central University (HCU) punished and rusticated student activist Rohith Vemula, forcing him to commit suicide in 2016, it was his mother, Radhika Vemula, who continued the fight against the oppressive brahminical institution. On the first anniversary of her son’s death, she was arrested for protesting at HCU.
Each of these women have battled incredible odds, but they rarely find a mention in our school books. It’s time we recognised their history and struggle too, because Women’s Day is about all women, and not just a few!