Dalit Mens Autobiographies

Edited by Dr. Bijinder Singh
Published by Gyan Books Pvt Ltd


The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a growing tendency of writing their autobiographies in different languages among Dalit writers across India. They have vividly described the incidents and happening perpetrated against them, social and economic discrimination and disparities and the atrocities being committed in the name of religion which, they were unable to forget despite the best of efforts. Therefore, a peep into the active historic, mythological and Manu Smriti (Manu Code) based social structure is absolutely essential into the background of the autobiographies of Dalit literature, harassed by social dispensation, before going deep into their autobiographies. It is noteworthy that only Dalit autobiographies are under review.

Historical quintessence and facts are replete with evidence that in the ancient times, about 2500 BC, Indian aboriginals had the oldest and the richest culture, which was famous as Sindhu Valley culture. The natives of this land set up the most developed cities like Harappa and Mohenjo daro, which cannot be compared with any other country or city in the fields of civilization and culture. But around 1800 BC, the white Aryans having grey and brown eyes entered the lush green prosperous Punjab (the land of five rivers) in northern India through the Khaibar Pass, coming from different areas of Central Asia. Initially, they came in small numbers but later when they entered in big numbers and tried to settle there, hostility by the sons of the soil was but natural towards them. The Aryans who had learnt many things from the natives, started indiscriminately attacking them and destroyed the glorious and proud humanistic culture of the aboriginals.

The Aryans introduced caste system to divide the locals. They created classes/groups of Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishyas and Shudras giving different kinds of work to each group. The Shudras were endowed with the responsibility of service to the three upper castes in the name of God and announced that nobody would disobey it. The Shudras were called Naga, Rakhsh, Asur, Dravid, Danav, Nishad, Eunuch, etc. No stone was left unturned to propagate the tradition of sacrifice of humans along with the animals and birds and to create an atmosphere of fear and terror in the society. The social dignity of half of the population i.e. women was kept at the lowest ebb, describing them as sinful….and then the supremacy was cemented by linking casteism with birth.

German dictator Hitler had written many facts about Aryans (according to him: nomad) and Brahmans in his autobiography—My Struggle. For example, he had mentioned:

If we divide mankind into three categories—founders of culture, bearers of culture, and destroyers of culture—the Aryan alone can be considered as representing the first category....The Aryan races—often in absurdly small numbers overthrow alien nations, and favoured by the numbers of people of lower grade who are at their disposal to aid them, they proceed to develop, according to the special conditions for life in the acquired territories fertility climate, etc.

(Chapter 11, p. 121)

It was not the end of the untold and unbearable miseries inflicted by the Aryans. They tried to destroy the natural resources of North India (Greater Punjab, Sindh, some regions of the Himalayas, Gujarat, Rajasthan, west Uttar Pradesh) with their full mite. They inflicted big loss upon this highly productive land. For example, river Sarasvati is mentioned in many ancient scriptures, including Rigveda. There is no mention of this river going dry in Vedic scriptures but in Mahabharata, there is a long description about this river. Several discoveries during the last one hundred years have established that river Sarasvati flowed in the dry bed of river Haakrha/Ghaggra. Scholars believe that the main reason for the drying up of the Sarasvati was the change in its course by river Satluj. With this change, the river started merging in river Sindhu instead the Sarasvati. They have put forth another reason for the change of course the Yamuna river (instead of flowing into the West, the river started flowing in the East, merging with the Ganges). The main reason to give out above description is to fully understand the socio-economic condition as to how the Aryans deployed every means to firmly settle down and turn the natives/locals permanently into their slaves. In the present times, Manu Smriti is active in its own way to maintain Brahaminwadi orientation permanently.

Rebellious voices among the natives against the treacherous administrative moves of the Aryan Brahamans, their inhuman treatment and the slavery started growing louder extensively. Charvaka Philosophy and Buddhism specially supported them. This proved to be a big challenge to Brahamanism. During those days, Aajivaka Darshan was prevalent among the natives. It is also true that in order to suppress and silence these rebellious movements, some of the neo ideologies and notions propagated and instigated to lead a life of lesser demands, follow the path of non-violence (Ahinsa) and be contented by considering everything as God’s wish. With the passage of time, some holy men across India, pleading social equality made mind shaking poetic attacks against caste-religion in the guise of Satsang. Prominent among these saints were: Namdev, Ravidas, Kabir, Trilochan, Sadhna, Sain, Pipa among others. While their compositions preached uniformity and equality of bones, skin, veins and skeleton and the red coloured blood running in the veins of all human beings, these aroused social awakening also. For this reason, they were successful in their times in mobilizing the landless, hard working classes and the artisan fraternity. The poetic compositions of these saints and holy men have autobiographical references and contemporary situations as well as historical events. It is pertinent to mention that these saints and holy men presented a resolution for Shudras and untouchables i.e. natives to shake off Brahamanical traditions and bad customs and to usher in a new society. For example, Begumpura – a city sans all pains and troubles, sans casteism, a society sans caste/class, a modern society, sans any reference to temples, an urban society, the area where no tax is to be paid or no trouble to bear with, where there is no discrimination of high or low, rather all are equals. In the concluding part of this Shabad, poet Ravidas said that he belonged to Chamar caste but was a free bird and loitered in freedom with his friends and had the right to go anywhere, to a city or a village.

The full text of the Shabad (a poem), as published in Sri Guru Granth Sahib is as follows:

The regal real with the sorrowless name:
The they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, nor own property there,
No wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
My distant home, where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
Where none are third or second—all are one;
Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there
Dwell in satisfaction and in wealth.
They do this or that; they walk where they wish,
They stroll through fabled places unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
Those who walk beside me are my friends.

(Hawley and Juergensmeryer, p.32, Seeking Begumpura, p.107, Adi Granth p.345)

And it is also written in Adi Granth:
If Thou dost claim to be a Brahmins by the birth

From a Brahmin woman,

Why was thy birth not from a different source? (Way, path)
Translated in English by Gurbachan Singh Talib, Vol. 1, p. 679

(Adi Granth p. 324)

The aforesaid poetic compositions are enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Many scholars have opined that elucidation of the sacred text of Sri Guru Granth Sahib goes to indicate that it is pro-Dalit. Therefore, as thinker they consider Granth Sahib as Dalit Text. In other words, this great holy book rejects the false notions of untouchability and casteism and portrays spiritualism along with the half truth of social behaviour and the harsh reality without any hanky-panky in natural course seen from a human angle. Some more contemporary saints and holy men, apart from those referred to above were saint Tukaram, Chokhamela, Banka, Janabai and many more who criticized hypocrisy, misplaced belief and show business and played an important role in the development of a new social order.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of twentieth century several Dalit movements came into being with the main aim of bringing a revolutionary change in the Indian society, especially the socio-economic, religious and political situation of the untouchables. What I mean to say is that Jyoti Rao Phule (1827-1890) initiated the bonds of unity in 1868 among the untouchables by allowing the Shudras and extreme Shudras to take water from his home pondand established the ‘Satiyasodhak Society’on 24th September 1873. Later he founded the Hindu Sreyobhi Vardhini Sabha Madras in 1870 and Namashudra Bengal in 1872 to bring an awakening among the untouchables about their rights. Similarly, Adi Dravida Mahajan Sabha in South India in 1927, the first Dalit Revolutionary and land reformist Ayyan Kali in Kerala (1863-1941), M.C. Raja in Tamilnadu, Bhagya Reddy Verma in Andhra Pradesh (1888-1939), Adi Hindu Mahasabha 1926 and in North India Adi Hindu (founder Swami Achhutanand, 1839-1932), Ad Dharam Mandal Punjab (founder Babu Mangu Ram, 1886-1980), Baba Saheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) who all hailed from different areas but with one uniform ideology and thinking presented their ideas before the people and the British government. They published innumerable booklets. For example, Adi Dharam Mandal published eight poetic books: (1) Adi Dukhre, published twice, (2) Sacha Pataka, published twice, (3) Achhuton ki Pukar, (4) Adi Paigam, (5) Vihar Sudhar, published twice, (6) Bharam Torh, (7) Azadi di Daundi and (8) Kaumi Aallan, etc. A total number of 50,000 copies were published of all these editions. A lot of revolutionary literature was published and distributed among the untouchables and before 1931 census, a large number of posters on creating awakening for equal rights were pasted on walls and trees.

All these aforesaid untouchable organizations and their leaders, projected in the posters and booklets that they were being meted out treatment like war hostages since the time the Aryans have subjugated them. The aboriginals of India have no blood relationship with the Aryans. They were not from among us nor did we belong to them. They widely propagated the essence of Begumpura Resolution of uniformity and equality in human rights for all, propounded by Guru Ravidas. Contrary to it, Mahatma Gandhi raised the banner of Ram Raj for Hindu Nationalism which aimed at removing untouchability. He wanted to continue casteism as was in vogue. Yes, in the 1931 census, a conscious effort was made to know the number of untouchables in the country. In Punjab alone, a quarter and four lakh people registered themselves as Adi Dharami, identifying them as being separate from the Hindus and asked the enumerators to write Adi Dharam as their religion in the column under religion. If we look at the data in the 2011 census, we would find that there was 17 crore population of the scheduled castes in the country. In a little broader sense, in seven SAARC nations (now eight), Dalit population was 201 million. According to 2011 estimates, Nepal had 4.5 million Dalits (2005 estimates), United Kingdom 50 lakhs (2011 estimates) and Canada two lakhs. Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh and Pakistan data about Dalit population is not available.

In our ancient scriptures, the natives were known under different names, described as above. The nomenclatures changed in the modern times, as for example, Mahatma Gandhi used the nomenclature ‘Harijan’ (God’s offspring) for the untouchables. In 1928, Desh Sevak (Punjabi newspaper) had translated the word untouchable as ‘Dalit’ in one of its issues which occurred in the memorandum presented to the Simon Commission. Similarly, a magazine ‘Dalit Bandhu’ published from Lahore came out in 1938. Its editors were Jaswant Rai and Prithi Singh Azad. Baba Saheb Dr. Ambedkar used the Sanskrit word Dalit for the first time in Marathi. The use of word ‘Harijan’ is now banned by the court. In fact, Dalit word has great revolutionary connotation. It brings all the untouchable groups (now scheduled castes) in India, residing in any part of the country or may be belonging to any religion, caste, language, etc., under one umbrella. This word gives identity to a scheduled caste person, even if he may be having faith in any religion, Hindu, Budha or Sikh religion.

It would be pertinent to say that Dalit litterateurs became interested in creating literature which was something new, rational, inspirational and pointed to a definite aim. The result was that Dalit movements were used as a logically sound tool. The autobiographies of Dalit litterateurs portrayed a true picture of the contemporary Indian society before intelligentsia, the world over and were successful in projecting the ugly face of the country. The bitter truth in these autobiographies, not indigent of anybody’s sympathy, inspired to fight for achieving the desired goal with a revolutionary zeal and argumentative point of view.

The naked truth is also that the Dalit litterateurs, while keeping themselves in the centre stage of their autobiographies, projected more prominently the social, religious and economic conditions of their entire Dalit community. Often Dalit autobiographers wrote about the conditions which they themselves had undergone. They did not use the flowery language like the autobiographers belonging to upper castes but portrayed with logic the inhuman situations, the excesses being perpetrated against them, coercion and physical exploitation along with blind faith, fallacy, prudery, rituals and pomposity. In the present times, Dalit literature has become the mainstream literature. In other words, the tendency of the graph of traditional literature and Brahamanic biographic literature has gone down. Another fact which comes out prominently is that the claim of the Dalit literature or biography literature being written about Dalits by non Dalits has proved to be hollow and frail as it is far from reality being outsider, full of subjugation and full of sympathy. It is not pro social change, social justice and humanistic in any format. In this context, the following comment of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru could be pondered over in depth, which he made in a letter to Dr. Rajendra Prasad on 17th November 1953 and was published in Organizer Weekly, New Delhi on 4th May 1997:

The Hindu is certainly not tolerant and is certainly more narrow minded than almost any person in any Country, except the Jew.

Dalit autobiographies have been published in large numbers in different Indian languages. Majority of these are Marathi Dalit autobiographies. These Dalit autobiographies have been translated into English and many Indian languages, such as Ambedkar’s Autobiographical Notes, Daya Pawar’s Bluta, N.S. Suryavanshi’s Things I Never Imagined, Narender Jadhav’s Outcaste, Vasant Moon’s Growing up Untouchable in India, Sharan Kumar Limbale’s The Outcaste, Laxman Bapu Mane’s Upara: An Outsider and Arjun Dangle’s Poisoned Bread. Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan remained in the centre of controversies for penning his autobiography type novel One Part Woman.

My autobiography Changiya Rukh: Against the Night published by Oxford University Press in 2010, portrays poverty and destitution of the Dalits in the Punjab province, which was considered prosperous. Similar expressions have been portrayed by Kannada autobiographer Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri, Prof. Satyanaryana’s My Father Baliah (in English but the writer’s language is Telugu).

Similarly, from the Hindi speaking areas, autobiography of Prof. Shivraj Singh Bechain’s My Childhood on My Shoulders, being published by the Oxford University Press would be out soon. Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan and Laxman Gaikwad’s Uchalya: The Branded have already been translated into English. Suraj Pal Chauhan’s autobiography Triskrit has been translated into German language. Apne Apne Pinjre, an autobiography of Mohandas Naimshrai and its second part have been talk of the town. Dr. Dharamvir’s autobiography Meri Patni aur Bheria and Prof. Tulsi Ram’s Murdaiya have specially been a subject matter of discussion from several aspects.

Ghadrite and Adi Dharam founder and Punjabi poet Babu Mangu Ram’s autobiography portions under the banner Mera Jiwan Birtant te Meri Videsh Yatra and poet Gurdas Ram Alam’s autography portions, Ravidas Patrika and Jantak Laher were published in 1971 and 1985 respectively. Story writer Prem Gorky’s Arjan Safaidi Wala, Lal Singh Dil’s Dastan, Sarup Sialvi’s Zajalat, Maluk Chand Kaler’s Kore Ghare da Pani and story writer Amarjit’s Auk da Dudh deserve a special mention.

It is the Dalit autobiographies which had played an important role in carving out an identity for Dalit literature and established yardsticks for a separate Dalit literature philosophy and presented alternative to traditional concepts. They presented own yardsticks for the creation of an ideal society sans casteism, projecting the issues of contemporary social conditions along with caste, class, religion and race with all seriousness and humility.

The notable common feature of all these autobiographies was that their scripts differ but there is no difference in projection of situations. A similar voice of fury and rebellion and social change emerged from all these autobiographies. A study of the contemporary Dalit literature and the autobiographies of Dalit litterateurs indicate that the future of Dalit literature is quite bright, just like the Ambedkar thought in India.

Let me be highly grateful to Dr. Bijender Singh, a writer and editor of great merit, who has carved a special name among the Indian editors by editing anthologies consisting of the critical articles on diverse aspects of English literature. His anthologies on dalit literature, apart from different areas of English literature, are clear evident of his different literary tastes and his deepest feelings to the downtrodden and the underprivileged classes despite being a non-dalit writer. I am grateful to my esteemed friend and prominent editor, Dr. Singh who he gave me an opportunity to write foreword for this book in hand. I hope and am confident that this book, edited by him, of course, would be warmly welcomed by students, research scholars, intellectuals and writers equally, like all his previous books. This book has become another feather to the fame of Dr. Bijender Singh as a writer-cum-editor.

Balbir Madhopuri
Punjabi Dalit Writer, Journalist and Translator
Writer of Changiya Rukh: Against the Night

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