Kausalya Baisantri was an activist, writer, educator, and a gem of the Dalit community. Born as Kausalya Nandeshwar in Maharashtra’s Nagpur on 8 September 1926, Kausalya was the first woman from the Dalit community to share her bittersweet experiences of life in Hindi through her autobiography, Dohra Abhishaap (The Double Curse), published in 1999.
Her father used to oil the machines at Express Mill in Nagpur and her mother was employed at the textile department of the same mill. Courage and hard work were something that she picked up from her parents who worked hard to sustain and educate their six girls and one boy.
Kausalya was inspired by the Ambedkarite ideology from an early age. She emerged as a youth leader in Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s student agitation. She studied at Jai Bai Chaudhary’s school for some time as well. Her mother was deeply influenced by Jai Bai’s work in Maharashtra. A powerful leader of the Dalit community and feminist movement, Jai Bai Chaudhary fought for the education of young Dalit girls. Kausalya had a positive impression of the great revolutionary leader. She wasn’t just efficient in her studies but had an artistic leaning as well. Kausalya’s hobbies and interests included home decor, reading, music, sewing, embroidery and painting. She was very sensitive and considerate towards women’s rights from an early age.
A constant struggle
Due to her deep interest in education, Kausalya married late — at 21 — compared to her friends and most women of her age. She met Devendra Baisantri at an Ambedkarite students’ movement. Due to the common threads attached to the movement and Devendra’s Ambedkarite beliefs, they soon got married in a court. From here on, Kausalya Nandeshwar became Kausalya Baisantri.
Her marriage, instead of bringing bundles of joy, brought bags of pain to her with very little happiness. As their time together passed, her husband kept succumbing to Brahminical patriarchy. Devendra’s patriarchal influence on their children overshadowed her soft empathetic personality for a while, due to which she was forced to leave her home and stay with her daughter Sujata. After 40 years of marriage, when Kausalya filed a police complaint against her husband for domestic abuse and ill-treatment, it was her daughter and younger son who helped her with the court case.
She wrote about some of the horrible incidents in her autobiography, which might leave you shivering.
“Devendra Kumar needed a wife only for satisfying his physical needs and making his food,” Kausalya wrote.
The double curse of caste and gender, overpowered by deep-rooted patriarchy, brought her many dark and depressing days. While she suffered at home, she chose to give more sweat and blood to the movement outside. She was well accepted by the masses but rejected by her own husband.
Ambedkarite at heart
Kausalya was an aware citizen, and she took it as her duty to spread awareness among others as well. For this reason, she translated various essays and articles from Marathi to Hindi. She introduced Hindi readers to the work of activist Urmila Pawar through her translations. She also introduced her readers to personalities such as Jai Bai Chaudhary and Mukta Bai. She wrote about untouchability and its bane. Long after many translations and original works, she came up with her autobiography that became a landmark in Hindi literature. Even though she is limited to and termed a ‘Dalit writer’ by most mainstream newspapers, publishers and media houses, I can’t blame them because I am quite sure that they have never even taken the small step to read her work.
Her work is not just a piece of literature and composition of words but the collective voice of a huge chunk of the most marginalised citizens of India – Dalit women. Even though she was educated in Marathi, Kausalya chose to write her story in Hindi because she wanted it to reach the Hindi-speaking geographical belt as well, where Brahminical patriarchy is deeply rooted in every community across caste, class, and religion.
“Other women too must have had experiences like mine but fearing society and their families they are scared of making their stories public and live their whole lives in suffocation. It is important for these stories to come forward in order to open society’s eyes.” Kausalya wrote.
Her work was not just limited to writing. She was an inspiration for women. She mobilised many women from the Mahila Jagriti Parishad and became the voice for their issues.
Kausalya began her activism by organising Dalit women by inviting her friends and acquaintances from the community to her home in Delhi. There was no organisation to voice the grievances of the Dalit women in the city, so she took the charge of building one. Their organisation had no name at first. It was like a family picnic every second Saturday, but as the members grew in number, they structured the organisation and named it ‘Mahila Samta Samaj’. Soon pamphlets were printed and distributed in various localities. It was her determination and continuous hard work that made her organisation worth recognition not only in Delhi but also pan-India. Kausalya became the first representative of Dalit women in Delhi and reached a point where she personally pointed out the grievances of Dalit women to then President of India, Giani Zail Singh.
She worked tirelessly for gender equality and paid special attention to the issues of Dalit women. Kausalya struggled for most of her life and yet she was able to rise to a position where she became the voice of the masses.
Kausalya Baisantri was a true Ambedkarite because she practised Ambedkarism from her heart. She followed the principle of ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’ given by Dr Ambedkar and made huge contributions to the Indian feminist movement and Dalit movement. Her life proves that just reading Ambedkar is not enough, or just rising to a position in your career is not enough; one has to practise Ambedkar to become a true Ambedkarite and keep the fire of the movement ignited.
The author is a Delhi-based independent illustrator, visual designer, storyteller, educator and Ambedkarite. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)