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Crushed into submission, Dalit identity seldom came to fore—but Valmiki changed the script

In Exploring the Margins: Caste, Class and Gender Identity, Suresh Kumar explores how Dalit writers enunciate their ‘self’— like Om Prakash Valmiki in Joothan.

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Joothan is not merely a register of Dalit suffering and haplessness, it notes several instances of both individual and collective resistance by Dalits. Although, majority of the masses in the basti were illiterate, but they were conscious and powerful enough to oppose their exploitation. Dalits’ protest against the high caste is reflected in their unyielding refusal to work without wages. Valmiki describes how he and other Dalit employees of the Ordnance Factory Chandrapur, held rallies to oppose the violence being inflicted on Dalits by anti-reservation high caste protesters.

Dalits protested collectively when a Brahmin teacher asked his students to rip off the lesson on Ambedkar: “Rallies and protest meetings began all over Vidarbha as soon as the story came out. The incident had become a symbol of Dalit oppression. A huge rally was staged at Bhadravati, and thousands of people attended. I too addressed the rally.”

The high caste people’s attempts to suppress Dalit voices further awakened and organised Dalits. Undeterred Dalit activists started many new programs for Dalit empowerment such as opening schools and libraries for the education of Dalit children. Valmiki also records how Dalit Panthers protested to change the name of Marathwada University to Dr Ambedkar University despite strong opposition from casteist forces. Many Dalits were beaten, arrested, tortured and killed but they continued to protest sturdily. Dalit assertion and the struggle for their rights, identity and dignity in Maharashtra had a great influence on Valmiki. It widened his understanding of caste issues and heightened his Dalit consciousness.

Also read: Hindi Dalit literature has a gaping hole – satire

Joothan also records several instances of strong individual resistance by Dalit characters. Valmiki’s father is the most awakened and articulate as he demands his rights and dignity and fights against the high caste oppressors. He is illiterate and economically disadvantaged, but he understands the mechanisms of Dalit suffering and has the capacity to fight against injustices.

He gets angry and turns rebellious when he comes to know that the headmaster does not allow his son Omprakash to study and asks him to sweep and clean the school. He not only opposes this injustice, but also threatens the headmaster: “Pitaji took my hand and started walking towards our home. As he walked away, he said, loudly enough for the headmaster to hear, ‘You are a teacher… so I am leaving now. But remember this much, Master … This Chuhre ka will study right here…in this school. And not just him, there will be more coming after him.” With the help of Pradhan Sagwa Singh Tyagi, Valmiki’s father managed to readmit his son in the same school and thus won his struggle against the casteist efforts of Kaliram. Valmiki’s father was a courageous man who never submitted to the atrocious high castes passively. He goes out to punish Brajesh when he comes to know that his son was beaten by him. He took a stick to fight against Fauz Singh Tyagi also when Valmiki told him that he had dragged him to work in his field while he was preparing for examination.

These details and instances show that Valmiki’s father had a great Dalit consciousness as he believes that it is only through education that Dalits can improve their socio-economic condition. He advises his son to educate himself to counter caste. He also ended the custom of salaam when Valmiki criticised it as a humiliating custom imposed on Dalits to trample their confidence and dehumanise them further. He looked at his son with pride and said: “Munshiji, sending you to school has been a success… I, too, have understood your point … We shall now break this custom.” Valmiki admires and reveres his father for his courage, sense of dignity, dynamism, progressive approach and acknowledges his influence on his social and psychological building.

Valmiki also shows his mother’s protest and assertion of her self-esteem. She protested against Sukhdev Singh Tyagi when at the wedding feast of his daughter he offered her joothan, the scraps of food remaining on the leaf plates of the wedding guests. She refused to accept them as she finds it unjustified to receive just scraps when she and her family had worked hard for the wedding. She asked for fresh food and sweets that were distributed to the guests. She revolts when Sukhdev Singh Tyagi denied her rational, justified demand and scolded her: “She emptied her basket right there and said, ‘Pick it up and put it inside your house. Feed it to the baratis tomorrow morning.’ She gathered me and my sister and left like an arrow. There is a clear indication of assertion of rights and dignity in mother’s retaliation and revolt. Valmiki compares her to Goddess Durga, who along with her other virtues, also stands for power and destruction.

The author also exhibits an awakened Dalit consciousness from his childhood. The frequent exposure to exploitation made him understand the mechanism of Dalit suffering. His assertion of rights and resistance against caste are reflected when he questions the absence of Dalits and their issues in traditional Indian literature in his school days. He found it prejudiced that the instance of Dronacharya’s feeding his famished son, Ashwatthama with flour dissolved in water, found place in the great epic Mahabharta but the Dalits who had been starving for centuries were ignored.

According to Mohd Asaduddin, “In Joothan, Omprakash Valmiki deals with the issue of humiliation meted out to the Dalits by the Indian society, no matter where they lived. This humiliation stems from the fact that Dalit inferiority has gotten embedded in the psyche of the upper caste and in their literary and artistic imagination and sensibility. Even the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are replete with examples of this denigration where the Shudras and Chandalas are treated as less than human.”

Valmiki finds eminent Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant artificial and exaggerative in his depiction of the Indian rustic life in one of his poems that Valmiki was taught at school: “Ah, how wonderful is this village life… each word of the poem had proved to be artificial and lie.” Valmiki does not find village life wonderful at all. His description of the Dalit basti, rainy seasons and the beating of poor labourers presents an inversed picture of what Pant says about village life. He writes that life may be good for those village dwellers who were not humiliated and beaten for their caste and were not forced to live on scraps.

For the poor Dalits, village life is humiliating, full of deprivation, torture and is no way less hellish than any other place. Valmiki’s refusal to follow the tradition of salaam after his wedding also denotes his Dalit consciousness and his assertion of dignity and identity. Valmiki was conscious of the indignities and dehumanisation that Dalit brides and bridegrooms had to undergo while doing salaam in the high caste households. He exhibits an awakened Dalit consciousness and wages open rebellion against the caste-based humiliation when he refused to eat the food served with indignity by Fauz Singh Tyagi’s mother: “She dropped the rotis into my hand from way above, lest her hand touch mine. This gesture was insulting to me. I threw those rotis in front of her and ran towards my home.”

Also read: Babytai Kamble — the Mahar icon who was ‘reborn’ to write about Dalit women’s subjugation

It was because of his exposure to the writings of Phule and Ambedkar that Valmiki’s nascent Dalit consciousness subsequently transformed into a strong voice of protest both as a writer and an activist: “After reading Ambedkar, I had realized that by naming the untouchables Harijans, Gandhi had not helped them join the national mainstream, but had saved Hindus from becoming a minority. Guarded their interests, in fact.” Ambedkar was well aware that Gandhi’s opposition to granting a separate electorate to Dalits by the Government and coining the term Harijan are part of his strategies to alienate Dalits from political power and to keep them in Hinduism. Valmiki rejects Gandhi and his views of caste but acknowledges Ambedkar’s contribution to Dalit liberation. He offers Ambedkarism as an ideological alternative for Dalits. He finds religion the root of all kinds of differences practiced against Dalits. He discards his identity as a Hindu and protests vociferously against it: “If I were really a Hindu, would the Hindus hate me so much? Or discriminate against me? Or try to fill me up with caste inferiority over the smallest things?”

Valmiki criticises the empty ritualism of Hinduism and maintains that it not only strengthens the concept of caste purity and pollution but also promotes violence against Dalits and animals. Valmiki opines that Dalits have to abandon Hinduism and reject Hindu practices if they want to liberate and empower themselves. He also suggests that Dalits should convert to Buddhism which is egalitarian in nature and does not practice casteism.


This excerpt from ‘Exploring the Margins: Caste, Class and Gender Identity’ by Suresh Kumar, has been published with the permission of Vitasta Publishing Private Limited.



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