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Dalit History Month Is A Love Letter To Our Ancestors

20/04/2016 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A man gets a tatoo of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, near his memorial in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007.Ambedkar, an untouchable, or dalit, and a prominent Indian freedom fighter, was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on caste. Hundreds of thousands of low-caste Indians are expected to pay homage at his memorial Thursday, on his 51st death anniversary. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

Dalit History Month is upon us and it is clear that now more than ever, it is vital for Dalit Bahujan and Adivasis to have autonomous spaces where we can learn, discuss and grow our intellectual traditions. As I write, Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi students are fighting to create a future without caste apartheid at universities around the country. This year's Dalit History Month is dedicated to them.

We honour the spirit of Rohith Vemula, Radhika Vemula, and the students of University of Hyderabad who have opened up with courage the conversation on systemic casteism on university campuses. This ongoing battle has grown from a ban on IIT Madras's Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), has been held by the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) at UoH and now has unfolded into an anti-caste movement at the national level. As these students are expelled, assaulted and jailed for fighting for the right to an education free from discrimination, we have to wonder, what then of knowledge? What then of autonomy?

We were hungry for portrayal of Dalits that highlighted assertion and our lineages of resistance against this system.

This is also a year that in the Indian diaspora, conservative Hindu groups have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to stop changes to California textbooks--they want to prevent any mention of caste from material on Hinduism. They feel that the discussion of caste, its basis in religious texts, and its continuance into modern times, is harmful to young Hindu children and opens the door for them to be bullied. There is more to this battle of course than Hindu children's self-esteem. This battle, like all battles for knowledge, is about power. And the agendas of these diasporic groups are directly connected to the BJP's changes to textbooks in India. For them, the vision of a Hindu nation begins with rewriting the people's past to one where Brahmins and the upper castes are the sole victors of history and the line of their authority is unbroken and unchallenged.

But as Huma Dar, the brilliant Kashmiri Bahujan scholar writes, "History is written so we might learn from its mistakes, and very crucially: mistakes that are yet to be appropriately addressed at the structural societal level."

Dalit History Month, then, as a project began last year by a collective of Dalit women activists who banded together from the work around #Dalitwomenfight. The more we investigated the culture of atrocity surrounding our communities, the more we wondered about our own pasts. We were hungry for portrayal of Dalits that highlighted assertion and our lineages of resistance against this system. Yet, nowhere was this information present.

The time is over for intermediaries who speak or write on behalf of Dalits without Dalits leading or co-authoring.

To address this, we created Dalit History Month. Today, it has grown so much larger than we could have imagined. Around the world there are now autonomous Dalit History Month conversations about the Dalit intellectual tradition, and the need to end caste apartheid grows stronger and stronger.

To be centred in Dalit History is to take on Brahmin and White supremacist cis-heteropatriarchal institutions that have tried to warp our ideas of who we are and who we can be. We reject the oppression of these institutions that have tried to create scholarship about our communities without centring our agency in the process of building and disseminating this knowledge. The time is over for intermediaries who speak or write on behalf of Dalits without Dalits leading or co-authoring. This includes scholars, media institutions, funding agencies, governmental bodies and intermediaries who favour their leadership over our autonomy.

Our battle then is to reclaim our identities and dignity in the face of such abusive knowledge models. For in a Brahmin or White supremacist cis-heteropatriarchal society, Dalits do not exist beyond atrocity while Dalit women, queer and trans people are even more shamefully invisible and silenced.

Dalit History Month is a love letter to our ancestors. Every Dalit is born with this powerful spirit of resistance and endurance. Together, we are rewriting our story and toppling generations of counterfeit history spun by our oppressors. To learn our own truth, we put one foot in front of the next to unlearn their sham history.

Together, we are rewriting our story and toppling generations of counterfeit history spun by our oppressors.

So we honour the great Dalit and Bahujan leaders like Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule, Ayyankalli, Jhalkaribai, Shantabai Kamble, and more. We also honour them while calling out the attempts of politicians from the BJP, Congress and AAP who would slyly Blue Wash their agendas with statues and events for Ambedkar, but never truly make central the end of caste apartheid and the culture of impunity that allows it to continue.

Dalits, Bahujan and Adivasis, we know this truth. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the manifestation of our forefathers' and foremothers' dream of freedom. In their honour we believe that in order for our movements to go forward, we must know where we have been. This year in addition to our timeline at www.dalithistory.com, we hope to also support the growth of this conversation with articles and events being written and held by leaders around the world. You can keep track of these conversations at #dalithistory on Facebook and Twitter.

For upper castes in India and the diaspora: The time to end caste apartheid is now. To join the movement you must first unlearn all that has helped to sustain it. This includes embracing discomfort and taking this conversation into the networks of your privilege and holding this line as fiercely as you can. Please read and share our daily posts at Dalit History Month on Facebook and twitter, while also exploring more about Dalit history on our website.

With pride we collectively move onwards into Dalit History Month, not just as students of history, but also, most powerfully, as co-creators of a new Dalit history.

To our allies around the world, we hope you will be inspired by the resistance that is present in our history. As we work to break the silos that Brahmin and White supremacist cis-heteropatriarchal scholarship have created around our vital legacy, we look forward to building connections to your communities through our stories.

There is no greater spiritual journey than that of the pursuit of human dignity. We move forward with the restless energy of Jhalkaribai, Ambedkar, Shantabai Kamble and many others. Through our knowledge, we assert that to be Dalit is not just to be broken, but to essentially be defined by struggle. We boldly claim our legacy of power, resistance, and resilience inherent in our histories. With pride we collectively move onwards into Dalit History Month, not just as students of history, but also, most powerfully, as co-creators of a new Dalit history. In this collective-creative place and practice, we dream for a future of infinite Dalit Bahujan possibility and freedom. And we ask you to join us in this journey!

Jai Bhim.

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