It is always better to see our heroes as common men, for only then can we relate our traditions, struggles and aspirations with them. That is why it is difficult to understand the logic behind the statues standing on the squares and crossroads in the country. Do they reflect a casteist mindset? Are they representative of the superiority complex of the upper castes? But what hurts is that the heroes from the toiling castes can be counted on the fingertips. Is it because the working class did not have its own chroniclers?
Of course, a handful of tribals, Dalits and OBCs have been given the status of heroes but that is not enough in this country of more than 100 crores, especially in view of the future social structure of India. Such a small number of heroes can never lend the needed energy and enthusiasm to the repressed Dalit communities that are moving forward at a fast pace. It is thus necessary that we should underline the contribution of the Bahujans, who are changing society through their small but vital struggles. We should appreciate their diligence and their dedication and give them the respect that the casteist society has consistently denied them. Journalist Prema Negi details the work of four Bahujan heroines who are doing great work in their respective fields.
Through her powerful women’s organisation Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), Sampat Pal has been spreading awareness among rural women in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh for the past several years. Sampat believes that pink is the favourite colour of women, and the pink saree has given the Gulabi Gang a distinct identity the world over. Born into the backward Gadaria caste in 1947, Sampat Pal has always stood out for her courage and determination. She revolted against her in-laws, took on the musclemen of her village and put officers in their place. She even took out a rally of dogs against the officer in charge of the local police station. While she won admirers in faraway places, her challenges mounted locally. Controversies chased her and she had to face many questions, but she only became stronger. She continued to work silently and emerged as a role model, especially for the youth and women of Dalit-OBC communities. Other women from Dalit-OBC communities fighting similar personal battles became associated with her. Sampat says, “Every morning, I went to the fields to dump cow dung. I carried a somewhat better saree with me. After doing the work, I changed into that saree and left for other villages. To gain entry into houses, I sometimes posed as a friend of the women of the family, sometimes as a henna artist, sometimes as a seller of bangles and sometimes as a health worker. Once I met with the women, they became mine and I became theirs. After all, we shared the same miseries, the same problems.”
Bhawani Munda, a tribal from Jalpaigudi in West Bengal, needs no introduction in the state. She is the coach and captain of a professional football team that she put together in the backward and illiterate area known only for its tea gardens. In the area where Munda comes from, 60 per cent of the girls are married off before their eighteenth birthday. Bhawani too faced this pressure. When her parents and brothers tried to stop her from playing football, she threatened to break her own legs so that no one would marry her. It was in 1995, when Bhawani saw on TV a team of professional women footballers playing, that she for the first time realized that the sport she loved has such a passionate following in her state. Despite all the challenges, Bhawani began working towards building the football team of tribal girls. The most difficult part of her endeavour was to persuade girls to wear shorts while playing. She had to face many barbs; she was branded shameless and immodest but she did not give up. Initially, her team played barefoot in tournaments. Later, when the district authorities saw that her girls showed promise, they presented shoes to the team. Now, on special occasions, private clubs sponsor her team and they get a decent sum.
“I was a woman, a dalit and handicapped. You may overcome your physical handicap by your willpower but the society will still not recognise you as an equal. It will remind you day and night that you are incomplete.” These are the words of young Dalit poetess and story-writer Sumitra Mehrol. And these are not mere words. She has lived this pain and her struggle continues. Polio left her crippled when she was 9 months old. Ignoring the uncharitable comments of the society and family and overcoming the mental trauma born out of the apathy of the people around her, she concentrated on her studies. Born and brought up in Delhi, Sumitra was the only daughter in her family but instead of love and affection, she got only derision. Her grandmother was the only member of the family who encouraged her to do well in life. Stomaching the insults and indifference that came her way, she topped in the twelfth grade examination. After graduation, she got a job in a government bank. But she continued her studies. As she worked, she completed her MPhil and PhD. Sumitra says that despite acquiring a reasonably good stature after a long struggle, she found it impossible to find a life partner. No decent boy was ready to marry her. It was with great difficulty that she finally got married. Today, her family includes her husband and two sons. To a great extent, she is happy with her life, but she also carries a scar that refuses to heal.
Haryana is notorious for wanton attacks on Dalits. A Dalit woman emerging as a social worker in that state can only evoke surprise. For Geeta, it came at the end of a long struggle. Geeta inherited her grit from her mother. Her father passed away when she was a kid and her mother took on the responsibility of bringing up her nine sisters and a brother. She was the third child of her parents. They lived in the Jind district. During the day, her mother served water to labourers who loaded freight on to goods trains and in the mornings and evenings, she cleaned utensils in the nearby houses. Geeta helped her mother in her work and was an eyewitness to her struggle and exploitation. As she grew up, Geeta increasingly felt the urge and need to bring about a change. She came in contact with organisations working among rural women, and waged a long battle for women working as labourers in farms and in brick kilns. Later, she founded an organisation called the Mahila Mukti Morcha. The Haryana government, though, branded the organisation Maoist. And Geeta was arrested and sent to jail, where she spent 3 years and 7 months. She was acquitted of all charges in 2012. “I will be party to all struggles which are waged for socio-economic equality. My only wish in life is to contribute to the creation of a society in which a person’s status is not a function of his or her gender or caste,” she says.
Published in the February 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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