Hira Dom’s poem is a telling comment on the condition of the Dalits from the perspective of a victim. Hira Dom’s Bhojpuri poem ‘Achhoot Ki Shikayat’ (Untouchable’s Complaint) was published by Acharya Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi in his magazine Saraswati in September 1914. It was first and perhaps the only Bhojpuri poem to have been published in Saraswati. Besides its literary value, the poem also has a sociological value as an effective intervention in Dalit discourse. In a small poem, Hira Dom has displayed his sensitivity towards and identification with almost all issues confronting the Dalits at that point in time. The poem, while putting God in the dock for the miserable life of the Dalits, considers the option of conversion but rejects it forthwith. This not only entails the freedom of choice but also its exercise. One of the reasons for the rejection of the option of conversion is preserving one’s self-respect. The reference to self-respect of a community, which was considered entirely devoid of self-respect and unworthy of any respect, in itself is a form of resistance. Vis-a-vis the Dalit community, resistance and self-respect are near-synonyms.
But the rejection of the option of conversion does not mean that the author is happy with his god. In the very next line, the god of old, who broke the pillar to save Prahlad, who rescued the Elephant King from the jaws of the Crocodile, who saved Draupadi’s honour, who killed Ravana and protected Vibhishan, who lifted the mountain on his little finger is compared with the god of today, who is asleep and deaf and is afraid of the touch of a Dom. God afraid of a Dom’s touch is a many-layered imagery. Can God be biased? Is he not perfect? (The question here is not that Dalits needs God’s touch, but vice-versa). Raising the question of God’s touch is an attempt to test the earthly and supernatural gods – to find out whether God actually exists or not by testing the formless God of Vedanta against the worldly touchstone. (Many Dalit fables symbolically hint at such tests. A folktale of Dusadhs of Banganga, Rajgir talks of a Dusadh girl subjecting a Brahmin to such a test. Such tales tend to rely on extreme examples and so does this one. For a real Brahmin, there should be no difference between Ganga and a ditch filled with water). The writer of the poem underlines the continued relevance of this question.
Then, this Dalit poet turns to the contrast between the luxurious life of a landlord and the forced labour of the Dalits and even talks of making a complaint to the British government.
It is common for Dalits to be presented as lecherous criminals. Their labour is considered lowly, dirty and detestable. The poet hits back by exposing the negative aspect of the work of members of other castes, while upholding the dignity of labour. He talks of begging by Brahmins, of Thakurs wielding of lathis, of Banias manipulating their scales, of Ahirs stealing cows, of bards singing praises of kings and of lawyers tying turbans and pontificating in courts. He glorifies earning of one’s livelihood by the sweat of one’s brow and of sharing whatever one has. In the end, rejecting the difference between man and man Hira Dom says that the bodies of the Brahmins and the Doms both are made up of the same flesh and bones. But a Brahmin is worshipped and the people of the entire area play host to him while Dalits are not even allowed to go near a well. “We have to drink water poured into our cupped hands. Our limbs are broken by beating us with lathis. Why?”
This poem of Hira Dom not only gives expression to the feelings of the Dalits of Bihar in those times but also indicates the direction the Dalit movement should take. The Dalit had to throw God out of his heaven by touching him. He had to fight for the right to fill water from the well and against his physical torture. He had to take on the officialdom and landlords for forcing him to labour without compensation. He had to establish his respect and preserve his self-respect. And most importantly, he had to uphold the dignity of labour.
(Excerpted with thanks from Swarg par dhawa: Bihar mein Dalit Andolan’ (Storming heaven: Dalit movement in Bihar), Prassana Kumar Chaudhary and Shrikant, Vani Prakashan, New Delhi, 2005)
Published in the November 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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