Rajni Tilak: ‘We weren’t born to sleep, but to be awake’

Day or night, Rajni Tilak never switched off from the ‘movement mode’. Savitribai Phule was her ideal. Savitribai had become a part of her personality. Just as a good actor immerses herself in her character, Rajni was immersed in the character of Savitribai all her life, writes Kanwal Bharti who shared a special affinity with her

Rajni Tilak (27 May 1958 – 30 March 2018) 

I don’t remember when I first met Rajni Tilak. Let alone the date, I don’t even remember the year. Neither can I call to mind the occasion. But I do remember a lot about her – so much so that even a thick book would not suffice to record all my memories. I don’t remember how many times we met at the houses in Delhi’s Pitampura, Rohini, Timarpur, Model Town and Wazirabad. I have also stayed in these houses. I also met her at her office at the Gandhi Darshan Kendra in Rajghat, and at Anita Bharti’s Shalimar Bagh residence. We met at Daryaganj, at Connaught Place, while taking a stroll and over lunches and cups of coffee. I met her in Ranchi, in Nagpur, in Hyderabad during the Social Forum, in Lucknow, on HMT premises in Kalka, in the Delhi Metro, over long-distance train journeys and as co-travellers in buses. I have lots of memories of conversations and banters with her – and of course, fierce arguments and fiercer fights. On many of my visits to Delhi, she received me at the railway station and saw me off at the bus stand or the railway station. I had very close, familial relations with her and never in my life did I develop as much proximity to anyone else. We were friends and shared our sorrows and joys. When mobile phones were yet to make an appearance, she used to keep a pager with her. Once, when we were watching a movie in a theatre in Delhi, her pager beeped. She had received a message. That was the first time I saw what a pager looked like. She used all the modern means of communication. Pagers were not very common then. Only a few busy professionals used to keep it. It was the time when letters were the prime means of exchange of ideas and of personal news. After the advent of the mobile phone, we started discussing social and personal matters over the phone. She was a very emotional person. She was in love with her mission. But she was equally in love with her family. However, fissures began to develop in the family. She was involved in litigation against her sister, Anita Bharti, and was accused of having an illicit relationship with Satya – who used to touch her feet and regard her as his mother. Even her daughter Jyoti deserted her. These developments deeply disturbed and distressed her and often she broke down while talking to me on the phone. My consolatory words were: “Rajni, these people will respect you after you are gone.” That turned out to be true. It was after she was no more that her family realized how tall she was. Many members of her family used to harbour ill will towards me, probably her daughter too, because I stood by Rajni.  

My quarrels with her were quite frequent. The bone of contention was the “NGO culture”, to which I was stiffly opposed. I used to warn her that she was undermining popular resistance by accepting financial aid from America’s Ford Foundation. I had become aware of this decline at the Asian Social Forum (Hyderabad – 2003) itself. “You people hold seminars on poverty and hunger with American money. Has that ended hunger and poverty?” I used to ask her. She invariably lost her temper. She was so immersed in the NGO culture that she and her brother, Ashok Bharti, quit their government jobs to work fulltime for nurturing their NGOs. When it comes flowing, money brings with it virtues and vices both. It was money that led to ugly spats in her family. They broke Rajni’s heart and she probably distanced herself from NGOs. 

Rajni Tilak (27 May 1958 – 30 March 2018)

What impressed me about Rajni was her simple lifestyle and her diligent work at the grass-roots level. She was the first writer in Delhi to organize workshops on Dalit Literature when Dalit discourse was at a nascent stage in Hindi literature. I got the opportunity to participate in a couple of them. Those were very meaningful events in which Dr Ambedkar’s Dalit movement and the history of Dalit literature were discussed deeply and passionately. These workshops were not held at plush auditoriums. They were held in someone’s home and we sat on the floor and talked. I met Dr Kusum Viyogi and Heeralal Rajasthani in these workshops. Such workshops are no longer held though they are still needed. 

I remember one particular incident. Ashok Bharti and Rajni Tilak had organized a programme on Dalit literature on the HMT premises in Kalka, Haryana. I was there and so was Mohandas Naimishrai. The event was successful. Nemishrai took the critics of Dalit Literature to task. Chhaya Khobragade was also there. It was at this event that I met Marxist thinker Lashkar Singh. He was a Sikh from Mohali. His daughter was a doctor by profession and a revolutionary by passion. He gave a powerful speech at the meeting. During the lunch break, he took me to his place in Mohali. We had a brief stopover at his daughter’s clinic. I was amazed to see how rich and huge his personal library was. It was decided that I would visit his residence sometime solely for utilizing his library. (The visit did happen and it was with his family that I made my maiden visit to Shimla. But I could not spend time in his library.) Lashkar Singh and I returned to the HMT premises. After the end of the second session, some of us were having tea at a shack on the highway. Chhaya proposed that she and I should visit Shimla. “We will leave early in the morning tomorrow and be back by the evening,” she said. I was more than willing, for I had never been to Shimla. I thought I should grab that opportunity. We were standing a little away from the others. Suddenly, Rajni joined us. Chhaya gestured to me not to share our plan with Rajni but I could not follow what she was trying to tell me and blurted out the details of the proposed Shimla trip. Rajni immediately flew off the handle. She shouted at me as if I was going to commit some great sin. I was taken aback. I did not know what to say. Rajni then started arguing with Chhaya. But Chhaya was unwilling to cancel her programme. She insisted that I should accompany her to Shimla. But Rajni made it clear that there was no way I could go there. Chhaya refused to alter her plan and left for Shimla the same evening. Deferring to Rajni’s wish, I didn’t go. One reason was that I was friends with Rajni, while it was just my second meeting with Chhaya and that too courtesy of Rajni.  

Rajni Tilak (second from right) with Dalit authors

That night, we slept on the floor of the HMT Bhavan. Women and men were in the same hall. We chatted and sang songs till about midnight. Rajni started waking up everyone early in the morning. I am in the habit of sleeping in and I got up about an hour later than the others. We got ready and left for Chandigarh, from where we caught a Haryana Roadways bus to Delhi. I was to catch a bus to my hometown from the Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi the same day. When I was about to leave her place for the bus station Rajni said, “I am also coming”. 

“Where to?” I asked. 

“To the bus stand. Where else?” 

“Why? Do you fear I will go to Shimla?”

“That you cannot do now. I want to talk to you.” 

I agreed and we caught an autorickshaw for Anand Vihar. On the way, she told me the story of how she had become close to Chhaya Khobragade and then how they drifted apart. More than an hour elapsed. We reached the bus station but her story was not yet over. I took leave of her and boarded the bus. On the way I thought about the strained relations between Chhaya and Rajni and concluded that it was nothing but professional rivalry.

While people share an area of work, the NGO sector in this case, they, who otherwise have the same objectives and share the same values, become such fierce rivals of one another that their relations cease to be friendly. This happened with Rajni Tilak, too. Her relations with many people, especially the women she worked with, turned sour. That was why she was against my accompanying Chhaya Khobragade to Shimla. 

There was another similar incident. It was the year 2003. Vasvi, a tribal writer and journalist, had invited four writers and journalists to Ranchi. The idea was to assess whether the objectives for which Jharkhand was carved out as a separate state had been achieved. The occasion was the state’s third foundation day. I was one of the invitees. The others were Mohandas Naimishrai, Sheoraj Singh Bechain and Subhash Gatade. It was much later that we came to know that an NGO had sponsored our trip. We took an Indian Airlines flight to Ranchi on 14 November.

At the time, bitterness had crept into my relationship with Rajni. The reason was that the NGO culture she was immersed in had helped only her family to progress. No one else had benefited. I don’t remember where exactly we were put up in Ranchi but it was some sort of accommodation meant for MLAs. It was a surprise when Rajni Tilak came to meet us. All of us, especially Vasvi, were stunned. A verbal duel between Vasvi and Rajni followed. It was again a professional rivalry, which we could not make head or tail of. It was around 8 pm. We trooped to the canteen for dinner. Despite all our differences, Rajni and I had meals on the same table. Later she came to my room and spent a long time, explaining to me why this was that and that was this. But I was none the wiser. When she got up to leave, I did not ask her about her destination. We did not meet again during my stay in Ranchi. Vasvi related a story about Rajni to which I did not pay much attention. I never met Vasvi after that. Both Vasvi and Rajni were writers but they belonged to different classes. Vasvi was ambitious, Rajni was not. She was not the one to chase power. But Vasvi always ensured that she was in the ruling camp. When I visited Ranchi the next time on the invitation of Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, I was told that Vasvi had been appointed a member of the Women’s Commission of Jharkhand. Rajni never harboured such ambitions. She was very emotional and was a vociferous critic of the establishment. She had worked with Kanshi Ram and Mayawati when they were yet to gain a foothold in politics. At the time, she could never imagine that both of them would become important and powerful players in the political arena. Had she wanted, she could have taken advantage of her proximity to them. But flattery was not in her blood. I had all sorts of differences with her but I never lost respect for her as a person. Whether she was running an NGO or not, her commitments and concerns remained unchanged. She was inquisitive, informal and lively. I was witness to her commitment and her emotional nature in Hinganghat, Maharashtra. 

Rajni Tilak with other women litterateurs on 3 March 2018 (All pictures courtesy Rajni Tilak’s Facebook page)

A grand event centred on Dalit Literature is held in Hinganghat every year. It has something for everyone – theatre, folk arts, lectures on different literary genres, stalls selling books, sculptures, paintings and food, besides several other ways to amuse and entertain yourself. The event is an all-night affair. Once I was invited to inaugurate it. Yogendra Kabade, who was with me on the dais at the inaugural session, arrived amid the beating of drums and vigorous sloganeering. He delivered a fiery speech in Marathi. At around 8 pm, I called it a day. I came to the place where we were put up. But the arrangements were far from satisfactory. Guests outnumbered rooms many times over and people were sleeping wherever they could find some space. It was with great difficulty that a member of the organizing committee found a room for me. When we knocked at the door, and the door opened, I was happy to discover that my roommate was Dr Tej Singh. A brief exchange of pleasantries later, I occupied the vacant bed. I was exhausted and dozed off within minutes. After a while, someone started banging on the door. I woke up with a start, and so did Tej Singh. He told me, “Don’t open the door. Someone might be looking for a place to sleep.”  

I said, “Friend, that would be too much. Maybe, they are looking for someone.” 

“Yes, that may be the case,” he said and got up and opened the door. Rajni was standing outside. She probably wasn’t aware that Tej Singh was also in the room. I looked at my watch. It was 12. After she was inside the room, I told her, “We will vacate one bed and you can sleep in it.”

She replied in a stern voice, “Kanwal Bharti, I have not come here to sleep. I have come here to fetch you.”

“Where to?”

“To the programme”

“What programme? How can there be any programme at this time?”

“Come along and you will find out,” she said. 

Tej Singh was unwilling to sacrifice his sleep. I dressed up and went with her. After seeing the event I realized that it was not something I would have liked to miss. It was an amazing programme on the sensitivities of women. I thought why programmes for and of women were held at the end – when men had gone to sleep. I told Rajni, “You are great. I feel like prostrating before you. You are fast becoming my inspiration.”  

What she said then became permanently etched on my heart – “Kanwal Bharti ji, don’t get emotional. We weren’t born to sleep, but to be awake.”

That night, I suddenly discovered that Rajni was a powerful inspiration to me. She was not an ordinary woman. She was extraordinary. Her thinking was extraordinary, her approach was extraordinary, her entire being was extraordinary.

I have a big stock of letters from her. Evidently, they were written at the time when letters were the prime means of communication. Both of us had landline phones at our places but the mobile phone revolution was still some years away and the art of letter-writing was still alive. I wrote to her, “I want to come to meet Biharilal Harit. We are fortunate that he is still among us. Why not a last interview with him? You can also join in. Are you game?” This was in 1998. On 28 October, she wrote to me, “We haven’t been able to discuss Uttar Pradesh in detail. You should come to see Biharilal Harit as soon as possible so that we can see you. We will discuss things in detail then.” Rajni decided to make full use of my visit. A workshop on ‘Dalit Literature, Education and Politics’ was planned for 21 November 1998 and the next day, we were to go and meet Biharilal Harit. Omprakash Valmiki was also to attend the workshop but he could not make it. As we had planned, we started for Shahdara to meet Harit – “we” meaning Rajni, Kusum Viyogi and I. 

Poet Biharilal Harit with Rajni Tilak (right), Kanwal Bharti (left) and Kusum Viyogi (Photo courtesy Kanwal Bharti)

Few people would be aware that the Bihari Colony, in which Harit lived, is named after him and was established by him. While living in Delhi in 1980-81, I used to visit Bihari Colony frequently to meet Harit. The locality had changed beyond recognition in the 17 years since and I could not even recognize the lanes which I used to frequent. But for Viyogi it would have been difficult to locate Harit’s house. When we arrived, Harit was sitting on a cot, covered up in a quilt, with a hookah beside him. He had been ill for some time and his body had grown feeble. He was suffering from piles. I don’t know why people are reluctant to talk about this ailment in public. Harit called me to his side and whispered into my ear, “Piles is giving me a lot of trouble.” Rajni was sitting on the cot next to him. He could have shared that with her, too. But he did not. Now I have piles, too, and realize how painful it would have been for Harit. The conversation with Harit went off very well and was a memorable one, for he bid farewell to this world about six months later. The three of us asked him different questions and through his answers he led us through the history and traditions of Dalit ideology. Rajni Tilak published the entire interview in the July 1999 issue of her newspaper Abhimooknayak. At Rajni’s request, I wrote an article on the life and the poetry of Harit. Then she and I visited the office of Rashtriya Sahara and met the editor Vibhanshi Divyal to get the article published on Harit’s birthday. Rajni talked to the editor. Her tone was not that of a request. “Harit is one of the leading lights of Dalit poetry. His birthday is on 13 December 1998. Here is Kanwal Bharti’s article on him. It should be printed on that day,” she said. It was duly done and Rajni phoned me, “Kanwal ji, your article has been published.” More importantly, Rajni had my article printed in the form of a four-page brochure, which was distributed at the programme organized on Harit’s birthday by the Centre for Alternative Dalit Media. How many Dalit writers of today have such commitment? 

Till 1995, I was not aware that Rajni also wrote poetry. One day, I happened to read one of her poems in a newspaper or magazine and wrote to her saying that it was nice to see her as poetess and that I would like to read her other poems, too. On 22 November 1995 she wrote to me, “Where did you read my poem? I am happy to know that you liked it. Thanks. It is after many years that I feel like writing.” One day, after going through her poems at her place, I suggested that she should publish an anthology. At the time, publishing a book is not as easy as it is now. The so-called mainstream publishers were unwilling to publish Dalit literature. Dalit writers had to get their books printed at their own expense. This was a big problem. It was one the reasons why Dalit literature in Hindi came to light quite late. In 1998 she decided to publish her poems and sent me some of them. She wanted me to write the foreword to the book. She wrote: “I am sending some of my poems so that you can go through them and write the foreword. My poems might be less about Dalit consciousness and more about feminism. There is no doubt that even among women, the questions of Dalit women should be viewed from a different perspective but my poems spring from my personal experience, struggle and resolutions and are about the battles of the women of today. I know you are a plain-speaker and are frank with your opinions. Hence, I am sending them to you for your comments. I had shown some of them to Ramnika [Gupta] and Jaiprakash [Kardam] and they did not find them bad.”

In this letter dated 28 February 1998 she asked me to write the foreword as early as possible and send it to her. She also wrote that she proposed to release the book around 8-10 March. At the end, she said, “I have shortlisted three titles for the book. Let me know the best one.” The titles were not three but four, “Pinjra tod ke aayee hoon”, “Karodon padchap hoon”, “Mat sata”, and “Naye yug ka sutrapat hoon”. There was a tick against the second title. That was probably her choice. I suggested another title – “Tod doongi bediyan”.  The book was published two years later, in 2000, under the title “Padchap”. My comment was published as a blurb. 

Along with my comment on her poems, I wrote to her that it would be better if she got the foreword written by a woman author. She wrote back on 27 March 1998 from Allahabad. The letter is important, hence I am reproducing a major part of it with slight editing. “… I am grateful that you read my poems closely and wrote the foreword … your suggestion that I should get the foreword written by a woman author is right. But who is there except Ramnika Gupta? Hence, I am sending them to Kumud Pawde in Maharashtra.” Further, she wrote, “Kanwal ji, I don’t write poems, I am not fond of writing them. They simply come to me. You may not believe it but from my childhood, my poems have been scattered among my notebooks, my diaries … I brought them together at one place. A friend wrote them out. Another took them from me to read. The roof of his house collapsed and 80-85 poems were lost. The notebook in which they were written got buried in the rubble. About 30-35 poems were left behind at my husband’s place. I have somehow gathered the courage to publish the compilation. Consider this an attempt to get a foothold.”

Just imagine, had the 100-odd poems not been lost, how much richer Rajni Tilak’s literary corpus would have been!  

Rajni had visited Allahabad to interact with some Dalit women sarpanchas. Sharing her experiences, she wrote in the same letter, “The fact is that unless we learn to think independently, we cannot hope to sustain the Dalit movement. I have been to only a small part of Uttar Pradesh – Meerut, Anupshahr, Ghaziabad and Allahabad. While talking to Dalit women sarpanchas, I realized that they know virtually nothing. They are helpless, they are mere puppets. I will write about something that happened here today in Mooknayak. It was not that I was not aware of their problems. But their problems, their humiliation, their helplessness, their ignorance – know no limits. Seeing all this has only made me stronger. Among politicians, they know of only Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. They use the word Harijan without any hesitation. Not surprisingly, they don’t know about the [SC-ST] Atrocities Prevention Act. These poor, miserable sisters of mine – they start crying with joy on taking the name of Mayawati. They are miles away from being educated but they want to understand the meaning of organization. They have a presence of mind; they don’t lack intelligence or understanding. I explained to them the meaning of Harijan and the definition of Dalit. I told them about Jotiba Phule, Savitribai and Babasaheb. They were happy. Their eyes betray a thirst for knowledge. There is a ray of hope here.” Below the date in the letter, she wrote 10 pm. She signed off with a remark: “I am a bit lazy when it comes to writing. But I am beginning to practise it. And this letter is the first step in that direction.” On the last page of the letter, beside a sketch of a woman was a poem. She wrote, “A poem floated into my consciousness at the break of dawn.” 

Padh Mahabharat,
Na ban Kunti, na ban Draupadi,
Padh Ramayan
Na ban Sita na ban Kaikeyi
Padh Manusmiriti
Ulat Mahabharat, Palat Mahabharat
Mita andhkaar
Padh Samaj
Ban Savitri Phule
Fahra shiksha ka parcham
                              – Rajni

(Read the Mahabharata. But don’t become Kunti, don’t become Drapuadi. Read the Ramayana. But don’t become Sita, don’t become Kaikeyi. Read Manusmiriti. Understand the Mahabharata, understand the Ramayana. Dispel the darkness. Study society. Become Savitri Phule. Fly the flag of education)

Rajni Tilak addresses women sarpanchas at a village in Allahabad district, Uttar Pradesh

There is no doubt that Savitribai Phule was Rajni’s ideal. Savitribai had become a part of her personality. Just as a good actor immerses herself in her character, Rajni was immersed in the character of Savitribai all her life. She translated, edited and published all the poems of Savitribai. This was a remarkable feat, for which she will be remembered.

I would like to share one more letter of hers, which I think is relevant. Dalit groups from India had raised the demand that caste discrimination be included in the agenda of the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The demand drew opposition from within the country, with the government categorically stating that there was no caste discrimination in India. At that time, the Rashtriya Dalit Manavadhikar Sangathan had issued a “Black Paper” on caste discrimination in India. Many Dalit organizations had sent their representatives to Durban to hold protests outside the conference venue in support of their demand. Rajni Tilak was also one of them. The following excerpt from a letter she wrote to me from Durban on 6 September 2001 is important: 

Dear Kanwal Bharti Ji,

Jai Bhim. This is my ninth day here in Durban. For the past two days we (Chhaya and I) have been staying at Impala Hotel along with NRI friends Kedar Yogesh Vanade. 

Around 300 Dalit activists, writers, leaders and journalists have come here from India. The words ‘decent work’ have been used in para 73 of the declaration. And there is a lot of controversy around it. For us, it would be enough if the para is retained as it is. But some countries want the words ‘decent work’ to be removed because our traditional and ancestral trades, which are based on birth, lead to our exploitation. If they find mention in the UN declaration, they will draw the attention of the world community towards our human rights and expose the caste system. 

Every morning, all of us demonstrate outside the UN conference venue raising slogans and holding placards. At the instance of Daljeet (UK) we raise slogans like “Caste kills dignity”; “Peace! Peace!”; “We want para 73”; “Jai Bhim, Jai Bhim”; “Uproot casteism”; “Justice, justice as in para 73”; “Down down casteism, racism”; “Dalits want para 7”.

Foreign media is taking great interest in us. The NRIs here interact with Dalit representatives in the programmes of South African TV channels. They ask lots of questions about casteism. They are very curious about it. Their ancestors came here and with time, caste divisions among them disappeared. Some youth were shocked to know about the dismal conditions in India. The Hindi films have fed them a different image of the people and the villages of India. It is very difficult for them to reconcile that image with what we tell them about the Dalits. Women here are very active and self-dependent. Most of them run businesses.

Below these lines she wrote the date “08/09/01” and the time “3 am” and then continued: “We have been waiting for the declaration for the past two days. The NGOs and the governments could not work together on the declaration. Para 73 was dropped. Some people began a hunger strike. After two days, the British High Commissioner came and broke our fast. Our NRI friends are so busy with our agenda that we could not even see South Africa.” Then she informed me that she would be reaching Delhi via Mumbai on 10 September. “I will tell you about the antics of Chander Bhan [Chandrabhan Prasad] here when we meet,” she wrote further. She did tell me but it was no different from what I already knew. 

Of late, Rajni Tilak was working on two projects. She had published two volumes of a series on works of women Dalit writers and the third was ready for publication. The other was writing a living history of the Dalit movement. We were supposed to work on it together. We were to visit some districts of Uttar Pradesh to collect material for the book. The districts were decided and so were the dates. But no one knew that her caravan would stop on 30 March 2018. It was an untoward incident, which no one had imagined – not even her. 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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