If one were asked to name the icons of the movement for Indian independence, one comes up with a long list of names. But if asked for famous women icons, the list becomes much shorter. And if one were told to name Dalit intellectuals or icons, that list, for many of us would possibly have just one name: BR Ambedkar.
Dalit History Month – observed through April – seeks to address this lack of presence in mainstream history. However, it is about more than just finding recognition in mainstream narratives.
The idea of a Dalit History Month comes from Black History Month observed the world over. The idea grew out of the Negro History Week, which African-American historian Carter G Woodson and others organized in 1926 in the US. Since 1976, every US president has designated February as Black History Month.
Taking off from this, a website called Dalit Nation, created the Dalit History Month project, following discussions at the Dalit Women’s Self Respect March organized in 2014.
The participative history project has a digital timeline of Dalit narratives – of icons and events – that stretches all the way from 1500 BC to the present day.
One of the primary goals of the project is to wrest Dalit history away from traditional academic institutions that study Dalits without involving Dalits in the activity of research itself. Thus, the project is also keen to document a variety of non-traditional historical sources, including oral histories, folklore, songs, plays and so on. This also follows that leaders such as Ambedkar are not merely relegated to being Dalit intellectuals, but are known as figures who have shaped India's social and political landscape.
While the idea of a Dalit History Month is relatively newer than that of the Black History Month, it is relevant that Dalit groups in India felt the need for it.
Journalism plays a crucial role in keeping alive the conversation on matters of social importance. However, the media has been accused of being less than attentive to matters of caste.
For instance, in 1996, a delegation of Dalit intellectuals had approached the Editors’ Guild and the Press Council of India, urging that Indian media houses follow the example of the American Society of Newspaper Editors which has, since the 1970s, been making public the social composition of its newsrooms. The group of Dalit intellectuals did not even receive an acknowledgment from the Guild.
The number of Dalit journalists in newsrooms is negligible, and is nowhere proportionate to their total population. The few who work in the profession and identify themselves as Dalits, have often complained of ill-treatment, forcing several of them to quit.
Another accusation against the media is that they are caste-blind, that they consistently ignore the caste element while reporting. Women’s groups too, have a similar criticism: the media doesn’t look at how things affect women. However, while the media have significantly improved their gender composition and incorporated women’s concerns more, it is felt that there is still some reluctance when dealing with caste.
Dalits form a quarter of the country’s population, but caste pervades the lives of all of us, whether we abide by its changed and unchanged rules or not. It also bestows privilege on some and imposes harshness on others. A cursory glance of matrimonial advertisements and websites is indication enough of just how central caste is to our lives.
It is for these reasons that, through the month of April, The News Minute brings its readers a series of special reports and articles focused on caste, with the objective of keeping the conversation going.
Profiles of Hyderabad University students
Interviews of women Dalit writers