Dalit History Month
She recognised caste discrimination for what it was, only as an adult

(Editor's Note: As a part of the Dalit History Month series, The News Minute is interviewing Dalit women writers in the four major south Indian languages. This is the first of these interviews.)

Jovial is the first word that comes to mind when one sees Gogu Shyamala. “This is my desk,” she says, with a welcoming smile, pointing at a table clustered with books, papers and other trivial items. 

We are at the Anveshi Research Centre for Women's Studies in Hyderabad, where Shyamala is a senior fellow. Over a cup of tea, she talks about her childhood growing up in the Madiga wada in the 1970s, and her transition from the Left to an Ambedkarite position, her fiction writing, and what it means to be a Dalit feminist.

“I never realized that there was any discrimination as a kid. It was after growing up that I discovered it. We had a Madiga area to the east of the village where we all lived, away from the upper castes,” she says.

Shyamala grew up in Peddemul village in Telangana’s (then Andhra Pradesh) Ranga Reddy district. In the Acknowledgements at the end of her English translation of her book titled “Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…” Shyamala writes very simply, how her education was possible. She described the attitude in her village thus:

‘“If you get your children educated, who will slog for free in our fields?” Under such pressure from the karnam, reddy and other dora of the village, my eldest brother Ramachandrappa was forced into agricultural labour.’

(Karnam is Brahmin caste whose task it was be maintain land records, reddy is a landowning farming caste, dora is the most powerful landlord in the village is also the power centre)

However, she escaped this. Her parents, both agricultural labourers, insisted on sending her to school. She is the only one of her three siblings (including her oldest brother who died as a child) who obtained a higher education. She is all praise for her father, and says that she owes everything to him.

“School was the one place where everyone sat together. I remember sitting with a girl who was a reddy and neither of us had a problem. But I was never invited to her house, and she was never invited to mine,” she recalls.

The prejudice was always there, but she did not recognize it for what it was. “I had three bench mates — a Muslim, one BC girl and one upper caste girl, and we had all met once at the BC girl's house, but the upper caste girl was swiftly taken back home on some pretext. The actual reason is obvious to me now,” she says.

“The politics started when my dad put me in a social welfare hostel (Tandur) to continue my schooling. I was one of the student leaders who used to protest for clean food and hostel facilities and things like that. It continued in college where I was an active student leader. I did it only for justice. Nothing else," she says.

After completing her intermediate (Class 12), she could not immediately enroll in college on account of financial difficulties. Eventually, she obtained a degree in Sociology from BR Ambedkar Open University.

Around that time, she become an activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), but insists that she never let the politics overshadow the education. “It was a good change because I was no longer a Dalit. I was a comrade. We were all equal. But over time, I realized that the caste element still crept in. Children of the upper caste people were well shielded and could pull strings with the police if they were arrested. We on the other hand, were helpless.”

On August 6, 1991, eight Dalits in a small village called Tsundur in Andhra's Guntur district were killed and several injured by upper caste people, in an incident now known as the 'Tsundur' or 'Chundur' massacre.

The police had filed charge-sheet against 219 people, of whom 33 died during the course of the trial and seven were let off due to lack of evidence.

“When the massacre happened, I was shocked. I saw all the authorities trying to spin the story and say that there were other elements that prompted the killing, while it was clearly caste-based. It also made me wonder how many isolated caste killings occurred, but were dismissed with some other reason. Tsundur was a bigger number, so people took notice. What about all the cases where just one individual was killed?” she asks.

It was at this point that Shyamala began to question the Left. “I slowly began to read Ambedkar and understood how deep-rooted caste was in Indian society. That's also when I understood that communism may have removed religion, but the caste divide still existed. Even today, if you see any Dalit parliamentarians, it is only because of reservation,” she says.

When asked why the Left couldn't get rid of the caste-divide, she says, “What America had was open slavery but our kind of slavery is much more closed. This is even more dangerous, and it is difficult to acknowledge the problem and tackle it.”

She says that the system was a continuous one, practices and attitudes passed on from one generation to another. Thus, she said that caste slurs were hurled at her father to such an extent, that the generation that followed still called him by the caste slur, but didn't even realize its origin. 

But suddenly, she chuckles. With a glint in her eye, she said: “I actually wrote a story where an upper caste boy who uses the slur gets into a fight with a Dalit boy as the latter feels insulted. During the fight, the Dalit boy explains the origins of the slur and the upper caste boy goes back home and tells his parents not to use it.”

This cheeky and defiant attitude, is very much a part of her stories. “There are two types of Dalit narratives that you will read and hear about. Either the person is a hero who fought all odds, or a victim. With my writing, I try to present them as normal people like everyone else, to try and battle the mainstream stereotype.”

In one of the stories, a young girl named Balamma, wary as she is of the village dora, is nonetheless not willing to put up with his nonsense. The story is named after Tataki, whom Valmiki calls a rakshasi, but whom Dalit discourse identifies as a Dalit woman who protected the forests and was killed by Rama.

These stories are drawn from her own life. “My book is entirely based on my experiences - things that I have seen, heard or felt. I do add a few elements here and there to brighten up the book, but the writing is largely from experience.”

In a strange way, one of the stories in the book could easily be applied to the discussions about students who avail of reservations, and which were heard after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Bayi Talam (Bottom of the Well) raises questions about caste, privilege, and access to education. A group of teachers from Hyderabad happen to watch Dalit boys enthusiastically playing all kinds of games in the well. Taken aback by their intelligence, they wonder what caste these boys belong to, and how they might shine with an education. This between the teachers in the story is a study in attitudes and perceptions.

At the mention of Rohith’s suicide, the sign of a frown appears on Shyamala’s face. 

“The purpose of universities is knowledge. Any person, irrespective of his background, can go to a university to learn. However, there is discrimination even here as most of the professors are upper caste and they aren't empathetic to the background of a Dalit student,” she says.

As far as Rohith is concerned, we are losing a little focus of the main issue with all the incidents that followed and all the politicians going in and out of the campus. He was a student filled with hope and was pushed to commit suicide,” she adds.

The time is ticking and it is time for the last question. What is the biggest problem she faces as a self-identified Dalit feminist?

“Being a Dalit woman is hard. In the Tsundur massacre for example, all those widowed women from the killings did not have anyone to turn to. They raised their children, worked hard to feed them, and still had to go to court to fight the case. This lack of a support mechanism in the patriarchal system really makes it hard for them,” she says.

Even in everyday life, she says, women are stronger. “I remember (women) agricultural labourers who would gather together, make sure that all the work was done, and ensure that the landlords gave them every rupee they earned. I always saw them being bold and courageous. But, that does not deny the difficulties that they face living in a patriarchal society,” she says.