When Bharathi Prabhu of Thudi movement, a non-profit organization working among Dalit students in Tamil Nadu attempted a Dalit graduation ceremony on the lines of Black Graduation Ceremony in 2009, he was faced with all kinds of questions. “Most of them were discouraging. People were curious why I should be doing it at all. Between problems and achievements, they were curious why I was actually focusing on the latter,” he said.
But Prabhu is not someone to give up. On February 2 this year, he had hosted the tenth Dalit graduation ceremony at SRM Institute of Science and Technology – attended by VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan and SRM’s Chancellor Paarivendhar among others.
“The Black American Graduation ceremony has been happening for forty years. I think Dalits have a lot in common with African Americans. It is not without reason that Babasaheb Ambedkar had wanted caste to be discussed in the UN along with colour. The Dalit graduation ceremony is to take the Dalit representation to broader discourse,” says Prabhu. The idea simply to also identify and celebrate Dalit graduates and achievers. “Just like African Americans who have been celebrating their educational and cultural successes despite the discrimination, the Dalits in India have been a catalyst for social change in face of untouchability. We need to celebrate that” he says.
Prabhu points out how narratives around the representation of Dalits in the society and media have almost always been depressing. “Nobody wants to hear a positive Dalit story. You need a violence to bring a Dalit to a limelight. This is exactly what I wanted to change. I am all for Kausalya’s tough struggle but why is Ilavazhagi – the carrom champion – not the focus of media or society? Why is it that the media wants only depressing stories to portray someone as a Dalit icon? Why can’t a successful Dalit be an icon too?”
Prabhu rejects the idea that a trigger for someone to fight towards social liberation should stem from a loss. “The society considers itself fit enough to give unsolicited advices to Dalits; the society likes to believe it protects Dalits. But they are in fact counter-productive to Dalit liberation.” Alternatively, Prabhu came up with the idea of a cultural festival that will celebrate Dalit achievers. Over the years, the festival has celebrated many achievers in many fields including education, arts, sports, medicine and activism. “Not just Dalits, tribals and Africans studying in India are also being celebrated in this festival. For us, this is historical” he says.
This year, Thudi movement brought together hundred Dalit graduates from all over Tamil Nadu and from Chennai slums including Kannagi Nagar, Semmanjeri and Ezhil Nagar. Thirumavalavan, who recently completed his Ph.D was among the Dalit achievers honoured in the event.
To commemorate the tenth Dalit graduation ceremony, Thudi movement has planned for a hundred Dr. Ambedkar Night Schools and hundred Savithri Bai Phule Libraries across the State.
Prabhu believes the idea of Dalit graduation ceremony is in keeping with Ambedkar’s legacy. “When Ambedkar decided to wear rich clothes and travel by flights, he had a reason. We wanted to continue it,” he explains.
Someday, he hopes the positive icons among the Dalits will become society’s role models.