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Report On Second Basti/Village conference, Gari Kanoura, Lucknow, UP July 15 to 16, 2006

The second village conference in the series of six was organized by the Dalit Resource Centre at Gari Kanoura in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh for a period of two days i.e. 15-16th June, 2006. This conference forms part of the Project ‘Dalit Popular Booklets, Democratic Participation and Dalit Public Sphere: A Project for Research, Documentation and Advocacy’ funded by the Ford Foundation, New Delhi.

Identity Creation in Dalit Communities– The Theme of the Conference
The theme of the second basti/village conference was identity creation in Dalit communities. Identity is concerned with the self-esteem and self-image of a community– real or imaginary dealing with the existence and role: Who are we? What positions do we have in society vis-à-vis other communities? How are we related to others? etc. It is a process of choosing and fashioning of a self; that is people may choose from among various self-descriptions available to them. It is in part determined, and reciprocally influences, the strategy of liberation that the individual or his larger community may adopt. It also calls for sharing of a common culture, on the one hand, and emphasizing the separateness from others, on the other. Thus, identity is dynamic, fluid, and changing rather than fixed. In the case of Dalits, it refers to genuine attempts to construct shared meanings and proliferate it to different degrees across huge and disparate pan-Indian Dalit communities. The assertion of identity for them means retrieving the history of a social class and projecting its distinct personality onto the political and social terrain. Social activists now feel that oppression and identity are more important for Dalits than the problems of poverty. People without history or cultural roots are like dead, just as a tree without its root. Today they feel proud to be a Dalit and prefer to walk with their heads held high.

Objectives of the Conference
Dalit writers are themselves victims of or witness to social inequities and violence. A few among them are staunch social activists and often use literature to propagate their views on Dalit identity and the prevailing social consciousness. It calls for self-identity and freedom that is governed by different theoretical and philosophical streams. There are signs of hope and optimism in Dalit literature, affirming that identity and assertion are worthy social and cultural projects which need not be abandoned because of some temporary setbacks or crises.

A small section of Dalits have developed Dalit literature– short stories, novels, poetry, critical essays, auto-biographies, plays, etc. to provide critical insights on the question of Dalit identity, as well as to articulate and project their distinct identities. Emerging as a special stream in the literary landscape, it tends to cover a wide range of ideas and insights governing the social mindsets of Dalits. It contains a critical evaluation of the prevailing social and cultural practices. Through poetries, novels, and other forms of literature, they give outlet to their emotions, grievances, and sufferings. They articulate their perception for the present and future, reconstruct history, and project their aspirations and evolve new symbols and idioms. This literature, which is an important medium in their search for an identity, provides them strength and vigour to revolt against Brahmanical literature.

The objective of this conference was to probe a few vital issues related to the construction of identity in Dalit communities, such as, how do Dalit writers define Dalit identity through their poems, short stories, etc? How do they evaluate the present or immediate past of the Dalit communities? What according to them constitutes a congenial and progressive environment for identity promotion or protection? What, in their views, are obstacles in the path of Dalit identity assertion? Whom do they consider as their ideal bench-makers or pathfinders? and other such vital questions.

Identification of Basti/Village
Raj Kumar Pasi, a renowned Dalit writer and social activist, shifted to Gari Kanaoura in Lucknow in the early 1980s. He is popular not only in this region and in neighbouring areas but also in whole of Uttar Pradesh. His popular writings and self-less social services has won him accolades in Dalit communities as well as earned him a respectable position among non-Dalit communities. By awakening up the slumbering masses, he has led a crusade against the centuries old Brahmanical hegemony and has infused in Dalit masses the power and will to fight for social equality and justice. He has contributed immensely in deconstructing the pejorative Dalit identity plastered on Dalit communities since time immemorial and has replaced it by constructing new Dalit identities, embellished with the grandeur and splendor of the past history. As the theme of this second village conference is based on ‘identity creation in Dalit communities’, choosing Raj Kumar Pasi’s place of residence i.e. Gari Kanaoura, for organizing the second village conference becomes all the more relevant.

Basti /Village Profile
Gari Kanaoura is a newly emerged slum of Lucknow city. Over the years, this slum has gradually evolved into a densely populated Dalit basti, with over more than 60 per cent of the total population. Pasi community is predominant amongst the other Dalit communities. Besides this, other Hindu castes as well as Muslims can also be found in this basti. This basti is dotted with both, literate as well as illiterate people, with literates outnumbering the illiterates. Main occupation of the majority of people is self-occupation in Lucknow city and in its neighbouring areas. This basti is noticeable for harbouring secular fellow-feelings amongst its inhabitants regardless of their caste, class, and creed. This is known from the fact that this basti has never experienced curfew regime during sectoral or communal riots in the city of Lucknow.

Brief Introduction of the Writer
Rajkumar Itihaaskar, earlier known as Rajkumar Pasi got his new appellation from the readers because of his contribution to the history of the Pasi community in which he was born on March 23rd 1951 in Allahabad. He completed his entire education upto graduation from Allahabad and his post- graduation in History and Archeology from the University of Kanpur. In 1982 he was selected as Archeological Assistant through Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission and since then he is continuing in this job. Throughout his student days’ till date, he is been participating in various seminars, meetings and conferences held precisely to discuss Dalit related issues. It has helped him in forming and articulating ideas for the emancipation of the deprived communities. This inspired him to undertake writings of Dalit literature to be circulated among them for arousing the consciousness of this dormant section. Moreover, to recreate history of Pasi community, he has devoted himself in exploring the history of this community and has succeeded in adding substantially to the existing historical literature. He has succeeded in providing respect and recognition to the forgotten rulers and other heroes of the Pasi community. His first booklet, ‘Bijli Pasi ki Aitihasikta’ was published in 1991. His other major published booklets include Lucknow ke Vastawik Nirmata – Lakhan Pasi (1995), Raibareli Mein Pasi- Rajbhar (1996), Pasi Samaj ka Swatantrata Sangram Mein Yogdaan (1998), Veer Shiromani Maharaja Satan Pasi ki Aitihasikta evom sanskritik Bauddha Kendra (2000), Barabanki ka Vishmrit Etihaas (2005), Buddha Pushatika- Bhagwaan Buddha ka Jeevan Vrittant (2005)and Bauddha Darshan. He believes in the saying of Lord Buddha that one who contributes to arousing the social, cultural and political consciousness of people becomes a legend and people remember them long after they are dead. He is Founder Director and President of “Pasi Research and Cultural Organization” (Pasi Shodh evam Sanskritik Sanathan) established for the purpose of developing and publishing Dalit Literature and for the well being of the Dalit communities in Lucknow. He has never allowed financial constraints to impede fulfillment of his social responsibilities. He continues to inspire millions of people, who are still struggling to reconstruct their identity. His desire to assimilate them in the mainstream is so deep-rooted that he does not mind brushing aside the wishes and aspirations of his family members, and that is self evident in his commitment. Today the youth of this community after reading Rajkumar’s historical findings takes pride in associating themselves with this community which was not so earlier. His incomparable work on the history of Pasi community has led people to add a new title to his name. This is how Rajkumar Pasi came to be known as Rajkumar Itihaaskar.

Pahchan Chaupal (Identity Meet): First Day of the Conference, 15th July 2006
Professor Ajay Tiwari, University of Delhi, Department of Hindi, presided over the session and Shri Kanwal Bharti a Dalit writer from Rampur, was the chief guest at the occasion. Other renowned intellectuals present on the occasion were Dr. Apooravananda (Delhi), Shri R.P.Saroj (Retd. IGP, Lucknow), Dr. Ashok Anshuman (Patna), Shri G.P.Madan, Shri Bouddhacharya (Allahabad) and Shri Rameshwar Pawan (Bahraich).

The first day of the two-day conference began with the recitation of prayer (Bouddha vandana) by Buddhist monks. The welcome speech by Dr. Badri Narayan provided the audience, an insight into the idea behind organizing such a conference. Basti/Village conference would serve as a platform that would help in instantaneously disseminating liberative and emancipatory ideas among Dalits. He said that such conferences will facilitate face to face interaction between the mainstream writers and the grass root Dalit writers. He further said that Gari Kanoura a Dalit basti, located within the city of Lucknow, was chosen for organizing DRC’s second basti/village conference because this was the place where Shri Rajkumar Itihaaskar had spent a major part of his life and it is this very place and its people who inspired him for his exemplary work in Dalit writing. His booklets focusing on the exploration and analysis of Dalit history has succeeded in providing and popularizing due respect and recognition to the forgotton Dalit Heroes and Heroines, hence discovering the very basis of Dalit identity. His writings have discovered the hidden pages of history thereby awakening the people to their past and serves as a knowledge bank for researchers and scholars. Therefore, the need was felt to bring him closer to people, to whom his booklets are addressed dealing particularly with respect to identity creation, that also being the central theme of this conference. In the said context, naming the conference as “Apna Lekhak Apna Gaon” stands justified.

After this Shri Itihaaskar conducted the entire day’s proceedings. In his introductory speech he explained explicitly about his journey as a Dalit writer. He said that earlier he was known as Rajkumar Pasi but got his new appellation as Itihaaskar from the readers because of his contribution to the history of the Pasi Community in which he was born. Since a very early age he began participating in various seminars, meetings and conferences held precisely to discuss Dalit related issues. This helped him in forming and articulating ideas for the emancipation of deprived communities. This inspired him to undertake the creation of Dalit literature to be circulated among the marginalized communities for awakening. Literature, he said, helps not only in arousing consciousness among members of Dalit communities but also paves the way for a meaningful tomorrow i.e. the coming generation. It would further help them in leading a dignified life where they are not ashamed of their past but proud of their glorious past. He added, as very little literature existed on the history of Pasi community, he devoted himself in exploring the history of this community and succeeded in adding substantially to the existing historical literature. Towards the end of his speech he provided a list of his published booklets. His first booklet, ‘Bijli Pasi ki Aitihasikta’ was published in 1991. His other major published booklets include ‘Lucknow ke Vastawik Nirmata – Lakhan Pasi’ (1995), ‘Rambareli Mein Pasi- Rajbhar’ (1996), ‘Pasi Samaj ka Swatantrata Sangram Mein Yogdaan’ (1998), ‘Veer Shiromani Maharaja Satan Pasi ki Aitihasikta evom sanskritik Bauddha Kendra’ (2000), ‘Barabanki ka Vishmrit Etihaas’ (2005), ‘Buddha Pushatika- Bhagwaan Buddha ka Jeevan Vritant’ (2005)and ‘Bauddha Darshan’. His forthcoming booklets are, Bhula Janpad, Bikhara Etihaas- Sitapur and Hardoi ka Etihaas.

On first day of the conference, a Poster Pradarshini (exhibition) was also organized. In it posters made by Dalit painters were displayed. The idea behind organizing the Poster Pradarshini was to disseminate the message of self-respect and identity creation among the non literate section of the Dalit communities. Shri Itihaaskar invited Professor Ajay Tiwari who was also presiding over the session to inaugurate the Poster Pradarshini. It drew a large crowd, which was a witness of their level of interest in their community history and the urge in them for asserting their separate identity. The posters prepared around the theme of the conference ‘Identity’ had quotations from booklets on identity creation. The pictographic presentation showcased a rich display of Dalit Heroes and Heroines right from Gautam Buddha, Bijali Pasee, Satan Pasee, Lakhan Pasee, Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi to Ambedkar. Photographs of their heroes thrilled them particularly women and children among whom it seemed to be a big success.

Shri Rajkumar Itihaaskar invited the chief guest Shri Kanwal Bharti, a Dalit writer of popular booklets from Rampur, to share his views on the session christened “Self Respect, Identity Creation and Development”.

Speaking on the occasion, Shri Kanwal Bharti said that the experiments such as these of bringing together the mainstream writers and the Dalit writers on a common platform will go a long way in not just extending the Dalit public sphere but also Dalit participation in the democratic processes of the country. The chief guest added that 40-50 years back it was difficult to imagine that a time would come when a social science institute would felicitate the Dalit writers of today. He said that it is a great achievement and it gives the writers a sense of accomplishment. He complimented Shri Raj Kumar Itihaaskar for bringing to the forefront the lost and forgotten Dalit history. He questioned, what meaning does these terms such as self-respect and identity connote, terms which, absolutely had no place in the pre-Independence India. To this, he said, that these concepts of self-respect and identity-creation has undergone a drastic change in the post- Independent India. In the past the marginalized communities where subjugated to the extent from where it was very difficult to dare to even think about their self respect and identity. But today these issues have begun to be addressed and understood paving the way for their discussions on a larger platform. This has been made possible only after the establishment of democracy in India. The mainstream historians who negate the reality about the Dalit history base their arguments on illogical explanations. Reiterating the fact he said, Dalits always had their own individual history and several Hindu Vedas and Puranas are a witness of this fact. Sighting the example of Shambuk, he said, when Shambuk was meditating in an upside down position, it was not just a position but it had a hidden meaning attached to it. Through this position, Shambuk conveyed the message to the Brahminical supremacy that he was bringing about a turnaround in the entire social system that otherwise was based on unjust practices. In contemporary India too Dalit struggles have addressed issues such as self-respect and identity and not economic issues. The temple entry struggle of Ambedkar too was a movement for self respect and not that the Dalits wanted to frequent the temple to appease God.

Professor Ajay Tiwari presiding over the session reiterated the concerns raised by Shri Bharti and said that in society at all times there has been a class that committed atrocities and another class that revolted against it. And today it is a matter of great pride and celebration that the percentage of population revolting against the atrocities is gradually rising and this speaks for itself about the emerging level of consciousness among Dalit communities. Another important aspect of his speech was that he linked the history of Dalits with the history of labour and said that till the time the history of labour is alive, which would never die, is sure to support the existence and continuity of Dalit history. He added that this is so because every Dalit community is specialized in one or the other form of occupation (carpenter, blacksmith etc) which makes their presence in the society irreplaceable.

The second session of the day started with the speech of Shri Rameshwar Pawan, a Dalit writer from Bahraich. He said that, man has the thinking ability and it is this that differentiates him from an animal. It is this very thinking capacity that makes a man capable of differentiating between respect and humiliation. In the post-Independent India though Dalits have become conscious of their self-respect, nothing much seemed to have changed for them at the ground level, as the atrocities on them still goes on unabated. Though India gained Independence way back in 1947, Dalits still find themselves trapped in the bondage of slavery. He blamed unjust Varna System as the root cause for the deprived condition of the Dalit communities in India. He said that Dalit history has become a central focus of Brahminical attack and all this is done to crush the self-respect of Dalits. Dalits have continued to be deprived of education, social, political and economic rights and in order to reestablish their lost glory and self-respect, they must attempt to rewrite their history to restore faith in themselves. He appealed to the audience present to follow on the path of education as emphasized by Ambedkar and that alone is the key to all success.

Other speakers on the occasion included Dr. Apoorvanand, Guru Prasad Madan, Bouddharya Sajivan Nath, R.P.Saroj and others.

The evening session witnessed an extra-ordinary folk cultural performance by Shri Ram Niwas Paswan and his group from Lucknow. Their performance was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience who applauded aloud at the end of their performance. These artists presented songs in the praise of Dalit heroes and heroines who have otherwise been marginalized by the mainstream historians.

Itihaas Charcha (Discussion on History): The Second Day of the Conference, 16th July 2006. Dalits feel that the fundamental cause of their slavery is the tendency of accepting and bearing identities defined and constructed by others. They feel that they do not get their due place in history. Either their history has not been written or, if it is, it describes them with derogatory adjectives such as (‘nich’) and (‘adham’), criminal and uncultured, a debasing identity and the history which exists is the history of Brahmanical nature, festivals, traditions, and their identity. This is why they realize the historic need to explore their own roots for defining an identity of their own. They challenge Brahmanical epical beliefs and deconstruct dominant and hegemonic history and myths. This is the space from where their history begins. Thus, in writing their own history, Dalits fall back upon various myths of origins and explore oral traditions to develop counter-historical discourse. They use their imaginations and expressions rooted in their own experiences and perceptions.

In the conference the dominant texts of Great Traditions and the grand history patronized by elites were re-examined in the light of the social rebellion of the Dalits, leading to the construction of an ‘alternative culture’ which embodies their determination to regain what was snatched from them in the past. The conference’s effort was towards reconstructing history and providing space and substance to the erstwhile marginalized characters like Ravidas, Kabir, Swami Achhutananda, Veera Pasi, Madari Pasi, Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi, Shambuk, Karna and Eklavya etc.

The theme around which the second day’s proceedings revolved was “Our Heroes and Our History” (in the context of Dalits). Dr. Badri Narayan, the Project Director, explained to the audience the need for reviving the lost history of the depressed communities. He expressed the need of these communities to revive and sing the praises of their heroes because the so called mainstream historians ignored the existence and contribution made by Dalits in the creation of this country. Thus today the attempt is being made by Dalit communities to reconstruct their history by deconstructing their pejorative past. Hence the very basis of this conference was to give this community a space for exploring their lost identity and to re-establish it.

The first session of the day was presided over by Professor Ajay Tiwari (Department of Hindi, University of Delhi). The first speaker of the day was Dr. Ashok Anshuman from Patna University, Bihar. He informed the audience about the extent of changes and the progress that have gradually come about in the Dusadh community of Bihar. He said that this community, which is twenty six per cent of the total population in Bihar, is one of the most prominent and expressive community among the depressed communities. He added that Dusadh, Dom and the Bhangi community, which are believed to have emerged from the same source, today, pose a strong challenge to the hegemony of Brahmins. Such shifts in the position of these communities explain their urge to establish and recreate their lost identity and self-respect.

Bouddhacharya S. R. Sajiwan Nath, a Dalit writer from Allahabad carried forward the session by sharing his views with the audience. He like the preceding speaker reiterated the need for establishing the lost and forgotten history of Dalits by glorifying their heroes and heroines. He said that the history of Dalits has purposely been made to disappear and therefore are forgotten. But today the time has come to recreate that history. He added that one can dream of making a constructive future only when one understands one’s past. The contribution of Dalit communities in India cannot be ignored as they have been the main service provider in this country as each community is specialized in a particular work. He said that those who had voice in the past succeeded in establishing their history and in glorifying their heroes but those whose voices were suppressed and therefore made voiceless failed to glorify their heroes and reconstruct their identity. Other speakers on the occasion were Shri A.K.Akella (Aligarh), Shri G.P.Madan (Allahabad), Shri Akhilesh (Lucknow) and Shri Rameshwar Pawan (Bahraich) etc.

Professor Ajay Tiwari, presiding over the session, expressed his concern over the issue of undermining the importance of Dalit history. He added that there are many people but all cannot and do not become a hero or heroine. Therefore, those who become a hero must have possessed greater intellect than others due to which their contributions in the society become incomparable. At every stage of history there are two parallel thought processes that move together: one that supports the status quo and the other that rejects this status quo in favour of change. In the said context the oppressor wants to continue with his oppression while the oppressed group challenges this status-quo to establish a society based on equality. Therefore, he said that a progressive society is only that, which brings about positive changes to create a just society based on equality and brotherhood.

Cultural Activities at the Conference Poster Pradarshini (Poster Exhibition)
On the first day of the conference itself, posters made by Dalit painters were displayed. A large gathering was found enjoying the Poster Pradarshini. The posters made around the theme of the conference ‘Identity’ depicted quotes, songs, poems and couplets, etc. from the popular booklets. Paintings were also made on the spot depicting the thoughts that were reflected in different speeches of the speakers. Covers of other popular Dalit booklets, sketches and other pictorial illustrations, accentuating the need for identity construction, were enlarged and presented in a catchy manner before the audience. These were displayed along with numerous Dalit newspapers and magazines, attenuating on the cry and means to identity creation.

Mela (Fair of Dalit authored booklets and unpublished manuscripts)
Some of the writers attending the conference brought with them books and unpublished manuscripts forming part of their personal collection. People enriched themselves with such rare exhibition of booklets and manuscripts and rich archival collection of old Dalit newspapers and magazines. The booklets were sold by the writers on the spot and DRC too added to its archive some rare collection of booklets from this fair. Thus the village/basti conferences promise to be a good source for collecting Dalit popular booklets and unpublished manuscripts of grassroots Dalit writers for our resource centre.

Kavita Goshti (Poetry Recitation)
Writers were requested to read out passages on Dalit identity from their popular booklets and recite poems and songs to the audience. Since the writings of these writers of Dalit popular booklets emerge out of their experiences of the socio-cultural milieu in which they interact, the reading of the piece of their own created literature to the people gave it a local context, which is linked with their own existential questions. Some of the Dalit writers who read out their poems on the occasion were Guru Prasad Madan, Baudhacharya. S. R. Sajivan Nath, Rameshwar Pawan and Rajkumar Itihaaskar

Dalit Cultural Performances
Another aspect of the conference was cultural performances by as many as five cultural groups who participated in the conference from Barabanki, Gorakhpur, Rai Barailey and Lucknow . They were Ramniwas Paswan and group, Janglee Prasad Pasi and group (Village, Athra, and P.O: Detali, Dist: Barabanki), Gautam Nath and group (Village: Gandhinagar, Bijnour, Dist: Lucknow), Rameshwar Prasad and group (Village and Post: Tirwa, Hirauni, Dist: Lucknow, Shiv Dayal ‘Sheel’(Rajajipuram colony, Lucknow) and Sant Sukharam Das Bharti (Village- Thakur Khera Majre Isia, Tehsil- Bachrawa, Dist: Rai Barailey). Each group had their own unique identity and method of performance. Art forms exhibited by these Dalit cultural folk artistes are known by various names such as ‘Sohar’, ‘Veer Gatha’ and ‘Nagin Nirtya’ etc. Musical instruments such as khartal (made of steel), Dholak, Harmonium, Been and Tabla etc. were used by these groups. But a common chord binding them all together was the theme of their songs that were directed at educating their community people to shed their past forgetable identity and recreate a new identity for the future. The cultural performances proved to be a successful medium of disseminating the message of ‘Dalit Identity Creation’ among the masses particularly the illiterate class.

The second village conference thus helped in establishing a network of Dalit popular writers, organic intellectuals and Dalit journalists at the local level. This conference to a certain extent has definitely helped in disseminating liberating and emancipatory ideas among Dalits of the region including the non-reading sections that are unable to read the booklets themselves. This would surely go a long way in extending the Dalit public sphere, which will also help to increase the participation of Dalits in the democratic processes of the country. Further, it will help to democratize both, the Dalit public sphere-in-the-making and the overall Hindi literary domain of the country.

 

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A project supported by the Ford Foundation