Rajni Tilak - In Conversation with Anjali Singh
“The aim of Dalit struggle is to be one with the mainstream and earn a dignified place …”
Rajni Tilak is a well-known Dalit Rights Activist and a Hindi Dalit writer. She was born on 27 May 1958. There are around eleven books published in her name including two poetry collections. She has received number of awards as well as Outstanding Woman Achiever’s Award 2013 from National Commission for Women. Currently she is working as the national convener of Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan (RDMA). The following interview was conducted at her workplace: CADAM (Centre for Alternate Dalit Media); M-3/22, Model Town- III, Delhi-9; on 13 October 2016 at 2 pm by the research scholar.
Anjali Singh: Please tell us about your journey as a poet. How did it start?
Rajni Tilak: My journey as a poet started very early in life. I started writing when I passed class Eleven. I saw that girls were not allowed to go out of the house during those times. I wanted to step out and do something but I couldn’t. There were pressures from home to do household chores, taking care of younger siblings, etc. During that difficult phase, I wrote my first poem “Ka Se Kahu Dukh Apna”. If people read that poem, they would take it to be a romantic poem. But on the contrary, I expressed what was going on in my mind. I was aware that when a girl wanted to speak about her feelings, she was not encouraged. There was suffocation and if she did, it brought a bad name to the family. That was a challenge before me.
AS: When did the publishing of your poems start?
RT: The poems are in print since 1978. They were first published in the newspaper Bahujan Sangathak. One of my poems was later made into a song and sang by a girl named Rashmi from Bharuch, Gujarat. She sang it in one of the gatherings. I came to know about it later.
AS: Is it incorrect to say that the women writing in Hindi Dalit literature appeared only after 1990s?
RT: Yes! It is an absolutely wrong notion. This is due to a lack of information. The documentation of Dalit women’s work has never been satisfactory; most of the writings remained confined to the limited space and failed to reach larger audiences. Thus a general idea is formed that nothing much has been written. The authors too contributed to the dismal scenario. They did not make much effort to become popular. Even I never tried to approach people or speak about my work. I wrote only for myself. If I take my own example, I published my collections when someone insulted me. It is a common notion that until the poems are compiled as a collection, the poet is not recognised. So the reasons for the delay I repeat are first, poet themselves are not focusing on publicity of their work and secondly, patriarchal values in the society too did not encourage or inspire them to come forward.
AS: The main reasons for the delay were the poet’s lack of initiative and the patriarchal pressure. Is that so?
RT: Not only those, but there were financial constraints too. Publishing needs money, good rapport with the publishers, links in the literary circles, etc.
AS: Please tell about your poetry collections.
RT: My first poetry collection reminds me of an incident. Once I was invited to a Gathering to read a paper. There was a gentleman named, Dr Shayoraj Baichain. He questioned my identity as a writer and pointed out that I had no book published in my name, though many poems in different magazines and newspapers had already been published in my name. Following the incident, I collected all my scattered poems, re-typed them and sent them for publishing as a collection. Consequently, my first poetry collection Padchaap appeared in 2000. I was helped by Jaiprakash Kardam, Anita Gujrati and Ashok Bharati. When you mentioned the 1990s you were right in a way, since that was the time when male Dalit writers, academia and main stream media were discussing the absence of Dalit women writers. During that time many of my interviews were published in different newspapers and magazines. Issues of Dalit women gained tempo in mainstream literature. Thus, my first poetry collection was published in 2000, but it included the poems written and published since 1976. Second poetry collection Hawa Si Bechain Yuvtiyaan was published in 2014. The poems in this collection touch different levels. The first poetry collection engaged with the theme of women’s freedom. It could be seen as the knock of assertion. The second collection is a discourse on the women’s movement. It deliberates on how Dalit women are perceived by people and society. About how the society has changed. Questions like, What is Dalit women’s position in the society? How it is different from the position of women in mainstream society?
AS: What makes Poetry the most preferred genre of literature with the writers for their literary expression?
RT: Any creative writing is an emotional experience and it is easiest to express through poems. Whenever women want to say something, they express through folk songs and not through text. Deprived section’s cultural aspect has evolved in the form of poetry, folk dance and folk songs. Then comes drama or play followed by the text. The main aim of creative writing is to convey the inner thoughts and poetry is the nearest to heart. It makes an integral part of the marginalised culture. Text on the other hand becomes more academic.
AS: How has Dalit women's poetry evolved from the 20th century to the 21st century? Do you see any movement?
RT: Dalit poetry has always been rebellious. If we study Theri Gatha written during Buddha’s era, they revolted against the institution of marriage. Their writings challenged the
thought that women were not free to speak about their freedom and development. Their domain was confined to kitchen and kids. Those writings rebelled against the drudgery of marriage. In the 19th century, the writings of Savitri Bai Phule again rebelled against the patriarchal brahminical norms. She insisted on the importance of education and the knowledge of English language for girls. Her poems rebelled against the orthodoxy. In 20th century poetry too, the poets confronted the societal norms. For example, Jyoti Lanjewar in one of her poems commented on the Draupadi-Dushasana episode. She has questioned Krishna’s act. The poet pointed out that instead of draping Draupadi, why did Krishna did hold Dushasana’s hand. As you can see, Dalit poetry has its own logic. It is rebellious and follows a definite line of thought. It is not about love and fantasy. The poems are inspired by the harsh ground realities. The Dalit women’s poetry of the 21st century is appreciated for its novelty of ideas. The thoughts expressed are different from mainstream women's poetry.
AS: How are the issues of Dalit women poets different from the male writings and Indian women's writings?
RT: The issues of Dalit feminist writing are definitely different from male writing and mainstream women’s writing. Indian women’s writing centres on sexuality and freedom. In male writing, untouchability forms their core issue. Whereas subaltern writing speaks about police atrocities, struggle for food, lack of schooling for their children, fight for dignity and freedom. They also confront patriarchy among the Dalits. The poems are more grounded and nearer to their day-to-day struggle. If they are unhappy, there are visible reasons for it. The life of mainstream woman is different. She is not bound to wash utensils, dirty clothes, prepare food for the family or even for herself; but on the other hand, the Dalit woman works in fields and slogs in the kitchen too. Even if she works in offices, then too there is no respite from household chores. The male goes out to work but once he returns home, he relaxes. Thus his experiences are different from his women counterpart and so are the writings.
AS: These statements point towards the fact that the physical labour forms an integral part of Dalit women’s lives.
RT: It is true. The theme of physical hardships is one of the most discussed issues in the poems. While as in the mainstream writings, the theme of love, relationships, freedom of expression, sexuality, etc. are discussed. They are fed on imagination while as ours are inspired by the ground realities. The needs and demands in mainstream women writings are different.
AS: Were these the reasons responsible for the separate representation by the Dalit women in the mainstream movement?
RT: The reasons for the separate camp need to be understood. We were very much the part and parcel of the mainstream movement since the beginning. I joined the movement when I was in college. There were many other women like me. We continued to attend their meetings and meet them regularly, but gradually we realised that the issues of the marginalised sections were not taken up in their meetings. The mainstream movement discussed issues like international security, role of defence in maintaining peace, border issues and conflicts or they discussed about women’s sexuality and freedom. The burning issues of marginalised women found no place in those meetings. The marginalised women writers were troubled by lack of schools for their children, lack of sanitation and civic amenities in their colonies, unemployment, caste stigma, untouchability, poverty, lack of policies to safeguard them from exploitation, etc. A large chunk of women who attended meetings, worked as housemaids. There were no laws and policies to improve their condition and still there is nothing to protect them from exploitation. Neither are they seen as a priority. Apart from those issues, we have a difference of opinion with the mainstream [women] leaders on the future of sex workers. Their demand is to license the trade. As per their understanding, the move will ensure safer sex and protection from police atrocities. We demanded the eradication of this work. Everybody has a right to live with dignity. Sex workers lack dignity. Even if they earn, a stigma still clings to them. Their future generations too will enter the same shameful vocation. We demand alternate vocations for them to protect their future generations. We do not want a society where one woman becomes a pilot and another is forced to become a sex worker.
AS: As per your previous interview with Bharati Mogallam, you discussed 1970s in detail when there was a feminist wave and all women irrespective of caste and class came together. My question is when did the separation happen?
RT: In 2007 a big conference was organized in Kolkata. It happened after the Durban Conference. The family and the institution of marriage remained the most discussed issues. We all agreed that family and the institution of marriage could become an oppressive unit for most of the women and hinder their creativity. They are not free to declare that they want marriage but not the patriarchy, a free state but no domination. We also had a long debate on the sex work and sex workers as I just discussed. We took a decisive stand at this conference.
AS: Does it mean that the Kolkata Conference of 2007 marked the separation between mainstream women writers and Dalit women writers?
RT: No it was rather much before that. In the 1990s we brought forward the names of Savitri Bai Phule and Dr Ambedkar as our icons in the Forum. It did not go down well with the mainstream women. The major differences between us have been due to our icons. We stood together for twenty years but still we are not accepted nor are our icons. In spite of the fact that Dr Ambedkar stood for the Hindu Code Bill and resigned in protest when it could not be passed. Savitribai struggled for women’s education. Secondly, our ground realities are very different from theirs. Thirdly, we have registered our protest against the writings of Manusmriti. Those writings are anti-women. Till date no mainstream movement has raised voice or criticised the text.
AS: How does Rajni Tilak, the Dalit rights activist, see herself in the role of a poet?
RT: I am still not much recognised as a writer. People see me as an activist. The truth is that my social activism dominates my writings. Most of the Dalit writers are not activists. They are far removed from the ground realities. There is a considerable number of women in the rural areas who are the victims of caste-based atrocities and lack in any type of vocational skills. They need to be organised and trained. I am personally involved in these types of works. Though more than eleven books have already been published and people have started taking notice of me as a writer, still I am better recognised as an activist.
AS: Why did the Dalit movement take so long to arrive in Northern India?
RT: It is wrong to say, there was no movement in the North. There were small movements and social reforms since the 1970s but they went unnoticed due to lack of documentation. If we speak about the first Dalit assertion, then 1979 comes to mind, when the Dalit Panthers gained momentum in Maharashtra. It gave a thrust to Dalit literature. The impact of the movement was duly felt in the Northern parts of India. There were smaller movements in the North, but Panther gave them the recognition. It gave them a voice and a platform. There was an influx of Marathi Dalit literature following the movement, in the form of autobiographies, poetry, novels, etc. Many Dalit magazines were being published containing discourses on caste and the Dalits. In North too during the 1980s, a Hindi magazine Mukti, edited by Ashok Bharati was published. Later in the 1990s came another magazine Mooknayak. We saw that Dalit people were being victimised. There were no schools for their children. In colleges, in spite of reservations, the seats remained vacant. A centralised list was generated by the Universities but Dalit students were turned down and made to run from one college to another. My journey as the writer and activist started from there. I drew inspiration from my own life and experiences.
AS: This shows that there had been a parallel Dalit movement in the North like in Maharashtra since the 1970s, but due to lack of documentation it went unnoticed. It did not enjoy as much popularity and recognition as the Dalit struggle in Maharashtra.
RT: Yes. In Maharashtra it was at the forefront. Buddhism arrived in the Dalit movement in 1956. It gave voice to the people and made them vocal about their needs and demands. They openly rebelled against the unjust treatment. But in the North, the impact of Dalit struggle was not that loud and visible. The reasons were: first, feudalism was very strong in states like Haryana, UP, Bihar and Rajasthan. Secondly, social reform movements were far stronger in Maharashtra than in the North. Both these factors restrained the Dalit struggle in the North. After Dalit Panthers, Sewa Sthambh was formed in the North. A decisive role was played by the Southern leader R Sangeetha Rao who later formed BAMCEF (Backward and All Minority Communities Employee Federation). Kanshiram became its member. Gradually towards 1990s the Panther’s voice faded but BAMCEF gained ferocity. It filled the existing vacuum.
AS: Please tell more about BAMCEF.
RT: BAMCEF stands for Backward (SC/ST, OBC) and All Minority Communities Employee Federation. Leaders felt that they should include all the deprived sections and not only SC/ST communities. Kanshiram was one of its founding members.
AS: This is crucial information. It points to the fact that BAMCEF established itself as a nodal agency in India and consolidated the Dalit struggle.
RT: True! The next step was the formation of Dalit Shoshit Social Sangharsh Samiti or DS-4 on 14 April 1984, which was later converted into BSP or Bahujan Samaj Party.
AS: In the following poems “Ankahi Kahaniyaan”, “Shahar Se Bahar”, “Mazdoor Hai Is Desh Ka Dalit”, “Kahu Kya?”, etc. you have registered a strong protest against the New Economic Reform Policies. Please comment.
RT: Our life is not dictated by our own thoughts and ideas. It also depends on the policies made for us. It is important to see what policies are being formed by our government. How pro-people are these policies? Whom are they going to impact the most? In our lives, poverty, untouchability, capitalism and feudalism have all intermingled in such a way that the common man, and more so, people from the lower castes, are confused. They fight over petty things like reservations. Instead, they should fight against the myth that reservations have eaten away the jobs of the upper caste. It is the biggest lie. Service sector comprises only 6%, whereas the employment opportunities are more in the agricultural and industrial sectors – i.e., 94%. SC/ST form 21% of the total population. Out of that only 12% to 15% are able to avail themselves of those facilities, and the wealth is concentrated within this meagre percentage. 85% of marginalised groups are still deprived. Those who have made it to the higher positions in the government sector are either silenced or misled by the policymakers. They have lost contact with the ground realities or do not wish to be disturbed in their comfortable lives. Even if that means compromising on anti-Dalit, anti-women or anti-poor policies. I hold them responsible for the present state of affair.
AS: These statements point towards the failure of the creamy layer amongst Dalits to contribute towards the development of the community. The leadership also disappoints.
RT: Yes, greed and power have turned the leaders into opportunists. They do not confront anti-poor policies anymore. They have surrendered to the comforts.
AS: How do you link the political consciousness in the works of Dalit women poets and the Dalit movement in North India?
RT: These two are not separate. First one becomes conscious, and then the thoughts transform into the writings. The experiences at the ground level reflect in the writings, too. Those incidents become firsthand accounts - either experienced or observed. One struggles against them in daily life. He or she not only fights [against injustice] but also tries to change things. As a result, the political consciousness seeps into the writings also. It is impossible to write something from secondhand experience or gossip. If that happens then poems lose their appeal. Though sometimes people write from memory, but such writings remain shallow.
AS: There is criticism against the Hindi women’s poetry post 1990s that the thrust of self-representation is absent in the poems and poets tend to speak for the community as ‘we’ than the individual self as ‘I’. Please comment.
RT: I do not see it as criticism. It is the author’s perception. I take this comment as the sign of positivity. We represent ourselves as society. A person is born alone, but does not live alone. He or she lives in a society and represents it. A Brahmin represents himself, but at the same time, he stands for all the values of his community. In this country there are so many ways and means of exploitation that the exploited people become a group in themselves. A person is targeted not for his individual weaknesses but because he belongs to a certain community. Especially in our country, an individual is recognised by his or her caste. If he or she tries to stand alone, the question of caste comes up. It is an identity.
AS: How do you see the future of your community in the 21st century and the place of Dalit women in it?
RT: There are many challenges before us at present. We have come a long way; still there are many challenges before us. Dalit women’s struggle is weak. It is scattered and confined within the states. In the same way, it is fragmented in the writings also and restricted due to linguistic barriers. There is an urgent need to consolidate it. The biggest challenge before us is the compilation of the scattered Dalit women’s writings and their struggle. We are working on it. As for the community, things have changed. Science and education have made a difference to the lives of the people all around. In the same way, the lives of Dalits have also changed. Though things have changed only after an intense fight, which is still ongoing. They still lack measures to win their struggle. The aim of the Dalit struggle is to be one with the mainstream, and earn a dignified place for the communities. This is the main focus of their struggle. I am sure the change will come with time and one day, people will achieve equality in status. They will be recognised by their skills and merit, and not by the caste alone. That Time will come.
AS: Your contribution to Dalit Women’s Writing as an editor is immense. The successful compilation and editing of Samkalin Dalit Mahila Lekhan series have brought the scattered writings all over the country onto a common platform. The series is one of its kind, completely dedicated to Dalit Women Writers. The first two volumes i.e. Volume I (2011) and Volume II (2015) are already in print. What about the third volume?
RT: The third volume in the series, Samkalin Dalit Mahila Lekhan: Khand III is ready too! It is based on the autobiographies. Those women who have written their autobiographies, have slammed all the patriarchal codes. They have not only targeted patriarchy in society, but also strongly hit against Dalit patriarchy. These autobiographical accounts openly challenge the repressive norms. The writers overcame their fears. Their writings have proved the fact that they are self-made. The third book in the series would be a strong document of assertion, and hopefully it will be on the shelves soon.
AS: There is a belief that Dalit women’s writing still lags behind in terms of readership, as compared to mainstream writings and the work of male Dalit writers. Please comment.
RT: Yes there is a gap between the writings and the readership. Poets need to do play a more active role than writing alone. As a convener of Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, I can link with the grassroots level, but fail to reach the academic world. They are too involved in their families and career. They have gained recognition as poets but hardly contributed to the Dalit movement at the ground level, nor do they participate in the demonstrations. The meetings show poor attendance. Such attitudes weaken our struggle. This is my complaint against them. If we are not one from inside then our writings and struggle would remain fragmented. They lack cohesiveness in the thoughts and that is reflected in their writing. This differentiates us from other Indian women writers. They are self-driven and involved in their work. They make it a point to attend their meetings or meet each other at least once a month but Dalit women writers lack that drive. They are yet not consolidated as a group. They prefer to interact with the mainstream writers or established male Dalit writers rather than sit with her own women folk. May be they do it for name and fame. These writers want to rise individually. Some of them have become famous. I feel unless the work has the collective appeal, it does not go far. This is my criticism of the of Dalit writers. Still things have improved. Around ten years back only two names were known, i.e., Rajni Tilak and Rajat Rani ‘Meenu’ but now there are more than twenty names in our list of poets.
AS: Thank you mam, for sparing the time from your busy schedule.