Dalit Movement for Beginners

Poet Siddalingaiah explains social exclusion to 40 American students

Published: 04th June 2014 08:15 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th June 2014 08:18 AM   |  A+A-


BANGALORE: Did you know that in some communities, the backs of goddesses are worshipped?

"Most of these goddesses are upper caste women killed by their own community because they had relationships with lower caste men or ate non-vegetarian food. Their backs — and in some cases, even their buttocks — are worshipped because when they tired of the chase and were killed, the last thing the pursuers saw was their rear portion," said Kannada writer Dr Siddalingiah at National Law School of India University, adding that they became goddesses because people, out of fear that they would avenge their deaths, began to worship them. The Kannada poet with Dalit roots interacted with students from the National Law School of India University and William and Mary College (Williamsburg, Virginia).

About 40 under-grad students from the college in the US had come down for a visit as part of a summer collaborative initiative by the two educational institutions.

The sessions, including one with development journalist P Sainath and another Dalit writer Devanur Mahadeva, introduced the students to the caste system, the concept of untouchables and manual scavenging.

The discussion that ensued threw up questions about job reservations, the history of the Dalit movement, the role of Dalit literature, and the connection between caste and culture.

Dr S Japhet, head of the department of the Study of Social Exclusion, attached to NLSUI, who was instrumental in organising the seminar, also pitched in with responses.

Maisie, a history and environmental policy student asked, “With Modi in power, what do you think will be the present government’s take on reservations?”

“It’s just a few days old, so it’s too early to comment,” said Siddalingaiah.

Marketing and psychology student Alicia Howard’s query was whether Siddaligiah’s poetry has contributed in shaping policies. His reply, “Whatever I wrote in my poetry, I spoke in prose in the State Legislative Council,” signaled a round of appreciative laughter and applause. He went on to add that his efforts had led to the stopping 15 cruel customs against one community of untouchables. “One practice, called ajaru, requires them to go, sit outside an unwell upper caste person’s house, and eat food mixed with the patient’s hair and nails,” he said to a rapt but shocked audience. “I also proposed that there should be reservation in schools for children of inter-caste marriages.”

It took a while for the two professors to abate the students’ curiosity on caste issues. Then came questions on the former Kannada professor’s experiences.

“Your father burnt your first book of poems. Later, he or your other family members come around?” asked Sam Gardner, pursuing religious studies and psychology.

The founder of Dalit Sangharsha Samiti just chose to respond with, “He was illiterate, and so was the rest of my family.  They gradually accepted my writing. Their reactions made me realise I should study and become a respectable person.”

“Yes, for someone like me from the US, to whom this is all very new, I found the session informative,” Sam later told City Express later. “When he (Siddalingiah) speaks or writes, you understand how he struggled in a Dalit colony without letting go of his culture. His writing shows us how long his path has been,” added a first year international relations student Alison Cohan.


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