Dalit Feminist Movement: Interview with Rajini Tilak

Antonia Navarro Tejero interviewed Rajini Tilak in New Delhi, India, in November 2004.

Rajini Tilak was born in Delhi, on 27 May 1958, the eldest of seven siblings, into a poor family. Her father was a tailor and to continue the family tradition and be able to support the economy of the household, she joined an HY’S cutting and tailoring course, after completing higher secondary in 1975, even though her aspiration was to become a nurse. Her years in ITI were very important, as she took Hindi and English courses and founded a union for girls, on the grounds that they were highly discriminated. She managed to merge her union with the leftist organisation, PSU (Progressive Students’ Union), which later split due to ideological differences resulting from what was perceived as the interest in strengthening political agendas than focusing on caste issues and other problems of students from deprived sections. Then, she got involved with the Dalit movement, but having realised their ignorance of gender issues, she built her own organisation allying with Bharathiya Dalit Panthers in 1982. She also started a Dalit theatre group called ‘Ahwan’, and a students ‘awareness programme by establishing a Youth Study Circle. During the 1980s, she worked with Anganwadi workers and formed a union of Anganwadi helpers and workers at the national level to demand regular pay scale. In this union they mobilised and organised about 4,000 women, but got soon co-opted by the Congress. She is now Executive Director of the Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM) and Founder Member of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR).

ANT: I know you are aware that this is part of a bigger project, in tdch I am interviewing women who work in different fields and have ritributcd to the Women’s Movement in India. We could start by describing organisation you direct, if you do not mind.

RT: Our organisation is called CADAM, which stands for Centre for Alternative Dalit Media. Since our establishment in 1990, we have been striving provide an alternative platform for the suppressed voices and aspirations of marginalised sections of India, to promote their rights based on an egalitarian society. We wanted to stress that Dalits have a voice, but they have no space in lie media. That is why we also train Dalit reporters, so that we can cover the s. and movement of issues of Dalit concern in an objective manner and without censorship. We also help Dalits to bring out their own newspapers. What happens is that the media has space for glamour issues, even women issues, but only if they get profits and benefits out of that, since they are privatised. If media ever takes the issue of Dalits, it is in a sensational way. However, media never highlights the idea that Dalits have their own voice, their own struggles for integrity and dignity. Dalits also need to have political aspirations, as the media plays a very important role in spreading democracy in the society. Unfortunately, media in India is much involved with the industrial hierarchies and those who have the means. So, as a consequence, they tend to favour those in power. It is either the industries of cricket or politics, and the competition between the two. However, media never cover seriously the issues of villages, such as the problems in school, hunger, poverty,… or any other social issues related to women and Dalits. I am not saying that media does not *over these issues, but they do it in their own particular and partial way.

ANT: Could you tell us about the members of the organisation?

RT: The organisation has three founders: Rajeev Singh is from the Thakur community, Rohit Jain from the Jain community, and Ashok Bhati from the Dalit community. They thought that since the voice of the weaker sections, especially the Dalits, is not being covered in the media, an alternative media avenue need to be created for poor and Dalit people. We are a small team, but we have highly experienced volunteers from a wide range of disciplines, such as social workers, journalists, artists, writers, teachers, doctors, engineers, and students. We all share the common concern for building a more egalitarian society and we all fight for the rights of marginalised people.

ANT: What is the organisation’s main scope of action?

RT: We work mainly for the emancipation of Dalits, with especial attention to women. We also serve as a network among different organisations which work with Dalits. Furthermore, we keep documentation on issues of Dalit concern, and offer training (especially for those who want to become journalists, and for self-employment). And very importantly, we lobby with policy makers on issues of Dalit concern. I do not want to forget mentioning that we help Dalits to bring out their own newspapers. Actually, our newspaper was originally started by Dr Shim Rao Ambedkar and after one year, in 1942, it had to be shut down because of financial problems. In 1990, we re-started this legacy of Dr. Ambedkar with our own resources. We re-launched this newspaper, which is more like a magazine.

ANT: Could you tell us about the process through which you introduced gender issues to the Dalit consciousness? RT: It was a long process. First, I participated in the Left movement, then, since it did not take caste discrimination seriously, I decided to get in touch with the Dalit movement. Actually, I took part of a women’s movement because there was no students’ movement. We were inspired by all liberation movements; the peace movement, the peasants’ movements, and the Dalit movements. We felt we were cut off from ground reality because the voice of Dalits was suppressed and we suffered from many stereotypes about our community. But by then we were marching for the issues of middle class society, like for example, dowry. I admit that dowry is also a problem for Dalits, but not as it is being discussed. I am saying this because the main problems for Dalits were poverty, access to education, drinking water, unemployment, sanitation and so many other issues that were part of their livelihood. And those were the issues discussed by the Dalit movements. In a word, Dalits were much neglected. Then, we raised the issue of our representation. But we soon realised that the Dalit movement was also patriarchal. So I formed a union of Anganwadi helpers and workers at the national level to demand regular pay scale, as their honorarium could not meet the basic needs of survival. It was a very big project. These people nourished rural children, and worked in slum areas doing multiple jobs related to social awareness and health care of Children and women. We mobilised 4,000 women, and later, during the Mathura Rape Scandal, we started an agitation which became a women’s liberation ‘movement. I contacted Saheli, a self-funded women’s group which assists men suffering from discrimination and abuse by providing support, counseling and shelter, and it was with them that I learnt how to work in a team . At the same time, I realised how distant we were from the mainstream feminist movement.

ANT: How different is the Dalit women’s movement from the mainstream feminist movement?

RT: Our agendas and approaches are different. Mainstream feminists already socially liberated to some extent, the problems of low caste and women have no priority. Those feminists are economically independent ‘bpd belong to upper castes and classes. We still have to fight for our own identity and we share a history of gender oppression, but we suffer from extra *justices on account of being Dalits. At the back of their minds, even the enlightened feminists of upper castes think of us as Dalits. So, we carry this stigma of caste identity, such as being a chamar. In the eighties, while working with Saheli, feminism was a new idea and was interesting. Then I realised that just a slogan. As a concept, it can be applied to all the women, but it does not apply the same way to a ruler and the ruled. Let’s say one woman is a pilot and another is a sweeper in the office; within the programme they are considered sisters, but their ground reality is very different

ANT: What does it mean to be a Dalit woman?

RT: I was very inspired by Savitri Bai Phule, the first woman teacher of *ha, born in 1832. She started so many programmes at that time with her ‘band Jyothiba Phule. He was a peasant leader, and fought against social inequality and the brahminical order. Since she was illiterate, her husband ht her Hindi. She started teaching at schools in the villages, which she very tough because education was the right of Brahmins, and not the Dalits. Those were the times when Dalits had no dignity at all. They had no I to education, food, walking the roads or even speaking in front of the Brahmins. They were neglected in all possible ways. They were called untouchables, as they were cut off from the mainstream society. They were forcibly put in the backyards of the city. So, Savitri started to work with these people, and the upper castes used to throw stones at her. Finally, she had to stop teaching girls and Dalits. It happened in 1842, when women’s-education was started, and that is the date we should keep in our mind. However, mainstream feminism tells us that the women’s movement started in 1975; they never considered Savitri’s work because she belonged to the scheduled caste. During the history of India, scheduled caste women’s movements have fought for water, sanitation, elections etc. separately from the mainstream. This is why we raised the question regarding the space for Dalit women in the mainstream women’s movement. They have been participants, but they are not leaders. In spite of all this, we started to work together and then we moved away from them. We raised our Indian Women’s Day and printed pamphlets, booklets, posters … in our own capacity and with our own funding.

ANT : How are you received whenever you go to talk about these issues? Are Dalit women very receptive?

RT: More than 20 years ago, when I was not married, Dalit women were not encouraged to pursue education. However, my family forced us to study. We even went to demonstrations. It was not comfortable to see how they used Dalit women, I mean, the leaders misled our women. But now, 20 years later, society recognises us or shows respect. We are not part of the women’s movements, we lobby with Dalit movements. I would like to point out that there are many brahminical patriarchal women who stress hierarchy. So we demand a space in the women’s movement, because we have none in literature, in the women’s movement, in leadership. So, we are part of two movements, women’s and Dalits’. We organise campaigns to protest, for example, this coining December 5 at the Dalit International Day. Here, many women will speak. It is a very special event because we celebrate it in 170 countries. We will take the responsibility to represent India, so we will motivate, celebrate, mobilise Dallis. But we do many other activities. We have developed a network through which we are able to train Dalit women. We played a big role in establishing Bharatiya Mahila Andolan. We organise Indian Women’s Day for the promotion of women’s rights on March 10, on the death anniversary of the first woman leader of India, Savitri Bai Phule. We also organise `Education Day’ to commemorate the birth anniversary of Savitri Bai Phule.

ANT: How do you feel-in the movement?

RT: It is not easy to mobilise Dalit women because of the many problems facing the Dalit community. When I first meet them, they always say that without money or employment it is not possible to mobilise, and feel they are always the victims. But after the meetings and talking, their ideas change. They no longer ask me to leave. Through the discussions they are convinced that they can take over and try to understand. They think that only political power can change our condition. But we think this is the misleading fact of our society because we have thousands of lawyers and inequalities in society, so we cannot trust the political parties. In order to bring Dalit women into the feminist movement it is required to first sensitise them about their being human thereby inspire them to participate at their local level, to participate in vision making processes. Only then will they be able to lead others. It is a lengthy process. Normally they have a host of family burdens on their shoulders, which make it difficult for them to take active part in such activities. But somehow they have to realise that they too are human and have equal rights to lead a dignified life. I am very hopeful that, given the situation, Dalit women will be the ones who will participate in large numbers and lead the movement its logical conclusion.

ANT: Do you use the word ‘feminism’ when you try to mobilise Dalit women?

RT: I am very keen to talk and discuss in favour of feminism, and our organisation also believes in socialist feminism because we believe in social equality first and then gender equality. We are also against any kind of patriarchy and any kind of inequality and this is the difference between these two types of feminism. We believe in our feminism, within the context of the family. We believe in changes in our family system within family relations. Dalit women contribute income to their homes. They usually work in the fields, as cheap labour, as sweepers or houseniaids. They should have fair wages, but they take any amount because they need to survive. There should be equal opportunity to spending and responsibilities at home because women are also working outside the household. The Dalit feminist movement lacks a strong structured organisation, as there are only 20 Dalit women leaders in the whole country. We are still subordinated. However, we have a network called the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW), whose goal is to uplift Dalit women the Dalit movement.

ANT: You mentioned that the situation cannot be changed by the political parties. Haven’t you seen any significant changes between the BJP and the Congress?

RT: Absolutely not. They always try to use and divide us. We should not have any political aspirations at this stage, because we need to create our self-respect. Political parties want to make use of the unity and struggle of the Dalit movement. After all, in the last 50 years we have carved our own niche. At least people listen to us now. Because it is we who have really faced the problems and oppression. We know what the basic necessities and demands of women are. To make myself clear, I am very optimistic regarding the Dalit feminist movement and I hope a day will come, when every single girl of this nation will realise her potential. But it is also true that despite making our voice stronger, we also lack a collective programme, generally in the Dalit movement, and particularly in the Dalit feminist movement. We require a constructive and concrete programme to at least provide a strong foundation. By adding to the works of Jyotiba and Savitri Bai Phule and Ambedkar, our organisation can strengthen its roots. The Dalit movement’s aim earlier was to fight Brahmanism, capitalism and patriarchy. Our movement is now concerned with the urban problems and thereby is restricting itself to employment and reservation. Such an approach can only empower an individual, but it cannot benefit the larger and greater mass of this country. Therefore there is an urgency to redefine the goals and aims of Dalit movement keeping in view the ideals propagated by our icons. I feel that there is an urgent need to build collective leadership, the absence of which is visibly the greatest weakness of the Dalit Movement.

ANT: Thank you so much, and best wishes for successful campaigns and results.


ANTONIA NAVARRO-TEJERO. Associate Professor of English Literature at Universidad de Cordoba (Spain). Fullbright scholar at University of California, Berkeley during 2004-2005. She is the author of the books Matrimonio y Patriacado en Autoras de la Diaspora Hindu (2001), Githa Hariharan: Revisions of a Storyteller (forthcoming by Foundation Books). Is currently working n a collection of interviews with Indian women activists.

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Associate Professor of English Literature at Universidad de Cordoba (Spain). Fullbright scholar at University of California, Berkeley during 2004-2005. She is the author of the books Matrimonio y Patriacado en Autoras de la Diaspora Hindu (2001), Githa Hariharan: Revisions of a Storyteller (forthcoming by Foundation Books). Is currently working n a collection of interviews with Indian women activists.

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