It was in 2006, around the time of the Mandal II agitations, when I first met Rajni Tilak in Delhi. I had just begun my engagement with issues of social exclusion and caste discrimination, particularly in higher education, and had joined the editorial collective of Insight, a magazine started by some Dalit and non-Dalit students of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Insight Collective was a motley crew of students, activists and academics across the country and beyond – comprising largely of Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis but also some people from upper castes, who were committed towards the goal of making higher education a space where students coming from marginalised and stigmatised backgrounds could grow and attain their full potential.
A powerhouse mobiliser
In the face of intense polarisation around the issue of reservations, we were raising questions that went beyond the simplistic “for” or “against”. Apart from mobilising students and young activists from across the country to organise dharnas and rallies in Delhi in support of reservation for OBCs during Mandal II, we used that moment to also foreground related concerns, such as how the reservation discourse had been constructed in blatantly casteist terms by upper caste students and the mainstream media, how to debunk the idea of “merit”, the discrimination faced by Dalit and Adivasi students in institutions of higher learning, and finally, the alienation and identity crises faced by these students in elite spaces. The Thorat Committee’s findings in 2007 clearly revealed the social cracks within the hallowed portals of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The Committee carefully documented the nature and degree of discrimination against SC and ST students in academics, and their segregation in hostels, dining hall, sports, student festivals and so on, which had only increased in the wake of Mandal II. Eventually, team members of the Insight Collective video-documented narratives of several families of Dalit and Adivasi students who committed suicide due to persistent caste discrimination in their respective educational campuses.
Rajni di was in midst of the movement, articulating with unflinching conviction and expressing the need for organising students and youth at the national level. She was part of the mobilising that was required at that time – at Jantar Mantar, inside campuses such as AIIMS or on the streets of Delhi. As an experienced activist within the left, the women’s and the Dalit movements, she suggested strategies for future courses of action. She was a regular in the meetings that the Insight Collective organised periodically at the Indian Social Institute and JNU.
A guiding light
Rajni di was also equally committed towards the need for transformation in personal spaces and relationships. She was affectionate and supportive towards many of us, who were simultaneously fighting battles on personal fronts. As a young upper caste woman, trying to fight the scourge of caste and patriarchy, I often turned to her with questions, confusions, and the complexities that baffled me. The learnings and sensibilities formed from such an intense engagement in the public sphere would inevitably flow into and shape interactions within the personal domain of family and relationships. In such times, Rajni di was there to listen, respond, and generally, to hang out.
Since her workplace at the time was located near India Gate, we would meet and talk in the sprawling lawns nearby. It was during those interactions that I got to know about her difficult years growing up as the eldest of seven siblings in a family with limited means – how she had to forego the opportunity of pursuing higher education in order to take care of her younger siblings, and how she joined the ITI to take up courses in skill development in order to equip herself to support her family. It was during her time at ITI that she started articulating her concerns regarding discrimination faced by girls from marginalised backgrounds and made her first attempt at mobilising them. Eventually, she mobilised about 4000 Anganwadi workers at the national level, demanding regularisation of their pay scale.
Fighting for inclusivity
Rajni di was a Dalit feminist activist, who was critical of the Left and of the “mainstream” women’s movements for glossing over and neglecting the issue of caste, and of the Dalit movement for ignoring the problem of patriarchy within Dalit communities. In the aftermath of the sexual assault of Mathura, Rajni di organised huge agitations across Delhi. It was at this time that she met activists at Saheli, an autonomous women’s organisation working on issues such as domestic violence. She admittedly learnt a lot from this association, while continuously advocating for mainstreaming of the caste question in the praxis of Saheli. She would often echo Dr Ambedkar’s sentiments that fighting for equality is always more difficult than fighting for liberty.
Rajni di was associated with the Dalit Panthers, the writers’ collective Dalit Lekhak Sangh, National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM), National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW), and Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), among others. She fiercely fought to reclaim humanity for Dalit people, particularly women, located, as they are, at the lowest end of caste, class and gender hierarchies. She celebrated Savitribai Phule’s death anniversary (March 10) as Women’s Day and her birth anniversary (January 3) as Education Day. She drew inspiration from the icons of the anti-caste movement but rued the absence of strong leadership within the contemporary Dalit movement.
She was a prolific writer, having written two collection of poetry, Padchaap (Marching Steps) and Hawa Si Bechain Yuvtiyan (Restless Women). She was also the editor of several writings including Samkalin Bhartiya Dalit Mahila Lekhan and Savitribai Phule Rachna Samagr, in which she translated and presented the works of the iconic activist.
In an instance of inter-generational friendship, I later got to know her daughter Jyotsna Siddharth – a feisty, articulate young woman writing and working on issues of caste and gender in urban spaces. Life for Rajni di had not been easy as a single woman straddling the multiple worlds of parenting, social activism and earning a livelihood. Her life will always be an inspiration in many, many ways.
Jai Bhim and Alvida didi!