Faxian, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller who made an arduous pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India and Sri Lanka in the first century, was a meticulous writer and his notes are among the few surviving written sources about Indian social structures at that time.
Among his observations are records about the Middle Kingdom, a country south of Mathura where “the people are numerous and happy” and “the king governs without decapitation or corporal punishments”. But the exception, Faxian says in a translation of his original text, are the Chandalas who “live isolated from the rest of society, and when they enter a city, they must sound an alarm by striking a piece of wood to warn everyone of their presence and enable the citizens to avoid running into them”.
This is one of the earliest mentions of the entrenchment of untouchability in Indian history. It is also one of the stories highlighted in this year’s edition of Dalit History Month. This event began as a series of social media posts highlighting different aspects of Dalit history in April 2015, the month in which BR Ambedkar was born.
Resistance and resilience
“Dalit history threatens the powerful,” said Sanghapali Aruna, an organiser of the event and executive director of Project Mukti, which has given 20 individuals and organisations mini-grants to celebrate Dalit History Month this year. “That is why they want to erase, destroy and jail it. But as long as Dalits are alive, our history will thrive. The very presence of Dalits and our history is a threat to all those who benefit from our exploitation.”
This year began with attacks on Dalit history at Bhima Koregaon, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, another of the organisers. A Dalit group that organised Ambedkar Jayanti at the United Nations was removed as a co-sponsor of their own event by the Permanent Mission of India and statues of BR Ambedkar and Periyar continue to be desecrated across the country.
Four years on, the scope of Dalit History Month has grown, with new stories that read against history written by the powerful. As in years before, organisers selected stories that have been neglected by mainstream academicians and media, such as one on Asif Aqeel, a Pakistani journalist and researcher who has done seminal work on how Dalit Christians in Pakistan were pushed into sanitation work after Partition.
Soundararajan compared the scale of the tragedy to that of the West Bengal government’s massacre of Namasudra refugees from Bangladesh in 1979 – “Both these stories highlight the invisibility of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities in national tragedies like Partition, [which is] not adequately studied or lifted by dominant caste scholars. Our lineage is a powerful one filled with rationalism, gender and caste equity, but also love. It is a rich source of resistance and resilience, not just for Dalit Bahujans but for all peoples in India.”
There are better-known stories, too, such as that of Dashrath Manjhi, who built a road through a mountain in memory of his wife, on whom there is now a Bollywood film, or even that of Bhima Koregaon, which catapulted to national attention in January.
As with the post on Faxian, others also focus on hidden figures in seemingly well-known historical moments. One post, for instance, is on Veerammal, who was once a member of Periyar’s anti-caste movement, but respectfully broke with him to work directly for the rights of Dalits. Another is on Dr C Parvathamma, the first Dalit woman sociologist.
As part of Dalit History Month, events such as food festivals, film screenings, cultural performances and oral history workshops are being held in India, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Said Maari Zwick Maitreyi, another organiser: “It is our hope these events will capture and celebrate our history while sharing with others the creative potential of our communities as we reconstruct the narrative of Bahujan resistance all around the world.”