Dhamma Darshan Nigam
This write-up is in response to the interview titled ‘Toilet woman of India: The woman Narendra Modi is scared of’ published on our prestigious platform, the Round Table India (RTI), on January 15, 2022. The woman interviewed was Pragya Akhilesh.
I am not here to challenge the claims that she is the ‘toilet woman of India’ or that she scares India’s Prime Minister. I am also not here to sabotage the progress of a woman and an activist or to disrespect a leader in any manner. I would not have even cared at all about this interview if it had been published on any of the great savarna platforms. But because it was published particularly here on RTI, and because I have worked with her for some time and got to know her a bit, I feel I am obligated to share my experience of the person interviewed, to let the Dalit-Bahujan readers and writers of RTI know that she is actually not what the image being projected conveys.
I met her in Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), where she worked for around one year. Before moving further, let me provide a brief idea about the work of SKA.
SKA is a nationwide movement for the elimination of manual scavenging and liberation and rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. What SKA is doing is not some mechanical work of making people change their occupation from one to another. SKA is working towards changing the mindset of people. SKA is making people believe that they are manual scavengers not because of their fate, but because of the caste system and the socio-cultural and political circumstances produced around them. Once people start realizing that they are the victims of the system, and not of their fate and the result of the deeds of their previous birth, they start challenging hardships around them and automatically start leaving manual scavenging to take up some dignified occupation. In this work of SKA the writings and teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar play a great role, which are shared by SKA among different community groups, i.e. Youth Groups, Women Collectives, Self Help Groups and Sanitation Workers Forum etc. It can be said that SKA is working to take Babasaheb to castes that are still engaged in caste-based occupations, loosening such caste clutches, making people free of the caste system and strengthening the Dalit movement on the ground very silently. Therefore, what SKA is doing is more cultural, social and psychological.
In this context, the role of the person I am talking about was very important. She used to teach our young children about street plays. I actually got to know the true nature of her work when she organized Navratri Mela and Gandhi Jayanti in SKA. What she did in Gandhi Jayanti was that one of the children was made Gandhi and others were paying homage to him and touching his feet. Seeing our children like this, I was banging my head on the doorpost I was standing by. Not just during my experience of working with SKA for eight years, but for the first time in the history of SKA such a thing was happening.
Babasaheb said ‘Beware of Mr. Gandhi!’ and ‘Gandhism: The Doom of the Untouchables’ in his book What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables. Therefore, such a thing happening in SKA is just antithetical to Ambedkarism, to the work SKA is doing in the field over 35 years, and to the values SKA believes in.
The thought behind the Navratri Mela was relatively okay. Children from the community made a few handicrafts and drawings. Women of the tailoring center (SHG) had showcased dresses they stitched and everything was put up on sale. All the children and women were happy. But the occasion chosen by her was further pushing our children and their parents towards Hinduism that already has them in its clutches, and from which SKA works hard to free them. Our children would further get confused on whether the Coordinators who were telling them about Ambedkarism were right or this woman who was making them celebrate Navratri Mela and Gandhi Jayanti was. Such activities could very easily destroy months and years of work of SKA’s Community Resource Persons (CRP) and Coordinators who were working very slowly but continuously to promote Ambedkarism in our communities.
We all know that where does this Navratri lie in Ambedkarism. Nowhere! Navratri is the complete antithesis of Dalit history. She might not at all be aware of the 22 vows of Babasaheb. The first three vows say that –
- I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh nor shall I worship them.
- I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be incarnation of God nor shall I worship them.
- I shall have no faith in ‘Gauri’, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus nor shall I worship them. (Emphasis added)
If she was not aware of Ambedkarism, then she could have learnt about it first, and then she could have used her skills of street plays on the topics around the 22 vows for our children.
While these two activities were happening, we were made silent spectators in our own space. It was not good to stop things abruptly in the middle. If we had done so, it could have impacted the confidence of our children and women there adversely. This is what a Savarna can do in a Dalit space. Bezwada Wilson sir felt the danger of these two things and started maintaining a distance from her. And as a result she could not continue her next year in SKA.
She asked me a few times to know what went wrong and how she could further remain connected with SKA. I told her that she should not have organized Gandhi Jayanti and Navratri Mela in SKA. She replied that the idea of Gandhi Jayanti and Navratri Mela was of the children only, and she just facilitated them doing that. I tried to tell her a few facts about Ambedkarism and SKA as a Dalit movement. But she further started teaching me that children should have different choices before them. She was not even trying to understand what I was saying, but was happy to put forth regressive ideas and practices in front of our children in the name of choice.
One other time, she even changed the name of SKA’s youth groups from ‘Ambedkar Gender Equality Club’ to Ambedkar Manch (मंच), as if she was working in some organization driven by left ideology, and later started claiming this group as her own. She is not an Ambedkarite. She doesn’t know at all about Ambedkarism. And she is not even humble enough to correct herself if somebody corrects her about Ambedkarism and the Dalit movement.
Once she recorded one of my poems in her voice, without asking me, and sent it to me. I told her that she could have asked me about that once, on whether I even want my poems to be recorded or not. I might have said yes only if she had asked me once. Once again she went into a complete defensive mode and started teaching that anything available in public spaces can be used. And as always, she did not even try once to understand what I was telling her.
We do not need neutral people in Dalit movements. We do not need such ‘progressive savarnas’ in Dalit movements. They might call themselves atheists, but their common sense stops at working for the celebration of a Hindu religious festival. A Savarna in a Dalit space or among Dalits feels like they only know everything. They are always puffed up with self-righteousness. They are not just confident, but they have confidence in surplus. And our people are always dealing with a confidence deficit. In such a situation, Savarnas assume the position of authority very naturally. That is why we need to remain wary of Savarnas in Dalit movements.
Now let’s look at the content of her interview
Her claim of finding 1.3 Lakh Dry Toilets in Araria and Begusarai of Bihar seems completely fabricated. I was myself shocked to see this number. But to know more about this I contacted three people, one is at present working with Pragya Akhilesh herself, the second person is a team member of SKA and the third person is Bezwada Wilson sir himself. The person working with her said that ‘सिर्फ़ दो डिस्ट्रिक्स में इतनी ड्राई लेट्रीन होना तो बहुत मुश्किल है‘ (it is really difficult to have so many dry latrines just in two districts). Second person also said that this is not possible. While Wilson sir said that ‘she is not correct’.
‘Omvedt of Bihar’! Really! Why weren’t Dalits aware of this ‘Omvedt of Bihar’ by now? While reading the interviewer’s commentary about the interview, it looks like that she is a greater personality than even Gail Omvedt herself. Does she even understand the significance of Gail Omvedt? I think not. If she had understood her significance, she would not have organized Navratri Mela among Dalit children; instead she would have been telling them about the Dalit movement and Buddhist history of India, and making street plays around such themes. To know more about this I asked some hundred people, both Dalits and non-Dalits of different backgrounds, from journalists to activists, from researchers to writers, from students to lecturers: whether they have heard of somebody known as ‘Omvedt of Bihar’ or not. Not a single person answered in affirmation.
Interviewers let us know that she is doing her street plays since 11 years. Everybody does the work they like continuously. But, my only thought over this is that 1) people learn over the years, 2) if she is making our children do street plays on Gandhi Jayanti and making them organize Navratri Mela now, then we can think of what she must have done during her earlier years. In this context, it seems like the names of her plays like Neela Phool, Ambedkar v/s Gandhi, Khamosh! Bhim Jari Hai, Sisters of Savitri, Ambedkar’s Cats are named just to fool Dalit-Bahujans and to get some space in the Dalit public sphere.
She further says that ‘One cannot read Ambedkar if they have not read and learned from Gandhi …’, like an independent reading of Babasaheb is not possible and he can be read only with Gandhi. She continues that ‘The sanitation workers in India identify themselves with Ambedkar and not Gandhi. It is important that children make this choice themselves.’ Do we really want Gandhi to be put up in front of our children as a choice? Do we need such allies in Dalit movements at all?
Interviewers write that “For those who know her personally, it might seem how could a woman of such few words …”. Few words! I remember she used to call me and used to keep on talking for an hour. One more time during a protest she kept on talking continuously for two hours. Once, she herself told me, something like, ‘Dhamma sir, you can stop me whenever you want … I keep on talking continuously … and my friends also many times have to cut off the phone to make me stop’. Being talkative is not a problem, but claiming otherwise and presenting it as your virtue is.
Looking at what she is saying one can think of her as a Dalit or a Bahujan. She says that “The Brahmins should call for an unbrahminical movement rather than trying to lead Dalit movements in India.” And, “It is true that Savarna women have led feminist movements on the shoulders of women from minority communities, especially Dalit women. Even then they seldom highlight their issues in mainstream media. They also repeatedly make the mistake of representing them.” Gurinder Azad bhai, the editor of RTI-Hindi, when I called him after reading this interview, also told me that he thought of her as a Bahujan. She is a Brahmin by caste. A few days after she joined SKA we got to know that she is a Brahmin. She is not realizing that she is not practising what she is preaching. Isn’t she misleading (she would say facilitating) Dalit children when she is making them do Gandhi Jayanti and Navratri Mela and corrupting their young minds? Isn’t she misleading Dalit sanitation workers?
To people who understand Ambedkarism, Dalit movement and know what SKA is doing. I sent this interview to them and asked their views about it. They found it ‘mischievous’, ‘misleading’, ‘she is appropriating Bahujan labour’, ‘khud ko bahut badha chadha kar bola hai’, ‘Do these people think that they will say anything and we will believe that?’ And: ‘She is a hardcore comrade’, ‘whole interview is pure core leftist rhetoric’, ‘was quite shocking to read this’, ‘is it a part of a larger game plan’, ‘the way she has been portrayed as “toilet woman of India” and with Gail Omvedt is what shocked me’. And: ‘jo genuine effort kar rahe hain community se unko mil nahin pa raha hai aur baki abuse kar rahe hain.’, ‘basically, to fool the Dalits without revealing her origins and intent.’, ‘socho koi non-bahujan (mostly Savarna) hi khud ko toilet woman of India bol sakti hai na. Jaise Bindeshwar Pathak is the toilet man of India’… And so on.
Particularly this title ‘Toilet Woman of India’ itself is problematic and antithetical to the Dalit Movement. The whole movement of SKA is about washing off this stigma of manual scavengers and toilet cleaners from our community, not to label ourselves as toilet man or woman. Therefore, if she says that she is learning from Bezwada Wilson and working for the sanitation workers, and at the same time continues to carry this title with her, then she is disrespecting the people she is working for and also doing injustice to the cause. Declaring any woman ‘Toilet woman of India’ is also injustice to the women from our community who work endlessly and selflessly for the Dalit movement without asking for any attention or titles. I have worked with such strong women from our community in SKA whose dedication never faltered no matter how invisible their work was.
She seems to challenge everything this through one small interview. She wants to challenge the practice of manual scavenging. She wants to challenge Prime Minister of India. She wants to challenge Savarna feminist movement. She wants to talk about Hathras gang rape. She also wants to talk about an underground movement, and also at the same time does not want to talk about it. She is also talking about Stan Swamy, Hany Babu, Sudha Bharadwaj. Maybe she is a woman of that stature, and we do not know her, and that is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scared of her.
She is getting her views published in The Indian Express, and a few other ‘mainstream’ spaces, then why does she worry about getting published on our platform? I asked one of my friends who has worked in SKA with me about this. He simply said, ‘to gain legitimacy’.
She also understands that this validation is necessary for her to ensure greater reach among the Dalit people, for the authenticity this space carries. Why do all savarnas with ‘change of heart’ jump into the Dalit movement? Please go and work in your brahmin bastis. They are also suffering from different issues.
Babasaheb Ambedkar said that:
Whatever I have done, I have been able to do after passing through crushing miseries and endless struggle all my life and fighting with my opponents. With great difficulty I have brought this caravan where it is seen today. Let the caravan march on despite the hurdles that may come in its way. If my lieutenants are not able to take the caravan ahead they should leave it there, but in no circumstances should they allow the caravan to go back. This is the message to my people.
‘My people’ for Babasaheb were Dalit-Bahujan, not Savarnas. We have a long history of our movements, our history and our literature being appropriated by Savarnas. Should we let it happen again and again?
She can become anything she wants, and undoubtedly she is on her way to becoming a famous personality. We wish her very best for that. However, she must also understand and respect our objections that she is appropriating our efforts and our movement.
Dhamma Darshan Nigam is an activist and writer. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org