Today, when I see myself as a national leader fighting a battle against caste tyranny, when I speak about changing the oppressive system, when I’m completely engaged with the reality of the ground level, there is only one thing that my heart screams for, that is justice!
Whatever happens now, we must bring change. We have no other choice. I want to end caste-based sexual violence and ensure that no other Dalit sister’s life is pushed into darkness. For it is not just the crimes that make us victims but also the structure of society that creates our image in such a way, and thus we, the Dalit women, must fight every aspect to stand on our own as leaders of our destiny.
This casteism limits our vision of change. It mutes us even when we have a voice, espeically when we have our own voice. For it makes us suspicious of what will truly allow us to make change as opposed to keeping the status quo. For society will not recognize a Dalit woman who fights for justice. We are too dangerous.
That is why I ask what is a Dalit women’s place in this society? Why has the society cut our wings? As a founder and a leader of #Dalitwomenfight and Dalit Swabhiman Yatra I ask these questions as part of our liberation.
When I look at my life I know that as a Valmiki woman there are hardly any places where I can find another of my sisters. Even after my education, my travels, and leadership, I still find myself discriminated against, underestimated, and shoved aside. Discriminated by both upper caste and also other Dalits who do not address their English and caste privileges which act against the members of castes below them, and those whose English fluency is not on par with them. If I struggle like this, then I can only imagine what other rural Dalit women must struggle with?
Our system and our current movements do not provide real safety to survivors. I dream of a centre which is devoid of this violence, which provides safety, and financial support to our women. My dream is to provide our sisters with a new world filled with safety.
But, our girls are still strong even without a safe place and constantly fighting. I would like to know if there are any government schemes or policies for the safety of the survivors? If yes, who are the people? Who gets them these schemes? Is it an NGO? Or a government agency?
I would like to see all the survivors as leaders.
I believe that those who have stood up to fight these atrocities, they are the real leaders.
The reason why our movements are not working is that grassroots level activists experiences are not really driving our movements. Whenever there are strong voices of Dalit women leaders at the grassroots level there is a whole system that works to silence them. Because we are not educated enough, we do not speak English as good as them, and because we do not live in Delhi. Instead, the voices raised at the national level are of those people who work in the interest of the government or are of the English-speaking NGO leaders. These are the voices that the casteist politicians prefer, and in giving them priority we recreate power for the privilege instead of truly annihilating caste.
I am tired of people’s attitude working at the central offices of English speaking dominated NGO organizations. Though we are the ones taking risk to work at grass root level, someone else who is more acceptable to funders and to upper caste government officials becomes empowered.
Who is going to take a chance to allow people like me who risk everything for working at the grassroots level to speak at the centre? Women like me are the backbone of any revolution, and if we are not in the leadership then it is not a movement.
Dalit women from the grassroots face this problem but even Behenji Mayawati who is big leader and a politician had to face the brunt of the casteist people. People have not left any stone unturned to insult and humiliate her even in the parliament. The way they publicly humiliated her by comparing her to a prostitute, would they have done this to anyone from the dominant community?
Our fight is not limited to any village, any city, any district or any state, but this fight is for the Dalit women of this entire country. We must break the shackles of slavery and for that we need to have a strong revolution led by women at the national level. I cannot see this happening in the current scenario.
Without grassroots Dalit Women in leadership, our movement is weak for we are losing the stories and the leaders who are the real engine for change. How is a doctor going to cure a disease if they don’t know the medicine to cure and not even the disease. Only those who have lived the problem can lead, anything less than that simply perpetuates and prolongs the problem. As a result, we have no strong grassroots movement for Dalit women.
There are many reasons behind this. When women survivors, with their tragic experiences, who have gone through terrible suffering and pain, when they come forward to associate with these movements, they are not given proper position and role. Only their testimonies and their stories are used superficially, and the women and their families continue to suffer. We also know that we cannot expect anything from this government.
I would to like to say that the levels of pain that a Dalit woman suffers and the wide range of battles she is fighting cannot be taken further by any one NGO or a private organization. This fight should now be taken to a mass political level.
Can we expect anything from this government or some NGO’s that wants to always see a Dalit women like me only as a victim, an illiterate, and as a rape victim. In India’s eyes I have only one option: to be dead. This is how disposable a Dalit woman is.
This disposability is also seen in places where people like me had hoped to bring change and create a new world for everyone.
Dalit women and Dalit families need a strong and direct movement. That is why I am leaving the Haryana office that I started with the ‘All India Dalit Women’s Rights Movement’ to go beyond NGO models. We need new strategies to take our fight ahead. If all that we are doing is talking and negotiating with the government, we cannot fight the battle for justice and there will be no end to the caste-based sexual violence. I am determined to raise Dalit Women’s voices, no matter what the cost. For if we do not let these voices come out, we cannot find ways to end this pain.
Will this be difficult? Yes. I will have to face a lot of challenges, risks, and threats. But I don’t fear anyone.I don’t want to live a life of fear and weakness, I don’t want to be dependent on my oppressors for my liberation, and I want to be self-sufficient. I want a movement not an annual report.
For now, more than ever, Dalit women must and will fight. And in this commitment I say this no matter the cost:
I do not want to die as a victim, I want to live as a leader, and I ask you now to join me.
Jai Bhim! Dalit Women Fight!
The Hindi version of this article was published on Round Table India (Hindi) here.
Manisha Mashaal is a firebrand Dalit woman organizer, thinker, orator, and movement singer. Her speeches are fierce and continue to inspire audiences from Punjab to San Francisco. She is the founder of Swabhiman Samaj in Haryana. She has a Masters degree in Women’s Studies from Kurukshetra University. Passionate for Dalit women’s well being, Manisha is the kind of anti-caste leader that this generation can look up to.