Transformative Politics for Dalit Women grounded in fierce resilience and compassionate sisterhood.
More than a week after the conference, I begin to write, still feeling overwhelmed and dazed coupled with a strange sense of loneliness experienced after loved ones have left home.
The #dalitwomenspeakout conference 2017 brought my sisters and friends from all over the country to my hometown Pune. They brought so much of love, gifts and excitement, which they shared with me in plenty. They came with their mothers and also their children. It was important for the mothers to see their daughters and for the children to watch their mothers. Nobody had taught us about inter-generational structural discrimination and violence, but we along with our children knew that this had to stop. That’s why they all came.
For several months before they all began their respective journeys to Pune, as a member of the organizing team, I was so excited to put everything together for them. I spent hours with our team to plan the conference bags and the goodies inside it. I had dreams to welcome each one of them at the railway station. I worked with the team and artists to plan the colours and designs of all the artwork. Driving to the printers, vendors and designers to check on the quality of products and proof reading each document was super challenging. Surviving on poha, vadapav and missal pav for days just so that we would not waste time in long lunches, we just kept working. I worried if they all would be comfortable. We ran from pillar to post to ensure that everyone would be happy. We were anxious that something might go wrong. I was terribly nervous as the clock kept ticking and our plans were all falling into place. The nightmare of travel planning, pick ups, accommodations and all the arrangements was only the tip of the ice berg as we moved on to welcome more than 400 delegates in the beautiful Savitri Bai Phule Pune University Campus.
Even as all of this was happening, I kept thinking to myself – why should we be organizing this conference? And why now? Throughout the time, I was convinced that the beauty and energy of the Dalit women leaders could only be captured through a gathering like this and it was essential to do it now, only because there would be no other such time! Our differences needed space for discussion, our achievements required adulation, our questions begged to be asked, our struggles demanded exclusive time for introspection, our experience asked for our own ‘safe-space’ and of course we all wanted to learn new skills and knowledge as well. We wanted for our women to be able to interact, offer to each another and create meaningful kinship by establishing new relationships.
So we set out to dream, of being able to be free in a revolutionary space that we create for ourselves, by reclaiming the institutions given by our foremothers like Savitri Mai. We all wanted to weave our diverse voices to create new perspectives, sharpen our agency and articulation.
We wished our lives could be easier. But each of us was aware of the burdens that we were carrying. As students and professors navigating hatred filled institutions, as leaders nurturing young minds, as lawyers and activists fighting a system fraught with conspiracies, as community leaders supporting victims, survivors and families, as writers and artists trying to break the cultural hegemony, we all knew that we were here only because we have resisted and continue to break open doors that were slammed on our faces. We wanted to set aside these two days in Pune to unwind, rewind and to learn about giving and receiving from a collective space that is our own.
Dalit women are fully aware that the lens of patriarchy and caste oppression often masks our thoughts and actions. This history of victimization and dispossession has brought into our midst several difficult conversations, which we needed to open and engage with. Our own differences of language, region, sub-caste, class, age, education, sexual identities and several other perceived notions required acknowledgement and deeper understanding. Our attempt was to locate the connecting threads and decipher how to deal with those that were breaking us.
This conference taught me several new belongings. Firstly, it showed me that no other could match the talent, energy, commitment and aptitude of Dalit women. The wide array of skills and knowledge in very sector was inspiring to say the least. The willingness to share with our sisters was incredible. Nobody withheld anything from the other. Whether it was writing workshops, theatre, digital hub, closed group sessions, art and activism or any other. Each delegate freely offered to each other. And without a doubt it becomes a super powerhouse when we all come together.
Secondly, the conference made me learn about solidarities and what it really means. Unpacking privilege and standing in meaningful solidarity are trendy buzzwords but having to wade through those murky waters and holding up your own, is truly a great, but mixed experience. We wished there was a simple formula to reclaiming our space, our leadership and our politics. But no, unfortunately there isn’t. It is a tough terrain but can be achieved by holding fort within a strong collective of your own. Believing in the strength of your sister and friend in the struggle is the key to opening your mind and heart to new learning.
Thirdly, the conference also opened many new avenues for building stronger institutions for and by Dalit women. This according to my opinion is the need of the hour and can be a reality if we begin to invest the optimum amount of time and resources. The conference revealed that Dalit women’s organizing is in a peculiar transition phase. On one hand we have powerful resistance and on the other powerful new leadership. How do we make way for this to converge in the long run is where our minds can set the dynamic forward.
Fourthly, the conference made me to sincerely recognize the sharp differences within my own sisters. The process during and after the conference personally made to reckon the deep-seated insecurities and painful histories which each of us carried.It also made me realize that I would never know the reasons for these differences and that it’s okay to not know. It demanded us to acknowledge these and be compassionate to one another to ensure that the caravan for justice remains on track. There simply is no other way!
My mind has not stopped buzzing ever since and even as we step into another year, I only realize that the confrontations are many but so are the opportunities. We continue to condemn the heinous crimes against our people and simply continue to strengthen our core for the long haul struggles.
The #dalitwomenspeakout conference held on Dec. 19-20th in Pune has made a strong statement that Dalit women are here to speak, to organize and lead for ourselves without any mediation. We are not mere survivors, but fighters and achievers. It is a significant time in history for us to know and realize this and also share with the external world. All others who are carry empathy, believe in the cause, want to be allies, would like to stand in solidarity . . . our message is simply to make way and let the power of Dalit women manifest itself.
Asha Kowtal is General Secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM).