Dalit Women and the Ambedkarite Movement

in Article
Published on: 31 October 2018

Vaishnavi Mahurkar

Vaishnavi completed her Master's in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


AmhihiItihas Ghadvala, originally published in Marathi in 1989 and translated as We Also Made History by Wandana Sonalkar, is a work of research by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon to understand the history of women’s participation in Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Dalit movement. This book serves as a beginning into questioning the lack of representation of women’s participation in the writings and accounts of the Dalit movement.


The book is divided into two parts; the first part is an account of the different aspects of the Ambedkar movement, and of the struggles preceding the movement. This part is illustrative of the historical background of the Dalit movement, its early beginnings and from there goes on to trace important aspects of the movement, for instance, the fight against religious oppression, the struggle to awaken political consciousness, and the Dalit women’s participation in the movement. This part of the book provides a lot of archival and factual information of those times. It looks at the early beginnings of the movement with Jyotiba Phule’s leadership and then Ambedkar’s taking forward of the legacy and strengthening the movement. This book illustrates how Ambedkar’s leadership transformed the religious, cultural, social and political discourse amongst the Dalit community. This part is truly unique because never before had any narrative been created to systematically record the Dalit women’s involvement in the struggle against untouchability under the leadership of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. This part of the book traces the initiation of the Dalit women into the movement from the 1920s until Ambedkar’s death in 1956.


The first part of the book gives detailed accounts of different women’s organizations that came up and how these organizations strengthened the Dalit movement and shaped the Dalit feminist movement as we see it today. The book provides the political context of Ambedkar’s movement which began around the 1920s. This is important in understanding the concerns raised then and how these concerns have evolved over time for the Dalit community. The state’s response to independence and the consequent debates, throw light upon the struggle to eradicate caste as we see in modern India. The present-day violence related to caste discrimination is better understood when read with this historical context in mind.


The second part of the book is a collection of interviews with 29 Dalit women and the life sketches of 13 women (deceased at the time of writing this book), all of whom participated in the struggle. What was at stake for Pawar and Moon, both belonging to the Dalit community, was the objective retelling of the history of a struggle so close to their hearts. They had taken upon themselves the task of bringing forth the narratives of women activists—narratives that had been neglected so far in recounting the accounts of the Dalit movement. We have seen a total lack of mention of the role of women especially in accounts of the movement written after Ambedkar’s death. The book AmhihiItihas Ghadavla was the first step in the direction.  This part of the book is crucial because it is the only testimonial in the tradition of oral history where women talk about how Ambedkar’s thoughts had influenced them; it sheds light on the multi-layered Dalit women’s movement that emerged from then on. The Dalit feminist movement is deeply rooted in the Ambedkarite thought of self- assertion, right to self-representation transcending the markers of caste identity.


History is symptomatic of the gradual cultural gain that Dalit women garnered and which was an important step towards political and social liberation. This could be seen in various aspects—from forming women’s groups to be elected at local government bodies to casting off signifiers of caste such as the wearing of heavy jewelry or a certain way of draping the sari. This work helps the present-day reader trace the gradual growth of the importance of education and the political context in which it grew. This reflected the efforts put into making the community understand and embrace education; the conversion to Buddhism and getting rid of myths used to perpetuate the continued oppression of the Dalit community. Chapter 5 ‘Organising against Religious Prostitution’ and Chapter 6 ‘Dalit Women and the Tradition of Marriage’ elucidate how these practices were reformed gradually. For instance, customs such as potraj where men of the Maang caste beg from village to village and are supposed to absorb the evil for others or the young girls of the community being dedicated in the service of god as Muralis and many other oppressive customs were criticized. Women and men from the community mobilized to fight these customs thrust upon them because of the caste hierarchy.


The book documents some of the most moving speeches by Dalit women activists, which are indicative of the extent of the embodiment of Ambedkarite values. An excerpt of a speech from the Dalit Mahila Federation of 1942 by Mrs. Indirabai Patil stands as a perfect example; while addressing a gathering of women she says,


The world is changing fast. If we are to survive, we too must change with it. We have a twofold responsibility: to help the men and also to reform the women in education and other matters. Since Hindu religion has corrupted our minds, we think that our duty is only to bow down to our husbands and look after the kitchen and the children. To remove these Hindu religious thoughts of slavery from the minds of our sisters is a huge task before us. (143)


Another such inspiring speech came from Sulochanabai Dongre who was then chosen to be the president of the Parishad, 


In the matter of education, we are still very backward. The girl of today is the mother of tomorrow. She who rocks the cradle liberates the world. So it is important to educate the girls. The girl must know how to bring up children. If there is no education, one’s virtues and talents cannot be developed. In matters of religion, we must try and go beyond Hinduism. Our women must be represented in every district and tehsil local board. Among the 20 legislative many are uneducated men. If some of these seats had been given to our educated women, our situation could have been improved.(143–44)


One of the most important chapters is ‘Enlightenment through Literature’, which allows an understanding of the early seeds of Dalit literature sowed by the writings of Ambedkar. The writers, Moon and Pawar, go on to call Ambedka rthe ‘Father of Dalit literature’, and rightly so because it isn’t difficult to see the underlying strand of Ambedkarite values and teachings in the writings of memoirs and stories by Dalit women. This chapter traces how women first began to write and voice their opinions alongside Dalit men in periodicals of the time, for instance, Bahishkrut Bharat, Janta Prabuddha Bharat, and others. Women began to write letters in newspapers to articulate their thoughts about issues faced and raised questions about the social injustice around them. This is where we can begin to look at the writings of Dalit women and understand the standpoint of Dalit feminists that was gradually being evolved with the political and social awakening of the women of the community.


In times when the powers that be are doing everything in their might to forget the historical roots of the struggle against the system of caste that continues to persist in modern India in newer forms, the act of both writing and reading this, becomes crucial. The act of remembering the struggle and its very beginnings, recounting the path it has traversed and realizing how all of this history shapes the Dalit women’s narratives today, are all important revelations that the book provides. It is crucial because it ventures into creating a narrative that has so far been non-existent. Remembering the struggles the women partook as they went to jail with babies in their arms, remembering their words, documenting the actual words of interviewed women activists from the movement and bringing to light the sketches of those who were a part of the struggle but didn’t live to tell their testimony, all comprise a political act in itself.