For 80-year-old Ramnika Gupta from Jharkhand, allowing voices to be heard that are rarely heard and yet have a lot to say, has resulted in a mission to hunt out and publish the works of tribal and dalit writers.
Thanks to her efforts over the years, several collections of dalit and tribal poetry, short stories, and books have been published. The magazine she founded Yudhrat Aam Admi has featured the works of many tribal and dalit writers. The All India Tribal Literary Forum, also her baby, is one of very few forums for tribal literature. And the Ramnika Foundation works for the emancipation of the underprivileged in several areas -- from education to legal assistance, research, cultural preservation and material assistance.
Is it really necessary to have a separate dalit/tribal genre of literature? Ramnika Gupta’s answer is to quote from a poem by Vahru Sonwane, a tribal poet of Maharashtra:
We never went on stage that was made in our name,
They did not invite us They pointed with their finger And showed us our place We sat there They appreciated us They were narrating to us Our own vows and sorrows Which were ours and never theirs We had some doubts We murmured They heard us attentively and sighed They twisted our ears and said- Apologise... or you will be...” “It is for this reason that tribal and dalit literature is required,” Gupta says. But the two literatures are very different. The dalits are landless and do not have their own language. Their literature is written in Hindi and other languages. They are victims of caste oppression and untouchability even today and hence have not developed self-respect; many are still engaged in occupations considered unclean. “They belong to the pancham varg of society, where the so-called upper castes do not take water from their hands,” Gupta says.
The adivasis or tribals, on the other hand, belonged to the forests which began to be taken away from them following British rule. Tribal-inhabited lands are rich in minerals so the pressing issues confronting them today are displacement and migration in search of livelihood. They have a rich language and culture, but today their very identity and existence are in peril.
Gupta says there are 90 known tribal languages in the country, of which she has been able to document 27 so far. “A literature that encapsulates a history of at least 3-4,000 years, a wonderful diversity with abundance of communities, and which is composed in 90 languages doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world – neither in American Black literature, nor Australian nor Negroid. It is a unique chapter in the history of world literature,” she says.
Though this multi-lingual tribal literature has been preserved through an oral tradition for 5,000 years, the written form of tribal literature is barely 100-125 years old, starting with the script of the regional language of the area. Christian missionaries who came to the tribal states took an interest in learning the language and began documenting tribal culture and history in English.
Gupta emphasises language because the language revolution can be really powerful in fighting the tyranny of the ruling class.
“Our main aim and agenda is to generate the socio-cultural forces that are necessary for bringing about an attitudinal change in people’s outlook to the victims of socio-cultural injustice, especially tribals, dalits and even women. For this, it is very essential that victims of injustice, exploitation and discrimination come forward and assert their voice in unison. To do this it is also essential that they shake off the inferiority complex they have developed over centuries of suppression and subjugation. It is also necessary that they fight for their self-respect and identity,” Gupta says.
The need to focus on indigenous literature, Gupta says, is “because we wanted to stop the prevalent practice of non-tribals speaking, writing and representing them, without caring what the tribals actually want, think, dream or plan. So we started a reverse process, ie the victims of injustice and discrimination should speak for themselves and assert what type of change they want to promote. Their literature may not have the conventional aesthetics, but it is grounded in reality, it is their voice, their struggle, their pain and anguish that are penned by them, as they see it.”
Tribal literature has always existed as an oral tradition, but when it is written down, the culture is documented, the history and trends are recorded and it is not lost, infiltrated, and imposed on by outsiders, Gupta explains.
“I got a chance to interact with a large cross-section of downtrodden society (dalits). I began collecting their works; their writings were stark depictions of their struggles, the pathos of discrimination, the trials and tribulations of their life. This led to the birth of the magazine Yudhrat Aam Admi in 1986,” Gupta says, describing the genesis of her interest.
In 1997, she formed the Ramnika Foundation which promoted, among other things, the literature of dalits. In 2002, the All India Tribal Literary Forum (AITLF) was formed with Dr Ram Dayal Munda, Sangeet Natak Academy awardwinner and eminent academician from Jharkhand, as president. AITLF has since been holding regular conferences across the country to mobilise tribal and dalit writers and collect their works, many of which are published in Yudhrat Aam Admi.
This quarterly magazine has become a gateway of expression for numerous tribal and dalit writers across the country. It publishes work in the original language and in Hindi translation, thus bringing a subaltern literature into the national limelight. Poems, stories, lyrics, novels and other literary forms from writers and poets of the north-eastern states, Jharkhand, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and other states, get exposure and are themselves exposed to outside critique.
The conferences organised by AILTF not only take these little-known writings into the outside world, they also discuss important tribal and dalit issues. These include a clearly drawn up 12-point agenda which includes highlighting the unjust development policies of the government which cause displacement and migration; denigration of tribal scriptures by mainstream languages; education in the mothertongue; change of curriculum in schools and colleges and introduction of tribal and dalit literature.
Yudhrat Aam Admi’s print-run of 2,500 is quickly sold out. The translations into Hindi are done by Gupta’s friends including Akil Quis and Pramila Garg of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and by Gupta herself. Often the authors do a basic translation in Hindi or English, which is then perfected by professionals such as Suresh Sahil and Madan Kashyap.
The material published in Yudhrat Aam Admi is now considered basic reference material for research work on dalit and tribal literature, which is carried out by several universities in the country such as Ranchi University, in Jharkhand, Cochin University in Kerala, Nagpur University, Central University and Osmania University in Hyderabad, and Arunachal University.
The excellent response to the magazine emboldened Gupta to compile the writings and publish them as books: Dalit Chetna is a collection of 41 poems, Chetna Kahani showcases the literary talent of 28 writers. Dalit Chetna Soch and Dalit Chetna Sahitya followed.
The AITLF has concentrated on different languages and language centres. Thus there is the Telegu Sahitya Me Dalit Dastak and the Gujarati Sahitya Me Dalit Kadam etc.
Four hundred dalit and tribal writers have been featured in a series of special issues between 1995 and 2000, surely a first of its kind.
“Our success story inspired the Indira Gandhi National Open University to start a post-graduate course in Dalit Literature,” Gupta says. Equally successful were the endeavours of the forum in the north-eastern states. A special issue on the North-East, ‘Purvottar Ka Adivasi Swar – Vichar Khand’, showcased the work of 60 writers in 13 languages of the region. A directory of 105 writers from the north-eastern states has been published in two volumes.
In 2002, the Sahitya Akademi joined hands with AITLF to host the first major tribal literary conference in New Delhi. This was followed by conferences in association with Kannad University in Tami Nadu, the Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribagh, and others across the country.
“These writers across the country need to be honoured and felicitated for their work,” Gupta points out. To this end, the Ramnika Foundation Samman selects writers from the remote hinterlands and awards them for their creative writing. In this way new talent has been unearthed -- Nirmala Putul from Jharkhand went on to bag the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan Award, and the National Youth Award besides the Bharat Adivasi Samman award given by the Ramnika Foundation in collaboration with the National Book Trust in 2005, for her powerful Santhali writing.
In Nagare Ki Tarah Bajte Hain Shabad (Words Resound Like Drums), a collection of poems, Putul counterpoises her tribal world with the 'developed' and modern world. Her poetry questions the whole notion of 'development' and 'progress' in modern civilisation. Her poetry is very musical and full of imagery drawn from nature. They describe the agony of being belittled by an ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ society and the consequent feeling of helplessness. Her poetry compels the reader to empathise with the angst of a dying ethnic group.
This year, the Ramnika Foundation in association with AITLF honoured 12 tribal artistes from across the country in the state capital of Jharkhand.
Among those honoured was Vijoya Sawiyan, a noted writer in Khasi and English. Her stories are about the life and culture of the Khasis of the northeast. The Family Secret and Other Stories is a collection of 11 short stories about contemporary life amongst the Khasis of Meghalaya. She is currently working on a novel, Men in the Shadows, based on the present situation in the turbulent northeast. Her other published works include three books of translations from Khasi into English -- The Teachings of Elders, Popular Khasi Folk Tales and About One.
Vahru Sonwane is the first modern poet from the Bhil community of Maharashtra. His poems depict the hunger, pathos and struggle of Bhil society. His collection of poems Godhar which has been translated into Hindi is a window into the trials and tribulations of his community.
Bhagwan Das, a lawyer by profession, was born into a dalit family in Himachal Pradesh. He has written 20 books revolving mainly around untouchability, human scavengers, human rights, and social disparity. ‘Main Bhangi Hoon’ (I Am a Scavenger), amongst his best works, is a vivid portrayal of the harsh realities of his community, aglow with his wrath against centuries of social oppression:
“Yes, my family name is Bhangi,” he wrote in Hindi. “Today, I want to narrate my story. My story in my words. Who would have narrated it? Nobody ever wrote anything about us. We are on the last rung of the social ladder – dustbins, where the filth and dirt are disposed.”
“The Foundation has instilled confidence in dalits and tribals,” Bhagwan Das says. “They take pride in their culture and language – this is the Foundation’s biggest contribution.” He has been awarded the Birsa Munda Samman by the Ramnika Foundation this year.
Sushila Takbhore was honoured with the Savitri Bai Phule Samman this year. One of her poems, Gaali (abuse), translated into Hindi, reads:
“Vafa ke naam par, apne aap ko ek kutta kaha ja sakta hai…magar kutia nahi, kutia shabd sunkar hi lagta hai, yah ek gaali hai… kya isliye ki wah stri varg me aata hai…?”
(In the name of loyalty, one may call himself a dog… but not a bitch… the very utterance of the word makes it appear as an abuse… is it because it belongs to the feminine race..?)
Ramnika Gupta’s empathy with the downtrodden began early. “I have been a rebel since my childhood and began to write from the age of 14, when I penned my first poems,” she recalls. “I questioned untouchability and the existence of God, defying the prevalent traditions and customs, particularly on gender and caste.”
Her first book, Geet-Ageet, (1962) is a collection of poetry on the Chinese aggression in the 1960s, nature, love, and patriotism. She began her career as a trade union leader, forming the Koyla Sramik Sangh in 1969 in the coal-belts of south Bihar (now Jharkhand), initially affiliated to Hind Mazdoor Panchayat, and later Hind Mazdoor Sabha. She fought for the cause of coal workers, braving attacks from the private mine owners and contractors, particularly in the Hazaribagh region, during the pre-nationalisation era. She was the CPM’s candidate from Mandu in the 1979 assembly polls, and won.
However she drifted away from politics after she suffered a heart attack in 1987. Also the changing political values made it difficult for her to work and gradually she came closer to the literary world. An ace writer herself, she has 67 books to her credit and is the recipient of the Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi Award.
Her literary institution is run largely with the support of her children who are settled in the United States and Canada. Her pension of Rs 12,000, and Rs 100,000 free travel that she gets as part of her entitlements as a former MLA, are used for the cause.
Yet, in the twilight of her life, Ramnika Gupta is far from satisfied with her considerable achievements. “There are 600 tribal languages in our country of which only 90 languages have so far been written down. Our Forum aims to scout for more talent from the nooks and corners of the country,” says the indefatigable chronicler of marginal cultures.
By Moushumi Basu , a freelance journalist based in Jharkhand