On their way to the information highway
Raja Sekhar Vundru
J Chandrasekharan, an expert with computers and integrated product development, had once casually walked into the computer room of Hindustan Aeronauticals Ltd, Bangalore - only to be denied permission. That was the attitude of boses to one of the sharpest brains in Information Technology! This happened when computers were found only in the exclusive domain of research labs. Chandrasekharan was a Dalit and was not given permission for the next five years. Caste bias in the electronic world?
A few decades later, Chandrasekharan's son, Sashikanth Chandrasekharan, launched "Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and his People" on the Internet. The website, called www.ambedkar.org, is a living example of just what a third-generation Dalit living in the US, and given access to modern education, can achieve.
The website was launched from Cleveland, USA, on a rented server. Within a year, the site itself became news and started pulling in popular awards like the Echo Web Award for excellence, creativity and originality and the Golden Web Award for the year 2000-01. The website has more than 4,000 unique visitors each month. Launched on April 15, 2000, the site has already had more than 50,000 visitors by now.
The site is a browser's paradise. It gives out one of the highest numbers of news links on a single theme. The home page downloads quickly and gives to a visitor more than a 100 categorised links. The website is on its way to become a major portal, in its own genre.
Sashikanth, 29, followed in his father's footsteps as a Dalit activist and also went on to become an expert in the field of Information Technology. He did his BE in IT from the BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore and married his college friend Shifalika. Both of them work in Cleveland and help run the site. The web-couple call it a pay-back-to-society exercise. Sashikanth's mother Navaneetham Chandrasekharan has been an inspiring figure, helping them fight against the many odds.
www.ambedkar.org comes with audio and video links, online books, a photo gallery and anthologies of articles written by major Dalit writers. The site also gives one free e-mail, along with an ID. The site is actually an offshoot of a discussion forum called Dalit e-Forum, which was founded by Sashikanth and a few others and now has 350 members from all over the world.
The website's layout, conceived at Metro Land Park, Cleveland, by Sashikanth and Santhos Bhawar, was initially launched on a free URL provider, Tripod.com, before shifting to an independent URL and www.ambedkar.org. The layout's left index menu has links to Dr BR Ambedkar, Buddhism, News flash, Other social reformers, Culture and civilisation, Research and Resources, Debate and discussion, in the United Nations, World Wide Dalits, Entertainment, Events calendar, Matrimonial, Dalit MPs, Links, India news, Feedback and e-mail log in. It also has a link to the immortal voice of Dr Ambedkar.
The central bit of the website's layout carries constantly updated news flashes about Dalits who appear in newspapers and magazines all over the world. An amazing 500 news items are placed on the first page itself. The news items run up to 2,100. The news content ranges from atrocities committed on Dalits, issues relating to Dalit-Bahujans, reservations, Buddhism and contemporary politics. No wonder, Sashikanth and Shifalika sit at the server for at least four hours a day.
The right index menu links up to more than 15 online books, including Phule's Slavery, Buddha and his Dhamma and Patana. Poona Pact, The 22 vows of Ambedkar and others can be found in the document section. An e-magazine called D-Mag and published by Sashikant can also be found on the site. Celebrated writers, such as Chandrabhan Prasad, Dr Jamnadas and Ms Gail Omvedt are featured in the commentary section.
Sashikanth dreams of a strong, alternative Dalit media. The medium he chose, however, was one to which millions of Dalits have very little access. But even then, bridging the digital divide in India is a task every educated Dalit must try to accomplish. Dalits must become computer-literate. They must have access to the Internet. Let us now hope that 250 million Dalits will be able to cross the dusty lanes of the digital divide and reach the information super highway!
The www.ambedkar.org e-mail ID is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sashikanth's e-mail address is: skanth @parker.com.
(The author is director, Information Technology, Haryana, email@example.com)