Sabrina factor of the Southern Dalits
I was stunned. I was called at half past one in the morning to address a gathering of some 7,000 men, women and children. My address was preceded by a dance performance by the Suresh Lele group, where I saw Sabrina dancing madly away, along with her other team mates. I first met Sabrina in 1999 in Hyderabad. Since then, I have met her on a number of occasions. Tamil born, 21 years of age, short statured but beautifully built, Sabrina has been educated in an English medium school and works for Dappu, an Ambedkarian cultural group theorising Dalit culture. This would be incomprehensible in the North - an English medium-educated Dalit girl dancing in the middle of the night before a huge crowd, spreading the message of Ambedkar.
And Sabrina was not alone. There was a host of Dalit cultural groups drawn from all over Andhra Pradesh. Most groups had women participants. The Mahboob Nagar city ground was full of colour. The night-long cultural festival had been called Ambedkar Jathara or Ambedkar Mela, participants wore festive dresses, carried banners and placards, all in Mahboob Nagar, a drought-prone, backward district in the Telangana region, a two-and-half hour drive from Hyderabad. The event was unique, for me at least, with the festival beginning at six in the evening on April 20 and ending at 7.30 am the next morning. The event's chief organiser, Mr Sudhakar, an "emerging" leader with lots of energy, had taken special care to invite most streams of the Dalit movement. It was indeed amazing to see Dr Ravi Mallu, a two-term Congress MP, sitting among the audience all through the night.
"Although Dr Ambedkar is a symbol to all of us, we still remain divided on organisational lines. The only way to bring all Dalit streams together is through cultural events, where people put their differences aside and compete with each other in a healthy manner," said Sudhakar. And he was not wrong. After each performance, group leaders were asked to address the gathering. I could see Paul Divakar, who had led the Dalit Durban movement, sharing the dais with me. Women activists also addressed the gathering, and I saluted the patience of speakers and the audience alike who stayed on at the ground until the very last group had performed or the last speaker had said his bit. During breakfast the next morning, Ms Shyamala, a women of firm conviction, also blessed with a beautiful mind, and whom I lovingly call a "human magnet", informed me that she spoke at seven in the morning. So well theoretically organised is Shyamala, that the day she becomes more comfortable in English, she will leave many present day Dalit Women feminist groups miles behind. She sings, very well at that. That's an interesting aspect about southern Dalits, just about every activist is a good singer. This I first noticed when noted Dalit journalist and activist Mallapalli Laxmiah sung a song at a programme in Hyderabad in 2000. His wife Jaya surprised me when she sang a song at Godavari Kanhi, a coal mine town in the Karim Nagar district. This does not happen in the North.
The Ambedkar Jatharas are not limited to Andhra alone. On April 13, I was in Chennai to participate in a day-long state level seminar on the Bhopal Declaration. Henry Tiphange insisted that I join him at Tirenelveli on April 14, to participate in another night-long cultural festival organised to mark the birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar. I was a bit hesitant, the place was some 75 km away from Kanyakumari; I would have to travel about 700 km. But a description of events by Henry, another leading light of the Durban movement, sounded so lovely that the same evening, I decided to travel to Tirenelveli, a town once called the Oxford of the south.
I was taken to the venue at eight in the evening, where I saw a sea of humanity watching the Kasgatham, a dance form where two young girls, with large parts of their bodies exposed, perform with mud kalashes on their heads and a few smaller objects in their hands. Some eight drummers beat out the music. Through their songs, they invoked the struggles of Dr Ambedkar and paid tribute to the messiah of the Indian oppressed. I witnessed about a dozen performances, one where a mock bloodfight between Dalits and their oppressors was staged. Here, too, most cultural groups invariably had women participants and many performances were led by women artistes. At the end of each performance, leaders were invited to address the gathering. Here too, most political streams within the Dalit movement were invited. As testimony to that, I was introduced to R Krishnan, the two term CPI(M) MLA, who had
personally seen a Brahmin at the early age of 10.
What is happening in the South is a fresh upsurge of the Dalit movement, after a late realisation that the anti-Brahmin movement was actually an ultra-Brahminical movement.
This new movement in the South is defined by the large presence of women activists, centred around the Ambedkarian ideology. In short, the Southern Dalit movement is also addressing the gender question simultaneously.