Their Lives Matter

Ramnika Gupta chronicles Adivasi and Dalit lives through their histories, literature and experiences.

Written by Seema Chishti | Published:August 7, 2016 12:00 am
Ramanika Gupta, former politician and writer. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal) Ramanika Gupta, former politician and writer. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Ramnika Gupta sits upright in her little office in Delhi, editing, proofreading, and deciding which Dalit and Adivasi writers need to find space in the forthcoming issue of Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, a monthly magazine she set up in 1987. The stories in the August issue of the magazine capture the daily trials of being a Dalit in India. There is Rajjo in Chot by Surajpal Chauhan, a young and beautiful Dalit widow, confined to the job of a safai karamchari and denied her late husband’s chaprasi job because those in authority would rather she does the “cleaning”. There is Bholu in Neera Parmar’s Mehak, who is caught stealing flowers for his grandmother’s funeral and is thrashed soundly by policemen.

The stories are contemporary, but they are also timeless. Sixty-six years after the abolition of untouchability, these chronicles of discrimination and oppression continue to find resonance in modern India. Stories such as Sarvajanik Maafi by Abhay Kumar or Haan, Yeh Sach Hai by Mohandas Raimishray document the oppression that refuses to go away. So, the recent cow vigilante violence and also the Dalit pushback can both be found in the stories of
Dalit writers.

The current issue includes stories by nine Dalit and eight tribal authors. Gupta’s range as a translator is wide, with stories in Malayalam, Santhali, Odiya, Nagpuriya and Adivasi dialects, all translated into Hindi. Of the nearly 600 tribal languages that exist in India, Gupta has been able to document about 90. “Several Adivasi languages rely only on the oral tradition. I make it my business to try and make it accessible to others and get it written down so others can benefit and it can be shared,” she says.

A former legislator from Bihar, Gupta was born in Punjab to a senior army officer. In her 86-year-old journey, she has worn many hats. She has been with the Congress before she turned to socialism and communism. It was in Bihar, where she moved nearly 50 years ago, after falling in love and marrying outside her caste, that she first interacted closely with Adivasis and Dalits who worked in the mining industry. The exploitation she saw at close quarters helped her discover her politics. An activist, she went on to become a MLA, but gradually, she realised that her calling lay elsewhere. Over the years, Gupta says, she had noticed that mainstream media gave little or no space to stories of displacement and exploitation. So, she decided to set up a literary magazine with a special focus on Dalit and Adivasi writing three decades ago.

But do all stories of Dalits and Adivasis have to come only from them? Can only the disadvantaged write about the disadvantaged? These are some of the questions that Gupta has faced. Her answer has been an unwavering yes. “They have borne the burden, carried maila on their heads, they have had their lives and habitats snatched from them. So they know best what it feels like. That others write about it is also important, it is empathetic but it is different from first-hand accounts,” says Gupta.

The All India Tribal Literary Forum (AITLF), which she runs, is one of the few forums for showcasing and integrating tribal experiences in “regular” literature. In 2002, the Sahitya Akademi alongwith AITLF organised the first big Adivasi Literary Conference in India after which several universities abroad began courses in the subject.

Much of Gupta’s compilations of Dalit and Adivasi poetry is now part of the syllabi at universities that have introduced courses in Adivasi and Dalit literature. Laura Brueck, chair, department of Asian Languages and Cultures in Northwestern University, US, calls Gupta “an important thread of India’s history” that ties the government at the Centre and “the most abject of workers at the periphery.”

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