Chahe jitni tarah se kahi jaye,aur jitni bar, Azadi ki kahani se kuchh chhut hi jata hai (No matter how many ways and how many times it is said, some things always remain unsaid when it comes to stories of the freedom struggle), I heard this statement from a balladeer in eastern Uttar Pradesh who used to compose songs on the heroes of freedom movement. It is true that history is the “narrative of what happened’’, but it is not fixed, it continuously evolves.
When communities become aware and assertive, they explore their unsung histories and stake claim on mainstream narratives. Thus, the history of Dalits, tribals and marginal communities emerge in two ways — as academic history and as public history. Both interact, influence, overlap, contradict and debate with each other to tell the story of the subaltern.
In the ’90s, when I was doing fieldwork in the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, I would come across various thans (space of worship) under peepal trees near Dalit bastis, like Shahid Baba, Ladaka Baba, etc. When I enquired further, I found that some of them were remembered by the Dalit people as freedom fighters killed by the British. I also heard and collected many folk songs and folk narratives in praise of these heroes. These living memories — in the form of shrines, songs, folklore — keep in circulation the memories of the men and women whom mainstream history has overlooked.
Most of these heroes that we documented were related to the 1857 uprising, now known as the First War of Independence. The memories of Gangu Baba of Bithoor who belonged to the Balmiki community, Banke Beer (Jatav), Beera Pasee, Matadin Bhangi are commemorated by marginal communities in various parts of Uttar Pradesh. The four bodyguards of revolutionary leader Amar Singh, younger brother of Babu Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur (1777-1858), Bihar, were his war strategists. They, too, came from marginal communities of the region.
It is interesting to note that most of these Dalit icons were also women. These include Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi, and Mahaviri Devi. Jhalkari Bai, a brave woman born in the Koree community, was a member of the women’s army organised by Rani Lakshmi Bai and the queen’s close ally, chief strategist and advisor. When the queen of Jhansi escaped with her son, Jhalkari Bai foxed the British by pretending to be the queen, whom she closely resembled, and put up a valiant fight against the invaders.
Uda Devi, another virangana of the 1857 gadar, was a member of the women’s battalion of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the queen of what was then Awadh, who led a spirited fight against the British, killing more than half-a-dozen soldiers in the battle of Sikandar Bagh. These heroes are revered not just within their caste communities but among a larger Dalit community as well.
It is interesting to note that till the ’60s, there was not much assertion of the marginals in claiming their role in the freedom movement. But there existed a trend of writing popular chapbooks among the Dalits of north India.
Through these chapbooks, sold in melas and rallies, on thelas and pavements, they started narrating and circulating their own roles in the freedom movement. The history of Jhalkari Bai was one such example from this time.
During the various phases of Gandhian movements such as the Khilafat Movement (1919), Non-Cooperation Movement (1920), Civil Disobedience Movement (1930), we find the emergence of many Dalit leaders and icons who were part of the mainstream narrative. These include stalwarts such as Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Palwankar Baloo of Maharashtra, Babu Masuria Deen of Uttar Pradesh, Karu Paswan, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Sukhari Paswan, Ram Basawan, Nandan Paswan and Yashoda Devi.
The subaltern heroes of the national movement need to be remembered and embraced by every citizen and these narratives of Dalit participation in India’s freedom struggle need to move from the periphery to the centre. That is when we will become more inclusive of our grassroots and our democracy will deepen.
(The writer is director, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad)