Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatane, Pothnal (Raichur)
From Violence and violations to human dignity, justice and equality
A Brief Story of a Dalit Madiga Women’s Collective 1999-2015
@ the completion of 16 years of meaningful Journey
Violence and violation of human dignity….within households and outside….
This is the gist of the life of a poor Dalit Madiga woman who works as an agricultural labourer at the turn of the second millennium – year 1999-2000
The district of Raichur, with its feudal history of being part of Nizam state, provided a perfect example for the embodiment of caste-class-patriarchal mix resulting in violence on a Dalit woman and violation of her dignity within and outside her home. Raichur, the drought prone area of the deccan plateau,hailed as the rice bowl of Karnataka, was also home to the most marginalised communities in the state, the Dalit Madigas. A deadly combination of an entrenched caste system including extreme forms of untouchability and patriarchal values was enforced with an iron hand by the feudal landlords belonging to the dominant Veerashaiva (Lingayats) community, who ironically also professed to be followers of Basava Dharma (Religion preached by Basaveshwara based on equality and social justice).
When the oppressed Dalits they showed signs of resistance and dared to transgress caste subjugation, were dealt with severely – women were stripped naked and paraded in the open,and not infrequently, the entire community was forced into submission through social and economic boycott. Emerging from these experiences of extreme caste-based oppression, Raichur became the cradle of Dalit liberation movement in early 80’s which was spearheaded by Prof. B. Krishnappa and was called the Dalit Sangharash Samiti (DSS). The DSS brought much hope of large-scale dalit mobilization, dalit assertion and liberation. However by 2000, it had splintered into several factions with hardly any presence of Dalit women in any one them. Rapes and molestations of Madiga women became merely symbolic, rallying points for caste identity when the sexual assault was by upper castes; howevert the gender based discrimination and violence within Dalit communities and households was not even acknowledged!. The triple burden and discrimination of imposed by the oppressive structures of caste – patriarchy – class heavily weighed on Dalit – Women – Agricultural Labourers and continued without any resistance.
Such systemic oppression needed something more than slogans that one heard at the turn of the millennium, when several Dalit groups in the country were gearing up to put caste onto the global map of discrimination in the upcoming Durban Conference in 2000. It required a form of resistance to emerge from within the dalit community to confront gender based injustice within and caste-gender based injustice in the larger society.
At such a juncture, a small social experiment started in and around an insignificant village called Pothnal in Manvi taluk of Raichur district in 1999. Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan (Conscientised Women’s Collective) is a story of a social experiment aimed at catalysing the birth of a grassroots Dalit women’s voice to resist and counter the hegemonies of caste, class and gender. The two-pronged strategy that guided the process was – ‘sangharsh’ (struggle) for rights and ‘navnirman’ (reconstruction, re-creation) for dignity. Through a process of social mobilisation and collectivisation, interrogation of the structures of oppression, using organised power to confront head on violence related to caste and gender, the Madiga women have battled an uphill struggle for justice, equality and dignity.
The Madiga women have come a long way from being unable to sit even for an hour at the sangha meetings to entering the thresholds of gram panchayat to demand their entitlements, obtaining bank loans for their collective activities, monitoring local PHCs and anganwadis and importantly raising a strong, collective voice against violence.
The sixteen year journey from being ‘unorganised Madiga women agricultural labourers’ to being Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan (conscietised women’s collective), can be described at best as a social experiment of moving with the community at their own pace ushering in processes to increase their ownership and control over the very processes of this social experiment.
This photo essay, intended to capture certain historical moments of this journey, is a memoir of this historical social experiment. Small, nonetheless, meaningful!
The history of JMS is a journey where Dalit Madiga women took charge of their life to be active citizens rather than being passive and hapless victims. The sense of collective strength was experienced over 15 year long years as a result of various landmark – historical struggles by Dalit Madiga women, numerous campaigns initiated by JMS for claiming spaces and rights and various paths they started to tread venturing into the unknown. Collective cultural celebrations in the dry summer which came to be known as ’ byasige habba ‘ (summer festival) has become part of the local calendar. Chilipili school for children of Dalit community has gained a reputation as among the best residential bridge schools in the district. . It meant for them a resolve to come out of the household and village confines, take to the streets and visit different places even beyond Raichur to explore newer paths and to move ahead even against odds and frustrations. The droughts induced migration, the devastation in the floods of 2009, lack of financial resources did not deter them from bouncing back. Healing themselves from the all pervasive violence and healing not less than 5000 men and women with their herbal medicines and healing touch has brought them recognition from different corners. Awards recognising their journey and struggle includes Citigroup National Award for community venture of neem fertiliser (2006), leadership award by Karnataka state government and National Commission for Women’s (2013).
Struggles, Campaigns and Solidarity:
Confronting caste and gender based violence was the primary motive that shaped the formation of Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan. Its core agenda was shaped by the principles of social justice, equity and commitment to human dignity.
JMS women called for the first ever historic ‘Pothnal Bundh’ and ‘rasta roko’, protesting against the assaulting and parading nude of Yerrama, a Dalit Madiga woman, in Vanenur village of neighbouring Bellary district in September 2001. This historic solidarity and massive public show of strength firmly ingrained in the collective memory of Dalit women, carved the identity of JMS and its future course.
Relentless struggles continued against all forms of violence and discrimination (domestic as well as caste based) against Dalit women, evoking a response from the otherwise unresponsive and lethargic police and administrative machinery to Dalit women ‘s issues, in Raichur district.
Rooting out violence and discrimination, eventually transformed into campaigns for claiming public spaces in public institutions by Dalit women: ‘nodi namma panchayat’ brought women into Gram Panchayats and gram sabhas (2002), ‘nodi namma prathamika aarogya kendra’ (primary health centres – 2003), ‘nodi namma nyaya bele angadi’ (PDS shops – 2004/05).
Larger struggles and solidarity for social justice have inspired JMS.
It led agricultural workers’ struggles to make it a labour movement of all subaltern communities during the prolonged years of drought (2001-2004) which included the struggle against harvesting machines resulting in a historic ban on the paddy harvesting machines in 2004-05. JMS extended solidarity with Dalit movements on issues of atrocities as well as demand for proportionate reservation for Madigas (Madiga Meesalathi Horata Samiti) in Karnataka. At the national level, solidarity with National Alliance of People’s Movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan, people’s health movements continued.
Community Education for Liberation:
Raichur district topped India in mid-90’s, in the number of child labourers! Caste oppression, feudal stranglehold and extreme poverty forced dalit children to dropout of dysfunctional primary schools and pushed them into bonded labour or ‘jeeta padhati’ . Along with JMS’ efforts to make schools accessible to Dalit children, Chilipili Child Labourers’ Special School began in the year 2000 in Markamdinni village (about 12 kms from Pothnal) with the dream of confronting the systemic violence against young children and to restore their dignity. Initially, during 2000 – 2008, it was a day school which was run in the community centre (Ambedkar Bhavan) located within the dalit community. From 2008-2015, it functioned as a residential school at the JMS centre (Pothnal).
Chilipili shale went beyond literacy and the educational curriculum to be a school of life and learning where dalit children learnt to live together, respecting each others’ spaces and boundaries. Most of them were over 9 years old and totally unfamiliar with the written word or numerals. However, with two years of intensive facilitation most of them enrolled in the 5th or 6th standard while some exceptionally talented children enrolled in 7th and even 8th standard in mainstream school. Most of them cruised ahead of the other privileged children in their schools to become leaders. Renuka, one such girl from Tadakal village, even brought laurels to the district by scoring 78% in 10th Standard.
The quality of the work, dedication of teachers and ownership of children over the Chilipili School tested JMS’ resolve to negotiate with a sponsoring government programme (National child labour programme) without giving bribe for 15 long years! Chilipili School, was JMS’ investment for the future of Dalit community.
Working with the most marginalised, landless, Dalit, women and agricultural wager labourers meant, it was literally the most resourceless community one could think of! Therefore the challenges confronted during ‘navnirman’or reconstruction activities had no answers in social work text books. Walking the untrodden path the women learnt by doing, by trial and error as and when they confronted a situation. Women learnt a range of skills- preparing incense sticks, tailoring, embroidery, preparing organic pesticides , organic cultivation of paddy and pulses, community land development, vermi compost, herbal medicines, making terracotta articles, neem fertiliser and so on.. This also meant that women had to firmly believe in a process that was unfamiliar and invest their time in it with a hope that returns would come soon. The ones which survived the test of time got consolidated under the banner of CHIGURU – the terracotta jewellery unit, herbal medicines unit and neem fertiliser sangha.
The experiment was also with the process of building ownership and control over the production related decision making. The terracotta unit led by a group of women from Pothnal village, neem fertiliser unit led by group of women from Muddanaguddi village and herbal medicine unit consisting of health workers across the villages grew as autonomous units with total control and ownership of the entire process. The colours of terracotta jewellery have reached far and wide, the healing touch of the herbal medicines have yielded miraculous results for paralysis, leucoderma and skin diseases, and the neem fertiliser has been certified by local farmers for its quality. The CHIGURU enterprise has won awards for women for enterprise and leadership. Women’s perseverance against all odds has now survived 15 years and continues to grow with its own cadence of ups and downs as the old leadership seeks younger more educated comrades to join the sanghatan to expand its scope to meet new challenges in dalit madiga women’s struggle for equality, dignity and justice.
The idea of sangharsh and navnirman were sown into the minds of the some of the companions of JMS in its initial stage, who had drawn inspiration from the struggles of Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) towards initiating this social experiment. in NBA and NAPM had asked those historic questions concerning the paradigm of development which were never asked before – viz. – what is development?, whose development? what kind of development?, and what-for is development?. The parameters were to look at the most marginalised and the two pronged approach whose combined effect was summarised by the late Baba Amte as : ‘Sangharsh without nirman is impotent, nirman without sangharsh is sterile’. Shankar Guha Niyogi of Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha too shared such profound thoughts. .
Caste based violence, atrocities on Madiga Dalit women by other castes, domestic violence, the oppressive economic and social control by the powerful Lingayat landlords who owned most of the agricultural lands where most of the dalit shrama jeevis worked as bonded labourers in utter poverty and destitution. signalled Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan’s journey for justice and dignity. .
The village by village meetings, formation of village units, nurturing leaderships, taking up local issues for building self-confidence, regular facilitation of sessions on social justice, human rights, confronting injustice, the knitting of various village communities into a larger collective for engaging with a system entrenched in caste and gender biased power relationships emerged through various campaigns and making each occasion of oppression and violence an opportunity for the collective to confront injustice by public dissent and democratic protests. Through this – the name and identity of Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan emerged. The JMS centre, near the temple of the Dalit goddess Kenchamma, was the original settlement of Dalit community in Pothnal, and now emerged as the centre for action from 2004. About 10 women came out to work full time for the sanghatan, they stayed in different villages going home only once a week.
The journey gathered momentum when key women leaders themselves joined and took responsibility to continue mobilising communities for sangharsh, to confront all forms of social injustice. Some others engaged in reconstruction and re-creative work such as land development, organic farming, income generating ventures such as making terracotta articles and neem fertiliser. The focus on sangharsh continued through the right to work, right to health and right to food campaigns. The campaigns and mobilisations for a life of dignity, broad-based the identity and reach of JMS from being the collective voice of Dalit Madiga Women to also being the voice of the struggling unorganised workers.
The journey of liberation is long and the struggle is yet to be decisive. With great humility, we do hope that the sparks of this small social experiment , will continue to inspire many more to keep the gaze steady on the horizons of new dreams, even as we struggle to keep our heads high and feet firm while stumbling through the maze and mess that surrounds the Dalit Women even today!
The team JMS pays tribute to hundreds of Dalit Madiga Women who reposed faith in this process of sangharsh and navnirman and became instrumental in claiming their legitimate respect and dignity. they ven placed JMS in the state, national and even global memory of meaningful human development work.
We shall not stop…!. The journey will go on…!!
E. Premdas Pinto