The Importance of Being Rajni Tilak
April 30, 2018
The sudden demise of Ambedkarite feminist Rajni Tilak on 30 March 2018 is a big loss to the dalit movement, particularly in North India. She had been spearheading a campaign to empower dalit women. The younger activists would look to her for guidance and support. I had known her for nearly 25 years. I found her extremely pragmatic and, most importantly, active on the ground. As an activist, she encouraged students, particularly young women, to read and understand Dr B R Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule’s works. Those of us who were lucky enough to have known her were aware of her contributions in almost all movements and efforts concerning people and their rights. We would frequently run into each other at Jantar Mantar, companions in our fight against caste discriminations, violence against women, and violence against dalits and minorities. She never bothered about how many people joined her or who supported her. Even if it was only her, she would sit at Jantar Mantar to register her protest. I had jointly organised and participated in various protests, dharnas, and public meetings with her. The most remarkable thing about her was that she was ready set aside her ideological differences with people if it meant coming together for a cause.
In May 2012, over 150 dalit families were economically and socially boycotted by the Jats in Bhagana (a village roughly 150km from Delhi), compelling the dalits to march to Delhi to seek justice and security. Tilak, along with others, joined the solidarity committee in Delhi. She was a regular at Jantar Mantar for any dharnas that happened. The essence of activism for her was to be available for the community she worked for, and anyone else who needed help, at all times. Of course, this created a lot of problems for her. Such unflinching commitment often causes rifts in the family. For many, there is no difference between the already thin line that separates private and public life. They welcome everyone into their family. Tilak was one such person.
During the 2012-2013 protests following the Nirbhaya rape case, there were many among the dalits-bahujans who felt that had the girl been from a dalit family, she may not have received such support and the case would not have been so widely covered. They felt that upper caste activists, including feminists, would not have spoken up as vehemently as they had done for Nirbhaya; and nor would there be such a large crowd at candle light marches across the country. But Tilak actively participated in the protests. She reasoned with them, explaining that this was not about caste but about women being unsafe in the city; that what had happened with Nirbhaya could happen to any woman.
The revolutionary Savitribai Phule’s birth anniversary, 3rd January, is popularly celebrated as Teachers’ Day by bahujan communities. Tilak used to regularly organise many events to mark the occasion. Every year, she would organise programmes to celebrate Teachers’ Day. She had opposed the Bharat Bandh on 3 January, 2013 that had been called to protest against the Nirbhaya rape. She felt that this was yet another occasion where an important dalit-bahujan occasion had been disregarded. Last year, like always, she celebrated 3 January as Savitribai Phule’s birth anniversary. In fact, we were together. Some of our Muslim friends in Nuhu town of Mewat area had organised a public meeting. Tilak was called to the meeting as the chief speaker. She spoke about Savitribai Phule’s work for the emancipation and liberation of women in India and how it had informed her own work and activism.
She was also on the frontlines of the #MeToo movement, even though it had been more or less “hijacked” by the “secular” and elite crowd of Delhi, with very little space for any “outsider.”
As an Ambedkarite feminist, her core area was the double burden on dalit woman. She was among the most vocal about this issue within the Ambedkarite movement. She was upfront with those who did not understand this and would tell them bluntly that they had to change. But she didn’t let differences like these create rifts within the movement. She did not shy away from reaching out to fellow activists, even if some of them might have disagreed with her or distanced themselves from her for reasons best known to them.
This was, perhaps, what made her a good activist. Being an activist makes you more pragmatic and focus on developing one on one relationships with people. She was a vociferous critic of the Left movement in India for their inability to understand or acknowledge the caste dynamics of our society. However, her relationship with most of the activists in the Left feminists circle was powerful. She was not biased towards anyone, she did not hold grudges. Instead, she would emphasise the importance of building a joint movement, especially now, against the right-wing Hindu forces. She would stress that it was essential that all progressive elements who were against brahmanical patriarchy and Hindu fundamentalism be brought under one banner. That apart, she was very categorical that the Dalits also needed to be self-reflexive. She believed that, for the Ambedkarite movement to succeed, the change needed to begin from dalit homes. Her perspectives, her ideas, were all informed by the struggles she had faced as a daughter, sister, wife, and mother. In all these roles, she had seen how gender intersected with caste. Her experiences made her politics more nuanced. She realised that the most important thing for a woman in need was immediate help, support, and counseling. Ideological deliberations could be dealt with later.
She was worried about people misinterpreting the writings of Dr B R Ambedkar. She firmly held the view that, without working at the ground level, you cannot succeed as an activist; that it is only by working at the grass root level that you can strengthen your politics. In an interview with me in 2005, she said:
We must be politically conscious but not ambitious. From ambition, I don’t mean we should not be ambitious. But the internal unity and inner dalit dialogue is getting hampered with various ambitious people in different communities. Their political ambition is the root of all the problems and [why] different communities [have failed to] come together. Rather than political ambition, if we mobilise people on social basis, I am sure the unity will be stronger than the political unity. Look at 1992. The [Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party] combine had attained political unity but social unity was never there. Hence, it broke [because of] the egos of our political leaders. Dalits issue is not simply with politics and political representation. It is a social battle, a battle of honour and for human rights of every dalit. So, we have to fight a long term battle. The NGO culture in dalits needs to rejected, as it will be harmful for the movement. NGOs can do good work in different fields but they definitely cannot [lead] a movement. And for the liberation of dalits, we need a strong, radica,l anti-Brahmin movement which should be based on rationality. In the absence of [such] a movement, we will not be able to create any pressure on the government.
She was an open minded, practicing Ambedkarite. There was no duplicity in her. Whether in her public life or her private life, she remained the same. She had often spoken against this duality, pointing out that many activists who were “revolutionary” in their public life were also reactionary and orthodox when it came to their private life.
Rajni Tilak was born on 27 May, 1958 and grew up in very difficult circumstances. She talks about her family background in her autobiography Apnee Jameen Apna Aasma:
I was born in a basti of Machhli Walan in old Delhi. I was the sixth child of my parents. Before me, three of my brothers and sisters had died of malnutrition and other related problems because of poverty. [The fourth child to perish] was my brother Manohar, followed by another brother, Anil. After me, my brother Ashok, two sisters Pushpa and Anita, and two brothers Sanjay and Manoj, were born. When we shifted to Seelampur, there were only four brothers and sisters with our grandfather and parents. All [of us were] loved by [our] parents. It was a mohalla of the Jatavs and there was no social exclusion inside it. But people would narrate stories of their discrimination when they used to return by the evening. That time, it was only alcohol which could “boast” their “confidence.” In one cup of drink they would turn lion from a baby lamb.
The story of her family is a remarkable tale of grit and determination. All of them embraced Ambedkarism, dedicated themselves to the cause of the marginalised, and worked for social justice. Her entire family is inspiring for their staunch opposition to caste-based discrimination and for consciously choosing to not follow any caste-based customs. In fact, Most of her siblings chose their own partners; they had inter-caste and inter-regional marriages. This, in a society where people are often killed for marrying outside their caste.
She wasn’t one to play the victim card or crib about how hard life was for her. She took responsibility for her life and did not complain. She was very proud of her work and her perseverance. She started working as an Anganwadi worker in early 1980s for the meager salary of Rs 150/- per month. The fact that it was a low paying job did not discourage her. She enjoyed her work; it gave her the opportunity to go out and meet new people and other activists who were working with marginalised communities. She faced a lot of opposition from caste Hindus; they would mock her for being from a Chamar community. But she continued undeterred. Eventually, Tilak and some of her friends got together and mobilised more than four thousand women, forming the Akhil Bharatiya Anganwadi Worker and Helper Union. It was around this time that she attended some cadre training camps organised by The All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF),an organisation formed by the late social reformer, Kanshi Ram.
Tilak was capable of making her own way, and she did. But she also respected and supported diverse groups who were working with marginalised communities, even if she had some differences with them. On the one side, she was with the Ambedkarites. But, on the other side, she also associated with Left groups as well as those with a socialist leaning. Except for the brahmanical Hindutva groups, she was ready to work with anyone provided they acknowledged the existence of caste discrimination and accepted the plight of the dalits.
She disagreed with many feminist, especially on some feminists’ understanding of women’s right to “use” their bodies however they wanted. This was particularly true when it came to understanding sex workers and their issues. While she was sympathetic to the feminist cause, she felt that some feminists often overlooked role of caste in commercial sex work (CSW). For instance, it hardly ever acknowledged that most of the illegally trafficked CSWs are from adivasi and dalit families. It is their marginalised position that makes them vulnerable. In an interview with me, I remember her saying:
Many in the women’s movement today support the rights of the women to “use” their bodies. Now we are using legitimate words like “sex workers” and fight for their rights. From a Dalit perspective, where do you differ. Agreed, women have a right to “use” their bodies. But the main question is, how many of them are really using it freely and independently? And in the din of all this, are we not forgetting the grave fact that a majority of women brought up in the brothels [are not their out of] their own choice but [because of] trafficking. Most of the dalit and advasi girls are not there out of their choice but because of forces operating in the villages, who make money at the cost of the dignity and choices of dalit and adivasi women and perhaps that is a clear difference of perception here with that of Dalit women.
While most people in Delhi’s civil society circles only knew her as an activist of indomitable spirit, conviction, and courage, not many know that she was also a popular poet and writer of Hindi language. Her poetry inspired a large number of youngsters. They were witty and to the point. She authored about 12 books, including the first part of her autobiography. Her first book was on Savitribai Phule, which was published in 1998. This was followed by a remarkably inspiring poem for young girls called “Padchap.” But the most inspiring work for me, in terms of her writing, was a volume of Savitribai Phule’s original writings, poems, five of her speeches, and letters to her husband Joti Ba Phule, all of which was originally written in Marathi. The volume, Savitribai Phule Rachna Samgra (Savitri Bai Phule’s Complete Works), was edited by Rajni Tilak. She worked extraordinarily hard to put this book together. Her friend, Shekhar Pawar, was instrumental in translating most of the work from Marathi into Hindi. It is an important book for all those who want to read about Jotiba and Savitribai Phule and understand how gender and caste intersect. She also got Dr Ambdkar’s writing on women’s issues translated from Marathi into Hindi and brought out a volume of these.
She was a powerful link between the Ambedkarite movements in Maharashtra and North India. But more than that, she was a woman who believed in bringing people together to work for the cause of the marginalised. Her house was a popular meeting place for activists. They would come together to talk, discuss, and consult. Many would frequently stay there. The only thing she fell short in, perhaps, was taking care of her health. Her untimely death is a huge loss for all of us, especially because of the trying time that this country is going through, given the brahmanical, fascist government at the Centre.
Rajni Tilak’s legacy must be continued. I sincerely hope that her close friends and associates will keep her memory alive by engaging in dialogues with likeminded groups and individuals, encouraging the youth to read and understand the works of revolutionary social justice icons like Savitribai Phule and Dr B R Ambedkar.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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