Newsletter Jan - Apr 2007

A translation and a tribute

In the Indian context of caste and patriarchy women from the underclass and communities bear a doubly underprivileged status. One consequence of such situations is the relative absence of voices of such women even in folk oral traditions. It is in this context that we have chosen to reprint an essay written in 1855 by a young girl student of a school for the Mahar and Mang dalit communities in Pune.

Apologists for the past claim that women’s education in the subcontinent goes back to Gargi and Maitreyi. Mythology aside, however, the first evidence of efforts for the education of women to equip them as citizens belong to 19th century India. In the Bombay Presidency, a notable centre of many reforms movements, the credit for initiating schools for girls is given to Jyotiba Phule who started such a school in 1851 in Pune. It is a little known fact that, even in Pune there were efforts twenty years earlier to run a secret school for girls. In fact some of the people involved in that earlier effort had joined Phule to start the school in 1851. Further, three years earlier Phule himself had started a school for the children of Mahar and Mang Dalit community in 1848 in which boys and girls were taught together. A girl in this school wrote the essay that we reproduce below, translated from the original Marathi into English.

The essay is instructive for us in many respects. It used an idiom far removed from what must have been everyday language for the young author; yet the awareness of injustice and the yearning for equality and dignity that it reflects is a sadly familiar feeling even today. A notable feature of the essay is the perception of the East India Company government as more just to Dalit communities, reflecting old origins of the tension between local self-governance on the one hand and the ease with which it lends itself to institutional exploitation on the other.

It may be said quite plausibly that the essay is strongly influenced by arguments of 19th century Christian Missionaries. However, there are not necessarily the ‘foreign’ clutches that they seem to be at first glance. Indeed, for communities living in isolation in a state of systematic social injustice ideas from outside can serve as the breeze that throws windows open, lets them take a deep breath and think of possibilities. Many reform movements in South Asia and elsewhere have benefited from such ‘foreign’ hands. After all Mahatma Gandhi is India’s most valuable export!

The fact that the young author and hopefully her family were willing to let the essay be identified with her is quite remarkable. Her name Mukta, which means the ‘free one’, is coincidentally evocative in this context. We have no idea what Mukta grew up to become. Perhaps she became Christian; perhaps she grew up married and brought up a family and was one of the very old women who blessed Ambedkar in his efforts; perhaps she died young in childbirth. None of those possibilities dim the blazing brightness of the indignation in every word she wrote.

Excerpts from the Marathi essay, ‘About the Griefs of Mangs and Mahars’

[‘Mangmaharanchya dukhavishayee’] by Muktabai [circa 1855]

“Sir, to refute using Vedic authority the opinion of those who hate us, we begin with the claim of these people who set themselves up over us, especially the gourmand Brahmins, that the Vedas are their property and that only they should study these scriptures. If so, then it is evident that we have no scriptures. If the Vedas are for Brahmins, then it is the sacred duty of Brahmins to follow the teachings therein. If we do not have the freedom to study the scriptures, then does it not follow that we are without any religion? God save us; if even our studying the Vedas is a grave sin (as the Brahmins say), then what fools we would be if we actually follow the teachings therein? The Muslims live by the Q’oran, the English by the Bible and the Brahmins by the Vedas. It seems that they are happier than us to a greater or lesser extent depending on their religions, true or false. Therefore do you, Lord God, make known to us which religion comes from you, so that we may also experience it as they do. But that religion which only some may know and others must find only in the faces of gluttons; let that religion and others like it be lost from the face of the earth, and let it never enter our heads to do such a religion any honour.

The Brahmins consider us humans inferior to cattle. Hear me; when Bajirao ruled, did they consider us equal even to donkeys? For see, if you do but beat a lame donkey, will his owner let you be unscathed? But who was there ever to say, ‘do not beat the Mangs and Mahars’?

Those who dance around wearing sacerdotal clothing intend to consider themselves more virtuous than others, and this pleases them. But do these merciless hearts ever melt over the sorrows that befall us from this untouchability? Nobody employs us for this very reason. If we do not get any work, how can we earn a living?

O wise men wrap up and cast aside your selfish belly-filling pomposities and listen carefully to what I say. Consider what grief it must be when the women among us are brought to childbed when their homes do not even have roofs and are exposed to the depredations of wind and rain and the cold? Think on this from your own experiences. Where will pregnant women find money for physicians and medicines for ailments? Who among you was ever a respectable physician who gave medicines free to the people?

Woe, woe, Lord God, what sorrows are these? Writing any more about this injustice brings tears to my eyes. It is because of this the Lord God took pity on us and sent us the merciful English Government.

Now, there has come to be a most extraordinary thing since the rule of the unbiased and merciful English Government, which surprises me as I write. And that is, those who gave us grief as I have described above are now our dear countrymen, friends and brothers who are struggling day and night to bring us out of these depths of misery. However, not all Brahmins are so inclined. Those among them whose thoughts are evil continue to hate us as of yore, and threaten to cast out those of their brethren who work on our behalf.

Our beloved brothers have started schools for the children of Mangs and Mahars, and these schools receive help from the merciful English Government. That is why there is so much support for these schools. My fellow Mang and Mahar people who are afflicted by poverty and sorrows, you are ailing, so medicate your minds with knowledge so that you may become wise and virtuous, abandoning all ill beliefs, and you will cease to be treated night and day as animals.

(First published in Dnyanodaya, an Ahmednagar [Maharashtra] based journal in 1855. The entire essay was printed as an appendix in a book by NV Joshi, titled Pune Shaharache Varnan [A Description of Pune city], and first published in 1868.)