The sceptical Dalit, Left feminist: my dear friend Rajni Tilak

The activist’s theory and praxis was a combination of the three ideologies of left, women and Dalit

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Kavita Srivastava

The Rajni TIlak I knew was one who represented beautifully the critique of the left, the women (feminist) and the Dalit movement. A Dalit, she was married once to a leftist. Like a lot of the left platforms of that period, he had no time and patience for her questions as a woman and a Dalit woman.

It was best separating from him, a decision she took a long time ago. She was a part of the feminist movement of the 80s where she was trying to get across the message to the women's movement that our diverse identities as women needed to be acknowledged and the Dalit woman's identity had to be recognised for the strengthening of the women's movement. She shared details of one Women's Day celebrations in the 80s when Dalit women, particularly from the Valmiki and manual scavenging community who came with their kachra basket and brooms, were not allowed to lead the rally. She felt that as a Dalit woman she could not do without a feminist movement, where her heart was but felt that there was rigidity in us as a movement in revising our positions. We feared our plurality from being highlighted as it called for contestations within us and outside with the State. And in the 80s, perhaps we as a movement did not have the confidence to raise these questions which dealt less with our commonalities and more about our differences. She talked of the Dalit movement whose leaders, mostly men, did not want the women's questions raised at all. They felt that "ghar ki baat" should not be brought to the public platform and that the women's question could wait and it was a conspiracy of the upper caste to get the women to break the Dalit movement.

So the Rajni who emerged in the late nineties was somebody who did not give up on her understandings of the road map of change for the last woman. Her theory and praxis was a combination of the three ideologies of left, women and Dalit. I remember when she, along with others, set up the Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Manch, in the late nineties. She told me clearly that the definition of Dalit included SC&ST and minorities, so leadership and final decision making would only be in the hands of Dalit women. However, women of other caste Hindu communities could be a part of the movement too, she maintained. Having full faith in inclusivity but realising that the fledging Dalit women leadership had to emerge on its on, Rajni and her collective of Dalit women took these tough decisions.

In 2008, when the Women's Movement in India conference took place in Kolkata, the issue of the ban on the bar girls in the Mumbai city bars was a priority issue. While the larger leadership of the movement was with the bar girls and their autonomy and for dancing to resume in the bars, Rajni raised fundamental questions on the issue of "autonomy" when she said that it could not be the fair determinant when the majority of the women belonged to the "nat" and other Dalit communities and knew no other alternative way of life. She felt that the angle of social justice seemed to be missing from the larger argument of autonomy. And this, according to her, was the limitation of the larger women's movement.

I participated with her in the campaign activities of the Right to Food movement where she mobilised women for PDS and Functioning ICDS and MDMS. She was always with some of the most deprived women from Delhi slums. Discussions about funding and financing movements never left our table of issues. She was clear that movements no way could be funded. These discussions were in the era of growing foreign and other funds to movements and niche specific groups like Dalit, women and others.

In January, 2017, the Jaipur collective had planned to restart the movement for removal of the Manu statue from the High Court premise. One of the last conversations we had was about Jignesh Mewani who we had invited to launch the campaign. While she admired him, typical of Rajni, she had some questions too. One of her first publications was on Savitribai Phule, which she printed from CADAM, an organisation she created in the 90s to bring simple texts to ordinary people. While I was very excited about the hundreds of leaders in the Dalit movement and the confidence of the young people, she was somewhat sceptical about how the various Dalit groups were sometimes getting competitive and were not taking all the people in the movement together. She also talked about her daughter moving to Jaipur and she wanted me to be in touch with her. Her last conversation was about Neelabh and his illness. I was unable to talk to her after Neelabh’s death. I will miss my conversations with her and her frankness about all of us, the feminists, the Dalits and the left progressives. My sceptical feminist friend, they don't make them like you anymore.

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