by Nilesh Kumar
This piece was first published in Round Table India and republished with permission on Dalit History Month on 25th April 2016.
Today in #DalitHistory we remember Advocate Eknath Awad, who is also known as “Jija” fondly, (meaning “the respected”). He was born in Maharashtra on 19th January 1956 in a Potraj (Mang) family. Potraj is an oppressive profession assigned to some Dalit castes. They grow long dreadlocks, smear vermilion on their forehead, wear a multi-coloured cloth around the waist and a whip in hand, whip themselves as they dance.
Eknath’s difficult childhood was steeped in these humiliations of caste, untouchability and poverty. However, Awad was a bright young man, he finished his schooling in village schools and went on to attain his Bachelors of Arts (BA), graduated with a Masters of Arts (MA), Masters in Social Work (MSW) and later LLB.
During his time in college, he was exposed to Phule-Ambedkarite ideology. He became an active member of the Dalit Panthers. As a politically empowered Dalit man, he was at the forefront of Namantar (renaming) struggle of Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University that unleashed violence against Dalits of Marathwada affecting more than 25,000 people in Marathwada.
His time in this struggle exposed him to the understanding of oppressive structures holding caste-marginalized people hostage. He realised that Dalits lived as bonded labourers and as slaves in the fields of dominant castes generation after generation. If they asserted for their rights, upper-caste landlords countered with gruesome atrocities. Awad realised that tackling just the issues of human rights was inadequate; these issues had to be complemented with economic and social overhaul. With these things in mind, he established the Rural Development Centre (RDC) in 1985 with the vision that reform could be effective only if it were supported by peoples’ movements. In 1990, Manvi Hakka Abhiyan or Campaign for Human Rights (CHR) was born inspired by the struggles of Ambedkar, Phule, Annabhau Sathe, Shahu Maharaj, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. This movement worked to legalise barren land in villages under as property of Dalits. More than 24,607 Dalit families submitted grazing land ownership claims from 1100 villages. Awad’s struggle managed to free more than 70,000 hectares of land.
He had a broad vision for Bahujan well-being. He worked on not only Dalit rights but the issues of child rights, education, gender justice, conservation and sustainable agriculture in drought-inflicted Marathwada. He advocated for peoples’ to be free of the shackles of caste, patriarchy and superstition. Between 1995 and 2012, he started the satyashodhak (truthseekers), debrahminised congregational marriages. In an act of liberation, along with his thousands of followers in 2006, he also converted to Buddhism in Nagpur.
We honour his work and legacy that are celebrated in Maharashtra and nationwide.