WE DEDICATE THIS DALIT HISTORY MONTH TO OUR SISTER RAJNI TILAK
We dedicate Dalit History Month 2018 to Dalit Feminist Rajni Tilak whose activism, writing and leadership was crucial to pushing Dalit women’s leadership in both Dalit and Indian Feminists movements. She leaves as her legacy the founding of many key organizations including Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, where she was a convenor, Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM) where she was the executive director. She also co-founded and served as the president at National Association of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), and the Dalit Lekhak Sangh (Dalit Writers’ Forum, 1987).
Rajni was born in Old Delhi in India on 27 May 1958 to a family with limited means. Her father was a tailor whose ancestors had migrated to Delhi from the state of Uttar Pradesh. She was the second of seven children and this required responsibility from her at an early age. In order to care for her younger siblings she had to give up on her dream of becoming a nurse.
Her activism started as early as the 1970s when she organized a union for marginalized girls demanding scholarships and separate sanitation for girls while she was studying cutting, tailoring, and stenography in ITI (Industrial Training Institute).
This was beginning of her battles to center Dalit Women’s economic empowerment in the larger vision for Dalit women’s liberation. She merged this union with a leftist organization named Progressive Students’ Union, but later split with them because of political and ideological problems. Rajini stated, “the Left in the name of student mobilization was focusing more on their own agendas for strengthening their political parties and the core issues like casteism and other problems of students from deprived sections were not taken seriously.”
After her disappointment with the Left, she realised her Dalit consciousness. She started reading Ambedkar, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, Mary Taylor, Gandhi, Rahul Sankrityayan and a lot of other authors. She felt that the Left was completely focusing on economic problems while the Dalit movement was focusing only on problems of caste by completely ignoring the problems of patriarchy that is prevalent among the Dalits. She then committed to building Dalit autonomous movements and allied in the 1982 with Bharatiya Dalit Panthers to form her own unit in Delhi.
She continued centering women’s needs as movement needs when she began mobilizing and organizing thousands of anganwadi workers at a national level and formed the All India Anganwadi workers and Helpers Union (1982) demanding for regular pay. This was a crucial feminist action because Anganwadi centers were rural mother and child care centres developed by the Indian government to provide basic health care to Indian villages. Many of these workers were frontline in the battle for reproductive rights for marginalized women as they ensure prenatal and postnatal care for pregnant women, offered contraception counseling and supply, and even supplied nutrition education and basic medicines. At its height this union had 4,000 members but was soon co-opted by India’s Congress party. Her commitment to the livelihood of these workers was another example of her powerful applied intersectional vision for the movement.
Rajni continued to focus on the issues of Dalit women by trying to build spaces for Dalit women’s leadership and autonomy. She envisioned an autonomous and inclusive Dalit Women’s movement in North India and began to dedicate her life to it. She focused on institutionalizing Dalit women’s movement and funding support to the Dalit women by creating a vision for Dalit women entrepreneurs. Some of the fruits of that labor included that she was one of the taskforce members of the National Federation for Dalit Women that was formed in 1994. She also served as an Expert Committee member in NCW (National Commission for Women) in 2005. And she was an active member of BAMCEF from 1978 to 1984.
She also passionately organized women against caste-based sexual violence. She organized mass agitations in Delhi during the infamous Mathura rape case in 1972 where Mathura, a young tribal girl was allegedly raped by two policemen on the compound of Desaiganj Police Station in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. While she worked with mainstream organizations to build power to fight this case she was very keenly aware of mainstream feminism’s limitations. She felt that the mainstream Indian feminist movement was not focused on the central problem of women in the villages, slums and other struggling regions of India. Instead the mainstream feminist movement was restricted to a certain class of women who enjoyed their social status (economic independence and upper-caste identities) while not prioritizing the core issues related to the problems of marginalized women. As a result she continued to build Dalit women’s leadership wherever she could.
She was one of the key organizers of the World Social Forum in Mumbai where she advocated for Dalit Women’s Rights. She also carried out and led many fact finding teams to investigate atrocities on Dalit women — a legacy of which has led to many Dalit women continuing her work to fight against Caste Based Sexual violence.
Rajni believed in the liberating power of Dalit culture and art. To that end she started a theatre group called ‘Aahwan’ (1983). She also organized and led the first ever Dalit Women Writers Congress in January 1996 and another National Conference of Dalit Women in May 1999. She also led a successful campaign to promote January 3rd, Savitribai Phule Jayanti, as Indian Women’s Day. She has written many books including two collections of poetry Padchaap (Marching Steps) and Hawa Si Bechain Yuvtiyan (Restless Women). And was also the editor of several writings including Samkalin Bhartiya Dalit Mahila Lekhan and Savitribai Phule Rachna Samagr in which she translated Savitribai Phule’s poems from Marathi to Hindi. She also published her autobiography in 2017 titled ‘Apni Zameen, Apna Aasman’ (Our land, our sky).
She was a Dalit history defender and in 2012, was part of a group of Dalit and non-Dalit writers, scholars, and activists who petitioned the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to correctly represent the role of Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in school textbooks.
Rajni’s impact can be felt across many Dalit movements as she has mentored and inspired many young Dalit women and guided them in becoming successful community leaders. She is survived by her daughter Jyotsna and her sister Anita Bharti who is a writer and a brother, Ashok Bharti who is a founder of NACDOR (National Confederation of Dalit Organisations ).
We dedicate 2018 Dalit History Month to her towering and inspiring legacy. Though Rajni Tilak passed away on March 30, 2018 in New Delhi she is missed by many who have been touched by her and will carry her memory forward for generations. Thank you Rajni!