Neel Kranti Media
(First published in the 'Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal' in 2010)
Born and brought up in a Haryana village, Dr Kaushal Panwar teaches Sanskrit in Delhi University. Her life is one of the most remarkable testimonies of human grit and determination towards achieving one's goal despite insurmountable odds.
Kindly tell us about your family back ground.
I belong to Balmiki community in Rajour village from district Kaithal (Haryana). My father who died in 2001 was a landless labourer. I have two older brothers. All my family members worked in jat landlords' fields. I also used to work in the fields along with my family and had also worked as manual labourer in road constructions.
My elder brother could not clear class X and joined Punjab police as a sepoy but due to some reasons he left the job. Today he is unemployed. I am the only one from my district Kaithal, from Balmiki community, who has reached to this level. Otherwise our community is still mostly engaged in scavenging and manual labour.
What has been your educational background?
I studied in my village school and completed my 10+2 from there itself. However for my graduation (B.A.), I had to take admission in college that was 60 Km away from my home. I had to travel daily to be able to attend the classes. Then I joined Kurukshetra University for my Masters and later Rohtak University for M.Phil.
However, the turning point came when I got an opportunity to join Sanskrit department at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi for my PhD. In 2009, I was awarded doctorate for my thesis on 'Shudras in Dharam Shashtras'. Now I am an Assistant Professor and teach Sanskrit in one of the colleges in Delhi University.
Yours is truly a remarkable journey. What have been your motivations that drove you to excel in studies?
I must say without any hesitation that my father was my biggest motivator. The second most important one was my family background. Poverty, drinking habits of my family's male members, helplessness on caste-discrimination – these were things around which I grew up. I always felt great discomfort and after a point I got fed up and tried to focus solely on my education.
I had seen my father being abused on caste lines and suffering and yet not able to counter that. In fact, my father's helplessness motivated me to look critically at our lives and not to accept that as our 'fate'.
My father played a great role in educating me. Here I would like to share an incident that happened with my father. He had to go somewhere by bus. At the bus stand, he was unsure of the bus that was about to ply. He asked someone to confirm if that was the right bus. The person replied very rudely, "Can't you see what is written on the bus?"
My father was an illiterate and felt humiliated. He said very calmly to him, "Why would I have to ask you if I was literate?" But then my father decided that he would educate all his children at whatever cost so that they don't have to face any such humiliations. My father never allowed me to do household work. My mother was also very cooperative but remained worried about my fate after my marriage (laughs).
People would say so many things like why I was not marrying etc. But I never bothered. I never looked back. Whatever I could do I did for my education.
All along my studies I had to work to earn for my studies as well as for our family. You might not believe that during my graduation days I used to work as one of the labourers for constructing a road that passed by the college where I was a student (smiles).
My father expired while I was doing my Masters and he never allowed anyone to inform me about his sickness. He was not even aware of what is PhD but always told me to achieve the highest possible degree and made me promise about not leaving education under any circumstances. No one can ever fill the vacuum that I felt after his death.
Why did you choose Sanskrit as a subject?
This is because of a promise that I made to myself when I was a child. After completing VI Std, I opted for Sanskrit as one of my subjects. But when I went for the first Sanskrit class the teacher refused to teach me and told me to go and pick garbage for a living instead of learning Sanskrit.
When I persisted, he slapped me and sent me to sit in the last row. I cried and went back but somewhere I got the determination that day that I would study Sanskrit and reach the top. I sincerely want to thank that teacher now because his casteism and sexism became my motivation.
For most of the Dalit and Adivasi students getting admission in premier educational institutions is a dream. You did your PhD from JNU. How did you reach here?
After completing my M.Phil from Rohtak University I wanted to do PhD from there itself and decided to work on the topic 'Shudras in Vedas'. However, the faculty there forced me to change my topic and make it 'Shudras in Literature'. I agreed reluctantly but just on the last date of registration, I was refused admission.
Later I came to know that my seat was given to a Brahmin woman who also taught in the same department. I felt completely betrayed by my own teachers. I could not do anything and came back home.
In my university days I was very active and used to participate in lots of meetings and seminars. In one such meeting that was organised on 'the socio-economic condition of Dalits' in Kaithal, I got the opportunity to meet two faculty members from JNU, namely Dr Malakar and Dr. Phool Badan, who came as speakers there.
During the interaction I told them about how I was denied PhD seat in Rohtak University. Both of them advised me to join JNU for my PhD. But I was very unsure. I never thought that I could ever get to JNU. However both of them motivated and gave me confidence.
Dr Phool Badan even helped me to fill the admission form. Without them, I could not even have thought of JNU leave alone applying. My example shows how important it is for our students to have Dalit faculty in the campuses.
Now since you are settled how do you want to contribute more towards the empowerment of our community?
I am not able to contribute as much as I should but still I am trying my level best. Right now I am into writing and working on promoting Dalit literature among people so that they get to read it and get inspired to fight against caste exploitation. I am part of the group that organises small meetings, street theatre, seminars and tries to mobilise youth and students on the issue of caste in Haryana.
Like on 12th April we celebrated Jotiba Phule's birthday by enacting a play on Guru Ravidas where we clearly showed that he was not merely a religious person but was a great revolutionary from our community. I am also aware of my responsibility of being a teacher and we run a placement cell for our students.
What are your policy recommendations for higher authorities for the welfare of Dalit and Adivasi students?
Some policies are already there. But the problem is their faulty implementation. We can achieve so much if we are able to force the authorities to implement these in spirit. So I feel our students themselves have to reach the political arena where policies are framed and are implemented. There is definitely a need for many more policies to promote Dalit and Adivasi girls' education. Their representation in higher education is almost nil.
Many of our students who come from very humble backgrounds are sometimes not able to cope up with the campus environment. One of the major factors is the identity crisis. What you have to say on this?
I must say if there was any identity crisis with me I could never have reached to this level. I never hide my identity and was confident about it right from my school times. I did menial jobs at the homes of many of my class mates like cleaning animal dung etc and then I used to sit with them in the same class. They used to call me chuhri (slang for scavengers) in the school. In fact it was my father who never let me have any identity crisis. Since my childhood my father taught me not to worry on such issues as no work is big or small.
The same goes with all our students. They should feel proud that they have come from a community of people who are the most hard working and their being in higher education is a great achievement not only for them but for the entire community.
What are your other suggestions for our Dalit and Adivasi students who want to pursue higher education?
What else I can say other than to work doubly hard! As a Dalit and Adivasi students we have to cross so many barriers - class, caste and for women students - gender too. Most of the 'upper' caste students have to only work hard for studies. But we have to work much harder to be able to excel in studies and simultaneously fight against social and economic handicaps due to our background.
Other students don't have to prove anything to anyone but we have a lot to prove not only for ourselves but also for the sake of our community.
I teach Sanskrit and being a Dalit woman I know that people are very judgemental and easily point a finger if I don't teach properly. I have seen people whispering against me and I always answer them through my work. In a very short time three of my books have been published and I am working on the fourth one. We must always move ahead and not let others drag us behind.
What are your suggestions for Dalit students groups like Insight?
I really thank Insight from my heart. This is really a very innovative initiative which will go long way to benefit our students. I know this group from my JNU days. My only suggestion for groups like Insight is to always ensure equal representation in terms of its reach.
Most of our students are from very humble backgrounds and lack information. They are also not much willing to come out. Insight has the responsibility to reach such students. Then only we can say that Insight is a real role model for all of us.
[Courtesy: Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal]