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Chinna breaks the fellowship fortress

by Chandrabhan Prasad

It was the morning of January 30, 2000, and the place was Rashtrapati Bhawan. We, a group of Dalit writers and a host of non-Dalit intellectuals, along with the editor of The Pioneer, were walking out of Rashtrapati Bhawan after having presented the first copy of the Dalit Millennium, a 12-page supplement guest edited by Rajashekhar Vundru, to President KR Narayanan.

During the presentation, the President had talked of the Dalit intelligentsia moving on to higher ground. The late Dr AN Das, the legendary intellectual, was also accompanying us and while talking of Dalit genius, he told us that the London School of Economic has portraits of only two Indians: one of Dr Ambedkar's and the other of President Narayanan, who had studied there.

I was reminded of this when I learnt from Ram Narayan Rawat, a visiting scholar from India, that Chinna had been awarded the prestigious Felix scholarship to do his doctorate. Equally interesting was the news that Chinna would be investigating the 19th century intellectual history of Andhra Dalits who, through their writings, were challenging the Brahmanical notion of things. When I contacted Chinna in London, where he is enrolled with the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, I was appalled at the sort of response he was getting from his fellow countrymen and women. "Wow... The Felix is now available for Dalit studies also?" (Standards seem to have come down); "Are you a Dalit?" (His accent says so); "By the way, how did you get into SOAS?" (The Dwijas reserve these secrets for themselves) and so on.

But how did Chinna sneak into the "scholarship fortress" of the Dwijas? And how did Indians at London University figure out his Dalit origins? While Chinna is a sharp mind, his accent, interests, dark skin, unsophisticated body language and lack of acquaintances in London revealed his social origin. He had studied at JNU and was teaching history at Osmania University in Hyderabad. At JNU, he studied intellectual history of the Telugu Dalits.

During an interview in Delhi, he was asked to comment on the Dalits' criticism of British colonialism - that they came too late and left too early. By his sheer scholarly commitment and powers of persuasion, he not only defended the Dalits' perception but also insisted on the need to read Indian history afresh, from the Dalit angle. The liberal board ultimately mandated his case, which is why he is now in London. Chinna had earlier tried his luck with the Commonwealth Fellowship, twice, but without much luck. No Indian historian seems to look at our history through the Dalit prism. And any Dalit scholar intending to undertake such an inquiry often stands condemned.

Because Chinna is the first Dalit to have walked through the portals of SOAS, it is important to narrate his journey. Jangam Chinnaiah was born in the sleepy village of Nizamabad, Andhra Pradesh. Abandoned by his father, his mother died when he was still in the ninth standard. Born into a landless agricultural Dalit family, Chinna was made to work in the fields right from the start. He somehow got himself into the Social Welfare Hostel run for Dalits, where residents are given free food, and completed his schooling. A college education became possible when Chinna, out of the blue, met Dr PV Ramesh, a kindhearted Dalit IAS officer. The latter supported him through college. After finishing school, Chinna worked as a construction worker.

With Ramesh's help, Chinna enrolled himself in Hyderabad University and did his Masters, from where he passed out with a 70 per cent. He qualified for the JRF and joined JNU's history department, from where he completed his MPhil. He later moved to Osmania University as a lecturer and from there begun trying his luck with fellowships abroad. Many a time, Chinna had almost dropped out of school but managed to hold on no matter what. The Bhadralok, however, views his work as "unnecessarily digging up old graves" - the caste system, after all, no longer exists.

But, Chinna is determined to "dig out the truth from the Dwijas' graveyard of knowledge". And what a happy coincidence that he has now won the Felix fellowship. The great Felix N Mansager, born in 1911, rose to become chairman of the Hoover Company in 1966. He'd started of as a door-to-door salesman, selling Electric Suction Sweepers, a gadget used to clean floors. The scholarship is created in his name. I wish Dr Dass' memory adds on another portrait of an Indian, this time at SOAS. Chinna, the entire community is proud of you.

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