The Origin of Dalit Feminist Literature: Mukta Salve, the First Voice of Dalit Feminism


Shivani Waldekar

165 years ago, one young Dalit girl strongly criticised brahminical hegemony and the hierarchal oppressive social structure. She questioned and critically examined caste, class, gender and religion and that empirical data continues to remain very relevant today, as they were in 1855. She strongly believed that education is the only path which liberates the people who are enslaved by the structure. It is an important tool which gives confidence to ask the questions against injustice and exploitation in our society and gives a voice to the unheard and unobserved since two thousand years. They constitute a part of society but never came out and spoke. Education is the only asset through which they will change their status and break systematic oppression and social stratification. Education is the tool through which they gather knowledge and cultivate their minds and enlighten their souls and go towards an egalitarian path and liberate themselves.

mukta salve

On 1 March 1855, the periodical named "Dnyanodaya" published one essay named "About the Grief of Mahars and Mangs"(Mang Maharanchya Dukhavisayi) written by the very first Dalit writer Mukta Salve. It is the first evidence in history which pointed out the historical exploitation and the problem of Indian caste and patriarchy where Dalits had always faced intolerance because of the oppressive Brahmin structure. Dalit history was always invisibilized by upper caste and class to portray that Dalit have no history of their own and especially when it comes to Dalit women then it's always in the dark and unpublished because women's liberation is closely linked with castes. That's why Muktabai's essay is to be treated as the first voice of Dalit feminism and history of modern Indian Dalit feminist literature which initiated Dalit women's liberation.

This essay is a part of the Indian women's history and today it's high time to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India's various feminist movements. The Dalit Movement in India was started by the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar Anti-caste movement; Phule and Ambedkar are the pioneers of a mass awakening against the caste system. But there were other voices, equally strong and effective, that helped to set this movement in motion. One such voice belonged to Mukta Salve. I want to introduce Muktabai's thoughts in her own words -

''O learned pandits, wind up the selfish prattle of your hollow wisdom and listen to what I have to say."

"If the Vedas belong only to the brahmans, then it is an open secret that we do not have the Book. We are without the Book – we are without any religion. If the vedas are for the brahmans only, then we are not bound to act according to the Vedas. If merely looking at the Vedas can get us into grievous sins (as the brahmans claim), then would not following them be the height of foolishness? Muslims lead their lives according to their Koran, English people follow their Bible and brahmans have their own Vedas. Because they all have their own good or bad religion that they follow, they are somewhat happier than us who are without any religion. Oh, God, please tell us, what is our religion? Teach us, O God, your true religion so that we all can lead our lives according to it. Let that religion, where only one person is privileged, and the rest deprived, vanish from the earth and let it never enter our minds to boast of such a (discriminatory) religion."

-Mukta Salve

 The critical thoughts evolved through the critical thinking. Mukta Salve was one of the first Dalit women who come out and openly questioned and criticised the discrimination and brutality which was based on caste, class, religion hierarchies and gender norms of Indian society in the 19th century. In 1855, she wrote "Mang Maharanchya Dukhavisayi (About the Grief of Mahar and Mangs)" at a very young age or you can say in childhood as per today's definition of child, because she was under 18. But at the age of fourteen she realised the unbearable sorrow and misery of Dalit lives. This article was translated and published several times and it later became one of the first works of Dalit literature.

Muktabai belonged to the Mang or Matang community, which was considered to be one of the lowest and impure communities within the so called caste system and constituted Dalits within Dalits. She had no access to education until 1852, when Jotirao and Savitribai Phule started their third girl's school at Vetal Peth in Pune. These schools were open to women of all castes and communities, and it was here that Muktabai's education began. Phule's school made revolutionaries not only in the educational field, but also in larger struggles for humanity, because of his efforts. He introduced the term 'Truth Seeker' which reclaimed people's minds.

While fighting against caste and gender inequalities the Phules also worked for enlightenment and empowerment of peasant and artisan castes (Shudras), Untouchables or Dalit castes (Atishudras). Muktabai, who was amongt the women who got educated, wrote the revolutionary epistemological piece. The first part of the essay was published on 15 Feb 1855 and the second part on 1 March 1855 in the periodical "Dnyanodaya". Two letters were published as criticism of this essay in latter issues of the periodical. Some part of this essay was published in N. V. Joshi's book 'Description of Pune city' in 1868. The editors of 'Dnyanodya', while printing this essay, informed that Mukta Salve, 14 year old girl was a student at Jotiba Mali's (Phule) school for nearly three years. She wrote it without any fear after listening to the misery of her parents. Her father told her in detail about the misery of untouchables.

The importance of this essay is that it was published before Phule's writing. The essays reflect her intelligence and the motivational force of Phule's work. It shows the revolutionary impact Phule's work had on the lowest strata of the society. Phule started the movement of education for all and in that time his radical thoughts made revolutionary changes in the very rooted casteist and patriarchal society. The mission was to educate every human being who willingly wanted it and to cultivate their minds to become Truth Seekers. Muktabai became one of them. She only studied for three years but her educational progress was surprising. She came from a section of society which was denied knowledge and was exploited for thousands of years by brahminical society. But she was a fast learner and had an independent thinking process.

Since two thousand years, they were deprived of education. At her small age and with little education, she acquired knowledge of society and self-consciouness. She had the lived experience of caste and patriarchy and the dominant Hindu religion which always made her inferior. Being a Dalit, Muktabai had faced several forms of exploitation and violence on the basis of caste, which was mentioned in her essay. She wrote:

"The brahmans have degraded us so low; they consider people like us even lower than cows and buffaloes. Did they not consider us even lower than donkeys during the rule of Bajirao Peshwa? You beat a lame donkey, and his master retaliates. But who was there to object to the routine thrashing of mahars and mangs? Under Bajirao's rule, if any mang or mahar happened to pass in front of a gymnasium, they would cut off his head and play 'bat and ball' with their swords as bats and his head as a ball, on the grounds. When we were punished for even passing through their doors, where was the question of getting education, getting freedom to learn? When any mang or mahar would learn somehow to read or write, and if Bajirao came to know about this, he would say: education of a mang or mahar amounts to taking away a brahman's job. He used to say, "How dare they get educated? Do these untouchables expect the brahman to hand over their official duties to them and move around with their shaving kits, shaving the heads of widows?" With such remarks he would punish them."

These were the extreme castiest remarks which were used by so called Brahmins, who continue to be strong oppressive forces until today. The superior always posed a threat to the inferior. But no one questioned or criticized this because of lack of education. They didn't even realise that they were violated by someone--they assumed that that it was only their misfortune that they born in this caste and if they are women then they must live like slaves. But Muktabai took education and was self-reliant, came out and openly questioned caste and patriarchy. It was the biggest challenge of that time that one Dalit girl came out and critically examined the issues of caste, class, gender, religion, etc. In 19th century, when caste and patriarchy were deeply rooted in every mind of the society, it was very courageous of her to write on it. It had a tremendous impact and marked the origin of Dalit women's writing.

I don't feel that time Muktabai read several feminist books. What I feel is that books never teach you feminism. Injustice does, violence does, patriarchy does, and Muktabai had lived that reality. She is the one who had the lived experience of caste based discrimination, violence, injustice, patriarchy and their interlinkage with caste because she belonged to the community which is considered lower in the strata or you can say, she was a dalit within dalits. So because of the extreme marginality and vulnerability which she faced, her voice reached out and made other masses also conscious about their issues where she raised the voice on behalf of Mangs and Mahars. This makes her the real Dalit feminist writer.

This incident has to be called very crucial in the History of India. But the so called progressive writers ignored Mukta Salve's contribution under the influence of brahminical culture. She observed misery and plight of Dalits, downtrodden women of such castes who were not allowed in the village system. As they were untouchable, they were supposed to live outside the village. She herself belonged to a downtrodden, untouchable, the lowest, caste in Maharashtra. She knew the reality of being a dalit. She said that they were treated as outsiders in Hindu - brahminical religion. She wanted to suggest that Hindu - brahminical religion is not the religion of untouchables. The misery of women of the lowest castes is different from the women of upper castes and it is more frightening.The Dalit women undergo lived realities and experiences of Dalithood. They have the lived experiences of all the intersections which discriminate.

I remind you here of the words of Gopal guru: Guru says that the identity of Dalit women as Dalit gets whitewashed and allows a non-Dalit woman to speak on behalf of her. But I strongly feel that the non- Dalit maybe sympathetic about Dalit issues but they won't be able to connect empathically because they do not have the lived experience of caste. So her essay shows that the misery and exploitation of Dalit women is based on the casteist and patriarchal society and Dalit women faced triple burden through it. She wanted to say that the misery and exploitation is not same across India. It differs on the basis of caste, gender etc.

The contribution of Mukta Salve was to be the first voice of dalit women in Modern India. She started her reflective and thought provoking writing before Tarabai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai's contribution and it's the empirical data to fight against brahmanical social structure exist still today. Today several dalit feminist writers come forward and assert their voice through their writing like Urmila Pawar, Bama, Chhaya Datar, Babytai Kamble and many more but Dalit writing isn't come in forefront because of the casteist and patriarchal mindset which still exist in Indian Society.But the consciousness about dalit literature and Dalit feminism was provoked by a school girl like Mukta Salve, who gave the voice to struggles of Dalit women through her writing and introduced everyone with first Dalit literature. But the very fundamental question came out of it waswhat happened to Mukta Salve in later time? Where did she go? Had she produced any further literature? If she had produced, where is her literature? If she could not produce what were the reasons for this? Today she is remembered for her only essay and nothing else. This is the tragedy of caste-patriarchy that the Dalit literature is always vanished by dominant voice.

Here is a a poem which I attempted to channel against the dominant voices who always tried to vanish Dalit history and attempted to ignore their narratives. For them, this verse collates all the realities of Dalit existence:

 I am the outcaste, the one who can't locate herself in the so called caste system
I have no religion, which means I'm the one who lives without god.
I was human and later became the Dalit woman
I have the lived experience of being a Dalit
I knew my people and its pain and sorrow, where I can relate
I am the victim of discrimination and oppression
I'm the one who led the anti-caste and anti-sexist movement
I'm the one who wants a just and equal society for all
I'm the one who always fights for liberty, self-respect and dignity.
I am the voice of assertion
I am the poet, I'm the writer, I'm the truth seeker, and I'm the thinker
I'm the daughter/son of Phule and so I engaged myself in search of truth
I internalised Ambedkar and cultivated my mind
I'm walking on the path of Buddha and accepting the freedom of mind
This I' is Dalit Women,
And they all are beyond aesthetics!



* Mang Maharachya Dukhvisayi (About the grief of the Mangs and the Mahars), by Mukta Salve, published in Savari on November 15, 2015 (https://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2947)



Shivani Waldekar is pursuing her Masters in Social Work in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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