The practice of untouchability was legally abolished in 1950 but not from people’s mindsets. Om Prakash Valmiki’s autobiographical account Joothan highlights that untouchability was practised by the educators, educated – like minded upper caste people, and his relatives belonging to same community. Through Joothan, he reveals that the instances of violence caused due to caste system remains etched around throughout one’s life.

Om Prakash Valmiki provides a chilling account of caste oppression in the newly independent state. His autobiographical account brings into light one of those rare, detailed and lived accounts on Dalit lives. Joothan marks as a first Dalit autobiographies in Hindi literature and later translated into English by Arun Prabhas Mukherjee in 2003.

Om Prakash through his work highlights the importance of literature in providing a platform for disseminating knowledge about Dalit lives and their experiences. His work stands out as extraordinary for its sheer realistic detail of caste oppression but still struggles to be included into the mainstream literature in the country. With its non linear style of writing, his work is a collection of memoirs, of detailed accounts of caste violence during his school and adult life.

The meaning of education for the unprivileged 

With the legal abolishment of untouchability and increasing access of education by the unprivileged (on paper), caste oppression and violence became a living reality of the newly ‘independent’ generation of lower castes. Om Prakash’s critique of the education system revolves around the inability of constitutional provisions and the Gandhian mission in uplifting the lives of lower castes. His account begins with recalling a traumatic experience he faced while growing up in Barla village, Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. He belonged to the Chuhra community and the entire village was segregated among the Chuhra and  Tyaga on grounds of touchability and untouchability.

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He received the basic primary education from a government school after being teased, humiliated and bullied for being enrolled in the school. The government granted the non-dominant caste communities access to education through government schools, however the children from the Chuhra caste were the primary targets of the wrath of upper caste Tyagas. In addition to spatial segregation, Tyagas headed all the major institutions in the village including the government school Om Prakash attended. He recalls the traumatic experience that reminded of his chuhra identity while he was forced to sweep the entire school premises instead of attending his regular school. Kaliram, the headmaster not only tortured people belonging to the chuhra community but humiliated them in front of all ‘tyaga’ teachers and students.

“The taunts of my teachers and fellow students pierced me deeply. ‘Look at this Chuhre ka, pretending to be a brahmin.”

Om Prakash was introduced into the realm of education through his father’s strenuous efforts at improving their caste status, one of which included the education of his son. The education of women in the chuhra community was considered as an implausible fact. This not only restricted the entry of girls into public institutions but failed to improve their status within the caste based patriarchal sphere. However this lack of education never stopped their resistance to upper caste patriarchal heads. Om Prakash’s mother questioned the authority of a Tyaga when offered leftovers at one of the weddings.

During the days of extreme poverty and lack of food, Om Prakash was admitted into the Tyagi Inter College, Barla (which was renamed as Barla Inter College) after selling the silver anklets of his sister-in-law. He was bullied, beaten and given low marks because of his caste identity. He lived in a perpetual fear and nervousness of getting subjected to violence by other Tyagi students and teachers. He revealed that the inadequacy of the education system arises from the biases, violence practiced by the educators. His account shows that the abolishment of untouchability in the constitutional/legal framework failed to bring a change in the educational institutions or the lives of Dalits.

We need an ongoing struggle and a consciousness of struggle, a consciousness that brings revolutionary change both in the outside world and in our hearts, a consciousness that leads the process of social change.”

After moving to Indresh Nagar, a sweeper and cleaner colony in Dehradun, Om Prakash had access to various books on political leaders. However, the autobiography of Ambedkar was introduced by one his friends Hemlal. While Gandhi’s ideas seemed to have made an impact on the upper caste readership, Ambedkar’s ideas made Om Prakash reflect on his own experience and build an anti-establishment consciousness. He resonated with Ambedkar’s rage and courage against caste oppression. From that moment, he not only understood the significance of being politically involved to raise his own opinions but participated in protests which he considered as an essential part of education.

Later, when he applied for training at Raipur Ordinance Factory, he became more acquainted with ideas of Ambedkar. After moving to Jabalpur, he became deeply engaged with Marxist thought and questioned religious ideas pertaining to animal sacrifice. With his growing interest in the literary life of Jabalpur, Om Prakash began to write more plays, scripts and improve his speech. At Chandrapur, his literary knowledge expanded through the works of Kalidasa, Tagore, Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde. During the same period, he got increasingly involved in Dalit politics, and wrote articles regarding the same in Nav Bharat Times, Maharashtra and increased his interest in Marathi Dalit Literature.

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What is your caste?

Caste system is seen as a significant weapon for cultural homogeneity to be protected. Valmiki’s account attempts to challenge this notion and reveal heterogeneous experiences of caste oppression. He mentioned various instances of facing humiliation due to his caste identity. As Valmiki got back to Bombay after paying a visit to his parents in Barla where they were still subjected to caste oppression.

He revealed an instance with the Kulkarni’s (a Maharashtrian Brahmin family). He noticed that he was treated with respect as long as the family was not aware of his caste background. He was even warned by one of his friends to not disclose his caste identity. Valmiki revealed that he was a scheduled caste to Kulkarni’s daughter Savita, who was shook by this revelation and asked him not to mention this to her father. As long as Om Prakash did not reveal his caste identity, he was treated with respect, but after disclosure, the same educated and like-minded people turned their back on him.

Why does caste superiority and caste pride attack only the weak? Why are Hindus so cruel, so heartless against the Dalits?”

Om Prakash mentioned several instances where people inquired about his caste identity after having a slight conversation with him. He also commented on how one’s surname becomes a mark of caste identity and people changed their behaviour towards him after knowing his caste identity. Even though the discrimination never ceased, Om Prakash believed that assertion of his caste identity as significant part of oneself.

However, his relatives and people from the Dalit movement seemed to have altered their views around assertion. For Valmiki, it remained a crucial political act. He noticed that Dalits who faced caste oppression in their everyday lives refrained from using their caste identities. He observed that they find it easier to alter their identities or change their surnames in order to avoid caste oppression.

Also Read: ‘Karruku’: The Autobiography by Bama


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