Dalit Lives Matter: 8 Dalit Women Activists You Must Know About

Geetika Sachdev
·5-min read

The gang rape of a 19-year Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, shook the nation last month. It brought to the fore, police and government apathy towards Dalits, often called ‘untouchables,’ who find themselves at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India. Even after decades of India becoming a democratic republic, prejudices and intolerance towards Dalits and other minorities continues to be appalling.

 A demonstrator with a placard that reads "Dalit Lives Matter" in a protest against the Hathras incident at Jantar Mantar, on October 4, 2020 in New Delhi, India.  (Photo by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A demonstrator with a placard that reads "Dalit Lives Matter" in a protest against the Hathras incident at Jantar Mantar, on October 4, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

There are several Dalit feminists in India who have been trying to change the status quo, and have emerged as powerful voices in the fight against injustice towards this marginalised community. Find out more about them here.

Kumud Pawde

This 82-year-old, who belongs to Mahar community, is the first Ambedkarite scholar of Sanskrit in independent India. Sanskrit, as a language, has always been considered the bastion of the upper caste; but Kumud shattered this stereotype. She’s also a founding member of National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW), and has fought to uplift Dalit women from marginalised communities for decades now.

Her autobiography Antahsphot is a commentary on the exploitation faced by Dalit women. The title in English translates to ‘Outburst’, and Kumud is a representation of that community that has been silenced for generations.

Kiruba Munusamy

A Supreme Court lawyer and a strong proponent of Dalit rights, Kiruba has tried to eliminate all kinds of caste-based and gender-based discrimination through her work. She has always supported the empowerment of Dalit women, LGBTQ+ community, and other minorities. She also conducts awareness campaigns to educate oppressed communities about fundamental human rights, and legal remedies in case of violation.

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On social media, she writes in both English and her mother tongue Tamil to reach out to more people, as well as discuss and debate on several issues of importance.

P. Sivakami

Former IAS officer Palanimuthu Sivakami is the first Dalit woman to become a published novelist. She has written four critically acclaimed novels, with some popular titles like The Grip of Change and The Taming of Women that intertwine Dalit and feminist themes.

Her career as an IAS officer took her to foreign shores, where she got to meet several women, and those experiences drew her to social issues. Passionate about resolving social irregularities and injustices, she has worked towards empowering parents of young children in villages through education.

Meena Kandasamy

Prolific writer and activist Meena Kandasamy, through her novels and poetry, has tried to bring to light the struggles of being ‘untouchable’ in India. She started translating books by Dalit writers, and writing poetry, when she was only 17. Her maiden collection of poems Touch and her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, highlight the plight of Dalits.

Meena Kandasamy (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)
Meena Kandasamy (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

Meena has been part of 11 different fellowships and residencies, including Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in 2011 and New York University Gallatin Global Faculty in Residence in 2018.

Watch Meena Kandasamy’s interview here - Violence, Casteism, Patriarchy, and Resistance: Meena Kandasamy Speaks Up

Ruth Manorama

One of the most prominent Dalit feminists in India today, Ruth Manorama has fought for Dalit rights for four decades now. She is the founder of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW), an organisation established in 1995 to promote the rights of Dalit women across the world.

She has stated, “Dalit women are like fodder in all kinds of atrocities. They violate Dalit women’s dignity in order to shame the whole community. There is a connivance between the state and the powerful upper caste non-state actors.”

Sujatha Gidla

Hailing from Andhra Pradesh and settled in the US, Sujatha is the author of the book Ants Among the Elephants, where she takes on India’s age-old caste system from the lens of a Dalit family that sought to break these social barriers. Her book also delves deeper into the stories of several of her family members, especially her mother’s.

Sujatha Gidla at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace on January 29, 2018 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Sujatha Gidla at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace on January 29, 2018 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Her writing has also been featured in The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing. Today, she lives in New York and works at the Subway.

Yashica Dutt

A few days after Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula died by suicide, New-York based journalist Yashica Dutt penned a note on Facebook that read “Today, I’m coming out as a Dalit.” His death shook her so much so that she decided to reveal her Dalit identity, something that she had hidden for her entire life.

Yashica has also written a memoir Coming Out As Dalit that speaks about her childhood years in a Dalit family, and why she was forced to hide her caste while many flaunted theirs.

An active voice on social media, she had shared her outrage on the Hathras case with a poignant tweet:

Gogu Shyamala

A senior research fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad, this Dalit feminist writes primarily about caste-based discrimination faced by Dalit women. Her book ‘Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… ’ highlights the day-to-day struggles of Dalit women who live in a village in Telangana where she grew up.

Although both her parents were agricultural labourers, Shyamala has said, they supported her education and she was the only one of their three children to go to college.

(Edited by Varnika Gupta and Athira Nair)

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