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Shantabai Dhanaji Dani: The Dalit Woman Leader Who Fought Against Caste

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Shantabai Dhanaji Dani’s life was intricately woven into the Ambedkarite movement. She was one of the best known leaders of the movement. Throughout her life Dani was involved in several phases of the movement – from protests against Pune Pact (1932) to working as a secretary of the Nashik branch of Scheduled Caste Federation. She was the president of Scheduled Caste Federation Mahila Parishad at Kanpur. She traveled extensively in rural Maharashtra to strengthen the program of Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party, and was actively involved in the movement for Dharmaantar (conversion to Buddhism).

All this came with a plethora of hardships to secure even basic education as she came from the Mahar community, which was historically impoverished by the caste hierarchies. Her memoir by the name Ratrandin Amha (For Us – These Nights and Days) is illustrative of the memories of coming from a destitute background to nights and days of food and hunger, to the life coloured by labour and caste humiliation ingrained in the culture. It is also a narrative of constant resistance to this ever so oppressive structure.

Life

Shantabai was born in a small hut in Khadkali sector which lies at the outskirts of the Nashik city in 1919. Her memoir, For Us – These Nights And Days, tells of a life lived in hunger and destitution, with memories of caste, culture and the ingrained hardships of labour. It was penned by her friend Bhavna Bhargave as narrated by Shantabai. The title draws from Sant Tukaram’s abhang (verse), ‘For us, these nights and days pose a warlike situation’ which is emblematic of the struggle her life has been – right from her mother’s struggle to provide her an education or her political and social work influenced by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Dadasaheb Gaikwad, to name a few.

Shantabai got her name out of her father’s disappointment at having a girl child when he was expecting a boy. He was said to have commented so often that all his hopes have quietened (Shanta) that she was named Shanta. There was no opposition to Shantabai’s pursuing education since both her parents were invested in educating their children, her mother more so. She recalls fondly how her mother always exclaimed, “Listen girl, for the poor, education is a ray of hope.”

Shantabai had countless encounters with caste discrimination. Whilst in school she recalls a particular incident in the fifth standard, where the family of her father’s friend had invited them to a feast. As the family belonged to upper Maratha caste, Shantabai and her father were served food in the cow shed. The conversation she had with her father that day became an important revelation of Shantabai’s beginnings at questioning the social reality. The conversation is as follows:

Father said, “We are Mahar. How can we eat with them? They get polluted by our presence.”
“What is pollution?,” Shantabai asked.
“We cannot touch them”
“What will happen if we touch them?”
“What else will happen- the one who touches and the one touched will become sinners.”
“What is sin?”
“That which is not a good deed.”
“What is a good deed?”
Father summarized in simple words that sin is a bad thing.
“Are we not human beings?”
“Yes of course we are”, said the father.
“These people touch cats and dogs, then why not us?”

Shantabai thought that the Women’s Training College would be devoid of such discrimination but instead, she had to encounter discrimination in the several institutions she studied in. She talks highly of this one teacher, Dani Master, who was the principal of the school in Ghankar Lane where she was enrolled in fifth standard, who never discriminated. Her mother would frequently visit Dani Master telling him, “Master, my daughter must learn. She can stand on her feet only if she is educated. Please see to it that she doesn’t have any problem. I will support her as much as I can but please take care of the remaining things. Play close attention to her studies.”

She recalled in her book that her mother’s desire to educate her was her only source of inspiration. Shortly after her brother passed away her father took to alcohol. It was her mother who looked after everything from then on. Her mother, in spite of facing several hardships, was keen on continuing Shantabai’s education. With efforts of Dani Master, Shantabai got admission into the Women’s Training College in Pune thus sowing the seeds for the political and social work she was planned to take up in the near future.

Political and Social Activism

Her training and interests in political activism were given a more coherent direction by her association with Dadasaheb Gaikwad who was married to her cousin sister. Listening to Dadasaheb talk, she recalled being influenced by his ability to draw from everyday lived experiences of people to talk about the rights of people from the marginalized communities. Dadasaheb’s active involvement in the Ambedkarite movement brought Shantabai in close proximity with the political activists and the issues on the ground. She worked with Dadasaheb who was then working on consciousness-raising in the Mahar community by managing his official correspondence.

Her path was chosen once she had the opportunity to hear Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s inaugural address at her college in 1942. His speech stayed with her and acted as a guiding light. She decided then that she would work for the community, and that any work she did would be informed by Ambedkarite thoughts.

She recalls having met Babasaheb at Dadasaheb’s residence and claims that the short chat with him gave a completely new direction to her life. She was enthralled by this great man’s modesty and amicability; his ability to become a part of the ordinary people and guiding and advising them.

Dadasaheb began to organize meetings for the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) and Shantabai would join him. She started addressing public meetings under his guidance. She owed a great deal of her education in political and social work to Dadasaheb. When in 1946 Ambedkar had given a call for satyagraha to demand representation for Scheduled Castes in the assembly, Shantabai missed her exams as she couldn’t keep herself away from the political work. She was thus unable to complete her B.A. degree. During the protest, they were arrested and taken to Yerawada Jail where Shantabai spent her time spreading Ambedkarite philosophy among the women prisoners. She was constantly involved with the Party work. She worked relentlessly in organizing a movement for the landless labourers. In 1968 Shantabai was appointed as the governor’s nominee in Legislature and she served until 1974.

By 1989, Shantabai was in her seventies and taken a back seat in politics and invested wholly in building educational institutions for girls and boys of the rural areas at Manmad and Nashik. The finances for such programs were hardly available so in order to build these institutions Shantabai and Dadasaheb’s second wife Sitabai had contributed their gold. Such was her commitment towards education and community work. But as she clearly recalls in her work, building educational institutions or social work came later in life.

What inspired her and got her initiated in political activism was Dr. Ambedkar and the guidance of Dadasaheb Gaikwad which eventually made her an active member of SCF and later the Republican Party. At the age of 72, in spite of being retired from her political career she organized a meeting for the unity of the representatives of the mass movement, Dalit Panther, Dalit Mukti Sena, and all factions of the Republican Party of India. She passed away in 2001.

Awards

In 1987, Shantabai received the prestigious Savitribai Phule Award for her work in the field of education. She was also awarded, and refused to accept the Dalit Mitra Award from the Government of Maharashtra in 1985 on the grounds that if the state wanted to do something for Dalits then funds should be directed to sanitation and water facilities for the Dalit communities in settlements devoid of basic facilities.

References

Rege, Sharmila. Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonies. Zubaan, 2006.

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