The Dalit History and the Dalit Present - Interviewing Christina Dhanraj

Shannon Mathew

Christina Thomas Dhanaraj is a 3rd generation Christian Dalit woman from Bangalore, India. She is the co-founder of the Dalit history month collective (dalithistory.com), and a volunteer for #dalitwomenfight. She currently works as a business analyst, and by background, holds a master’s degree in chemistry from the National University of Singapore.

Christina Thomas Dhanaraj is a 3rd generation Christian Dalit woman from Bangalore, India. She is the co-founder of the Dalit history month collective (dalithistory.com), and a volunteer for #dalitwomenfight. She currently works as a business analyst, and by background, holds a master’s degree in chemistry from the National University of Singapore.

What led to you starting the Dalit history month collective?

We started this off sometime in late ’14, when we were trying to articulate what it would look like to have Dalit History Month. Our objective was to just have an all-in-one place of Dalit history, which didn’t exist at that time. There were bits and pieces of our history, most of it authored by non-dalits. The primary objective was to have this one repository where we could go to have an account of our history, and to create a historical timeline of various events from across India and elsewhere.

We wanted bring out what’s been happening to us as a community, in terms of violence, discrimination, oppression and marginalization. But at the same time, we also wanted to highlight the work of our leaders and movements, and really bring to focus the resistance and resilience of our people. We’re talking about a 2000-year old oppression. But the fact that I am here talking to you about it, being very well aware of my identity as a Dalit, speaks a lot to the resilience of my forefathers and foremothers. We wanted to bring that out - that it is not just a story of victimhood, but of resilience.

In the long term, we aspired to have a product of participatory scholarship, which is to have in place a body of work that’s not just a product of a savarna looking inside our community and writing about us, but a body of work that is authored by ourselves, and not just written by someone who’s supposed to be a scholar or an intellectual. We’ve had such examples all the time, where you have white researchers, savarna researchers writing about us. We still have people getting into research institutes and leveraging our experiences to make a research career out of it. That is something we wanted to challenge. We wanted to have a body of work that is completely Dalit owned and authored.

Did you ever imagine that this project would gain such traction, to the point where we now recognize April as Dalit history month?

Yes and no. Did we know it would catch fire like this? No. Did we know it had enough substance to catch fire? Absolutely. There are a number of opportunities that exist within our community, and it’s only a matter of us coming together; it’s only a matter of us finding the network, time, effort and funding. We didn’t quite have fame in mind, because that’s not our objective anyway. Our objective was to basically get people to talk about Dalit scholarship and the Dalit movement in a different light. Because, as you might be aware, every time you bring up the question of caste in this so-called modern, urban, corporate or academic circles, what gets spoken about is reservation. That’s one of the stories we wanted to break.

Dalit History Month is a participatory radical history project. "Our goal is to share the contributions to history from Dalits around the world.  We believe in the power of our stories to change the savarna narrative of our experience as one solely of atrocity into one that is of our own making. Our story may have begun in violence but we continue forward by emphasizing our assertion and resistance."

Dalit History Month is a participatory radical history project. "Our goal is to share the contributions to history from Dalits around the world.  We believe in the power of our stories to change the savarna narrative of our experience as one solely of atrocity into one that is of our own making. Our story may have begun in violence but we continue forward by emphasizing our assertion and resistance."

How did the team behind Dalit History Collective come together?

Thenmozhi and I had gotten connected earlier, sometime in 2013. At that time, she was also getting involved in the #dalitwomenfight campaign, which had started off at AIDMAM (All India Dalit Mahila Adhikaar Manch). In 2014, my day-job took me to the US; and later that year Thenmozhi, Vee, and myself got together to kick off Dalit History Month. Now as part of the #dalitwomenfight campaign, we already had a very strong network of women in India, including Sanghapali, Manisha, and Asha. So although initially, it was just the three of us who had articulated the timeline and gathered data, by April 2015, all of us started posting, writing, and translating.

Coming to a more personal note, being a woman in India has its fair share of problems. Adding to that the layer of being a Dalit individual, how does one grapple with what comes with these two identities?

I cannot speak for all of my women. It goes without saying that I am not a representative of all of my Dalit sisters. But I can tell you how it feels for me given the privileges I have and given the challenges I’ve faced. For me, it’s been layered journey. Initially, I hadn’t even come to terms with my Dalit identity; it was only in college that I heard the word Dalit in that sense. I’m from a Christian family, the kind where there was not much politicization. I had very limited knowledge of what my people did for the movement. All I knew at that age was that I’m a feminist. So I guess I had come to terms with that aspect much earlier than my Dalit identity.

Much later, I realized the complexity of being both a Dalit and a woman. Particularly, when we talk about sexual violence, one cannot just talk about it the way we did when Nirbhaya happened. Being a woman, you obviously feel very enraged, and your heart goes out to the victim and her family. But at the same time you realize that the response Nirbhaya received is a lot more than your sisters typically do. Every time it happens to them – and it is that frequent - we never see the kind of response that it demands; we never see the kind of traction the way we do for non-Dalit women. One part of me wants to ask myself, “Why would you want to compare something as heinous as that?” But another major part of me thinks, “If I don’t talk about it at this point, when do I get to talk about it?” How do I get my non-Dalit savarna women to ally with me, and fight for my sisters as well?

Much later, I realized the complexity of being both a Dalit and a woman.

To a large extent, I am very disappointed with the feminist movement in India. I really do hope that they don’t see this just as a matter of intersectionality; that they don’t see this as a matter of the women’s movement needing to accommodate Dalit women, but to really call out their own caste privilege and start looking at this the other way around. It’s urgent that you start working with and for Dalit women. And it is under that umbrella that you need to be talking about other crimes.

Having said that, I’m also appreciative of the likes of a few publishing houses and movements that are vocal about our issues. And I hope it doesn’t just stop with talking about it or having a few articles, but really looking into the questions of caste a lot more deeply and introspectively, and that is the only way we can have a more stable ally-ship.

In terms of where you place yourself, would you think you have more of a space within the women’s or the Dalit movement? Or do you think the Dalit women’s movement is in itself running parallel to these two?

I think there are two answers to this question. One, I think the Dalit women’s movement is stable, and it has all the resources, love and bonding to run on its own and be independent. But like any other movement - like any other struggle - there needs to be allies. And these allies will come from everywhere. It could come from the women’s movement, the larger Dalit movement, the Roma Sisters in Europe, the black women’s movement in the US, and the First Nations women’s movement in Canada. So as far as ally-ship is concerned, anyone and everyone committed to the cause is welcome to be an ally, and should be an ally.

Secondly, I without a doubt place myself within the Dalit movement. It will always be my people. And within my people only can I talk about my sisters. Unless savarna women are willing to talk about their caste privilege, I don’t see myself collaborating with them.

Do you think that is something that will be addressed soon? Or is it something that will be glossed over or brushed under the carpet of intersectionality?

Right now, I feel like there a few [who address it], but there are also instances where you see people trying to compete with us for ‘visibility’, and I think that’s really sad. Because unless you see issues in India through the lens of caste, we’re getting nowhere. We can’t have intersectionality just for the sake of it. We have to look at everything through the lens of caste, because it is why we are where we are. So I think I’m in a place where I choose to be inspired by people who are beginning to be vocal but I’m also kind of disappointed by what’s happening on the other side. Hopefully in the long run, the ones who are brushing it under the carpet will be fewer, and people like us will be more in number. That’s my hope. And the fact that I have hope speaks to the fact that it is possible.

We wanted to bring that out - that it is not just a story of victimhood, but of resilience.

The interview was conducted in English by Shannon Mathew. She studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors from St. Stephen's College in 2016. She is currently interning with The YP Foundation.