The fight against oppression and caste system has been long and with a lot of sacrifices. The history of this battle would not be complete without the contribution of Mukta Salve, a student of Savitribai Phule and the first recorded female Dalit writer. Her contribution was so significant that she was mentioned along with Phule and Dr Ambedkar in Dalit history. In her bold writings she raised important questions, and asked why shudras (a term widely used for reference of ‘lower’ castes in India) would be treated poorly.
In an essay titled “About Grief of Mangs and Mahars,” she wrote for the Marathi fortnightly Gyanodaya over 170 years ago, the then 14 year old Mukta observed the plight of her people.
“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 by their doors, where was the question of getting education, getting freedom to learn? ”
“They would make the mangs and mahars drink oil mixed with red lead and buried our people in the foundations of their buildings” – Mukta Salve
Activism in her veins
She was the Granddaughter of a revolutionary in Maharashtra, Krantiveer Lahuji and so little wonder activism flowed in her veins. Born in the Mang community, which in today’s time is called the Scheduled Castes, she was determined to change, and question the treatment of her community compared with other ‘higher’ castes. “When any Mang or Mahar would learn somehow to read and 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,” she noted in an essay which has been published in full here.
“The brahmans have degraded us so low; they consider people like us even lower than cows and buffaloes” – Mukta Salve
Believer of Education
She helped Savitribai in establishing the first girls school near Pune in 1848. Mukta was one of the 8 girls who enrolled themselves in the school which was established on 1st January that year. This school was open to women of all castes and communities. Until now Muktabai had no access to education and she studied for over three years in this school.
Her essay boldly asked, ‘what book might the mangs and mahars follow’. “Because they all have their own good or bad religion that they follow, they are somewhat happier than us who are without any religion.”
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
Muktabai even as a 14-year-old understood the notion of discrimination and oppression. She was fierce in her opposition. Her essay, the excerpt from which was quoted above, is apparently is the earliest surviving essay by a Dalit woman. This essay highlights the brutality committed against the untouchables and the marginalized communities and was translated in many languages.
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‘About the Grief of Mahar and Mangs’
With the education that she received for merely three years, she was able to recognize the hierarchy that existed and how it was deeply rooted. She was able to pen down her thoughts and perspective on the same. Her biggest argument was that Brahmins control and make sure that they are the centre of the power structures and because of which they are depriving other castes of education and other things. Her essay noted:
“These people drove us, the poor mangs, and mahars, away from our own lands, which they occupied to build large buildings. And that was not all. They would make the mangs and mahars drink oil mixed with red lead and buried our people in the foundations of their buildings, thus wiping out generation after generation of our poor people.”
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Although this is the only work of Mukta existing today. But it does provide quite an insight into her life. With this work, she emphasizes moving forward from this system. It also tells us the importance of education in impacting one’s life. Her words are relevant today as well and inspire and give hope to a lot of people. At a time India’s seen the resurgence of caste behaviours in the political fabric and vote mongering her essay is a good reminder of how motivated and manipulative upper castes have been in their treatment of the classes below them.
Shreya is an intern with SheThePeople.TV