SFI expresses deep condolences on the demise of noted Hindi writer Omprakash Valmiki, whose works paved way for a movement of Dalit assertion in Hindi Literature and its power centres of upper caste domination. In his demise Hindi literature has lost a powerful champion of the assertion of the voices of the unheard and hence also one of the most important figures in the democratisation of a space which still continues to be largely undemocratic.
Omprakash Valmiki was born in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district and had a rough and deprived childhood, which formed the material basis of him questioning the very basis of the society based on the foundations of caste discrimination. Jabalpur’s Marxist study groups brought him in contact with the rich realism of Gorky and Chekhov; while Bombay gave him the fire of the poetry of Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar and the Dalit Panther’s politics of resistance. It was Chandapur though where he became totally absorbed in the Dalit movement. He says: “It was in this part of the country that I came across the marvellous glow of Dalit consciousness. The self-fulfilment that I experienced in connecting with the Dalit movement was a truly unique experience for me.”
He emerged on the horizon of Hindi literature as a comet which was not to vanish into flames; rather it sparked a thousand other comets. Modern Hindi literature had been a citadel of upper caste dominance right since the days of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha and the control of the mathadhish-s over the Hindi departments, publishing houses and magazines across North India still remains more or less intact. Unlike in Marathi or Telugu Literature, Dalits were largely underrepresented in Hindi literature until the late 1980s, when a spurt of works by Dalit writers were published and new magazines and literary groups with focus on Dalit literature started coming up. This period coincided with publication of Valmiki’s autobiographical work Joothan, which announced the arrival of Dalit literature onto the stage of Hindi literature. The genre of autobiography has since then emerged as a powerful means of the assertion of Dalit subjectivity that translates victimhood into a weapon of resistance. Casteism and untouchability were something which Valmiki saw everywhere from his village in Western UP to the cosmopolitan Bombay, and throughout Joothan, there is a definite urge in extending the individual experience to the ongoing movements and towards the creation of a Dalit identity. The publication of Joothan and Valmiki’s surname itself created ripples in the literary circles of Hindi. He says: “This surname is now an indispensable part of my name. Omprakash has no identity without it. ‘Identity ‘and ‘recognition’, the two words say a lot by themselves. Dr. Ambedkar was born in a Dalit family. But Ambedkar signifies a Brahmin caste name; it was a pseudonym given by a Brahmin teacher of his. When joined with ‘Bhimrao’ however it becomes his identity, completely changing its meaning in the process. Today ‘Bhimrao’ has no meaning without ‘Ambedkar’.”
The emergence of Dalit literature has been a step forward in the larger task of the democratisation of Indian Society. While remembering Omprakash Valmiki, it is important to underscore the fact that true democratisation and concrete advances towards the goal of his entire life – the annihilation of caste – can be made only when “annihilate caste” becomes the slogan of all democratic sections of the country. The coming together of progressive forces is absolutely necessary to take the fight against casteism and Brahmanism to its logical conclusion. Today when our Universities and public life continue to be engulfed by the fangs of caste, when huge dropout rates of students belonging to deprived backgrounds is not merely a statistic but a naked display of caste discrimination, the urgency of this task cannot be overemphasised. It is in rising up to the urgency of our times that we will be able to do justice to the memory of Omprakash Valmiki.