Chulha mitti ka, mitti taalaab ki, taalaab Thakur ka. Bhookh roti ki, roti baajre ki, baajra khet ka, khet Thakur ka (The oven is made of mud, the mud is from the pond, and the pond belongs to the Thakur. We are hungry for bread; the bread is made of millets, the millets come from the field, and the field belongs to the Thakur)." Recently, RJD MP Manoj Jha recited these poems in Rajya Sabha during the debate on the women reservation bill. The recital evoked a flurry of reactions and divided social media. Some of them flatly denied the crux of the poem, i.e., caste exploitation, while some saw this as an attack on the Thakur community. But if one goes through the literary work of Valmiki, one would infer that “Thakur” is a metaphor for upper castes, and even the Muslims, as Valmiki recalls in his autobiography that Muslims were as exploitative as Tyagi’s.
Denial of caste-based discrimination has been a persistent trend in traditional media, and after the advent of social media, this narrative has found its space on social media as well. Although social media has, to a large extent, democratized the landscape of Dalit assertion, the rise of Hindutva politics, which largely subverts the Dalit narrative, has proved to be a significant resistance.
Omprakash Valmiki, through his autobiography 'Joothan,' has tried to shatter the lies of a vainglorious society puffed with a false sense of glory. He exposed the sub-human behavior that Dalits are subjected to, particularly in western UP, where he was born in a Dalit family in the Muzzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1950.
Narrating an incident from his everyday life, Valmiki recounts, "One day, Headmaster Kaliram called me inside his room. He asked for my name, 'Omprakash,' I said trembling. His next question was, 'Chuhde ka hai (Are you the son of a sweeper)?' to which I replied, 'yes.' The headmaster then asked Valmiki to make a broom out of the twigs of the Sheesham tree standing outside and clean the school like glass. After cleaning the classrooms and the corridors of the school, he was asked to clean the field also. 'The field was bigger than my existence; the dust had covered my face and head and had entered inside my mouth.' Recalls Valmiki in his memoir. Valmiki, who managed to get a job in the ordinance factory and worked in various places across India, also mentions the discrimination he faced in these places during his postings.
The Mooknayak spoke to Hemlata Mahishwar; she recalled that 'Joothan' had exposed the oppressive temperament and the different machinations adopted by the Brahmins; therefore, this created a lot of impatience in the feudalistic circles, which had taken all the oppression for granted and considered the oppression as adherence to the Manusmriti. She reveals that even the liberal and communist litterateurs also attacked his novel. She noted that Valmiki vastly differed from his other Dalit peers in North India. She said that the reason for this was “he spent a large part of his life in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra due to his job requirement and there he encountered the Ambedkarite movement which has proliferated in Maharashtra because of the strong Social Movement. In Maharashtra, society is providing the agenda to politicians, whereas in North India, politicians provide the agenda to the society.
When he died on 17th November 2013, social media was still in its nascent stage, and Dalit assertion in that space had not evolved. At a time when the Dalit narrative is making its presence felt on social media, Omprakash Valmiki’s 'Joothan' and various other poems and story collections have reverberated through social media. His quotes and poems have helped in gaining a fan base for Valmiki. Omprakash Valmiki is survived by lakhs of social media followers who are taking his mantle forward against caste-based oppression."