Last night I talked to 25-year-old Lalu Kannaujia. I asked him if the caste system will ever end?

“What do you think…? Do you feel Dalits who continue to be oppressed and humiliated in society today will ever be free? Will justice ever prevail in society?”

And this eldest of three sons of a landless laborer instantly replied that yes, there will come a time when society will be more just than it is today. This unemployed university graduate told The Citizen that he does not wait for a leader to arrive and to deliver Dalits out of their misery.

“We have to free ourself. Each one of us has to struggle to improve our lot in life. I will battle injustice as long as I live and there are many like myself in society today,” Kannaujia is optimistic.

He is a former general secretary of the state wing of the Congress party’s National Students Union of India, and a post graduate from Lucknow University. But he was nearly not allowed to earn a degree after he was rusticated for talking about student rights in 2019.

He had to appeal to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes to enable him to complete his studies.

Kannaujia was jailed in 2020 for putting up posters in Lucknow that said that the public wants to know when the rioters mentioned on the poster will pay for damages – janta maange jawaab: in dangaiyo se vasooli kab.

The writing on the wall had referred to ruling party leaders as rioters, and displayed their declared criminal records in public. The poster of ruling party leaders was in response to life size hoardings put up by the state government displaying personal details of those accused of vandalism during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019.

“The problem is that the privileged, and those in power do not want to listen to what ordinary people belonging to economically and socially backward, and illiterate section of society say or want,” said Kannaujia.

When he had protested against the sub-standard meals offered to students in the university canteen and against the stinking water that they were forced to drink, the reaction of the administration was how dare a Dalit demand clean drinking water. But Kannaujia continued to protest and instead of addressing the complaints of the students, the administration first suspended and later rusticated Kannaujia.

While still a child in a village in the Ghazipur area of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Kannaujia was convinced that education is key to the kind of future he wanted for himself. He grew up in the southern part of the village, an area reserved for Dalit neighbourhoods in most villages and called chamrauthi, or where those working with animal skin (chamdi) live.

Kannaujia read Bhimrao Ranji Ambedkar, and remembered what the father of the Indian Constitution had said about education, that education is the most powerful weapon and the only way to become successful.

Today the cover illustration on the Facebook page of Kannaujia displays an impressive painting of Karl Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar in one frame.

When he was ready to leave his village, Kannaujia travelled to Lucknow to study at the university. The result is that two of his younger brothers have also followed in his footsteps. One brother is at the Banaras Hindu University and the youngest will graduate from the Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar University.

Kannaujia was impressed by the social justice movement of Kanshiram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party in 1984. He was nine years old when Kanshiram died in 2006. Mayawati succeeded Kanshiram as leader of the BSP but by the time Kannaujia came of age, Mayawati was burnt out as a politician.

“Mayawati seems to have lost the will to speak for the voiceless. She does not show any enthusiasm any more about working for the good of the people. I have no idea why it is so, but Mayawati has given up the fight for the moment. That is a fact and we have to look for alternative mentors,” Kannaujia said, adding that it helps if an organization has several layers of leaders instead of concentrating on one supreme leader.

However, the best alternative in any struggle in life is yourself. Social work is a life-long exercise and the fight to improve society continues with other people, or without them. Kannaujia is a politician who is attracted to the secular credentials of the Congress party. He said that there are numerous committed workers within the Congress, also at the grassroots.

“We just need to organize ourself and make our struggle work,” Kannaujia said.

I also talked to Subhash Chandra Kushwaha, whose prolific writing in Hindi suggests that mass movements emerge organically at the right time and right place. In a fascinating account of a people’s uprising that took place exactly a hundred years ago, the author concludes in his book on Chauri Chaura that the role of Dalits in the non-cooperation movement in 1922 is not acknowledged enough.

The British, and the feudal friends of the colonial power, turned history on its head and called the rebellion by the people an act of goons. According to Kushwaha the truth is that the peasants of Dumri Khurd and of the surrounding lands not only challenged the British but also stood up to 20 local landlords around the Gorakhpur area.

Once the patience of the people is tested this is what happens. The meekest of the meek rise up to pull down the man-made boundaries of religion and caste. Then the flag of revolution is upheld, and pseudo swaraj, pseudo secularism and pseudo leaders are exposed.

It was in February 1922 that during the non-cooperation movement, a crowd marched into the Chauri Chaura market to protest the rising price of food. The protest was interrupted by police officers, and leaders were arrested. The number of angry protestors multiplied and nearly 2,500 people marched towards the Chauri Chaura market three days later to picket a liquor shop. The police arrested one of the leaders. The protestors went to the Chauri Chaura police station, asking for the release of fellow protestors.

The police first fired warning shots in air. The crowd pelted stones at the cops and the police opened fire. Three protestors were killed and many wounded but the crowd continued to advance towards the police station. The police was outnumbered by the protestors and retreated into the police station. The crowd torched the police station, killing 22 policemen.

The heroes of the Chauri Chaura were poor peasants from the villages of Dumri Khurd and Chauri Chaura. The rebels were Dalits and Muslims, both landless and considered untouchables by those in power in the feudal society of the Purvanchal region of eastern UP.

The Chauri Chaura rebellion erupted as a result of decades of cruelty suffered by Dalit and Muslim peasants at the hands of the British, landlords and Upper castes. Barbaric ways were adopted to collect rent from landless peasants that led to the revolt.

The accused in the Chauri Chaura case are mentioned in British records as belonging to Lower castes, mostly hired to till the fields of feudal Lords. The High Court wrote that most were people belonging to the lower strata of the society. The judges describe Raghuvir Sunar as one who enjoyed a better social standing and who belonged to a Higher caste than the rest of the accused.

Kushwaha looks at history and at life from the point of the majority population and he says that around the same time that the Chauri Chaura incident took place, many a landlord in Gorakhpur was trying to colour the national movement into a Hindu movement also by creating a rift between Hindus and Muslims. There was the gau rakshini sabha [cow protection assembly] of 1890, and the rise of Hindi journalism and Hindu social reforms in 1910.

In 1913, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha organized a movement to print judicial papers in Hindi in the Nagari script. In 1914, Gyanshakti, a magazine devoted to the promotion of Hindi and Hindu religion, was published with the financial support of the kings of Padrauna, Tamkuhi and Majhauli but the magazine lasted only till 1917.

In 1915, Gauri Shankar Mishra from Gorakhpur published the Prabhakar, a monthly magazine that promoted Hindi=Hindu=Hindustan. In 1919 the weekly Swadesh and the monthly Kavi came to light. Dashrath Prasad Dwivedi, editor of Swadesh was a Gandhian and spread Gandhian ideas with the help of his weekly newspaper.

Between 1919 and 1920 Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya helped to open Hindu reform services in many a small town and village around Deoria, even as the peasant movement of the Dalits intensified, giving birth decades later to even a more fearless Dalit like Kannaujia.