Photos of Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Ramabai, Periyar, Shahuji Maharaj, and Chhatrapati Shivaji adorn the walls of a room in Badampet village of Sangareddy district in Telangana.
The room has roofing sheets on all sides, a cement floor, a single tube light, a fan, and a few chairs. There is a bookshelf filled with books on caste, class, religion, and gender. A flex banner with the words “Satyashodhaka Yuvajana Sangham” adorns the wall. Printed along with the name of the collective are the words from a poem by Savitribai Phule—“Awake, Arise and Educate. Smash traditions—Liberate”.
This room, out of which the Rajyanga Bodhana Kendram under the umbrella organisation Satyashodhaka Yuvajana Sangham operates, serves many purposes. It is a reading room for schoolchildren, a mini library, a recreational space, a centre promoting awareness about the Constitution, an open space to discuss strategies to combat violence against women, and also a space where women gather to discuss seed sovereignty and other issues.
Nearly 30 Dalit, Other Backward Classes (OBC), and Muslim youth from eight villages in Sangareddy district of Telangana have teamed up to form this Sangham with one goal—to fight for equality and rights. Most of these youngsters are farmers. Some raise livestock. A few are diploma holders. A couple of them are pursuing degree programmes.
But all of them are inspired by Jyotirao Phule, who formed the Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 to focus on the rights of depressed groups such as women and Dalits. Through this samaj, Phule opposed idolatry and denounced the caste system. The samaj also campaigned for the spread of rational thinking and rejected the need for priests.
In Badampet, Vikram, 24, is from the village’s only Dalit family. His grandparents moved to this village after a disease outbreak, settling down into subsistence farming and other wage work. Mohammed Ghouse, 25, is a small-scale paddy farmer from the same village.
Vikram’s family owns the room that hosts the centre, and it is open to everyone in the village. He and the members raised nearly Rs.70,000 to build the room.
Despite the hectic nature of farm work, Vikram and Ghouse recognise the value of a support system. What began as an effort to have a collective in Sangareddy district has now grown into eight village-level centres. There are plans to expand this further.
How did it begin?
Most of the members of the Sangham met at a popular education programme organised by Yakshi, an organisation which has been a resource and creativity centre for rural children and youth for nearly three decades. After completing the programme, the youngsters decided to branch out, focussing on issues of marginalised communities in villages. This was towards the end of 2019.
The members chose the name of the Sangham because of the profound influence of Dalit literature. “I read Gulamgiri by Jyotirao Phule and Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah. I read several other books, but these I remember more,” said 24-year-old Koyya Shivaji from Sikindlapur.
In Sikindlapur, it took about three months for Shivaji and others from the village to convince the elders to allow them to use the SC Community Hall. “We eventually convinced the elders by speaking about how we needed guidance growing up but didn’t receive it, how most people didn’t get a good education and how we could provide a better support system for future generations,” they explained.
Eventually, the Sangham got to use one half of the room. They renamed their centre Satyashodhaka Bhavan after discussing with the Panchayat. The centre has been operational since 2020.
But the hall needed repairs. “Yakshi provided a part of the money, bookshelves, and other basic infrastructure. But apart from the initial support, the youth managed funds for operations on their own,” explained Nadempalli Madhusudhan, executive secretary, Yakshi. The organisation also created fellowships to support the youth, “but it is just about enough to cover their transport and other basic costs”, Madhusudhan said.
Towards a better future
The centres recently celebrated Bhima Koregaon’s anniversary. The members proudly showed the chart paper structure they made collectively. When asked if the Chhatrapati Shivaji portrait—an icon appropriated by the right wing—causes controversies, the members said they want to engage and discuss the distorted history and propaganda.
In most locations, the members conduct daily classes for schoolchildren. At least 35 children show up at the Sikindlapur centre. “One of our accomplishments is that most children belong to OBC castes,” Shivaji said.
In Vikram and Ghouse’s village, too, OBC children frequent the centre. “There is little or no casteism at such a young age. Further, most parents need support with homework,” Vikram said.
During the early phases of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Sangham members helped villagers with groceries and immunity boosters. The consistency of their efforts has won the approval of a small section of the population. The members also became a bridge during the online classes phase of the pandemic, as most children lacked access to devices.
Some centres have a set subject-wise schedule for the students. They conduct arts and crafts classes, host games to introduce them to the concept of equality, and so on. On the one hand, they want to evoke enough curiosity and keep it fun enough to sustain attendance; on the other hand, they want to encourage the children to start thinking critically. It is a balance they are striving to achieve.
“The Sangham also played a crucial role in creating awareness about violence against women and the avenues available to them,” said Krupa, who knows several such survivors. Krupa is in her early 20s, married, with a young child. Yet, Krupa attends almost all activities, including the forum theatre they co-host; sometimes, her family tags along.
The centres have managed to uphold engagement with students and women with activities throughout the year. “They come here because they can talk about their problems, lack of opportunities, their desires, and so on,” Renuka, who is from a caste categorised as OBC, told Frontline.
In 2021, the Sangham also held Constitution awareness rallies. They plan to continue the rallies in other villages.
One of the difficulties youngsters anticipate in 2023 is that of space. While two of the centres now have dedicated rooms, the rest operate out of members’ homes, which can only accommodate small groups of people. Fundraising to buy land is out of reach for most of them, but they hope to find rental spaces in the villages.
Where the Sangham has had difficulties across all centres is in convincing college students or young adults to participate.
“They think these lectures are boring, or they are generally disinterested in knowing about history, or have heard us talk about the leaders from our communities several times,” said Mogulayya. Mogulayya is from Sikindlapur and pursuing a BTech degree. He wants to graduate, find a job, and continue working for the Sangham.
“I think they don’t come to the centre because the Sikindlapur centre is in an Scheduled Caste colony,” Shivaji said. “Even if you have a degree to your name, caste and religion-based discrimination persist. Our education system doesn’t enable an anti-caste, anti-communal perspective,” he added.
The focus of the collective is thus to continue its activities, reiterating the idea of equality while trying to find newer ways to engage with young adults.
No one is in a rush, though. “Change will take time, but if we keep trying, it will come about,” said most of the Sangham’s members.
- Nearly 30 Dalit, Other Backward Classes (OBC), and Muslim youth from eight villages in Sangareddy district of Telangana have teamed up to form the Satyashodhaka Yuvajana Sangham.
- Its goal: to fight for equality and rights.
- Inspired by Jyotirao Phule, who formed the Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 to focus on the rights of depressed groups such as women and Dalits.