The world through the lens of the late Dalit poet Dr. Siddalingaiah

“They are my people —

who die from hunger – who haul large stones

who getting kicked drop on their backs;

who beg for mercy – whose hands are slaves,

who’re so devout such devotees

They are my people —

who till and later sow the soil – who cut the crop and sweat,

then burn up in the sun’s hot heat;

who come back empty-handed – who draw a sigh and sit

empty-stomached in their ragged clothes

They are my people —

who raise the roofs – who build the towers

only to then be caught beneath;

who haunt the streets – who make no noise

before they cry themselves to sleep

They are my people —

who pay the leech – who fired by a speech

catch flame and burn and turn to ash;

who stitch the boots – who fix the shoes

of those who take god’s name and eat

My people —

they mine the gold – they get no food

they stitch the cloth – their body’s nude;

my people –

they do as they are told to do,

they simply live upon the wind.”

  • My People by Dr. Siddalingaiah translated to English by Madhav Ajjampur

Dr. Siddalingaiah was a renowned and fierce Kannada Dalit poet and activist who helped shaped the voices and representation of the community through his shamelessly honest and humorous poetry starting from the late 60s. 

Siddalingaiah had the strange and interesting ability to be able to utilize self-deprecating humor as a medium for influencing politics and voicing his opinions. There was where the shamelessness stepped in; there was no holding back or manipulation of events to ease the discomfort that the reader might feel while reading about something so deeply atrocious in its nature.

It was a shout in the face of oppression and injustice as if beckoning them to throw their worst insult, their worst act, and worst prejudice at the Dalit community only for it to become a mere joke in front of their perseverance and courage. It was an act of belittlement; something that the community was usually on the receiving end of but not when Siddalingaiah spoke.

The rawness of each encounter was bravely put into words without any second thoughts about being more appealing or ‘pretty’. That is why I believe that Siddalingaiah’s work can facilitate credible sources for merely understanding and comprehending the lived experiences of communities besides what we hear on TV and read in educational books.

With marginalized communities, they are always regarded as the ‘others’ wherever they go. This generational and inescapable ‘otherness’ that the Dalit community has been pushed and shoved into accepting signifies distress, discomfort, and uneasiness. What the society does not see as their own, they push and shove to the sidelines. 

This pushing and shoving often lead to the literal displacement of social identity, because the one that they are born with is ridiculed and tainted by what society believes them to be. 

It is an ugly process where one could get so deeply attached to the negative social identity they are being labeled which begets a cycle of self-criticism and self-hate or one could go the opposite way and try to detach themselves from their social identity as much as possible through fabricating their identity or simply hiding it.

In our society, each social group has been allotted what their role and standing is from time immemorial. Beginning from the tale that each caste group is a body part of Brahma’s body, it helped solidify people’s convictions and ideologies. By associating caste with something much bigger than humanity, it almost made it into something that humans should not question and rather blindly follow.

Whenever there has been an attempt to break through these stereotypes, humiliation is used as a weapon against the oppressed. Humiliation is defined as an unpleasant emotion brought about by the feeling that one’s social or public has reduced or been harmed. 

Humiliation is caused by society through verbal and physical abuse as well as through the act of exclusion from ‘public’ resources, primary healthcare, education, basic human rights, and simply from existing. By allotting a task as dangerous and dehumanizing as manual scavenging to their social group, humiliation becomes an emotion they know all too well.

Siddalingaiah’s poems captured the anger and unfiltered resentment that the entire community felt as a whole and did not shy away from facing the music; by doing so, unknowingly or knowingly, Siddalingaiah gave a voice and identity to the community that was unshakeable and undiminishable.

He addressed the humiliation his own father went through simply because he was a laborer and tangled in an endless cycle of debt; a mechanism developed in the rural areas of India to keep the poor stuck and under control. 

As Siddalingaiah grew older, his voice grew stronger. He knew what his aim was and what it would mean for the community to have someone from their own community to be respected and recognized; hence, he went on to establish himself in the political sphere.

Siddalingaiah along with D.R Nagaraj and Shudra Srinivas began the Dalit-Bandaya movement that aimed to make poetry socially committed and to use poetry as a means to fight economic and social oppression. 

Personally, what I feel that I have learned from the plight of Dr. Siddalingaiah is that perseverance and shameless retort to society is what it needs when battling something so primitive and dehumanizing. Of course, that is not enough. To break this age-old concept, the fight needs to go on and not back down in the face of fear.

Fear cowers in front of courage, and courage is something that will not be diminished. We are here to be allies, friends, and supporters. We hear Siddalingaiah loud and clear and aim to make his message and purpose last forever.

Written by Riya Singh