Thanks to a Vancouver-based body of literary awards, the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature, Balbir Madhopuri’s Mitti Bol Peye has received this year’s award in the “novel” category.

Based on the Dalit resistance movement in Punjab, the novel is a powerful commentary on the oppression of the so-called untouchables in a caste-based Indian society. The story of Gora, a Dalit youth, gives voice to the underdog in one of the most progressive societies, where discrimination is deeply entrenched in spite of the fact that such brutality was rejected by the Sikh Gurus.

The novel revolves around Gora’s relationship with his grandfather Sangti, who is a part of the Aadi Dharam movement that was started to encourage Dalit assertion for equality and to resist oppression in British India.

Mitti Bol PeyeSangti is closely associated with the towering leader of the movement, Manguram Muggowal, who was earlier involved with the Ghadar Party, a group of Indian revolutionaries in North America, who wanted to free India through an armed uprising. Muggowal later left the Ghadar Party, which taught him to stand up for social equality, to dedicate his life for the emancipation of his Dalit community from the clutches of the barbaric caste-system practiced by the Hindus.

Muggowal, like other members of the Ghadar Party, immigrated to the U.S. for economic reasons and became involved in the freedom struggle following a realization of racism and discrimination in the foreign land.

People like him endured double discrimination, for being a person of colour and a Dalit. Born in a so-called low caste “untouchable” family, he began facing caste-based discrimination during childhood. He witnessed segregation at school and suffered physical abuse for defying caste laws. Thankfully, the Ghadar Party believed in secularism and kept religion and politics apart, yet he faced such prejudice even in the U.S.

Muggowal not only worked for the Ghadar newsletter, but also went to Java to help in collecting and sending arms to India. He narrowly escaped a death sentence at the hands of the British allies.

On coming back to India, he was disillusioned by the continued oppression of the Dalits, who were considered untouchables by the orthodox Hindus and Sikhs. He was partly upset with the popular leaders of the freedom struggle who failed to address the issue of casteism. He resigned from the Ghadar Party in order to mobilize Dalits against systemic caste-based discrimination, and eventually launched the Aadi Dharam movement in Punjab. He believed that without bringing social revolution first it was impossible to bring real freedom in India.

But since his movement was in conflict with the interest of the freedom struggle, his cause was not dear to the popular leadership of India. Rather, Muggowal was branded as a tool of the British Empire that was playing a divide and rule game to prolong its rule. Incidentally, Muggowal’s descendants live in Greater Vancouver.

The novel can be described as a historical document that helps in understanding not only the inconvenient past of the caste system, but also the Dalit resistance movement and its relevance even today.

Notably, Dalits continue to suffer caste-based discrimination in India in spite of tall claims of progress. Untouchability is still practised in many parts of India in accordance with orthodox principles of Hinduism despite India being a secular country. The problem has only aggravated under the current-right wing Hindu nationalist government. Besides, thousands of Dalits are forced to indulge in manual scavenging for livelihood.

Madhopuri’s novel makes all that visible.

It is pertinent to mention that Madhopuri has previously published an authentic biography of Muggowal, and a powerful novel on caste-based discrimination, “Changeya Rukh”. He received the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature through a virtual event on Saturday, November 13.

The other two recipients of this year’s awards were Nain Sukh from Lahore, Pakistan and Sarghi from Amritsar, India.

Gurpreet Singh is a journalist from Canada


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