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Punjab’s Revolutionary Poet

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Punjabi Dalit literature has not received much attention in the mainstream discourse on literature. The mid-20th century period witnessed a remarkable level of assertion and consciousness of Dalits in Punjab with Dalit writers expressing strong beliefs in an equal social order. Among such poets and activists, Gurdas Ram Alam may be considered as the first Punjabi poet with a distinct Dalit consciousness.

Mera Jiwan Pandh (Path of My Life), compiled and published by Sohan Sehjal, consists of the articles Alam wrote in the Punjabi newspaper Jantak Lehar and also his biography. The first section discusses Alam’s poetry, while the second is about his life as a community activist that also reveals a lot about the history and culture of the Dalits in the then Punjab.

Alam was born in a Balmiki (Chuhra) family of Bundala village in Jalandhar district. He was not able to go to school and had to learn basic Gurmukhi (Punjabi script) from his friends. He started writing poetry in his childhood. Like most Dalits in Punjab, he worked as a siri (bonded labourer) in the fields of the Jats, a dominant caste in Punjab. The main source of Alam’s inspiration was the inhuman treatment meted out to his fellow caste members by the higher castes and the practice of untouchability. His bitter experiences with oppression and hardship in life strengthened his sense of human dignity.

As R K Hans points out, Alam emerged as one of the popular folk poets of the period before partition. All four published works of his poems take up social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. Alam had a distinct style of writing. According to Lahori Ram Balley, “He is writing about marginalised and neglected people. He is writing about them because he is one of them.” Labourers, farmers and other marginalised people were the main protagonists of his songs and poetry.         

No wonder, even Pash (who later became the symbol of Punjabi revolutionary poetry) considered Alam to be the first “revolutionary poet” of Punjab. Alam in his poems like FaislaAmanKhanabadosh, Mazdoor aimed at the mobilisation of the Dalits, making them conscious about their exploitation by dominant caste/class groups.

Alam’s songs and poetry constitute a sense of pride, celebration even as irony of loss and deprivation are never absent from them. He sang about the deprived and oppressed caste communities with a hopeful and celebratory note for the future: “Oh! The Untouchable, open your eyes and see/I have a prescription for thee/Strength, Unity and education will set you free.” In another poem “Azaadi,” Alam critiques India’s newly acquired freedom in 1947. He wrote: “My friend have you seen freedom? I’ve neither seen her nor eaten her. I heard from Jaggu: she has come as far as from Ambala. And there was a large crowd around her. She was facing Birla with her back towards the common man” (p 62).  

Alam’s active participation in the Ad Dharm movement and other Dalit organisations helped in solidifying his reputation as an activist. He also established and headed a literary association under the name of Punjabi Darbar at Quetta (now in Pakistan) till 1945. He led the Punjabi Dihati Mazdoor Sabha. Along with Bakshi Ram, he actively participated in the activities of the Ad Dharm Mandal.

Alam’s memories about the cultural and social history of his own community form a part of Sehjal’s book. The tradition of Bala Shah is the symbol of Dalits’ (particularly Chuhras’) history of an autonomous cultural domain. It allowed them to retain dignity despite their hard lives and their exploitative overlords. The history of their struggle and emancipation has been embedded in folk tales and songs. Alam says that the downtrodden should create their own separate culture and rituals. “Till when will these Lambardaars, Chaudharis, Patwaris and Zaildaars sit on our heads even in the songs?” he asks.

His writings in the book touch upon the idea of a shared and common past of the so-called untouchables. He argues that Balmikis and their organisations played a key role in the success of the Ad Dharm movement in Punjab. He critically analyses the role of Dalit leaders and agencies in the formation of Dalit identity in colonial Punjab.

Another historical fact we learn from the book is that as a counterweight to the Congress party’s stand on support to the world war, the British leadership encouraged and appeased Dalit leadership to support the war efforts. As a result, in addition to the Mazhabi regiment, Mahar and Chamar regiments were created. The Chamar regiment was deployed in Burma and Kohima to stall the Japanese and the Indian National Army forces. Later, the Chamar regiment was disbanded.   

Alam’s life and poetry did not get the recognition he richly deserved because of his lower caste. But his memories and heritage have been preserved by his decedents, especially Sant Ram Udasi (1939–86) and Lal Singh Dil (1943–2007).

Yogesh Kumar

Panjab University, Chandigarh

Updated On : 10th Nov, 2017

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