Today in Dalit History, we honor the Namasudras of present day Bangladesh, who were Dalits, who played a significant role in the history of three modern nations – Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
For much of history, they maintained their own tribal identity within regions of Hindu and Muslim majorities. Like many other tribes, their community also underwent a propagandised Brahminisation, that included tribal indoctrinates only outside the Caste system. So, despite being adept at an indigenous life tuned into their land – boating, navigating waterways and fishing in seasons of rain – and agriculture in drier seasons, they were treated as “untouchables” by both “upper”-Caste Hindus and Muslims.
By the 1800s, many Namasudras were sick of the devaluation of their communities. They knew that services they provided were indispensable to the economics of their region. They launched many small protest movements. In 1873, their efforts culminated in one of the largest movements for dignity, in the Faridpur district of Bangladesh.
In one of the villages, a Namasudra who had come into some wealth, Choron Sapah, decided to throw a feast inviting all members of society including “upper”-Caste Brahmins and Kayasthas. These “upper”-Castes were infuriated by the invitation to eat from a Dalit person’s household. To protest their perceived defamation, they hurled derogatory remarks at Namasudra women. “Eat with men who permit their women to go to the market and who are employed in jails for removing filth? What next!”
Namasudra community members did not like the veiled attack on their women or the reference to the indignity they were forced into. They called a meeting of their people and passed a resolution. All members of the community would refuse any of their labor to any of the “upper”-Castes.
Immediately local economies were impacted. Namasudras were agricultural hired labor for both Muslim and “upper”-Caste land. Crops began failing. Boats were built, maintained and manned by Namasudras. Transportation in the region came to a grinding halt. No trade could occur because goods could not be transported. Markets suffered. People were left without food.
On hearing of the Namasudra action, all the local Dalit castes of Jessore and Barisal, joined in. Dalit prisoners went on strike, refusing to do the unclean work not given to “upper”-Caste prisoners. Everywhere normal life was brought to a standstill. Many landlords were at the edge of starvation and loss. The strike of almost 800,000 Dalits in three districts continued for six months. Desperate Muslim and “upper”-Caste landlords appealed to the local British magistrates for a resolution. And these Dalit worker strikes ended only when the English, along with Muslims and “upper”-Castes, then passed official orders to prevent and penalise the mistreatment of Dalits.
This little-known story of an efficient, organized, and non-violent Dalit workers strike, of almost a million people, in 1873, was taking place at a time when Bengal was said to be undergoing a period of profound “renaissance” – one that hardly paid heed to the existence or oppression of Dalit and indigenous peoples of the region.
From – Dalit History Month Collective
Photo: Namasudra Ancestor, East Bengal, the 1860s, British Library Archives