WSS mourns the loss of Rajni Tilak, an invaluable member of WSS, a friend to so many of us. Rajni was a fiery Dalit feminist, an untiring anti-caste fighter and a Dalit writer. Her life epitomized struggle both at the personal and political level. She was taken away from us far too soon, and even now it is hard to believe that she is not still with us. Above all, Rajni was a pioneer who raised questions of caste and patriarchy in the context of the movements and politics located more specifically in North India and Delhi , at a time when hardly anyone was doing so. We might even say that because anti-caste struggles in this region and city were largely invisible to women’s groups and left organisations for so long, it is thanks to fighters like Rajni that spaces were created in often hostile terrain. Moreover, Rajni’s life was characterized by hardship and struggle as she shouldered the responsibilities of supporting her family and siblings as a single parent, and later on her own ailing mother, whom she nurtured steadfastly till her very last days. Her acumen and strategic understanding in many situations also drew from such a life of determination and grit against all odds. We express our deepest condolences to all the family and friends she has left behind, most especially her daughter Jyotsna Siddharth, of whom Rajni was so proud.
Rajni was a founder member of Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), a Union of Anganwadi Workers the theater group Ahawan and the Delhi chapter of the Bharatiya Dalit Panthers. She had been the Executive Director of the Center for Alternative Dalit Media, the President of Dalit Lekhak Sangh and member of the Ambedkarwadi Lekhak Sangh and BAMCEF. Rajni s writings, from her autobiography Apni Zameen Apna Aasman to her collections of poems Padchaap and Hawa si Bechain Yuvitian, and her most recent achievement of translating Savitribai Phule’s writings from Marathi to Hindi, have brought us new understandings of caste, gender and feminist empowerment. She displayed considerable organizational strengths, bringing large numbers of Dalit women and men to rallies and meetings. Her public speeches pushed the boundaries of existing understandings and questioned the all too frequent tokenistic representation of Dalit women in feminist circles and events, never flinching from calling a spade a spade. In Saheli and later in WSS she placed the question of dalit and working class women front and center, seeing a feminist politics that failed to do so as pointless. Likewise while working at the helm of anti-caste politics she unapologetically raised the question of gender. In WSS she contributed hugely to the analysis of caste and patriarchy and led fact findings especially in the context of heightened violence against Dalit women in Haryana.
Most vitally, Rajni practised a politics of criticality and warmth with respect to her sathis in the feminist and Ambedkarite movements, always standing up for justice with a brilliant clarity on the complex ways in which caste and gender each functioned together and separately, prioritizing the leadership of younger women and trans people from marginalized backgrounds. We can recall numerous instances when Rajni would not pull her punches but quite bluntly and forcefully confront us with her understanding of a particular situation and its challenges. More than all of us she was aware of older histories of anti-caste movements in states like Haryana, and reminded us that even the Republican Party of India once had a base in this part of the country. She recognized the kind of pincer movement at work in the contemporary era of heightened economic exploitation (whether feudal or capitalist) and the agendas of Hindutva politics, with their strategies of attempting to appropriate Dalit voices, and was able to place these contradictions in perspective. As she pointed out in the caste and patriarchy workshop conducted by WSS in Delhi in 2015, there was nothing unique about the ways in which Dalits were being drawn into communal organisations, and this only called for greater vigilance. Over and over again, she demanded of others a stronger commitment to a grassroots politics that engaged much more closely with local issues and working class lives in the language of the people.
We also mourn that in her tireless striving and hard life, there was not enough room for self-care including that of her personal health. We have lost a dedicated activist who should have had so many more years to give, struggle and call us to account. Members of WSS have many and varied personal memories of Rajni that we cannot do justice to in this short tribute, as we recall her place in our lives and work in countless ways – while preparing a statement, discussing a fact-finding, in offering her home, and just being there when needed. WSS is committed to take Rajni’s politics forward, widen and deepen it. In our journey, we will miss your leadership, direction, critique and affection.