Omprakash Valmiki (30 June 1950 – 17 November 2013) was an Indian Dalit writer and poet. Well known for his autobiography, Joothan, considered a milestone in Dalit literature. He was born at the village of Barla in the Muzzafarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. After retirement from Government Ordnance Factory he lived in Dehradun where he died of complications arising out of stomach cancer on 17 November 2013.
Besides Joothan (1997) Valmiki published three collections of poetry: Sadiyon Ka Santaap (1989), Bas! Bahut Ho Chuka (1997), and Ab Aur Nahin (2009). He also wrote two collections of short stories, Salaam (2000), and Ghuspethiye (2004). In addition, he wrote Dalit Sahitya Ka Saundaryshaastra (2001) and a history of the Valmiki community, Safai Devata (2009), Do Chera’ (a play).
Om Prakash Valmiki provides a chilling account of caste oppression in the newly independent state. His autobiographical account brings into light one of those rare, detailed and lived accounts on Dalit lives. Joothan marks as a first Dalit autobiographies in Hindi literature and later translated into English by Arun Prabhas Mukherjee in 2003.
Om Prakash through his work highlights the importance of literature in providing a platform for disseminating knowledge about Dalit lives and their experiences. His work stands out as extraordinary for its sheer realistic detail of caste oppression but still struggles to be included into the mainstream literature in the country. With its non linear style of writing, his work is a collection of memoirs, of detailed accounts of caste violence during his school and adult life.
With the legal abolishment of untouchability and increasing access of education by the unprivileged (on paper), caste oppression and violence became a living reality of the newly ‘independent’ generation of lower castes. Om Prakash’s critique of the education system revolves around the inability of constitutional provisions and the Gandhian mission in uplifting the lives of lower castes. His account begins with recalling a traumatic experience he faced while growing up in Barla village, Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. He belonged to the Chuhra community and the entire village was segregated among the Chuhra and Tyaga on grounds of touchability and untouchability.
He received the basic primary education from a government school after being teased, humiliated and bullied for being enrolled in the school. The government granted the non-dominant caste communities access to education through government schools, however the children from the Chuhra caste were the primary targets of the wrath of upper caste Tyagas. In addition to spatial segregation, Tyagas headed all the major institutions in the village including the government school Om Prakash attended. He recalls the traumatic experience that reminded of his chuhra identity while he was forced to sweep the entire school premises instead of attending his regular school. Kaliram, the headmaster not only tortured people belonging to the chuhra community but humiliated them in front of all ‘tyaga’ teachers and students.
During the days of extreme poverty and lack of food, Om Prakash was admitted into the Tyagi Inter College, Barla (which was renamed as Barla Inter College) after selling the silver anklets of his sister-in-law. He was bullied, beaten and given low marks because of his caste identity. He lived in a perpetual fear and nervousness of getting subjected to violence by other Tyagi students and teachers. He revealed that the inadequacy of the education system arises from the biases, violence practiced by the educators. His account shows that the abolishment of untouchability in the constitutional/legal framework failed to bring a change in the educational institutions or the lives of Dalits.
However, his relatives and people from the Dalit movement seemed to have altered their views around assertion. For Valmiki, it remained a crucial political act. He noticed that Dalits who faced caste oppression in their everyday lives refrained from using their caste identities. He observed that they find it easier to alter their identities or change their surnames in order to avoid caste oppression.