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CHUNI KOTAL (1965-1992)

Chuni Kotal was the first woman graduate among the tribe of the Lodha Shabars. Born in 1965, in Gohaldohi, in Medinipur, rural West Bengal, Chuni Kotal survived childhood poverty to become the first Lodha woman to graduate from high school in 1983. She worked for a time for the Jhargram office of the Integrated Tribal Development Programme, surveying the welfare of local villages. She then took a degree in anthropology from Vidyasagar University, in 1985, and two years later, she became hostel superintendent at the Rani Shiromoni SC and ST Girls’ Hostel at Medinipur. Here she faced discrimination because of her tribe. As yet undaunted, she returned to Vidyasagar University to do her M.Sc. However, she was continuously insulted and harassed by her upper caste professors and university administrators. In 1991, after losing two years, she complained to the education ministry, and a high level enquiry commission was set up. However, this commission soon got bogged down in procedural details. On 14 August 1992 she left for Kharagpur where her husband, Manmatha Shabar, also a high school graduate, worked at the Railway workshop. They had kept company since 1981 and had had a civil marriage in 1990. Here she committed suicide on 16 August. Her death united the Lodha Shabar community in protest, and became the focal point of a movement spearheaded by the Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha questioning the liberal credentials of Bengali society. Her life received attention from scholars studying the Indian caste system such as Professor Nicholas B. Dirks at Columbia University and Professor Jan Breman at the University of Amsterdam. Mahasweta Devi wrote about her in Byadhkhanda (1994) and The Book of the Hunter (2002). Since 1993, the BDSS organizes the Annual Chuni Kotal Memorial Lecture.
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