Manu Khajuria is an active community leader, recognised both in the UK and by her home-state of Jammu in India with awards and honours for using her large social media presence of over 20,000 followers to raise issues facing the under-represented Dogra community.
'iGlobal' caught up with the mother, writer, activist and founder of Voice of Dogras - a platform designed to bring back the lost narrative of the Dogra community from the northern Indian region of Jammu - to explore what drives her on this mission.
Jammu is made up of 10 districts and it was in 2015 that Manu founded the Voice of Dogras platform to espouse the rights of the Dogra community and their unique cultural identity within the region and beyond. From a young age, she felt her region and community were not represented well; but her turning point into politics occurred in 2008 during the Amarnath agitation.
“For the last seven decades, Dogras haven't had a chance to speak or come out on the forefront. We're a martial race and a community that isn't exactly “marketable” because we're from Jammu and Kashmir, but we're not Kashmiri. When I saw how badly we were being portrayed, I felt like I needed to do my bit."
Now the full-time Director of Voice of Dogras, Manu manages a team which spans across India and the UK. With the support of fellow activist Lakshmi Kaul, the organisation celebrated the UK's first Jammu Kashmir Festival in 2016 and various key events for the community at the Houses of Parliament since.
"There is now a recognition for the community. Lots of people tell me that they now finally know what a Dogra is; not just those in the diaspora but people in India too.”
Having recently signed a publishing deal with Tattva Press, Manu's debut book will explore shakti shrines, clan deities and warrior princesses from the Jammu region. From Maha Kali, who is revered as the protecting deity of Jammu, to Mangala Rani, who played a big role in challenging Alexander the Great's army, her writing will look at feminine power and how it is manifested across India in different eras and ways.
“Women from Jammu do not tend to have a political or social opinion. By being in this space, I feel very responsible, because they look at me and realise "If she can do it, so can we!" and they're doing it so much better now. In just five years, the youth have taken it up and are doing a good job with it.”
She has also committed to writing for 'Beyond the Bindi', an anthology on British Hindu womanhood and feminism publishing on International Women's Day 2021. Her contribution will look at women in politics; those who have been active in conversations around Kashmiri Pandits, The Sabarimala Temple and, closer to home, in UK politics.
Manu's activism is not exclusive to Jammu but in fact extends to her local community and her place of residence, the UK. Her motivations stem from the “dharmic concept” that one must give back to the community in which they live, as well as the community that they come from.
From writing to councillors to volunteering with national charities such as The British Red Cross, she has continually stepped out onto the frontline and used her voice for her local community.
“It took me some days to learn the accent when I moved to the UK, but once I'd adjusted to the culture, I asked myself, what is the point when one decides they want to do more? It takes a lot to stand out and do something different. One time, I had come back from celebrating a Bengali festival wearing lots of sindoor. I went to pick up my son from school and some of his classmates made fun of me. My eight-year-old son turned to me and said “don't mind mama, he just doesn't understand our culture”. It's moments like this that give me strength.”