Selections from Ambedkar, the poems of Siddalingaiah and the 1973 manifesto of the Dalit Panthers all appear in an excellent anthology of Dalit Writing.
The Exercise of Freedom; An Introduction to Dalit Writing
Edited and Introduced by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu
• Rs. 175 • Pgs 183
An excerpt from the book’s introduction:
In an important essay on dalit literature, the Marathi dalit critic and writer, Baburao Bagul, argues that “the established literature of India is Hindu literature” and that the ‘lowest’ castes are excluded in Indian literature because of its Hindu character. He explains: “Writers who have internalised the Hindu value-structure find it impossible to accept heroes, themes and thoughts derived from the philosophies of Phule and Ambedkar”. Bagul and other dalit critics … reinterpret the period of colonial rule and revisit the Gandhi–Ambedkar dialogue. Their critical engagement enables them to show that Indian literature is elite, Hindu and upper caste. Dalit literature, they demonstrate, represents a new thinking and a new point of view. It poses the question of the representation of dalit and lower caste life (‘heroes, themes and thoughts’ from dalit society) as a critical public issue.
…The canons of modern Indian literatures as well as that of Indian writing in English are constituted of works and critical attitudes that are shaped by an anticolonial nationalism. Although history books are written as though this was the only form of nationalism that existed, anticolonial nationalism is actually Congress nationalism, and more specifically, Gandhian nationalism. In such nationalist thinking, the entire story of the struggle for freedom is told as one of opposition between the colonizer and colonized…
...The canonical writers of Indian literatures generally did not discuss caste, class, gender and other inequalities in a radical way. These ‘internal’ problems, it was believed, would divide Indians. They portrayed peasants, workers and adivasis — all integrated into the Gandhian national movement. In other words, the Gandhian mobilization of all sections of Indians to present a united force to challenge British rule obscured many questions of inequalities amongst Indians, most importantly, the questions of freedom from slavery and untouchability. Even novelists who attempted to represent dalit and lower caste life do not escape the ideological hold of Gandhian thinking on their representation of dalits. Unnava Lakshmi Narayana’s Malapalli (1922), in Telugu, and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935), in English, and several other Indian language novels can be cited as examples of this trend.
Dalit critics have argued that despite its seeming concern with untouchability, Gandhian nationalism actually suppressed important questions that were articulated by Dr BR Ambedkar (1891–1956) and other dalit leaders
The marginalized and culturally stigmatized sections of Indian society did not oppose colonialism or think of it only as anti-Indian rule. They adopted a strategic view of colonialism as a moment of structural reorganization of Indian society. They invoked the normative ideas of equality and modernity, made use of colonial educational institutions, converted to Christianity and organized their communities as religious and social pressure groups. But the nationalists who advocated anticolonialism as the primary task described the dalit religious and social movements as sectarian and pro-British. The ideas of Ambedkar and other anti-caste thinkers such as Ayyankali, Iyo-thee Thass, Swami Achhutanand and Kusuma Dharmanna among others were buried in this nationalist view.
…Ambedkar consciously shaped a distinct identity for dalits and institutionalized constitutional rights for untouchables. He referred to the untouchables as ‘depressed classes’, ‘scheduled castes’ and also as ‘dalits’ depending on the context... The beginnings of dalit literature are traced back to Ambedkar’s struggles for dalit emancipation in the early twentieth century... Marathi dalit critics cite the legacy of Buddha (sixth century bce), Cokhamela, the fourteenth century bhakti saint, Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1828–90) and Prof SM Mate (1886–1957) as the originators of the anti-caste movements and literatures in the Marathi-speaking region. Among the many other pioneering dalit figures that recent research has uncovered are Iyothee Thass (1845–1914), Tamil scholar and publisher; Kusuma Dharmanna (1894–1948) and Bhagya Reddy Varma (1845–1939), Telugu reformers and social thinkers; Ayyankali (1863–1941), Malayali political leader; and Poykayil Yohannan (1878–1939), Malayali visionary and religious leader.
Dalit historians trace the history of the term ‘dalit literature’ to the first Dalit Literary Conference in 1958... Baburao Bagul’s 1963 collection of short stories, Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti (When I Concealed my Caste), was hailed as ‘the epic of dalits’. These brilliant stories gave dalits the strength to face the painful and humiliating experiences of their wretched lives... The real flowering of dalit writing, however, begins in the 1970s when a number of younger poets and short story writers emerged. Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle and J.V. Pawar took the initiative of establishing a new militant dalit organization called Dalit Panthers in Bombay in 1972… They began to describe the reality of dalit life... These descriptions of slavery and oppression, as well as the open and hidden forms of caste discrimination in the contemporary world, were unlike anything that had been written before… With the rise of autonomous dalit movements in South India in the 1970s and after, dalit literature made its presence felt in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala…
Dalit writing is now a pan-Indian phenomenon with the rise of dalit writing in Hindi and other Indian languages post 1990s. The critical perspective of this new writing, what we think of today as a dalit perspective, has shifted away from the old approach of viewing caste as a problem of the past (Hinduism, nationalism, history) to that of viewing caste as an issue of present times. It also moves from viewing caste as a problem that lower castes face to viewing caste as an issue that affects the whole of society.
… Caste may no longer be called caste, but it is everywhere. It goes by other names and is practised by everyone. One of the most important contributions of the new dalit writing is its analysis of such everyday and subtle forms of power.