Dr BR Ambedkar at home in Bombay in May 1946. (Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Dr BR Ambedkar at home in Bombay in May 1946. (Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Excerpt: Makers of Modern Dalit History by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan

In time for BR Ambedkar’s 130th birth anniversary on April 14, a new book features accounts of several individuals from Gurram Jashuva to Rani Jhalkaribai, among others, who battled caste discrimination. This exclusive first excerpt from the introduction shows that Dalit literature is not only about hunger, poverty, oppression and subjugation; it is also about the resistance of the disempowered
PUBLISHED ON APR 10, 2021 06:49 AM IST
224pp, ₹399; Penguin
224pp, ₹399; Penguin

The history of modern Dalit literature has its origins in Maharashtra. It is here that the first Dalit writers’ conference was held, which eventually led to the Dalit Panthers movement. Eleanor Zelliot, an American scholar of Ambedkar, who has also written on the emergence of Dalit movements and Dalit literature, writes,

In the early 1970s two Maharashtrian movements achieved enough prominence to be noticed by the English press, the Dalit panthers and Dalit literature. By substituting the word ‘Black’ for ‘Dalit’ the reader can immediately understand that a phenomenon comparable to the American Black Panthers and Black literature has surfaced among the lower caste in social and literary affairs in Western India. Like the American movements, the Dalit panthers and the Dalit School of literature represent a new level of pride, militancy and sophisticated creativity.

Subaltern literature in India has evolved into a strong medium for the community to express its angst, emotions and experiences in words. In his time, which is the nineteenth century, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, a subaltern icon, was the architect of subaltern literature. Such literature, of and by those from the subaltern community, instilled in the minds of the readers a spirit of inquiry and made them understand that education was the only means by which empowerment and progress could be achieved. Phule’s Gulamgiri (meaning slavery), published in 1885, was a scathing attack against the caste system, calling for the emancipation of the Dalits.

Among the foremost catalysts of ancient Indian literature spearheaded by Dalits were Sage Vyasa and Sage Valmiki. Indian literature is incomplete without highlighting the contribution of these two men. As Babasaheb Ambedkar himself said, ‘The Hindus wanted the Vedas, they sent for Vyasa, who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic, they sent for Valmiki, who was an untouchable. The Hindus wanted a Constitution, and they have sent for me.’

Subaltern literature has today come to represent the quest for dignity. It has truly signified a rebellion with three principle pillars — liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a testament to the sheer will and resilience of the community, who have been for long denied their right to articulate their thoughts. Dalits have also begun to use their surnames in various literary forms that they bring out to highlight their plight. For example, the Bengali Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari has published his autobiography titled Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, and another Bengali poet and activist, Kalyani Thakur, added ‘Charal’ to her surname, indicating that she was proud of being a Chandal, one of the untouchable communities.

There has been Dalit literature that has garnered recent interest and been republished to illustrate the treatment of the community.

One striking example is the hard-hitting essay by Muktabai, who, as a girl, studied in one of the schools set up by the Phules in Pune. The eleven-year-old wrote on what it meant to be a Mang or a Mahar. She went on to highlight how her community was exploited and dispossessed of land. This essay was published in 1855, by Dnayodaya, an Ahmednagar-based journal.

Another example of Dalit literature prior to political independence in 1947 is a poem by Hira Dom from the Central Provinces, titled Acchut ki Shikayat (An Untouchable’s Complaint). This was published in the September 1914 issue of the Hindi magazine Saraswati. In the subsequent year, Mohini Chamarin, a Dalit woman from the same province as Dom, published a short story, Chhot ke Shor (Thieves of the Subordinated), in the August 1915 issue of a Hindi magazine named Kanya Manorajan. However, as mentioned earlier, recent interest in these writings has encouraged further curiosity in understanding the literature produced then. Some scholars say that Arjun Dangle’s Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature is believed to have been the first edited anthology of Dalit writing in English.

In all this, the contribution of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangh cannot be undermined, as it was greatly responsible for the resurgence in Dalit literature. The first conference of Dalit writers was organized in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1958. Later, this led to the founding of the Dalit Panthers movement. Almost all of those in the movement were writers. Resolution 5 of the conference stated that ‘the literature written by the Dalits and that written by others about Dalits in Marathi be accepted as a separate entity known as Dalit literature, and realizing its cultural importance, the universities and literary organisations should give it its proper place’.

Dalit literature is not only about hunger, poverty, oppression and subjugation; it is also about the resistance of the disempowered against the negative forces put in place by dominant groups.

On the other hand, Dalit feminist writers have recovered their own history of the Dalit movement. According to a 2008 book, We Also Made History, which was largely based on the interviews of women, Dalit women’s unique role was documented as participating and strengthening the Ambedkarite movement in the 1940s and providing it with an unusual social depth in the Vidarbha region of western India.

Another fascinating aspect of Dalit literature has been the achievements of Punjabi Dalit literature, especially its intellectual poets. No other language perhaps has so far had Dalit literature of such high literary calibre. The poets envision an egalitarian and just social order. Forged from the direct experiences of untouchability, they forcefully attack caste divisions, using the stock of available ideas — ancient Advaita Vedanta, Nathism, Sufism or Sikhism — to argue that all such divisions are unnatural and man-made.

Dalit literature in the 1990s has also been an important addendum. One important work is Narendra Jadhav’s Outcaste: A Memoir, which represents Dalit life in a global space whose boundaries extend beyond the nation. The book has attracted wide critical acclaim all over the world. The book was written by Jadhav when he was in Washington DC for over four years. The important shift that Jadhav made in this book was from the Indian national context and its constitutional framework to the global context.

Guru Prakash Paswan (Courtesy the publisher)
Guru Prakash Paswan (Courtesy the publisher)

In keeping with the changing contours of modern Dalit literature, the attempt through Makers of Modern Dalit History is to facilitate the stream of Dalit studies. The emergence of Dalit studies as a discipline has also had a notable trajectory. In 1991–92, when VP Singh celebrated Ambedkar’s birth centenary, Ambedkar chairs were established in universities to facilitate research on Dalit issues and literature. It is against this background that Arjun Dangle’s edited anthology, Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, the first English translation of modern Marathi Dalit writings, came out in 1992. Enthusiasm grew and so did the emergence of the discipline called Dalit studies in the 1990s. Like gender studies or cultural studies, Dalit studies have been established as a course in various colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the number of institutions offering Dalit studies or courses on Dalit issues in India is very few.

Sudarshan Ramabadran (Courtesy the publisher)
Sudarshan Ramabadran (Courtesy the publisher)

Today, modern Dalit literature is over five decades old, but to understand the real issues concerning the community, we need to understand not just theories but its history — for the achievements are worthy and commendable. It is in this context that recorded history — not just popular culture, which is often based on hearsay or word of mouth — is essential. There have been significant aspects of subaltern movements that have been ignored by writers for reasons best known to them.

One glaring example is that of the Pasi community. RK Chaudhary, who hails from the Pasi community of Uttar Pradesh, has rued the fact that not much has been written or spoken about it. In his words:

The moot point is this — scholars have never identified communities such as the Pasi as a subject of study, even though Udadevi and Makka Pasi are the only Dalit couple to have been martyred, during the 1857 war of independence.

Twenty-first-century historians in India must examine why these important aspects in Dalit history have not been given enough attention. Dalit literature must, in our view, factor in new paradigms of social justice while affirming the new Dalit identity that can inspire today’s generation. The focus has to be on inspiration as well as aspiration, and that is what we have strived to do in this book.

Blaming the architects and writers of history is not our intention. Indian history is replete with contributions of men and women who have sacrificed everything for the sake of our culture and nation. We want to remember and pay homage to those who contributed from the margins as well.

As Yuval Noah Harari, the famous Israeli author, has written, ‘History and lessons from the past are essential because by reading about it, one tends to be liberated from it.’ In presenting these personalities to the reader, we aim to enable the reader to be aware of some of the most unexpected and unthinkable atrocities heaped on these people in their quest to establish equality, integration and cohesion in society.

We hope that by exploring their lives, each one of us can take strong and certain strides in learning and being ‘liberated’ from some of the critical aberrations made in the past, so we may be able to carve out an India that seeks divinity and happiness as a cohesive society.

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