“Until the deer have their historian, history will always glorify the hunter

Neeraj explores how Dalit literature has been instructional in raising consciousness and rebel against society

This was a quote that I came across on the walls of an administrative building of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. It echoes a need for the history of the subaltern. But the power relations here are more crucial in understanding the dynamics of what it means to have no representation. The deer, an animal, will never have its historian so there will never be an alternative perspective. However there are communities of millions – so deeply ostracised for centuries that they were not aware of the power they possess just in terms of numbers. The Dalit community in South Asia is considered to be at the bottom of the caste system which is a hierarchy based on one’s birth. The term Dalit in itself is a broad term which encompasses lower caste communities across India and South Asia at large. This social hierarchy has been legitimised by scriptures of the Hindu religion. But it has been adopted by Islam, Sikhism and Christianity as well. So caste has surpassed boundaries of religion and established itself as a way of life. Lower caste communities in India have been suppressed and resorted to extreme humiliation without basic human rights for centuries. However, progressive thinkers like Mahatma Jotiba Phule from the community paved a way for a new revolution. He propagated education as a tool of empowerment. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, independent India’s first Law Minister and an intellectual from the Dalit community himself ensured the newly independent nation creates a system that abolishes discrimination based on caste. He continued the movement and represented the suppressed groups in the Constituent Assembly post-Independence. 

As a distinct form of movement, the Dalit consciousness gained traction in the late twentieth century. It is, therefore, a significant aspect of post-colonial Indian political discourse. Dalit literary movement is one product of this stream of consciousness. While it constitutes similar elements of general literature, there are ways in which Dalit literature differs from the mainstream. It developed as a form of protest against existing social structures. The aim of Dalit literature is creating awareness among masses about the sufferings that the community faced on the margins. It has been put in practice through powerful poetry, autobiographies documenting personal accounts of discrimination and challenging the existing forms that have suppressed the community for centuries. For this article, I will be attempting to derive a Dalit aesthetic theory based on a handful of readings covered as a part of my independent study, “Privilege and Dispossession: Caste in Literature and Popular Culture” at Shiv Nadar University in Spring 2019. As a reference point, I will be using Sharan Kumar Limbale’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature”. It is to note here, that the book itself does not cover the entire discourse. Like any other progressive movement, the literary discourse in the anti-caste movement is bound to evolve. Deriving a theory, therefore, is a self-reflective exercise. It takes one back to the fundamentals of literature. Based on the readings, I have identified four key components of Dalit aesthetic theory.

As mentioned before, the movement that led to the consciousness of the Dalit community had an aim to challenge the existing hierarchy in society. This hierarchy was legitimised through religion, rituals which systematically degraded the Shudras and the Atishudras. So to challenge the status quo in place, it became necessary to rewrite and present a perspective from the margins. This was done by adopting a revisionist approach. Phule pioneered this attempt by rewriting Hindu mythological tales. His work, “Gulaamgiri (Slavery)” is one such work where he rewrites one of the key myths of Vishnu’s “Dashavtar” from the Shudra perspective. The myth explains how Vaman, fifth incarnation of Vishnu defeats Bali Raja. Phule identifies Bali Raja as a king of the Shudras who were defeated by Vaman who represented the upper caste authority. The book focuses on Vamana and his misdoings. It sheds light on the oppressive ideology – Brahmanism and Phule has attempted to situate this narrative within the cultural legacy. It provides representation to the marginalized groups and claims their place in a mythology which has been aiding religion. Ambedkar too carried this forward and rejected Brahmanical traditions and Hindu religion as a whole. He gave a call to abolish the Shastras as it legitimised oppression on the Shudras in his speech titled Annihilation of Caste. Attempts of revision and re-envision a way of life are central to the Dalit movement. This in itself was a radical outlook. 

Being radical is, therefore, the next step in this movement. Caste-radicals, in terms of Anupama Rao, were instrumental in politicizing the Dalit identity. This helped in mobilizing the members of the community to strive for taking an action. The relationship between the social and the political was complicated by caste radicals. Anupama Rao elaborated on this relationship in her book, “The Caste Question” as she observes: “Caste radicals generally understood the religious and the political aspects of caste as formally differentiated but systematically interdependent and mutually constitutive” (Rao 2010: 13). Ambedkar provided a solution to destroy the caste system, committed his life to the cause. The burning of Manusmriti and the Mahad Satyagraha (1937) was a historic event in this movement. He proposed a solution alongside defying and destroying the Shastras: intermarriage. He believed that the “fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin” (Ambedkar 1936: 67). He considered caste “as a notion, as a state of mind”. Therefore, destruction of the caste system, he says is a notional change. 

Their form of radicalism found its way through a literary discourse. Leaders like Phule and Ambedkar influenced the Dalit community to rise and take some action against their oppression. One common instrument that both leaders recommended was through education. Affirmative action policies like the reservation made education accessible to the community. This proved pivotal for the new literary movement where Dalit youth documented their life-experiences in post-colonial India. This independent form of expression in literature helped in raising consciousness about the community’s problems. Autobiographies written by Dalit individuals started shedding light on the lives on the margins of the society. Babytai Kamble’s “Jina Amucha” (The Prisons We Broke – translated by Maya Pandit) is one of the most powerful examples. It is not only describing the experiences of Dalit women and their position within the community in detail but raises some powerful questions. These questions are directed to the reader, the state and religious institutions who justify the caste system. In an account of religious practices and rituals, autobiographies highlight how distinct nature of lifestyle with simple examples like celebrating a festival together. Alongside short stories and autobiographies, Dalit poetry too emerged as a distinct genre. A dimension that sets Dalit literary theory apart is the tone of the language. In simple terms, a literary tone is the attitude of the author or the poet towards the subject. As against the conventional tone with rigid rules, Dalit literature uses a colloquial tone. It is a direct rejection of norms set up by upper-caste literary society. The vocabulary and the language itself became a form of representation to the marginalized groups. 

In a quest for reforming the existing society, Dalit writers and poets started a movement to empower the community. The movement called “Dalit Panthers” was inspired by the Black Panthers movement in the United States. This parallel between two distinct movements started by marginalised groups is proof of how the anti-caste movement adopted methods from movements led by marginalized communities across borders. The movement eventually dissolved as the leaders had their differences and disagreements on adopting future discourse. If one can imagine the process of modernity, it promotes individualism. An individual gets more agency as it moves away from the community. This idea of modernity coincides with Ambedkar’s notion of change. However, the literature produced under the Dalit movement complicates the process of modernity. For instance, Babytai Kamble writes about the hardships that Dalit women in particular faced under double oppression – caste and patriarchy. In each of her chapters, she is not just writing about her but also Dalit women in general. Writers from the community have made it a point to present a community’s problem as a whole even though their examples. These experiences resonated with individuals going through the same system.

Dalit women, as mentioned before had to suffer through two forms of oppression: one which was casteist and the other one was patriarchal. Autobiographical accounts like the one by Baby Kamble are a testimony to these issues. The Dalit aesthetic theory, therefore, is not a complete mission. On one hand, it aims to move away from Brahmanical traditions and customs but then it has inherited one of its negative elements. This creates a larger problem for movements like feminism. Feminism in India is not consistent with social hierarchies. It misses the point about intersectionality as it ends up being an elite upper-caste, upper-class discourse. Limbale, while writing about his Dalit aesthetic theory has missed writing about gender. But it is impossible to ignore gender, especially in the 21st century. 

It has to be stated here explicitly that not every piece produced as a part of the anti-caste movement in India will adhere to these categories. In Limbale’s terms, the creativity in Dalit literature is highly influenced by the struggles of the community lead by Ambedkar (Limbale 2018: 38). It is about the struggle that the community faced to get equal right; about the state apparatus which is influenced by the upper castes even today. Radicalism, revisionist approach, changing the tone of the literature and highlighting community over individual experiences in the larger project of modernity are just ways in which the movement is striving towards its goal. This zeal to reform the system is what constitutes Dalit consciousness. The success of this trend will be visible when a stronger movement will take shape, one led by leaders within the community to assert their place in the South Asian society at large.

About the author:

Neeraj Shetye is currently working as a Qualitative Research and Program Manager for Khaana Chahiye, Mumbai. He graduated with a B.A. (Research) in Sociology with a minor in International Relations and Public Affairs from Shiv Nadar University. His research work is primarily on electoral and legislative politics with a focus on social justice.

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