Sep 24, 2010

Dalits in Modern India

“How the fragments view the nation” was an eye-opening paper by B. Narayan of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. The author interviewed various Dalit villagers in the villages of Shahabpur and Shivpuri near Allahabad. He discusses the various aspects of the spectacular rise of the Dalits in the last twenty years. He also discusses the impact of Dr. Ambedkar and the immense admiration the Dalits have for him.

What struck out first was the response of the second villager he talked to, Munnan Kasai,

Predictably, he also knows nothing about the nation but he said that in the year 1971 (when a patriotic war was fought with Pakistan over the independence of Bangladesh and when patriotism was rampant), a Congressman called Ram Baran Upadhyaya came to the village and inspired him to sacrifice himself for the nation at the war front. Ever since, he has kept his sharpened knife (used for slaughtering goats) in readiness.

In those years the Dalits were a Congress constituency, but this response indicates to me that modern India is the first state in the history of India that the Dalits will fight for. I can imagine in the previous centuries when India was invaded, plundered etc., Dalits being justifiably ambivalent about the whole affair. After all, an old set of oppressors being replaced by new ones. Indeed, the high rates of political participation by the lower castes indicate to me that perhaps they genuinely feel that the current political system is their best hope to end centuries of injustice.

The interview that gave me the most reason for hope was the one with a Ram Baran of the Chamar caste. He had a university education and was teaching in a private school nearby. He subscribed to two newspapers, Majhi Janta (Marathi) and Bahujan whose role Narayan describes,

One of the leitmotivs of these newspapers is the (unacknowledged) role of the dalits in the Indian freedom struggle and in the making of the nation. This they do to stake a claim on public life in India today, which is, or was, until recently, conspicuous by the absence of dalit figures.

This illustrates two points, one that the Dalit movement is not simply a caste based ‘vote bank’ political gimmick, it is a dynamic self-awakening by a marginalized group to stake their claims to a society’s resources. Second, it shows how the general attitude of the upper caste Hindus has morphed from oppression to ignorance, they fail to recognize that the Dalit identity is very real and distinct from that of the twice-born upper castes. Narayan says,

The crucial component of Ram Baran’s ‘nation’ is a historic betrayal: the dalits built the railway lines, factories and other infrastructures only to be appropriated by the upper castes.

This bears some similarities to African-American nationalism in America.

Narayan also points out the general nature of democracy in India is “quite imperfect” and that organization and mobilization is often needed by the marginalized groups to represent oneself. He points out that the Dalit press was an important step towards this mobilization. The Dalit elites have actively informed and mobilized their masses for political representation. This is to be contrasted with the Bollywood nationalism of India’s middle classes which have failed to make their mark on the Indian political scenario, whereas for the Dalits,

they had to interpret nationalism and Indian history from a ‘dalit’ point of view because it was only by becoming an interest-group within India’s body politic, they could claim special privileges for themselves in the form of affirmative action by the state.

Some of the tales from the Dalit print media were heart-rendering, a Chamar of Shahabpur narrated his tale,

‘‘I’m Pyarelal. I want to tell you about the past of the Chamars. Earlier jhakhars (long grass reeds used for sweeping the ground) were tied around our feet to clean the ground where we walked. In case a few footprints got left behind, the upper castes used to walk down the road only after the wind or an animal had cleared those away. When our children went to school, they were made to sit on the ground while the upper castes sat on mats. When they drank water, they were cautioned not to touch the lota (vessel) or it would become polluted.’’

I dont know how many such stories have been enacted across thousands of villages across our country’s heartland but they remain a much bigger national shame for us than a lack of Olympic gold medals or any infrastructure deficiencies.

Finally, Narayan points out the prominence of the Amedkarite version of nationalism among the Dalits,

These are thus two archetypes or models of Indian nationalist, one dominant and the other (the Ambedka(r)ite) emergent. In dalit imagination today, however, the Ambedkarite version is increasingly becoming dominant while the Gandhian version is gradually fading.

For Ambedkar, freedom (including that of the Dalits of course) was more important than independence. Pyarelal said,

The births of Ravidas and Ambedkar were great blessing for the lower castes. We now have the right to education. We can get jobs. We can now sit and chat with you. But still much remains to be done.