Wednesday, March 15, 2006

History, Identity and the New Dalit Assertion (An Article from November 2005)

As a badge of identity, the term dalit today has wide recognition, though it is relatively recent as an appellation for a vast part of this nation of a billion and more. In relation to the various labels that have been plastered on those who inhabit the lowest rungs of the Indian social hierarchy -- a destiny that neither tradition nor modernity has quite been able to retrieve them from -- the currently accepted usage of dalit does have the quality of being part of the process of self-discovery of this segment. Once a passive recipient of various labels, the dalits today have fashioned for themselves an identity of their choosing. And as a social appellation, dalit has the added virtue of embodying contemporary realities of oppression and struggle.

“Untouchable” was an identity that B.R. Ambedkar proudly owned up to. It summed up the reality he faced and it was a badge of honour he could display in all the debates leading up to India’s independence. For a long while in the career of independent India, Ambedkar was looked upon with subtle condescension, if not active disfavour, for his supposed loyalty to the raj. He himself suffered no serious qualms about his opposition to the dominant strands within the nationalist project. The untouchables as he famously proclaimed, were not opposed to freedom from British colonialism. All they insisted on, was that free India be made “safe for democracy”. And as long as a “Hindu communal majority” was allowed to dictate the terms of the freedom bargain, India could not be made safe for democracy.

For the man who has since been elevated to the status of the “doyen of modern India”[i], this meant shunning all the ritualistic appellations received from history and custom during his lifetime, not to mention the whole range of terms fashioned to sanitise the indignities faced by virtue of birth. This included the term harijan, born in the magnificent paternalism of Gandhi’s effort to elevate a despised section of humanity to a relationship of kinship with divinity.

The 1990s and beyond could be characterised as the period when India encountered the world, seeking through the process of globalisation, to fashion a new relationship with the modernised and affluent west. This was also a time when India confronted the tenuousness of its internal nationalist compact. It is yet too early to read the deeper significance, if any, in this coincidence. But the indubitable fact is that the period of globalisation also witnessed a recasting of the iconography of Indian nationalism. The prominence that was accorded Ambedkar, of raising him to the pedestal that had till then been occupied solely by Gandhi and Nehru, was part of this reordering of precedence in the nationalist pantheon. Concurrently, on a quite divergent track, the new nationalism of hindutva was making rapid advances, seeking a definition of India as the privileged realm of a particular religion, where if at all minorities had a place, it was only at the sufferance of the moral majority.

There was a rather wide gulf between absorbing the term dalit into the vocabulary of politics and sociology, which is rather easily done, and acknowledging all its connotations. Still greater would be the distance from there to conceding the oppressed the right to restitution in a manner of their choosing, rather than at an orderly pace dictated by the convenience of the privileged. The flood of new writing on the issues of identity and history that emerged through the 1990s, was a manifestation of the new assertiveness of the dalits. And like the politics that emerged in this defining decade for Indian democracy, the writings have been polyphonic and diverse in their tone, method and message.

The assertion of identity, however that term is construed, means retrieving the history of a social class and projecting its distinct personality onto the political terrain. This retrieval project involves locating an individual niche for this class in a historical narrative that otherwise tends to submerge differences, to make every segment a participant in the triumphal onward march of a people towards their collective liberation. The dalit identity today proclaims that the liberation of the strata of privilege and wealth was in fact, a story of growing oppression and exploitation for them. Their independence struggle still remains to be consummated.

Dalit militancy speaks in several voices. A section within today believes that globalisation is the best antidote to the inherited ills of the community of the oppressed. Globalisation undermines the role of the State, which has been the custodian of upper-caste privilege and its derivative program of oppression through an elaborate program of patronage. Globalisation loosens the suffocating embrace of tradition and opens up possibilities that were earlier beyond the reach of the lower strata of an ascriptive and hierarchical social order. Far from giving them a sense of equal citizenship, the patriarchal state kept zealous guard over a relationship of clientship with the dalits, ensuring that they never attained a semblance of political autonomy.

Thol. Thirumaavalavan, one of the leaders of the dalit militancy in Tamilnadu, believes otherwise. “Globalisation .. has led to the further exploitation of the oppressed peoples”, he observes in a recently published collection of his political speeches: “Because these new economic policies are being imposed in India by the imperialist superpowers with extreme vigour and the support of the ruling powers, it has marginalised the vital issues of casteism and communalism and created a mindset against the debate on these important questions. In this context, dalits have not only to fight against casteism and communalism but also they have to fight against imperialist globalisation which is against social justice”.[ii]

An epochal struggle that will define the character of contemporary times is in Thirumaavalavan’s perception, being waged between the people of the caste Hindu settlement or the gramam, and the squalid, neglected dalit habitation or cheri. This is a confrontation between the indigenous inhabitants of the land who lived in a caste-free, unstratified realm of perfect equality, and the invaders who imposed their way of life, ascribing higher positions in the social hierarchy to those who betrayed their roots to seek assimilation within an alien culture.[iii] And the struggle to release the dalit from the fatal folds of the Hindu social order also involves retrieving his language and culture from long years of denigration and contempt. “Because of these Hinduised people, the Tamil culture and land are being ruined”, rages Thirumaavalavan. And if at all there are any people today who retain their fidelity to the Tamil nation, they can only be the cheri Tamilians. “Such a Tamil race, which is unadulterated and protecting Tamil in the cheris, shall alone rescue and retrieve Tamil!”, he proclaims.[iv] The dalits in this rendition are the “unadulterated Dravidians”, “unmixed with the Aryan race”.

With few exceptions, dalit movements have sought to appropriate for themselves the legitimacy conferred by their being original inhabitants of the land. Thirumaavalavan in this sense is echoing the themes that were first clearly articulated by Jotirao Phule in the second half of the 19th century. But Phule did more than that. He also sought to subvert scriptural orthodoxy from within by overturning its moral categories. The mythology of Lord Vishnu and his ten successive manifestations in different epochs of human history, was in his view, central to the legitimation of the Brahminical conquest of aboriginal Indians. And in Phule’s hands, each episode in the earthly visitations of Vishnu was transformed into an allegory of invasion and cultural subjugation, with the guileless and innocent aborigines suffering grievously at the hands of the brutal and conniving conquerors.

These motifs recur strongly in the interesting anthology of recent dalit writings assembled by Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra. Theirs is a narrative in which modernity plays the significant role of allowing victims of tradition to undermine the doctrinal sources from which their misery springs. Being social outcastes was partly about lacking a history as a class. And with the availability of print technology, the oral traditions that had failed to gain for the dalit communities appropriate recognition as groups with coherent social and political interests, began to be set down on paper and disseminated. Drawing their main examples from what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh, the editors point out that “identity formation” requires for the subaltern classes, an “alternative intellectual and historical space”. This space in turn, “is made available through negating the characters contained in the epics or through (a) total reconstruction of history”.[v]

The “dominant texts of Great Traditions and the grand history patronised by elites” have been re-examined in the light of the social rebellion of the dalits, leading to the construction of an “alternative culture” which is embodies their determination to regain what was “snatched from them in the past”.[vi] The canonical texts of this alternative culture include a reinterpretation of the episode of the slaying of Shambook in the Ramayana; a fresh rendition of the Angulimal incident in the Buddha’s life; and a sequence of songs celebrating “Babasaheb” Ambedkar’s life of struggle. A few lines from the last-named text serve to clarify its central message: “We did not get freedom/ From the Vedas and Puranas of the Hindus./ The poor have got the light,/ From the sacrifices of Baba./ And the missionaries of Ambedkar/ Through the fire in them./ A new revolution is seen being born/ In every corner of India.”

Another passage in this eulogy for Ambedkar bears a close reference to the politics of the Ayodhya movement and is emblematic of how the dalit communities chose to keep their distance from a project involving the reassertion of a unitary or homogenising tradition: “We take the oath;/ That no more shall we come to your temple/ It is our folly to fight for the temple/ For in you was the conspiracy to enslave us/ Do not call us Hindus,/ As we do not wish to return to the hellish life./ You live in your temple/ And I will live at the feet of Lord Buddha”.[vii]

With all the lavishness of its obeisance to Ambedkar though, the new dalit literature tilts towards propagandistic methods rather than constitutionalism. The northern region of India, or the Hindi cultural terrain, did not offer a hospitable environment for taking forward the “ideology popularised by Ambedkar”, ostensibly because of its different “ethos”, which derived “inspiration from the philosophy of the saints of the Bhakti movement and its later interpreters and propagators”. In the Marathi cultural region and the south of India, the efforts by Jotirao Phule and his contemporaries – coupled with fairly unique patterns of modernisation and urbanisation – ensured a “better ecology” for the “constitutionalism and liberal democratic principles of Ambedkar”. The dalit movements in the northern region have steered clear of these perspectives, setting themselves on course to “capture power and use it for identity assertion”.

A question arises: is the assertion of identity a means for gaining power, or its end? A pluralist and democratic polity could, in a situation of electoral contestation, take in and without serious disharmony, assimilate, the assertion of an identity that is at variance with the overarching definition of the nation. But once the electoral process is concluded, can the seats of power be used for the projection of one identity rather than another? The principle of affirmative action concedes that the dalits have suffered indignities and serious breaches of their rights in the past, to warrant today the voluntary or forced abridgment of the rights of the privileged. But the will to power that Narayan and Misra chronicle and the determination to assert a distinct dalit identity as a ruling principle of governance, obviously go far beyond affirmative action.

If comprehension of reality is the object, rather than endless argumentation on political and constitutional principles, it would be evident that identity is the main concern of the dalit party that has in three recent episodes, exercised power in Uttar Pradesh. These intervals in power were invariably terminated because of the fickleness of parties that the main vehicle of dalit politics in the state – the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP -- was compelled to enter into coalitions with. But running through all its efforts to be the ruling power in U.P., was the agenda followed almost obsessively, to pack the administration from state capital down, with trusted functionaries. Particular interest was focused on the police forces, to ensure that functionaries of the law at the local level were amenable to the diktat of the party in power at the state capital.

This is a rather chastening reality. A State with professedly strong welfare commitments, should place a premium upon the control of its social infrastructure, rather than its coercive apparatus. The reality in India, as manifest in the administrative actions of the BSP, seems the opposite. The overwhelming concern of a party of the oppressed, when it comes to power in the largest state in the country, is not to augment welfare expenditure but to capture the instruments of State coercion.

To be critical of dalit disdain for constitutionalism and liberal democratic principles would be easy. But the experience of Uttar Pradesh – and indeed other parts of the country including Tamil Nadu[viii] -- is testimony to an undeniable fact. The welfare apparatus of the State will advance the cause of the disadvantaged only if there is a settled consensus, shared across all sections, on the application of the coercive powers of the State. Where this basic compact remains unformed, there can be little room for the State to go beyond its assigned duties as the guardian of privilege. The rights of the oppressed may verbally be championed by various political formations eager to harvest their votes. But in a situation of direct confrontation between these and the entrenched privileges of the upper classes, the apparatus of the State becomes an accessory of power and wealth. The shocking and ongoing litany of atrocities against dalits, not to mention the failure of the apparatus of law and justice to provide them restitution, is continuing reminder of this.

For all its centrality to modern politics, “identity” as a term is fuzzy and elusive. The manner in which identities are constructed for projection onto the political terrain, is again more an exercise in artifice, propaganda and invention, than in authentic historiography. A notion of primordialism is integral to the manner in which the dalit identity has been constructed. When not claiming the mantle of being the original settlers of a land that was invaded and colonised by alien forces, dalit communities fall back upon various myths of origin. These invariably spring from a pivotal figure of history or myth, and a hypothetical golden age of equality and perfect harmony. As the invaluable compilation of personal voyages assembled by Franco, Macwan and Ramanathan documents,[ix] the story is vitiated by some act of treachery which establishes a hierarchical social order and supplants a culture of harmony with one of inequality.

The indubitable fact though is that identities are constructs specific to the modern phase of politics. Recent research on the Valmikis of Delhi has shown how the community, now a seamlessly integrated whole, was in fact assembled from at least two distinct components: the traditional sanitation crews maintained by the durbar in pre-British Delhi, and the economic refugees who flooded the city in the 19th century, driven from their homesteads in Punjab by the currents of agrarian change and modernisation.[x]

Franco and his co-authors deal with the question of identity in this spirit. Identity, they point out is a process of “choosing” and “fashioning of a self”: “Persons may choose from among various self-descriptions available to them. From this perspective, identity is dynamic and changing, fluid rather than fixed”.[xi] The identity is in part determined, and reciprocally influences, the strategy of liberation that the individual or his larger community may adopt. This is a volume of abiding value, since it resists the temptation to rush to judgment as it charts the distinct and varied responses of the oppressed to their social condition. The option of migration which several have exercised, especially when a rapidly industrialising centre exists in proximity, has proved to be of little more than ephemeral value. Modernity in an economy and polity trapped in a low level equilibrium, has a tendency of taking the worst of tradition and considerably magnifying its iniquities. Thus the Valmikis who choose migration to escape the bondage of their traditional occupation, end up being sweepers and drain cleaners in municipal corporations. The entrenched belief of Marxists and others of the progressive camp, that modernisation is the best solvent for caste and ethnic identities, has proved seriously misplaced in practice. And it has not helped the cause of the oppressed that these progressive movements, in seeking to mobilise them, should act as if their social identities – in part inherited and in part constructed – have little relevance.

Religious conversion, typically to Buddhism or Christianity, is another strategy of escape. Buddhism has traditionally been the recourse of those who choose to foreground their rebellion rather than their aspirations for immediate material betterment. In contrast, Christianity offers opportunities for gaining an education and widening the range of choices available to an individual as he enters the workforce. But in all these cases, there is the strong reverse gravitational pull exercised by traditional religious affiliations, since they come with the assurance of constitutional guarantees and safeguards.

When fatigue sets in at the sheer odds they confront, certain communities may well choose the strategy of buying into the oppressive order as loyal subalterns. The volume edited by Anand Teltumbde[xii] develops various perspectives on the relatively recent phenomenon of dalits joining caste Hindu chauvinists in the project of dispossessing and disenfranchising India’s religious minorities, most notably Muslims. The trend he points out, is a denial of the potential for positive change that the developing dalit political consciousness embodies.

If identity is a construct of modernity, then it is perhaps axiomatic that the struggle for the recognition of the rights of a long oppressed slice of humanity should use contemporary tactics and strategies. The “human rights” approach that Franco and his co-authors introduce after their exhaustive treatment of other paths in the dalit “journey to freedom”, perhaps offers indubitable promise in this respect. The institutional framework of Indian democracy ostensibly safeguards the human rights of all its citizens. But the story of the last five decades and more, has been of a constitutional order that has failed the poor of the country, has indeed, only recognised them as enfranchised citizens after long and arduous struggle. But human rights is a domain where universal standards apply, and as India preens and postures on the world stage as an emerging power, it is likely to invite increasing attention to its record of safeguarding basic rights for all its citizens. There will be the voices of hyper-nationalism denying the legitimacy of international scrutiny in this feature of India’s political life. But when every aspect of economic policy, including those with serious repercussions for social welfare, is subject to international oversight, the insistence on keeping human rights alone as a sphere of national sovereignty must seem rather curious. Clearly, where the dalits are concerned, every forum of restitution – whether domestic or otherwise – is legitimate recourse in their long march to freedom.


[i] From the editors’ introduction in Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra (editors), Multiple Marginalities, An Anthology of Identified Dalit Writings, Manohar, Delhi, 2004, p 21.

[ii] Thirumaavalavan, Uproot Hindutva, The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers, (Translated by Meena Kandasamy), Samya, Kolkata, 2004, p 232. This is a “voice” that is best understood when it is considered alongside S. Viswanathan’s chronicle of the fortunes of the dalits in Tamil Nadu, a collection of reports filed in a fortnightly magazine published from Chennai, Dalits in a Dravidian Land, Navayana, Chennai, 2005.

[iii] Thirumaavalavan, op cit., p 4.

[iv] Ibid, p 122.

[v] Narayan and Misra, op cit, pp 23-4.

[vi] Ibid, pp 25-6.

[vii] Ibid, p 243.

[viii] The copious footnotes available in Thirumaavalan, op cit, bear witness to the mortal dangers that the dalits face if they dare to step out of their ascriptive role and challenge the unending humiliations they are subjected to. Again, Viswanathan, op cit, provides useful supplemental information.

[ix] Fernando Franco, Jyotsna Macwan and Suguna Ramanathan, Journeys to Freedom, Dalit Narratives, Samya, Kolkata, 2004.

[x] See for instance, the study by Vijay Prashad, Untouchable Freedom, A Social History of a Dalit Community, Oxford University Press, 2000.

[xi] Franco, et al, op. cit., p 13.

[xii] Anand Teltumbde (editor), Hinduta and Dalits, Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis, Samya, Kolkata, 2005.

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