Posted by: Vikram | August 18, 2008

How do the Dalits see 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.


  1. The oppression of lower castes by the upper castes, the abominable practice of untouchability and the near de-humanisation of dalits is the darkest spot on Hindu religion and civilsation. Mahatma Gandhi did a lot to restore the dignity of dalits through many measures. Much to Kasturba Gandhi’s discomfort, he even cleaned latrines of others, something that was done only by the lowest sub-caste of dalits. He coined the now discarded term ‘Harijan’ – children of God – and almost always stayed with a dalit during his journeys into the heart and soul of India.

    But, Gandhi belonged to an upper caste himself and, no matter how hard he tried, he could not make the kind of impact Dr Ambedkar, a dalit himself, made on Dalits.

    That is why later on dalit leaders Kanshi Ram and Mayawati were able to take the empowerment of dalits to a different level. In all other political parties, power has always rested with upper castes. Dalit leaders have never wielded real authority. The final word has been, and is, of an upper caste leader.

    Today, Mayawati represents real dalit empowerment; not the patronising type that upper caste dominated parties have been giving, keeping the caste hierarchy relatively intact. As one dalit said recently, she is like a banyan tree under whose shade dalits feel totally secure and protected.

    If Mayawati and her successors can keep their heads and intentions in order, dalits will rise like and with the rest, and the thousands of years old blot on the face of India will finally get erased.

  2. Those who are discriminated against are equally responsible as those who do it. They are both the same people basically. They are basically the victims of being victim. If they had fought the mob mentality of the people that harass them, they would have been free a long time ago.

    The point of this post was not to blame or victimize anybody. The point is that the Dalits consider themselves (justifiably in my opinion) as a distinct political and cultural entity from the upper caste Hindus (read middle class). This does not mean that they are not nationalists, but that their version of nationalism (the Ambedkarite version) is very different from that of the upper castes. In many ways I feel that it is their version of nationalism which will come to define ‘Indianness’ in the future.

  3. […] Vikram Garg discusses a paper by B. Narayan of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, on how Dalits of today view the Indian nation . Linked by kuffir. Join Blogbharti facebook group. […]

  4. […] Source: […]

  5. Mr sharma ,Please donot compare to gandi with dr Ambedkar ,Gandhi was pedophile who was feeling happy to sleep with nacked women .He was the robber who had snatched dalits right which know as “““““““““““““““““`poona pact.time has come daits should demolished gandhi statue from India .

    • i dont think you have any right to call our national leader a “pedophile”. and for your information it was gandhi ji only who gave dalits the status of “harijans” without which they wouldn’t be respected anywhere. i agree they are not treated fairly everywhere and upper cast people are causing much harm to them than anything else. but atleast you should not degrade a national personality like this…….

  6. Vikram,

    Great Stuff! What line of work/study are you in that you read such interesting papers?

    • Thanks Icon, this is indeed one of my favorite posts. The paper reading comes more from a yearning for understanding my India and has nothing to do with the subject of my study.

  7. […] earlier Dalit political emergence in Uttar Pradesh. I had also discussed the specifics of Dalit nationalism in a previous post as well. Those posts provide some good ground to understand this post better. […]

  8. […] have previously alluded to the ‘Bollywood nationalism’ of India’s middle classes, where the Indian nation […]


    This is a website of Dalit youth magazine. It provides good material for your reading …

  10. […] upper-caste Hindus to Dalits so they can avail of reservations available to the dalits, ‘Ambedkars‘ or Chamaars, or Chandals. How many will exchange places? Unthinkable!? Why is it so bad to […]

  11. […] northern India, primarily concentrated in Uttar Pradesh. I started with a discussion of how Dalits saw the modern Indian nation, moved on to their cultural emergence in the Indian heartland and their views towards the current […]

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