I have discussed earlier the 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. Dalit, a word which literally means ‘the suppressed ones’, is an endonym used widely within the community. It simultaneously indicates the recognition of suppression as well as a strong urge to break free of the existing shackles, which exist in societal, cultural and economic terms. The emancipation of the Dalits has both political and cultural aspects. Cultural emancipation is achieved by a process of demarginalization, where a previously oppressed group re-evaluates the mainstream past, reshapes mainstream culture strengthening its own identity and sense of self respect.
The post is based on Badri Narayan‘s paper, ‘Demarginalisation and History: Dalit Re-Invention of the Past‘, published earlier this year. Let me begin by quoting from the abstract,
Through creating new narratives and virtually inventing a new alternative history and language, this movement for demarginalisation uses a particular style of popular and widely circulated booklets, vigorously read and disseminated by the neo-literate Dalit population. …. It also includes stories stories of unsung Dalit freedom fighters, transformed into local myths. Importantly, the language used is different from Standard Hindi, since folk proverbs, idioms and symbols, as well as the grammar and vocabulary of local dialects, are used.
As the Dalits of India assert themselves, they seem keen to differentiate themselves from the Hindu mainstream in the heartland, which is increasingly defined by Bollywood. In Maharashtra, this is also happening through conversions to Buddhism, while in South India, the Dravidian self-respect movement has become the bedrock of cultural and political identity.
Traditionally accepted versions of Indian history are mostly Brahmin-authored discourses with upper caste heroes and themes, dominated by the Pauranic tradition of ancient religious texts of upper caste Hindus. In contrast the Dalits employ their katha tradition,
The narrative histories (stories or kathas) invented by the Dalits constitute an alternative history and language, much of it oral. They tell of Dalit aspirations, dreams and ambitions, and are intended to create more coherent identities among the groups and communities making up this community ….. ‘katha’ is a form of liberation for marginalised groups of Indian society that enables them to enter the domain of knowing, inventing, creating and telling the past (including their own past) as a constant dialogue with the present.
Thus the very act of retelling history has become an assertion of identity and a device for emancipation. I can myself think of many instances where Hindu historical legend is oppressive or patronizing towards marginalized groups. The incident with Eklavya is widely known and discussed. Another incident I can think of is that of Rama’s encounter with Shabri in the Ramayana.
The Dalits have setup distribution networks to propogate their history,
During the last 10 years they have been written and published on a large scale, giving rise to a distinct class of authors and publishers. Many small bookstalls run by Dalit writers can be seen at Dalit political meetings, fairs and Chetna Mandaps, small book stores set up by the Dalits in district towns and cities to sell books, cassettes and artefacts connected with the Dalit movement.
Where are these new authors and leaders coming from ?
Over the last two decades, Indian electoral processes and policies of affirmative action have produced some powerful leaders from the Dalit and low caste communities who have emerged at many different levels of public and political life. The direct impact of this development has been seen in the politics of the historiography of India ….The newly emerging educated and politically conscious middle stratum of Dalit-Bahujan origin in North India is playing a leading role in writing, publishing and propagating this kind of Dalit history among the masses.
The Dalit middle classes seem to be heavily involved in the shaping of the nation,
analysis of the composition of the BSP shows that it includes 120,000 Dalit employees, of whom 500 doctoral degrees, 3,000 are doctors, 15,000 scientists and 7,000 are graduates
The re-interpretation of Brahminical history in the heartland is not the first re-evaluation of upper caste dominated history in Republican India,
In south India, there developed a strong Dravidian movement that interpreted history by asserting that in the centuries just before the Christian era, there had been a casteless Tamil culture in south India before the Aryan culture arrived.
It is clear today that the interpretation of Indian history differs widely in the North and South. The differences in popular culture can also be seen, with Bollywood conforming to a more upper caste narrative while the southern movies seem to have more nativist themes. It is quite possible that as the Dalit cultural movement gathers steam, more sophisticated mediums of expression like cinema will be employed to tell the Dalit story. After the four states of the South, Mumbai and to some extent West Bengal, the Indian heartland might become the next center for popular culture in the sub-continent. On the other hand, Dalits may not chose to give populist tones to their culture.
In an era of materialism and ‘easy’ culture, it remains to be seen if Dalit culture becomes the dominant culture of the sub-continent.