Posted by: Vikram | January 13, 2009

Understanding the Dalit cultural emergence in the Indian heartland

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.


  1. @ Vikram : Hmmmmmmm. I think they will just vanish. There will be a point sometime in the future after we are all dead that there will be no caste system left in India. Since Dalits do not look THAT different appearance wise (well I can always tell someone is a low caste by the way they dress!) they will just be regular flavoured Indians.

    When people get rich they will often ditch religion, though not in all cases. Multiple god religions are more likely to be dumped in my opinion. So I am all for easy culture and materialism and the corruption of the masses 🙂

  2. Very nicely analysed emergence of dalit “assertion” in North India. In the South, the Dravidian movement to an extent hijacked this phenomenon by tuning it into a ‘Dravidian’ assertion against ‘Aryan’ brahmins. But now Mayawati is taking the dalit battle into the South too. Her recent rally in Chennai was a huge success…how much and how soon it translates into a divergence from the struggle of “other caste” non-Brahmin Dravidians remain to be seen.

    The emergence of Barack Obama is going to be watershed in the dalit movement in India too. Jesse Jackson’s exclusive black identity has been triumphed by the inclusive one the Obama epitomises.

    The change towards that inclusiveness has been visible in India even earlier but will now get a filip.
    See the progression of BSP’s slogans.

    The first was the very hostile “Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko Maaro Jootey Chaar” – shoe-beat the upper three castes. The next was “Haathi nahin Ganesh Hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh Hai” – BSP’s election symbol is not an elephant but Ganesh as well as the Trinity. The latest is “Sarvjan Hitaye, Sarvjan Sukhaye” – For the interests and happiness of all, irrespective of caste or creed.

    As dalits get more empowered, and the discrimination against them dissolves, an inclusive society should emerge. That appears to be where it is headed.

  3. hi,
    First time here…
    I do accept most of what you have said except this:

    “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”

    ancient manuscripts in Tamil talk of different castes which have different job discriptions….
    They were different from the Vedic castes but they still existed….

  4. sorry for all spelling mistakes…..

  5. @ Odzer, that is a valid point. Part of the idea seems to be bring the Dalit identity into the mainstream. Let me illustrate, when you mention Punjab to a Kannadiga he/she thinks about Bhangra, Sikh religion and so forth. While the word Dalit usually provokes thoughts that are less centred on culture and more on economic and social status. So in some sense the idea is to distinguish Dalits on the basis of their culture.

    As far as physical appearance is concerned, that can be said of any Indians except North East.

  6. @ Sharmaji, yes the next few years are going to be crucial. I think that in the long run, Obama’s election is not going to do much for the African-Americans, certainly not as much as the civil rights movement did. One can think of the Dalit movement as a movement to assert civil and cultural rights. And I dont think broadly the Dalit society thinks of the entire upper caste society as antagonists. The idea now seems to be assertion, not confrontation.

    @Ajit, welcome, that was quoted from the paper. I think the author means that the Dravidian movement claimed this, not that it is necessarily true.

  7. Dalit is a political identity which has taken shape since the last 80 years. Dalit is a construct of many thousands of Backward oppresed castes. Any common culture of the Dalits need to be invented as there is none existing at present. For example take the examples of a few communities grouped as Dalits in modern India – the Mahars served in the british army and with Ambedkar as their leader they became highly socially mobile. The Pasis in uttar pradesh termed as Scheduled tribes were in fact rulers of small provinces. There is hardly any similarity between a madiga and a mang or gujjar or pasi in terms of common cultural practices. There are also varying degree of heirarchical contenpt practiced even among the Dalit communities and sub communities.
    The very idea of a Dalit Middle class or rich class is an oxymoron.

  8. Hi
    In response to dalit cultural movement.I have different meaning to the dalit word In latin dalit means “to fetch water” following dr ambedkar movement and struggle to drink water from the pond,the word has taken the meaning of to liberate from suppression.The main problem i see is all dalits are not under one umbrella scattered all over one nation.Dalit form the largest population in nation.Look at the brahmins they account to only 5 -6% of population and they continue to rule the majority.To dismantle their supremacy there is a need to bring all the dalits in one umbrella of cultural movement.There is need to invent our own worshipping god not the one preached by pejawar swami or some tom dick swami.I think it is time to rethink what baba saheb has preached us.Unless we unite under one umbrella of Dhamma it is difficult.I am forseeing trouble in karnataka after BJP came to power.It is distributing money to mutts and pontiffs like peanuts.There is no accounatbility of this money once it goes to mutts.I will ask one question how many teach dalit students in there mutts.Do pejawar swami take dalits has his disciples.Constitution has provided privelges and diginity to learn in govt institutions.BJP government making all dalits to beg in front of these discriminating mutts.I see short dwarf cunning pejawar swami making statements we will create Hindhu vote bank,he campaigns for BJP.Some time i feel whether he is swami or a politician.Atleast let him understand the meaning and purpose of becoming the swami.He should leave all the worldy desire look all religions alike.
    He says Bhuddha is reincarnation of vishnu,but at same time says dalits should not worship bhuddha.If some could understand the dual meaning of mr pejawar swami u can make out cunning mind behind.I think he should be happy if all dalits follow bhuddhism,if he believes he is the reincarnation.
    They underliying fact is liberalization of world has badly effected the survival of brahmins.It is the brahmins who are effected not other groups of hindu society.It is every ploy of brahmins in the name of religion exploit people in hindhuism.
    If really all the hindhus want to protect the unique identity and culture of our hindhu religion.There is need for unification of all backward communities and believers of bhuddhism and ambedkarism under one umbrella fight against dominance of brahminism.First need to do is nationalize all the religious mutts employ the heads from the goverment.Remove all the privelge rights of brahmins becoming poojaries.Open universities for learning religious duties of all religions and open to all.All priests should be employed from the qualified universities.Encourage intercaste marriage special protection from govt who under go love marriage.I remember Dr ambedkar saying only intercaste marriage will solve the caste problem in india unless and untill u dont find
    your blood running in veins you dont get feeling of oneness

  9. […] 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 situation under the government of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: