Dalits Aren’t Just Rising Politically, They’re A Powerful Literary Voice Too

Posted by Shreyosee Sen in Caste
March 28, 2017

Over the last two decades, South Asia’s landscape has been confronted with the re-emergence of ‘untouchable’ voices, challenging the dominant social, cultural and epistemological structures. It can be argued, here, that the entire discourse of knowledge production has been shaped by the dominant, largely Brahminical, canon. This has tactfully discounted the perspectives of the oppressed sections in the formation of the mainstream intellectual discourses.

The upsurge of Dalits in Indian cultural and political mainstream not only opposes the existing socio-historical work in South Asia, but also provides new epistemological visions to integrate peripheral ideas into the core, in re-writing of culture, history and politics.

Thousands of Dalits gathered at Ahmedabad to protest against the atrocities allegedly meted out to them because of cow slaughter.

This alternative social discourse creates a vibrant field of ‘writing resistance’ in the form of narratives. Focusing on the Dalit subject as the central concept of the literary sphere, allows us to re-write an alternative history of democratic liberalism, instead of re-modifying the hegemonic (western) political arenas.

In this article, I want to signify Dalit literature as a persistent effort, to transform the structure of negativity associated with the notion of being a Dalit within the caste hegemony, to a new positive political context. This article is an attempt to re-discover the historic suffering and humiliation (the experience of being a Dalit) as a narrative of shared history of suffering and pain, to establish the identity of Dalits as a socio-cultural subject.

I would like to view Dalit emancipation, using the lens of cultural resistance posed by them in the form of poetry, narratives, tamashas (plays) and stories, to produce a form of politics that encounters collective right and group emancipation rather than individual autonomy.

The Rise Of Dalit Chetna 

The rise of a ‘Dalit chetna (consciousness, or identity)’ is a central tenet in the creation and analysis of Dalit literature, a rhetorical construction of a shared collective identity formation. In choosing to focus on the radicalism and rebellion of Dalit people, a new wave of commitment to the history of marginalized group was generated, giving rise to new forms of social life. Dalit chetna can be conceptualized as a provocation to re-think Dalit history from their perspective as they struggle for religious, social and political emancipation.

The Dalit chetna that re-surfaces in narratives is a subversive tool to exercise control over their own representation. This power of self representation, I believe, suggests Dalits’ visibility in public imagination. Celebrating the power of self representation implies examining the domain of Dalit literature as an ongoing, living movement that seeks to create themes of marginality and resistance as a way of preserving and protecting the ‘self’.

If we take a deeper look into the intricacies of Dalit literature we find that literary themes are manifested in the form of poetry (famous poems include Mina Gaybhiye’s “The Weeping Wound Of Centuries”, Arun Kamble’s “The Life We Live”, Yeshwant Manohar’s “I’m Ready For Revolt”, JV Pawar’s “Naked mind”); folk poetry that includes ballads and awareness about Dalit movements (Vaman Dada Kardak, Bhimrao Kardak, Vitthal Umap are the prominent poets); short stories (“Fakira” by Anna Bhau Sathe, “Davandi” by Shankar Ramchanda Kharat, “Red Stone” by NG Shende are the best examples of short stories); auto narratives dealing with the lived experience of oppression and social injustices (Daya Pawar, PV Sonkamble, Laxman Gaikwad are few prominent Dalit writers who wrote exclusively about the their own experience); plays as a source of emanating Dalit sensibility expressions (MV Chitnis’s “Yug Yatra”, BC Shinde’s “Udvast”, Ramnath Chavan’s “Bamanwada”).

The Dalit Sahitya movement echoed the ethos of their liberation and the successive formation of their identity. Literature can be read as an amalgamation of various socio-economic factors that attempt to create a link with the internal, psychological ones. The amalgamation takes places in the human mind (the subject) who uses this literary device to create revolutionary and reformatory functions.

Thus, I have attempted to critically engage my readers with the poetic outputs and the existing social connotation attached to it. Caste, that was once considered a heuristic form of social organization, is today a contested category. The themes of dalit poetry depict the harsh reality and is a symbolic of the shared history of oppression.

Arjun Dangle’s poem titled ‘Revolution’.

Culture, as an autonomous domain reclaims the pride and the consciousness of being a ‘dalit’. This political posture throws light on the socio-cultural setting that affects the concept and qualities of autobiographies. Propagandistic in nature, Dalit writing traces the paradoxical manner in which an identity beyond caste, is understood with historical suffering as an enabling ground.

It laid down the framework for cultural intersection and political collectivity to signify the Dalit’s negative identity as having the positive cultural value. I argue, by saying that history has always been regarded as theirs who possess the power and means to write it. The marginalized subaltern (Dalit) who is dispossessed, remains ‘invisible’ in the monolithic Indian structure.

Fanon or Malcolm X asserts that the voices of the voiceless need representation to re-define India’s political modernity and combat the power of the ‘guardians’ who maintain the status quo by perpetuating their hegemony. The process of poetry arising from outcry can be felt in most Dalit poems. A vivid exploration has been provided by Arjun Dangle in his poem “Revolution”.

Thus, literature as a cultural device has been an important move at the level of both state propaganda and that of resistance. This new acquired weapon paves the way for the re-assertion of Dalit movement in the public space.

Historicization of Dalit writing involves a self-reflexive procedure to deliver the aspects of self-actualization and self-articulation. As a consequence, a vibrant space is being created that re-examines critical aspects of dalit identity, literature and cultural resistance.

Belonging to the Dalit community inculcates in them a sense of pride, as their identity and their image are socially affirmed through various powerful narratives. Dalit literature, is more than just protest literature, since it depicts the cultural values of the community, helping the readers understand their way of life.

So, the culture becomes a framework for showing diversity and traditional values, giving a unique flavor to their identity. The Dalit literature, exposes the oppressor and oppressed, examines the ideological power structures that have tilted the balance of power to render the Dalits as category that lack ‘agency’.

On the whole, Dalit literature re-writes history to address the community and not individuality, to deal with issues of resistance and not passivity and about progress and not backwardness. I conclude, by asking one question that remains ambiguous : Can Dalit literature be only written by Dalits?

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