(In commemoration of the Dalit History Month, we will be revisiting our archives with articles on the question of Dalit identity, politics and history throughout April. In this piece from September 2006, Shivam Vij the Indian middle-class anger against reservations for Other Backward Classes. More articles from the series are here.)
Hindi Dalit literature’s moment has arrived. After years of obscurity and unflattering comparisons to the maturity and expressiveness of Dalit literature in languages such as Marathi and Tamil, creative Dalit writing in Hindi is finally reaching a more visible level of popular recognition. Hindi Dalit novels, autobiographies, short-story and poetry anthologies, as well as volumes of literary criticism, are today being regularly published by Delhi’s top Hindi-language publishing houses, Rajkamal and Radhakrishna Prakashan. Dalit writers infuse the pages of Delhi’s top Hindi literary magazines, such as Hans and Katha Desh, with their poetry, prose and political perspectives. And in January, for the first time, a Dalit writer working in Hindi, the Delhi-based author Ajay Navaria, will participate in the international Jaipur Literature Festival.
With the growing shift of Hindi Dalit literary voices from marginalised spheres of ‘alternative’ social discourse to more mainstream platforms, Hindi Dalit literature is quickly becoming deeply embedded in the changing cultural politics of modern India. But it is wrong to think of Dalit literature as speaking in a single voice in the Hindi literary and political landscapes. In what might be best categorised as the Hindi Dalit literary sphere, there exists a plurality of people, life experiences, literary voices and perspectives that often find themselves at odds with one another when trying to fulfil the demands of a mainstream audience for a recognisable, ‘authentic’ and even ‘digestible’ Dalit literary voice. There are fissures within the Dalit literary sphere, situated along the fault-lines of gender, geography (urban and rural) and class, which create a vibrant and vital field of debate over the strategies of ‘writing resistance’.
The idea of a ‘Dalit consciousness’ is a central concept in both the creation and evaluation of Dalit literature. This is the Dalit chetna, an experiential and political perspective made up of the firsthand knowledge of caste-based oppression and atrocity, along with the political goal of a liberating awakening that results from the exposure of this atrocity as central to the maintenance of caste hierarchies. Yet the realities of overlapping identities of class, gender and geography among the writers of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere necessarily complicate any simplistic or conclusive framework for an ‘authentic’ Dalit literary perspective. What results is a process of marginalising within the margins themselves – rendering, for example, women’s and urban-dwelling, middle-class Dalit narratives somehow less authentically ‘Dalit’, at least for those writers and readers who privilege male-centred and rural Dalit stories as most expressive of Dalit chetna. As a consequence, there are a number of writers in those very margins pushing back against this singular centre, creating a vibrant space of debate that rethinks critical aspects of Dalit identity, literature and socio-political resistance.
Seeking Dalit chetna
The heightened exposure of Hindi Dalit literature has been the result of a gradual build-up over just the past few years. In August 2004, the Hindi literary monthly Hans dedicated its annual special issue to Dalit literature, titled “Satta-Vimarsh aur Dalit” (Dalits and the Discourse of Power). The issue provided a high-profile platform for bringing together numerous and varied voices of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere; and, in a sense, presenting both the writers and critics of this literary universe – and the issues that matter to them – to a more broadly mainstream audience. The issue, guest edited by Navaria and the Delhi-based Hindi Dalit writer and critic Sheoraj Singh Bechain, featured interviews, essays, short stories and poetry by many of the most prominent and prolific authors of the sphere, including the Delhi-based Chandrabhan Prasad, Mohandas Naimishray, Jaiprakash Kardam, Mata Prasad and Rajat Rani Meenu, as well as Dehradun’s Omprakash Valmiki.
Later, Bechain publicly decried the propensity of Hindi periodicals to relieve themselves of the responsibility to incorporate Dalit literature into their repertoire by this very practice of appointing guest editors, tasked with publishing one-off ‘special Dalit issues’. Yet the truth is that magazines such as Hans have been increasingly publishing Dalit literature as a matter of course. The publication of the 2004 special issue proved to be one of several rallying moments around the same time for this large and diverse community of writers, activists and intellectuals; as well as a popular legitimisation of sorts of the hard work this community had been doing for years to carve out a space in the world of Indian literature to articulate the experiential and political perspectives of Dalits. The ‘mainstreaming’ impact of this kind of publication could be seen when, five years later, in August 2009, Navaria again edited the annual special issue ofHans – this one not specifically focused on Dalit writing but rather on new voices in Hindi literature, of which Dalits are a part.
But 2004 also provided a very public moment of dissent within the Dalit writing community, which highlighted the fissures and crystallised many of the debates over notions of political and literary authenticity. On 31 July of that year, members of the Delhi-based Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (Indian Dalit Literary Academy, or BDSA) burned copies of iconic nationalist-era Hindi author ‘Munshi’ Premchand’s celebrated novel Rangbhumi in a park in the heart of New Delhi. The raucous gathering of around 100 people shouted, cheered and snapped photos of one another as a small pile of copies of the novel went up in flames. They saw themselves as a righteous group making a powerful case for the need to fight upper-caste prejudice in literature and education.
According to BDSA President Sohanpal Sumanakshar, the provocation for the group to burn Rangbhumi came from a decision by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to replace Premchand’s novel Nirmalawith Rangbhumi on the syllabus of 12th-standard students in Delhi government schools. According to the BDSA and their supporters, Rangbhumi is offensive to Dalits and dangerous to the “soft minds” of young students, who may become biased against Dalits due to the novel’s constant repetition of caste-specific terminology, specifically the repetitive naming of the main character of the novel, Surdas, as “Surdas Chamar”. According to Sumanakshar, his group first petitioned NCERT to drop the book from the syllabus, or at least to delete the word chamar from copies of the novel distributed to students. Thereafter, the BDSA lodged a case with the Delhi High Court, arguing that the novel violated the Prevention of Atrocities Act, passed in 1989, which is meant to protect Dalits from violence and public shaming on the basis of their caste. According to Sumanakshar, the court’s refusal either to ban the book or to force a revised version of the book incited them to protest – an action that appears to have been successful. In a press release from January 2006, NCERT finally agreed to change chamar to “the less offensive” Dalit, and further committed to incorporating Dalit literature itself into the curriculum of Delhi schools.
Despite its impact, the act of the book-burning and the attack on Premchand – who is often regarded as the exemplar of a vanguard of realist and socially engaged 20th-century Hindi literature – was widely condemned in the Hindi Dalit literary sphere at large. For months afterward, Hindi Dalit literary journals brimmed with vigorous debate over the consequences of the book-burning as an act that ‘radicalised’ Dalit authors. These debates also raised a deeper set of questions about the very boundaries of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere. For instance, by what benchmarks can a work be judged to represent Dalit consciousness? How can a definition of Dalit literature be created that includes the diverse experiences and agendas of its multifarious authors, readers and critics? In fact, what has emerged in the years since 2004 is the portrait of a resistance literary movement that is defined by its diversity.
The proliferation of modern Hindi Dalit literature can be traced only as far back as the early 1980s, making its literary history much shorter than its Marathi and Tamil counterparts. Some critics draw links between contemporary literature and North Indian bhakti poetry by Ravidas and Kabir, as well as the spate of publication of political pamphlets that began with Swami Achutanand’s early-20th-century North Indian Adi-Hindu movement. However, the origins of Dalit literature as a self-conscious creation of a new literary genre, dominated by the themes of exploitation and political awakening as well as a realist aesthetic peculiar to a modern Dalit perspective, are only about two decades old.
The heart of the contemporary Hindi Dalit literary sphere is based in Delhi. Other corollary regional and local participants are found in cities and towns across North India, and are made up of several different literary and activist groups and individuals. Journals such as Apeksha, edited by Tej Singh, focus specifically on the Dalit literary genre, publishing issues that look at subjects such as autobiography or Dalit women writers, or individual authors from diverse time periods and literary genres such as Kabir and Biharilal Harit. Other Hindi literary magazines such as Hans, Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, Katha Desh, etc, have, for the last several years, also regularly featured examples of and critical essays about Dalit literature (see Himal Oct-Nov 2009, “A stage in our name”).
The Delhi-based Dalit Lekhak Sangh (Dalit Writers Forum), more than a decade old, is among the most active of the Hindi belt’s Dalit literary collectives. Through private literary discussions and public events such as poetry readings, literary conferences and book melas – as well as in the pages of their recently inaugurated newsletter, Antas – the Dalit Lekhak Sangh is helping to give shape to the contemporary Hindi Dalit literary sphere in North India. Members of the Sangh have played a central role in the debates that have accompanied the prolific rise of Dalit literature, including controversies over the inclusion of the “literature of sympathy” (non-Dalit writing about Dalits, best exemplified by Premchand); and the expression of an emergent Dalit feminist perspective that seeks to give voice to the specific challenges, including the threat of sexual violence, that Dalit women face as a result of the intersection of their gender and caste identities. For instance, Anita Bharati, general secretary of the Dalit Lekhak Sangh, lashed out at what many women see as a patriarchal bias in the Hindi Dalit literary sphere in an article in Yudhrat Aam Aadmi in 2007:
How many Dalit writers do we have in front of us now who provide dignity to Dalit women and give importance to their lives? There are certainly exceptions, but we can count them with our fingers. Usually, in trying to pointlessly become an “icon” of Dalit literature, they just call [Dalit women] names like … devdasi [and] rakhail. Those who graciously don’t do this, slap those who do on their backs.
Questions of subject matter, communal experience and audience have always been at the heart of discussions of who ‘speaks’ Dalit literature – as well as for whom it speaks. And, as the ‘Dalit experience’ becomes less monolithic in a rapidly developing modern India, these questions become more complicated and weighty. At the centre of the Dalit evaluation of their own literary production is the critical lens of Dalit chetna, as defined earlier, through which Dalit prose and poetry is measured. Many define this Dalit consciousness as the revolutionary mentality awakened and inspired by B R Ambedkar. Others make it clear that Dalit consciousness is something only a Dalit can possess, grounded as it is in the notion of ‘pure experience’ – ie, that only living life as a Dalit can give rise to Dalit consciousness.
According to Omprakash Valmiki, perhaps the most well-known scion of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere after the English translation and publication of his autobiography Joothan in 2003, Dalit consciousness is elemental in opposing the cultural inheritance of the upper castes, the notion that culture is a hereditary right for them, and one that is denied to Dalits. He suggests, “Dalit consciousness is deeply concerned with the question, ‘Who am I? What is my identity?’ The strength of character of Dalit authors comes from these questions.” In Valmiki’s sense of the term, Dalit consciousness is what gives Dalit literature its unique power. There are those, however, like Anita Bharati, who challenge that Dalit ‘consciousness’ as it has thus far been defined and applied to literature occludes the feminist consciousness of Dalit women, one which frequently finds affinity with the broader Indian feminist movement. Further, as many urban, educated Dalits climb the ladder of social class, they have had to struggle to fit their narratives of modern alienation and crises of identity into the rubric of a literature of oppression that finds its most salient expression in the narratives of atrocity and exploitation in the village. For many Dalit writers today, these are simply no longer their personal experiences.
According to Navaria,
Hindi Dalit writing has opened an old and rusted door to the backyard of the Hindu household that was bolted shut by their ancestors and the scriptures of Hindus. The Hindu community didn’t want to see this dark area of their golden culture and civilised society. Hindi Dalit writing has thrown away the previous aesthetics of Hindi literature and replaced it with suffering, struggle, and vision. Hindi Dalit writing portrays not only the rural atrocities but also penetrates deep into an urban mentality and structure. It has underlined the previously disguised anger and mental torture towards Dalit men, women and children.
A new aesthetic
While Dalit poetry tends to invoke symbolic figures such as Shambuk, Eklavya, Buddha and of course Ambedkar, and to address broad themes of socio-political freedom, appealing to the revolutionary spirit of the reader (or hearer) to rise, Dalit short fiction reflects the reality of Dalit life in caste society. The scale of its subjects is less grand, often focusing on the struggles of the Dalit ‘everyman’, fighting for survival and respect in a casteist society, rural and urban.
The bulk of Hindi Dalit prose narratives exhibit a dominant style of melodramatic realism, often using a sort of exposé storytelling style that at once reveals the insidious exploitation of Dalits while speaking in a highly emotional register. Hindi Dalit literature, in its social-activist role, orients itself towards two specific target audiences: a Dalit audience among whom it intends to foster political consciousness, and a non-Dalit audience for whom it endeavours to reveal the ‘reality’ of caste society. Navaria colourfully compares the realist aesthetic of Dalit literature to the necessity of lancing a cyst on the body of Hindu society; while the material that such a cyst releases may be off-putting, its cathartic release is necessary for the healing of the social body.
Another recent development in Dalit short stories explores accounts of alienation, loss and longing among a young, urban, educated generation of Dalits who must navigate a rupture of family and community as a consequence of their political awakening. A brief but evocative illustration of this can be found in Navaria’s 2006 story “Bali” (Sacrifice). Here, Avinash, a young Dalit man, reluctantly returns to his father’s village, where the narrative focuses in close detail on the alienated ideological and material distance between the politically conscious Avinash and the previous generation, embodied by his uncle and father.
“Go call him and bring him here, beta,” Kalu said. When I glanced at the gunk in the corners of Kalu’s surma-blackened eyes, I was faintly disgusted. “Who?” I asked him, tearing my gaze away from the filth around his eyes. “What’s that English name you gave your son, bhai? My tongue can’t get around it. Khus … nam,” he said, stammering, and I laughed.
“Not Khusnam, Kushaan.”
Embarrassed, he said, “Yes brother, Khusnan, Khusnan.”
“Arre, who can remember when you give him a name like that?” Father was on the attack. He had come near us and happened to hear what Kalu said.
Kalu’s tongue cannot wrap itself around the foreign-sounding name of Avinash’s son after Avinash changed it from Ganesh, the name suggested by his father. This brief exchange between Avinash and Kalu follows a series of narrative descriptions in which Avinash stares with both fascination and repulsed astonishment at Kalu’s rustic styles of bodily comportment – from squatting for hours motionless on the floor to noisily slurping water from his cupped palm and wringing the drops from his moustache with his fingers. It is evidence of the now-unbridgeable distance between the men in this family – ideological and educational distance, wrought by the physical distance of village and city, and embedded in both the spaces of incomprehension between registers of language and the behavioural distance between bodies.
A rising chorus of Dalit women writers have further complicated the notion of ‘Dalit consciousness’ as a rhetorical construction of collective identity formation. Dalit women have frequently found themselves at the mercy of discursive constructions of social resistance that attempt to assimilate their identities. Dalit women are claimed by both Dalit and feminist movements across India, each often demanding a de-emphasis on one aspect of their identity, gender or caste. On the one hand, the arbiters of the Dalit public sphere often decry Dalit women’s critiques of patriarchy for causing division within the ‘greater’ movement for Dalit equality. On the other, Dalit women complain about the erasure of their caste ‘difference’ by mainstream women’s movements in a bid to emphasise a ‘gendered’ notion of sisterhood above all else. Debates about the peculiar location of Dalit women in both the anti-caste and women’s movements in India have been at the fore of activist and scholarly discussions since the formation of the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) in 1995. The participation of representatives of several Dalit groups, including the NFDW, at the United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 further drew international attention to the need to situate caste within overlapping frameworks of race, class and gender.
Dalit women writers use various literary strategies to reject the role of victim in which they are so often cast. Such strategies involve rewriting and re-envisioning dominant social scripts – those that define them as victims – with a focus on their bodies and their identities. For example, Rajasthani writer Kusum Meghwal’s short stories rewrite the standard rape narrative (in which the Dalit woman is the helpless prey of her attackers) into one in which she is redrawn as the physical aggressor and victor. The poetry of Delhi-based Rajni Tilak and Nagpur’s Susheela Thakbhaure offers a lexicon of woman-centred and nature-centred imagery that focuses on the maternal possibilities of birth and renewal as a source of courage and hope for the future, celebrating the strength of a universal feminine principle rather than lamenting the particular suffering of Dalit women. The literature of these Dalit feminists and others regularly suggests the possibility of a shift from a male-centred Dalit consciousness to the development of a more-feminist politics.
Finally, it is important to stress that Dalit literature is not simply a body of disparate texts that address similar themes of marginality and resistance. Rather, it is a living, breathing literary movement that is intent on establishing itself as an integral part of the field of Indian literature. The fundamental goal of Dalit writers in establishing and carefully guarding the boundaries of their own emerging literary genre is to exercise control over their own representation: in history, literature and the public imagination. This is the underlying principle in all of the myriad practices of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere. And to read Ajay Navaria’s recent (2009) poem “Sendh” (Hole) is to acknowledge and celebrate the power of that self-representation.
There were words, a long time ago
But they weren’t
In my grasp
They were bound tight
Around my eyes
So that I couldn’t see
Now these words grow wings
Take flight on my palms
Their limitless meaning
Bores a hole
In this whole existence
~Laura Brueck is an assistant professor of Hindi Literature in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado at Boulder.