Flames of Freedom


Khalid Akhter

A host of publications dealing mainly with the ‘Dalit situation' in India have come up in recent times, along with a parallel body of literature called ‘Dalit literature'. This Dalit literature, which looks at history and current events from a Dalit point of view, has come to occupy a niche in the body of Indian literary expression. Its contribution to Dalit politics has also been widely acknowledged. Its primary motive is to give a voice to the relentless oppression of Dalits in India's caste hierarchy and the possibility of their social, cultural and political emancipation.

Contemporary Marathi poet Namdev Dhasal's works express the anguish and aspirations of Dalits in India: the sense of having been the exploited and condemned builders of Indian civilisation. And the inherent, suppressed urge to emerge out of centuries of darkness and suffering to claim their just heritage and space in society. Ironically, a militant progressive poet in his initial years, Dhasal finally landed up with the Shiv Sena - a pointer to the dilemma of co-option in Dalit politics.

A kaleidoscopic variety of images of darkness and light, rebellion and revolt, and of smashing the existing structures of exploitation pervade Dalit literature. Wrote modern Indian Dalit poet Shripal Sabnis, (translated from Marathi by social scientist Gail Omvedt):

"The sun of self-respect has burst into flames,

 Let it burn up caste...."

Dalit literature has several inspirations. Right from Buddha (6th c BC), who spoke of social liberation, and 14th century preacher Chokhamela, to Mahatma Phule (1828-90) and SM Mate (1886-1957), various social reformers are hailed as symbols of inspiration by Dalit activists and ideological groups.
This is because they devoted their entire life to fighting against the hierarchical caste fragmentation and unjust
divisions in society.

However, it was modern visionary BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India and an ardent critic of the caste system, who demolished the myth of the divine origin of the caste hierarchy. Through his writings such as Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development and Movements, and organisations such as the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha, he argued that politics cannot be the monopoly of a few, mostly upper caste landed gentry, while others who toil and till the land and do manual labour, mostly Dalits, remain condemned in the margins. In his works, he vehemently criticised the theory of reincarnation, which, in popular Hinduism, led to the development of the caste system. His writings have been the biggest inspiration for contemporary reformers and writers who want to bring about a socio-political upsurge for the total emancipation of the Dalits.

Indeed, Ambedkar insisted, that Dalits must first liberate themselves from the shackles of mental slavery, which is the first step in this protracted struggle for social and economic emancipation. That is why he chose Buddhism to reject the Hindu caste system and Manu's varna vyavastha.

The struggle against caste hierarchy has a long history in Indian literature. In Kannada, it goes back to the first Vachana poet of the 11th century, Chennaiah, a cobbler. In modern times, the Dalit literary movement started in Maharashtra, Ambedkar's home state. It grew out of the Dalit Panther movement, established by writers Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale in the heady phase of the radical, early 1970s, especially in Maharashtra. Like the pulsating, robust and yet, angst-driven African-American literature in the US, Dalit writing was characterised by a new level of subaltern pride, militancy, creativity and above all, the use of the pen as a weapon. Not often nuanced, this was a potent weapon.

Marathi Dalit literature could be considered the forerunner of modern Dalit literature. Eminent litterateur and editor of the Hindi literary journal, Hans, Rajendra Yadav, calls this a "social movement" and sees this as integral to mainstream Indian literature. He argues that it is based on a wide spectrum of socio-political ideas that transcend the narrowness of the old concepts of culture and social hierarchy and opens up new and creative spaces. This was a protest movement organised against the traditional, often casteist, Hindu social theories of life and liberation. "A sense of collective identity and solidarity are seminal for a protest movement. Dalit literature has been evolving in this direction as a platform of dialogue for various segments of the movement, including writers and intellectuals."

Poems, short stories, novels and autobiographies written by Dalit writers and also non-Dalits writing on Dalit issues provide a useful insight on the question of Dalit identity. Such important writers include Mahasweta Devi, Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar, Arjun Dangle, Ram Sharan Limbavle, Om Prakash Valmiki, Sachi Rautray, Balbir Madhopuri, Rabi Singh, Basudev Sunani  and Bama. Influenced by post-modern literary movements, Dalit literature questioned mainstream literary theories and upper caste ideologies and explored the invisible twilight zones of neglected issues.

This literature is experience-based, where anubhava (experience) takes precedence over anumana (speculation), and the marginalised and under-privileged rediscover their articulation and self identity. Because of the anger at centuries of oppression, the writing is incisive and does not mince words. Commentaries such as Omprakash Valmiki's Dalit Sahitya ka Saundaryashastra (Aesthetics of Dalit Literature) deal with the definition and understanding of Dalit consciousness.

In their search for alternatives, Dalit writers have rediscovered low caste saint-poets of the Bhakti movement of the medieval era such as Ravidas, Namdev and Tukaram. An assertion is made that Dalits were members of an ancient indigenous society uprooted by Aryan newcomers who introduced varna vyavastha in India.

Dalit assertion in politics is a part of this new Dalit consciousness, which has drawn its influence from Dalit literature. Arjun Dangle, editor of Poisoned Bread and a former Dalit Panther in Maharashtra, asserts, "Dalit literature is not simply literature. Although today, most Dalit writers have forgotten its origins, Dalit literature is associated with a movement to bring about change."

On the influence of Dalit literature on Dalit politics, says Dalit novelist Sheoraj Singh Bechain: "Since ‘Ambedkar Jayanti' in 1990, the works of Ambedkar and other Dalit writers were translated in different languages and distributed at cheap rates. All this led to the growth of a Dalit political identity, which has helped various political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Republican Party of India (RPI)." Bechain's autobiographical writings, especially his heart-rending struggle as a child labourer, surviving in a small tenement with his cobbler relative, is considered a milestone in modern Dalit literature. Currently a senior fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, he struggled his way through abject poverty and condemnation, to finally study in JNU, and become a professor in Hindi literature in IP University, Delhi. His writings describe this angst and resilience, and the transparent will to hope, against all social and economic odds.

As for how much BSP politics has to do with the ideas of Ambedkar and other Dalit writers, Bechain does not see any congruence. He says, "Mayawati's politics is power-centric, while the ideas propagated in Dalit literature are society-oriented. Mayawati and other Dalit politicians have nothing to do with the ideas propagated by Baba Saheb, as far as politics is concerned."

Rajendra Yadav, however, disagrees. He thinks there are political compulsions for the BSP and other Dalit political parties. He says, "Although Mayawati has departed from Ambedkar because of political compulsions, things in politics change with time. Mayawati's politics will mature with time and political power
will enable her to bring about social change as well."

Agrees RK Singh, former bureaucrat and now a BSP coordinator in UP. He is hopeful of change if Mayawati becomes prime minister. "Things will change at every level - including social and political - once behenji gets the top job," he says.

However, at the political and social level the bright future of a Dalit voter at the ground level is difficult to predict. This is because the Dalits' economic exploitation, impoverishment and misery continues, the caste system is becoming more resilient, and 60 years of political democracy has not been able to put an end to the domination of the caste and feudal elite. Specific structures of economic exploitation and social discrimination seem to be intact and no political leader wants to challenge them to usher in authentic social transformation.

And yet, there is optimism in the shadow lines. As Rajendra Yadav says: "There is hope for both Dalit politics and Dalit literature. Both will become mature over a period of time and Dalit politics will address the real issues on the margins, as expressed in progressive Dalit literature."