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Dalit Literature

Manifested modernity in Dalit Literature

‘I don’t know when I was born/but I was killed on this very soil thousand years ago/ ‘dying again and again to be born again’/ I don’t know the karma theory/I am being born again and again where I was dead.’ 

History!/ all these years how could you hide/ the fire in our mouth…./how could you tolerate/inequality and inhumanity

An ideal society should be mobile and it should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and fee points of contact with other modes of association. In simple terms, Ambedkar viewed that an ideal society would be based on liberty, equality and fraternity.’Ambedkar favors for a democratic tradition that stand for reason rather negating it. He felt for hindu religious tradition need to undergo a radical reform. Caste is a natural outcome of certain religious beliefs which have the sanction of shastras. To abolish the sanctity and sacredness of caste, one has to destroy the authority of the shastras and Vedas. For this, one has to destroy the religion of both sruti and smriti. Ambedkar not only proposing the indigenous tradition that stand for reason, but also tries to link up that tradition with the governing principle of politics. As Ambedkar is the source of inspiration for Dalit movement and so reflected his thought in dalit literature.

Dalit intellectuals negotiated their philosophical views to the larger society through the medium of literature than any other form. They are organic intellectuals in strict sense of Gramsci, having the elements of thinking and organizing the community as against the traditional brahminical intellectuals. In this sense Dalit literature has to be seen as the process in creation of counter hegemony against brahminical hegemony. Dalit literature has significant in many ways-culturally, historically and ideologically. Dalit literature enriched with content and description of dalit struggles for human dignity. There has been constant effort from dalit writers in translating the condemned life styles and practices of marginalised people into symbols of protest and pride. Dalit writers gave rich meaning to dalit life that brought respect for them. In the process of writing their own history, they thoroughly interrogated the existing histories of dominant caste/class groups in their literary writings. As Dalit writer, Sivasagar marking the assertion of dalits in writing their own history against the brahminical history centred around advaita of Sankara. With a smile on his face/Shambhuka is slaying rama/ with his axe/Ekalavya is cutting drona’s thumb away/with his small feet/ Bali is sending Vamana down to pathala/ With needles in his eyes/ and lead in is ears/Manu, having cut his tongue is seen rolling on the graveyard/standing on the merciless sword of time/and roaring with rage/The chandala is seen hissing four houndson sankaracharya/ Oh..!/ The history that is occurring today/Is the most chandala history

In the process of writing their history, are collecting the memoirs of the collective suffering. Dalit writer through his writings interrogates the brahminical past, which has the character of humiliation, atrocious for dalits. Yendluri Sudhakar in his poem : ‘I am still a prohibited human being/Mine is an expelled breath/ Trying a barb tree leaf to my aist/And a tiny spittoon to my mouth/Manu made me a wretched human animal among others/The moment he left a mark of prohibition on my face/My race/Was gradually murdered… history pinched my thumb/Present history is asking all the fingers/Now we want a voice of our own/We want a voice that can choose what can do good to ourselves’.

The suffering of the dalits for generations is identified with the very nature of brahminical society. ‘For me the Wound is not new/Only the way I got wounded is new/The experience is as past as yesterday/Only the way I got experienced is new’. The struggle for the human dignity and self respect could be seen as in all the writings of dalit literature. Human dignity and self respect are the primary source of modernity. As the young dalit writer, Kalekuri Prassad asserts : ‘Twenty years ago my name was kanchikacherla kotesu/My birth place Keelavenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda/Now the hardened cruelty of the landlords/Tattooed on my chest with a plough’s point-Chunduru/Hence forth Chunduru is not a noun nut a pronoun/Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning/ …Don’t shed tears for me/If you can/Bury me in the heart of the city/Rendering the tune of life, I will bloom like a bamboo garden/Print my corpse on the page of this country/I will diffuse into the pages of history a beautiful feature/If you can/Invoke me to your hearts/Again and again I shall take birth in this very country/By becoming a struggle of wild flames.’

The Human dignity could be attained only through fulfilment of social and economic equality. In democracy, citizenship is prerequisite for its functioning. In case of dalits, it is negated due to its casteist nature. The craving for the citizenship could be seen : In this Country we want a piece of land/These clouds has to be vanished/These walls must be collapsed/This silence/ must be bursted / this gum/ must be dried up/ O man/ I want real citizenship /Could you give me! ..what do I want/I want you/ I want a place/ In your heart/ I must wash my hands/ at your home/you must come to my hut/ and ask our girl for marriage/we must become /relatives/friend! This country/must become ours/as we walk hand in hand/this uneven earth/must become smooth/will you come? What we want now is not bloody cash/ A fearless voice that discerns what we want/ A new constitution, a new state/A new earth and a new sky.

Against the monopoly of knowledge by the brahminical class, dalits argues that ‘Knowledge is nobody’s property; It is the wealth of all jatis’. In fact, Dalits are productive class. The real knowledge produced out of their collective labour. ‘When hands/ From over the ‘Mala’ hamlets/ and ‘Madiga’ huts / Throw themselves on the fields/Banks of the fields blossomed/Trees flowered/And fields fragrant with crops’

The idea of freedom described in the novels Antarani Vasantham and Kakka is significant. In Antarani vasantham, constraint to freedom of dalits comes from an enemy who is upper caste. The idea of dalit itself indicates for Kalyana Rao a perpetual flow of resistance by dalit community to an upper caste community. Dalit community has been described as a focal point of creativity, resistance to oppression and a character of purity. This is effectively indicated through central character Yellanna who eloquently represents a creative, upright and assertive individual. This is one way of expressing dalit freedom or a mode of being dalit. One of the characters, in difficult times of community life says, we have born just not to be killed but to live too. Kakka identifies that constraint to freedom to dalits is not just from an outsider but also from the very community. The central character Kakka faces too many hardships from within community as well as outsiders. For instance, the mother of kakka was accused of an illicit relation and was subjected to social boycott by the community. Kakka was denied an opportunity to take up the duty to perform madigarikam that is considered a honouring the community. This reflects the constraint within community that projects a different community and a different kind of self-awareness. And of course, he has to fight valiant battle against the other communities, which has traditionally been dominant in the village. It is also shown that in times of struggle against upper castes, dalits come together and fought valiantly.

Further, dalit women writings’ reveals the problems within by problematizing the patriarchy of dalit men. ‘When has my life been truly mine/in the home male arrogance/sets my cheek stinging/while in the street caste arrogance/splits the other cheek open.’

Dalit song is mostly available in oral form. There is no recorded evidence for their songs. But one can listen their songs by invoking the social memory. Though there are countless composers and singers, but no name got institutionalized. Written culture had succeeded in marginalizing the singers of lower caste groups since these groups are illiterate. Even after technological innovation, no voice of these singers got recorded. On the other hand the singers of brahminical culture like Kshetrayya, Tyagaraja, Annamaya, Ramadas are not only institutionalized and revered as legendary figures in the musical tradition. By overcoming the limitations imposed on the Dalit artists/writers, in telugu history one may find some songs of the life of dalits.

In continuation with this, Gaddar composed many songs on the lives of dalits. He translated the condemned life styles as symbols of protest: How beautiful/ my dustbin.. He composed songs on miserable lives of dalits, and their role in knowledge production, and against the atrocities committed on dalits. The songs of Dalit singers invokes the feeling of revolt of dalits against the upper caste hegemony. The strength of Dalit song lies in countering the brahminical culture and in celebration of Dalit culture in public. Dalit song is a turning point in articulating the life of dalits in a concrete form than the earlier as it was in the name of ‘class’, ‘labourers’.

Guda Anjaiah’s song of Oorumanadira fills the confidence of dalits by declaring this village is ours by questioning the Dora of villages: This village is ours/This hamlet is ours/We are for every work/Then Who is this Dora /Why this hegemony.There is an attempt by the Dalit writers to establish the historical fact that they were the sons of the soil and once even ruled the nation by pointing out the foreign origin of Aryans/ Brahmins/ Manuvadis. In a song Ee Desavasulam, tries to establish the fact that dalits are the sons of the soil: We are natives of this country-sons of this soil/we are of adi jatis-the real inhibitors/you fellows came for livelihood- in the name of upper caste brahminism/by saying the natives of Bharat as slaves.

The throat that’s uniting all/will pluck a new tune for a new song/ the society/ that made their life a death/should be carried as coffin/this time/ much before the cock crows/the limbs/turn into rays that rise with liberty

To cut my thumb and give/do you think I am a gullible ekalavya/do you think I am shambuka/ to bend my head and do penance/do you think I am vali/ to be knocked down with a foul arrow/ I am the one who breaks the sinews of manu/ I hang colours/ I peel the skin of gods who made me lame. Now/ I am writing this history/With Ekalavya’s sliced thumb/The reasons you give may be right to you/ But to me/ They are lies higher than Himalayas/The poet is determined to fight the literary hegemony/Hereafter/ The black slogan begins to dawn upon this land.


Dalit literature forms a distinct part of Indian literature. One of the first Dalit writers was Madara Chennaiah, an 11th-century cobbler-saint who lived in the reign of Western Chalukyas and who is regarded by some scholars as the "father of Vachana poetry". Another early Dalit poet is Dohara Kakkaiah, a Dalit by birth, six of whose confessional poems survive. The Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (Indian Dalit Literature Academy) was founded in 1984 by Babu Jagjivan Ram.
Notable modern authors include Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar in Maharashtra, who focused on the issues of Dalits through their works and writings. This started a new trend in Dalit writing and inspired many Dalits to offer work in Marathi, Hindi, Tamil and Punjabi. There are novels, poems and even drama on Dalit issues. The Indian author Rajesh Talwar has written a play titled 'Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Four Legged Scorpion' in which the personal experiences of Dr Ambedkar and the sufferings of the community have been highlighted.

Baburao BagulBandhu Madhav and Shankar Rao Kharat, worked in the 1960s. Later the Little magazine movement became popular. In Sri Lanka, writers such as K.Daniel and Dominic Jeeva gained mainstream popularity.

  • Kanakadasa - Poet among Saints

    by Jyotsna Kamat

    June 17, 2004
    Page Last Updated: October 29, 2011
    Saint-Poet Kanakadasa (c 1509-1609 A.D.) belongs to the tradition of Haridasa literary movement which ushered in an era of devotional literature in Karnataka. Scores and scores of Haridasa have composed songs in praise of Krishna (incarnation of Vishnu). 'Haridasa' stands for 'servant of Hari', is another epithet of god Krishna. Right from 14th century to 19th, we find several Haridasas who wrote devotional compositions which could be set to music with simple instruments like Tanpura, and Tala (cymbals). They wrote kirtans, bhajans, prayers, lullabies, festival songs, and house-hold-chore songs. Written in simple and spoken Kannada, they had universal appeal. 
    Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa are the foremost among Haridasas. Besides conveying dvaita (dualism) tenets, they preached kindness and equanimity in a world full of sorrows. They condemned superstitions, hollow rituals and upheld virtues of a pious life.
    No biographical details of Kanakadasa are available. Tradition makes him a member of shepherd (Kuruba) community who was a chief (nayaka) of security forces under a local king. His family deity or the deity he worshipped was Adikeshava of Kaginele, presently in Haveri district. Kaginele, now a village, was a prosperous place and trading center in middle ages.
    If Purandaradasa gave up trader's job and balance (takadi) for tanpura and cymbals, Kanakadasa threw away his sword when the "inner call" came. Purandaradasa is supreme or 'king' among composers. Kanakadasa is a poet among composers. He wrote about two hundred songs (kirtans, padas and mundiges or philosophical songs) besides five major works. 
    Kanakadasa's major works are:
    1. Nalacharitre (Story of Nala) 
    2. Haribhaktisara (crux of Krishna devotion) 
    3. Nrisimhastava (compositions in praise of Lord Narasimha) 
    4. Ramadhanyacharite (story of ragi millet) and an epic
    5. Mohanatarangini (Krishna-river).
    Kanakadasa rationalized bhakti (devotion) by giving worldly similes. His writing has intimate touch that identifies the reader with the poet himself. His two famous compositions in translation are given below. One condemns caste system in a refined poetic way and the other wonders, at the colorful and baffling creation of God Almighty in child-like wonder.
    His Nalacharite is based on the famous love-story of Nala and Damayanti, which appears in Mahabharata. Though a great devotee of Lord  Krishna, Kanakadasa gives his own interpretation. Nala who is in love with Damayanti, exercises restraint svayamvara (choosing bride/bridegroom) ceremony to win over Damayanti by allowing Indra and other gods a chance to win over her. When he loses everything in a dice-game and goes to forest, stubbornly followed by Damayanti, he deserts her in sleep, hoping that she may go back to her parents and have better life. He later drives king Rituparna to second declared svayamvara of Damayanti, to see his wife married to a suitable person and be happy! Lord Krishna appears only once casually to rescue the caravan with which the hapless Damayanti was traveling and was attacked by wild elephants.
    Haribhaktisara is essence of devotion to Lord Krishna as the name indicates. A work of one hundred and ten verses with chorus line 'deva rakshisu nammananavarata', it is a prayer song, sung by Madhva men and women in Karnataka while performing everyday chores. It teaches complete surrender to God.

    Nrisimhastava is a work dealing with glory of god Narasimha (half man-half lion).
    Kanakadasa's Ramadhanyacharite has quite an unconventional theme. It is about a battle of words between ragi (millet) and rice, each claiming superiority. They go to god Rama for justice. With the help of sages, Rama proves the superiority of ragi over rice. Ragi becomes blessed by absorbing quality of Raghava, another epithet of Rama. It is interpreted as poverty and humility being upheld by the poet above material wealth. Even today ragi is food of the poor.
    Mohanatarangini, although a kavya (poem in classical style) written with all conventional eighteen descriptions, deals with eroticism. Pleasure-based eroticism of Shri Krishna with consorts and Aniruddha-Usha form the main theme.

Madara Chennaiah

One of the first Dalit writers was Madara Chennaiah, an 11th-century cobbler-saint who lived in the reign of Western Chalukyas and who is also regarded by some scholars as the "father of Vachana poetry". 

Another poet who finds mention is Dohara Kakkaiah, a Dalit by birth, six of whose confessional poems survive.
In the 20th century, the term "Dalit literature" came into use in 1958, when the first conference of Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha (Maharashtra Dalit Literature Society) was held at Mumbai, a movement driven by thinkers like Jyotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Baburao Bagul
Baburao Bagul (1930–2008) was pioneer of Dalit writings in Marathi. His first collection of stories,Jevha Mi Jat Chorali (जेव्हा मी जात चोरली) (When I had Concealed My Caste), published in 1963, created a stir in Marathi literature with its passionate depiction of a crude society and thus brought in new momentum to Dalit literature in Marathi; today it is seen by many critics as the epic of the Dalits, and was later made into a film by actor-director Vinay Apte.Gradually with other writers like,Namdeo Dhasal (who founded Dalit Panther), these Dalit writings paved way from strengthening of Dalit politics.

(Un) Making Literature: Dalit Literary Imagination

Dr. P. Kesava Kumar

  In India, English is a privileged language .It is the legacy of colonialism. It is the language of bureaucracy. In post independent India, it is still enjoys the power of elite. It is the language of institutionalization of academics. Colonialism, Modernity, rationality, western thinking, technicality, printing, writing culture and ‘Indian literature’ are having convergence with English. The intellectual expressions are borrowed from English thinking. The literary expressions are of natives too shaped by English studies, though they expressed in vernaculars. The Indian literature in vernaculars is defined in western literary genres. This may be witnessed with literary forms emerged within print forms such as short story, novel, and drama. As an active recipients of English, the literary expression of Indian intellectuals who are happened to be social elite as a nationalists/nativists are invariably in the boundaries of western literary canons. The literature influenced by Marxism made an attempt to redefine literature from materialistic and class perspective, but it also confined to the already established structures of literature. The post -Marxist, post-structural, post-modern, cultural studies and post-colonial frameworks to certain extent broadens the canvas of literature/culture and its functions. The marginalized/submerged life, literature and knowledge systems are bringing into a view. This trajectory has not only demolished the celebrated literary/cultural canons but changed the very discourse of literature. As a result the nature and function of English studies too significantly changed. In this historical and theoretical backdrop, literature viewd from a dalit perspective may change the very idea of literature and so the English studies.

As his engagement with post-colonial literature (decolonizing literature) the world known Kenyan writer Ngugi determined to write in his own language Gikuyu rather continuing in English. Orhan Pamukh, Turkish novelist who won the noble prize for literature has categorically made a point in his Noble prize speech that we are far away from literary centers but not away from literature. These acts have implications for literature and English studies.

In India, from early nineties, Dalit literature has emerged as a new literary genre by contesting the western literary frameworks and local vernacular literatures of both brahminical and Marxist literatures. The orality, authenticity, lived experiences, cultural rootedness, ethics of politics, shared experiences and struggles of liberation of dalit literature are resisting the canons of literature of both English studies and vernacular knowledge systems. Dalit literature has epistemologically, ethically and politically providing a new ground for literature. It demands not for inclusion of this literature in English studies but compelling us to see what constitutes literature.

Affirmative Fictions
Dalit writing is the toast of publishers but the market has its own way of winnowing

Move over Mulk Raj Anand, Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai, Shivarama Karanth, Premchand and Arundhati Roy. Bakha (Untouchable, 1933), Chudalamuthu (Thottiyude Magan, 1919), Choma (Chomana Dudi, 1931), Dukhi (Sadgati, 1933) and Velutha (The God of Small Things, 1997) have found their own voices. Their stories – told in Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Telugu – are now being translated into English. And French and Spanish. They no longer depend on empathetic non-Dalits, with no firsthand experience of Dalithood, to tell the world their story. In fact, Dalit writing seems to be getting on the list of every major publisher in India. It is also being taught in universities in India and abroad.
Narendra Jadhav's memoir Outcaste: A Memoir was published last month by Penguin, but only a year after the French publisher Fayard had issued it as Intouchable and sold a phenomenal 20,000 copies . Jadhav, currently head of economic research in RBI, first wrote his work in Marathi in 1992 as Aamcha Baap Aan Mahi(My Father and Us) and it soon became a bestseller. Soon, the three-generation saga will be in your homes as a 52-episode TV serial.

Publishing dalit writing in English has had a chequered history. The first major rendition of Dalit literature into English, Poisoned Bread, came in 1992, from Orient Longman. But this anthology of Marathi Dalit writing, edited by 'Dalit Panther' Arjun Dangle, was not followed up. In 2000, Mini Krishnan, currently translations editor with Oxford University Press, commissioned and issued Tamil Dalit-feminist writer Bama's autobiography, Karukku, which went on to win the Crossword Award that year. Soon, other mainstream publishers began queuing up for Dalit writing in translation.

The last few years have seen not just English translations, but also keen interest from publishers abroad, particularly the French. Bama's second work, Sangati, was first translated into French (the English version in India is forthcoming from OUP).
The French were again the first to publish Viramma: Life of a Dalit in 1995, an auto-ethnography in which the life of an unlettered Dalit woman from Tamil Nadu was rendered in French by Josiane Racine and Jean-Luc Racine. And at last year's Les Belles Etrangeres literary festival (literally, Beautiful Foreigners) in Paris, Jadhav and Bama rubbed shoulders with U.R. Ananthamurthy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Mahashweta Devi and suchlike. Vasti, the autobiography of Vasant Moon, the scholar who edited the collected works of B.R. Ambedkar, was issued in English by the American publisher Rowman and Littlefield (reprinted in India by Sage).

Gail Omvedt, historian of the Dalit movement who translated Moon's work as Growing Up Untouchable in India (2001) and whose biography of Ambedkar is forthcoming from Penguin, puts this phenomenon in perspective:
"Dalits are taking advantage of globalization. Since the World Conference on Racism in Durban, they have shown an ability to inter-link, use the internet, make alliances with other oppressed groups like African Americans, and organise themselves. And since they're more humane, more interesting and dramatic and have a more truthful cause than their brahmanical and upper caste opponents, they are winning a market as well."
And the market has its preferences: it loves autobiographies. Hot from OUP's press is Akkarmashi: The Outcaste, Sharankumar Limbale's life-story. Omprakash Valmiki's Hindi autobiography Joothan: A Dalit's Lifewas published this year by Kolkata-based Samya. Earlier, Kishore Shantabai Kale's Against All Odds, another autobiography from Marathi, came from Penguin. Orient Longman is considering Aravinda Malagatti's autobiography Government Brahmana, a modern classic in Kannada. Moon, Bama and Jadhav also narrate life-stories. Says Sivakami, an IAS officer whose self-translated Tamil novel is forthcoming from Orient Longman:

"I think the Durban conference on racial discrimination created an awareness among the international community on the Dalit issue. Translation of Dalit writings into English and other foreign languages is welcome. It provides space for a fair and free discussion on the subject."
A publisher's attraction to Dalit writing is not purely driven by commerce as OUP's Mini Krishnan explains:
"Anti-caste protest literature is distinguished by both an experience that we don't share, and a use of speech-styles that have long been considered unacceptable. When in college not only had I not read a Dalit writer, I hadn't even read aboutDalit writers. And I was supposed to be well read! The market should be sensitised. As publishers, we have a social responsibility."
Dalit literature is slowly emerging as a discipline of academic study as well. The department of English at the University of Pune features Dalit and African American literature in a course entitled 'Literature of Protest'. Jamia Millia Islamia has received support for an endowed chair in Dalit Studies from the Ford Foundation. The syllabus of the Telugu optional paper for the UPSC exam lists 'Dalit Literature' as one of the necessary areas of study. But the attitude of non-Dalits takes longer to change. K. Satyanarayana, who teaches at Hyderabad's Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, offers the proof of experience:
"I offered Dalit Studies as one of the courses in M.A. in 2000. Only one student registered initially. I wanted to scrap the course. But friends advised me to persist. Eventually, eight students joined. Only one was a non-Dalit, a Christian. None of the Brahmin students enrolled."
But serious lobbying is under way. In May 2003, NRI Dalits organised an international conference in Vancouver, inaugurated by former president K.R.Narayanan. One of the resolutions adopted was:
"Dalit Studies must be included in Indian and international educational and research institutions, especially in North America and Europe."
Says K.P. Singh, who teaches South Asian Studies and Sociology at the University of Washington and one of organisers of the Vancouver conference:
"When I came to the US in 1995, I found scholars focusing on religions in India. But today, American universities offering South Asian Studies are thinking positively about Dalits issues. I have offered two special courses: on 'Post-Colonial Dalit Literature' and another on 'Race, Caste, and Ethnicity'."
However, even in Canada, there's an echo of Satyanarayana's experience. "My courses attract more American students than Indian-origin students," observes Singh.

It is this potential that perhaps made OUP issue The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkarlast year. And publishers are grabbing what little is coming in. Says Mandira Sen, who published Joothan, "The US and UK rights for Joothan were bought by Columbia University Press. It is hoping that the book will be prescribed in US undergraduate courses. If Americans have Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy on their reading lists, why not a Dalit text?"

Arundhati Roy, whose God of Small Things features a Dalit character Velutha, of course has no problems, but she cautions:

"This surge in publishing Dalit literature, if it has to be taken seriously, has to ride on the back of a contemporary civil rights movement. Otherwise, mainstream publishers will only use it for commercial gains. The only other realm where we have seen Dalit assertion is in electoral politics, but there's a downside to it: it is not very liberating."

But the prioritisation of autobiographies and the politics of publishing worries some critics from within. Says Ravikumar, activist-theoretician of the Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu whose nonfiction is being translated for Samya,
"Where translation into English plays mischief is in the selection. Those who publish, translate and introduce Dalit writing are all non-Dalits whose choices are inflected by what they find least threatening – autobiographical literature of pain and suffering. They rarely engage with the work of Dr. Ambedkar. The problem is, unlike with blacks and feminist, autonomous Dalit publishing has not emerged in India."


Reflecting the publishers' tendency to stereotype are the titles given to dalit writing, where 'untouchable', 'outcaste' or 'Dalit' continue to figure on the cover.

Those who want to grapple with the issue of how to respond to Dalit literature will soon be able to read Sharankumar Limbale's Marathi work Towards and Aesthetics of Dalit Literature in English (from Orient Longman). Says the translator Alok Mukherjee, who teaches literature at York University, Toronto,
"Limbale characterises the non-Dalits' preference and response to the representation of Dalit misery as liberal-reformist. One could conjecture that they fit into the penchant for 'discourses of pity' rather than for literature that prompts one to take social action."
Satyanarayana too points to such problems:
"Sisir Kumar Das reduced Dalit writing as 'narratives of suffering' in his monumental 11-volume Sahitya Akademi project on Indian Literary History (only two volumes are out)."
A humane future lies, it appears, in not just publishing Dalit literature but in admitting and doing something about social realities specific to India. Warns Roy:
"I do believe that in India we practice a form of apartheid that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. And it is as important for Dalits to tell their stories as it has been for colonized peoples to write their own histories. When Dalit literature has blossomed and is in full stride, then contemporary (upper caste?) Indian literature's amazing ability to ignore the true brutality and ugliness of the society in which we live, will be seen for what it is: bad literature. It will become irrelevant."
But does reading Dalit narratives make non-Dalits sensitive to issues of untouchability and casteism? Satyanarayana does not think so:
"Reading literature and responding to issues of discrimination are not necessarily connected. Our Brahmin academics do read a lot of Black literature. But this doesn't affect their response to day-to-day discrimination of Dalits here."
What would go a long a way in sensitising young upper caste minds, according to him, is introducing Dalit writing from Ambedkar to Omprakash Valmiki from the kindergarten to PG level. Such curriculum changes may have a long way to go, but the spurt in publishing Dalit writing will sure have a trickle-down effect.
They are telling their own stories. Others must begin to listen and unlearn.

Centre for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences (Pune, India)

Dalit Autobiographical Narratives
Figures of Subaltern Consciousness, Assertion and Identity

Guy Poitevin


A general presentation of the social, literary phenomenon of the "dalit literature" -- literature of the oppressed -- is firstly required to realise the specificity of that significant trend in the recent Marathi literature (since the sixties) in the state of Maharashtra, in India. The context, perspectives and characteristic of that historical trend differentially qualify the concept of autobiography itself vis à vis the Western definition of the genre. A functional approach is claimed to be the proper perspective for a literature which focusses on the individual not as an Ego isolated in a world of his/her own but on the Subject as one individual among many who share the same types of cultural ostracism, physical repression and social stigma, with the result of being kept out of the legitimate boundaries of a human society.

The second part will attempt to make a typological display of various distinctive figures of dalit subaltern consciousness. The inner quest of identity, the cultural denunciations of the iniquitous Hindu dispensation and the social struggles to assert one's human dignity take various forms according to the will, vision and capacity of each writer. Nonetheless some recurrent types of strategy can be defined. These self-narratives bear direct testimony to the inalienable creative potentialities of the human agent.

I - Contexts, Perspectives and Terminology

These are analytical reflections on the autobiographical narratives written in prose by contemporary dalit authors in their mother tongue, Marathi. The most genuine autobiographical masterpiece of N.S. Suryavanchi, Things I Never Imagined (1975), and the sensation caused in the literary circles of Maharashtra by Daya Pawar's Balute<1> (1978) may be considered as marking the rising of the 'dalit autobiography' at the horizon of the Marathi literary establishment. We could trace eighty six such autobiographical texts. They show a great variety in respect of length, mode of production, degree of elaboration, quality of editing, printing, publication and publicity. This essay tries to acquaint the reader with some of them.

Marathi Dalit Literature

Marathi is not only the language spoken in Maharashtra (India) by the great majority of the population (about seventy-nine million, Census of 1991) of a state which was carved out on this linguistic basis in 1960. It is also the vehicle of one of the most ancient literatures of the Indian sub-continent, which knows a tremendous modern development since it started interacting with Western literary genres in the middle of the nineteenth century. The dalit literature is one of its most significant recent trends since the sixties (Poitevin 1996). The trend is still alive, possibly on the increase, and a matter of literary debates and dissemination in a score of specialised journals, academic studies, literary conferences and seminars, regular press reports and articles. The term dalit literally signifies the depressed and suppressed groups of various social formations (Guru 1998: 59). But it is used in ways which vary with the specificity of contexts, the speakers' ideological positions and the political strategies of those who address audiences with it. In the matter of facts, the term is essentially a political idiom and often puts one in a temper.

Nowadaysdalit uses to be understood and is actually used by most of the Maharashtrian former untouchables (but not all them<2>) as a comprehensive revolutionary category specifically designating those social segments of Indian society which are culturally, socially and physically repressed by dominant sections, and maintained by virtue of a traditional, inequitous and hierarchical socio-cultural dispensation in a sub-human state of subservient subalternity called "untouchability". For radical dalit thinkers (for instance, Baburao Bagul, major ideologue of the Dalit Panther, Manifesto of Dalit Panther, 1972) the category is constructed and extended as to carry the history of the revolutionary struggles of all dalit (oppressed) people, and has the "ontological ability to define itself with all the lower castes, tribal people, toiling clases and women." "The term represents those who have been broken and ground down by those above them in a deliberate manner...In the term and concept Dalit itself there is an inherent denial of dignity, a sense of pollution and an acceptance of the karma theory that justifies the caste hierarchy." (Zelliot 1992: 267). When Eleanor Zelliot, with most Dalit literary figures today, boldly and categorically defines Dalit "in a very specific sense that involves only the caste and religious dimensions of Dalit exploitation" (Guru 1998: 59), other scholars would preferably seek to understand the category in a broader way, which allows for instance to include converted untouchable Muslims (Shah 1992) or Christian and others. We here use the term dalit in such a wider sense, which makes it apply by priority but not exclusively to the untouchable castes (Poitevin 1978; Deliège 1988, 1992). The question which then arises is how do we construct the conceptual framework of that extended sociological definition. A study of dalit autobiographies seems to bring a significant contribution to answer this question within an anthropological and sociological framework.

Within the context and for the purpose of our present concern with dalit literature the term will roughly designate the same social fragments as did other Marathi words, which were formerly widely used by those whom dalit writers faithfully recognize as their sources of inspiration. One is ati-shudra, the term used by Jyotiba Phule and his movement Satyashodak Samaj, since the nineteenth century (O'Hanlon 1985). It designates those located outside the order of the four ideological classes or categories called varna (brahman, kshatriya, vaishya et shudra) which legitimately constitute the structure of the fabric formed by full-fledged human beings according to the Hindu social dispensation, this order finding its religious foundation in the Purushasukta (Rig-Veda X,90; Ambedkar 1979-97, vol. 7: 25, 31-32). Another one is bahishkrut, lit. ostracised, term used by Dr Ambedkar, who publishes a book in Marathi under the title "Ostracised Bharat" in which he defines Dalithood in the following comprehensive way:

Dalithood is a kind of life condition that characterises the exploitation, suppression and marginalisation of Dalit people by the social, economic, cultural and political domination of the upper castes' Brahmanical ideology (Ambedkar 1990: 204).

Ambedkar, however, does not use this category very often in his writings. Depending upon the changing contexts, he will use Depressed Classes, a term acceptable within the Imperial official setting, Scheduled Castes, a term obtaining in the field of competitive politics and policies of social welfare, as in the Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942, "Pad Dalit", "those crushed under the feet of the Hindu system", used while addressing his own social constituency, and bahishkrut, while addressing high caste Hindu adversaries.

It is mainly since the sixties of this century that, in practical parlance, the word dalit becomes an explosive catchword for social, cultural and political revolutionary movements launched by untouchable castes, essentially the Mahars, in such expressions as "dalit literature" (Anand 1992; Dangle 1992; Lanjewar 1995; Gros 1996; Bhoite 1977) and "dalit movement" (Jogdand 1991; Gopinath 1994; Kshirsagar 1994; Omwedt 1994, 1995; Pendse 1994). The use of the word actually tends to be appropriated by and/or for the castes traditionally discriminated as untouchable and refer to their specific conditions of cultural indignity and social subalternity. This limitation is often and on several accounts, denounced as an illegitimate political discursive event. But the word, overtly or openly, is commonly used or suspected to be used with this restrictive meaning by the supporters, as well as the critics and opponents of the dalit liberation movements in India.

Anthropological Concepts of Banishment, Bahishkar, Upara.

It is, on the other hand, semantically confusing, and politically incorrect and of possibly dubious motivation, to understand by dalit all the backward classes (those thrown by the mechanisms of modern unequal development towards the margin of society or kept at the back, magaslele, for want of education, health, work and other basic human rights), that is to say, all "the deprived" (vancit) of the Indian society, those euphemistically labelled as "the Poor" or the "havenots". To include all the marginalised under the term dalit does anyway correspond to no historical linguistic phenomenon. Such an attempt is suspected of tending to cover up or forget the specificity of the types of suppression and exclusion meted out by various socio-cultural systems of deliberate ostracism, alienation or banishment, for which we shall keep the word bahishkar. Untouchability may be the most conspicuous of them but is not the only one. By bahishkar are meant systems which theoretically and practically, positively and intentionally, on the strength of socio-cultural ideological set-ups, and not only as a consequence of socio-economic constraints and deprivation, deny a full status of human being to particular communities or individuals. Dalithood is essentially of an anthropological and not socio-economic nature. No wonder therefore if an autobiographical approach proves adequate to discover the forms, ways and modes of its various processes.

This explains that the term dalit often leads to controversies among social reformists, literary analysts, social scientists and political workers on account of its ambiguities and strong political overtones (Guru 1998). As a result we enlist as autobiographical writers not only a number of untouchable caste members, as it might be expected, but also members of other socially weak categories whose some members may easily be culturally stigmatised and socially boycotted after the fashion of those unwanted for reason of untouchability, vz., nomadic tribes and wandering communities stigmatised by settled peasant communities as upara, alien, artisans under the exploitative balutedar system, female popular comedians, children especially orphan children and those without guardians, those born out of wedlock or from intercaste marriage and their mother, vagrants (those with neither hearth nor home), the physically handicapped when treated as non-human.

This makes untouchability appear as one syndrom -- though indeed the most clearly articulated and ideologically tightly constructed examplar of ostracism in human societies -- of wide systems of socio-cultural banishment and estrangement. The various forms of those systems actually spread along a continuum with a graded scale, and blend or overlap in very complex ways. Autobiographies display telling descriptions of these ways. The usual dichotomic and clear opposition of the two extremes "The Brahmin" at the top and "The Untouchable" at the bottom is a dangerous simplification, conceptually inadequate and analytically misleading<3>. One of our aims --and possibly one of the significant contributions that dalit autobiography studies are bringing to the construction of sociological theories of human discrimination-- will be to recognize in the complexity of the everyday web of personal relationships those various blending types of ostracism or banishment bahishkar, by which some human beings expell others out of their human constituency, denying them a right to the plenitude of humanity. We like to submit the concept of ostracism, bahishkar -- which we define as explicit and motivated rejection, at the image of a systemic cultural, social, economical and political quarantine<4> -- as a theoretical alternative to the dead ends of the present use of the recent socio-political idiom of dalit..

Dalit Literature, a Literary Form of Social Protest

The first essential characteristic feature of the Marathidalit literature is that it is not originally and essentially a literary exercice. The practice of writing does not aim at achieving an aesthetic performance in literature as an art. It serves purposes of social intervention and accordingly carries strong militant connotations. This holds good in Maharashtra as in other areas of India.<5> The nature of these connotations varies and takes different shades depending upon the writers' personalities, changing socio-cultural contexts, motives and inspiration to write. Our second part tries in this regard to differentiate various profiles of autobiographical writings. Still, notwithstanding such a variety of motivations and figures, alldalit writers gratefully and gracefully, often affectionately, recognize Dr B.R. Ambedkar (Zelliot 1992; Keer 1994; Herrenschmidt 1996) and Mahatma Jyotirao Phule (O'Hanlon 1985) as the source of inspiration, simultaneously, of their socio-political militancy and literary practice. All the autobiographies explicitely insist on the decisive impact on their lives of the firm directive received from Ambedkar: "Take education!" they narrate the extraordinary efforts made to attend school against all odds as the most significant step of social protest and personal assertion. Their biographical performance is in line with these initial efforts as its off-shoot.

There is no denying the fact that the first dalit autobiographies and the great majority of those which followed, were written by authors not only from those castes marked by the social stigma of untouchability (administratively known as Scheduled Castes, 16% of the population of Maharashtra) and among them almost exclusively those Mahar people<6> (Robertson 1938; Pillai-Vetschera 1994) who belonged to the buddhist tradition reactivated by Ambedkar after 1956<7>. Still, representatives of other ostracised communities (tribal, nomadic and criminal communities) were soon prompted by the same will, namely, to denounce and put an end to the altogether inhuman condition to which they had been condemned for ages. Few are the non-buddhist dalit autobiographies. But all these writers are historically, though differently, each of them in his/her own way, in the sphere of influence of the dalit liberation movement and more precisely of its charismatic leader, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, as much comforting the socio-cultural motivations of the movement as supported by its socio-cultural or even political and organized militancy.

It is essential for a right understanding of the dalit autobiographies to keep in mind this general historical setting. Dalit autobiographies are literary forms of social protest practices. The critique is even used to evaluate Dalit literature in general as being one dimensional, namely negatively focussing on revolt only. We shall discover that this does not always stand a close scrutiny. It is nevertheless obviously a literature -- especially the first poetry -- which often pours forth revolt and discharges a burden of hatred and contempt accumulated since centuries, or even sometimes hurl abuses at and spits out back on high castes the venom that they had to swallow for ages. But that alleged 'negativity' is actually a form of bold, genuine and strongly positive assertion. Repressed and ruined human beings break the status of animal servility to which they were reduced by a shout of protest, which signals the birth of a human being. The original inspiration remains a strong urge to raise one's voice, to speak up and denounce as loudly as possible, breaking for ever a silence hitherto enforced for centuries. In the beginning is the Word.

Dalit Literature and Social Movement

The importance of literature for a social movement like the dalit liberation movement was clearly perceived by Ambedkar in the years before his conversion and death (1956). A movement can not become strong and last till it has not generated its own literary tradition. Ambedkar saw as a deficiency of his movement the fact that in the 50s the dalit movement had not yet paid attention to literature and built up its own literary assets. He clearly wished to launch such a literary drive, and felt somehow frustrated of not having been able to achieve this too. In the 60s, at Aurangabad, where he had created educational institutions for the dalits, his dream began to take shape in circles of young dalit professors and newly educated middle class youth from untouchable castes. We use to read in the press critiques stating that later, vz., during the last two decades, the dalit literature movement in general has lost momentum and has no future, being repetitive and confined to limited personal testimonies, short of wide human and social perspective, having not contributed to the growth of Marathi literature with significant works.

I feel grateful to the organisers of this seminar, because the unexpected wide review of dalit autobiographies that we had to make with a team of young social activists to prepare this contribution, convinced us, on the contrary, that dalit literature, far from shrinking, is growing in volume and quality, and remains a powerful asset of socio-cultural action in Maharashtra. We hope to contribute to fulfil the directive that Ambedkar was giving on May 2, 1954 to Brahmin Pandits, writers and representatives of literary circles, in his address to theVidarbha Literary Conference; he was in particular happy to see in the audience, sitting in front of him, close to one another, representatives of Brahmin and Mahar associations:

We are neglecting our lives, our duties and our culture. If we do a little of introspection, we will discover a horrible picture of how our life-values and culture are getting burnt up. Whatever the reasons may be, we will find that we are going on a downward path of degradation. That is why, writers should immediately take notice and should make an effort to conserve the life-values and culture, give them lustre, and make them grow. The Sita in your novels and stories is now crossing the 'Lakshmanresha' - the forbidden line. Draupadi's clothes are being taken away in the court of Duryodhan - Dushyant does not recognise Shakuntala, she is getting exiled. That is why I earnestly want to tell the writers "manifest in your literary forms the noble life-values and cultural values. Do not have a narrow, limited horizon. Enlarge it. Do not keep your relations restricted within four walls. Let them expand. Do not restrict your pen only to your problems. Make your pen spread its glow to dispel the deep darkness from the villages. Do not forget that the world of the exploited, dalits, sufferers in our country is immense. Try to understand their suffering, their problem and strive to bring about improvement in their lives through your literature. There lies the real humanity.

Within this context itself, it is also significant to remember that the dalit literature did not first appear in the form of life narratives but mainly in the form of short poetic writings, life testimonies and short stories. We may even consider that the autobiography emerges as an extension of sorts of the very widely spread practice of short stories. Many autobiographies actually look like a series of short narratives. We cannot deal with such formal aspects here; nor with a few biographical novels which have recently started appearing.

Our concern is with the figures of self-assertion and protest, and the ways of a quest and construction of an identity of one's own, on the part of those who have been denied a full human dignity, and whose consciousness was made to forcibly internalize patterns of cultural depreciation and social subalternity. This is a field of investigation upon which social scientists have ever hardly focus their attention. What the following quotation says about Andhra does not any more hold good for Maharashtra, where a number of academic studies and critical reviews have given serious attention to the dalit literature. Still this interest dates from the 60s only.

In the existing historical literature on Modern Andhra the emergence of a Dalit consciousness and of a distinct Dalit sensibility did not receive adequate attention. What the Dalits themselves thought about their conditions, in their own terms has also not been properly analysed by scholars. The fact that Dalits have the intellectual ability to creatively reflect on and analyse their conditions historically, sociologically and in their own language has been missed out. Most scholars tend to characterise Dalits as a set of passive and mute social forces without possessing any initiative and self-assertion. Thus, the efforts of dalits and their self-perception to represent "themselves to themselves and to others" in their own terms needs explanation and elucidation. Furthermore, the emergence of well informed Dalit thinkers, commentators, etc. affords ample opportunity to examine the way in which Dalits symbolise their experience of oppressive subjugation and struggle to create new socio-cultural identities and ideological bases for autonomous reflection and self-action. It must be stressed that the literary representation of Dalit resentment and anger towards upper caste dominance as the manifestation of their self awareness, consciousness and imagination has been a historical phenomenon. The emergence of a distinct Dalit poetry, literary participation and the creation of "texte of resistance" and "protest" literature" only reflected changing consciousness but also symbolised the intensification of the Dalit quest for dignity and social justice (Satyanarayana 1998: 42).

Life Narratives

By narrative is understood a "referential text which develops itself in the course of time" (Todorov 1972: 378), and by life narrative a self-referential text in which the author progressively unfolds or develops the course of his/her own life. The word autobiography is commonly used to name this literary practice. I leave totally aside narratives of dalit life written by an alien author, such as Freemann's life history (1979).

These written life narratives use to be described or defined as "autobiographical testimonies." This label appropriately points to their social intentionality and functionality. It also designates some of their characteristic structural features, regarding semantics, stylistics and rhetoric. Moreover, in this regard, these personal and direct testimonies surely provide relevant documents of "social history" though they may not belong to that genre or discipline. Still they are somehow in affinity with the concept of social history as understood by those historians of the school of Subaltern Studies.From the point of view of our study, we shall prefer another linguistic analytical concept, that of "social discourse." This term points to the historical, social and cultural processes that these texts initiate, first as actual cognitive performances, and, simultaneously, as social agency within the liberation movement of the Mahrashtrian and Indian dalits in general. They are a social phenomenon more than a literary event: a socio-cultural action in the form of a literary performance. We shall therefore be concerned with their intentionality, context, social dynamics, communicative interaction (Dijk 1997: 1-37). These dimensions could even be considered at three levels of agency, that of the intervention of the author of the autobiography, that of the editor of such texts, and that of the publishers. We here restrict our considerations to the agency of some autobiographical authors; we leave aside that of their editorial sponsors and commercial publishers within the whole system of Marathi literary production. I shall only state my personal editorial motivations to translate and edit some of them in a European language. But let us first consider the specificity of their autobiographical dimension.

Autobiography --writing about the Life of Self-- that is, writing one's own biography or life-story or life history is a literary genre that appears in the West in the eighteenth century. It is considered as a historical, social phenomenon characteristic, in its emergence and various forms, of the Western civilization (Lejeune 1975: 1997). In this regard, the genre Autobiography is formally defined as a "retrospective narrative in prose that an actual person makes of his/her own existence when he/she focusses upon his/her life as an individual, in particular upon the history, genesis and evolution of his/her personality." (Lejeune 1971; 1975: 4). The identity of author, narrator and main personage is the distinctive formal characteristic of the genre. The existence of autobiography as genre in our modern sense rests upon the notion of author and the self-referential use of language in a narrative carried out in the first person.

Autobiographical literature is characteristic, in the Western civilization, of the rise of bourgeoisie as dominant class; it rests upon concepts of person and individual specific to western societies, or the myh of the "I" (Lejeune 1975: 340). It can be studied in different ways: historically as a cultural performance, the focus being on the shape, evolution and transformation of its forms in given socio-cultural configurations (Lejeune 1971); linguistically as a text, the focus being on how it works, vz., on what happens when it is being read (Lejeune 1975:49-307, 1980); psychologically as an act of cognition which brings into play several faculties of the subject such as memory, self-analysis, personality construction. These three broad dimensions may guide our analyses of the historical appearance of the dalit autobiography, of its biographical forms and social function. Still only partially. The western concept is obviously dependent upon the socio-historical context in which it comes to existence as one of its functions or dynamics.

As a rule, Autobiography as above defined should not be construed as a permanent form, no more than any other literary genre (Lecarme 1997) . No genre is an eternal literary essence, a constant conceptual entity. All literary genres are social institutions (Lejeune 1975: 311). In each period of time, there are codes and models within which literary texts are expected to be produced, welcome and classified by readers, whether they conform to that framework and fulfill its expectations, or deceive and transform them, obliging the readers to reconsider the parameters of the given models. Moreover each genre makes sense not by itself in isolation but within a system or a number of them, and as any social institution tends to perpetuate itself on the strength of some inertia which secures its survival. There can in particular be no normative or canonic definition of the genre Autobiography. We shall not therefore start from an ideal-type, abstract and standard conceptual construction of the genre in general and use it as a yard-stick to analyse and evaluate the dalit autobiographical material at our disposal. We shall not either start with a definition of the dalit autobiography itself. This would prove to be a sterile and self-deceptive approach. Such a procedure would simply lead us to miss the historical specificity and significant variety of the different literary performances under consideration. We consider the term autobiography definitely not as a concept, but rather as a label for designating self-narratives in general, whatever their figure, style, profile and aim, in short whatever their form as work of Literary Arts.

Our concern is with the historical functionality of the dalit autobiography in Maharashtra, since the sixties. One should not as a rule identify the function of genres on the basis of their names (Todorov 1972: 193), or in other terms, mistake as identical the form and the function of a given genre. Once the study of a genre has been carried firstly with reference to its overall structural characteristics, the study should secondly address the crucial question of its practical, historical connection and relevance, that is, its particular socio-cultural function in a given context. By function we understand its differential correlation (Todorov 1971: 10-11, 13-14) with other genres and forms of discourses in a given system of literary production. What is significant is the relation existing between the structuring features of a particular literary autobiographical practice (Hanne de Bruin 1998), the particular historical class which performs that practice, and the social communicative interaction initiated by the given performance as social discourse held by specific social agents.

Another essential feature of the dalit autobiographical narratives is that they do not isolate the individual from his whole historical environment, family, community and society at large. The distinctive difference does not seem between the individual as an isolated subject and the context against which he/she carves out his/her subjective identity as a world by itself. The oppression, strugles, assertion and quest of identity of the individual who is the subject-matter or the 'actant' of the narrative seem never dissociated from the shape that the system of social relation and history have given him/her. The actant of the narrative usually is a social personage, one from among and one with a whole community and a wider society. The assertion of the individual structurally appears as outcry, denunciation or assertion of an individual as one from within a given social constellation. The individual is emblematic of a personal social practice not of an Ego emerging and arising against his/her world, but of an individual within his family and community. A specific and multivalent concept of Individual will have to bo construed as a result of our analyses.

This general feature leads to raise another question, that of the Subject as pole of autonomy. Dalit literature in general and autobiography in particular insists at length upon the condition and mechanism of oppression of the individuals and their communities, and upon the access to school and education as the essential way towards employment and social mobility in a modern urbanised setting, that is, allowing for an escape from the grip of traditional represssive systems. This does not touch upon the question of the will to autonomy of the Subject as distinct from his social personage and appearance as an individual among others. In reference to the will to liberation that motivates the dalit autobiography, the critical question that our analysis points to is about the individual not only as one from within his community but as himself wishes to stand in front of his community and society.

Subjective Motivations and Perspectives

We distinguished three levels of biographical intervention, those of the author, editor and publisher. I happen to have translated and/or edited in French the publication of four of the first dalit Marathi autobiographies (two from men: Daya Pawar, Madhav Kondhvilkar, and two from women: Shanta Kamble and Baby Kamble); two other biographical testimonies: a personal one (Kalu Warghade, whose full autobiography is a pending commitment, Poitevin 1994) and a collective one (Rajput Jayraj 1996); some short narratives of rural dalit writers including five narratives of Shankarao Kharat, a leading dalit writer (Poitevin, ed., 1987). Other biographical projects are in progress. It would be proper in this regard --speaking in my name-- to state my interest for dalit autobiographies. A preliminary clarification of the motives which prompt my personal concern will eventually situate the horizon from where I hold my own discourse on and question those autobiographies. We should equally remain concerned in the case of each autobiography with the editorial environment which backs them or otherwise.

When I began in the seventies to read and translate the short stories of Shankarrao Kharat written in a clear style and with a simple vocabulary, this was not only a way to learn Marathi. I wanted to access from within and directly the feelings of the dalit communities and catch them in the words of those very writers who were trying to express them in their own words. "Many have tried to speak in our name, was saying S. Kharat. I realised that none of them had ever been --and could either be-- able to really express what we had been feeling in our heart and the life that we had been experiencing. We had to speak out for ourselves. No body could do it for us." My initial interest was to discover what the oppressed could have to say and how they would like to say it. The voiceless, for the first time, were coining a language to articulate their age-long suffering. Ambedkar himself had left them this task to be achieved as a necessary stage of their movement of complete liberation.

The first motivations soon evolved towards a more theoretical concern for the relevance of the concept of Individual as Subject in a society where we are told that such a concept is inadequate and irrelevant.

The atomistic conception of individuals in a Society, so greatly popularised (...) in political orations, is the greatest humbug. To say that individuals make up society is trivial; society is always composed of classes. (...) Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social, but an individual in a Society is always a member of a class. This is a universal fact. (Ambedkar, vol. 1: 15)

This important sociological position may not be original. The hierarchical caste system of "graded inequality" (Herrenschmidt 1996) is particularly deprived of concern and concept for an Individual as Subject with an identity of his/her own.

This is the polemical connotation of my anthropological interest. I wished to prove wrong "holistic" or "structuralist" theories which mistake their heuristic constructs for the reality itself and as a consequence write off processes of internal dynamics, protest and dialectical interaction. I wanted to show, on the strength of direct testimonies and life narratives from the underdogs of that society, that the Subject was still alive even in that very subaltern places where the established systems apparently were the most dominant and hegemonic. Individuals most inhumanly crushed down remain human beings with a moral conscience and a capacity to react. I subsequently retained this capacity as a challenging subject matter of inquiry for human sciences (Poitevin, forthcoming 1999). Our present investigation is a moment of a quest for the ways and forms of subaltern agency or the Individual as a reference of autonomy in social sciences, for Subjectivity in human history.

This links up my own standing theoretical concern with yours when you suggest the following analytical issue as a theme to be addressed by our contributions: "Who is the Subject of autobiography?" My first conviction has been that the individual reveals and constitutes himself as "sub-ject" --"hypo-stasis" below his/her testimonies-- when in the course of his/her narrative he/she looks for Himself/Herself, beyond the kaleidoscopic set of events and images that crowd the mirror of the biographical narratives. The crucial question is therefore: "Who is the human being who asserts himself/herself as different or other than the repressed individual that appears as the actant in the foreground of the dalit narratives." The dalit autobiography stands as a privileged topos where processes of self-investigation, groping awareness, assertion and identification display a quest of Self --which may not necessarily succeed, but this precisely is one of our essential querries-- against what the individual has been forcibly made to be by prescribed social status. The central questions become the following: "How does this Self define himself when he finds himself or asserts himself against socially constructed roles, attitudes and values? From where does he come to Self-consciousness as unique human being different from what he has been made to stand for and act upon in society? From where is the Self asserting himself/herself as distinct from the social personage brought to the fore of the conscience and performing as expected on the stage of his family, community and society at large?"

The Context : a Dispensation of "Graded Inequality"

Dalit autobiography raises these questions epistemologically within the context, and polemically within a critique of, the Hindu social dispensation. Dalit autobiography should be understood against this theoretical background, much better than with reference to a definition of the western literary genre of auto-biography. It is therefore essential to locate our concern by displaying a short but comprehensive formulation of the Hindu social order. We shall present it in the key terms coined by B.R. Ambedkar himself of Graded Inequality. Olivier Herrenschmidt (1996) underscores them as the most significant sociological concept at the basis of B. R. Ambedkar's theoretical interpretation and construction of the Hindu social system. It is essential to keep this in mind to measure the historical significance and semantic difference of the dalit literature in general and dalit autobiography in particular with regard to the Marathi literary establishment. This is all the more appropriate as together with the texts, movement and example of Mahatma Phule, the comprehensive socio-cultural critique that Ambedkar made of the Hindu social order is the fundamental reference and source of dalit literature as well as dalit movement. In this section we follow and all along quote the talk of O. Herrenschmidt (1998).

A basic formula of Ambedkar is magnificent : "Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers" (Annihilation of Caste, vol. 1: 47). To this crucial definition, two other propositions are equally essential to qualify that social division :

No society has an official gradation laid down, fixed and permanent, with an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. The scheme of the Purusha Sukta is unique, inasmuch as it fixes a permanent warrant of precedence among the different classes, which neither time nor circumstances can alter. The warrant of precedence is based on the principle of graded inequality among the four classes. (Who are the Shudras)
It is within that conceptual framework that we should conceive of untouchability and explain why it persists and why one could not get rid of it soon and easily. Ambedkar strongly states that Brahmins have succeeded "to idealize the real and to realize the ideal" (vol. 7: 31-32). "Caste is divine", "Caste is sacred", and the practice of Untouchability is a dharmic conduct, nothing of a sin. It seems that the new concept<8> of graded inequality was first defined in What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables (1945, vol. 9: 170, 215). Henceafter, it becomes very frequent<9>. In Revolution and Counter-Revolution (unpublished, vol. 3: 320) Ambedkar remarks:

Students of social organization have been content with noting the difference between equality and inequality. None have realized that in addition to equality and inequality there is such a thing as graded inequality. Yet inequality is not half so dangerous as graded inequality.

"Graded inequality" is "the soul of caturvarna" (Who are the Untouchables, 1948, vol. 7: 307). It is dangerous because every one --every caste-- has internalised it. It gives to every one social advantages, expressing its difference from the others, constituting its identity, its uniqueness. Here is the reason why Hinduism has survived for millenia. Ambedkar always answered to the unconditional admirers in the West as well as in India of that wonderfully long life of Hinduism, proof, for them of its unique quality: "There are many modes of survival and not all are equally commendable" (this was adressed to Bertrand Russel, in reviewing one of his books in 1918 (vol. l: 487 ).It is a kind of in-built mechanism, which guarantees the perpetuation of the social system and "prevents the rise of general discontent against inequity" (vol. 7: 307). The best description of it is in the unpublished Untouchables or the Children of India 's Ghetto (vol. 5: 102).

All have a grievance against the highest and would like to bring about their downfall. But they will not combine. The higher is anxious to get rid of the highest but does not wish to combine with the high, the low and the lower lest they should reach his level and be his equal. [...] The low is anxious to pull down the highest, the higher and the high but he would not make a common cause with the lower for fear of the lower gaining a higher status and becoming his equal. In the system of graded inequality there is no such class as completely underprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. The privileges of the rest are graded. Even the low is a privileged class as compared with the lower. Each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the social system.

These are important propositions of a sociological nature which go much farther than any model which has been proposed till now. They take us also where Ambedkar might have been reluctantly ready to go. Ambedkar is here thinking in terms of varnas, a sociological holistic model with a finite number of elements in clear and well defined relationships of a linear hierarchical type<10>. But we may also think in terms of jati, caste<11>. If Untouchables are avarnas, they are not a-jatis. And the "graded inequalty" is a very good model to describe and explain their relationships among themselves. Every one knows it --Ambedkar more than anybody-- but he is reluctant to admit it. Still he did it, sometimes. In october 1928, for the Simon Commission: "The Caste Hindus have spread the poison to the rest" (vol.2: 489, he admits that there is no intermarriage between Mahars and Mangs). He could not deny it, having described in 1916 the role of imitation for the cultural unity<12> of India, even if he spoke already of "the infection of imitation" (vol. 1: 18). It is clearer in the unpublished Held at Bay (vol.5: 266, very likely written in 1946)

The Untouchables [...] are a disunited body, they are infested with the caste system in which they believe as much as does the Caste Hindu. This caste system among the Untouchables has given rise to mutual rivalry and jealousy and it has made common action impossible.
It is of course the whole of the political action of Ambedkar which is questionned here, its limits, and maybe his own ones (Burra 1986). That "graded inequality" --with its sacred sanction-- helps to understand many things: the perpetuation through the centuries of the Hindu social order; the impossibility of thinking of a real social revolution uniting all the down-trodden and exploited, and a specific mentality which is the result of it. For that social order implies or rather creates a social psychology. "Untouchability is an aspect of social psychology: it is a sort of nausea of one group against another group" (Who are the Untouchables?, vol. 7: 370). "Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind" (Annihilation of Caste, vol. 1: 68), but it is too "a disease of the mind." Ambedkar repeats this every where and all his life: in 1936, in What Path Salvation (p. 38) and lastly, maybe, in the Rajya Sabha, on September 6, 1954: "Untouchability is a kind of mental disease of the Hindus", repeating again: "Every Hindu believes that to observe untouchability is the right thing. [ ... ] Untouchability is a most sacred thing" , with no answer other than of Dr. P. C. Mitra: "Untouchability is only a custom and usage" (vol. 15: 909 - 910).

With regard to dalit literature, it is worthwhile to insist and comment upon the sentence of Who were the Shudras (1946): "an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt." The formula is present through out Ambedkar's life but with a significant variation. In January 1919, with the Southborough Committee (vol. 1: 257), he says that "the gradation of castes" creates in the minds of all an "ascending scale of preference and descending scale of hatred". Here the word "preference" is directly related to choices made in elections. In November 1930 (lst Round Table Conference, vol.2: 506), he speaks of reverence and contempt. "Hatred" has quite logically disappeared of the "descending scale": how could you "hate" the ones it is your dharma to consider "filthy" and inferior to you: there is nothing "inhumane" in the behaviour of the Caste Hindu with the Untouchables --it is then a stupidity to say that Untouchability is "an ugly blot on the fair name of Hinduism" (What Path Salvation, page 30, 1936). Of course, you cannot either "love" them --and therefore he considered the (Gandhian) social worker "as a professional" with "no inner syrnpathy", because, as he said in the Rajya Sabha on that same day, September 6, 1954, quoting the most revered Tolstoy, "before you serve, you must learn to love" (vol. 15: 910).

Those two terms (reverence and contempt) will reappear several times: Mr. Gandhi and the Untouchables, 1943, Who were the Shudras, 1946. But Ambedkar, keeping always contempt in the "descending scale" will very often prefer another word to the one of reverence. That word seems to appear for the first time in February 1933 in a public declaration where Ambedkar refuses to participate in the campaign for the opening of the Hindu temples to the Untouchables (quoted in What Congress, vol. 9: 112). There we have "an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt". Hatred is present in the last published book, Thoughts on Linguistic States, 1955, and in two of the unpublished essays (likely dated from the fifties ), The Hindu Social Order and Philosophy of Hinduism. It is in any case the fomulation which is the good one for Ambedkar. The one he will retain for his last and posthumous book, The Buddha and his Dhamma.

Method of Reading

My presentation of dalit autobiographies reflects a kind of comprehension, vz. a certain type of relation to dalit, autobiographical, written, discursive texts (Todorov 1972: 378-382). I am not a dalit nor an autobiographical writer. I do not claim any authority to speak in the name of dalit autobiographers. I am talking from an external stance, an alien socio-cultural and historical point of observation. By historical estrangement I mean that the dalit movement which initially prompted the autobiographical performances has now left behind us a history of its own, alien to us and to some extent to them too. This cannot be overlooked when instead of a typological analysis we prefer to focus on the evolutive transformations of the autobiographical performances themselves. These transformations create the ethnographical space by an effect of distanciation which enables to make attempts of discursive analyses (Todorov 1972: 368-374). I shall therefore project what I can make out of dalit autobiographies as a result of an alien, interactive analytical relation to their literary performances. I would like to define this interaction as a reading exercice. I understand this reading in the terms of Todorov (1971: 241-253), as follows.

Firstly, reading is not a return to the original object of the text, the latter being conceived as a pro-jection, a trans-position or a trans-lation from another different level of experience and reality: This reductionist epistemology would deny to the life narrative any valid claim to autonomy and singularity. Secondly, reading is more than only a commentary where the meaning is highlighted or explained from within the same text but without reaching a systemic understanding for want of tools, distance, framework of investigation enabling to reach a deeper insight into the dynamics and logic of the testimony. Thirdly, the aim of reading is qualitatively different from an abstract poetic conceptualisation concerned with the properties or working mechanisms of the literary discourse, as these analytic concepts are not the aim but the means and tools of the narrative as a unique totality. Fourthly, reading focusses on the singularity of the text in order to display its system by showing how all the elements relate to one another with the result of constructing a semantic difference, or presenting a specific composite semantic figure, which can be qualified. Reading always consists in highlighting that difference as the effect intended by the narrative itself as a totality, whether the author is conscious of it or otherwise (he may often be unaware of it). I call this a semantic type, or a figure. We tried to construct the figure in two ways: generally by a complete reading of the whole text, sometimes by a detail analysis of the structuring logic of a selective set of particularly representative pages that we consider as distinctively significant literary performances. We shall exemplify each figure with one typical example.

In short, our reading tries not to be an interpretation substituting another text to the one written by the authors of the life narratives, but an attempt to understand from within the cognitive attitudes of the authors themselves as reflected in the latter's main themes of concern. It claims to be not a surface commentary exposed to the risk of a repetitive paraphrase of our own wishes, and the danger of alien perceptions being imposed upon the text in the name of social or cultural militancy. We try to apprehend and articulate from within the internal logic which links together the various elements of the texts, and their referential value or function with regard to the context. For the sake of that sort of comprehensivity that classification grants in human sciences we shall display our analytical investigations as a set of distinct types or figures of assertion and identity construction on the part of a dalit subaltern consciousness.

We shall conclude with an introspective or critical examination of the epistemological assumptions and theoretical presumptions which underlie our exercice, vz., its subjectivity. This will link our biographical studies and their methods to the whole debate about the relevance and nature of human sciences, in particular the sociology of knowledge.


Memory as Duty : a Remake of History

Dr Ambedkar called the former dalits with a tremendous strength and appeal to usher, at all cost, into a new world, through exodus from the repressive socio-cultural structures of the village, access to education and new occupational opportunities offered in urban areas by the modernization processes. Many of the newly educated generations definitely turned their back to the past and hurried to simply forget a history of humiliations, physical harassment and mental tortures. Once settled in shanty towns and slums at the periphery of modern cities, and surviving on a variety of odd jobs or employments in public services, oblivion became one of the strategies to kill the trauma of past memories; they were bound to come back to the mind as an unbearable burden, a ghost of death. The simple record of yesteryears indignity and squalor was bringing shame, guilt and suffering.To gather strength one had to never look back again but only ahead with a clear and fresh sight. Such words as 'dalit,' 'Mahar,' and former names 'Kacaru' (garbage), 'Dagadu' (stone), etc. became anathema. Dalit literature overcomes these fears and courageously, though with anger, purposively looks back again.

Various types of reaction display significant narrative figures when memories of the past are called to serve different discursive purposes. On the whole, as long as one can still vividly remember, reporting is percieved as an urgent duty with regard to the next generations and mankind: society and humanity are to be reminded, they should not be allowed to conveniently forget. We distinguish fourteen driving motives behind the will to put the past on record.

First Drive : Urge to Record the Past with Pathos

Two main motives are characteristic of this drive: the denunciation of an inhuman past and the proclamation of a decisive victory due to Dr Ambedkar and the dalit movement. The main dynamics is a strong will of the oppressed to denounce the culprit, on the one hand, and, on the other, to proclaim one's faith in the liberation movement launched by Dr. B. Ambedkar's fight in the name of Buddhism.

Some autobiographies are strongly emotional testimonies about the suffering of past life as "pains of death" (an existence which was just generating death). They want to testify about them and project them as an historical evidence, in front of the tribunal of mankind, to condemn the Hindu social dispensation as a crime against humanity. The wish of some to forget a former condition of repression and its semantics make them angry: one ought not to be ashamed of a past which was "not our fault but society's crime." To put the past on record is a duty of justice to the ancestors whose humanity was smothered and crushed but could not be altogether eliminated by the Hindu Dharma. Keeping record of their agonies and efforts to survive is to redeem them, on the one hand, and, on the other, remind the new generations, who tend to return into the folds of a culturally repressive society,.of the one who has shown humanity the way of justice and love, Ambedkar, a god from among men.

The most typical example of that affective outburst of faith and historical popular pathos is Baby Kamble's testimony, Our Existence (1986). With all the affection and faith with which her heart overflows for her saviour, she dedicates her memoir to B.R. Ambedkar who "during his reign of forty to fifty years, by his fearless and energetic speech, by his light as bright as the sun, by his power to snap the chains, taught us how to live and break the seal of dharma." She compares her saviour to the Mahar poet of the fourteenth century Cokhoba (+1338), both of them manifestations of a divine mercy:

Cokhoba has prepared pure nectar for us in the court of Indra. But it is my Bhim who brought it to the earth and distributed it among our huts and hamlets. It is thanks to his nectar that I am undertaking this writing. I am a wild flower budding in the wasteland. I offer this flower in hommage in the form of a book with all my love at the feet of Bhim. Bhim, we are eternally grateful to you. I bow low down and place my forehead on the lotus of your feet. We shall never be able to give you back what we owe you.

One may hardly find good literature in such emotionally verbose outbursts. Still, these characteristically popular modes of speech forcefully convey the depth, the resonance and the import in the psyche of illiterate untouchable village women of the social and cultural changes brought about by the liberation movement of Ambedkar --affective elements that might have escaped the notice of male historians--.They show us from where and how the Dalit literay movement was born. When we met Baby Kamble in July 1987, she explained as follows what force inspired her to record what she experienced:

The humiliations of our former condition were causing me burns. Their vision tortured my mind permanently. So much had we suffered that I could not drive these memories away. It disgusted me and left me ill at ease. There was such a difference between yesterday and today. I talked about it with my elder brother. I told him my desire to write this down. He encouraged me and found interest in what I wrote. I was insistent about his reading my writings and correcting me. I wanted to describe our sufferings of yesterday. It is the grief that they gave me which pushed me to narrate them.

I have realised many things while writing the book. The humiliated existence that I show, it was not with a light heart at all that we accepted it. A particular community has forced us to comply. We have therefore no reason to feel ashamed of it. While writing, the word Mahar used to come here and there. This term makes blush with shame those people of my caste who have today become enlightened. What shame is there in this term? On the contrary, it makes us hold high our head. I vouch highly for the fact that I, a Mahar, I am a native of this land of Maharashtra. I am not a vagabond who has arrived here one doesn't know from where. This land is my home and the Mahar is the mother who bears testimony to this. Because even today, this country, this rashtra takes its name from us, Mahar. If this name fleeces your tongue, I cherish it with fervor in my arteries, it makes me aware of the struggle.

Now in her sixties, Baby Kamble looks still ahead but with agonizing feelings as she observes that the "learned generation of today has totally driven Babasaheb out of its life":

They have become Brahmins. They have gone through to the other side and live in their culture. They belong to another society, that of the educated people who treat those uneducated with disdain. They develop an urban lifestyle in order to be socially recognised. Their children mix up with others and take part in the rites of the superior Brahmin culture. On the fourth day after each new moon, it is fasting and penance for you...You acquaint your children with Ganpati, Lakshmi and all. It is Bhim who made you what you are and now you are rubbing your nose at the feet of idols. Slaves again! Anyone with an academic degree once settled in a bungalow definitely forgets Ambedkar. You fill the memory of the present generation with the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. You impregnate your children with these mythologies. You take great pains to keep this tradition alive whereas it is hardly thirty years since Baba left us. So little time to forget and make yourself free! You have erased from your memory the one who gave you life.

Generations have been sacrificed in the name and service of these values and you, you still find pleasure in them? You take no notice of the torments of your ancestors? Baba opened your eyes. In spite of this, you begin to grope and stagger again.

Second Drive : Will to Narrate one's Social History

Some writers look with a kind of apparently detached look at a past that is now definitely overcome. They consider as having to put it on record as a document for the history of their society and mankind in general. Times have changed to such an extent that one may be unable to imagine that such atrocities could have happened at all. One may even be prompted for various reasons to deny that they ever happened. Authors therefore make an effort to give a precise testimony and show in details how they have been oppressed. Their testimonies are valuable sources of social history. The writings have something of an autopsy. The books are sometimes lengthy especially when they are written with a literary skill or by writers gifted with a professional competence to clinically reconstruct and expose the working of systems of servitude.

One of the most typical examples in this respect is Shankarrao Kharat, former Vice-Chancellor of Marathwada University, the prolific author of a number of short stories, novels, articles and other essays on Ambedkar, his conversion, his letters and the history of the dalit movement, and an autobiography, Taral Antaral (1981). "This is the actual story of my life<13>. But it is also a story of 'The Untouchable'. In my life as a lawyer, and social and political worker, I laboured with great dedication and faithfulness for dalit and nomadic people, the slum dwellers, those living on pavements, the prostitutes, the tamasha<14> comedians. My wife was stunned to hear the narration of my previous life. She had grown in city. My strange world was totally new to her."

The first chapter of the autobiography, The Letter, relates an event from the point of view of the small child that the author was at that time, when his father received for the first time a short message of three lines written on a post card, which he was unable to read. When he goes to the Brahmin teacher's house and aks the latter to read out the few words, the teacher takes advantage of the Mahar present in his courtyard: he obliges him first to break the kitchen wood for a whole week, and afterwards only reveals the content of the message, vz. that his sister expired. Let us stress the characteristics of that remake of history with the strength of bare facts, taking The Letter as a typical but not rare example of a style of dalit literature which resembles a concise report made to a Supreme Court by an advocate of the oppressed.

Analysis : The Letter

Four features seem characteristic of the logic which semantically structures the narrative:
  • the control mechanisms of a system of servitude is meticulously displayed, with a profusion of minute description of words, gestures and behaviour of a highly symbolic import,
  • the attitudes of the protagonists are revealed by the writer, as a running comment,
  • the feelings and behaviour of the oppressed point to internal latent contradictions, stepping stones for a possible explosion of the system; but
  • the internalization of the values which seal the system are a strong lock which averts that burst from within.
Substantively, labour exploitation is the core of the system. The description of the worker is given a crucial importance. The hidden contradiction is apparent in the fact that the subdued worker is depicted as a strong and skilled worker. The strength is with the worker, the weakness with the oppressor, who depends upon his slave for his meal. The oppressor's anxiety is shown in an obsessional repetition that his meal has to be ready in time for fear of reaching school late or hungry. No anxiety in the gestures of the slave: a quiet and controlled force.

Symbolically, ostracism is maintained through rituals of avoidance of physical contact: the letter is thrown, the axe is thrown, the Mahars stand off the door, they should not touch the decorations of the threshold. The spatial distance marks the denial of human rapports and relations other than those of servility; the Brahmin woman is only concerned with her cooking and her husband with his meal served in time when Maharashtrian hospitality prompts the host to enquire from his guest whether he had his food or not. This averts confrontation and critical questions being voiced, which would break the system.

Operationally, the state of subservience is maintained through ignorance, lack of education, and non-sharing of knowledge. This is symbolically featured by the master who casts a glance to the card: in no time he has read the three short lines; knowing their content, he decided not to reveal it to the Mahar before he had completed the task, for fear of an aggrieved labourer being unable to break the wood. Once this is done, he makes a pretence of reading the card for the firts time to let the Mahar believe that he is just discovering the unpleasant news with him. The irony is here that a school teacher meant to share and spread knowledge, figures here as a "master" who enforces labour on a servile villager. The word "master" carries the message of the corruption of the function of a knowledge-giver into one of labour-enforcer.

The Mahar is obliged to submit to the whims of the Brahmin, his "master." Symbolically, the state of subservience is defined as a relation between a "master" (the term regularly used by the writer and society at large for a school teacher) and a subaltern. If the work capacity and expertise is the subaltern's strength, that strength remains un-recognised and not articulated. The Mahar has never refused to work for the "master". He has never been conscious of his actual bargaining power and tried to negotiate. That lack of recognition and articulation explains for the state of total surrender of his labour force to the words of his "master". Still that potential remains there, unrealised. As a consequence, the servant simply and totally internalizes a rapport of servitude. This internalization is the cultural foundation of his social submissivity. This puts a seal on the "master" dominance. As a matter of fact, the contradiction is explicitely voiced, not by the male worker, who surrenders, but by his wife, who is revolted at the sight of her husband being reduced to a condition of beast of burden. She was already anxious when she saw him leaving the house, sensing that he would once again be made to behave as a slave.

The rapport of domination is symbolically represented by animals: the Mahar is a "beast of burden", the Brahmin's words are like a "scorpion" thrown to bite the legs of the young Mahar. But the discrepancy in the attitudes of both the women signals the source of an alternative order: the Brahmin woman arrogantly forces her husband to take advantage of the Mahar, she stands as an egoistic emblem of inhumanity. The writer's mother announces an era of subversion: she objects to the master's behaviour, because "she could not tolerate that my father used to be treated as a beast of burden," says the author.

Third Drive : Wish to Document Exemplary Life Stories

A few life stories are written down as biographies by some one else out of concern for records being kept as documents for political and social history. Let us mention one of the most representative.

When Shantabai Dani, a companion of Ambedkar and respected political and social leader of the dalit movement, got the Savitribai Phule Award, the reknown poet Kusumagraj (Shirvadkar) took her interview on TV with Bhavana Bhargave, Dani's close friend and supporter. After the interview, the poet insisted that Bhavana Bargave should write the biography of Shantabai. Bhargave says: "I was insisting that Shantabai sit with me and tell about her life. But she was always buzy with her work. She did not get time. On the top of it, Shantabai was not very keen about this book. But whenever Shirvadkar used to meet me, he was asking about the biography. He insisted with Shantabai to tell her story. Ultimately I threatened her that I would stop talking to her. Then she agreed to come to my place, aloof from people, and she began her narration." The writer took down the author's narration and edited the book Day and Night Fighting (1990), which reports about the life of political commitment to social and cultural revolution of Shantabai Dani, stressing the importance of people's education for independance and the activities of S. Dani in this respect..

Two short excerpts may give a hint of the style of the oral testimonies recorded by B. Bhargave, and of their historical relevance. The first recerpt records the author's days as a student in the Government Training College at Pune, the second one the circumstances of the conversion of Ambedkar to Buddhism in 1956/

(1) I was the only Mahar student in that Training College. I was not allowed in the dining hall. My plate was always kept outside in the verandah. I was served from a long distance. I used to be very angry at that time. In Nasik a Brahmin headmaster like Dani never discriminated me in school or at his house. But in a city like Pune, I experienced how people were mean and narrow-minded. Many times I felt like discontinuing education. But I used to remember my mother's hope and aspirations. Then I continued. Mother and elder brother used to send me money. Dani teacher used to send me letters of encouragement. So I told my mind to endure all the difficulties. I was telling you about eating. But even my bathroom was different. They had erected a small bamboo toilet for me. In the Government College, they used to celebrate Ganpati festival. I was not allowed even to offer durga, the grass typical of Ganpati. I was bringing durga, but it was washed by Hindu girls and then offered to the god. I was always feeling, "I took birth in a Mahar community. Is this my fault?" I had even to ask --to beg-- for water. As a result, slowly, I started drinking and eating less and less. This has affected my health for my whole life, as I realised later. In Pune, I was permanently under mental stress. My health deteriorated. Still I got two good friends. One was Narmada Mali, the other one Renuka Naik. Our caste never came as an obstacle to our friendship. We used to go and walk together, read together. I used to study regularly. My learning of lessons were very much appreciated, my drawing was better, my pronunciation became clear and with a pure Brahmin accent. As a result nobody understood my caste from my speech. I got good marks in the examination. In Nasik, Master Dani arranged a small ceremony to felicitate me...

(2) October 14, 1956 Dasara day, was a revolutionary day written in golden letters for us, untouchables. The day was announced by Dr Ambedkar for the last many days. Every day the newspapers were discussing the pros and cons of the conversion. "Now, Dr Ambedkar Will Convert!" The caste Hindus all of a sudden stared wide-eyed. All those days Babasaheb was talking, at the top of his voice, about the atrocious practices, rituals and traditions of Hindu religion. He had written about it. But many thought that this was only a gimmick on his part: "In which religion will he go? Which religion will accept this untouchable? Who will give him respect and equality?" We were hearing all such gossips. Many intellectuals and journalists thought that this is Ambedkar's stunt.

Ambedkar was pondering over this decision since the thirties. He led a movement for temple entry. Many leaders like Savarkar backed it. But in vain. Sikh, Christian and Muslim leaders tried to convince him to convert into their religion respectively. But at the same time he was studying Budhism from all angles. He studied its five principles, pancashil, karuna, compassion, shila, morality, ahimsa, non-violence, pradanya, knowledge, prem, love. He studied them logically and rationally. Till now the politicians were woeing Muslims as a vote bank, what will happen with the dalits now? People started considering the conversion question from many angles. As untouchable, Dr Ambedkar experienced how his people had to suffer as industrial and agricultural labourers, their means of livelihood (land) were confiscated, they were driven off to cities where they were not saved. It is against this background that eventually Ambedkar reached his final decision.

Before the conversion day, Ambedkar invited some selected people, Dadasaheb Rupavate, SCF President, N. Shivraj, Dadasaheb Gaykvad, P.N. Rajbhoj, Ganar, Phuljhele and me. With these selecte workers our beloved leader, Dr Baba Ambedkar opened his heart. "I am converting as an individual, myself; I will not order you to convert with me. Religion is a personal matter, I believe; If your conscience accepts a religion, then you have to accept it. You all know, before conversion, I have given a profound thought. When you will convert the reserve posts will go. This does not mean that you will have to forgo your rights to reservation. You may think that reservations will go with conversion, No, because reservation is based on economic disabilities and not on caste and religion. But if you consider my case, I have announced in 1935 that I will not die in Hindu religion. I will not deter from my words." We all decided to take the diksha.

I must mention one characteristic of our movement. The common man who is illiterate, poor, came to the movement on his own. He never asked from any leader money for his travelling and eating expenditures. All these years, I have never experienced a single occasion of a simple worker asking for money to cover these expenses. Once he understand our stand, he used to sell some small belongings of his and get himself involved in the movement. Whenever he used to travel for the party, like varkari people who go in the months of Achad and Kartik go to Pandharpur, he takes with him his bread and food with him for three to four days.We, our party, had provided no travelling allowance or meals or accomodation facility in Nagpur. Still increasing crowds were pouring on the diksha bhumi.

The scene on the place of the diksha was as follows. All around people had erected temporary hearth with threre stones and were cooking on it. Party workers had brought all their famlily and friends with them. They reached there eight days before the ceremony, in the fear of not getting a place. After his conversion Babasaheb Ambedkar said: "Bhagavan Buddha has told us: "Do not remain like earth just receiving rays of light from outside; become like the sun, source of self-light'. I have thoroughly thought and in this religion only do I see humanity and equality. In this religion no body is higher, no body is lower, no casteism. If you like this, you convert."

After taking his diksha he understood our minds, he himself gave the diksha of Buddhism to all the people assembled there. Dadasaheb suggested that the next conversion ceremony be held in Bombay and Nasik. Ambedkar agreed. But it did no so happen. We got the news of his death.

Fourth Drive : Painfully Rooting out the Purulence

The specific feature of this figure is the pain that the memory of the near past brings with it. To remember is as piercing as the actual suffering of yesteryears. Still the authors through their very narratives overcome the trauma of ancestral humiliations. With determination, they burst the abscess and try to uproot the evil. A writer, Nanasaheb Jhodge, takes as title for his autobiographyPricking Thorn (1982), a word Phanjar, which designates a tree with sharp thorns. If such a branch carried by the wind lies in one's path, and if while walking barefooted, one happens to step on it, blood will come out, the wound would become a painful purulence as if bitten by a scorpion, and one would be forced to limp. It is not only that one cannot easily walk with comfort like the one who wears footwear, it is that the thorn pricks and remains deep inside and continues to cause pain. The author confesses to be one such wounded being, leading a wretched existence, considered the lowliest of untouchables.

The result is sometimes the feeling of being split or torn apart. Daya Pawar is one of those who have the most explicitely expressed that feeling. The author has recently passed away. He worked as a state servant in the Railway (Accounts) at Bombay. He was already known in literary circles as a leading writer for his poems, before the amazing success of his autobiography made him one of the most reknown dalit writers. We submit a structural analysis of the first pages of Balute (1978).
Analysis : The Cross of Memory

1.Escaping a face to face with OneSelf

When the writer sets to recall the past to memory and finds himself face to face with himself, alone, confronted with the question about One's Self, that unavoidable query is sought to be avoided, postponed. Several narrative oppositions are rhetoric attempts to escape that painful encounter:
  • Opposition of Solitude, the moment where one could appropriately meet oneself "as there is nobody around", to the Crowd, which is constantly sought: "He is always with somebody". The face to face with oneself is not bearable.
  • To the silence of oneself with oneself corresponds the permanent talks and debates. The author enjoys making speeches about the atrocious dalit condition as they are for him an alibi, a hide up, an escape, a temporary refuge, a smoke-screen.
  • Opposition of the position of the speaker "hunched up" and then expressing himself, in front of many people around, and then alone with himself again when "all faces have disappeared," back to the square one, as the question of one's identity can not be put away.
  • Metaphores : "one's shadow" becomes the metaphor of OneSelf. Shadow as the metaphor of the alter ego slips towards totally different semantic connotations of cloudy weather, darkness.
  • Allegory of the failure of the quest of identity: the author compares himself to a cow-boy who feels miserable because he is unable to trace a hat that he cherished as his treasure. "OneSelf to OneSelf" is identified to "Oneself to one's Shadow" in order to stress the most significant event, namely, that this alter-ego shadow is an absconding shadow. Then only darkness prevails, i.e. the absence of Self. Self is unretrievably lost, disappeared without being possibly traced.
  • Allegories of the substitution : Oneself towards Crowd: the vacuum is filled up; Oneself towards Talks: the silence of vacuum is covered up.
2. Internal duality or loss of OneSelf
A dialogue with oneself takes place in the solitude of the face to face with oneself. It exhibits only internal contradictions between appearance and identity. These contradictions point to a loss of Self :
  • Opposition of bold speech and dejected mood. "You spoke well...but you always look uneasy, disgusted, your face is tense."
  • Opposition of outspoken or revealing speech and hidden truth "Have I ever hidden something from you?" To reassure himself, he pretends to have said absolutely everything, all the truth. The statement is self-contradictory.
  • Opposition of apparently successful life (secured employment, male issue) and actual serious loss or defect. "The plant grows well...What have you lost?"
We now clearly realise the reason of the initial attempt to escape a face to face with oneself: that Self is lost. The "philosophical" allegory of the cowboy who anxiously looks everywhere for a hat that he cherished as the symbol of his own person but lost is a roundabout way to designate a loss that cannot be openly articulated, the loss of OneSelf. A "mask" is required with its double function of revealing and hiding.
  • The semantic reduplication is obvious : the hat, alter ego of the cowboy, who used to "have the hat in front of his eyes while eating, while drinking" ('eating' and 'drinking' may be construed as substitutes for substantive personality), is logically identical to one's familiar shadow that "disappears from my sight."
  • Now the question is stated in clear terms : "Why don't you speak without roundabout means?" The call is to put down the mask and straightaway articulate the hidden truth, namely "what exactly happened."
3.Forgetting in order to avert the Cross of Memory
* The first reaction is a couple of conducts of procrastination.
First, through alleging its impossibility: "How could one talk without roundabout means?" The difficulty is such that the task would actually prove impossible.
Second, through postponing: "Can this be said in one day?"
  • This leads to the real and critical fact : "I forget a lot." The reason of this is that forgetting is the strategy of a will to survive. To forget has become even a habit, rather a "habitus" (in the sense of Bourdieu).
  • The strategy of oblivion means survival because recalling the past results into a fatal mental torture. The nature of that misfortune is such that it is "comparable to none in the world, being a man-made hardship and not a natural calamity." As a result, memory stages a new Way of the Cross. The poem Cross refers to the deadly suffering that each record unearthed from the past brings with it once defensive barriers of oblivion "break open" and let "the burning record" invade the present consciousnesss.
  • As a matter of fact, oblivion cannot erase the past. That ordeal is always there, though repressed, as the huge and unfathomable mass of the immerged part of the iceberg. Its surfacing spikes "play hide and seek with me." The fear of their emergence to the foreground of the conscience explains that "frozen visage" --a wall erected against their piercing rising upto the forefront of the mind.
  • That habitus of oblivion is a kind of second nature which pervades everything, even events which have no relation with the painful past. It kills as well hopes of life : "I remember the birthday of none of my children." Oblivion seemingly kills the roots of a future, as is there was no future without memory.
  • While oblivion closes access to Self, the emergence of the past, "drops after drops" turns one into a potraj. This allegory reduplicates that of the Cross.
  • Oblivion is a strategy which also averts another repressive stigma, that of guilt, with its minor social connotations of pity on the part of the crowds for those who are done for. Though the author would indirectly agree that he does not entertain such feeling --"But the fault does not lie with you? - I know"--, still the misfortune being inflicted by men acquires on this account a dimension which turns it into a social stigma.
4. A dubious name or a dreaded identity?

In such a context, what can a self-narrative yield? The author is doubtful about possibly finding himself. Two metaphors reflect this doubt.
  • "The image reflected by the mirror may not know much of the man whom it displays". The narrative projects the image of a personage, which may not reveal much of the man whose that image is a replica. The author himself warns us that the 'actant' of his narrative should not be mistaken for the full real man whom it tries to portray. Does this mean that the author could not yet simply find himself --an allegoric replica of the lost hat--, or that he is nothing more than a personage "moulded by the society"? --"You can at least say how you have been built up, in which mould you have been shaped."-- and consequently has nothing to say about HimSelf?
  • The second metaphor is that of the author's dubious name. The skepticism about the capacity of the name to yield the reality of a person is a replica of the skepticism about the capacity of the image in the mirror to know about the person whom it portrays. "What is there in a name?" None of the names under which he has been known directs towards an assertion of human identity. The author considers his names as carrying derision or pity only.
They were firstly a mockery: "Dagadu" (stone) altered in "Dyam" or "D. M." As a consequence, the skepticism about the capacity of the image or the name to reveal a real identity are a denunciation of the social identity obtained at birth. In other terms, society, on the one hand, denied a human identity, and, on the other hand, gave a social identity that "makes one shivering", a dreaded identity. The boy received a mineral name and he survived, but to accordingly be recognised as a mineral. He was later known as "Daya" (pity), a name which carries a call for people's pity, that pity that the sight of the potraj inspires to the on-lookers and passers-by on the street, and that the narration of his life will similarly elicit from the readers.

Yet, the autobiography is expected to break that stone of silence imposed by internal inhibition, shame and fear: "Now, it seems, you wish me to take an axe in my hand and break it. I do not know whether it will split or not.

Urge to Express and Will to Articulate

We make here a distinction between two kinds of intentionality which often blend in various proportions: an inner compulsion to speak out or raise one's voice, and an effort of clear articulation of one's thoughts, in one's own words. These drives find different ways and means and result in a number of distinctive figures, of which we stress the following ones as particularly significant.

Fifth Drive : Solitary Writing as a Way of Self-Assertion

Thanks to facilities granted to the untouchable castes of India, Madhav Kondvilkar, the son of a cobbler, a Chambar, could become a village teacher. For eight years (1969-1977), he happens to be appointed in his native village, Devace Gothne, and teach in the very class-room where, before Independance (1947), as an untouchable kid, he was made to sit apart from the other boys in the corner and abandoned to himself. He keeps a diary At and Post:Devace Gothne, (1979) where his experience as school master and above all practices of caste discrimination blend in his mind with memories from his childhood as a school boy. Misunderstood and rebuked by his caste fellow-men, wounded in his dignity and disgusted by the behaviour of his colleagues Kondhvilkar writes his diary in a complete social isolation, prompted by an inner urge to write, speak out and cry out in writing: his piece of writing becomes his confidant, the support of his inward dialogue with himself, the witness to his aspirations and torment, a means to record his expectations when no one else takes him seriously. The diary recounts this slow process from reading to writing amidst internal doubts and against external pressures. At this stage, writing has no literary purpose. It is a laborious effort in quest of oneself.

Soliloquy proves maieutics for a teacher with an introspective and misanthropic propensity. Lonely writing feeds his renewed consciousness with new insights. His meditative mood and habit of solitary reading --sitting for many hours alone under a tree aloof from the village or in the library of a deserted school once everybody has left-- result from the repressive constraints of the physical and social environment. Feeling cornered from all sides, making books his sole friends, prolonged reading makes him still more introvert. "The simple sight of books was making me forget everything else."

The urge felt by the boy and the young teacher for the practice of reading was frown upon already with a dreadful fear by his parents. They were firmly imbibed with the conviction that school, book and study were a sin against the dharma, the duty of an untouchable cobbler. As a boy, devoting himself with obsession to this seditious practice, he established contact with a wider mankind beyond the boundaries of his caste and village. That claim for knowledge was denied by the high castes. The firm resolution to attend school and the voracious reading deprived of discernment carried a strong protest against an Order confining him to servile and dirty labour. The introspective and misanthropic propensity led him further to lonely writing. The practice of keeping a diary as an effort in quest of oneself is no luxury but a necessity. It comes firstly as a compulsion for self-expression. The diary proves a mental oasis from where the one who is discriminated upon can pass sentence on the whole society which denies him the full status of a human being and formulate his claim for a new identity. Soon, a second motive becomes prominent: the will to coin one's own words for one's own experience, as no urbanized midle class literature has ever voiced the feelings of his oppressed community. 

Let us insist on this soliloquy as maieutics, an important characteristics of the literary practice of the authors of the literature of the dalit literature. If reading was a spell providing an elating joy, the keeping of a diary is as much a painstaking exercice for the young master alone in the literary desert of his village, as an unexpected initiative considering the squalor around him. Reading and writing proved a lifebuoy which rescued the wrecked and inhibited master. They offered him a human asylum, a secluded place for the hidden endeavour of his solitary groping cogitation and the somehow complacent solace earned with the titillation of his otherwise repressed feelings.This inward discourse with oneself feeds his renewed consciousneas with new insights. Writing is the moment of a cultural innovation. The written paper remains as the proof of a possible liberation and the claim of a new identity, right at the heart of a repressive society Still this latter placidly continues to ignore him and his fellow creatures

Sixth Drive: Nomadic Communities Seeking Status of Human Being

The author of Wanderer, Gulab Waghmode, belongs to the community of Vaidu, traditional healers. He is about 25 and taking higher education. He is in Pune in touch with associations of social work. He introduces his testimony as follows: 

I do not want to write a book and be a writer. My whole education since alphabetisation in the first year till the College has been very troublesome. This trouble is like a turmoil in the life of thousands of nomadic. My difficulties are not mine only. This book reveals our agonies. This is a struggle. This is a fight to survive. Since childhood, my life has been a tragedy. Whose sin has brought it in my life? At the sight of the poison in the society, I feel like vomiting. Whether to live or die is my question. Seeing our destiny, I wonder whether Indian society is going to consider us as human beings or wants to throw us in the dustbin. This is what makes me writing this book. The first Vaidu graduate, Mr. Yellappa, is trying to work among the community. Slowly youth are assembling around him and take inspiration from him. But this takes time. I would feel obliged to the socierty if the readers of this book consider us as human beings

Dadasaheb More, author of Household (1983), is B. Com. and lives on a salaried job. His community, Kudmude Joshi, forms nomadic clusters of ten to twelve households, gabal, which move together with all their belongings, from place to place. The word gives the book its title. Where they make a halt, each family erects a shed, their house. The group of huts is called pal. The autobiography is prompted by the same longing for self-respect and justice, and shows the attempt through education to find a meaningful life. A few excerpts:

In Nov. 1967-1968, we erected our pal at Salgare. In Salgare one Mr. Kondiba Kumbhar was owning an open land, one kilometer away from the village. He was allowing us to stay on the land for one month. Of course it was not a charity. We keep horses. The horse dung was useful for him to prepare his pots. "For beggars there is no choice. He was giving us the land on particular days of the year decided upon before hand and for one month only." Five to six of our groups used to come and stay there for one month. We had nothing else to share but shame and sorrow.

We erected our house. House means sacks spread on two sticks. In front of the house, we used to keep three stones, this was our hearth. We had to collect cowdung and wood from the forest. As tea powder, we used the dry leaves of guava trees. When we sitting for eating, we used on a loud voice, to call and invite each other: "Come! Come and eat with us!" but nobody used to go to any one else house for eating. 

We use to sell in the market some mixed grain and chicken that we have earned. Earned? Rather taken from people to whom we have told lies. I mean to say that we tell people: "We shall bring happiness to your home. We shall bring you wealth in plenty. We shall make your children listening to you. We shall resolve your quarrels, but for this a chicken is required. The chicken should be alive." Because they are ignorant and superstitious people, they listen to us and they give a chicken, a chicken alive. How does society not realise why that man, who places them on the top of a mountain of wealth, wanders from door to door to beg his bread? Why can they not create themselves their own wealth? With the deceptive hope of becoming happy society gives chickens and grain to our people. Our people then sell them on the market and collect a couple of rupees. But in the market we are considered to be a community of beggars. People fear that we will steal. They try to keep distance from us. The grains that we get are mixed grains, and not of good quality. We sell them as food for animals and chicken. We sell chicken. But we get half the price that is given to other sellers. 

We started moving to another village. On the way, Pandurang, an old man became ill. He became unconscious. My father went in a field to fetch one onion The farmer chased on my father and started beating him.for stealing the onion. We explained him that we have taken only one onion for a sick man to smell it . Still that farmer was angry against us. Gangu aunty went in trance. 

Our men go at dawn to tell fortune. People believe that we understand the language of the bird called spotted owl. So we are called "spotted owl Joshi." We are supposed to tell the words of the bird to the people of the village. Our people know perfectly that no body understands the language of the bird. Still we have to prattle some thing in the name of the bird. We have to carry almanach with us. Men have to go at dawn as the spotted owl speaks only at dawn time. Generally we do not see the bird. Still our community lives on the name of the bird. We tell people that you will get a good fortune, Lakshmi will come to your house. People feel hopeful that fortune will come true and they give us little bits as alms. 

I started begging. The first day I got only three pieces of bread. But I received a good amount of abuses. I saw my school slate. Two tears fell down from my eyes. 

We went to another village. It was dark. We chose the place to erect our house. That place was used by villagers as an open ground for shitting. Turds were strewn every where. We did not have any other place to stay. Next day morning, when villagers came, they said: "See these Joshis! They are staying in the shitting ground. How can they like such a smell?" We were listening this without giving more attention. What would have happened, had we given more attention to them? It was better to neglect.

Atmaram Rathod, author of Tanda, The Clan (1989) is a rebell from the Laman-Banjara nomadic tribe. He desires to acquaint the readers with the culture of his community and the oppressive system of relations prevailing between people. 

The Laman Banjara stay in groups of eighty to ninety huts called Tanda. Tanda,is kept apart, cut out from the village. In Tanda,only people of one and the same caste stay together. They are not part of the village culture near which they stay. Tanda is kept off the progress. Facilities llke health and education have not reached up to Tanda. Women in Tanda are subjugated to men. They are like slaves. The man who cannot fight with the neighbourhood can always quarrel with his wife. If we refer to their situation today, Laman Banjara are sugarcane cutting labourers. They go to the sugar factories.They live like bonded labourers. They have to work for eighto ten hours. 

The book is written to raise a voice against the exploitation by the leaders, priests, graduates from the community. 

Formerly, the priests used to exploit us; now, the leaders began to exploit the Tanda pretending to be 'Chief', 'Nayak'. Educational institutions became a place for earning money and for employing their activists. It was felt that education would change the face of the Tanda, but on the contrary, with education, children refused to recognise their parents. The educated graduates took the lead in cheating the community.

Seventh Drive: Faith in Education as the Key to Progress

All the writers insist on their courageous efforts to avail of the facilities of education and be able to cope up with the modern world. Shantabai Kamble, the first untouchable woman to be appointed as a teacher in the district of Sholapur in 1942, is the most articulate in this regard in The Story of my Life (1986). When she reaches the end of her self-narrative and casts a distant glance on the memories laid down before her eyes, she firmly attests that since the beginning and all along her life, schooling alone saved her from hardship. 

My parents have given me education. My husband was a school master. We have therefore given education to our children. Friends of my age who continue to stay in the village say to me: "You are educated. Your children also are educated. Now you are well off. Otherwise, see what we are. We go as daily wage earner. Hired one day, jobless the next. This is how we live, starving. Had we studied, we would have lived well like you." To think of it, it is true, do I tell myself. My children have studied and succeeded... None of my brothers went to school. They learnt to be masons. One does not always find work in this line. One never eats one's fill. One feels crampy pain in the stomach as soon as the rainy season starts. I remember my mother telling us : "There is nothing to eat to-day. Children, go and sleep on an empty stomach". I could not find sleep as my stomach was empty. I said to my mother: "Mummy, give me anything to eat. - Naja, there is nothing in the house. What to give ?", she used to reply, wiping her eyes. We all used to have a troubled sleep. The memory of those days gives me stomach aches.

In actual fact, the direct and sober narration of events which marked the initial seven years of her schooling give a pertinent account of two opposite dynamics. On the one hand, traditional constraints regulate everyday life and make school appear as a burden unnecessarily breaking a precarious set of strategies of immediate survival. On the other hand, an untouchable school master personally committed to the cause of educational uplift of untouchable castes makes a point to open a separate class in the untouchable hamlet itself and forcefully intervenes to enroll girls too. The author's testimony is a glaring record of that blend of chance and purpose which often determines the course of life of marginalized human beings, particularly of women. The latter's lot actually looks like a hazard. Shantabai's access to schooling is socially symbolic in this respect. It is due to a mixture of natural dispositions, a will more or less aware of its motivations and objectives, and the casual availability of congenial circumstances. Shantabai's promotion appears a matter of sheer luck as everything apparently starts with a trick of a committed school master keen to enroll the girl despite the objection of his father. Seen from within, her schooling experience shows the way personal resources may steer through constraints, inhibitions and handicaps of any sort.

Eighth Drive: Reappropriating Past History for Struggling Ahead

When somedalits would wish and try to go ahead totally immune from the past, others have understood that the past may also offer stepping stones to articulate a new future. The past ought first to be owned, objectively reassessed and reappropriated for an alternative history to be chalked out ahead. One has to link up the present struggles with the fights and labours of the past, especially when this past, for a number of various reasons, has been hidden up, misrepresented or simply forgotten. Two writers are typical representatives of this trend.

Bhimrao Gasti in Berad (1987) and The Cry (1993) is the most effective example of a capability to get rid of the trauma of the past, take stock of the collective history of the community and one's personal experience, and find in it inspiration for fur
ther struggles.Berad is the name of the caste of the author, a caste administratively classified since the British as a "criminal caste." The author is Ph. D. in chemistry. He was working in a laboratory in Hyderabad till he resigned in 1975 --this was the time of Emergency-- to work for the upliftment of his community and dedicate himself to social action. The following excerpts give the profile of a process of commitment inspired by past history and in continuiity with it.

After graduation, I came to Hyderabad for my higher education. In the University library there were many old and unretrievable books. Our ancestors had fought many fights. Since the eleventh century till Independance, brave Berads had given their blood for the country. Berads from Surpur had performed exploits, the same with those of the Vijayanagar empire. In South India, they had erected temples and carved statues. This tells everbody that we are not criminals but fighters. But this voice echoes only in the valleys. Last two hundred years, British have harassed us like slaves. Berads became shameless. In Independant India, they have forgotten their identity. I felt that I ought to do something for my community. But how to raise voice, how to proceed? How to bring together scattered people? I was wondering whether my people would listen to me and be ready to transform themselves? I started contemplating in my mind all these issues. I had the feeling that Berads were not a community amenable to reason. On the contrary they will ask me : "Who are you to teach us? You have taken education, then you really consider yourself knolwledgeable?" Yes, they will certainly say this. So I should start tranformation activities from my house. But thoughts of launching a movement were not vanishing from my mind. They were deeply rooted in my mind. I had been away from my place in Hyderabad for five years. The distance was four hundred kilometers. It had not been possible to often visit my place. I was occasionally receiving letters from home. They were insisting that I should take a job. My people wanted me to get a job and earn something. But my wish was to complete my post-graduate curriculum. My wish was fulfilled and I came back to my place.

When I came back after five years from Hyderabad the whole scenario of my village had changed. A new factory had been installed. Berads had to sell their land. They were under the impression that the Government were buying land. So the land could be acquired at a very low price. The construction work of the factory and houses was given to contractors who brought labour from outside. Bera¶s had lost their means of livelihood, and on the top of it they did not find any work. So they started stealing small things from the factory and sell them to survive on that money. The police started giving troubles to Berads, while their economic situation was getting worse and worse.

Some young Berads of my village requested me to do something for them. I started organising people. The factory establishment with the Government departments created many stumbling blocks, but we did not budge. ... The company people played a game. They told Berads from other villages that "this man had written an article and defamed your community." The leaders of other villages came to our village. They were accusing me and shouting at me, some people wanted even to kill me. Many Panch instigated people against me. But at least one Panch was with me and my life was saved.

Ninth Drive: The Balutedar System, a Form of Oppression

Ramchandra Taware is an artisan, of the service caste of potters, Kumbhar. Against the services that they offer to the families of the village, which the narrative tells us, they are recognised the customary right to receive a remuneration in kind, at the time of harvest, festivals or domestic ceremonies. This counter-gift is called balute, hence the name of Balutedar given to the artisan castes which enjoy this right. R. Taware's autobiography The Potter's Tool (1983) raises two critical questions, first, how is this practice actually performed, and second, how is it percieved by the artisans themselves. The writer bluntly tells us that this practice actually is a form of social relation to be identified as bonded labour. 

I do not mean to recount my private story. In the village the Balutedar is a bonded labour. The story of my family is a representative one. All Balutedar families are under the rule of the Patil. Balutedar have to bear atrocities. They are exploited by the established class. The Balutedar has no alternative but to mutely bear the injustice of the village rule.

He accordingly shows how the practice of balute is exploitation in disguise, and projects the potter condition as a figure of the boycot of artisan castes by the village. The author completed two years of College. His family is from Shegaon tal., Ahmednagar dist., where he participated in the anti-dam agitation, but ultimately the village was submerged under the water of the dam. 

We had to provide mud pots. For different festivals we had to provide other different things. In the festival of bullocks bailpola we had to give mud bullocks, for the festival of akshay tritiya we had to give plantain tree made of mud and small mud pot. This day is celebrated in the memory of ancestors. Plantain tree is grandmother or mother, small mud pot means grandfather or father. At Navaratri we had to provide small mud pots. At the harvest time we have to go and collect the balute. People used to give the grains of inferior quality and not in sufficient quantity. Every festival day we used to go and collect sweet eatables from the farmers. I remember to have gone with my parents. We had to stand a long time at each door requesting a number of times to be given food. Sometimes the Patils used to take mud pots and other things but were not giving any thing against it. We had to bear it. Each time the Patil had to threaten us wondering "whether we should stay or not in the village."

Sankrant was the main festival when we had to provide a number of pots of different sizes to the villagers. One sankrant time my mother asked for the money that the Patil's wife had to give us as arrears from the earlier year. The Patil's wife became angry and she told the Patil about it. The Patil came out and broke many pots. Some body intervened. We had to bear the injustice.

In the Ganapati days people told me to prepare big Ganapati idol for the village Panchayat office. They promised me to give money. I did it but they had not payed me. 

When there used to be marriage in the village, Maharin, Partin, Kumbharin, Malin (women from Mahar, Parit, Kumbhar and Mali communities) used to get a sari. The sari used to be of a very inferior quality. If some of them was complaining about the quality the answer used to be, "If you want to take this, you take it, otherwise we have nothing else to give you. Now that you have started talking back, we will not tolerate it." Or someone would say that "from tomorrow we will not allow you to take clay." Sometimes my mother had to come back without getting a sari. For the sake of the Gavgada, the village rule and order, we had to bear it. Every body was not like that. Some people used to give some food and clothes on the occasion of marriage. But every thing depended on their whims.

Tenth Drive : Quest of Identity, a Matter of Bewilderment

Social identity and status are a matter of legitimately belonging to a recognised lineage, that is, a legitimate descent, this legitimacy being defined by the rules of endogamy and exogamy of the prevailing kinship system. The sexual exploitation of lower caste women by higher caste landlord give birth to children who are considered as belonging nowhere and to nobody, except their mother. But the latter is herself as a result stigmatised as a whore who has polluted the purity of the descents. Mother and children remain as a result socially ostracised. 

Sharankumar Limbale, author of Akkarmashi, Bastard (1984) first served as a teacher, then later on, took a job in Post Office as telephone operator. He introduces himself as a worker of the Dalit Panther and a bastard akkarmashi. The Marathi word refers to the child born from extra-marital relations and is used only as an abuse. As a child, the author used to stay in the Maharvada (the residential area of the Mahar, at some distance from the village). There people used to tease him by using this derogatory word, which he deliberately chose as a title for his book: "I was born out of the sexual exploitation of dalit women by caste Hindus." The mother was a Mahar, a landless woman, agricultural labourer, and his father a landlord and village chieftain, Patil, "This is not a life of mine. This slavery is forced on me." An attitude of blunt confrontation of the overall inhuman social order is maintained throughout the book. 

Masabai, Limballe's mother, was married to Vithal Kamble. Kamble was working as a bonded labour on yearly agreement (salgadi) in the fields of Hanumanta Limbale, the Patil of the village of Basalgao. Hanumanta Limbale managed to break the marriage of Masabai and Vithal Kamble to take Masabai as a keep. The caste Panchayat drove out Masabai from Kamble's house. She was not even allowed to take her children with her. Vithal Kamble married again. The author was born from the relation of both of them. After some years Hanumanta started quarelling with Masabai and threw her out. He said, "Sharan is not my son". Eventually, Masabai left Basalgao and came to Hannur to stay with her mother Santamai. 

In the dalit communities, for a woman to be a beautiful and attractive one is a curse. Gernerally those who have got superiority by varrna nd who have herited wealth used to rape dalit women. In every village, we can see children born out of relations bertween Patils, zamindars and dalit women labourers...In all, my mother had given birth to twelve children from three men...My father is Lingayat, his ancestors are Lingayat, that is why I am a Lingayat. My mother is Mahar, her ancetors are Mahar, that is why I am a Mahar. But the Muslim Mahammud Dastagir Jamadar, alias Dada, became my guardian. Then am I not a Muslim? Has his love no right on me? Who am I? My cordinatal cord is joined to whom? Dada had a first Muslim wife, but they had no issue. She went away. Dada spent all his life with Santamai, my maternal grandmother. He raised me like his son. His caste or religion never became an obstacle. 

One Mahar, Machindra Anna, told me, "This public square of the Mahar, takya, does not belong to your father. Your father is in Basalgao. Why are you staying in Hannur?" For many days, I did not go to the Mahar public square. I thought, if I go there, they will beat me, they will abuse me. I have no right either on pandhari (caste Hindu residential space). I have no right on takya. My father is not a Mahar. In the Mahar hamlet, I am akkarmashi in the village I am a Mahar, untouchable...If I go to Basalgao, will my father accept me? My father stays in a big mansion. My mother in a hut. Where will I live and die? Where are my roots? ... Sometimes I used to start and take the way to Basalgao. But soon afterwards I used to get afraid. They will kill me....When the small one of the sparrow goes out of the nest and is touched by human beings, it has no place again among sparrows. I am like it. If I start and go to Basalgao, they will beat me. I used tro return back. When I was back, Kaka (father), Dada, Masamai, everybody used to look at me as a stranger. Kaka used to tell Dada, "Why do you keep Sharan? Whose is he? Drive him out of the house." Dada used to say, "I have to keep him because of Santamai." I used to feel, "In whose embrace should I go? Who will tell me, you are mine? Mother rejects, father rejects."

Why has mother not done abortion? Why has she not killed me when I was born? They call me sore, kadu? Why crime have we done? Why are children punished for parents' crimes? When I look at my mother, I become angry. Why should I not rape her? But when I look at Masabai and Santamai, I become sensitive. They have sold themselves for somebody's whim. Beyond bread, there is a world also....The bread is "in the hands of establishment" and our honour is equally in their hands. With one hand, they give us to eat for our hunger. With the other hand, they enjoy our women. I do not bear the sight of Masamai who is caught between those two hands. Sita was released? Who will release my mother?... My ancestors were watchmen at the Patil's houses. When Patil was out, our ancestors never envisaged of going and enjoying the Patil's wife. On the contrary, they gave their daughters, wives and daughters-in-law in the hands of Patil as victims, bali. 

I was enrolled in the school. The teacher asks my father's name. I did not know that I should also have a father! This idea was so strange to me. Hanumanta Limbale's name was written as my father's name. When Hanumanta knew this, he came to Hannur with five people. He went and met the head master. Bhosle guruji's salary was seventy rupees. Hanumanta was offering one hundred rupees as a bribe and frightening the teacher with his gun. But the teacher was firm. He said: 'The mother should tell the name of the father of the child. And I will put the same name in the book.' Hanumanta quarelled. He bowed down at the feet of the teacher, but in vain. Because of Bhosle teacher, I got a father.

The Strength to Resist and Bring about Changes

Eleventh Drive : Building one's Identity through Sustained Militancy

Balasaheb Suryavanshi is a man with a number of capacities and achievements: journalist, writer, dramatist and actor, editor, reader cum composer in a publishing house, translater of books from English to Marathi and viceversa, and above all a Christian preacher. He completed his autobiography Things I Never Imagined (1975) at the age of sixty. This is by no means a casual life account. The author applied all his mind to articulate his many thoughts and the various moments of his existence. We have a text of a tight logical consistency and a man with a profound personality. Apparently, he aims at spreading Christianity. He wishes to project of himself through the narrative the figure of "a servant of Christ". The autobiography shows a strong inner freedom to stand up against all injustice and create with faith a meaningful existence. The autobiography begins in the style of a preach, kirtan: "Oh God! I am distributing this prasad (blessing) of your kindness to everyone."

God with a specific purpose, implemented this task through me.. He sent me in various fields so that I may go through several kinds of experiences and develop a wide understanding. Christians have boycotted me, this gave me an opportunity to study other religions. This gave me the possibility of nurturing an attachment for the other. I am only instrumental.

The author's father was a teacher in a mission school. "In each village, we used to stay in the Maharwada." In spite of his mother and father being Christian, villagers considered and treated the family as Mahar. This kindled the author's consciousness of being a Christian. When others were calling him a Mahar, his reaction was : "No. I am a Christian!" 

His militant attitude towards establishments is obvious in several incidents where he makes a point, for instance, to "pollute Hindu gods." His parents were not allowed to participate in Hindu pilgrimages, to attend tamasha, to dance during village assemblies, jatra. Purposiveley, as a challenge, they went and took part in such performances and rites. Similarly, all along his life, the author was goaded by distressfull experiences of ostracism into striking at establishments. The most determinant experiences were the following;

  1. The usual ritual practices of untouchability (already mentioned herewith).
  2. When animals were dying of epidemics, the Mahars were boycotted for the reason that they were held guilty. They were denied bread, bhakri, when they were coming and begging for it, their vessels at the well were not filled with water, etc.
  3. In the Boarding and in school, other children were keeping the author at a distance from them because of the bad smell of his clothes: he had only one set of them and his body was covered with scabies. Other children abuse him and make him a laughing stock. Naturally, the little boy was feeling lonely, going for a walk alone on the hill, becoming introvert.
  4. Protestants boycotted him: 1) because he was doing some work with catholic fathers; 2) because of an article Christians from Maharashtra that he wrote in the monthly magazine Kirloskar. Christian communities did not appreciate his realistic analysis of the situation, in particular the reference to the Niyogi Report; 3) He was foounder editor of the weekly Preshit Prophet) . For a whole year, people were reading it while avoiding to pay their subscription. He published the list of names of those who did not pay their subscription in a last special issue under the title "Free issue for those who do not want to pay" It was the end of the weekly. As a result, the doors of all churches closed in front of him. He was no more invited to deliver kirtans.
  5. He met with the anger of Catholics because he was not a catholic, and because, after Preshit, he published more information about Protestants in a new Catholic magazine that he started.
  6. In an editorial article of Apan (We), he wrote that King Shivaji built up his kingdom on his own strength. Ramdas Gosavi and Dadoji Kondev were for nothing in his achievements. The Hindutva-minded Brahmins branded him and denounced him in the Press as Anti-Nationalist to the extent that Police came and arrested him.
At that time, untouchability was observed in the most abonimable manner. But we received the same treatment even after changing our religion. In spite of being Christians, we used to eat the meat of dead animals because that was the only way to live. Those who had reduced human beings to such a state, ought to be ashamed. When the village ostracised the Mahar, he starved! If the animals of the village fell victim to an epidenic, ostracisation was inevitable! A bitter gourd used to be tied near the village boundary to announce that the Mahars were ostracised. Mahars were then forbidden to set their foot in the village. Nobody was allowed to give them work. They could not even buy salt and chillies in the village. Nobody would give them food or water. During such an ostracisation, the Marathas would pull the corpse of the animal which dies in the epidemic, out in the field. Seeing their food eaten by the vultures was a painful sight for the Mahars. The Mahars used to pray God Rokdoba to have mercy on their children. But Rokdoba was the god of the Marathas. How could he have pity on them? The starved Mahars would go at night to fetch that roten meat which gave out a fowl smell. But hunger was stronger than the fowl smell. Even the inflorescence of a cactus that caused itching was eaten.

Marathas were still scared to cause enemity with the Mahars. A Mahar may suffer beatings docilely, beg, bear with insults during daytime, at night he becomes a tiger. Then the Maratha who has hurt him is taught a lesson. The Mahar may steal his animal, set fire to the fodder, uproot his crop and stuff the well with it. The next day, the same Mahar would go and sympathise with the Maratha along with the village.

Sometimes, the Mahars themselves were responsible for their ostracisation. Because they were reduced to utter helplessness, they were pushed to committing some blunder. Their crime was born out of their need. During ostracisation, they got beatings, they had to starve for food and water. At such time, the Master of the mission school was a great support. He would rush to the taluka place and bring some white missionay along with him. The whole village used to be afraid of the white skin. All would keep quiet. The missionary would help to obtain food, to dig a well. He would also find a pleader to plead the case of Mahars. The Mahars would obey whatever he said. In one go, the whole Maharwada would convert to Christianity. And when the need was over, they would revert back.

I had only one set of clothes. So how could I take my clothes for washing? I was ashamed of my thin frame. So, I never took a bath and never washed my clothes. There was not on place on my body which was not itching. Who would come near such a dirty boy? I would always walk or play alone. All the boys would laugh at me. I used to eat food only after being caned. I became shameless. Because of my whimsicality, the boys used to call me all sorts of names like 'mad', 'made in Germany', etc. Poverty at home was another reason for my being a target of their ridicule. On top of it, I did something very bad. I stole a celluloid flower from one of my classmate's trunk. I had liked it very much. I was caned in front of all the boys. I didn't mind it much. But I felt very hurt when all the boys started calling me a thief. Anything not found, they used to suspect me. I returned home frustrated. My parents were shocked to see me. I told them that I do not want to study. The boys teased me. My father blamed my mother for whatever I did. I could not bear to see my mother weeping. I told her that I had no extra clothes, so how could I have a bath? My father then bought me a pair of shorts and a shirt and took me back to school. But I continued to run away from time to time. On one occasion, Gaykwad, the missionary saheb, called me, talked to me with affection, asked me why I ran away. He told that my parents were poor and so I should study hard and get a good job. Right in front of me, he scolded the boys who were teasing me. Someone suggested my parents to send my younger sister to the boarding school so that I would not feel alone. 

Once when I was bathing in the river, a Sonar boy came there. He saw me and jumped in the river. He threw water on my face. I became breathless. Actually, God saved me on that day. The boy had shown his anger in this manner because I was polluting the water. When I came to know about this, I was furious with his conservative religion, his God, and I thought I should take a revenge. I became mad with anger. I attacked all the gods in the fields. I urinated on one, threw cowdung on the other, broke the nose of yet another one and so on. I thought of polluting God Hangeshwar, the village deity of Hange village. Nobody knew me there. No untouchable had ever stepped inside the temple. I went straight to the sanctuary, touched the idol and 'polluted' it. I was not afraid. Poor Hangeshwar did not seem to mind. I came out with the satisfaction that I had poluluted a Hindu god. Next day, when I accompanied my grandmother to Patil's house, she asked me to salute him. He threw a 25 paise coin towards me. My grandmother picked it up and touched her forehead with it. Patil asked her to keep a watch on me as he said he had seen me in the sanctuary of Hangeshwar temple the day before. He asked her to ignore the incident as I was just a child. But my grandmother started trembling.

Twelfth Drive : Embers Beneath Ashes, Simmering Dissent

One should not infer that ostracism and repression could only result in fatalistic attitudes of surrender and submissivity. Several narratives like to focus on forms and ways of ripostes. The following example stands witness to the fact that independently from Ambedkar's charismatic drive, dissent and counter-currents were alive in various forms of protest. At the call of Ambedkar, they flared up in the villages of Maharashtra in innumerable forms of struggles, which each autobiography recounts in details. 

Ibrahim Khan in Muslim Mahar (1990) tells about his ancestors' conversion to Islam as a protest, before their fights got a shot in the arms at the call of Ambedkar. Grandfather, Andru, was native from a village located near Wardha, in Vidarbha. Andru was a reknown man, with four acres of land. At the time of Divali, he used to keep a small gold pot for celebrating Lakshmi puja. Andru's father, a drunkard and a gambler, was maintaining extra marital relationship with a Mang woman. Andru's younger brother was a gambler also. Many people from Maharpur, the Mahar locality, were drunkards. All were bowing down to salute the Patil with the traditional words of subjection: Johar! Andru was trained as a teacher at Amravati. In those days, in Wardha area, Mahars were prohibited from taking up the job of school teacher. Andru had to suffer because of his caste while taking education, though the Brahmin teacher, Mr. Mule, encouraged him. When a new school was started for untouchables in the forest area of Chandrapur, Andru got a job in that school. His payment was rs. twelve. He was the first Mahar of his area to become a teacher. In Chandrapur, in defiance, he used to wear the holy thread, as this was the privilege of caste Hindus, who objected to. "Brahman's eyes were burning like fire at his sight, and they used to say : "This Mahar teacher wants to show that he is superior to us!" But Andru was neglecting them and going his way, as per the saying "The elephant walks, the dogs bark." Andru was also interpreting the Hindu almanach Pancang, in particular preparing horoscopes and telling fortune, another reserved privilege of the Brahmins.

Chandrapur was in Madhya Pradesh.Though they had not to submit to the extreme casteist rules edicted by the Peshwas of Pune, still the untouchables had a difficult life. The Mahar community was attracted towards the egalitarian Kabir Panth. The Kabir Panthi priest sant Chandubua was working for the upliftment of the Mahar community. With the help of a missionary Mr. Alexwood, Chandubua was baptised and became a Christian. This was the first conversion in the history of the Mahar community in the area. In Chandrapur dist., at Warora, Kisan Bhagu Bansode Patil, an untouchable, arranged a meeting to say : "If it is necessary, we have to fight with the caste Hindus and win our rights." Another speaker said: "Mahars should stop drinking liquor. They should be clean." It was announced that Dr Ambedkar will arrange an Untouchable Conference under the chairmanship of Chatrapati Shahu of Kolhapur. As a supportive step, Kisan Bhagu Bansode Patil called a meeting at Chandrapur.

In Warora one Mahar had installed Ganapati<15>. Caste Hindus wanted to burn him alive. Narayan Timkar, a man of the community, went to meet the British Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and told him that "we had taken a vow for the British to win the Warora battle : it was to fulfill this vow that we were installing the idol of Ganapati." The DSP sent Police forces for protection and a Ganapati procession was taken through the village in the caste Hindu locality. Terrified, the caste Hindus went in the court to argue that as untouchables eat non-veg they have no right to worship Ganapati. Mahars pleaded and won in the court saying that Gonds also used to install Ganapati though they eat non-veg.

Sant Dagadubua and sant Vithubua Rangari were members of the varkari movement<16>. Motivated by a will to social revolution, the Mahar community announced that "as we are Hindus, we have a right to draw the charriot and we will enforce our rights." Tension began mounting. The dindi<17> of the Mahar community was called Cokha dindi<18>. The procession started going ahead, caste Hindus became inflated and talked of fight. Sensing the tense situation, the British DSP stopped the dindi. The fight was averted. Afterwards, every year, the dindi used to stop at the place where the DSP had stopped the procession. This square came to be named as 'Harijan square'. This was the time of the Mahad<19> satyagraha.

Andru got many friends like Devaji Khobragade, Ragho Kamble, saint Dagdubua, Dharma Mon, Sitaram Kawade. All these friends came together, discussed and opened a Cokhamela Hostel for poor students. They used to go arround to tell the Backward Caste people not to keep many wives, to stop dragging dead animals, people should stop discriminating between sub castes, etc. They started a movement for temple entry. The school was not rich. Andru used to beg to get some money for school. He became head master.

The second meeting of the All India Dalit Congress was organised on 7 and 8 May, 1932 at Kamthi where Mr. Khobragade was present. Andru took inspiration from that meeting and organised a meeting at Chandrapur on 29 June 1932 to announce their backing to the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar, and to discuss religious, social, educational, economic and political matters relating to the untouchable people. The president was Mr. Sakhare, Member of Legislative Council from Nagpur. On 31 May and 1 June 1934 a Conference was organised under the name of Cokhamela in Chandrapur taluka, at Sawala. Twenty resolutions were passed, among them the following: that in local bodies and in Govt. untouchables must get jobs proportionally to their population, and public wells should be open to untouchables. At Gadsuli on 24 Sept. 1936 a processtion was organised to the memory of Pune Pact, which was followed by a meeting. 

In 1935 he came to know that Dr. Ambedkar had said in Yewale: "I have been born as a Hindu but I will not die as a hindu." This announcement of Babasaheb Ambedkar gave a tremendous joy to Haribhau. He felt that the time had come to be freed from hell. In those days, progresively, Dr Ambedkar was coming close to Islam. "Now, we need mental courage. If the Muslims back us, we will get this courage" said Dr Ambedkar. Haribhau's mind was caught as in a whirlwind of thoughts. He studied Christian religion and Islam. In Chandrapur Mr. Sitaram Kavde started 'Shri Babasaheb Ambedkar new Cokha club'. On 25 October 1936 a photo of Ambedkar was taken in a procession. In the meeting after the procession the speakers backed the conversion idea of Dr. Ambedkar. Dr Kurtakoti from Kolhapur had backed the conversin of untouchables. A meeting was arranged to felicitate him under the presidentship of Cokhaji Sonuji Walke at Gadisurla. In the same meeting, those enemical to the conversion idea were denounced. Haribhau, after a lot of study and deep thought, decided to convert to Islam. The announcement of the decision caused a great turmoil in Chandrapur. Opportunist Hindus were saying : "Master, why do you convert?" Haribhau used to convince them. Pandit Brahmins used to come to Haribhau's house and tried to convince him not to convert. Sikh and Christian Missionaries were asking him to convert in their respective religion. But the whole Mahar community, its social workers and leaders supported him. Haribhau replied frankly: "Hindu religion does not allow us to live like a human being. That is why I do not want to continue as a Hindu." He consulted his wife Bhagirathi. She consented. A celebration was arranged for the conversion. He took the name of Mohamad Abdul Rehman and his wife the name of Fateemabibi. He used to follow all rituals of Islam such as going regularly in Masjid for prayer, Namaj, reading the Koran. Still the Muslims of Chandrapur did not accept him and the Hindus were dishonouring him.

Thirteen Drive: Community Uplift, Welfare, Social and Political Activities

A few writers would prefer to project a profile of dedicated social workers engrossed in welfare, social and political activities for the relief of their communities, instead of advocating a radical socio-cultural revolution in the terms of B. Ambedkar. 

Bhimrao Jadhav is a political activist born in a nomadic community known as Bhamta takari. Congress Party worker, he was honoured as 'Dalit Mitra' (1972) ('Friend of the dalits'), and became Mayor of Solapur (1974-75). He worked for obtaining farmlands for nomadic tribes and employment for the youth. He kept demanding the cancellation of the Criminal Tribes Act and the inclusion of the nomadic tribes in the Scheduled Caste category. He made special efforts for them to give up criminal activities. He brought about a change in their hearts by making them confess their crimes. He erected schools and hostels for the boys and girls from his community. He ran a spinning mill. He organised conferences and meetings for bringing more unity and awareness in his community. His social work respects all constitutional and legal frameworks. His struggle is altogether within the law. He writes My Story Inside the Barbed Wire Fence (1998) in the style of an educational report written by a teacher. He is seen trying to bring about a reformist change in the society. He does not attack the system. But he expresses his anger against the British who have enclosed people of his community within compounds fenced with barbed wires. He is seen arguing with the political leaders to get them doing the work he wants them to do. He shows a lot of patience with them. He respectfully addresses leaders as 'Saheb'. He calls himself a Hindu. He also tries to obtain concessions from the Government for his community, and strives for them to get employment in the State Transport.

Fourteenth Drive : Gender Potentialities in Women's Everyday Practices

Fourteen out of eighty-six autobiographies relate to women: nine areautobiographical narratives (we hereabove referred to some of them), one is a biographical profile of one's sister written by her brother (More, Imprints of Foot, 1983) after her death, one is a faithful transcript of interviews of a political leader (Dani Day and Night Fighting , 1990) by a woman friend, two are interviews of women comedians taken by men (Wadkar I'l Tell, Listen!, 1970, Mang Queen of Tamasha, 1996), and another one is a novel describing the life of tribal communities (Gabit 1995). A few of them (Sarvagauda Closed doors, 1983) were spared the inhuman oppression (Girhe The Pains of Death, 1992) of their sisters. Let us first refer to a living example before stressing general characteristics.
The author of Inner Explosion (1981), Kumud Pawde, was not deprived of satisfactory educational facilities in the company of upper caste children, in an urban setting. She was still deeply hurt by the discriminatory attitudes of the mothers of her own school girl-friends from the Brahmin community. She used to hear them warning their daughters to guard themselves against her: "Do not touch her! Keep yourself at a distance from her! Do not play with her! Otherwise, do not come home any more!" The girl child wonders: "I take a bath every day, as they do, with soap. My clothes are properly washed. My house is even better kept than theirs. Then, why do they scorn me?"She flares up. One day, on the occasion of a religious ceremony in the house of a Brahmin school friend, the young girl stays listening, spellbound, the chant of vedic Sanskrit hymns: all of a sudden, she is severely scolded and chased out from the place. While she clears off, she hears the following phrase: "These Mahærs, how puffed up they have become nowadays! "
This was around 1947, at the time when India was securing independance. Out of bravado against the interdict which forbids her even from listening to the recitation of ancient religious scriptures, and with the encouragement of her father, the gifted girl-child firmly resolves not to yield but to assert herself and teach them a lesson: "I will study Sanskrit!" She accordingly enrols herself as a student of Sanskrit and though she becomes a target of mockery, she obstinately persists and obtains an M.A. in Sanskrit, that language of culture hitherto reserved for gods, priests and male literati as their exclusive privilege. Then, perpetuating the offence, she stubbornly covets a post of teacher of Sanskrit. Despite a number of applications and personal contacts with relevant education officers, even up to the Chief Minister of the state, a wealth of stereotyped compliments and felicitations for her capacity, as a woman, to master such a difficult language, she does not succeed in obtaining a post of teacher of Sanskrit. She eventually secures an appointment not on account of her competence and degree but thanks to her marriage with a man of a high caste. Out of consideration for her husband, whose name Pavde wipes out the stigma of her birth name Somkumar, and three months after a marriage that co-opts her to a status of social dignity, she is declared worthy to teach Sanskrit.
Inner Explosion presents nine such short particular testimonies as a means for the author to call women to break constraints inherited from the past: rituals in honour of Savitri with their symbolic import, male dominance prevailing within groups of social activists and meetings of Dalit writers, condition of protected servitude meted out to –and enjoyed by– women as a rule which she equates to the status of servitude assigned to lower castes in general.
Several gender characteristics of the dalit women autobiographies are worth stressing.
1. The narratives exhibit the double discrimination which singles dalit women out for repression: caste untouchability and gender instrumentality (Poitevin 1993: 182-184). The testimonies show with evidence that neither of them is ordained by nature or inscribed in genes. Untouchability and machismo are shown with a wealth of concrete daily events as two social and cultural systems bound together to crush a woman's destiny to the benefit of a patriarcal dispensation. They mark out woman body as a privileged space for all types of control and oppression to coalesce. This gives women's autobiographies a particular anthropological relevance.
2. Women's memoirs do not display laments, resentment or shame of oneself. They denounce frankly, each in its own style. But they do not beg for pity or put the blame on someone in particular. Judgement and condemnation do not turn into noisy verbal outbursts, out of inner weakness or rancour. Women wounded by life and overpowered by the strongest are seen drawing upon internal forces, in order to die with dignity, survive with self-respect, possibly conquer without bitterness and eventually triumph without bragging. Dignity adds to the greatness of the grief. Misfortune does not nurtur literary morbidity.
3. These memoirs historically confirm the enthusiastic participation of country women in the dalit liberation movement started by B.R. Ambedkar, who deliberately addressed his sisters and requested them to come forward fearlessly. The autobiographies show also that often brothers, husbands or male friends very effectively support women's efforts. After the death of Ambedkar, the leadership in the untouchable communities has not dared to give women with humble origins the place that Ambedkar was constantly trying to give them. Being always masculine, it has maintained under its thumb –and enfeebled it– the promising potential displayed by the audacious response of women from remote Mahar communities to the call of their charismatic leader<20>.
4. Women's testimonies make us discover a female world of hidden feelings of dissent and moves of subdued revolt under the yoke of endured humiliations as memories drift back and past days and years are recreated. Specific ways and motives of a shared feminine sensitivity and cultural creativity are highlighted, as nowhere else.
5. Women's humdrum everyday becomes a space of knowledge. As a woman can have no bearing whatsoever on the institutions of the social systems, her efforts remain a matter of individual confrontation with all the limitations which on this account are bound to mar hopes and defeat attempts. The literary form of a life-narrative proves the most appropriate way to observe a cruel game of hide and seek as between a battered mouse and a wild cat. The focus put on minute particularities of women's life defies the category of trifling under which most of women's daily chores and moves remain unnoticed.
6.Testimonies of feminine resistance suggest three remarks.
Firstly, the women's autobiographies are specific in identifying forms of strength and revolt in fields far from the male domain of socio-economic and political systems of power. The repressive control of male hegemonic dominance is the central substantive issue, which is significantly confronted within the sphere of the private and family life, women's mutual rapports, religious rituals and female trance, daily labour relations, rapports with children. Life stories only could reveal hidden attempts of resistance usually unaccounted in the annals of historians. They moreover substantiate the rationale behind the claim that subordinate consciousness is no dead subjectivity, no purely repetitive prescribed consciousness, no quiet consensus. External constraints smother wishes and enforce silence. But deep within, preserved and latent, hidden and simmering, internal motions of dissent are stirred up by struggles for basic survival.
Secondly, the women's memoirs are the only ones capable of showing in a positive light the particular forms of resistance such as violent religious rituals and collective practices of possession, usually derogatorily written off as crass superstitions. These modes of dissent and defiance do not fit into rationalist diagrams of progressive militancy, class consciousness and 'scientific'struggle. They originate from a subjective spontaneity, which remains to be understood for itself. Baby Kamble hints at this when she describes and comments upon apparently nonsensical rituals to which series of generations have succumbed, offering and sacrificing their lives to gods made of round stones only. This was truly the way that women found in their down-trodden condition to keep themselves alive. A Human being ought to keep his mind engaged in some pursuit in order to find joy somewhere and grow shoots of hope. While nourishing these shoots of hope with all the strength of their soul, they surely made them grow. 

Thirdly, as documents of social and ethnographical history, such women's autobiographical testimonies mark a break with the conceits of elitist historiography and academic ethnography. They focus on people who apparently make no history. None could be viewed as the scrap of history more than down-trodden women from untouchable castes. Still, claims Baby Kamble, All the enjoyment of your prosperity is founded on the pith and marrow of the Mahar women."


Let us conclude with two kinds of considerations. First: how can we, substantively, qualify the cognitive strategy of the Marathi dalit autobiography movement. Second: how can we, epistemologically, situate its topos in anthropological sciences. 

Substantively, through placing one's past under acute scrutiny and overall revision, the autobiographical exercice is a cognitive achievement. The crucial role is performed by memory inaugurating a temporality of its own. As a result, a decisive semantic breakthrough is achieved. Its amplitude can be measured at three levels of performance.

Memory: A Faculty of Cognitive Reconstruction

Dalit autobiographies are recollections with a motive. They are no mere chronicle for archives of social history. Events are retained selectively, i.e. intentionally. The Self is narratively reconstructed in a performance of identification. Each narrative is a remake of life through a travelling back which originates in a decision to break away with the prescribed socio-cultural models of interpretation. This decision originates in a will to henceforth exist for oneself. The alienated self is done away with. The narrative reconstruction is nothing less than a creative assertion of one's identity. Memory inaugurates a radically different temporality. The active process of reconstruction of oneself is equally a remaking of history (Brunner, 1987: 11-32) to the extent the previously ostracised individual emerges as the subject or foundation of an inverse history. Let us underscore a modality of the process: the inversion is a retroactive restructuring as it goes from the end to the begining. The past is re-visited, re-composed, re-assessed and re-cognized in the light that finally shines at the moment of fulfillment. That light re-veals, viz., takes out the veils that overshadowed the "real" history. The accomplishment of the end holds the key to a renewed insight into history, and shows the way for a genuine reappropriation of onseself. In that new light the "true" appears "false" and vice versa.

Reassessed History: Promise of a Future

The reconstructed past and redeemed self stand as stepping stones and guarantees for a conscious and purposeful control of one's future course of life. No secure or meaningful future is viable without roots in the past, shared experiences and values, and a definite self-image received as heritage. The capability to project an integrated picture of an entire span of life with due scrutiny of the past hold the key to a future (Ricœur, 1985, 1988). Autobiographies prove to be a historical achievement to the extent that they lay the foundation of the future on a critical examination of the past. This is what Baby Kamble (Our Existence, 1986) and professes loudly. The present generations are alien to their roots. Unilaterally directed towards the future, they are, as a matter of fact, spasmodically bent on the modernity of the present. Anxious to tune themselves to the messages of the present times, they cut themselves off from their roots and blindly deny their past. As a result they not only lose their roots, but also miss their future and relapse in the deadly traps of the past (Sharankumar Limbale,Twelve Months). The cognition of one's future history cannot but be based on the critical self-recognition of one's own past condition. One needs a reassessed memory of the past to draw from.

From Subjectivity to Reality: the Test of Truth

A crucial quesion addresses the passage from self-assertion as an event happening in the biographical space opened up in the time of memory to the chronology of actual history outside the time and labour of commemoration, viz., the social transformation to be brought about in the society at large. Engrossed in the labour of memory, how does each author transcend the limits of his critical subjectivity towards actual history? We cannot but stress in this respect an unfortunate fact, which seriously affects that passage, vz., the trap of official recognition through awards and prizes bestowed upon a number of dalit literature productions. This may toll the knell for Dalit literature instead of securing for the Dalit voice a better and effective listening.

Moreover, the social establishment and valorization of critical canons of style and aesthetics are highly privileged exercices, hegemonic by nature, and reflect power structures. For instance, for centuries, cutting across nations and races, women's literary styles have been criticised by critics, almost always male, and certain characteristics of women's narratives found in men's writings termed, weak, soft, feminine and so on. The writer of the biography of Vithabai Mang, Queen of Tamasha, has tampered with words and reality. Baby Kamble's narrative becomes problematic for the classical canons that dominate critical appreciation and is also evidently judged for being an enrelenting witness to the injustices of the Brahmanical orders which produce these critics. Still, if passion is valorised as a quality in literary production, Baby Kamble's Our Existence can be rescued. We know of one manuscript (Babanrao Chavan) which remains unpublished for reason of serious threats to the life of the author made by local religious authorities denounced as continuing with rules and practices of untouchability despite discourses to the contrary.

A Horizon of Crisis as Anthropological Topos

Epistemologically, the anthropological topos of dalit autobiographies is a wide-open horizon of crisis: crises of survival, denial of social status and cultural dignity, breaches of social consensus, contestation of repressive norms and degrading values, defiant practices in the everyday life, dissident behavior, latent discontent, inner emergence of counter-culture, protest and conflictual relations, access to empowering opportunities, etc. on the part of individuals or small groups acting in defiance of or at variance with, the established codes of conduct and systems of values. On this horizon, the focus is not directly on the structures and institutions as such but on the individuals involved in them as victim, protagonist, simple actor, common man, enforcing authority. The particular relevance of the dalit autobiographies is the creative burst of the individual striving to assert himself, lest he disappears swallowed up by the alleged necessity of systemic orders and the divine truth of cultural dispensations imposed on him by dominant social actors. When a human subject realises that he has been alienated from his Self, dialectical processes do stir up a new consciousness and prompt to remake history.

Holistic and coercive anthropological models find strong arguments in usual studies of Indian society. Micro-scale biographical analyses show that the static configurations of such abstract constructs speak from without for the permanent triumph of the dominant collective actors and factors which wield control and power. They unduely give exclusive importance to the permanent components of the system. The latter is wrongly construed as the substantive reality, when it is just a reference to measure the actual substance of human history. Existential approaches such as the biographical method, are meant to reveal the dialectics which to day as yesterday cut through the entire system, but which often remain purposefully repressed, ignored, covered up, cornered in the dark, kept under a coating of silence, enervated or absorbed by several kinds of manipulative cognitive and behavioral mechanisms. The subject as alternative dialectic reason gives biography its anthropological relevance.
Biography is more than a mirror. When an individual sits in judgment upon his whole existence, environment and society, his biographical testimony obtains the status of a particular synthetic standpoint: that of a subject reading through his private destiny the crossing and interweaving of the social structures and dynamics which run right through him. From this vantage point, the particular reaches the status of a universal concrete subject, keystone of a social analysis. The (auto-)biography provides fields of mediation between the generality of a structure and the historicity of an individual's practice and cultural innovation The biographical approach becomes a social hermeneutics by focussing on the singular as a centre of social-cultural re-interpretation and re-structuration.

Epistemological Implications

Our scholarly interest for the biographical approach is not born out of an academic choice. Our example is a case in point where the phenomenon could be roughly identified as a wish to focus on the importance of the individual in the study of the dynamics which pervade a given social fabric. Our interest in dalit autobiographies grounds itself on the perception that, especially with reference to Indian studies, the minority and the ostracised, or in general all those individuals or small groups whose particularities bubble over general statements or stay alltogether on the sidelines of the mainstreams, can and ought to be apprehended also as valid sources of anthropological knowledge. We assume that biography with its profusion of minute details is the proper 1ocus for the discovery and assertion of alternative rationalities if not even counter-rationalities. Here is an antidote against the hegemony of any given --that is, established and dominant-- knowledge and its perils.

The interest in biographical approach is no sickly taste for the rubbish of history. It rests on the conviction that it offers the common man, the foot of history, a chance to test, for instance, the propriety of the established orders in which he is forcefully coopted, the strategies of change deviced for him but without him, the validity of historical judgments passed on him by experts who read his destiny without his consent and his knowing. In general it is an opportunity offered to the marginalised to voice their appeal against the systems which throw them on the side-lines of humanity and outside of the systems of social knowledge. In other terms biography offers a space for displaying the limitations which cripple the production of knowledge in human sciences and the obnoxious effetcs of cognitive systems imposed by force on human beings.

The biographical approach is a device for getting a deeper insight in the complexity of the dialectics which agitate human societies especially those which operate underground, on a minor scale, with limited import or with an import whose meaning has not been duely acknowledged. The biographical writing helps promote those who otherwise would remain the mute and unconscious objects of history to the status of subjects reading for themselves their own destiny with their own open eyes and critical capacities. This approach may even assume that the roots of history lie hidden in that secret place of free determination which marks the place of the individuals and small groups. In any case, autobiographical accounts prove one of the best ways to explore these secret roots of the future that no necessity can fortell and no law foresee. The approach assumes here that the individual is the mainspring of history and that it can not or should not be otherwise. The Individual is epistemologically given the status of a space of freedom and creativity. A biography is sociologically relevant to the extent it projects a universal-concrete symbol of the processes involved. A symbolic and typologic logic plays here the role that the concept of representativity and procedures of sampling fulfil in the quantitative survey methods.


<1> For the meaning of Balute, see herewith p.23.

<2> A section of the Dalits, particularly those persons who have reached a standard of urban, educated middle class, finds the term derogaroty, regressive, undesirable, even reactionary, as it makes the dalits unnecessarily carrying the load of the historical past, or tends to look at them as Manu himself did. Instead of Dalit they claim the term of Buddhist.

<3> Needless to say that the opposition of the Pure and the Impure is another cliché still more inadequate and largely sterile once considered in isolation from other anthropologically and sociologically basic pairs of opposition which coalesce together as to result in various forms of ostracism. We are of the opinion and regret that Ambedkar himself, despite his high sensitivity, did not transcend this classical dichotomy; it is unfortunate that this made him speak about the tribals, for instance, in the same socio-economic terms as the Brahmanical, British and Indologist establishment of his time.

<4> The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Atlanta, 1981 defines as follows the term: "n. 1. a. A period of time, originally lasting 40 days ; during which a vehicle, a person, or goods suspected of carrying a contagious disease are detained at their port of entry under enforced isolation to prevent disease from entering a country. b. A place for such detention. 2. Enforced isolation or detention of free movement imposed to prevent a contagious disease from spreading. 3. Any enforced isolation. - tr. v. 1. To isolate for the purpose of preventing the spread of contagious disease; place in quarantine. 2. To isolate politically or economically."

<5> For Andhra Pradesh, s
ee Satyanarayana, 1998; for Gujarat, see New Quest, May-June 1988, 143-148. 

<6> Barring a few exceptions, these Mahær writers are moreover Buddhist since their conversion with Ambedkar in 1956 or their birth in families which welcome the conversion of Ambedkar; the Buddhist Mahærs represent 7% of the population of Maharashtra in 1961 (2.79 million out of 39,55 million population) and 6% in 1991 (5 million out of a 78,94 million population). According to the Mandal Commission (1980), 59 castes are socially labelled and stigmatized as untouchable in Maharashtra (administratively speaking they are classified as Scheduled Castes), they represent 12,48% of a population of 62,78 million in the Census of 1981, the Mahar are the most important of all of them, as they alone count for 10%. 

<7> In 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and launched a massive conversion movement as a radical denunciation and absolute denial of an Hindu tradition stigmatised as anti-human ideological order. See p. 16.

<8> According to O. Herrenschmidt, most of the sociologists, including Célestin Bouglé and Louis Dumont, never went farther than the traditional opposition between the equalitarian society of the West (with its value of Liberty and Democracy), and the inequalitarian Hindu society (with its hierarchy).

<9> Ambedkar used it for the last time, according to Olivier Herrenschmidt, in the Lok Sabha, during the discussions on the Hindu Code Bill, on September 20, 1951 : vol. 14.2 : 1159).

<10> The two extremes -- the Brahmins and the Untouchables -- use to be opposed -- as Ambedkar did -- when we want to simplify the presentation of the Hindu society. For Ambedkar, of course, it was a way to pinpoint the hopeless situation of the Untouchables, with no ally in the system, who cannot even (at least not anymore at the time where he is writing this essay) rely on the help of the non-dvijas, as he makes it very clear: "The Shudra while he is anxious to pull down the Brahmin, is not prepared to see the Untouchables raised to his level" (id.: 116) -- and, of course, we have to remember all the story of the Non-Brahmin Movement in Maharashtra (Omvedt 1976), the original admiration of Ambedkar for Phule, and all his politics and tactics since the twenties.

<11> O. Herrenschmidt remarks (Pune, Oct.98, in "Ambedkar and the Hindu Social Order", p. 7): Jati, caste, is a term which does not pertain to sociological models, it is a naturalistic one. The word means "species" (and also in logic and linguistics "class"). We have natural jatis (cows, sharks, tigers...), we don't have varnas in the nature. This means that a "humane" jati is not a "social class" at first, but one among the continuum of the "natural" jatis. This means, too, that there is no "human species" fovery r the traditional Brahmanic thought. Regarding Ambedkar's thought this means that he always said -- logically -- that the Brahmanical tradition did not recognise the individual (contrary to the Western tradition). Both are going together: to recognise the individual as a value, you should first (or at the same time) conceive of a "human species" comprising all the "human beings" and only them.
<12> "There is no country that can rival the Indian Peninsula with respect to the unity of its culture" (Castes in India, 1917, vol.1 : 6, 22). "Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of culture that is the basis of homogeneity" (vol. 1 : 6) This is true for any community, Parsis, Christians, Muslims, etc.: what defines them is culture and specifically religion, not race. Castes cannot be interpreted in terms of races, or invasions. What has done the unity of India is the Brahmanic culture, its ideas, values, practices. Ambedkar asserts two things : the leading role of an intellectual class, and simult aneously its imitations by the whole society, including the lower strata. The caste system is for Ambedkar "a parcelling of an already homogeneous unit." (vol. 1 : 6, 9, 22)

<13> The word Taral designates the occupational duties incumbent on Mahars as village servants.

<14> Tamasha: popular comedy, looked down upon by the elite for its vulgarity, usually performed by actors from untouchable castes.

<15> The Peshwas, the orthodox Brahmin rulers of Pune, had adopted and spread to the four corners of Maharashtra the elephant-headed god as emblem of their politico-cultural power.

<16> Varkari refers to those who observe the practice of the yearly pilgrimage to Vihobæ at Pandharpur, a massive popular expression of the bhakti movement, which circulated messages of human equality, devotional faith, love of God for the deprived, against Brahmanic rituals, social hierarchy, discriminatory religious beliefs. Comparable in Maharashtra to other sectarian movements like the Kabir Panth from Northern India.

<17> Group ofVarkari organised per village and community, to perform on foot, walking, living and praying together, the pilgrimage of Pandharpur. Back home, they continue to hold religious meetings and maintain brotherly links.

<18> Cokhamel, Cokhoba or Cokha refer to the same fourteenth century Maharsant poet, see p. 12, a symbol of identity and recognition of a place within the Hindu fold for Mahars, which Ambedkar discarded as actually a symbol of inclusion into an oppressive social and cultural dispensation.

<19> Famous symbolic demonstration organised in 1927 by Ambedkar at Mahad, in the West of Maharashtra, to obtain for Untouchables the free access to the water of a public reservoir.

<20> Very recently, Urmila Pawar (1989) and Eleanor Zelliot (1992) gave accounts of this.

Mr. Subash Goria

Mr.Subash Goria with his wife Mrs. Parveen Goria
Posted on ( March 27, 2008 )
Mr. Subash Goria Editor, Printer, publisher of the Punjab Aaj Tak (Evening Punjabi Daily) and his wife Mrs. Parveen Goria married on 25th March 1997 . They have three daughters - Jasleen, Gurleen, Mohni & a son named Harshit Goria. The couple is enjoying a happy, healthy and social life. Today, they celebrated their 12th marriage anniversary at their home without any pump and show.
             I, on behalf of staff and my family wish them a happy, healthy, prosperous and self -respectful social life.

Heritage of Punjabi Dalit Literature and its Exclusion from Histories

By Raj Kumar Hans
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
Exploring histories of Dalit literature in different languages of India is to encounter the deserts of neglects, silences and exclusions. The ‘Progressive Punjab’ is no exception to this sub-continental reality despite claims that Brahmanical ideology and its resultant social structures had considerably weakened in the Punjab due to the impact of long waves of religious egalitarianism of Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism. The virus of Brahmanism had so afflicted the Indian mind over the millennium that it would spring back the demon of untouchability from time to time even in the areas of its weakest linkage. After the establishment of Ranjit Singh’s rule and more so after the British conquest of Punjab the Sikhs became easy prey (or conversely speaking, the ‘high-caste’ Sikhs themselves became hunting partners) to the hovering vulture of Brahmanism and its cardinal practice, the ‘untouchability’. The making of Punjabi society, a frontier society, for at least last three thousand years, has been a story of complex paradoxes though the elitist historiography of all hues has denied it its colourful multiplicity. If dalit saint poets as part of this tradition offer paradoxical response of devotion and dissent till the first quarter of the twentieth century, the next eight decades yield a rich harvest of Punjabi dalit literature with clear dalit consciousness. Indeed, the established and dominant literary and historiographical tradition is hardly aware of this rich array of dalit intellectual practice and even when it is known, it is not recognised. The first section of this brief article surveys Punjabi dalit writings while the second part looks at the historiographical practice from a dalit perspective.
The Punjabi dalit literary tradition begins with Bhai Jaita alias Jeevan Singh (c1655-1705) who was very close to Gurus’ household as he was the one who had carried the severed head of Guru Teg Bahdur from Delhi to Anandpur and in his late years composed a devotional epic ‘Sri Gur Katha’ around Guru Gobind Singh’s life somewhere around 1699-1700. Historical significance of this epic lies in the fact that Bhai Jaita provides an eyewitness account to a few centrally important events in the life of Guru Gobind Singh and Sikh history. That he was not just a poet but a thinking poet is attested from his composition when he says:

Jal bin jeevan hohe na kabhun,
Garab maih jeev kau gyan na hohe hain.
Jiv chintan bin cheet na hoye hain,
Ar chintan bin janam na koye hain.
Iv janani dharni chintan ki,
Chintan jeev kai chit ki loye hain.
Ar sab chintan dharan te hoye hain,
Ta kar dharni janani hoye hain.

(There can be no life without water and a human being cannot have knowledge while in mother’s womb. As there cannot be any knowledge without thinking, there can be no life without ‘thinking’. As this earth gives birth to all knowledge, thinking is the light of the living being. Since all thinking grows from the womb of Earth that is reason it is called the Mother.)
Our second dalit saint-poet Sadhu Wazir Singh (c1790-1859) attained the status of ‘Brahmgyani’ and prolifically composed philosophical and cultural poetry, both in Punjabi and Braj bhasha. A small part of his published poetry as selected by Shamsher Singh Ashok in ‘Siharfian Sadhu Wazir Singh kian’ is a window to a wide range of his knowledge, from religious and spiritual to social and political. He questions all religious establishments and argues for a non-dualistic approach to life. Since he was engaged in deep thinking and in giving creative expressions to his thoughts numerous disciples including poets joined his dera. All the five of his identified poet disciples including two young widows came from the high castes. One of them is veer Singh Sahgal while Nurang Devi turns out to be the first Punjabi poetess groomed under his tutorship. His assertion on going beyond the established religions is well captured in his 12th Siharfi where he says:

Kaaf- kade Koran di lod naahin, vekh pothian thothian paarde han.
Rehras namaz di khahash naahin, dharamsal masit nun saarde han.
Gang, Gaya Pryag nun tiyag keeta, gor marhi niyaz na chaarde han.
Hoye aap nirpakh Wazir Singha, pakhan dohan di khed nun taarde han.

(We don’t need Koran as we also tear the empty granths. There is no desire for Rehras (referring here to Guru Granth Sahib), as we burn temples and mosques. We have abandoned the Ganges, Gaya and Pryag as we also do not worship the Dead. As we have become non-sectarian O! Wazir Singh we keep a watch over the game both sides play.)

The next dalit intellectual writer Giani Ditt Singh (1852-1901) emerged as a poet, teacher, polemicist, journalist, orator and ardent Sikh missionary who turned out to be the pillar of the Singh Sabha movement. Ditt Singh’s scholarly talents came in handy for the Sikh movement. Lahore Singh Sabha floated a weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Akhbar in 1886. He assumed editorship of the paper in 1887 that he continued till his death in 1901. Meanwhile, he was also appointed as a professor of Punjabi at the Oriental College, Lahore. He wrote more than fifty books and pamphlets on wide-ranging subjects, from love-lore to Sikh traditions, from history to ethics, from heroes to charlatans as he also produced polemics. Even being a leader in the limelight he could not escape the overt and covert assault of untouchability from his fellow and follower Sikhs.

Our next dalit intellectual poet is Sadhu Daya Singh Arif (1894-1946) who came to master the Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit scripts and languages with the help of several non-formal teachers who were stunned by his sharp intellect. Not only that he had studied Vedas, Puranas, Smritis, Granth Sahib and Quran during his teenage, he also had read wide range of secular literature and as also reached the stage of ‘Brahmgyani’ through meditation and contemplation like Sadhu Wazir Singh which is apparent from his assuming the title of ‘Arif’. His first poetical work ‘Fanah-dar-Makan’ was published when he just turned 20. This was written in sadh bhasha and emphasised the quintessential element of mortality in human existence. Due to somewhat difficult language and style of composition he was advised by Baba Sawan Das, his Sanskrit teacher, to revise it and write in simple language. He was bursting with so much of creative energy that he altogether produced another kissa entitled ‘Fanah da Makan’, first published in 1915, which became very popular throughout the Punjab while a household reading in his own region of Malwa as it was sold in several hundred-thousand copies. The work which made Daya Singh a household name through the width and breadth of the Punjab was Zindagi Bilas which was completed on 23rd August 1916. It is in this work where his vast religious, spiritual and secular knowledge is manifest. Following the ancient wisdom that average human life is of 100 years, Daya Singh composed lyrical poems on each year. Overall it is a touching didactic poetry that caught masses’ imagination which became the most published, read or heard poetic creation next only to Waris Shah’s ‘Heer’.

Daya Singh comes to the theme of prevailing communal division again and again. Listen! What he says in his discourse on 56th Year in ‘Zindagi Bilas’:

Unity I see all around, wherever my eyes rove
Superior claims of faith, Hindus and Muslims fight over
Mere jugglery of words, Essence of Ram and Rahim the same
Of Castist belief untouchability born, both made of the soil same
Children of same parents, if they just see Origins
Forsaking God, they worship false objects, get astray into aimlessness
Give up evils for salvation, devils you remain sans praxis
Daya Singh has left partisanship, in every sector, every deed
Daya Singh was aware of all the competing revivalist tendencies and religious polemical wars around the turn of century as he says in the ‘Fanah da Makan’:
Varnas and religions all, exclusive claims of purity
Hindus with Har Narayan, hold their principles True
Pastors and Dayanandi Aryas pronounce, no deliverance without them
Exclusive rights in Heaven say Muslims, no place for Hindus there
God has no enmity with Hindus, keeps no exclusive place for Muslims
Fight they all over religion, without knowing the Unknown
Filthy n empty sans good deeds, paupers they are, without a penny
Daya Singh false claims the world may make; no recognition without actions

He holds Brahminical ritualism with same contempt as did bhagats and Sufis. He is deadly against idol worship. The Islamic influence on his mind is quite obvious as he has used 18 aayets in his 3 kissas. Similarly, Sufi influence is manifest in his insistence on murshid, guru without whom the seeker cannot reach the Divine. The concept of ishq is present at several places in Daya Singh’s works. Towards the close of ‘Zindagi Bilas’ in ‘Uttam Updesh # 39’ he says:

Creator is happy loving his Creation, be happy in the service of that creation
No knowledge without guru, beseech murshid for the purpose
Death is premium for lovers’ union, emboldened you be like true lover
Be reformed thoroughly before counselling others with confidence
Elated be not with worldly joys, be soaked in ishq’s spring
Reads He your heart’s letters, send your sweetheart an urgent telegram

The importance of Sadhu Daya Singh is manifold. First and foremost, he is the first Dalit Punjabi poet to attain the widest possible popularity, the kind of popularity enjoyed by Waris Shah, in the undivided Punjab. Secondly, he reinforces what was moral and what was ethical when it was desired most. Thirdly, Daya Singh’s poetry is free from any kind of sectarianism and is thoroughly secular in the prevailing communal environment. His concern and message was universal in content; it is libertarian rather than restraining. Lastly, Daya Singh not only produces good poetry but emerges as an intellectual of his age. Through the study of scriptures and traditions of major religions of the land, he arrives at his own understanding of human existence that he corroborates from his practical life and keen observation. He lays great stress on practice than theory, on deeds than the scriptural knowledge. Here his background of labouring class provides him insights.

The rise of Ad Dharm movement in Punjab in the 1920s unleashed the most virulent opposition to caste under the leadership of the Gadharite Babu Mangoo Ram Mugowalia. The autonomous movement drew inspiration from the Dalit poet-saints Ravidass, Kabir, and Namdev and assailed the brahmanical structures of social inequality and domination. The Ad Dharm movement aimed at securing a distinct identity for the Dalits, independent of both the Hindu and Sikh religions. In addition to political mobilization, the Ad Dharm movement brought about cultural transformation in the lives of Untouchables in Punjab by its emphasis on moral principles for bringing a sense of self-respect among them. It also attempted to forge unity among the different Untouchable castes by bringing them under one banner of Ad Dharm emphasising they were the original inhabitants of the region. Two weekly newspapers played a significant role in raising Dalit consciousness in Punjab: Adi Danka in the 1930s and Ujala in the early 1950s. Gurdas Ram Aalam and Chanan Lal Manak set the trend of radical Dalit poetry in Punjab via Adi Danka’s prestigious columns.

Gurdas Ram Aalam (1912-1989), who was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district, happens to be the first Punjabi poet with dalit consciousness. Aalam was not able to go to school and learnt basic Gurmukhi letters from his friends. Even though illiterate, Aalam emerged as one of popular folk-poets of stage before the Partition. All the four books of his poems were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. No wonder, even Pash (who has become symbol of Punjabi revolutionary poetry) considered Aalam the first revolutionary poet of Punjab.

Hazara Singh Mushtaq (1917-1981) was different from his predecessor dalit poets. He was an ardent nationalist, flag-bearer of Indian National Congress and was also jailed a few times during the late-colonial rule for his nationalism. Of his seven books published, Kissa Mazhbi Sikh Jodha (1955) directly reflected his dalit concerns. Though he does not chide ‘Independence’ in the context of the poor dalits like Aalam, he expresses his disillusionment with the post-Independence developments, brings in socialist ideology to disparage the social and economic disparities, and calls the dalits for a revolutionary rise in his 1977 Noori Gazal.

The revolutionary rise that Punjab witnessed in the form of Naxalism in the late 1960s produced two dalit poets with revolutionary as well as dalit consciousness. These were Sant Ram Udasi (1939-1986) and Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007). Sant Ram Udasi was born in a dalit Mazhbi Sikh landless labour family. He grew up with a strong dalit consciousness and had tried to see dignity in Sikh religion, but soon he experienced that caste discrimination and untouchability had struck deep roots in the Sikh religion. During 1970s he emerged as one of the powerful radical poets and published three books of poetry, viz. Lahu Bhije Bol (Blood-soaked Word), Saintan (Gestures) and Chounukrian (the Four-edged). He was arrested, jailed and tortured for his Naxal connections. The tortures to him were far more severe than were meted out to the high-caste Jatt Naxals only because he happened to be a dalit. Another dalit Naxalite poet Lal Singh Dil was born in a Ramdasia Sikh (Chamar) family in 1943. He was training to be a basic school teacher when Naxalbari sucked him in. In the dream of a society free of caste and class, Dil saw a new dawn for the oppressed. He was arrested, incarcerated and tortured, more tortured because he was a dalit, while his tormentors belonged to the dominant high castes. Dil was a sensitive poet and his poetry was true to life and the experience of poverty, injustice and oppression was so real and told so well that he was hailed as the bard of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. A great poet he was undoubtedly, and his collection of poetry Satluj di Hava (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982), and Sathar (1997) as well as his autobiography Dastaan (1998) enjoy an exalted place in Punjabi letters. It is remarkable that Dil’s Dalit consciousness and identity was free from feelings of hatred, vengeance and malice. Though he remained and died a faqir, Dil has come to be acknowledged as the one of the few best Punjabi poets of last half a century.

The two powerful revolutionary dalit poets were an upsurge on the Punjabi literary stage which had remained dominated by the upper-caste, upper-class litterateurs and they became a major source for the bursting of dalit literary energy in 1990s. If their poetry was looking for a revolutionary class change, it had the vivacity of dalit identity which was capable of challenging the hegemonic discourses. Sukhdev Singh Sirsa puts this change in perspective:

The question of dalit identity has given a new ideological context to the contemporary Punjabi literature. The new Punjabi poetry has given a new expression to the dalit concerns of existential and social identity. This new perspective disentangles itself from the class-conflict approach to the understanding of dalit identity in the varna system and looks at the changing dalit philosophy. Hence, this poetry does not only reject the established assumptions and hypotheses but also produces an alternative. (“Dalit Punjabi Kavita: Itihasak Paripekh” in Hashia, I, 1(Jan-March 1908), p. 27 (my translation)

Contemporary poets include Balbir Madhopuri, Siri Ram Arsh, Sulakhan Mit, Gurmeet Kalarmajri, Madan Vira, Manjit Kadar, Bhagwan Dhilon, Buta Singh Ashant, Manmohan, Mohan Tyagi, Mohan Matialvi, Jaipal, Iqbal Gharu, Harnek Kaler, Sadhu Singh Shudrak. They are assertive about their dalit identity as dalit political assertion in the past few decades has empowered them to re-read historical traditions and situate themselves by providing a pride of space in the otherwise historical trajectory denied to them. This is obvious from the following lines of two contemporary dalit poets.

Manmohan in ‘Agaz’ raises his voice:

It is said to me
The colour of your poem is black
Flat features
Tattered dress
Full of patches
Asymmetrical rhythm….
Sorrow appears before pleasure does
Pains peaks before peace….
Tell me now
If i don’t write poems like this
What should i do?
Listen what Balbir Madhopuri has to offer in his ‘Bhakhda Patal’ (Smouldering Netherworld):
For smoked skinned people like me
I do want
My poems
Should be part of that anthology
That contains
Stories of Eklavaya and Banda Bahadur
Struggle of Pir Buddhu Shah
Sensitivity of Pablo Neruda

The Punjabi short story had remained a story of the dominant Jatts or the urban elite for long time, although stray empathetic notes could be seen in the second generation of story-writers in the 1950s-60s. It is only in the 1970s with Attarjit’s ‘Bathlu Chamiar’ that Punjabi short-story weaves a complete dalit character from dalit perspective. His collections of story ‘Maas-khore’, ‘Tutde bannde Rishte’, ‘Adna Insan’, and ‘Anni Theh’ construct the assertive dalit consciousness. Similarly if Prem Gorkhi and Bhura Singh Kaler bring vitality to the dalit short story, Lal Singh and Nachhatar’s stories give a distinct personality to dalits. During the 1980s and 90s dalit story consolidates itself with Makhan Maan, Bhagwant Rasulpuri, Ajmer Sidhu, Des Raj Kali, Jinder, Gurmit Kadialavi, Sarup Sialvi, Gulzar Muhammad Goria and Mohan Philoria who declare themselves as dalits with pride and élan as they are inspired by Ambedkar’s ideology.

The Punjabi novel was the product of the early twentieth century and its nature was religious in context and content. It is only after independence that its scope gets widened. From Gurdial Singh’s dalit character Jagsir who is still seen in the dominant-subordination landed relations, the novel enters into different terrain of dalit consciousness. Gurcharan Singh Rao’s ‘Mashalchi’ (1986), Karnail Singh Nijhar’s ‘Sarghi da Tara’, Surjit Sokhi’s ‘Aurat te Aurat’ (1983), Karamjit Singh Aujhla’s ‘Ooch Neech’ (2000), Nachhatar’s ‘Buddhi Sadi da Manukh’(1988) and ‘Nikke Nikke Asman’ (2004), Gurmel Madahad’s ‘Dulla’ and Des Raj Kali’s ‘Parneshwari’ (2007) have chartered a speedy journey of producing the fulsome dalit novels. Gurcharan Rao’s Mashalchi holds untouchability practiced by high castes responsible for educational backwardness of dalits. Nachhatar’s weaves a progressive story of dalit march onward as compared to some of the jatts who sometimes come to them to borrow money. Even on the question of sexuality one finds role reversals where girls from upper castes fall in love with dalit boys especially the educated ones. Madahad’s protagonist in ‘Dulla’ is a dalit woman Tej who does not consider herself less than any man. Not only that she adds to the meagre family income but by igniting the dead body of her mother to cremation, otherwise prohibited to women by social practice, she raises the status of women in general. Tej emerges as a courageous, strong and intelligent woman who shows independence of character. She is conscious of good living, struggle to progress in life and does not succumb to anybody. In Parneshwari, Des Raj Kali looks deep into the Dalit past, seeking to lend them an identity when the contemporary social realities fail to respond to their aspirations. His work is rooted in Punjab’s legacy of Sufism and Buddhism and challenges the cultural hegemonies of Sikh religion. The novelist creates his own style of writing and one needs to discard the old practises of reading Punjabi literature when one reads Kali.

One important genre used by dalit writers that becomes an explicit expression of dalit consciousness is autobiographical writing. It authenticates the real world of exclusionary orders and practices; of social ostracism, caste discriminations, economic and sexual exploitation, and political subordination; of wants, miseries, insults, humiliations but also the world of dalit dreams, aspirations, struggles, sacrifices and rise. Understandably, the dalit autobiographies appeared late on the Punjabi literary horizon. The first such work happens to by Pandit Bakshi Ram’s Mera Jeevan Sangharash [My life Struggle], hardly known and referred to as it was not published by any established publisher but by Punjab Pradesh Balmik Sabha, Jalandhar, a caste-community organization, in 1983 and Balmiks happened to be the lowest of the low, mainly working as scavengers in the towns and cities. Lal Singh Dil’s Dastan is a poignant account almost poetic (essentially being a poet, his prose in Dastan reads like a poem) of his life as a dalit, as a revolutionary, as a person on the margins of every facet of life. He goes into those issues of everyday life where he felt humiliated, neglected, ignored, despised, dismissed and tortured as he also records those who befriended, encouraged, stood by, helped and consoled. Balbir Madhopuri’s autobiography Chhangia Rukh (The Lopped Tree) appeared in 2003 and stirred the Punjabi literary world by baring the real rural social life the way it was not done before. It is a powerful portrayal of dalit life-world. Equally important is the 2007 autobiography by another dalit writer Gurnam Aqida called Kakh Kande: Nij ton Haqiqat Val [Blades of Grass and Thistles: from Self towards Reality]. Said in a novel stylistic prose it is a poignant account of rural-urban continuum as far as the dalits’ position is concerned. It challenges the dominant strains and takes dalits’ story forward in a progression. He looks at the changing times with a positive glare where a silent ‘revolution’ seems to be taking place with the dalits’ movement from villages and getting free from the upper-caste’s day-to-day exploitation and oppression. His account hints at the steady rise of dalit consciousness and assertion. Being an upright and honest journalist he had to face the caste prejudice and attacks where he came to be considered as a kanda (Hindi kanta-thistle) by his corrupt superiors and jealous colleagues. The autobiography of Attarjit adds another dimension to the dalit life-world of Punjab where dalits match the dominant jatt community on the question of self-respect even engaging them in fights including murders. It was known in the surrounding villages that people should be careful confronting dalits of Attarjit’s village especially his own family. Thus, the dalits have come a long way.

The essay had begun with a comment on state of literary histories that how the elitist approaches in history writing have systematically excluded dalit writers only because of their caste and social marginalisation. We have seen above a rich heritage of Punjabi dalit writings, the vitality of dalit creativity and the best informed in Punjabi literary circles and historians are either just ignorant of these fascinating figures or they feign ignorance. Even when one can understand ignorance about writings of Bhai Jaita and Sadhu Wazir Singh as they came to light only in the last three decades how one makes a sense of this neglect when one talks of Daya Singh Arif’s poetry which ruled the Punjabi minds for a century? This section would take account of writings on histories of Punjabi literature even while focussing on Daya Singh’s case.

The first ‘path-breaking’ ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ in English was written by Dr Mohan Singh Dewana in 1932. Dr Dewana was a sound scholar with facility in Gurmukhi, Urdu, Persian, Hindi and English languages besides being a creative writer. Sadhu Daya Singh was Dr Dewana’s contemporary and by the time the latter wrote his history the former had made a mark as one of the most popular poets of his times. It is unlikely that Dewana would be ignorant of Daya Singh’s work, and yet he does not mention his name even in his chart of minor poets of the British period. One can give him the benefit of doubt in his first edition. But omitting Daya Singh in the second edition of his history published in 1956 is not easy to understand. Here, Tejwant Singh Gill’s observation seems to be apt about “his haughty temperament that led him to deal arrogantly with his contemporaries.” (“Studying Punjabi literature of the Past” in Muse India (e-journal), In the case of Daya Singh, Gill’s further assessment of Dewana appears to be problematic when he continues: “So much so, while dealing with the modern period, he had the audacity to ignore them altogether, and mention only those who wrote in the commonplace idiom and did not have claim to literary achievement worth the name.” One does not know whom he has in mind when he talks about Dewana’s ‘ignoring them altogether’ because Dewana talks very highly of Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957), Dhani Ram Chatrik (1876-1954) and Puran Singh (1881-1931) and celebrates them as ‘three pioneer Lyricists-Intellectualists’. He surely accommodates several such who to Gill ‘did not have claim to literary achievement worth the name’. Daya Singh could surely be counted among ‘those who wrote in the commonplace idiom’, and yet he does not even get mentioned in Dewana’s list where only writers’ names and their works are given.

Dr Mohan Singh Dewana was a pioneer, the trend-setter in the historiography of Punjabi literature. While he wrote in English, the English the English would write, those following him in this respect and writing in Punjabi followed him literally as a revered authority. If Dewana included or excluded someone in/from the history, his successors would not do otherwise. This is remarkable for the culture of history writing in Punjab. After a decade of Dewana epitome, Gopal Singh came up with ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ in 1942, Surinder Singh produced the same title in 1950, Piara Singh Bhogal wrote ‘Punjabi Kavita de Sau Saal (from 1850 to 1954)’ in 1955, Heera Singh Dard came up with the tried out title ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ in 1976 while Jeet Singh Seetal produced ‘Punjabi Sahit da Alochnatmak Itihas’ in 1979, to count only the major ones. And host of scholars of Punjabi literature paid their attention to the developments in the history of Punjabi literature. Most of them have followed the Master of the genre and have not bothered to look at poor Daya Singh in their histories. Tejwant Gill says that they “were so overawed by his scholarship that they did not acquire confidence to gaze critically at the nomenclature, methodology, explication and evaluation provided by him.” Selection, of course, is a necessary methodological device and also a prerogative of the author that could also be called ‘subjectivity’ which incidentally is in abundance in literature. Dr Dewana quotes Andrew Lang of ‘History of English Literature’ in the first edition of his history:

The writer would indeed have willingly omitted not a few of the minor authors in pure literature, and devoted his space only to the masters. But each of these springs from an underwood, as it were, of thought and effort of men less conscious whom it were ungrateful and is practically impossible to pass by in silence. (History, 1956, p. V)

Dewana adds to what Lang was saying: “The reader has his orthodoxies and heresies; so has the writer and it will be much good if both recognize…” Surely, Dr Dewana had right to his ‘orthodoxies’. But if he was pitching in Lang as an authority on history of literature one would expect him to follow the master of the game in spirit if not in details. Even if Daya Singh was a ‘minor’ poet in Dr Dewana’s eyes, which he was not as highlighted above, Daya Singh certainly wielded capacity to ‘spring from an underwood of thought’ not to be bypassed ‘in silence’. Yet Daya Singh was indeed silenced as if popular lips who sang him in bazaars and in the fields were being stitched together.

It is in 1971 that Kirpal Singh Kasel in the 2nd volume of his ‘Punjabi Sahit da Itihas’ takes some note of our neglected poet. At least he writes 3 lines about Sadhu Daya Singh. The historian admits that Daya Singh wrote so well that he has been very popular among common people. But even in these 3 lines Kasel errs on the titles of both the works that he cites. He writes ‘Jindagi Bilas’ as ‘Jindagi Vilas’, a minor error, and ‘Fanah da Makan’ as ‘Fanah da Muqam’.

Dr Diwana’s exclusion is carried through decades to an authoritative work of historiography of Punjabi literature produced by Sahitya Akademi in 1992. Sant Singh Sekhon and Kartar Singh Duggal like Dewana do not mention Daya Singh even as a minor poet in their ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ although in the interregnum a well-researched monograph on the poet had appeared in two prints (Atam Hamrahi’s Sadhu Daya Singh Arif was published by the Publication Bureau of Punjabi University, Patiala in 1970. The book was out of print in the late-1980s; hence a second print was brought out in 1990).

There should be no doubt that Sant Singh Sekhon was a towering Marxist figure of Punjabi literature. In the last phase of his life, he also turned to writing history of Punjabi literature. There is a gap of nearly 60 years between Dewana’s and Sekhon’s histories. Much water had flown in the river of Punjabi literature in the interregnum. Sekhon in his 2nd volume of ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’ (1996) shows no less generosity than Kasel had done in 1971, a gap of 25 years towards our poet under discussion. It is another matter that he seems to have just picked up from Kasel and commits the same errors in the titles of two works of Daya Singh. It is surely an improvement on the 1992 volume jointly edited with Duggal produced by a national body on Indian literatures, viz Sahitya Academy. A slightly better space is given to Daya Singh in the most recent work in this trail of histories on Punjabi literature since the appearance of Dewana’s path-breaking work. Rajinder Pal Singh in his ‘Adhunik Punjabi Kavita da Itihas’ (2006) (which is 8th volume in the ‘series of History of Punjabi Literature’ brought out by Punjabi Sahit Akadmi, Delhi) gives 8 lines information on Daya Singh. It is a remarkable correction over the earlier histories in the sense that he gives full name of the poet, viz. Sadhu Daya Singh Arif and that also with correct dates of his birth and death and also with correct titles of all his works including ‘Sputtar Bilas’.

This in short, is the history of ‘coverage’ of Sadhu Daya Singh and his works in the 70 years of historiography of Punjabi literature. Indeed, it is a history of selective ‘silence’, of neglect and above all of exclusion. Not that Daya Singh’s contemporary ‘minor’ poets and writers get the similar treatment at the hands of historians. In the first place, Daya Singh is not a minor poet as discussed in this paper. He is one of the most popular poets of the first half of the twentieth century. But obviously he gets shadowed by the much lionised and valorised trio of Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh, and Dhani Ram Chatrik. Undoubtedly the three were towering literary figures, and are held at high pedestal not without foundation. But all of them also happened to be very rich as also they hailed from ‘upper castes’. On the other hand, Sadhu Daya Singh was born in an ‘untouchable’ poor family of labourers where social stigma and heaps of insults in daily life were surely detrimental to any comfortable creative activity. Being born a Dalit was a sufficient reason to be excluded from the charmed circle of high-caste writers. And surely, this treatment was not only ‘reserved’ for Daya Singh alone. Another popular Dalit poet chronologically following him has also been treated in the same cavalry fashion, in this respect without discrimination. Gurdas Ram Aalam was born in a poor Dalit family of Bundala village in Jallandhar district. Even though illiterate, Aalam had emerged as one of popular folk-poets of the stage before the Partition. He used to share the stage with the better known names in the Punjabi literary circles, viz. Kartar Singh Ballagan, Vidhata Singh Teer, Nandlal Nurpuri and Dhani Ram Chatrik. Unlike Daya Singh who focussed on moral and spiritual crises confronting the universal man, Aalam clearly grew up with Dalit consciousness and composed his poems and lyrics on the working people. All the four books of his poetry were full of social and economic issues of the deprived and oppressed caste-communities. He wrote with commitment and convictions and publicly presented his poetry powerfully on stage. On political and social issues, Aalam wrote like a revolutionary. Such a widely known, popular poet like Daya Singh was also written off from the pages of histories. There must be social structural and psychological reasons for their exclusion. An attempt needs be made to unravel the sources of such silences, neglects and exclusions.

e of Advanced Study, Shimla

November 20, 2013 

A trailblazer in Dalit literature


Om Prakash Valmiki lost his battle for life to liver cancer on Sunday(17 Nov 2013), aged 63, leaving behind a literary legacy that is iconic not just for his words, but also because of what it tells us about our times.

Born at the lowest rung of the scheduled castes as an untouchable chuhda in Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh, he rose to occupy the highest place in the world of Dalit literature because of his powerful writings.
While Dalit literature had gained wide acceptability in other Indian languages like Marathi, Hindi came to recognise it much later. This meant that when Mr. Valmiki started writing, there were not many takers in Brahmin and Thakur-dominated Hindi literary scene for this kind of literature.
It goes to the credit of Rajendra Yadav, who too passed away last month, that he turned his monthly magazine Hans into a platform for Dalit writing and its concomitant literary discourse.
When Mr. Valmiki penned his autobiography, Yadav suggested “Joothan” (Leftovers) as its title, and the rest is history. Joothan is one of the most celebrated autobiographies in Hindi today and has been translated into several Indian as well as foreign languages.
Joothan tells the heart-wrenching story of an untouchable boy who grows up in a Tyagi-dominated village in the period that immediately follows the advent of Independence.
Mr. Valmiki was born in 1950 and he experienced the cruel inhumanity of the caste system every minute of his life. In following the age-old oppressive customs, Muslim Tyagis were no better than their Hindu counterparts. Untouchables were treated no better than cattle.
The Constitution of free, democratic India had done away with untouchability, but only legally. The social goal of eradicating it is yet to be achieved — but in the 1950s, the process had not even begun in right earnest.
Mr. Valmiki’s autobiography tells us in touching detail about his horrific experiences, his valiant struggles to overcome his social situation, and his eventual triumph.
However, if one reads him carefully, one becomes painfully aware that even after achieving literary fame and success, Mr. Valmiki continued to feel that so long as the well-trenched social biases enjoying support from religion and tradition remained, Dalits can never shed their Dalitness and become part of the society as a whole.
If one book acquires great fame, his other works tend to be ignored as they are overshadowed by or compared with it. This happened to Shrilal Shukla, whose Raga Darbari overshadowed his other great works like Bisrampur ka Sant. Mr. Valmiki published three collections of poetry — Sadiyon ke Santaap (Centuries-old Sorrows), Bas! Bahut ho Chuka (Enough is Enough) and Ab aur Nahin (Not Any More) — and two collections of short stories, besides penning a treatise on the aesthetics of Dalit literature. However, his name was inextricably linked with Joothan and the other books did not get adequate attention.
He was in the thick of many literary controversies, one of which concerned the great writer Premchand too. In contrast with his peers, he was marked out for his much more balanced view of things — literary and non-literary.
He will always be remembered by those who knew him not just as a literary trailblazer, but as a fine human being
He succeeded in providing the Dalit writing in Hindi with a solid foundation.

Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy: 
Kannada Dalit Literature

A History of Kannada Dalit Literature – An Overview

The dawn of independence in India literally paved way for a host of voiceless communities – till then buried in the grave of ignorance in the name of castes – to fall into the realm of education. Though this fundamental right has been enshrined in the constitution which was adopted in January 1950, it took a generation for the people to get bold to come out in the open and assert their right for self respect and human dignity. 1970s, therefore, witnessed a great deal of dalit movement, literature, activities throughout the country in almost all major languages.

The word ‘dalit’ was first experimented in Maharashtra, a Western state of India to emulate the movement heralded in the United States of America for emancipation of blacks as ‘Black panthers’. On similar lines ‘Dalit panthers’ was founded in Maharashtra in the later part of 1960s which eventually paved way for Dalit literature in Marathi. At almost the same period, there were some famous poets writing in Telugu calling themselves Digambara Writers (Digambara meaning naked). But the word dalit caught up with popular mood and the movements and literature in other languages unhesitatingly named them as dalit. Of course, the etymology of the word and the gamut of its meaning have been extensively deliberated in every language.

The source and the inspiration for dalit writers was undoubtedly the literature produced by the inimitable Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, noted as the chief architect of Indian constitution and pioneer of dalit movement in India. The volumes of works he has created stand to be the beacon light for dalit and backward communities forever. There are hardly few sociologists like Ambedkar who dissected the caste system threadbare and delineated the ills of Indian Society. From being social scientist to political thinker, a philosopher to educationist, a committed philanthropist, he continues to influence the dalit writing even to this day.

When looked into the scenario of Kannada and Karnataka, the literature and the movement are just not borrowed from other parts but have a strong foothold, for provincial and indigenous reasons. Kannada lore has its quota of rebels in the past but now the time was ripe for the downtrodden and oppressed to turn the course of history and have their say.

The famous saying of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, “the cultural revolution precedes political revolution” has become true in Karnataka. D.Devaraja Urs who was the Chief Minister of Karnataka for a long time championed the cause of OBCs, MBCs, and dalits as well. He formed L.G.Havanur Commission to formulate reservation system for OBCs and others, which was later emulated by V.P.Singh, the then Prime Minister, forming the Mandal Commission for the same purpose. B.Basavalingappa, a Dalit Minister in his Cabinet who was vocal and forthright in his views was a staunch Ambedkarite. He wanted to end the obnoxious system of carrying human excreta over the head which was prevailing then in most part of Karnataka. He brought out legislation to that effect which was first of its kind in the country. The implementation must have taken a long time as usual (It is sparsely reported that this practice is still prevailing in some states of northern India even now). These agitations here and there necessitated dalits to have a forum of their own to voice their grievances.

In one of the historic moments, the very same Basavalingappa, while delivering a lecture in a College function in 1974, uttered, “Most of what is in Kannada literature is in fact cattle feed (boosa)”. This triggered agitation statewide by the upper caste and non-dalits which eventually resulted in the resignation of the minister. The social consciousness was visibly trifurcated as Brahmin, Sudra and Dalit. Progressive thinkers including the iconic Sudra writer K.V.Puttappa, popularly known as Kuvempu, came in support of Basavalingappa. This incident prompted the birth of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS) under the leadership of the prominent writer B. Krishnappa in Bhadravati, a small town in Karnataka.

As a sequel, a ‘dalit youth writers association’ was formed in 1975. In the meanwhile, a group of writers comprising mostly sudras formed “Karnataka writers and Artists conclave” primarily expressing anti Brahmin sentiments.

Another significant event was in March 1979, where Kannada Sahitya Parishad held its annual conference. The dalit writers demanded a separate session for discussing dalit literature which was outrightly denied by the organizers. Then the Dalit & Sudra writers joined hands to form ‘Bandaya literary movement’ meaning protest literature. Bandaya produced a plethora of literature mostly from those castes and communities who had no literary hierarchy. They were writing for the first time. The content and the dialect were new and fresh to the readers. After some time, a difference arose among dalit and Sudra writers resulting in an unfortunate split in the organization. Then it was rechristened as dalit-Bandaya literature. Now the identity of dalit literature is unique in Kannada.

It is interesting to note that the literary movement that started in the early 1970s continues to exist till today, of course with refinement and noticeable differences at the mark of every ten years. The early writers looked raw and rugged in their expression but the later ones carefully chiseled and fine-tuned their works of art before print (not without exceptions), may be, because they had the past and knew history. A noted (dalitised) critic Dr. D.R.Nagaraj once said in 1990 that the period of any literary movement is 15 years and after the period a new movement will emerge. Hoping so, the prominent writers of Kannada like P. Lankesh, U.R. Ananthamurthy, K.R.Nagaraj and a host of others, including the above said critic and this author, bugled a new theme under the caption ‘Jagruta Sahitya Sammelana’ but it did not take off beyond the first conference.

The definition of dalit and dalit literature has been debated in no small measure. But the emphasis has been on the core ingredient that is untouchability. One who experienced this abominable, ruthless, brutal inhuman act only can express the same pain efficaciously was the popular opinion. But as always, there were exceptions till the dawn of dalit literature. It was the novel Chomana Dudi by renowned Brahmin author K.Shivarama Karantha which unraveled the inhuman aspect of morbid caste system and untouchability effectively. It was also filmed by another Brahmin film-maker B.V.Karanth, and later it even won a national award. Koradgal Srinivasa Rao’s (another Brahmin author) short story ‘Daniyara Satyanarayana’ invariably finds a place in Dalit literature. It is also interesting to note that irrespective of their caste background, some writers like Mangaluru Vijaya, Lakshmipathi Kolar, Nataraj Huliyar and many others imbibed Ambedkar philosophy and worked for the movement besides significantly contributing to dalit literature.

Now to throw some light on dalit writings: Devanooru Mahadeva and Siddalingaiah are considered to be the pioneers of dalit literature. Devanooru still commands reverence despite the miniscule dalit literature he has produced (157 pages in all), as its quality reigns supreme even to this day. He not only told the story of dalits in his own dialect but changed the idiom of storytelling. The critics were puzzled to receive him but continued to adore him. His narratives were the flames burning inside hapless selves languishing in pain and penury, told in native metaphors.

Siddalingaiah set a new trend in poetry, a norm of course, unthinkable by others, but he could not sustain the flow, may be because of overbearing imitations that followed. Nor could he experiment with new idiom. His contemporaries like M.N.Javaraiah, Chennanna Valikara, Mulluru Nagaraj, B.T.Lalitha Naik, Geetha Nagabhushana, Munivenkatappa and others practiced literature for a longer time and their contributions are acknowledged as greater.

The next generation writer like Aravind Malagatti, Sarjoo Katkar, Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy, K.B.Siddaiah, Sukanya Maruthi, Mallika Ganti, L. Hanumanthaiah, Mogalli Ganesh and others picked up their own idiom and even now they continue to enthrall the literary audience. They traversed through the dalit milieu and the stigmatized lives of individual selves and brought out the untold misery to the fore. Their works have been widely acclaimed and translations of their works in other languages are well received.

The third generation appears to be more sensitive to academic discipline and is catching the eyes of readers. N.K. Hanumanthaiah, Subbu Holeyar, Lakkur C. Anand, V.M.Manjunath, T.Yellappa D. Sarswathi, Anasuya Kamble are the prominent names. Although poetry and short stories are the rich haul of these writers, a few have tried novels but the magnum opus is yet to arrive. There are also autobiographies and plays worth mentioning.

Dalit Bandaya movement is significant because it encompassed much more severely affected sections of people like Muslims and women. It gave way for them to express the injustice they suffered within. The contributions of Boluvaru Mohamed Kunyi, Sara Abubakar, Banu Mastak and others are unique.

To sum up, the multi-faceted subaltern culture of the land has been unraveled in dalit literature by critiquing, debating, eulogizing and romanticizing. The voices are more authentic and will certainly influence the society in this transitional period of building modern India which dreams to have a casteless society.

Chokhamela -

 A 14th century saint of Varkari sect. ,born in Buldhana (Maharashtra) into Mahar caste.He was one of the first Dalit poets in India.He was a worshipper of Vithoba but due to his untouchable status he was denied to enter in temple and later died at the footstep of Vithoba Temple(Pandharpur).

Sayorabai -
She was wife & disciple of Chokhamela.She framed large literature using blank verse of her own devising. She wrote much but only about 62 works are known ,which is called Abhangas.Her sister-in-law Nirmala & brother Banka and son Karmamela were also saint & disciple of Chokhamela.

Thiruppaan Alvar -

 Also known as ‘Thiruppaanazhwar' and born in Paanar caste at Uraiyur(T.N) in 8th century.He was one of the 12 azhwar saints of South India.The verses of azhwars are compiled as ‘Nalayira Divya Prabandham' and he contributed ten verses among the 4000 stanzas,which is called as ‘Amalanaathipiran'. The works of Thirupaanazhwar contributed to the philosophical and theological ideas of Vaishnavism.

Thiruvalluvar - A celebated Tamil poet & philosopher.Born in 7th century into a Paraiyar caste at Tamil Nadu.He is best known for Tirukkuṛaḷ, a collection of couplets on ethics, political,economical matters and love. The text is considered as one of the finest works of the Tamil literature.


Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability

They have brushes for the buffalo and shears for the goat. They won’t trim a Mahar’s [untouchable’s] hair—they’d rather cut his throat.

Early in Bhimayana, a boy named Bhim experiences the world through violence. Bhim is a Mahar, an untouchable. He knows it’s no fun being one. His gentle face and Bambi eyes in the comic’s version are nobody’s idea of a kickass superhero, but when he grows up Bhim will become exactly that.
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was a leading champion of affirmative action, his labours anchored to the colossus of caste, though often he is only blandly credited with designing India’s constitution. Beginning in the 1920s, he became the country’s most vociferous conscience, criticising Hindu society’s oppression of women and dalits (formerly untouchables) as being inherently anti-democratic. Armed with the liberal crux of reformers such as J.S. Mill, John Dewey, and Booker T. Washington, Ambedkar developed a model of social justice that was widely vilified by nationalists and even by Gandhi, whose own esteemed mandate of freedom comes away looking like the political charter of a posh boy fraternity. Bhimayana (2011) is a graphic account of Ambedkar’s crusade to eradicate untouchability.
Frankly written and drawn in the mnemonic idiom of modern Gond art (as practiced by the central Indian tribal politic called Gond), the book ends up beautiful, punchy, and always readable. Bhimayanabrings together writers Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and Pardhan Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Along with dalits, the Gond and other tribal civics are India’s protected peoples called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs). Bhimayana was published by Navayana Publishing, a niche press founded in 2006 that focuses on the history and politics of caste in India. S. Anand, one of the book’s writers, is Navayana’s founder-editor.
Mainly two-dimensional and rich in natural motif, Gond drawing tells stories through visual aide-mémoires that artists once applied exclusively to domestic architecture. It’s vibrant in imagery but only tentatively narrative. Yet, recent exponents, like Bhimayana’s artists, owe their ken to artist Jangarh Singh Shyam (represented on the dedication page), who in the 1990s, urged to go professional, substituted multi-coloured clays with paints and ink used on canvas and single-sheet paper.
Dedication page depicting Pardhan Gond artist Jangarh Shyam Singh.
Beyond this graphic pedigree, the book is also unusually germane for being grounded in present-day journalism. Its two interlocking strands join Ambedkar’s biography with a string of thumbnails about present day caste prejudice, violently pervasive in villages, though all but invisible to most urban Indians. The barbed but seductive quality of this double narrative, the fact that yuppie ignorance is sometimes too easily mocked, makes it that much more impossible to resist second and third readings. This robust exposé about caste is not afraid to tell it like it is—that if you think caste is dead, think again.
Former untouchables were outcasts flushed outside the four-level Hindu caste structure topped by brahmins (priests) that was codified about 1500 years ago. They were described as impure and relegated to the rank of those who should not be touched. In reaction, Jotirao Phule, a 19th century anti-caste theorist and reformer, was first to refer to untouchables as ‘dalit,’ which means ‘broken people.’ Ambedkar typically used ‘Depressed Classes’. Meanwhile, Gandhi popularised ‘harijan’ or ‘children of Hari,’  Hari being is the name of a central Hindu god.
But after 1974, when a militant anti-caste movement led by the Dalit Panthers (inspired by the Black Panthers) was crushed by right-wing Hindu political parties working for the state, dalits ditched Gandhi’s benevolent jargon. For being linked to a Hindu god meant only more Hindu bondage. They went with ‘dalit’ to oppositely assert reconstitution and, presumably, also give the finger to its real meaning.
Historically, dalits were reduced to performing jobs caste Hindus found polluting. They handled dead people and animals, soil, and waste respectively as cremators, cobblers, potters, gardeners, sweepers, and scavengers. Those who farmed were landless and indentured.
Bhim’s aunt explaining to him why their family was better off than other Mahars (untouchables).
Penury was common, though Ambedkar’s family, like some others from western India drafted into the British army, managed to feint utter poverty. Yet, all untouchables were denied basic civic necessities. Grocery shops were open to limited access. Primary schooling became available only because of British law. Using wells and temples and building imperishable houses was entirely off-limits. Verbal humiliations, thrashings, and fatal threats were givens.
In seeking to reclaim what he called “human personality,” Ambedkar’s call to “educate, organize, and agitate” became a rallying point in his movement for social justice. The first big push came after 1924, when the Bombay Legislative Council’s decree requiring untouchables to be granted access to all public utilities was universally disobeyed.
Ambedkar speaking at the First Mahad Satyagraha, 1927.
Collaborating with various progressives, Ambedkar became a leading voice in slowly organising dalits until finally, in 1927, a protest march of 3000 walked peacefully to a town called Mahad where they drank from a tank so far reserved for caste Hindus. This event is known as the First Mahad Satyagraha of 1927. Symbolic but momentous, Ambedkar compared its potential to that of 1789 French National Assembly that abolished aristocracy and liberated the poor. Later that year, he led 10,000 dalits in the Second Mahad Satyagraha.  There he burned a copy of the Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), a Hindu text that apparently records the words of the universe’s founder Manu who advises torturing untouchables, forcing them into poverty, and subjugating women.
Almost instantaneously, Ambedkar’s decisive segue to dalit political representation put him out of favor with the nationalist elite who called his demands for equality divisive and thus detrimental to India’s struggle for self-rule. In 1932, Gandhi, the holy cow of the Indian freedom movement, went on an indefinite hunger strike, forcing the British to reconsider granting untouchables separate electorates. For Ambedkar, the schism exposed the nationalist Congress party’s doublespeak on caste. Gandhi, who was the Congress’s spokesperson, sought Indian freedom at the cost of silencing minorities; Ambedkar envisioned India first freed from itself, or from Brahminism, which he classed with “the negation of liberty, equality, and fraternity,” a doctrine that became a crucial punching bag in his best-sellingAnnihilation of Caste (1936).
Over the next fifteen years, Ambedkar spoke and published widely on various issues impacting dalits, such as water policy, agriculture, military reform, labour rights, and Buddhism. Meanwhile, his unabated resistance to the skewed politics of the freedom movement ended in a book released on the eve of India’s independence. His damning critique in What Gandhi and the Congress have done to the Untouchables(1946) leaps off the title page with a quote by Thucydides: “It may be in your interest to be our master, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?”
Despite this, Ambedkar’s polymathic abilities were sought after for the highest privilege. In 1947, the Congress party heading the new government invited him to serve as independent India’s first Law Minister. He became Chairman of the Drafting Committee of India’s constitution and later drafted the Hindu Code Bill, which sought to confer property and divorce rights on women, legalise monogamy, and introduce gender equity. For Ambedkar, it was the country’s most crucial reform, but after a long wait, the Constituent Assembly rejected the bill in a majority vote.
Ambedkar snapped. In 1951, he resigned from the Cabinet with strong words for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, and his peers’ perceived betrayal of comprehensive democracy. His parting speech called inequality the very soul of Hindu society that if left untouched was “to make a farce of the Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism with his followers
Within five years, Ambedkar lived up to his old promise to reject Hinduism for an ethically sound religion. In October 1956, about six weeks before he died, he converted to Buddhism along with an approximate 500,000 followers. Considered to be the largest single conversion in human history, it inspired many dalits to voluntarily seek monotheistic faiths. They became Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, though conversion did little to dissolve the stigma of untouchability.
Aptly, Bhimayana’s central character is not Ambedkar alone but also the degrading grind of dalit life among the 60 million in Ambedkar’s time. Both are selectively based on his speeches and the little-known Waiting for a Visa (c.1935-36), a brief autobiographical text in which Ambedkar charts his political education through a litany of life-altering episodes. Hence, the title Bhimayana, which could be a cheeky send-up on the Ramayana, a pivotal Hindu text that recounts the high-caste mythical god prince Ram’s exile from everyday royal luxuries. Bhimayana’s account of everyday expulsions from ordinary civic dignities — water, shelter, and travel — presents an alternative epic of heroism.
The opening scene of the preface.
The narrative begins with a socially-literate woman and a blinkered man discussing affirmative action in education and jobs, the most common peeve against dalits. The man finds setting quotas aside for dalits unfair. “Oh yeah?” says the woman, and instead refers him to the September 29, 2006 massacre of dalits in Khairlanji, a small village in Ambedkar’s native state of Maharashtra, an alleged bastion of contemporary dalit activism.
For two hours before being dumped into a canal, four members of a dalit family called Bhotmange were variously mutilated, raped, and bludgeoned to an audience of forty village residents. The events were suppressed for over a month. Dalits, mainly lead by women, did not break out into mass protests until a month after the event when a popular blog described the event, suggested state complicity in a cover-up, and encouraged agitation. Predictably, the government suppressed the protests under the charge of waging war against the Indian state.
In using the word Brahminism for such vicious conventions during his time Ambedkar was of course defining more than Brahmins discriminating against untouchables. For him, Brahminism was the very pathology of Indian bigotry ingrained even in non-Hindus, including Muslims, Christians, and Parsis that he foresaw migrating poisonously in low-caste Hindus who history allowing would assume the role of Brahmins. He was right. At Khairlanji, it was low-caste Hindus, not Brahmins, who lynched the dalit Bhotmanges. Note especially why the Bhotmanges were lynched: They were being punished for educating their only daughter, protecting their land from encroachers, and living with the maximum poise their finances would allow, basically exactly what Manu forbids untouchables to covet in theManusmriti (Laws of Manu).
Bhimayana uses Khairlanji (not exceptional, but emblematic of caste in India) to set off a domino-like chain of news items about dalit lynchings that thematically intercut the three main events of the Ambedkar story and his various political feats, including the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar’s differences with Gandhi, the Constitution, and the Hindu Code Bill.
Book 1: Water is set in 1901, a landmark year in Indian education as Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, is initiating educational reforms to help Indian students find better jobs. This is fantastic news for the rich, who can afford higher education.
Bhim at school.
But back in Satara, Bhim is set apart at play and in the classroom. He’s also having a tough time just getting a glass of water. From the school water pump to the village trough, untouchables are denied access at every turn. At one point, a teacher farcically blames Bhim’s thirst on his long hair. The child himself would love a trim, but from whom exactly? Barbers won’t touch untouchables. Through such gentle ironies Bhim’s confusion at caste inequality expresses the wrench in simply being dalit: “Animals enjoy more freedom”.
Book 2: Shelter jumps to Ambedkar’s thwarted efforts to put a roof over his head. It’s 1918. He is en route to work for the Maharaja of Baroda who had sponsored his education at Columbia University, New York. In Baroda, unable to lodge at a Hindu hotel (because he might be found out and killed), Ambedkar suffers a dungeon-like room at a Parsi inn, though even this ends in threats to his life. For almost a fortnight he is compelled to hide in public spaces after work. Broken and disillusioned, Ambedkar quits his job and returns to Bombay.
Book 3: Travel is set in 1934. Ambedkar is 43 and a recognized dalit leader with various agitations behind him. Now he is on bus tour with a contingent of political workers. Initially thrilling, the journey ends disastrously when the bullock cart transporting him to his destination in the dalit village meets with a serious accident. The man driving the cart is an unskilled man because no regular driver would risk being polluted by the untouchable Ambedkar.
Here and there in the time-travelling narrative, we confront the Khairlanji syndrome. In May 2008, a dalit man was hacked to death for daring to dig a well on his own small property. Earlier in Jan 2008, after decades of fighting for water, dalits earned the right to use a village pond. But caste Hindus — in a uniquely Indian way of saying eat shit — fouled the same pond by channelling the village sewer to it. In November 2007, two dalit women, new mothers, were physically assaulted before eviction from a government hospital. They died soon after.
Horrific regardless, these stories also outdo Ambedkar’s humiliations, not least because they date within the last five years, or 60 years into free India’s alleged ban on untouchability. Led by Ambedkar’s force, the ban along with the enactment of protection of dalits and tribals (India’s indigenous people) under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) was enacted by the Indian Constitution in 1947.
Since Ambedkar is more or less a messiah among dalits, today totaling between 165 to 170 million, or about 17% of India’s population, Bhimayana fawning over him would have been more than okay. Instead, the revival of the hero, who is typically under-acknowledged in mainstream textbooks and popular media, takes place through factual reference and energetic prose. The litany of humiliations is compelling because the writing is talky, the pitch even. Little Bhim’s acumen for unwitting irony mixes nicely with Ambedkar’s calm eye, cut with the man and woman’s dialogue. Include the steady tide of harsh news clippings flowing through the narrative and you have an all too necessary social history boot-camp.
If sections of the text keep your heart pumping, the graphic patois slows the looking, giving reason to sort out why a stick that beats is sighted like a panopticon, or why a water pump seems to want to burst into tears. We can guess that the stick with eyes, a striking theme, is the social CCTV monitoring untouchable life, and the personified water pump is unhappy at Bhim left thirsty at school.
Overall, the drawing is formally busy. Dots, speckles, and mesh-like lines power the images, mainly done in black with the occasional color spread. But the images are always focused, tweaking the plot, making a comment, or leading the eye to wander into intended asides. Some pages insistently evoke Ambedkar’s mental convolutions when confronted by social prejudice, like where he’s on a train headed to Baroda. His groomed person, well-spoken manner, and general sophistication disguise his untouchability.
Ambedkar on the train to Baroda.
The entire journey, rendered as a live, swirling thing, becomes a game of hide and seek wherein Ambedkar must keep up with the false assumptions of his train companions to ensure the journey goes smoothly.
Many images are set within quasi-panels distinct from the traditional sequence of the sequential panel frame. You might say they have a mind of their own, perhaps even hinting at Ambedkar’s own brand of nous, but the styling is collaborative. Where the tempo and method of the telling the story is largely novelistic, the artistic approach is typically Gond, which is a graphic shorthand for legends and genealogies produced in solo illustrations.
Now, Bhimayana is neither a compilation of single-sheet pictures nor a straight out linear narrative. There’s oodles of plot and loads of elaborate scenes, but there’s also heaps of asides, iconic freezes, and historical digressions to warrant chucking the sequential panel frame for something fresher. Like the Gond digna perhaps, a double-edged frame containing allusions to grass and grain, running and whirling water, and paling reeds.
In the book, digna take the shape of broken circles, fan-like insets, and natural forms like fish and hilltops. They let you savour images in bits and pieces and only sometimes link in clear sequence. When they appear to push against one another it’s a signal. The story is on the move again, as in the opening spread of Water.
Pintsize Bhim knows all about the dos and don’ts of his station. A split perspective page quickly prospers into multiple digna. The bumpy pace of Bhim’s questions about caste inequality shines through half-arc digna roughly intersecting. Over time, the digna trail sinuously, run jaggedly, or press symmetry on a page. But all over, the reading order, mildly headachy, maps the trespass of an untouchable’s life. His life was no walk in the park. Neither is reading about it.
We get to feel for Bhim in other ways too.
The blackboard spelling out Bhim’s thirst and the fish strapped on his side.
A personified blackboard spells out Bhim’s thirst and the fish shape on his side turns dehydration into tangible cargo. The fish motif, as both desire and injustice, repeats wherever untouchables are shown struggling to access to water. Mingled everywhere are polarised speech balloons.
Personified speech balloons.
Bird shaped ones are for reason and good people. That would be Ambedkar and his social set. The scorpion stinger shaped ones are reserved for irrationality and bad folks. These are people who subject untouchables to humiliations. Everywhere they appear, the scorpion stinger inflects the atmosphere with contempt. This we might understand was the very air untouchables breathed.
Still, Bhim is not without some ecstasies.  The first explicit visualisation of this inner landscape is the image of a train with sprightly whiskers straddling two forest-filled digna. This marks the beginning of episodes in which four children, including Bhim, are on their very first outing ‘abroad’ to the city. No wonder the train evokes the spring and coil of a fantastical feline-reptile. Quaint lines, possibly the text’s only moment of poetic weakness, headline this page. Black ink sings the fresh green of trees. Yet nowhere is the implicit assumption that we all share a common sea of feeling. One is given an image to contemplate and the writing overlaps Bhim’s feeling but does not reveal what he feels. It does not dilute the status quo of an untouchable’s exile from ordinary dignity.
Though vivid and engaging in its details, the drawing is equally standoffish about pouring out its heart. It’s got none of the routine sensuality that one might expect from a story filled with pathos. Figures and faces especially are marionette-like, or at any rate generic. Some wear functional insignia. Ambedkar is marked with glasses. Muslims have little beards. Brahmins have puny tufts of hair poking out from shaved heads. Characters neither smile nor frown. Shiftless pupils pin bovinely sedate faces. And everyone looks like they’ve had a ball with the eyeliner, so every face is equally striking, or nondescript.
Instead, the main prompt for mood and feeling is gesture, icon, and (oddly) chin contour. For instance, Ambedkar’s speech at the Mahad satyagraha bursts out as fresh blue water through loudspeakers in the shape of spouts. The murder of a dalit farmer for digging his own well magnifies in the menace of a giant floating hand plough. Elsewhere, the sadness of Bhim’s aunt, who waves goodbye to him and his cousins, graduates across her mercurial chin. It goes from plump to soft, then drawn in and pointed, all this on an otherwise impassive face.
Bhim’s aunt waving goodbye to her nephews.
To hint at and not elaborate is typical in Gond art. In Bhimayana, it translates as art that doesn’t give a toss. The book doesn’t coddle the expectation that awful narratives should make you ‘feel’. It seems more interested in stunning reality checks. That might explain why the preface’s dialogue is dourly upfront about a basic equation: Stating that affirmative action isn’t fair is claiming that Khairlanji and its innumerable cousins are. It might also explain why this is the narrative’s one and only reference to affirmative action.

Reservation or affirmative action for dalits in public education and jobs has been around since 1943, though the semblance of proper implementation didn’t happen until the mid-1960s. Since then, many upgrades to strengthen the resolution tacitly confess the state’s failure in proper application. To this, some would say, serves the dalits right. Anti-reservationists, who number in rabid hordes and behave accordingly, claim that quotas lower the quality of education and government service. Their argument is predictably racist: “Dalits genetically lack merit.”
Elsewhere, Anand Teltumbde, dalit activist and author of Khairlanji (2008), while absolutely in favour of the quota system describes it as “a graveyard of dalit aspirations.” This is why urban dalits, aching for a leg-up into mainstream society, have been teaming with right-wing Hindu groups, the old foes of dalit emancipation. This new alliance is bad news for the 89% of dalits who are rural, half of whom are landless, only some of whom farm, the rest of whom are unemployed artisans. Most dalits are looking for better primary, not higher, education, sanitation, vocational training for non-farm work, and improved land distribution. Instead, the state has displaced dalits and forced migrations to appropriate their land for mega-projects and global investors, making rural dalits among the country’s poorest, who Human Rights Watch slot with most pervasively degraded people in the world.
This might explain Bhimayana’s eagerness to bed, not the reservation issue, but the Khairlanji syndrome, which forces one to consider Ambedkar’s utopian oomph in light of atrocities against dalits, such as being coerced to eat each other’s excreta (in the southern state of Kerala in 2003), as if the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) simply doesn’t exist. Indeed, Ambedkar was a radical, a believer in socialist reforms like better land distribution, which few dalit leaders now broach for fear of being labelled communists, unquestionably the dirtiest word in India’s mad race towards privatisation. To its credit, the book repeatedly underscores his radicalism and its potential to change dalit life without watering down dalit desperation.
It tells us that dalits are perhaps as, and sometimes more, vulnerable than in Ambedkar’s time. Its biographical encomium, however ridden with human corruption and social depravity, doubles not so much as an elegy but as a serious wake-up call. Like the voice of reason, the dialogue between the socially-conscious woman and the blinkered man, another homage to Ambedkar’s fight against patriarchy, refreshes the alarm at regular intervals—that one person’s givens are another’s death-wish.
To be published in French, Korean, Spanish, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada. Already available in Malayalam. Worldwide English edition to appear through Tate Publishing.


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