The Dalit Experience and Marginality

By Gail Omvedt

Originally written for the seminar on “The Dalit Experience and Marginality”  at Delhi University. 16-18  February, 2012

Part I

Introduction: What is Marginality?

Marginality can be both a strength and a weakness.  In a famous book, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, the feminist bell hooks (she spells her name lower case) argues that being at the margins of society gives one a better, more accurate view of that society than from its center.  The Dalit view of Hinduism, of Indian society and its caste hierarchy, has always been more accurate than the brahmanic view.  But, it has not been hegemonic.  The fact is that the brahmanic view of India has been spread throughout the world, so that even (for example) in introductory sociology textbooks “Hinduism” is taken as being 5000 years old!

And with this, Dalits have suffered the pangs of marginality.  Marginality has been embodied in poverty, ongoing caste discrimination, atrocities, enforced performance of many polluting occupations by the castes which had them as their traditional duties, for example Bhangis (Valmikis) still being forced to do the job of manual scavenging.

Dr. Ambedkar had referred to caste as an “organized hierarchy” with “ascending scale of reverence” and “descending scale of contempt”; he later amended the first part to read an “ascending scale of hatred.”  The fact that Dalits were developing hatred rather than reverence for their oppressors was a step forward in their consciousness.   It is perhaps this hatred that prevails today.  However, the hierarchy – the spirit of hierarchy – remains, even among Dalits themselves.

Caste as Marginality

Caste is a specific form of marginality.   It is both like and unlike race.  It is like race in being a birth-related form of discrimination; it is unlike race in the elaboration of its hierarchy and its connection with the idea of pollution.   (We must not think of “race” as biological; it is also a socially defined reality).   Caste is unique to South Asia, and exists in some form in all South Asian societies – Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.  (A Sri Lanka Tamil activist once told me that her parents were more upset about her sister marrying an Indian Tamil then her relationship with a Sinhalese: they knew the caste of the first, but not the second).

As a form of marginality caste has some specific characteristics.  First, it is a hierarchy (as Babasaheb put it, a “graded hierarchy”): not only are Dalits marginalized, but so are the Shudras and other castes, though to a lesser extent.  It is a hierarchy of exploitation, and here I use the word “exploitation” in a Marxist sense: the extraction of surplus, in which the labourer is left with only the necessities of life while the surplus beyond this goes to the non-labouring exploiter.  In the caste-based hierarchy of exploitation, though, only the Dalits are purely exploited.  The balutedars and farming castes above them in the ladder of exploitation receive a share of the surplus generated by Dalit labourer.  Labourers at each rung in the hierarchy receive a share of the surplus from below; the rest, along with the surplus from that rung, is passed upwards, until it reaches the Brahmans and kings at the top: these (probably along with landlords, sardars and all) are purely exploiters.

The hierarchical chain is also one of types of labour.  “Mental” and “manual” labour are separated in caste exploitation, so that purely manual labour is done by those at the bottom, purely “mental” labour at the top.  Of course, all labour has a mental element, but the conscious, abstract mentality is what I mean here.   The labourers at the bottom also do the “dirtiest” work.  In today’s globalized, capitalized society most Dalits (and most OBCs) no longer perform their traditional occupation.   However, the majority of them are found at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, in the dirtiest, heaviest and worst-paid jobs.  Cleaning latrines, rag-picking, street sweeping – these occupations continue to be carried out entirely by Dalits, even when they have been made into class IV government jobs.  And the fact that India continues to have latrines in which manual “scavenging” is necessary is an example of the carelessness generated by the caste hierarchy! – there is no great concern to remove the dirtiest occupations from existence, because this is work “designed” for others who are considered “by nature” fit only to do this.  Such ideas remain, and the evidence of their remainder is in the continued existence of the kinds of work they generate.

Similarly, though a few Dalits and OBCs now get university degrees and become professional writers, computer analysts, professors etc., these occupations still remain heavily dominated by those who traditionally had a monopoly of knowledge – Brahmans.

The Issue of Atrocities

Atrocities of the worst sort continue.  These are the means of enforcing the continuation of the hierarchy.  Even today, the caste hierarchy is enforced in blood.  Dalits walking in the wrong parts of town are beaten; Dalits caught beside a dead cow are suspected of killing it and slaughtered; Dalit women sarpanches daring to be defiant and claim their rights are assaulted.  All of these are “crimes” against the caste hierarchy.

            Such atrocities continue everywhere, even in the home of traditions of progressiveness.  Some time ago, in our area in western Maharashtra (the home of Phule and the center of his Satyashodhak movement), after a Matang boy and a Maratha girl ran away together, the mother of the boy was savagely beaten.   She was from Wategaon, home of the famous poet-writer Annabhau Sathe, daughter of a former sarpanch and a member of Annabhau’s clan.

In the traditional caste system, the worst crime was considered to be varnasamkara, the mixture of castes: in the early Lingayat movement of Basava, when he arranged the marriage of the son of a dalit activist and the daughter of a Brahman, the fathers of both were savagely murdered by being dragged behind elephants.   Even though Basavanna himself was a minister in the kingdom, he could not prevent this.  Today the rulers do not openly enforce the prohibition; rather it is enforced by people themselves: it is this varnasamkara, arising from the urge of young people to break through their bondage, that is behind most local atrocities.