The Dalit Experience and Marginality

Part II

Fighting Marginality: The Claim to History

Dalits as well as OBCs have continually fought their marginality.  This fight has taken place at many levels and has taken many forms.   There have been physical confrontations, though there is little open record of these.  There have been ideological confrontations, and in some ways these are the most interesting.   The  most contested issues have probably been history and religion.  Let us look first at history.

The history of India has been in many ways blockaded by Brahmanism; there is little of the history of Dalits and women in particular.   Pali literature tells us of the great Chandala, Matanga – but there is little in Sanskrit or vernacular literature, though the name “Chandala” survived until fairly recent times.  Women’s history has also been very much annihilated; we know from inscriptions, for instance, that queens were important in ancient times, because they are often seen as donors to Buddhist viharas;  we know from such literature as the play Mrchhakatika (“Little Clay Cart”) that gannikas (otherwise called “courtesans”) held a significant place in society – but all of this is much disregarded.

As for Dalits, there are traditional stories about the origin of Dalit communities – perhaps how among two Brahman brothers one was so careless as to allow a cow to die and so his descendents became untouchable.  Such stories are even known of the great Guru Ravidas: Priyadas, the 18th century hagiographer tells that he was a Brahman in a former birth (because the brahmanic tradition would not allow for a real saint among Dalits) but had been condemned to be reborn in a chamar family for the “sin” of accidentally feeding meat to his guru.

Today most Dalits find another history.  Mahars – following Ambedkar’s own belief – may trace their origin to “Nagas” (this was a term, many scholars think, for the advanced “tribal” or lineage societies of ancient times), as well as of course to being original Buddhists relegated by triumphant brahmanism to the outskirts of villages.

Thus, Dalits are ready to insist that theirs is a neglected but proud history, that they were once rulers, once great, degraded by Brahmans for religious or other jealous motives.


Fighting Marginality: Religious Alternatives

Dalits, at least most of them, recognize that the roots of their oppression are within Brahmanism, in the pseudo-religion now called “Hinduism.”   This has led to a wave of conversion and religious differentiation.  The most famous of these, of course, led by Dr. Ambedkar himself, was the conversion to Buddhism.   Other Dalits (and OBCs also) have chosen Christianity, or Islam.  Even the “Ravidasis” who were traditionally Sikhs though with a special attachment to Guru Ravidas, have been differentiating themselves from Sikhism after a murder a couple of years ago of one of the Ravidasi “Dera” leaders.  They had always differentiated themselves in considering Ravidas a “guru” and not just a “sant” (Sikhism makes this distinction); now many are consciously and bitterly disassociating themselves from the Sikh tradition in general.


The Insights of Marginality: Anna Hazare

We have argued that marginality has given Dalits a more accurate vision of their society.  One example of this can be seen in the case of Anna Hazare, for so long a media hero, projected as a guru and idol.  Looking at what has been passed around on Dalit-oriented e-groups and websites, it is clear that Dalits were the first to see through his illusions.

This is a period of many kinds of reaction.   In Maharashtra, multilingual brahman “mahaparishads” are being organized, with apparently more and more response.  These call for marriages within the caste, for the repeal of the tenancy laws (which to some extent deprived Brahmans of land ownership and gave the rights to nonBrahman tenants) and for Brahmans to unite, ignoring regional and subcaste differences.  “Brahmanism” is thus proclaimed to be higher than patriotism! —  though the person who called for Brahmanic unity did not dare to mention the relationship of brahmanism and nationalism!   Anna Hazare has not talked of caste or other issues, but it is clear that when he or others of his “Team” speak of “civil society” they actually means the high-caste, high-class elite.

“Khap panchayats” in north India are another example of the reaction of the times – the effort to enforce traditional caste norms on young people who are ready to defy them.

In this situation, with some growing reactionary forces, the insights of leading Dalit representatives on Brahmanism and its implications for Indian society are badly needed.  These should become hegemonic – for they can be a powerful weapon in the struggle for social change.

Moving from Marginality to Hegemony

Moving away from marginality, towards hegemony, is central to the annihilation of caste – which in turn is central for Dalits.  But hegemony means that Dalits should not only take up their own issues but also emerge as leaders for all oppressed sections, including OBCs, women, adivasis, religious minorities (primarily Muslims and Christians).   In other words, they should think in a broad way.   For a period Dalits did not.   For example, when the first Mandal Commission report came out, it was Dalits who were leading movements of OBCs to press for its implementation.   I remember at that time Arun Kamble, then a Dalit Panther leader, saying “we don’t want a separate Dalitisthan; we are 85% — this country should be Dalitisthan!”  That “we” are 85% showed an important inclusiveness.

However, some time later, when Arjun Singh announced a new effort to implement Mandal in education, Dalits stood aloof.  “Let them fight their own battles” was the theme.  Dalit resentment against OBCs seemed to have burgeoned.  There were some justifications for this, since OBCs are often in the forefront of attacks and atrocities against Dalits, playing the role of police enforcers of the system.   But, such resentment and aloofness would leave the broader anti-caste struggle without leadership.   At the time it meant that the Dalit movement was turning into a mainly negative struggle against atrocities and for achieving a better position in society – rather than the fight that Dr. Ambedkar had called for: a struggle for the annihilation of caste.

Today it is heartening to see once again signs of a new effort on the part of Dalits to lead such a broader movement.   Perhaps once more, in the words of Bob Dylan (a poet who Namdeo Dhasal liked!), “The times they are a-changing!”