To Be or Not to Be a ‘Dalit’?

To Be or Not to Be a ‘Dalit’?

Originally published on The Wire (19/09/2018)

Sabad sabad sab koi kahe, sabad ka karo vichaar

Ek sabad seetal kare, ek sabad de jaar

– Kabir

Words are what make our world. They help us convey our thoughts. They help us connect to people. We establish our society- literature, culture, politics, ideology, philosophy- through the words we choose. Words help shape our thinking as much as our thoughts shape our words. In short, words play a vital role in human society.

Kabir therefore suggests that we choose our words with utmost thought, because they can both cure and curse. In a larger frame, when politics is seen as the science of associating with people and governing society, words need to be selected with care. Our identities, our polities, our worlds are shaped by the words we choose to give them.

This issue of words has become very relevant recently. The word of the moment is ‘Dalit’, and mystifying it is the cloud of confusion regarding its usage, its users, its connotation, its symbolism, and most importantly, its political implications. The I&B ministry on August 7 issued an advisory to media houses to avoid using the term Dalit and opt for the more constitutional ‘scheduled castes’, giving six weeks to discuss and reach a conclusion. This opened a very full and much-agitated can of worms, forcing us to question the words we use, in order to consider the welfare and happiness of the individual and the society. It raises the issue of a progressive perspective for the society, and the world at large, based on the principles of liberty, equality, justice and fraternity.

The term Dalit has had a history of debate. It is found written earliest in the Vedas wherein it connoted something that is crushed or broken. From then till recent times, the meaning has hardly changed much with many progressive poets, authors and academics still using it to connote the peoples who have been crushed and oppressed. Come 20th century, and the word starts to gain a slightly different connotation, in a more assertive sense. In the mid 1900s, the term entered literature as a field, allowing the subaltern to become vocal. It created space for the views from the marginalised and spoke either against or different from the mainstream. The 1960s saw the evolution of the term politically, its highest evolution seen in the formation of the Dalit Panther movement in the 1970s. The movement gave it a more comprehensive identity, encompassing all marginalised sections of the society and not only a caste – an identity which still resonates with many even today, albeit in a highly romantic way.

However, at around the same time, the term Dalit also started to gather dissent, giving rise to rejection and contradictions. Noted Ambedkarite thinker Yashwant Manohar recalls, “After Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, the erstwhile untouchables and Dalits became Buddhists. Hence, the prevailing ideology since 1960-61 was that those who became Buddhists because of Babasaheb Ambedkar would not call their literature as Dalit Literature.” A very clear example of this contradiction is seen through the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha. The organisation held its first conference, titled Dalit Sahitya Sammelan, in Mumbai in 1958 under the leadership of Annabhau Sathe. It held its second conference, again in Mumbai, in 1959 and the third conference in Pune in 1961.

The Dalit Panther movement in the 1970s gave ‘Dalit’ a more comprehensive identity, encompassing all marginalised sections of the society and not only a caste. A Dalit Panthers poster.

By the third conference, the tide had changed, with many prominent members including T. P. Adsul, Vijay Sonawane and Raja Dhale starting to reject the use of the term Dalit, in light of Ambedkar’s decision to embrace Buddhism. The general consensus was that Ambedkar did not want the oppressed to remain ‘dalits’, and had asked them to embrace a new identity, that of Buddhists. The Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangh was thus dissolved and took the new identity of Maharashtra Baudhha Sahitya Sangh in 1961 itself, and continued its journey onward. Interestingly, Raja Dhale, who was very vocal in his advocacy of the Buddhist identity, was one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers. Since 1976, he publicly started advocating the term ‘Ambedkarite’ as a political and social identity.

This was not an off-hand occurrence, as many such activists, academics, authors and thinkers had started taking this argument forward in Maharashtra. The dialectic between Dalit and Ambedkarite or Buddhist has been prevalent for a long time, both in Maharashtra and outside. But, because Ambedkar passed away before he could take Buddhism to the other states, his religious contributions did not gain as much momentum. Thus, Dalit Literature as a term moved out of Maharashtra, but his Buddhist perspective, unfortunately, did not. This issue only became a hot-topic a couple of years back when activist Pankaj Meshram approached the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court against the term Dalit, on the claim that it was derogatory and not empowering at all. His petition also challenged the legality of the using the term Dalit as opposed to the constitutional terms scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The case finally saw Meshram win the petition, in March this year, with the court declaring Dalit to be a unconstitutional term.

In a similar verdict in January this year, the Gwalior bench of the Madhya Pradesh high court advised against the use of the term Dalit for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. These cases brought out the dialectic being played out in Maharashtra all these years. Notably, in 2005, at a conference at Ulhasnagar, several Ambedkarite, Dalit, and progressive intellectuals like Baburao Bagul, Yashwant Manohar, Nagnath Kotapalli, Ramnika Gupta, Geeta Manjrekar, Ratanlal Sonagra and Pragya Pawar among others unanimously passed a proposal suggesting that they consciously replace the word Dalit with another word which indicated ‘self-respect’.

In fact, this has been the major bone of contention all along. The question of self-respect, in being called a name that was given by the oppressors to indicate something that was lowly, was being raised vis-à-vis a term that could show empowerment. On one hand, there was the connotation of being filthy, demeaned, degraded and humiliating . On the other hand, there was a move to accept terms which would not only not be demeaning but also showcase power. In such a context, the linguistic construct becomes of prime importance, helping shape our imaginations into reality. Dr. Ambedkar himself was a big proponent of an identity which would enable self-respect amongst the people. He stressed on the reclamation of the human personality, focusing the intellectual cultivation of the human mind rather than asserting its victimhood for political gains. Moreover, Dr. Ambedkar, gave a big reason to his opponents and doubters. In his historic speech of Dadar in 1936 — ‘Emancipation What Way?’, he proclaimed that emancipation is only possible through a change in name, easily achievable through conversion. He asked the masses to choose a name that will have no “filth” attached to it, and pinned it as the responsibility of the “untouchable class” to annihilate caste, even though it was propagated by the caste-Hindus.

Ambedkar never propagated the use of the term Dalit even though he may have used it in a few speeches. Unlike contemporary ‘Dalits’ who assert the identity as a socio-political category, he used it as the Hindi or Marathi equivalent of ‘depressed’ to indicate only the socio-political condition. He never meant to use it as a political category and hence did not use it at all in his English speeches or writings, very unlike the use of the term today. He, rather, stressed on creating a more progressive name for this society, and he worked tirelessly to achieve it. He wanted to be absolutely sure of the new identity he was assuming, knowing full well the repercussions such a massive change could bring about in the society. He answered the opposition and doubters of conversion by claiming that “nothing but spirituality is at the base of my conversion,” stressing on the human mind as the tool for emancipation. He asked his followers to convert “to become human,” addressing the inhuman status that society had given them. He struggled for decades, read endlessly, took great pains to show the path that would emancipate the ‘depressed classes’. Such was his scholarly conviction which emphasised the need of name (category) change, and he finally did it in the conversion after a rigorous labour of 21 years.

Today’s scholars seem to have completely missed Ambedkar’s point. After the Dalit Panthers, academic engagement has been the biggest disseminator of the use of the term Dalit as a ‘unifying force’. Unfortunately, the term has now been seen as emancipatory and revolutionary. Those who imagine Dalit to be revolutionary are, in fact, playing to the oppressor’s court, because even though the ‘oppressed classes’ may have subverted the term to their own interest, the oppressor’s views about the term does not change. This is forced imagination and also a forced romanticism of struggle by a glorification of victimhood.

But doesn’t such a forced romanticism of struggle fail to recognise Ambedkar’s struggle as revolutionary? In their glorification of victimhood, do they discount Ambedkar’s courage to take the bold step of conversion? In a country where religion is the prima facie factor in society, wasn’t Ambedkar’s step to replace that very religion to introduce a more egalitarian, just and fraternal religion revolutionary? Do they then belittle his conviction, hard-work, foresight, determination and courage by equating Dalitism (victimhood) with revolution? Do they fail to recognise Ambedkar’s spirit of revolution in the act of conversion? Do they fail to see that the very essence of Ambedkar is nothing but a revolution?

Such scholars and activists largely see Dalit as a ‘unifying category’ – of struggle and revolution, of all marginalised classes. But is it really so? Ambedkar is being appropriated by the entire political spectrum from the Left to the Right. But is his ideology being accepted by all? What makes the thinkers think Dalit to be a unifying term, particularly at the juncture when it is evident that Ambedkar is emerging as the sole unifying factor of the marginalised sections of India? Why is his revolution not taken as important as that of the Dalit Panthers who apparently attempted to follow him? In this context, is it the category – Dalit – or the name – Ambedkar – which is the prime unifying force of the depressed classes and progressives?

The assertion of Dalit identity negates Ambedkar’s constructive struggle for emancipation of the ‘depressed classes’. Credit: Reuters

The term Dalit is a linguistic construction based on the spiritual and material reality of a long, oppressive history. Nonetheless, such conditions do not validate the naming of a certain class on such oppressed conditions only. Particularly, when an identity claims assertion, the assertion of weakness and filth negates the power of a constructive struggle. The assertion of Dalit identity negates Ambedkar’s constructive struggle for emancipation of the ‘depressed classes’.

This is the case not only in the followers of Ambedkar, but also in the followers of Kanshiram. Kanshi Ram gave a new identity to the people by bringing about a political revolution. He rejected the old filthy political categories and gave the new identity of Bahujan – a political identity which could unify an even larger mass. Ambedkar wrote in Bahushkrit Baharat in 1935 that one needs to change the shetji-bhatji rajya (Baniya-Brahmin rule) and give power to 80% marginalised people to gain equality. Kanshi Ram helped realise this through a new Bahujan identity. By rejecting the name Dalit, he worked extensively to show Bahujan as a powerful force. The positive connotation of a positive nomenclature was very much in tandem with the samyak wisdom of the Buddha: “Bahujan hitay, bahujan sukhay.” Kanshi Ram converted Buddha’s social, material and spiritual philosophy into a political identity.

Another co-founder of the Dalit Panthers, J.V. Pawar, said in a recent artice, “We established Dalit Panthers keeping in mind that today we are dalits (neglected) but one day our status will change. Dalitism is nothing but a status. We have changed that status. Backwardness should not be our identification. We are not dalits now.” It is commendable how Pawar has, in spite of being a founding member, not shied away from accepting the flaw of using the term Dalit.

We salute his vision of samata and conviction for justice which, in all wise minds, is accepting of the change brought about by the emerging emancipatory social conditions. The struggle of the elimination of social-human-barriers and the establishment of a just-egalitarian society must not compromise with human self-respect. The progressives need to really progress by recognising Ambedkar’s revolution of 1956. They must not regress to the days where the people of the depressed classes were named connoting weakness and filth like that of bhangi, dalit and the popularly known ‘Lagaan’s Kachra’.

Vruttant and Krittika are PhD researchers at JNU, New Delhi.

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