‘Literature is not brahmanical, values are’

Hindi critic Dr Veerbharat Talwar says there are brahmanical elements in the writings of Premchand and many other poets and writers like him, but their literature can’t be branded brahmanical

Is it not true that the mainstream Hindi literature always has had an indifferent attitude towards progressive streams? This has been the case since the days of Bhartendu. Even today, the mainstream brands identity-based literature as reactionary.

You are right. However, the issue is not confined to the indifference or to Hindi literature. Whenever a new stream emerges in literature, not only it has to face indifference but it is viewed with suspicion, bordering on hostility. This has been happening since the times of Bhartendu. When “Chhayavad” emerged, it was viewed with suspicion. And this is not just limited to Hindi literature. It is there all over the country. And this must be happening in European literature too. It is very common. Every new stream, every new idea faces resistance. Prof Veerbharat Talvar copyPeople question it, they find it strange, not the least because they are not used to it, and they are unable to see things from a new perspective. That is why every new stream has to struggle to gain acceptability and recognition. It cannot establish itself without a struggle. It would be too much to expect people to instantly accept anything new. It is a different matter that some ideas face resistance for a relatively longer period and some get established in lesser time. But every new stream, every new idea has to struggle; it has to prove its worth, it has to project its specific features, it has to gain acceptability. Whenever any new group or community tries to alter the conditions of its survival – tries to change the power equations, tries to get organized and redefined – the dominant community does everything possible to protect and perpetuate its dominance. In Hindi literature, women, Dalits and Dalit women have raised their voice, established their distinct identity. The streams of identity-based literature that have emerged over the last 25-30 years – they had to struggle but they have succeeded to a great extent and their march towards complete success continues.

Which streams have succeeded?

Dalit literature for one. Today, no one can ignore Dalit literature in Hindi. It has established itself. It has its own market, its own audience and its writers are well known. If any genre of literature is the most talked about, it is Dalit literature. The same is true of women’s literature. These streams are not at the margins of Hindi literature.

Don’t you think these streams got recognition far more quickly in non-Hindi literature?

If you are talking of Marathi literature, yes. Marathi has had quite a few powerful Dalit writers.

Do you think the situation would have been better if non-Hindi progressive writings had been translated into Hindi in a big way?

No. I don’t think so. Dr Ambedkar came from Maharashtra. Earlier, in the 19th century, there was Mahatma Phule. He had founded Satyashodhak Samaj. So, Maharashtra has a long history of Dalit movements, which the Hindi belt lacks. Only translation would not have made much of a difference.

In parallel with identity-based politics, new streams are emerging in literature too – Dalit, women’s and Dalit feminist, etc. Now, Shudra and Bahujan literature are also taking shape. At least for now, the progressive and Dalit streams seem to be at loggerheads with one another. Do you think the established streams would accept these new streams?

Whether these streams will be accepted is not important. What is important is how strong the new streams are. If they are strong, they will survive and establish themselves. Whether the older streams accept them or not is immaterial. And the older streams will no longer remain the mainstream. The new streams will become the mainstream. As I have already said, the new identity-based streams – Dalit, women’s and Dalit feminist – are not on the margins. They have carved out a niche for themselves in Hindi literature. As far as acceptability goes, we also need to ask the question and assess how much these new streams accept one other. And it is not only the question of older streams, which you call progressive or mainstream. The question is whether feminist literature accepts Dalit literature? Or even to what extent Dalit literature accepts Dalit feminist literature? These questions need to be pondered upon. It is not that only progressive literature is creating problems; there are problems between the new streams also. Women, Dalits and Tribals – these are the three oppressed communities of the country. They are struggling to establish their identity. What must be realized is that liberation will not come by ploughing a lonely furrow. Are these oppressed identities coming to each other’s aid? They cannot hope for liberation without mutual cooperation.

Gender and caste are clearly reflected in literature. Can we as clearly identify the brahmanical literature in the literary corpus?

It is not entirely correct to say that the impact of gender and caste on literature is clearly visible. Gender, I can concede to some extent, but as for caste, it would be too much to presume that every caste has its distinct impact. There are so many castes in India that if someone set out to explore the impact of each of them on literature, it would be an exercise that would take you nowhere. But yes, caste system, caste discrimination are a part of the value system of Indians and its impact on literature can be seen. Now whether we can pinpoint the brahmanical literature in the corpus of Hindi literature is a question that can be divided into two parts. There are some writings that can be described as purely brahmanical. For instance, the scriptures that underline the importance of giving gifts and endowments to Brahmins, or texts that detail the method of performing pujas and rituals, or statute books like Manusmriti, etc. But as for poetry, drama, novel and other creative writings, there is no brahmanical literature there – only brahmanical values, brahmanical tendencies, brahmanical mindset. But branding the entire literature as brahmanical would be unjust and erroneous. You can always try to identify brahmanical values, elements, ideology in literature, but how can you declare that the entire literature is brahmanical?

If brahmanical literature existed, so did literary streams that were its antithesis. They are now being named after different identities. So, why can’t we have a new category of “Shudra literature”?

As I clearly said, putting brahmanical tag on the entire corpus of literature would not be correct. We can find many brahmanical elements in the writings of Premchand, but can his literature be branded as brahmanical? There are many such poets and authors. Take Sanskrit literature. Can everything that Kalidas wrote be described as brahmanical? And neither can every story, every poem, every play written by a Dalit writer be categorized as Dalitvaadi literature. A large part of literature is about general human behaviour, which is common to members of all communities – whether Dalits or Tribals or Brahmins. Then, the member of every community is influenced by a set of values, norms and beliefs. It is not that Dalit writers are free from brahmanism. They are greatly influenced by the brahmanical value system, which is visible in their writings and their thoughts.

Won’t the nomenclature of “Bahujan literature” be more comprehensive and integrated than Dalit and Shudra literature? Won’t the concept of Bahujan literature be of greater help in clearly identifying the reactionary forces?

FORWARD Press has been raising this issue for some time now. I can understand its intent. I don’t doubt its intentions. Its intentions are noble. The brahmanical ideology is the ruling the roost in society. To resist and oppose it, the magazine wants to create a common platform, a joint front of all the anti-brahmanical writers. There is nothing wrong with having this objective. In fact, it is a good objective. It should be appreciated. But the question is of the reality. And the reality is that literature only reflects the ground reality. If there are internal contradictions within the society, they will be reflected in literature. The literature sincerely mirrors the social reality. You cannot unite two classes in literature while they have different, even contradictory, interests in society. If there are internal contradictions between the Shudras and the Dalits, you cannot bring them on a common platform – whether literary or social or political. If there is no uniformity in society, you cannot thrust it on literature, you cannot project it subjectively. The Shudras and the Dalits stand divided in society. Then, how can we bracket them in one class in literature? You cannot unite them only by raising the bogey of brahmanism. It is not the only issue. Their social, economic and political interests also count. The ground reality is that most of the Dalits – rather almost all – are landless. On the other hand, barring some exceptions, those whom we call Shudras are landowners. Some of them are rich farmers. They exploit the Dalits who work their fields. Their social status is commensurate with their economic status and their political aspirations match their socio-economic status. When Dalits and Shudras have an exploited-exploiter relationship, when their interests are mutually contradictory, how can they be brought on a common social, economic or political platform only on the basis of anti-brahmanism? This clash of interests is bound to reflect in literature too. Therefore, rather than trying to create a common literary category for the two, attempts should be made to solve their social internal contradictions. At the political level, for instance, an attempt at Shudra-Dalit unity was made by forging a joint front of BSP and SP in Uttar Pradesh. What became of it, everyone knows. But no one can say with guarantee that appropriate lessons must have been learnt from this failure and that the experiment will now succeed. How can you even imagine that you can build a common front of two communities that are competitors, rather rivals, in the social, political and economic arenas? I don’t doubt their intentions. But what they have set out to achieve cannot be achieved without resolving the inherent internal contradictions between the two social groups. How to resolve them is the key issue.

Non-OBC and non-Dalit writers say that Bahujan politics is casteist. Your take?

I have three things to say about this. First: it is the Dwijs who are really casteist. Till the Dalits and Shudras accept the dominance of the Dwij castes, accept the caste system created by them, till then the Dwijs see no casteism. But as soon as the Dalit and Shudras start challenging their dominance, start organizing themselves to improve their condition and start demanding reservations or other such facilities, the charge of being casteist is hurled at them. This is duplicity. Second: Even if we presume that the efforts by Dalits and Shudras to improve their lot could be termed casteism, I would like to recall what Lenin had said. He had said that the nationalisms of the oppressors (like of the British imperialists or the Russian Czar) and of the oppressed (like of India, China, Armenia, Lithuania, etc) are different in that the latter has a revolutionary element in it. Similarly, while the casteism of Dwijs is status quoist, that of Dalits and Shudras is a big step towards social justice.

The third thing, which is the most important, is that instead of talking about castes, we should talk about ideology – the ideology of social justice. The categorization should be based on who is a proponent of the ideology of social justice and who is its opponent, and not on caste. Because no caste is homogenous. Within each caste, there are different classes, groups and ideologies and in accordance with these, different kinds of politics and different kinds of leadership emerge from within each caste. So, the confrontations are not only inter-caste, they are intra-caste as well. So, we should organize and categorize ourselves on the basis of ideology of social justice, not on the basis of caste.

Are corruption and good governance the biggest contemporary issues?

It is difficult to say whether they are the biggest issues but definitely they are big issues. There is no doubt about that. In my view, defending our democracy is a bigger issue than these and it is linked with corruption and good governance as well. In fact, I would say that democracy subsumes these two issues. We cannot protect our democracy unless we establish a system which is not only free from corruption but also from the stranglehold of capitalists and corporate houses, a system that genuinely fulfils popular aspirations, where people are in control, where the people, who are the real builders of democracy, do not find themselves helpless – building such a democracy is the key issue. In our country, democracy has become the handmaiden of a few and the people, who are the foundation of this democracy, are standing aside, helpless. Once they get elected, the leaders start riding roughshod over the people; this is really ironical. How can this be called democracy? The need is to free democracy from the stranglehold of capitalist corporate houses. The real power should be in the hands of the people in a democracy. How this can be achieved – which is not there at present – is the biggest question of the day.

What should be the agenda for attaining freedom from the scourge of caste?

The agenda that Dr Ambedkar had laid down for freeing India from caste is the foundation of the movement for freedom from caste. But we have not been able to implement it effectively – so much so that today, most of the Dalit leaders have given up on this agenda. In fact, the kind of organizations they are running and the kind of politics they are practising is just the opposite of what Ambedkar had suggested. It was Ambedkar’s movement that mentally freed Dalits. He had laid the foundation to enable Dalits to fight for their material freedom. For attaining material freedom, they will have to launch a class struggle against the feudal and capitalist forces. Most of the Dalits are farm labourers, marginal farmers, contract labourers or industrial labourers. Besides fighting for their self-respect as members of their caste, they will also have to wage a struggle for their economic and political interests as members of a class. If they continue to be Dalits, it is also because they are deprived of land, of fair wages and other basic necessities of life. Waging a battle based solely on caste identity will benefit only relatively prosperous members of the castes concerned and a majority of the Dalits, who are abysmally poor and surviving in hellish conditions, won’t get anything. It is clear that only a handful of Dalits can get jobs or contracts on the basis of reservations or in the name of diversity. Therefore, for the liberation of Dalits as a caste, it is necessary that they should equip themselves with self-respect and then unitedly battle for their interests as a class.

For more on Bahujan literature, visit http://www.amazon.in/dp/8193258428, order a copy of Forward Press Books’ “Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavana” (Hindi edition) and have it delivered to your homes. The English edition, titled “The Case for Bahujan Literature”, will be available soon.

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