Is ‘Dalit’ the right word?

Is the use of the word “Dalit” in conformity with Ambedkarite thought? Was Dr Ambedkar in favour of using this word? Ish Kumar Gangania attempts to answer these and other related questions

For the past couple of years, a leading organization working for the deprived sections in the Hindi belt has been appealing for refraining from using the word “Dalit”. Many writers have voiced their agreement. Here, Ish Kumar Gangania presents his arguments in support of the appeal. Our objective is to initiate a wider discussion and debate on the issue – Editor

I am in a strange bind over the use of the word “Dalit” in the context of Ambedkarism and the literature that has come to exist keeping this word centre stage. Maybe, a discussion on it will help us understand the relationship between Ambedkar and Dalit literature. I feel that this word is not part of Ambedkarism. I am of the view that a community bearing this name can never aspire for a dignified identity for itself. As far as I know from my limited reading, Ambedkar never called upon his people to make this word a part of their identity.

Babasaheb said, “The castes that are today described as Dalits have serious reservations about the use of this word … This word creates the impression that they are a lowly and helpless community, whereas the fact is that in every province, many members of these castes are prosperous and well-educated and the entire community is growing conscious of its rights. They have a strong desire to secure a respectable position for themselves in Indian society and they are making all possible efforts for it. Due to all these reasons, the use of the word ‘Dalit’ is inappropriate and wrong … As a representative of the Dalit classes, I can say without any hesitation that till we can find a better word, the Untouchables should be addressed as Non-Caste Hindus or Outcaste Hindus”. (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sampoorna Vangmay, Volume 4) Here, it would be pertinent to note that some intellectuals have suggested other nomenclatures such as “Indigenous Inhabitants” and “Ambedkarite Community” for the Dalits.

But a big section of Dalit intellectuals is still bent on using the terms “Dalit” and “Dalit Literature”. Kancha Ilaiah is one of them. He writes, “Now that the history of religion is nearing its end, it is essential for us to Dalitize our society. Only Dalitization can build a new, egalitarian future for the entire Indian society” (Main Hindu Kyon Nahin Hoon, p-104). Let us consider why it is necessary to “Dalitize” the entire Indian society and also, how it will be done. Will the non-Dalits be divided among the various low castes? Will they be economically, socially, intellectually and politically suppressed? Will they be subjected to various injustices? Does Kancha Ilaiah want the entire society to be made Dalit? Is this the way to build an egalitarian society? I have thought about it deeply but I still cannot understand what Dalitization means and how society will be Dalitized and how it would help build an egalitarian future for the Indian society. Iliaiah should clarify. For me, this kind of thinking is not Ambedkarvadi, it is Dalitvadi (smacking of an inferiority complex).

In this context, I would also like to refer to brilliant thinker V.T. Rajshekhar, who brings out an English magazine Dalit Voice. “Feel proud to be a Dalit, to be the indigenous inhabitant of this earth. Come, let us walk with our heads held high. Black is beautiful.” (Dalit Voice, Volume 8, Issue 16, 1-15 June 1988) I am proud of being the original inhabitant of this country and this is reason enough for holding my head high. But how can I be proud of being a Dalit?

It is also vehemently argued that Dalit literature is based on Ambedkarite ideology and is thus opposing Hindutva on the ideological plane and that strenuous efforts are being made to make Buddhism the predominant religion of this society. There is also the talk of building a casteless and egalitarian society. Women’s identity and empowerment is also referred to. Poetry, stories, novels and autobiographies routinely talk about the stratagems of the exploiters and the oppressors. It is also said that this literature is helping in clearly identifying the exploited and the exploiters. This literature is boiling with anger – so much so that the rage has become its central characteristic and its proponents are trying to establish the rage as an essential part of the aesthetics of this literature. But we should not forget that reason is often the first casualty of anger and that it adversely impacts creativity. I feel that instead of being angry, we should use arguments to put forth our case with maturity and responsibility. I am aware that that the use of the words “Dalit” and “Dalit Literature” enjoys wide acceptability. But I am still of the view that it represents only the half truth.

I believe that today, most of the victims of oppression and atrocities are those who are trying to break free from their Dalit identity and the confines it entails. Oppression and exploitation do not matter to those who have accepted their Dalit status and they are wary of mounting any resistance to the injustice. They accept it as their destiny. To my mind, Dalit litterateurs, by keeping themselves in the margins and not trying to work for winning back their real and dignified identity, have accepted their status as Dalits.

Prof Tulsiram’s autobiography Murdhiya brims with rage and seems to be revolting against the entire system. But at the centre of this revolt is a person and anything that it achieves will be for that person, not for anyone else. That Prof Tulsiram throws off the yoke of superstitions and of belief in spirits and ghosts is ample proof of his commitment to the Ambedkarite ideology. Running away from home to the nearest town for acquiring education is a revolt and its objective is personal growth. Babasaheb’s life was full of such acts. He believed in marching ahead by doing better than others – not by dragging someone back. It is due to this that Ambedkar is today counted among the top 100 talented people ever. Today, we need that kind of spirit. It was Ambedkarite ideology that turned an ordinary, deprived boy, grappling with all kinds of problems, into Prof Tulsiram of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Dr Dharmveer, who is a brilliant scholar, is a study in contrast. He says that he is a disciple of Ambedkar. He was a member of the elite IAS and, till sometime ago, was producing serious, admirable literature. But now, he is striking at the very roots of the thoughts and philosophy of Buddha and Dr Ambedkar and is trying to establish his half-baked Ajivak philosophy. His courtiers are trying to make his so-called autobiography Meri Patni Aur Bhedia, his dated thoughts and Kabir the basis of his Ajivak philosophy. Dr Dharmveer’s endeavours can be compared with the rabid Hinduvadi movement that variously describes “Hinduism” as a religion, as a product of the Indus Valley civilization, as nationalism and as a lifestyle, apart from linking it with the Hindi language. The result is confusion and more confusion.

This is one side of the coin. In Ambedkarite literature, we discuss the different aspects of exploitation and oppression and, by using our freedom of thought and expression, put those responsible for it in the dock. But while doing so, we sometimes find ourselves in the dock. Ambedkarite poets describe the brahmanical culture as “alien” and “dead”, and a culture of “mistresses” and of “dogs”. Some poets say that the Hinduvadi culture is so reprehensible that it should not be touched. It is the philosophy of Buddha and Babasaheb and Babasaheb’s 22 vows that have given these poets the wisdom and the courage to reject this culture. For this, they should thank Ambedkarism, not Dalitvad. We can quote many such examples from stories, poems and novels.

Another related question is whether anything that a Dalit has written should be considered Dalit literature and a part of Ambedkarite thought. Many Dalit litterateurs claim that only Dalits can write Dalit literature. I disagree with both these contentions. Dr Vijay Sonkar Shastri’s writings do not seem to be even remotely based on Ambedkarite ideology. The fact that Dr Shastri has ties with the Dalit community does not automatically make his literature compatible with Dalit literature or Ambedkarite ideology.

To understand Ambedkarism, we will first have to understand the ideological opportunism pervading society. Dr Vijay Sonkar Shastri is a case in point. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, Shastri has served as the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. Shastri is one of the Dalit faces of the BJP. For the past five years, he has been bringing out a magazine called Dalit Andolan, which routinely carries big photographs of Dr Ambedkar.

On 7 September 2014, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat released three of his books titled Hindu Khatik Jati, Hindu Charmakar Jati and Hindu Valmiki Jati during a function at the NDMC Convention Centre, New Delhi. Speaking on the occasion, Bhagwat said, “How the number of Hindu sub-castes reached thousands is a matter of research. Today’s Untouchables were valiant castes of the past. They refused to quit their religion despite being persecuted by alien invaders and for the sake of their religion, even agreed to do manual scavenging. Who can be stauncher Hindu than them?”

If we test this comment on the touchstone of Ambedkarite ideology – on what I call Dr Ambedkar’s theory of deconstruction – we will find that it is based on the fissiparous character of Hinduvad. How is it possible that an organization fully dedicated to Hinduvad like the RSS, which has an army of fanatical Hindu intellectuals and which claims that it is the patron of Hindu culture and its history, does not know how Hindus became divided into thousands of castes? If it is really doesn’t know, the RSS has no business declaring itself as the greatest well wisher of the Hindus and the nation. I believe that RSS knows everything and that is why Bhagwat says “Today’s untouchables were the valiant castes of the past” and concludes “Who can be stauncher Hindu than them?”

There is enough evidence to prove that the Aryan ancestors of today’s caste Hindus forced the original inhabitants of the country to do unclean tasks like scavenging and skinning dead animals. The RSS chief, however, only refers to manual scavenging and not to other lowly tasks entrusted to the Dalits. This is a clear attempt at giving the Valmikis an identity distinct from the Dalits. The reference to alien invaders forcing them to do manual scavenging is aimed at killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, he is saying that among the Dalits, only Valmikis are “valiant” and probably others are not, while on the other hand, he is trying to send out the message that it was the Muslims who pushed the Valmikis into this demeaning occupation and that Hindus had no role in it. Thirdly, by insisting that Valmikis are staunch Hindus, he is preparing them as foot soldiers for future communal riots. While Dr Shastri declares through his books Hindi Charmakar Jati, Hindu Valmiki Jati and Hindu Khatik Jati that all these three castes are staunch Hindus, the RSS chief contends that only the Valmikis are “valiant” and “staunch Hindus”.

The RSS chief also said that one should not convert to another religion no matter what price one has to pay for it. It clearly means that no matter how demeaning the work assigned to them is, no matter how much they exploited, oppressed and humiliated they may be, the Dalits should not quit the Hindu fold and should endure these injustices for the sake of the Hindu religion. It is more than clear that the Hindu fanatical stream is dead opposed to Ambedkarism. The RSS chief’s comments are loaded with many implications and the fact that Dr Shastri is with the RSS shows the opportunistic ways of our times.

In his speech, the Sarsanghchalak also said, “We support reservations. Till there is inequality in society, reservations are needed. The Dalit castes have the right to a high position in society and if the upper castes do so [support reservations], they would not be doing any favour. The Dalits have suffered for 1,000 years. To improve their situation, we should be ready to put up with difficulties for 100 years.” The news that the RSS chief supports reservations grabbed headlines. It was talked about in Dalit as well as non-Dalit circles. There is nothing wrong in talking about and discussing things and I also propose to do just that. I find fissiparous tendencies in the RSS chief’s statement. His real objective seems to be something else altogether. The second part of his statement that “The Dalits have suffered for 1000 years and to improve their situation, we should be ready to put up with difficulties for 100 years” makes the first part suspicious. He has reduced the 3,500-year-long history of the oppression and exploitation of Dalits to just 1,000 years without any basis. And he wants to redress it by giving them reservations for 100 years.

Even more importantly, what is implied in his statement is that reservations should continue for just 18 more years. Counting from 1935 onwards, 100 years end in 2035. We are already in the year 2017. Though neither the RSS chief nor we have any authority to decide till when reservations should continue, the question here is of RSS’ motives and objectives. To me, both are suspicious.

Coming back to the word “Dalit”, it is clear that this word is an adjective not a noun. The indigenous inhabitants of this country were subjected to all sorts of atrocities, exploitation and humiliation and were given derogatory names like Asprashya, Achchoot, Antyaj, Chandal and so on. The word “Dalit” also belongs to this series. It has been thrust upon us and it cannot be the identity of any rational community.

Ambedkarite ideology exhorts us to hunt for our original identity – the identity we had before the long history of conspiracies, mass murders and exploitation and oppression began. We can readily conclude that the present-day Dalits are the original inhabitants of this country and are the carriers of the Lokayat/Charwak culture, that is, the culture of the Ajivaks who earn their livelihood by dint of their hard work. They work hard, are peace-loving and are upholders of high moral values. Those among them who want to accept their identity as “Dalits” probably want to avoid the hard work involved in looking for their original identity. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Ambedkarism cannot and should not be limited to literature. It has a close relationship with society and nation, in fact, with humanity as a whole.


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