Two books -- one offering a historical perspective, the other bearing the immediacy and thrust of the present -- focus on the prejudices and oppression faced by dalits in India, and on 'battles' fought, won and lost in their ongoing struggle
Writing Indian History: A View from Below by Achuthan M Kandyil
Pages: 465. Rs 700
Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics
by Ravikumar. Translated from the Tamil by
Pages: 320. Rs 650
The bulk of educated Indian urbanites living in the 21st century are reluctant to accept that the prejudices and oppressions of the past are still rampant today. We want to feel good, stand tall on the world stage and boast either about the present or the past, depending on age and background. We were "civilised" when westerners were running around in bear skins. We are at the forefront of dazzling technological advances. The baggage of the past is an embarrassment to be ignored. Dalit issues are boring. Poverty and discrimination are fast disappearing, and anyone can achieve anything with a little hard work. Our main crib is the failure of government to solve various service delivery issues. We live in the quotidian present and do not want to look beyond our noses.
Books like Writing Indian History: A View from Below by Achuthan M Kandyil, and Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics by Ravikumar shake us out of our complacence, forcing us to look at things from the wrong end of our telescope. The former was researched and compiled, in the words of the author, with the hope that it would help to counteract "the attempts of the Hindu Right to falsify Indian history further to suit its ideology". Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics by Ravikumar is a collection of essays written over some years, each "tied to an event or an occasion", in the words of Susie Tharu in her foreword to the book. The pieces "carry the grainy texturing of incident and location".
The two books complement each other -- one offers a long, historical view, the other has the immediacy and thrust of the present. Both focus on what man has done to man in India, and on "battles" fought, won and lost in the on-going struggle by dalits. While the first stresses the need to learn "the true history, religion and politics of India", the second is more concerned with current struggles.
Dalit means variously "burst", "split", "scattered", "dispersed", "broken", "crushed", and is resonant with a militancy and pride in one's identity not attached to the word 'harijan' (People of God), which was coined by Gandhi to identify the former "untouchables", sections referred to in government parlance as "scheduled castes and scheduled tribes" (SC/ST). The word dalit, in this context, was first used by Jotiba Phule, the iconic, pathbreaking fighter for dalit rights.
Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka and Adi Andhra are also used in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The word adi, in the sense of "original" or "primary", added as a prefix to the people of the province named, denotes the original inhabitants of the land and emphasises a non-Aryan identity. When Aryan culture swept across the Indian heartland, these original inhabitants were assimilated but given an inferior status, along with women. They were also marginalised and forced to take up menial jobs.
The insidious caste system, whatever its origin, mutated into a monstrous creation that, to this day, remains our country's shame. Dalits attempted to escape this vicious circle of oppression by converting and, rarely, by fighting back. The NSSO's 61st round survey found that almost nine-tenths of Buddhists and notable sections of Sikhs and Christians (as well as Muslims, it may be added) once belonged to the notified scheduled castes.
The definition of dalit identity within the Hindu fold is a contentious issue. Dalit thinkers and writers prefer to highlight the importance of forging a distinct, separate identity spread across all religions of India, and, of course, states. But this has a downside. By equating the entire Hindu religion with the caste system, Brahmins and upper caste Hindus, sentient educated dalits have not been able to influence oppressed fellow dalits who are devout Hindus. Despite having been denied opportunities to a proper education, or a decent job and life, they are apathetic about fighting for their rights and remain in fatalistic misery. They believe in praying to gods and goddesses as a means of easing their suffering. The dalit push to turn away from basic Hindu practices (such as abstinence from beef-eating, or calling a Brahmin priest for rituals, etc), to view these as alien to dalits pushes wide swathes of the lowest of the low outside the activist dalit fold, for they cannot abandon what has been ingrained in them for centuries; that which gives them fortitude in the face of suffering. Simultaneously, rejection of religious reformers such as Vivekananda by educated dalit leaders, on grounds of their being spokesmen for the upper classes, has resulted in a situation where the nearest, acceptable non-dalit ally visible is the Left. But, the leftists believe caste discrimination will disappear when class oppression does, and that no separate specific dalit effort is required. The reader cannot help but get drawn into these debates as the questions raised are fundamental to the future of the country.
Ravikumar's book is virtually a call from the battlefield. He writes with power and conviction on several issues, many of which, though difficult for a non-Tamilian unfamiliar with the context, still have the power to influence. One need not agree with him, but one feels his passion and it is clear that large sections of dalits feel as he does. Whether his observations on Mayawati or his views on the Melavalavu massacre (1997), his language, translated without any hiccups, is impressive. An incisive analysis of a prize-winning film Knock-Out by a filmmaker called Lenin is particularly thought-provoking; the writer succeeds in standing the average viewer's reaction on its head. The film is about a boxer who becomes famous and dies in poverty. The indignities heaped on his dead body are depicted at length in the film. As the body is stripped of dignity by the gravedigger who steals what he can, Ravikumar challenges our perceptions by presenting the episode from the gravedigger's point of view.
Such passion is obviously not possible in Kandyil's book, written after comprehensive study and analysis from "below", as he puts it. One has to admire his learning and appreciate the book as a valuable source of reference. But it's an ambitious work and so suffers the drawback of too much material having to be squeezed into one book. Still, the information is succinctly put as in the chapter that deals with "the cultural influence of India" and discusses the historical diaspora.
Writing Indian History: A View from Below and Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics have several common themes: the Aryan question (indigenous, or foreign?); the advent of Buddhism, its submergence and recent (limited) resurgence; the contribution, if any, Muslim invaders made to dalit uplift; the role of the British; to what degree Gandhi failed the dalits; enmity and attitude of the non-Brahminical classes towards dalits; what Independence stood for; the twists and turns of the dalit struggle, etc.
Some information about the two authors would be relevant here. Ravikumar is a full-time author, editor, publisher-activist in Tamil Nadu, while Kandyil worked for several years as an engineer in India before joining the faculty of an American university.
(Kalyani Chaudhuri is a retired civil servant. She is now an avid trekker and occasional writer)