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Subalternism vs Dalitism

Speaking Truth to Power: Religion, Caste and the Subaltern Question in India (Vol I) edited by Manu Bhagavan and Anne Eldhaus

Subalternism vs Dalitism

Anand Teltumbde

T
he two volumes in honour of Eleanor Zelliot, Laird Bell professor of history, Emerita at Carleton College, who devoted much of her scholarly life to the study of the movement among untouchables in India led by B R Ambedkar, have admittedly followed the trajectory of Zelliot’s scholarship over the last three decades. In her illustrious

book review

Speaking Truth to Power: Religion, Caste and the Subaltern Question in India (Vol I) edited by Manu Bhagavan and Anne Eldhaus, 2008; pp xii + 242, Rs 625.

Claiming Power from Below: Dalits and the Subaltern Question in India (Vol II) edited by Manu Bhagavan and Anne Eldhaus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; pp x + 222, Rs 625.

the contemporary Hindutva interpretations by showing “a Muslim influence on the bhakti movement” and also the contemporary tendency among scholars to show that the caste was constructed

d uring the colonial period by British processes of enumeration, classification, and other administrative practices. She endorses Zelliot’s opinion that the bhakti poets were moralists, as crusaders against casteism and evil, as agents of change. T ukaram’s in the early 17th century, she contends, was not a simple and non-violent but a militant opposition to injustice. It is followed by Christian Novetzke’s essay

career, Zelliot has written 80 articles and edited three books on saint-poets of the medieval period, and on the current Ambedkar-inspired Buddhist movement. More importantly she inaugurated a methodological breakthrough in catalytic scholarship that reflected active involvement in the life of the subject, representation of its cause and concern and still letting it speak for itself.

The book follows in the genre of s ubalternist scholarship that had initially aimed at rehabilitating the autonomous domain of the culture and politics of the people, which until 1980 was obliterated by the elitist viewpoint of the historiography of modern India. When subaltern studies first came into being, the peoples’ movements in India were being repressed and hence it was necessary to speak for the oppressed. The subalternism thereafter gradually followed in post-colonial criticism which, under the influence of postmodernism and cultural studies, mainly focused on the textuality of colonialism, the defence of indigenous cultural differences and the critique of historicism and the epistemology of the western social sciences. Today, subalternism has become synonymous with celebration of differences among people, leaving no hope for better future for the oppressed. The criticism of subalternist strategy of celebrating “differences” for people’s empowerment is particularly intensified when it was seen in parallel with the World Bank’s strategy to “empower”. Although subalternism is thus beset by a number of theoretical problems, it has gained wide academic currency in the context of the growing a ssertiveness of cultural identities.

First Volume

The first volume focuses on the large question of religion and its role in the construction and deconstruction of caste and p ower in India. The chapters in this v olume elaborate on the basic theme thrown up by Zelliot’s study of bhakti, whether devotionalism, popular narratives and rituals inform socio-religious movements of liberation or act to consolidate unjust structures of power and inequality. This question has been particularly relevant as the Buddhist cultural paradigm built up over the last five decades by the Ambedkarite dalits definitely reflects devotionalism with all its paraphernalia that even seeks to discard “dalit” identity, symbolically throwing away entire baggage of consciousness of being wronged and militancy that stems from that consciousness. The split in the Dalit Panthers immediately after its birth in 1970s was essentially on the issue of whether dalits should be following B uddhism as the path of emancipation or fighting against their material exploitation. Although this theme is approximately pursued by most chapters in the volume, it does not cohere well to enlighten the reader in what way devotionalism or popular narratives and rituals can translate into a challenge to the structures of power.

In the first essay on the bhakti radicals and untouchability, Gail Omvedt refutes portraying Namdev, who represented the downtrodden, helpless, landless, and powerless, bracketed in “subaltern” by the contemporary scholarship, as humanist opposed to caste, class, and gender injustice. Janet Davis traces out the history of the campaign for animal kindness and exposes its Hindutva backing, essentially rearticulating the oppression of dalits under the moralistic garbs. Ann Gold, following Zelliot’s study of folklore of Maharashtrian dalits, discerns a similar outcry by the d isadvantaged communities in rural R ajasthan against their degradation based on birth-given status. Jeffrey Brackett’s essay illustrates how the popular monkey god Hanuman, an avatar of the kadak god Rudra Siva was popularised by Ramdas Swamy, a Brahmin saint, by taming him as a servant of saumya Rama. Michael Youngblood follows the folklore around the demon king Bali to observe that “even when subaltern cultural productions and social meanings do embody opposition to elite ideologies, they are not simply or wholly reactions to dominant culture”, which itself may be a kind of expression of resistance.

Donna Wulff highlights the oppression of patriarchal structures with the examples of two Bengali singers – Binapani Devi and Sukla Hazra, who overcame it and distinguished themselves as successful devotional singers. Gail Minault studies the narratives on “zenana life” in India in the 19th century to note how Muslim women had ongoing dialogue with both male hegemony and the underlying r eligious authority to liberate themselves

december 27, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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BOOK REVIEW

from their oppression. Paula Richman in her essay traces out dalit transformation through the narratives of Bama’s (a noted dalit writer from Tamil Nadu) novels. Laura Jenkins notes dalit women’s empowerment through their conversion to Buddhism. Although, nothing had changed for dalits in visible terms, their psychological transformation has been remarkable. Gary Welbon takes us through Pali Vinayapitaka to depict the transformation of its author, a humble barber turned arhat – Upali. Gary Tartakov presents through his essay the new Buddhist imagery that portrays identities of the dalit converts to reshape their psychology and reorient their social and material life. Gopal Guru’s essay reflects upon many images of Ambedkar and laments about the spurious appropriation of him by both dalits as well as non-dalits. The last essay is by Syed Akbar Hyder on the qawwali tradition that “celebrates intertexual and interdisciplinary humanism in the broader sense and forges a spirit of solidarity across the abodes of literature, religion, history, gender studies and anthropology” (p 230).

Second Volume

The second volume is devoted to politics and deals with “political spaces in which dalits operate, as well as on those that dalits have created” (p 4).

The first essay of Anupama Rao explores the meaning of the dalit as “a field of contestation” and “a political category with history” through the articulation of Jotiba Phule and later of Ambedkar. She argues that the dalit experience fashioned an alternate and important negotiation of modernity and democracy and therefore considers it as an “inaugural figure for understanding the specificity of Indian democracy”. The next essay by Ramnarayan Rawat deals with emergence of the dalit perspective in UP through the history and political organisation during the 1940s and 1950s. Dalit, he argues is “not only a powerful and effective identity but also a perspective that performs a foundational role in defining a worldview for political action and everyday life” (p 38). Rajendra Vora highlights the heterogeneity of Muslim community in India and marks the emergence of the movement of backward caste Muslims in positive terms. He sees potential in the caste-based mobilisation of the Muslim OBCs to create a majoritarianism of the oppressed by linking itself to the non-Muslim marginalised sections. The next essay by Sukhdeo Thorat presents Ambedkar’s thoughts on economic development and highlights that Ambedkar wanted India to adopt a socialistic economic framework by nationalising land and basic industries. Mani Kamerkar traces out colonial oppression of peasantry in the Bombay presidency with a case study of Bassein taluka in Thana district. Abigail McGowan’s essay deals with the industrial education in the late 19th century and highlights faulty colonial assumptions in patterning it because of which industrial education instead of doing away, supported and perpetuated the existing divisions within society. Shailaja Paik discusses schooling of dalit women based on her interviews with 180 women in Pune. She charts out a matrix of domination, to uncover interplay of caste, class, and the educational system on the one hand and patriarchy and matriarchy on the other, and shows how this matrix results in a r enewed oppression of dalit girls. Yasmin Saikia presents narratives of men and women in the violent moment of a postcolonial war between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Vijay Prashad’s essay presents an overview of the history of the concept of caste and an analysis of the fight of dalits against their caste oppression in contemporary I ndia. He ends it with a hope that the struggle of dalit groups will make India truly the world’s largest democracy in the fullest sense of the word. Laura Brueck in her e ssay deals with the emergent issues and debates in the contemporary community of dalit writers working in Hindi as they n egotiate the changing boundaries of their literary genre, its growing popularity, and the changing reality of the dalit experience. Veena Deo studies the representations of dalit women through the short stories of Urmila Pawar, a noted dalit writer in Maharashtra. Next, Dilip Chitre presents Namdeo Dhasal as a maverick dalit poet who changed Marathi poetry. The essay by Bali Sahota follows with an analysis and

Venue : University of North Bengal, Siliguri, West Bengal, India. Jointly organized by : PRIA, New Delhi and University of North Bengal, Siliguri (West Bengal), Co-sponsored by : WBCSSP (supported byDFID) and Citizenship DRC (supported byIDS/DFID). For details visit website www.pria.org, www.westbengalcivilsociety.org/ Last date for submission ofabstract (not more than 300 words) : 10th January,2009 Date ofintimation ofselection ofabstract : 20th January,2009 Last date for submission offull length paper : 10th February,2009 Fellowships :Certain bursaries and fellowships would beavailable to deserving delegates. Registration Fee : Rs. 500 for Indian participants &US$ 100 for International participants. Registration fee is to be sent bydemand draft drawn in favour of "Society for Participatory Research inAsia", payable at New Delhi. Last date for registration isFebruary 10, 2009 Context : In the face of rapid economic growth in India, there is widespread recognition that certain regions and communities, especially those which are economically backward are not benefitting from these opportunities. Consequentially, the 11th Five Year Plan of Government of India has focused on creating aframework for inclusive growth. Despite enormous progress being made in West Bengal over the past several decades, large sections of historically and socio-religiously vulnerable and backward communities continue to be excluded from the benefits of various development programmes, services and livelihood schemes. The Government of West Bengal has made serious efforts to strengthen institutions of local self governance, and these government bodies along with civil society engage in enabling excluded households and communities to claim their rights. Several structural, institutional and human constraints still operate to systematically exclude such groups from accessing these citizenship rights. Reforming governance institutions and processes is key to ensuring social inclusion of hitherto excluded sections ofour society. Against this backdrop, this conference would be aplatform to share empirical insights, best practices and emerging strategies to deepen and broaden social inclusion in West Bengal, and beyond of communities and categories ofpeople who are hitherto excluded from the developmental process. Conference delegates would include researchers, teachers, students, government officials, elected representatives, social activists, civil society actors and journalists from West Bengal, and other parts of the country and across the globe. 42 Tughlakabad Institutional Kolkata-700106 Area, New Delhi-110062 Phone :+91-33-40086324 Phone : +91-11-29960931-33 email :jhilam@pria.org email : mpant@pria.org, conference@pria.org All communications should be addressed to Conference Coordinators : Ms. Jhilam Roy ChowdhuryPRIA-Kolkata GC-126, Sector-III, Salt Lake City, Dr. Mandakini Pant PRIA, Call for Paper International Conference on Citizenship &Governance : Challenges for Social Inclusion 19-20 February, 2009

Economic & Political Weekly

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december 27, 2008

BOOK REVIEW

c ritique of contemporary dalit literary political parties, to fashion a new social The book thus presents a kaleido scopic pic
a esthetics, including those of Dhasal, order. Lastly, there is a poem by Meena ture of the universe of dalits across time and
showing how this new work ambivalently A lexander that weaves together the con space around the basic themes Zelliot’s life
aligns itself with the old spirit of the cerns of most of the book, including class, long exploration p rovided us. In that sense it
b hakti radicals on the one hand and with caste, race and gender, with a hope for a becomes a befitting tribute to her work.
more neo-traditional i deo logies of com transnational political space in which to
munity on the other, including right wing imagine a brighter future. Email: tanandraj@gmail.com
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december 27, 2008

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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