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A Valuable Intellectual Resource on Dalit Writing

No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, Dossier 1: Tamil and Malayalam edited and introduced by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu (Delhi: Penguin), 2011; pp xii + 641, Rs 599.

A Valuable Intellectual Resource on Dalit Writing

K Srinivasulu

N
o Alphabet in Sight is the first of a two-volume collection of the English translation of vernacular dalit writings from south India. The present volume comprises writings from Tamil and Malayalam. The forthcoming volume promises to present writings from Telugu and Kannada.

The dalit upsurge in the post-Emergency period is in a significant sense a reaction to the rise and consolidation of the shudra upper caste nouveau riche and their prime position in the regional political regime structures in India. A beneficiary of the agrarian change brought about by the green revolution, this class, in the process of its consolidation, has displayed an aggressive and even violent assertion in the countryside.

Confidence and Assertion

This process has also seen an assertion on the part of the lowest in the social hierarchy, the dalits, especially the youth, due to their access to the benefits of modernity like education, exposure to urbanisation and new ideas of freedom, equality and justice informed by the Ambedkarite ideology and social movements inspired by it.

This has made the rural milieu not only vibrant with new energy but also increasingly charged it with violent propensities and conflicts informed by the contradictions based on caste. What are popularly called “atrocities on dalits” are symptomatic of the conflictual processes of social transformation in rural India.

The caste riots against the dalits in the post-Emergency period, the most notorious of which have caught national attention like the Belchi, Karamchedu, etc, have led to a sense of solidarity among the dalits nationwide and ignited new thinking on questions of nation, democracy, citizenship, development, so on – catalysed and informed by the resurgent Ambedkarism.

book review

No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, Dossier 1: Tamil and Malayalam

edited and introduced by K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu (Delhi: Penguin), 2011; pp xii + 641, Rs 599.

Despite this common concern and inspiration, dalit politics and thinking has taken different forms depending on the regional historical specificities, social trajectories and power structures. The present volume seeks to capture the intellectual and political spirit of this resurgence in its regional manifestations, as embodied in the dalit writings from the south Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The merit of this volume lies in the selection of vernacular dalit writings that represent the complexity of articulation, attempt to capture intricacies of negotiation with different specificities and also display a new sense of confidence and assertion.

These writings deserve to be studied and engaged with seriously for they attempt to capture the complex engagement of the most oppressed of India with the postindependent trajectory of democracy and development. Further, they articulate the perspective that caste is a dynamic power relation that structures the social relations and state action in India. This view, needless to say, goes contrary to the dominant view that seeks to find a closure to the caste question in and through development.

The volume presents a wide spectrum of dalit writings that range from creative writings to autobiography, historiographical writings, political criticism, economic analyses and interviews. In a significant sense, dalit writing defies modern disciplinary categorisation despite the fact that dalit intellectuals are also influenced by the modern division of knowledge into different disciplines. It is due to the subversive character of the dalit engagement that their intellectual

september 3, 2011

production defies the compartmentalisation of knowledge and restores agency to the dalit project. This is clearly evident in the writings of those who are active in the dalit movement when compared to those who are academically inclined. Dalit writing cautions us that our life world is not frag

mentary but interrelated and interwoven and needs to be intensely engaged with.

This volume also provides an opportunity to study the sociology of dalit intellectual formations which differ from that of dominant caste intellectuals in the sense that the former have a more organic link with grass-roots social reality and political mobilisations. That these writers have published their writings in small magazines brought out by themselves with their own meagre resources could be seen as a significant aspect of the resistance to mainstream vernacular publishing. This is indicative of the fact that the dalit assertion has been autonomous not only in content but also in form. This dialectical unity between the form and content of the dalit movement mediated through critical political practice is reflected in the spirit of their writings.

Hierarchy or Difference

The fact that the caste system is dynamic and transforming has been characterised by some sociologists as marking a shift from hierarchy to difference and plurality (Sheth 1999). The editors of this volume seem to be positively inclined to this view (p 19). But the spirit and angst coming through these writings point to a different reality. The challenges to the ritual hierarchy of purity and pollution by dalit and subaltern caste movements have had a serious impact on the character of hierarchy and the density of the purity-pollution matrix. But to call this a shift to difference appears to be a clear misreading of the changing nature of caste.

As caste adapts itself to postcolonial modernity, the casteist purity-pollution logic in fact assumes multiple avatars – crude and subtle; harsh and sophisticated (see, for instance the poem, Identity Card, pp 454-55). Its reflection and articulation in the form of merit/efficiency, as evident in the anti-reservation agitation, is an

vol xlvi no 36

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Economic & Political Weekly

important one. If the continual prevalence of untouchability in blatant forms in large parts of rural India forms one aspect of the reality, then caste discrimination in subtle forms in the urban and modern milieu (for instance, in higher educational institutions; see p 16) is another – both in fact are evidence of the persistence of caste as a significant marker of social and cultural life in 21st century India.

The chief reason for the above one-sided understanding is the lack of appreciation of the dialectics of hierarchy and difference that characterise caste. The impact of western categories of social transfor mation is evident here. In the west, pre-capitalist social hierarchy was supported and streng thened by a top-down model of domination and authority. With the anti-feudal struggles and development of capitalism, the traditional notions of hierarchy were replaced by those of equality and freedom. Contrarily, in the context of India, because of the localised, decentralised nature of caste structures, hierarchies are built up and reproduced at various levels. There is no centralised authority to reinforce the caste hierarchy.

With the transition to feudalism, the different occupational groups being coopted into the mainstream varna social organisation are assigned specific locations in the hierarchy. Those who resisted integration, like the adivasis, remained outside the Hindu fold. In the process each caste group, thus co-opted, has not only assimilated the value of hierarchy but reproduced it with itself as the focus or centre. In other words, the occupational social differences are retained through caste by replicating multiple-centred caste hierarchies. This is not done by force alone but also through implicit consent and exclusion.

But all this undergoes a crisis with the onset of modernity, possibility of mobility and new principles of organising society like equality, liberty and individual choice. As these processes gain currency and ignite the desires of the lower castes, there emerges a challenge to the existing arrangements based on caste. The dalit movement is an expression of this.

In a broader frame, the dalit movement and other lower caste assertions are

expressions and attempts at the resolution

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of the new “contradiction” between equality in politics and inequality in social and economic life; the contradiction between the principle of “one man, one vote, one value” in politics and the denial of the principle of “one man, one value” in social and economic life. It is this contradiction which puts “our political democracy in peril” as B R Ambedkar eloquently warned about in the Constituent Assembly.

Central to the dalit project is addressing and resolving the contradiction between the formal political equality and the substantive inequality in the social and

economic spheres. What is unique about Indian history is that these contradictions continue to coexist without being decisively resolved. It is because of this, we find a mélange of social relations, segmented and active, coexisting with all their contradictory forms and spirit, without being resolved and posing explosive possibilities and potentialities. For this reason, the project of caste annihilation poses to be a torturous, tardy, protracted process. The writings in this volume could be read as a documentation of the

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trajectory of the unfolding of the above contradiction and the efforts at its resolution and the resistance from the dominant social interests.

Three Challenges

The first challenge to the dalit project is internal to the community itself. It is the subcaste division among the dalits that is the logic of graded inequality being reproduced among the dalits themselves. The articulation of the internal unevenness in the form of the demand for subcategorisation of the dalits for reservation, as evident in the Arundatiyar/Madiga movement (p 18), has only led to the restriction of the debate on the dalit question and distracting it from a larger focus and macro perspective on political power and social transformation. This has given enough scope for the dominant caste groups and political parties to exploit it for their political and electoral gains. The failure to address the internal differences and perceived discrimination by confronting it head on has discredited the dalit leadership and paved the way for the consolidation of a narrow reservation centred perspective and mobilisation.

The second important issue pertains to the relationship between the caste question and nationality aspirations. The nationality articulations in south India have generally led to the emergence of regional political formations in contradistinction to the pan-Indian Congress Party. The Dravidian movement which was based on a social vision that incorporated an anti-caste perspective subsequently ended up in the consolidation of the Dravidian parties dominated by the shudra upper castes in Tamil country and therefore perceived as anti-dalit by the dalits as the atrocities on them with the Dravidian parties in power clearly demonstrate (Viswanathan 2005). Despite the strenuous relationship between the Dravidian parties and dalits, writers like Tirumavalavan emphasise the organic relationship between Tamil nationalism and anti-caste/anti-Hindutva politics.

The third important issue that is central to this volume is concerned with the dalit experience with the history of postcolonial India’s experiment with democracy and development. The developmental process after independence informed by Nehru’s vision of mega development through what he called “Temples of Modern India” has led to a massive and widespread displacement, dislocation, dispossession and loss of livelihood and habitat. The most affected by this have obviously been the adivasis, dalits and backward caste peasants, artisanal and service caste communities. The logic of destructive development is continued in the context of neo-liberal economic reforms at a greater pace and with more serious consequences for the subaltern communities. Some essays in this volume capture this reality (M Kunhaman).

Given the centrality of the land question to the provincial power structure, land struggles of the adivasis (under C K Janu in Kerala) and dalits have assumed significance. The inclusion of writings highlighting this issue shows the sensitivity of the editors to the importance of land to the adivasi and dalit struggles for dignity and self-respect and also for their rise to positions of political power.

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september 3, 2011 vol xlvi no 36

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

By highlighting the cultural richness and creative vibrancy in the social life of the dalit communities, this volume exposes the shallowness of the dominant view that considers dalits, almost exclusively, to be in a perpetual state of victimhood, oppression and subjugation and thereby treats them as passive receptors of dominant culture. It brings forth the dalit assertion of an active subjectivity as a community capable of selfexpression, self-reflection and self-representation. The resources that inform and enrich this process are drawn, apart from Buddhism and Ambedkarism, from Iyothee Thass, Ayyankali, Poikayil Yohannan to name few dalit thinkers (Dharmaraj, Sanal Mohan). The role of organisations like Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham, Cheramar Mahajana Sabha is also highlighted (Chentharassery).

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The merit of this volume lies in making accessible for a wider public the dalit intellectual ability to interrogate and problematise the dominant discourses on nationalism, citizenship, democracy, development, religion – both Hinduism and Christianity – modern state and civil society institutions and the representation of the dalits in them.

If the energy and richness of the dalit intellectual churning that comes out through the writings in this collection point to the shaping of a new alphabet in full glare then the last essay by T M Yesudasan defining the contours of the dalit project – engaging with dalit traditions, formulating perspectives and methodologies and forms of knowledge

– attempts to provide fullness and vision to the project.

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This volume gives access to some valuable dalit intellectual resources from regional contexts which would be useful to reflect upon the Indian experience with modernity, democracy, development and also with radical political and social projects of transformation in the post- independence period.

K Srinivasulu (srinivasulukarli@gmail.com) teaches political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad.

References

Sheth, D L (1999): “Secularisation of Caste and Making of New Middle Class”, Economic Political Weekly, 21-28 August.

Viswanathan, S (2005): Dalits in Dravidian Land: Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamilnadu (1995-2004), Navayana, Pondicherry.

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