Updated: Dec 1, 2020
It’s harsh when you know you are being and deprived of the same rights that everyone around you is so freely granted. ‘Free will’ as an expression has totally lost significance over time. We are all either working or being controlled by the will of someone else. While most part of Indian literature has served as an eminent tool in letting people voice their opinions and shed light towards the miseries suffered in a constricted society still bound by the reins of casteism, the same literature has failed to play the same role for a few sections of our society which includes the Dalits.
The term ‘Dalit’ is synonymous with poor, exploited, oppressed, and needy people. There is no universally acclaimed concept about the origin of the Indian caste system. In every civilized society, there are some types of inequalities that lead to social discrimination. And in India, it comes in the garb of ‘Casteism’. The discourses catering to the gentry tastes did not include the subaltern literary voices of the tribals, Dalits, and other minority people. The Dalits are deprived of their fundamental rights of education, possession of assets, and the right to equality. Thus Dalit Literature emerges as a voice for all those oppressed, exploited, and marginalized communities who endured this social inequality and exploitation for so long.
Dalit Literature has been widely existing since the advent of the Dalit movement by various social activists and freedom fighters. The whole era which witnessed racism at its peak and the Africans revolting and stirring a revolution popularly called as the ‘Black Panther’ movement, India was giving birth to a similar uprising by the name of ‘Dalit Panthers’ a social framework that sought to combat caste discrimination from its roots revolutionising the Indian literature and writing on its way.
The primary concern of the article is to show how Dalit writers shatter the silence surrounding the unheard exploitation of Dalits in our country in their writings. And how Dalit Literature has become a vehicle of the explosion of these muffled voices. This piece makes an attempt to comprehend the vision and voice of the Dalits and their journey from voiceless and passive objects of history to the self-conscious subject.
Literature has always been a source to vocalize varied beliefs and schools of thought and share the truth behind each culture through stories. Dalit and other such subaltern movements have often been driven by a desire to establish an egalitarian world that would be free from exploitation and inequalities. The early period of Dalit literature had started by writers who were themselves not Dalits but portrayed the protagonist of the story as Dalits and the whole narrative was built around them and their sufferings. This is where the debate of sympathy and empathy comes into play. Yes, Dalit characters were represented, but by upper-caste writers. This led several Dalit activists to argue that only a person belonging to the community can truly depict the lives of its people. In the words of Ramnika Gupta, “Only ash knows the experience of burning”. If so, then it gives rise to an imperative question- does literature about Dalits count as Dalit Literature if it is penned down by a non-Dalit person? And even if it does, how authentic is it? Dalit writers have slowly but surely taken their rightful place in the literary world. There is a clear transition to be seen. While earlier, the literary sphere was dominated by Dalit characters that didn’t have a very strong voice (for example, Lakshmi from Children of God), the modern-day characters are penned down boldly. Young, Dalit writers are making their presence felt, telling their own story for a change.
The major concern of Dalit Literature is the emancipation of Dalits from this ageless bondage of slavery. Dalits use their writings as a weapon to vent out their anger against the social hierarchy which is responsible for their degradation. After a long slumber now, they have become conscious of their identity as a human being. This Dalit consciousness and self-realization about their identity has been centrally focused in various vibrant and multifarious creative writings and is also widely applauded in the works of Mahasweta Devi, Bama, Arjun Dangle, D. Gopi, and many more. The anguish represented by the Dalit writers is not that of an individual but of the whole outcast society.
The term ‘Dalit’ also stands for those people who, have been considered ‘outcaste’, because they are not deserving enough to be included in the fourfold classification of class structure. In the religious scripture ‘Manu Smriti’; the ‘Varna system’ of the society is provided. It is a four graded Varna system incorporating four kinds of people of the society borne out of the body of Lord Brahma, the supreme God. According to this mythology, Brahmin was born out of head, Kshatriya was born out of arms, Vaishya was born out of the abdomen, and Shudra was born out of feet. It focused on Shudra to live a life of servitude; because he was born out of feet. They were seen as polluting society and were generally banned in religious ceremonies. They were demoted to menial occupations such as leatherwork, butchering or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses, and waste. They lived in the outskirts of the village and fed on the leftovers or “Jhoothan” of the affluent class. In the early twentieth century, these people had no access to public amenities like wells, rivers, schools, and markets, etc. Their entry was forbidden in the temple. All this depicts that Dalit had been living a life akin to an animal in those societies for many centuries. This is enough to tell us that reasoning our past traditions and myths and then deciding whether to follow it or not has become a necessity. In the time where you are just click-baiting content and processing so much in a day, knowing what is correct and having a fact check behind all stories that you come across has become a very critical exercise for all of us.
Similarly being open to all types of content and art is another aspect we should all work on as we generally tend to ignore the nondominant spaces in any field but sometimes these people have a much better say than what we follow. These Dalit movements provide strength to these people to voice themselves. The Dalit writers do not adhere to any conventional rule of writing. They do not look up for any models to write down their ideas. According to them, when they have no place in history, so what’s the use of looking back towards history? These people want to write down their own history.
The social ill-treatment and exploitation persuade them to express their strong feelings against the upper-class people, who dragged them towards the periphery or margins. The transformation of the denounced identity of these so-called ‘Untouchables’ to a self-chosen identity as Dalit is a story of the composite struggle waged over centuries. The style of Dalit literature covers a wide range of literary genres. There is plenty of Dalit poetry expressing a feeling of immense protest. But this protest is not against any individual or group but against society as a whole. As one Oriya Dalit poet writes,
They are rage now [sic]
They are awakened
Awakened from this mass slumber
They will burn down the establishment
For their bread and butter
They have already given a call
And are ready to shed their blood
With red tears (Nayak.20)
Many writers have also begun writing about gender-related issues, which had been ignored earlier. Many Dalit women writers are writing about their social position in the patriarchal social setup that exists within their communities and outside. In recent times the Dalit women have in particularly shown a very strong presence by doing spoken work poetries and writing books about the horrid atrocities faced by them on a day to day basis. Take for an example, the stanza mentioned below:
Excerpts from A Dalit woman in the land of Goddesses
Her eyes two dry hollows bear silent witness
To hundreds of deaths of her mothers, daughters, sisters
Their dreams, respect and their bodies.
Her calloused hands, her unkempt hair
Her cracked heels, her wrinkled hair
Tell the tales of living through fears and years
Of centuries and millennia of violations and deaths.
She was told
That she was dirt,
She was filth and
In this sacred land of thousands of goddesses
She is called a Dalit.
To conclude it we can say a spurt in Dalit literature has emerged with so many writers, talking about different issues in their works. Now, they are articulating themselves in various forms and writing about oppression related to class, gender, religion, etc. other than caste. It is encouraging that more and more Dalit writings are now being translated into English. In the meantime, Dalit studies have been introduced in several universities in India and abroad. Though the occurrences of opposition against various forms of injustice were noted even earlier, yet such opposition continues more conspicuously now and the untouchables and Dalit section appears to follow these with more strength, determination, political support, and defence of the law. Obviously, they have acquired a different identity, but they have still to go a long way towards becoming a part of a democratic society and to evolve and emerge as a part of our community that does not require them to be labelled as separates; to effectively dissolve their unique identity of Dalits and Scheduled Class. The output of Dalit literature is growing day by day. And, we can hope, one day, it will establish itself as the most significant part of world literature.