Arc of Justice: What’s in a name?


Mirroring the contradictory discourses at play in Dalit discourse.
Ananya VajpeyiMirroring the contradictory discourses at play in Dalit discourse.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism suggests ways to tackle both the politics and metaphysics of identity.

A conference on “Phule-Ambedkar Ideology” and its influence on literature took me to Nasik, Maharashtra, in late January 2013. Hosted at a small local college, the conference drew speakers mostly from universities within Maharashtra, but also a few outsiders like me. Besides a number of academics from the region, poets Vaharu Sonawane and Lakshman Gaekwad, and politicians Udit Raj and Raja Dhale also attended, and made impassioned speeches. The focus was supposed to be on literature — autobiographies, biographies, novels, plays, poetry, literary criticism and aesthetic theories — but perhaps inevitably the discussion, proceeding mostly in Marathi, included all aspects of Dalit life, politics, history and writing. Outside in the college courtyard, a book display included not just a sample of literary works in Marathi and Hindi by Dalit writers, but also an assortment of books by or to do with Gautama Buddha, Kabir, Mahatma Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Vinayak Savarkar, Chatrapati Shivaji, and, oddly, Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama. Some pamphlets on reservations policy, human rights and constitutional law were also on sale. Radical and reactionary works sat side-by-side on tables laid out in the winter sun; the uncomfortable assemblage mirrored quite precisely the contradictory tendencies at play in Dalit discourse in Maharashtra today.

Later, whilst speaking with some of the conference participants as well as with activists outside the academy who happened to be living in Nasik, I discovered for the first time that among groups that self-identify as Ambedkarite Buddhist or Neo-Buddhist, the term “Dalit” is no longer favoured.

Why is this? I asked. Because it connotes humiliation, was one reply, and because it is still tied to the Hindu caste system. But isn’t the humiliation productive of righteous anger and defiant energy, and hadn’t the Hindu caste system been left behind through the outright rejection of terms like “Untouchable”, “Mahar”, “antyaja”, “panchama” and even the Gandhian “Harijan”? My informants disagreed. “We are Buddhists,” they said, “and we are followers of Babasaheb. These terminologies are now redundant. We have nothing to do with Hinduism or its hierarchies.”

But how do you build solidarities with other followers of Ambedkar who are not Buddhists (like in north India or south India), and who do use names like “Dalit” or “Dalit-Bahujan” to describe their socio-political identity? I did not receive any clear response to this question, despite posing it in myriad ways. Perhaps there is a genuine impasse in the building of an all-India Dalit movement precisely for this reason; that at a fundamental level different segments do not have similar ways of constructing identity or of situating evolving identities with regard to either recent or deep history.

Economically and educationally advancing Maharashtrian Buddhists, whom I encountered in Nasik, expressed their discomfort not just with “Dalit” but also with “Scheduled Caste” as an appellation. They regarded “SC/ST” certificates as useful instruments in terms of accessing certain forms of social justice and political representation, but also seemed resentful of the connotations of inequality and lack of ability, the smell of being “undeserving” of a rightful place alongside others that sneak in along with the Trojan horse of reservation. Buddhism seemed then to be a provisional solution to the problem of identity. It makes a clear break from the Hindu caste system, but also brackets the subtly humiliating baggage of modern forms of compensatory discrimination. Not that the actual problems go away if we do not take their name, but at least Buddhism provides some sort of breathing room away from the entire dynamic of caste and the annihilation of caste in which generations of people have been trapped for nearly three quarters of a century now.

More recently at my place of work, in a special meeting to mark 30 years of Ranajit Guha’s foundational work of Subaltern Studies, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India(1983), poet and scholar Professor Badri Narayan, associated with the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, spoke about Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh. Not only did he use terms like “Dalit” and “Dalit-Bahujan”, he also described how particular jatis like the Chamars — because of the direct patronage of leaders like the late Kanshi Ram and former UP Chief Minister Mayawati — seemed to enjoy prominence and privileges far in excess of well over 60 other Dalit groups in the state. This has created new inequalities and imbalances within the Dalit community, adding to the already existing distortions in the relations between upper castes and backward castes, the majority community and the minority Muslims, and other problems of UP’s social landscape with which we are all familiar.

Professor Narayan suggested that elements like widespread education, the formation of an elite class, the activities of intellectuals, the awareness of caste histories and their availability in written form — all of these provide value and visibility to the Chamars, while other communities lag behind. He too reported that the increasing use of Buddhist imagery, concepts and vocabulary when addressing the most backward of the Dalit groups in UP was proving to be a somewhat effective antidote to persistent feelings of low status, lack of self-worth and self-confidence, and the sense of being stuck in a centuries-old rut inside traditional caste politics.

Badri Narayan did not develop this point extensively, but there might be a way in which it is not just the overt politics of Buddhist identification that proves to be empowering (Buddhists are not Hindus), but also the very nature of Buddhist epistemology that could be emancipatory (managing and overcoming perceptions in order to grasp reality, the negation of appearances in order to approach actuality). As Neo-Buddhists and non-Buddhist Dalits evolve various strategies of self, sovereignty and empowerment, and figure out the common goals of their distinct practices of identity-formation, B.R. Ambedkar’s far-sightedness in embracing Buddhism will surely become more clear to us than it might be today.


No candlelight protest for Lalli Devi #Vaw


Published: December 30, 2012

Dalit women are always at the receiving end of societal oppression which takes many forms. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma


Badri Narayan

The Hindu  Dalit women are always at the receiving end of societal oppression which takes many forms

The Sunday Story

While voices were rasied against the brutal gang-rape of the 23 year-old woman who tragically died on Saturday, what about the daily occurrences of rape and assault in the lives of Dalit women?

Who will listen to the voices of the margins? Margins mean those who are not in the capital, those who are not part of the urban middle-class, and those who are not in the gaze of the TV camera. Margins mean those who are silent because they have no one to tell their stories to.

Delhi citizens rightly raised their voices against the brutal gang-rape of the 23 year-old woman who tragically died on Saturday morning. But what about the other statistically established truth? That rape and assault are daily occurrences in the lives of Dalit women? Most crimes committed against Dalits remain unrecorded because the police, the village councils, and government officials reflect the biases of the Hindu caste system. Crimes against them also go unreported because of fears of reprisals, intimidation by the police and their inability to pay bribes.

A report released by the Amnesty International in 2001 found an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women perpetrated by the powerful combine of landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 per cent of the attacks are registered, with 30 per cent of the rape complaints dismissed as false. The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women’s husbands. Even where rape victims are murdered, the culprits go unpunished.

Often rape and assault happen as part of caste warfare with militia-like vigilante groups, assisted by the local police, conducting raids on villages, burning Dalit homes and raping the women. Legal records, media reportage and personal testimonies reveal that upper-caste men claim sexual access to Dalit and lower-caste women as a matter of caste privilege. Consider this recent incident at Sheetalpur Tikari village under Tharwai police station, around 30 kilometers from Allahabad. Lalli Devi, 45, was constructing a house allotted to her under the Indira Awas Yojna when a local money-lender arrived there with other influential people and demolished the house. As Lalli tried to reason with the man, she, her husband Gulab and her son aged 12 years were beaten mercilessly by the goons. Her hut, where she used to sleep and cook, was razed to the ground. Even today marks of the Brahminical violence are visible on Lalli’s body. And yet, the police kept her in the thana for 24 hours and denied that any violence had occurred.

Worst victims

Dalit women are the worst victims of sexual violence because they face oppression at three levels — caste, class and gender. Indeed she faces atrocities as a Dalit, as a woman and as a member of the working class. Dalit women undergo sexual oppression, economic exploitation and socio-cultural subjugation. But the judicial system routinely fails them.

Immediately after V.P. Singh became Prime Minister in 1989, his constituency, Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh, was rocked by the news of the gruesome murder of Dhanraj, a Dalit, by some Thakurs in whose fields he worked. Dhanraj had been ordered by the landlords to let his wife spend a night with them. When he defied the diktat, he was dragged out and burnt alive. Singh, who projected himself as a messiah of the oppressed classes, rushed to the spot and offered the widow Rs. 1,000 from his welfare fund and some land as compensation. However the land that was allotted lay within the boundaries of the land of the Thakurs, making it totally inaccessible to her. In the court case that followed all the Thakurs were acquitted of the crime.

In another case that occurred in village Dauna near Allahabad on January 21, 1994, Shivpatia, an old Dalit woman was paraded naked in the village because her son had objected to her vegetable field being plundered by some boys from the dominant Kurmi (OBC) caste. This incident happened when Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram were in an alliance and had formed a government in U.P.. The incident hit the national headlines, prompting both men to rush together to the spot. The victim was offered land and money as compensation and the culprits arrested.

Seventeen years have passed since the incident but the case is still pending in the sessions court even as Mayawati became Chief Minister of the State four times. The irony is that the case was on fast track. In reality, the harassment has increased for Shivpatia and her relatives who are forced to visit the court for their ‘sunwai’, thereby reliving the incident over and over. Today all that they want is that the case should come to an end so that they do not need to forgo their daily wages in order to answer summons from the court.

Dalit women are invisible not just for the media and the police but also seemingly for the judiciary, considering the glaring lack of genuine efforts to resolve their cases. For the public outrage against the Delhi gang rape to have real significance, it must also lead to the victimised Dalit women also getting justice.

(Badri Narayan teaches political science at Allahabad University)


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