This anthology, a tribute to the life and work of Eleanor Zelliot, compiles the issues, topics and works closely associated with her. Zelliot virtually pioneered studies on anguish among dalits and changed the very paradigm of such studies. Her principal focus remained on untouchable or dalit movements in India and she chose to work both in English and Marathi thus allowing her subjects to tell their stories from their own perspective. The book under review concentrates on the political spaces in which dalits operate, as well as on those that dalits have created. As political history is the arena in which Zelliot has made her most basic contributions, the essays on this subject constitute the bulk of this volume along with an updated list of her publications. The emergence of a new political subject—who is a dalit?—allows us a field of contestation and significance, that is, as a political category with a history. Dalit means ground down or broken to pieces in both Hindi and Marathi.
B.R. Ambedkar first used the term in 1928 or so in his newspaper but the term gained new potency in Maharashtra during the 1970s, a period of literary and cultural efflorescence. The history of naming and constitution of community reveals the role of early dalit activists to interpret (construction of?) the reality for them—indigenous people to martial a past sought to lay claim on military employment in British army. Jotirao Phule lauded the Mahars and Mangs for putting up a strong resistance against Aryan-brahmin invaders and constructing an alternative discourse showing the ‘indigeneity’ of dalits and their struggle against the brahmanical hegemony. Also Valangkar asserts the heroism of untouchable communities who were basically kshatriyas, fought against the Aryans 21 times before they were finally defeated and were banished from the community and forced to eat carrion, wearing a black thread—a symbol of servitude. By 1940, Ramnarayan S. Rawat argues, we were in the making of a separate dalit perspective to understand the dalit identity and political agenda which is still being pursued. By the 1960s a commitment to the liberation of dalits, a desire for social and economic progress, a sense of pride in their identity, and a firm resolve to resist domination by the Hindu society had all become securely ingrained in the minds and actions of dalit activists and ideologues. Today dalit can be recognized as a perspective that defines a worldview for political action and everyday life. Rajendra Vora’s article extends our attention to the position and politics of low castes—other than the scheduled castes—Muslims in the late last century and early this century. They are dalit Muslims which largely covers the untouchable and lower caste converts, thus transcending the distinctions between low castes and outcaste groups. Muslim OBC organizations grew to spearhead a movement to liberate themselves from upper caste Muslims. The author argues that the movement brings them closer to backward communities belonging to other religions and establishes a link with other non-Muslim marginalized sections leading to the emergence of majoritarianism of the oppressed.
Sukhadeo Thorat examines Ambedkars’ views on economic development, planning and the role of the state with regard to agriculture, water and resource development and labour problems of small farmers. The way out which he suggests was inter-sectoral transfer of labour from agriculture to industry. This was expected to enhance productivity and hence the income of labour in both agriculture and industry. Mani Kamerkar’s article depicts the colonial oppression of the knowledgeable and hard-working garden landowners in the Bombay presidency by analysing the British revenue system and its effects on the peasantry. The British revenue system proved much harsher than that of the native governments and income tax was also imposed by the government to meet its own financial needs further reducing the Kunbis, Kolis and Agris cultivators as debtors and as tenants. The article on industrial education in late 19th century western India brings in the fact that the colonial state did try to rehabilitate the traditional artisans affected by industrial development and to face competition from the local industrial houses with a hope that such instructions would modernize methods and improve labour. Thus the industrial schools reflected the growing politicization of industrial development. These training schools operated independently under the authority of missionary groups, princely states, political groups and local municipalities. The case study offered is that of the Dharwar school of industry opened in 1873 with the objective to improve local labour as a means to building new industries. But the school closed after ten years for reasons of low attendance, failure to attract and retain boys from artisan castes besides the high costs which were common to most of the schools opened. Industrial education was implemented in such a way that it was to support and perpetuate the existing divisions within colonial society, therefore, these could not deliver the objective for which these were formed. Yet another article focuses on dalit women’s struggle to get education based on interviews with first generation learners now grown up women in Pune. Their overcoming the hassles of getting admission in institutions, experiences at school and caste discrimination faced in these institutions tell the story of these brave women who realized that only education is the remedy for all ills. Though these girls had to fall in the quadruple jeopardy of caste/class, school and parent, yet they are the ones who later in life could identify/give credit to their own initiatives, hard work, style of life, and liberal-minded parents.
Horrifying narratives of the lives of Bangladeshi women who became victims of War of the Independence in 1971 by Saikia comes under the category of people’s history. Women have been victims of male violence but none of the four state players took responsibility for the violence. They engineered the violence but covered up their acts by invoking national good or duty. Women were forced into silence thereafter due to the limitations imposed by the state, militarized nationalism, patriarchal community culture, religious and social norms. The author proposes to seek a human language of understanding that can yet be recovered from these gruesome spaces to come to terms with such a past. The essay on the cataracts of silence argues that by equating caste with race we may globalize the issue and yet it won’t solve the problem. It may have similar economic effects and may set an example for the US global hegemony, yet it has to be resolved in a specific social context.
Moving beyond empirical reality, the editors conclude the volume with the reassurance from dalit literature—let the literature speak for itself. Literature represents the reality, the reality experienced at the margins may be discussed and debated in literary meetings yet it could never come to the centre in spite of its distinctiveness. The first contribution is on an organization—Dalit Lekhak Sangh of Hindi dalit writers—a new class of dalits based in Delhi, creating a new kind of narrative that reflect its own diverse realities. The author points to the dilemma of attempting to bring dalit literature to the mainstream of Hindi literature. Veena Deo translates Urmila Pawar’s short stories for a wider audience, (the author has the American audience in mind) to discuss the politics of representation of the dalit women both rural and urban, particularly with reference to an interplay of caste, class and gender besides the negotiations with new cultural identity due to the mass dalit conversion to Buddhism. The next article focuses attention on dalit poetry—the expressions of the maverick dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal who changed Marathi poetry. His poem ‘The Tree of Violence’ written during the national emergency in 1975 depicts the violence in Indian society where the state itself is violence. The poet raises the spectre of mass lumpenization which extends far beyond the dalits who are denied civil rights. The dalitization of huge sections of the society has been visualized who are being uprooted from their habitat, deprived of life supports and driven to the teeming cities. Sahota writes on the unanticipated paradoxes of dalit cultural politics. The ambivalence of dalit literary aesthetics indicates on one hand a radical agenda while on the other is still conservative to build a new social order. The volume ends with a poem on the brutal and blunt description of discrimination against the dalits but at the same time it gives hope for humanity to create a better way of life for all of us in a transnational political space.
The book provides an excellent depiction of claiming power from below through various strategies. Starting from the centrality of political agenda the readings move on to the marginal creative expressions of the underprivileged. Voices were raised and resisted against the constructed social hierarchies from local to global levels. Ranajit Guha’s first series of subaltern studies in 1982 may be regarded as a watershed in the scholarly inquiry of the south Asian past and present. But Zelliot with her personal zeal studied the subaltern much before it was fashionable to study. The editors’ decision to dedicate the book to her is worth appreciating though the issues of concern in the volume vary from everyday realities of dalits to the imaginative creations of writers and poets. The experiences of existence shall move to the level of consciousness to spearhead the movement of change.
Gurpreet Bal is Professor of Sociology, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.