Premchand occupies an iconic status in the Hindi literary sphere as the foundational figure of modern Hindi fiction. He is seen as the exponent of realism, whose works have been considered not only to have democratized the literary domain by including those who had been excluded from the realm of literary representation but are also seen as authentic documentation of the history of his times. Regarded as his magnum opus and also a novel that he considered his best, Rangbhoomi (1924) won Premchand the title of ‘Upanyaas Samraat’—‘the king among novelists’. Written between the years of the Noncooperation and the Civil Disobedience Movements, the events in the novel, as Sudhir Chandra points out, bear a strong resemblance to the developments that were characteristic of the struggle between the British government and the Indian National Congress at that time. Toral Jatin Gajarawal also traces how Rangbhoomi was heralded as, ‘One of the most poignant documentation of the crisis of the peasantry in North India. The novel demonstrates a Gandhian vision of sacrifice and satyagraha in the face of the brutalities of materialism’ (p. 33).
In its attempt to realistically capture the entire range of activities and ideological positions that informed the anti-colonial movements, the novel mounts a significant critique of the nationalists, whose elitism and ‘upper’ caste positionality often compromised them. Describing it as a novel that uncovers the ‘sordid reality behind the ideological façade of nationalism’ (p. 608), Chandra goes on to hail it as a ‘tragic epic that immortalizes the hope of the underdog’ (p. 608), pointing particularly to the conclusion of the novel, in which, ‘After a ridiculously unequal but heroic struggle, Soordas is breathing his last. Conscious of having done his bit and also of his imminent end, this blind beggar, the protagonist of Rangbhoomi, cast clearly in the mould of Mahatma Gandhi, looks back and ahead. He has lost, he knows. But the game-…is not over… . The two teams would meet over and over again. Till the forces of evil have lost to those of justice’ (p. 608). Chandra’s reference to Soordas as the representative of the ‘underdog’ is a pointer to the site of the multiple jeopardy of caste, class and disability that he clearly inhabits.
However, Rangbhoomi’s critical reception in the Dalit public sphere has been anything but celebratory. Despite the fact that Premchand made a Dalit the hero, or ‘mahanayak’ of his novel, it is this very novel that has particularly been the recipient of Dalit ire. The Bhartiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi publicly burnt copies of Rangbhoomi, protesting against its prescription in school syllabus. As both, Laura Brueck and Gajarawala have pointed out, this public burning was an act of ‘intellectual iconoclasm’, given Premchand’s pedestalized stature in the Hindi literary sphere, which went on to become a defining moment of the Dalit public sphere, invoking another burning—that of the Manusmriti by Ambedkar.
Even a cursory examination of the text of Rangbhoomi will easily reveal that it is not a novel about the caste question and nor was it meant to be. As the ‘Author’s Note’ clearly suggests, right at the outset, the novel is about ‘an ideal Gandhian character’…set in the ‘life of village society in all its wretchedness and poverty’ (p. xlv). Then what is it that has offended Dalit sensibilities? It has to do with the fact that Premchand chose to make his hero Soordas, who is described in the ‘Author’s Note’ as ‘having an extraordinary capacity to sacrifice’ a Chamar. Notwithstanding the fact that it is clearly Soordas’s character that constitutes the moral compass of the novel, the BDSA objected to the derogatory manner in which Chamars are referred to throughout the text. Dr. Dharamveer cites forty-two instances when the casteized name appears as a reiteration of the negative stereotyping of Chamars as a caste. With the exception of the one instance when the Chamars provide first aid to Tahir Ali, all other references to Chamars are noted by Dalit critics to be pejorative. In a novel, where every character is identified by his caste and religious identity, casteism is but a given and it this very ‘complicity with a casteized framework’ (Gajarawala, p. 7) that the Dalit critique devolves. To that extent, Soordas’s character, as Dalit critics argue, is not just an exception but a gross misrepresentation of Chamars. Premchand’s realism, as Gajarawala argues, posited a ‘certain relationship to the national and the real’ (p. 8). and therefore, even though Premchand may be credited with introducing the Dalit character in the Hindi literary imaginary, it is precisely the terms of this inclusion that are contested by the Dalit counter public. Consequently, Dalit critics reread canonical texts through the analytic of caste and call into question its relation to the real and the national.