THE CASTES AND DALITS IN INDIA
Overview : Dalit Study
There emerged numerous questions while discussing Dalit Studies during the workshop, but most of the discussion centred around two central questions—what should be the focus of Dalit Studies and what should be the reference point of such studies. This was the pivot around which most of the discussions and debates moved around. The discussants supporting and vying for the establishment of Dalit Studies as an independent mode of knowledge, an autonomous discipline within the larger framework of social science, argued that the very resistance of establishment of Dalit Studies is a kind of politics from above within the field of social science. This argument finds reflection in the papers presented at the workshop, particularly while critiquing the existing boundaries and rules of disciplines like History, Sociology and Literature.
In the discipline of Sociology, there had been always a tendency to naturalise critical issues like caste system because of Western and Brahmanic dominance of knowledge. The same is the case of History. The way historiography is developed in India is replete with mere historicism. One finds total absence of critical issues like caste in the Indian historiography. Caste seemed to be a gift to the discipline of Sociology. Besides, one finds subaltern knowledge (e.g. the knowledge about different views on Indian nationhood) in the field of History being subjugated and marginalised under dominant discourses. In the field of Literature also the dominant knowledge had been the western classics rather than Indian writings, which has always remained in the margins of English literature in India.
On the other hand, there had been arguments supporting for the establishment of Dalit Studies as a new perspective. From this point of view, Dalit Studies should not be treated as a mere body of knowledge, rather there is a need to construct a new perspective that cuts across all disciplines in the Social Sciences and Humanities to comprehend the Indian reality. In the present context, Dalit Studies poses imminent danger of ghettoisation and appropriation. The demise of Gandhian Studies and Women Studies initiated in the field of Social Science were put forward as burning examples. The post-colonial condition characterised by Western dominance of knowledge leaves almost no space to establish Dalit Studies as a separate discipline.
Social Science has a different historical trajectory in the Third World countries. When the West was developing its cities, economy, democracy, liberalism and bourgeois freedom, the Third World was loosing everything. Enlightenment for one half of the globe was imprisonment for the other half. In this context we can neither condemn the West nor keep our innocence intact. This criticality of the post-colonial condition offers possibilities for developing a new perspective, a new lens through which we can look at different disciplines within the Social Science field rather than the establishment of Dalit Studies as a separate discipline. Besides, to establish as a separate discipline within the wider framework one needs identify, define and develop the very structure of knowledge. What is the dalit structure of knowledge? Are we in a position to answer this question? Since the very dalit point of view is coming under different contestation it will be premature to imagine the establishment of Dalit Studies as a separate discipline.
The Question of Methodology
The question of methodology, i.e. how one goes about understanding the dalit structure of knowledge, also dominated the debates and discussions throughout the workshops. One strong opinion in this regard was the recovery of history and culture of dalits by undoing the hegemony of the dominant knowledge system and preparing enough ground for understanding the history of suffering of marginalised groups and from this point critiquing the dominant system. One effort in this regard will be looking critically at the anti-colonial movement as a kind of instrument to appropriate the movements from below. This rereading of the text needs to capture the inter-subjectivity of the concrete. In terms of praxis, Dalit Studies needs to focus on teaching the students by promoting critical thinking and self-reliance (Apna Deepak Khud Bano/Satya Ki Talash Karo) as an alternative to the destructive ‘guru tradition’ which leaders such as Ambedkar and Phule had criticised so thoroughly.
Another point of view in this regard is creating a universal that will subsume all the knowledge systems from below. If the objective of the proposed Dalit Studies is to inscribe the multiple and at times even contesting concerns of the worst victims of caste, there is a need to go about it differently than the current practice. Updating colonial ethnography would only serve to reinforce existing untouchability and ghettoisation. One needs to put together anew elements of what potentially could constitute an emanicipatory epistemology, ethnography that simultaneously an empowerment. However, there is a danger in pitting this reconstructed knowledge against culture and aesthetics, leading to sharp differentiation between questions of identity and interests. If caste has crept into History it can go from it. There is a need to correct this pitfall which could be teased out from the emanicipatory struggles of the dalit castes themselves and ideological articulation and its leadership in recent history.
Besides these two points there had been another view points based on the immediate material upliftment of the marginal communities since in their everyday life poverty looms large beyond which the marginal communities fail to see. They become a commodity in terms of their labour power in the eyes of the masses and bodies in circulation in a capitalist system. Therefore, any effort vying for their effective participation in the reconstruction of their knowledge system needs to liberate them first from the clasps of poverty. Under the capitalistic system they have undergone painful separation of them from their means of production. They have lost their lands and crafts, the pivot of their life. Within this view point another version calls for inspiring the marginal communities to develop the desire to accumulate and develop entrepreneurship which will increase the social mobility of these communities to rise up the ladder of social hierarchy.
The Linkage of Dalit Studies with Employment Generation
There was major concern with regard to linking Dalit Studies to employment generation. Most of the questions asked in this regard were:
- Who is going to study Dalit Studies in the globalization era where there is a rat race for management and IT-oriented courses.
- How will Dalit Studies ensure employment generation of the future youths?
- Why Dalit Studies in higher education why not at the primary level?
- Won’t Dalit Studies face the same fate as Gandhian Studies?
The arguments against weak linkages between the proposed Dalit Studies and the demand of modern education in the age of competition is that the course is not made exclusively for dalit students, but is to be universally integrated within all the disciplines of Social Sciences to encourage critical thinking by decolonisation of the mind. It is not to be a mere academic exercise but is to be directly linked to the issues of society, culture and politics. Dalit Studies alone cannot take the responsibility of improving material condition of the dalits. The question of employment generation is one that Social Science itself faces in the present era of globalisation. There are various efforts being undertaken in the government and non-governmental fronts to uplift the material conditions of the dalits. However, dalit upliftment or dalit empowerment cannot be a linear and static process since the question is also related to the psyche of the mainstream. Another viewpoint along the same lines is that there is politics behind resisting Dalit Studies by dangling with all these impossibilities. The post-Independent Indian government initially introduced the concept of vocational studies at the school and secondary level for all the marginal communities to hone their technical expertise and in the process generating employment. This very project of Brahmanic division of labour in knowledge production left no space for marginal communities to learn their history, art and culture.
Experiments in Curriculum Building in Higher Education
There had been exchanges of views and comments on experiments done towards establishing a dalit studies or dalit perspective in various disciplines of social sciences. One prominent view in this regard is that since the marginal people are the frontier people, the making of frontier curriculum needs to be a carefully balanced process building theoretical and practical skills. This would include a combination of fieldwork, lectures, discussions, seminars, presentations and library work; a regular interaction with the larger social context, which includes the community and institutions of civil society; a system for critical reflections in place of assessment and evaluations; and a network of libraries. It was opined that while building up curriculum for Dalit Studies there is need to emphasise upon the development of organic link between academics, intellectuals, student communities, organizations working at the grassroots level and communities.
Some suggestions made during the discussion on development of curriculum were:
- Open University curriculum since IGNOU introduces new courses ever year.
Other than History and Sociology,
- To introduce Dalit Studies as an innovative project through a step-wise process;
- There is ample scope to introduce Dalit Studies in the
Economics as a positivistic science has always been in the margin when it comes to critical theory building. However, today’s Economics is more open, free from neo-classical grips. Economics in terms of political economy can insert an element of Dalit Studies. There had been no effort offer a theoretical platform for the economic thought. Ambedkar, Phule and others who offered alternative economic insights were scattered in their thoughts. The development of economic history of the Dalits will help add new dimensions to Dalit Studies.
- Dalit Studies should focus not simply on the Scheduled Castes but on the entire system of exploitation and on providing an alternative to this.
- There is a need for serious thinking in understanding the dalit structure of knowledge. One way to do this will be keeping different vantage points to see the reality in totality.
- The debate between establishment of Dalit Studies as a separate discipline and as a new perspective needs critical evaluation in the perspective of lessons learnt from Black Studies, Women’s Studies and Gandhian Studies.
- The establishment of a new discipline needs to address not only inspiring of critical thinking and developing scientific temperament but also its linkage with employment generation to be sustainable in the future.
There is a greater need for exchanges of ideas and views, discussions and debates to concretise the dalit perspective of Social Sciences between academicians, bureaucrats, planners, non-governmental organisations working at grassroots levels, students and communities to further the effort in this regard.
Goal and accomplishments
We engaged in developing a new perspective called Dalit Studies—both as an autonomous discipline and as a critique-cum-restructuring of existing disciplines in Social Sciences and Humanities. It is a struggle against the inherent tendency in liberal education in India to erase, or at least gloss over, caste experiences from subjects of study in colleges and universities. This, needless to say, has resulted in our increasing inability to participate in contemporary politics as academicians and students, just as it has rendered voiceless large sections of our society which our Social Sciences claim to speak of and for.
Our purpose has, therefore, been to intervene in the system of higher studies in order to sensitise it to the dalit issue. The main principle on the basis of which we try to function is that of ‘de-normalising’ caste as a lasting category of Indian society. On the one hand, we have tried to deconstruct many of the familiar and accepted categories of Indian Social Sciences as categories which primarily work to conceal a caste statement and parade instead as either universal or national. On the other hand, we have tried to emphasise significant anti- and non-caste locations in Indian society, which prove that caste has not necessarily always been the defining trait of India in the way that it has been presumed to be since the nineteenth century. We have worked with the principle that the meanings and experiences of caste have fundamentally changed in history—and that to study ‘Dalit Studies’ is, therefore, primarily to engage with this imperative to change the very history and definition of the nation. Briefly, we have evolved a programme of Dalit Studies that aspires to be emancipatory, seeks to challenge and change the very edifice of Social Sciences.
We feel that our effort has yielded satisfying results. One and half years ago when we undertook this programme, our assertion was that the state of Bihar was the place to begin research, mobilise opinion, produce syllabi in social sciences and try to get it introduced in the universities. Today, we have reasons to suggest that our initiative was not misplaced. Our reading of the socio-political ground realities in the state has been proven correct. The responses we received for this work from various quarters, both in our workshops/seminars and outside are encouraging.
- More than 200 university teachers from Bihar actively participated in our discussions; nearly 50 made presentations and submitted papers in the seminar and workshops that we had organised. Today we have a rich pool of intellectual resources from the state working with us on the programme. This network has started taking shape as a directory and has led to continuous discussion amongst scholars and policy makers.
- We also brought together intellectuals and practising academicians, both freelance and affiliated to universities, from Delhi University, Jamia Millia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Central University of Hyderabad and so on to a common platform. Today there is better cohesion and dissemination of ideas among people working in the field of dalit studies.
- The participation of three vice-chancellors and several pro-vice chancellors, along with noted academicians with experience in syllabi making and their introduction in university courses is a strong indication of the fact Deshkal has successfully mobilised educational institutions and policy-makers of the state.
- Based on the workshops, seminars, papers and discussions, Deshkal developed an M.A.-level syllabi of Ancient Indian History, Modern Indian History and Hindi. For the last two courses, it also prepared detailed reading materials. It is an extension of this effort that five research scholars have enrolled for Ph.D. in these universities on dalit issues.
- The courses of Modern Indian History and Hindi have been introduced in the curriculum of B. R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. The vice-chancellors of Patna University, Magadh University and Vir Kunwar Singh University have expressed strong commitment to do the same in their respective universities.
- Deshkal Society has given concrete shape to these in its policy report titled Dalit Studies: Problems, Potentials and Challenges in Higher Education and a book titled "Dalit Studies in Higher Education: Vision and Challenges" which contains papers presented in the seminar and workshops. The policy report and book are soon to be published.
Our workshops, seminars and discussions received support from the media, both the print and the electronic, in Hindi and English. Nearly 30 stories were carried in different dailies. The Economic and Political Weekly also published an article titled ‘Dalit Studies: Exploring Criteria for a New Discipline’ (24-30 April 2004, vol. XXXIX, no. 17). We can assume that our intervention has succeeded in generating interest, awareness and support for Dalit Studies in higher education in the mainstream public space in Bihar and outside of Bihar.
Problems and Their Context
- It is a struggle against the inherent tendency in liberal education in India to erase, or at least gloss over, caste experiences from subjects of study in colleges and universities. Till now, Dalit Studies is often linked to Ambedkar Studies only.
- Dalit intelligensia is still not very influential at the level of policy.
- Reading materials in Social Sciences and Literature are not available in Hindi language.
- Teachers are not prepared for Dalit Studies at the level of approach and training.
- There is lack of enthusiasm even among young dalit scholars regarding the scope of Dalit Studies in terms of livelihood.
- Not only academic groups but the dominant group outside university show antipathy towards such initiatives.
With this in mind, we have tried to do two things simultaneously. First, we have tried to develop an autonomous area of study called Dalit Studies, where the dalit perspective can set forward its own terms. Or, in other words, Dalit Studies as an independent form and mode of knowledge can critique and redefine existing boundaries and rules of existing disciplines like History, Sociology or Literature. However, and second, since creating an autonomous discipline also runs the risk of leading to ghettoisation and boycott of Dalit Studies itself by mainstream academics—which defeats our purpose entirely—we have also tried to subtly reorient the general study of the existing disciplines, both thematically and methodologically, in order to make them more receptive to serious engagement with the politics of caste. We have tried to identify possible spaces within existing curricula where we could intervene and tried to work out how far this can be done through suggesting additional topics and additional readings and also how far by alternative formulations of existing themes.
We have undertaken a series of activities in this line:
- We have held a number of workshops, both in Delhi and in Bihar, in order to work out, with the help of dalit intellectuals, from all over India, an alternative vision of higher studies, of teaching and content materials, of pedagogical methods and so on.
- We have also tried to interact and coordinate with other groups and individuals who have been working on the same lines as us. We have shared materials, experiences and problems.
- We have also tried to collect all official documents and policy statements which express the Indian State’s agenda about caste identity and national development. We have developed a sense of the changing role of our governments vis-a-vis the caste issue and set forth a critique of the Indian State’s education and culture policy.
- Additionally, we have undertaken a study of the institutional structure of our higher education bodies, be it the UGC or individual universities, in order to formulate the issues and challenges we must face when trying to intervene in the higher education system.
Challenges and Lessons
- Course development and preparation of reading materials that require research, writing, translation and compilation should be taken up on a much larger and rigorous basis than what has been the case so far. It may be an independent project in itself.
- A lackadaisical approach will not be of much use. Discontinuation of the intervention at this juncture will prove disastrous, as it has the potential to discredit the social relevance of the effort and issue both.
- Simultaneous works in the field of preparing the syllabi and their implementation. Since this was our first year we first prepared the syllabi and than tried its induction into the universities.
- The experience of undertaking this work makes it clear that this is not merely an academic exercise. Social and political nature of the work should always be kept in mind.
Given the nature of work we realized that it generates strong reaction among traditionally dominant sections. To offset such reactions, extra care and preparation are needed in the form of social diversity in undertaking strategy and implementation of such work.
National Conference on Dalit Studies: Developing Content Materials for a New Discipline, Bodh-Gaya, 28 Feb-1 March, 2004
The workshop began with a plenary session on the first day, with speeches not only by eminent intellectuals who had traveled from Delhi, but also by civil servants and university vice-chancellors. A consensus seemed to operate, without any prior discussion, that an urgent restructuring of our education system is necessary in order to sensitise our students to the dalit question. There was a pledge of support by government representatives as well as by university heads to our efforts at including ‘Dalit Studies’ in the existing education system in Bihar.
On this encouraging note, the workshop began with the introductory session on Who is a Dalit? An overview of dalit studies. G. Aloysius’ presentation argued that a critical dalit studies curriculum should primarily aim at undoing the ‘normalisation’ of caste as a characteristic of Indian society and history. He said that while on the one hand, there is need to deconstruct many of the categories of Indian social sciences as categories which conceal a caste statement and parade as either universal or national, there is also on the other hand, a need to emphasise anti- and non-caste movements in Indian history which has sought to go beyond caste paradigms altogether. He also emphasized that a dalit studies curriculum should reflect on the entirety of social sciences rather than identify specifically caste-related issues. Prof Anand Kumar, chairing the session, brought the discussion round to some specific suggestions – viz., the need to form an Indian Association of Dalit Studies, an umbrella organization which could bring different kinds of people together on the lines of History Congress or Science Congress; the publication of a bibliographic overview of dalit literature; and the starting of a Dalit Studies Journal.
In the rather intense discussion that followed this session, the question that repeatedly came up set the tone, in a way, for the rest of the workshop – whether ‘dalit studies’ should assert itself as an autonomous, if not separatist agenda, and thus risk ghettoisation within our education system or should it try to pervade all themes and problematics of social science study, and thus risk a dilution of the issue.
Following this introductory session, came a series of
papers which effectively offered critiques, from the dalit standpoint, of all
the existing disciplines of social sciences as they are taught today.
Sociology, evidently the discipline which defined from
early twentieth century, the parameters of caste study, came under heavy
criticism. The papers by Ritambhara and Ramaiah both questioned the basic unit
of Indian sociological study – the Indian village – by arguing that villages in
India are actually multiple and antagonistic settlements divided on caste
lines. The argument was that to make the study of sociology sensitive to dalit
issues required a whole shift in the fundamental locus of Indian sociology.
Political science came under a double criticism. On the one hand, the issue of the creation of political symbols was raised and it was argued that political studies, as it is taught today, is unable to offer tools for demystifying the ways in which nationalist icons have been created, at the exclusion of even names like Ambedkar as P. Jogdand argued. On the other hand, the issue of caste and democracy was also raised and it was argued that contemporary political science merely analyses caste in terms of vote bank politics and fails to question existing parameters of representation, both political and literary. A more basic debate came to pass through Anand Chakravarty’s study of Bihar peasant movements and Bela Bhatia’s study of Bihar Naxalite movement about how much of Dalit Studies was purely a story of oppression and how can we reclaim moments of resistance, criticism and even laughter out of dalit politics in contemporary times. Also the session on Muslims and dalits corrected our common sense understanding of Islam as an egalitarian and Hinduism as a caste-based religion, an easy binary which so often allows the Hindu right to defend caste as an essentially Hindu and anti-Islam Indian trait.
The discipline of history came under fundamental questioning, especially through the session on dalit literature. The basic point which came across was about the historical status of dalit autobiographies, oral traditions and literary works. Many participants argued that history’s rules of evidence necessarily excluded marginalized voices which either fail to or refuse to claim academic parameters of historical truth. A history sensitive to the dalit issues must therefore be refracted through the prism of fiction and imagination. The other difficult question that came out of this discussion was that of authorship, particularly sharply presented by U R Ananthmurthy – viz., what is dalit literature or dalit history? Is it that produced by dalits alone or can it also include works produced by non-dalits?
All through these sessions, however, the reminder came repeatedly that the ‘dalit’ itself is not a unitary category. The session on gender especially demonstrated this, with presentations by Suguna Ramanathan, Jyotsna Macwan, Smita Patil and Nandita Bajaj who talked of caste oppression as deeply gendered – especially given that control of women’s sexuality and circulation of women’s bodies and reproductive power were basic to the politics of caste power. (An interesting presentation by S. K. Biswas also foregrounded the notion of heredity as basic to the caste system and its relation therefore to primary property structures of society.)
The workshop ended with an open session, which invited suggestions from participants and local audience on how to go about instituting a dalit studies agenda. Suggestions and advice were many – including the need to advocate dalit studies curriculum to the UGC, the need to participate in Academic Staff Colleges for the sensitization of college teachers, the need to create a central pool of reading materials also translated in Hindi, the need to start a web site and create a pool of resource personnel who could also act as visiting lecturers on certain themes and so on and so forth.
April 28, 2010
Dalit in India Facts and Figures
- 3 Dalit women are raped
- 2 Dalits are murdered & 2 Dalits Houses are burnt in India
- 11 Dalits are beaten
- 13 Dalits are murdered
- 5 Dalits home or possessions are burnt
- 6 Dalits are kidnapped or abducted
- 37 percent of Dalits living below poverty in India
- More than half (54%) of their children are undernourished in India
- 83 per 1000 live birth children born in Dalit community are probability of dying before the first birthday
- 45 percent of Dalits do not know read and write in India
- Dalits women burden double discrimination (gender and caste) in India
- Only 27 percent of Dalits women give institutional deliveries in India
- About one third of Dalit households do not have basic facilities
- Public health workers refused to visit Dalit homes in 33% of villages
- Dalits were prevented from entering police station in 27.6% of villages
- Dalit children had to sit separately while eating in 37.8% of Govt. schools
- Dalits didn’t get mail delivered to their homes in 23.5% of villages
- Dalits were denied access to water sources in 48.4% of villages because of segregation & untouchabilty practices
- Half of India’s Dalit children are undernourished, 21% are severely underweight & 12% DIE before their 5th birthday
- Literacy rates for Dalit women are as low as 37.8% In Rural India
- The conviction rate under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act is 15.71% and pendency is as high as 85.37%. This when the Act has strict provisions aimed as a deterrent. By contrast, conviction rate under IPC is over 40%
- many cases of atrocity are not registered in police stations,because upper caste area officers are there and they want to compromise the cases out of police station for many reasons ..1.they are partial their caste,because casteism exists evennow.2.Supriority complex is highly prevalent..3.There is lack of awareness of legal protection, legal process and safeguards among dalits.