During the past year, many questions have been raised against what goes in the name of stability and harmony in our country. Several issues concerning class, caste, education, labour, gender, environment, food, culture and so on have been questioned and explored, acknowledging the complex ways in which they are interrelated. In particular, caste has never been discussed in such a broad spectrum of forums before; Rohith Vemula’s death has stood out as a milestone in the history of caste struggle. This report is concentrated on the subject of Dalit Studies. But Dalit Studies, as we understand it, is much more than yet another academic field of enquiry. We hope, this brief report would unleash a process of exchange of thoughts and experiences regarding caste within the Aainanagar fraternity and beyond.
Panuval Bookstore, apart from being a bookstore, is one of the thriving activists’ joints in Chennai. For the last two years, Ambedkar’s birthday (April 14) has been celebrated in this Bookstore through organization of talks, panel discussions, film screenings and other such events based on the issue of caste in India. This year’s focus has been ‘caste in education and academics’, keeping the current scenario in academic institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and University of Hyderabad (UoH) in mind. Prof. Kusuma Satyanarayana was invited this year at Panuval to talk about this issue on April 23, 2016. Activist V. Geetha—one of the principal driving forces of this annual program—explained in her introductory as well as concluding speeches that the events this year covered a large area of caste related problems in academics that both students and faculties faced. She stated, rather emphatically, that in India, caste forms in decisive ways educational experiences at every stage, and that Satyanarayana’s speech in fact summarized many of these issues under discussion.
Prof. Satyanarayana, apart from being an associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies, English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, is a well-known scholar, editor and activist, specializing on Dalit Studies. He has coedited three books on Dalit writings with Susie Tharu and has recently coedited a book titled ‘Dalit Studies’ with Ramnarayan S. Rawat. This book discusses how Indian historiography has been dominated by the anticolonialism/nationalism binary, marginalizing Dalits and any other alternate voices that tried to find its place in the historical research and pedagogy in India. It also discussed the contemporary issues faced by the middle class Dalits to reconcile their class and caste identities. In a way, Satyanarayana’s talk also summarized this book and made it clear that there is no shortcut to understanding the caste issue in India without being aware of its omnipresence in our everyday lives.
The talk was preceded by a video of an activist singing in front of the images of not only Ambedkar, but Periyar, the Phules and significantly Rohith Vemula, who has now become an icon in the Indian anti-caste movements. As Satyanarayana explained later, in the context of Dalit Studies, Vemula was more than a martyr in the narrative of discrimination. He could also be considered as one of those rare visionaries who could feel the process of marginalization seeping through Indian education system. Needless to say, even the fields of science and technology, which often pride themselves on being “objective”, are not exempt from caste ideologies
Dalit intellectual locations
Satyanarayana started by rightly appreciating the sincere effort that a small association like Panuval took to commemorate Ambedkar, who, as is well-known, also lived a major part of his life in small, temporary houses since he was not welcome to find accommodation in the better households thanks to the ‘untouchable’ caste (Mahar) he belonged to. He lamented how Ambedkar has been transformed into an icon, who is now being politicized and played in the hands of builders of vote banks—in the cockfight between the chief ministers of Hyderabad and Telengana, in the prime minister’s conveniently simplified and decontextualized misuse of concepts like ‘Ambedkar belongs to all’ and so on.
It is, then, one of the many purposes of Dalit Studies to fight this shamelessly unscrupulous appropriation, iconization and posthumous ‘Sanskritization’ of the pioneers of the anti-caste movements. As Satyanarayana said, his concern for Dalit Studies—both as a formal institutional subject of enquiry and a critical to be taught and studied in order to “inspire interest in transformation” came from his involvement in student activism and it took a more concrete shape after he started teaching. Broadly, there are two purposes that Dalit Studies may serve. One, finding an alternate way to produce knowledge, which involves research, new ways of data collection, critical thinking and writing. The other is finding alternate pedagogic practices—paying attention to matters not considered important by the mainstream, such as serious planning in dealing with students coming with not just various caste identities but various understandings of caste. In his mind, Dalit studies is an academic space where syllabus is secondary and methodology—more precisely, “identifying the locations of marginalization” and continuously finding new ways to look at things—become the primary concern.
For a long time, Dalit Studies would have only meant discussing the ‘problems’ of the Dalit communities and ‘helping’ them—more in the spirit of a remedial program than social science, whereas the real challenges of Dalit Studies are generating new material, finding new ways of teaching and consistently fighting the lack of recognition of these alternate ways. Now that it has become a standard practice to name anything raising voice against the Brahminical knowledge and academic practice as ‘anti-national’, Dalit Studies is also becoming a platform to fight the criminalization of its exponents as well as rest of the activists who work within the anti-caste movements.Of course, this is not something that can be accomplished without the presence of the Dalit scholars themselves. Otherwise, the field would end up replicating the upper caste notion of ‘uplifting the downtrodden’an example of which might be found in the Gandhian practice of coining the Bangis (a caste group that primarily worked as scavengers) as ‘Harijan’s, eternally identifying Dalits as scavengers, devaluating other prominent Dalit castes and devaluating the complex theory of discrimination in general, thus creating an oversimplified “caricature” of the whole issue. Since the nation never recognized social movements based on caste discrimination such as ‘Self-Respect movement’, entering temples, claiming space, untouchability etc. as part of the national agenda, it inevitably comes down to the ‘anti-nationals’ to redefine certain social norms—both academically and in everyday life.
In this context, Satyanarayana discussed about the ignored “Dailt intellectual locations” and how the standard evaluation processes such as UGC-NAAC never really recognized them as eligible for funding. It was only after the 1985 Karamchedu massacre of Maadigaas by certain upper castes in Andhra, caste was really identified as a ‘political issue’ and hence worth paying ‘political attention’. Works of Dalit intellectuals like Sachidananda, Iyothee Thass, Mangu Ram Mugowalia, and even Ambedkar’s writings were unknown compared to their contemporary socio-political intellectuals till the 90s, when the protests against the Mandal Commission brought the issue of caste once again to the forefront of the national politics as well as academics. In that respect, as Satyanarayana said, it is not surprising that research hubs like Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSEIP) could not be founded until Amartya Sen’s article on social exclusion came up in 2000, strongly in support of enhancing such studies.
It was only a handful of academicians who recognized the need of a serious pursuit of Dalit Studies, among whom Satyanarayana specially mentioned Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat (former director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, former chairman, UGC). In a seminar (2007) at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Thorat stated that the contribution of the regional Dalit writers were more of relevance than that of many professional social scientists, when it came to the subject of Dalit Studies. The context was based on the fact that more often than not Dalit issues are in a way standardized by the leftist researchers. For them it is a matter of inequality and not of discrimination. As words, these may differ only slightly and it may look like one implies the other, but it is discrimination that is less defined or articulated, whereas more subtly present in our everyday life and habits, and thus is more alarmingly difficult to oppose. As an example of this, Satyanarayana mentioned that Thorat himself as a student was a victim of the same discrimination when his JNU professors did not allow him to work on the topic of absence of Dalits in the Indian market places. This simple observation demonstrates the stigma of caste and opens up many other socio-economic causes and effects, considered unfit for research even in an institute like JNU. Whereas in Dalit Studies, the market place has clearly been recognized as a space, where caste-differences and discrimination could easily be identified. For example, in Kancha Illaiah’s ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’, there is a comparative discussion on the ‘Baniya market’ and the ‘non Hindu market’, which immediately shows the flexible, liberal and democratic nature of the latter over the former, which then also become interesting with respect to the ‘national’ economic policies or the ‘national’ vision of business and growth, which are inherently discriminatory and rigidly profit-based. The anecdote makes one wonder, whether it is the dominant upper class model of academics determining the hierarchy of the points of academic interests, that makes the real Dalit issues ‘uninteresting’ as research topics. Such discrimination leaves the Dalits to be ‘interesting’ only politically, that too solely as a vote bank, as was also discussed in the MIDS seminar, where Thorat spoke.
The farce of governmental policies
As for the carelessness of the government regarding the caste issue—in particular in the field of education—Satyanarayana quoted C. H. Hanumatha Rao (Chairman, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, economist, writer), who was part of the seventh and eight planning commissions. Rao explained that this issue came up several times in the proceedings of the planning commissions but was always overshadowed by the more dominant issue of class. Indeed, for example, in spite of Article 15 of the Indian constitution (1949) announcing a law based on zero-discrimination and access-for-all, it took the Indian government more than a quarter century after post-independence incorporation of the reservation laws to even recognize and speak for the scheduled castes (SC) and schedule tribes (ST). It was through introducing the sub plans for the SC and ST (SCSP, TSP) proposed in 1974-75 and 1979-80 that the Indian government made a real effort to work towards the welfare of these communities.
However, for all practical purposes, these funding plans (which, though proposed in the fifth and sixth plan, in reality were implemented on behalf of the central government only from the seventh plan starting in 1985) suffered heavily from lack of budgeting, denial and failure of allocations, non-utilizations and lack of understanding of the real needs of the target beneficiaries.
This tradition of disinterest and irresponsibility remain the same till date. Today, the dropout rates in the school level is still severe—officially between 50 and 60 percent for the backward castes, which is 15 to 20 percent more than the gross rate. And as far as higher academic forums such as research and technological institutes are concerned, the presence of backward caste groups is negligible, in spite of the much criticized reservation laws. As was seen in the last two budgets, the fund allotted for the backward caste groups were in any case focused on survival over development, in particular academic development. This of course is in tally with the general cut on funding on education compared to the emphasis on industrialization and corporatization, the process of which further alienates and discriminates against many of the backward caste communities and tribes. For it is the same process that turn this same backward communities into landless migrant labours, thus naturally mingling caste with class issues.
Not only the Indian governments have failed to incorporate equal opportunities in academics—or equal opportunities in anything whatsoever, increasing privatization policies for the last two or three decades has made a substantial part of the source of education expensive beyond the reach of those, who are already struggling socially and financially to be on the same track as the privileged class and caste groups. There are NGOs that work in educating students from backward castes or students who come from low income group backgrounds in both urban and rural areas. But this system only alienates the privileged upper caste and the underprivileged lower caste groups further away from each other by grouping them separately, thus making it painfully clear that educational treatment is different for ‘different people’.
And yet, the horror in the name of governmental policies does not simply end at direct privatization. For example, a report by the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (IIT Madras) disclosed the New Education Policy (NEP) 2015 and stated that “NEP reduces our education to a ‘tradable commodity’ and students as ‘consumers’” in order to implement its commitments to WTO-GATS during the ministerial meeting in December 2015. In association with the National Skill Development Corporation, NEP proposed to impose certification courses for school dropouts in order to fulfill the governmental target of “skilling five hundred million people by 2022 and exporting them to global labour market.” Instead of trying to reduce the number of dropouts, NEP chose to commodify the national youth. In fact, last year BJP government even took it to the extent of proposing to amend the Child Labour Prohibition Act in certain cases such as the children working as part of the family vocation or business—“helping the family in fields, forests and home-based work after school hours or during vacations, or while attending technical institutions”, which, as a law, would have essentially been a re-enforcement of the Varna system, where people belonging to a certain caste were trained to carry out the family-labour-skill. As the reporters of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle commented: “NEP is imposing the traditional work on the children of socially deprived castes”, because it is these socially deprived castes living on menial labour that have the highest rates of school dropouts. Although this proposal was finally taken off from this year’s budget session, the same budget saw decreasing fund allocations to critical flagship schemes like ‘improvement in working conditions of child (and women) labour’ (44% decrease over the previous year), ‘setting up 6000 model schools at block level’ (100% decrease), which included 3500 model schools in educationally backward blocks, ‘scheme for welfare of working children in need of care and protection’ (70% decrease) etc. These data portray the present government’s inclinations regarding the matter of education, development and child care. It is naturally even more alarming when if it comes to the children from the backward castes, especially scheduled castes and tribes. The majority of the child labours still come from the Dalit communities and with the current governmental attitude the situation is not going to change any time soon.
When it came to the issue of reservation, the national governments—irrespective of stance and agenda—consistently politicized it was convenient to them. Thus what could have become a real means to reduce caste discrimination, ended up into a tangled mess of caste politics.
Struggle for methodology in Dalit Studies
As discussed above, from the pre-independence era till date, Dalit intellectuals were never really welcome in the mainstream academics. Not just the Brahminical dominance, but the constant inter-caste fights among various caste groups, even among the backward caste groups themselves—such as Koomatis and Kammas massacring Maadigaas in Andhra, Jats looting Valmikis in Haryana, Thevars and Nadars butchering Dalits in Tamilnadu—in general, various OBC groups imposing on STs or Dalits—have been equally disastrous to the anti-caste movement. This is an issue related to ‘Sanskritization’, which has been researched by eminent sociologists like M. N. Srinivas. The term here stands for the socio-cultural tendency of a (caste-based) group to identify more with another group at a higher position in the socio-cultural hierarchy, even at the cost of turning into oppressors themselves. On one hand, problems like Sanskritization, politicization, nepotism, opportunism, lack of leadership and lack of unity within the lower caste groups, and on another hand standardization and lack of recognition by the left-leaning activists preoccupied by the class issues, have piled up one onto the other. A strong need to understand, handle and resolve these issues has led to the necessity of re-establishing the basis of Dalit Studies with a strong hand, defining methodologies and medium suitable to the critical search for marginality in today’s world as well as to the inter-disciplinary essence of this subject.
It is interesting to note that each of the three recently nominated young ‘anti-national’ students—Umar, Kanhaiya and Anirban—have been described by their advisors as possessing—among other inspiring academic qualities—an inclination towards critical analysis and inter-disciplinary modes of study. Satyanarayana mentioned that he saw the same qualities in Koonal Duggal, who was his own student and who has recently become another victim of the politico-academic war for showing support for Vemula. Probably the subjects requiring social consciousness and ability to analyze naturally calls for such ‘abominable’ qualities.
The problem of finding a suitable methodology for Dalit Studies is intermingled with the lack of existing historical information on the subject. Even at the cost of being looked down upon as colonial hangover, it turns out that the only comparatively caste-neutral data is to be found among the colonial ethnographic records—the Christian discourse documented by the British missionaries and historians (such as Christopher Baker and David Washbrook, who of course came with their own set of biases)—said Satyanarayana. The available data consists of these colonial works, the fieldwork done by researchers—heavily dependent on the possibly inaccurate memory of the interviewees, and the contributions of Dalit intellectuals and activists—not just Ambedkar’s, but Iyothee Thass’s works on Paraiars, Todas and other tribes, Manguram’s writings on Chamars in Punjab and other such materials. These have never been as well-documented as those in the national archives, in which the contributions of the caste groups and tribes are solely measured by their anti-colonial stance (anti-British peasant movements, Santhal movements etc.). But then, the national leadership has always consistently assumed in a logically inconsistent manner that the same group of people it rules by means of condescension, oppression, butchery and land-grabbing, would look at the nation the same way as themselves! Even when it comes to the fields of education and academics, the same irony remains at work.
In search of a suitable medium
Whereas Dalit Studies is still struggling to formulate concrete methodologies, the choice of medium remains another difficult issue to be dealt with. As Thorat said in the MIDS seminar, it does make more sense to develop this subject in the regional language to consume all its complexities and nuances. Which of course involves a huge translational and transcriptional work that also must be incorporated at some level, because while the colonially (and later Brahminically) enforced hierarchy of English language and literature must be broken in the discourse of Dalit Studies, there has to be an efficient process of articulation of its proceedings to a broader readership.
In the context of language, questions regarding the politics of Linguistics come up naturally. Satyanarayana shared an anecdote about one of his students, who was so intimidated by the overtly political nature of Dalit Studies that she left the course and joined the department of Linguistics with the hope that at least that would be a depoliticized enough subject to deal with! Ironically, as we can see, the critique of languages—their presentations, structures, histories, hierarchies—as well as the critique of their existing syllabus and available reference materials are no less political. Although, chances are high that a mainstream uncritical academic course on Linguistics might actually be carefully oblivious to all these.
Reservation—as a means to make up for discrimination
Not just Linguistics, but no academic subject can be free of this burden of bias—as the discussions during the Q/A session of Satyanarayana’s talk confirmed. Even the apparently socio-politically neutral subjects under the category of Science and Technology cannot claim to be caste-free spaces, especially since the issue of academics is deeply entangled with the issue of reservation. The higher academic research institutes in India inherently encourage an aura of dictatorship, being at the top of the academic pyramid. Thus their proclamations are eventually accepted as norms by the majority of Indians. This of course is reflected when it comes to grants and nominations of awards. But probably it plays a more important role in creating an abstract hierarchy of topic and methodology of the subjects themselves.
Rohith Vemula, who was initially a Science student wrote a paper on his observations on ‘caste in science laboratories’, which was rejected by the Sociology department—this could be another instance of the same lack of recognition that Thorat had faced in JNU. Another example of caste invading into Science is to be seen in the context of Nutrition as an academic subject. For example, starting right at the level of school education, the enforced validation of vegetarian diet over the non-vegetarian in the text books issued by certain state governments (Andhra, for example) portray the discriminatory nature of Indian academic system.
Satyanarayana also talked about the questionable usefulness of certain research topics over others in the higher research fields in Science. While it is true that the apparently vague and rather unapproachable technicality of Science is an inherent nature of the discipline, a critique of the same from the viewpoint of Dalit Studies would be that academic pursuit of Science and Technology is unapproachable not merely to the uninitiated and to the uninterested, but even to those who has the aspiration and capability to become a part of it—in particular students coming from the background of lower castes and/or class. This is where the issue of reservation comes into picture.
While discussing the importance of regional languages in Dalit Studies, Satyanaryana casually commented how, for example, an Indian rural student might not entirely relate to a mainstream course on the plays of Shakespeare. This does not mean that the student would not have the capacity for that course. It merely means that she might not have had a background that could lead to an immediate appreciation of poetry written in old English mostly depicting love and war within aristocrat families in England. Similarly, excellence in any academic field requires a certain background whereas merit does not. A certain need to concentrate on one’s work without having to think of financial issues, social stigma and continuous discrimination can be considered as one of the bare minimum for this excellence (leaving out the exceptions who make it despite this hardship). Most lower caste families in India are unable to provide their children even with this bare minimum. In spite of that, in recent years, the gap between the top percentage of marks of the students belonging to the reserved category and the minimum cut off mark of the general category has been observed to become increasingly negligible.
The argument is actually not about whether certain toppers in the reserved category belong to well-off families, thus possibly unfairly taking advantage of the system. It is more about a much alarming statistics caused by centuries of discrimination and our lack of awareness. For example, according to the 2011-2012 census reports, over 44.8% of ST and 33.8% of SC in the rural areas and 27.3% of ST and 21.8% of ST in urban areas were below poverty level with a very slow rate of decline in poverty as against a mere 12.5% rate among the forward castes, whereas the forward caste consisted 30.8% of the total population, the SC—19.7% and the ST—8.5%. Dalits are one of the worst affected communities in these regards.
Reservation, as a concept, is for creating an equal opportunity at the beginners’ level over several generations, and is not simply meant for unfairly uplifting lower caste groups randomly, or in order to use them as vote banks. Once admitted to institutes, the reservation students undergo the same set of evaluations as the rest. Ideally in an apolitical situation, if courses and methodologies in institutes were designed keeping the miscellaneous academic backgrounds of the students in mind, it would have served as a means to thus eventually diminish the disparity between caste groups in academics. A day would have come when India could really get rid of the reservation system because practically all caste-group applicants would have come from more or less the same background. But today is not that day.
At the same time, it is the lower caste groups, especially Dalits who suffer the most from not just honour killing, caste massacre and caste-rapes but also discrimination even at the most basic levels of necessities such as water, food, sanitation, education—the list is endless. The 2014 Badaun girls were not mere rape victims, the responsibility of their death lay with the upper class society that denied them water, sanitation and basic security; they did not even reach the stage where reservation in academics could be of any use to them. The recent Kerala rape and murder victim‘s family was denied access to water and other daily resources on a regular basis. Had she not been brutally murdered, had she finished her law studies in spite of this daily violence which is in a way no less brutal, had she availed a reserved career, would it suit us—the all-too-privileged upper middle class/caste society—to promptly judge her stance? Or should we have stood by her, criticized the system that we conveniently and silently accept and raised our voices towards breaking this chain of discrimination starting at the most basic level?
Let us, for example, look at certain cases in the 2007 Human Rights Watch report:
20-25% of village schools force Dalit children to sit separately;
25-30% of villages make it difficult for Dalits to go to police;
30-40% villages do not allow Dalits to sell things in local markets (remember Thorat?);
In 30-40% of villages, public health workers refuse to go to Dalit homes;
30-40% villages force separate seating for Dalits in hotels and even self-help groups;
45-50% of villages stop Dalits from drinking from regular water sources;
More than 50% villages prevent Dalits from entering temples;
More than 50% of villages do not allow Dalits to eat with non-Dalits;
In 2009, 62% Dalits were found to be illiterate and the average income of Dalit households was found to be 68% of the average national income. Interestingly though, compared to the other data, only about 12-15% of villages were reported to be disallowing Dalits to vote!
The continuous horror, anger, frustration and humiliation that caste-discrimination and caste-violence generate are bound to seep into the lives of those who may not have been direct victims but by birth belong to similar caste groups. It may be conjectured in what ways and to what extent these un-quantifiable matters play a role in determining the academic future of Dalit students coming from varied backgrounds of class and privilege; how they affect not just their marks, but their choice of subjects, their methodology and tenacity to pursue certain careers as against the lack of it towards certain others. May be Dalit Studies, when accepted more widely as a more well-established academic stream, would be able to explore this more precisely.
Caste may not always be apparent in the urban educational institutes, but in rural schools and colleges, students are still encouraged to keep their caste identities alive through socio-cultural norms and signs (levels of untouchability, norms of participation in socio-cultural programs, wearing marks of caste identity etc.). This inheritance of a complex network of systemic discrimination—both performing it and expecting it out of others—is carried by most all through their life. In the urban perspective the scenario tends to be subtler. However, in the urban setup, many educational institutes remain unspokenly marked as ‘too high’ or ‘too low’ for certain classes as well as castes, thus again actively participating in the process of discrimination. Even if students are admitted from miscellaneous backgrounds, the cultural hierarchy, the general air of unfriendliness (which goes up to the extent of unofficial separation of canteens, hostels etc. in certain institutes) and the discriminatory partiality on the faculties’ part in many cases often become prominent. This is visible even in higher education, where lower caste students find it more difficult to find mentors and advisors than their upper caste counterparts. This is actually quite obvious since the majority of the teaching staff and academicians are from the upper caste population; thus there is a severe lack of understanding playing at the very base.
Coming back to reservation for students in higher research fields in academics, in particular Science and Technology, one has to admit that it is a complex scenario. Universities are often deeply involved with the electoral politics, severely understaffed and quality research in Science and Technology is done only at pockets. Thus it remains dubious whether a lower caste student would be exposed to the best opportunities if admitted to a state university. But then many of the autonomous institutes that ensure better research opportunities, though supposedly susceptible to the reservation laws, often do not go by them. The excuse is usually of not having found suitable candidates. And due to lack of transparency in these proceedings, it is not even always clear how big a role caste discrimination plays in these cases. Then there are some of the highest ranked institutes which have been legally made out of the bound of the reservation laws, making them forever unreachable for students coming from severely unprivileged communities.
Methodology: a personal story
What does higher education mean? Who decides these comparative evaluations of subjects? Do Science and Technology really serve the most important role in human life? What are the ‘important’ aspects and goals of an academic subject? These are the questions that Dalit Studies wishes to explore. And this is what Satyanarayana talked about at the end, sharing a personal story of pedagogic practice:
EFLU, where Satyanarayana works as an associate professor, is a central university and thus allows the faculties to make their own syllabus and design courses as they want. Satyanarayana took this opportunity to plan a series of courses on Dalit Studies. Only three students joined when the course was announced for the first time and five was the minimum number required for running a course, so it had to be scrapped. The next time about ten to fifteen students joined from miscellaneous caste backgrounds and this time it turned out to be an engaging and sincere group of students, who came up with many interesting ideas of their own.
One of the tasks Satyanaryana set for his students was to make a comparable study between an article by P. Sainath, the veteran leftist journalist deeply involved in documenting the rural ways of life and Kancha Illaiah’s book ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’. Sainath’s article was based on a certain caste primarily employed as scavengers. In his article Sainath, aptly sympathetic to the cause of fighting against inequality and discrimination, argued against the inhuman labour conditions, inadequate wage and the anti-labour legal policies. Whereas Illaiah struck a different chord when he pointed out an altogether different way to look at the relationship between caste and labour. He argued that the ‘Dalitbahujan’—people from the exploited and suppressed communities, a majority of whom are involved in menial labours—could be distinguished as the real productive class in the society as against the upper castes involved in religious practices, money lending business etc. (Illaiah’s context was a comparative study of the Dalit communities in Andhra as against the Baniyas and Brahmin castes). Instead of standardizing labour in terms of negotiating working hours, wage and working conditions with the ‘administration’, as is common among the leftist intellectuals, Illaiah’s approach perceived the Dalitbahujans as a self-sufficient society that saw “labour as life”, as against the upper caste way of seeing “leisure as life”. The essence of the word ‘labour’ in Illaiah’s context is not the same commodified labour that the government dreams of selling cheap to the national and international market. It is rather a celebration of work and an idealistic communal way of life, in which everybody is invited to and does contribute mentally, physically and most importantly equally to keep the wheels running. Whereas there might be scopes of arguments against this approach, one has to agree that inherently, such a discourse on the Dalit life can only be developed within Dalit intellectual locations. Without acknowledging what the Dalit has to say about herself, no progress can ever be made in Dalit Studies. The students of Satyanaryana’s course also proved the same when they, on their own, came up with presentations on ‘caste and food’, ‘caste and democracy’, ‘caste in Marxism’, ‘gender in reservation’ and so on—subjects which are often ignored in the academic practices of the upper castes intellectuals, who are often also infested with undiagnosed patriarchy.
Marginalized of the world, unite!
Dalit Studies, at its most general form, is a form of academic as well as social, political, cultural and economic discourse that looks for the voice of the marginalized or the “socially excluded” as discussed by Amartya Sen, and speaks for them, but more importantly with them. We look forward to reading ‘Dalit Studies’ edited by K. Satyanarayana and Ramnarayan S. Rawat in order to evolve our thoughts ‘the Dalit way’.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to V. Geetha, Sundar, Sushmita, Venkat and Dyuti for information and discussions. Thanks to V. Arun for the cartoon.