Updated: April 6, 2011 11:42 IST

A different take on Dalit studies

Bhupendra Yadav
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The caste system has resulted in the creation of an elaborate pecking order or hierarchy into which the 4,000-odd castes in India have been slotted. Hence the arguments and counter-arguments and the claims and counter-claims about the relative status of different castes. Secondly, the caste system is based on a difference created by the ‘accident' of one's birth, a feature that is sustained and perpetuated by a societal ethos that bars inter-caste marriages. As a consequence, the socio-cultural life of different castes is mostly spent in ‘splendid isolation' of one another.


The basic thrust of Dalit Studies has been mostly on the different dimensions of hierarchy and the pain inflicted by it. This book, on the other hand, is a welcome addition to the relatively small volume of work on difference and its implications for Dalit assertion. It has 15 chapters grouped under four thematic heads — the Dalits, Dalits in history, society, literature and among the minorities.

The term ‘Dalit' denotes one single unit, but, like an orange, it has several segments. In the opening essay on “Resolving Dalit identiy”, Jyotsna Macwan and Suguna Ramanathan note, regretfully, that “caste divisions flourish among poorer sections whom they hurt the most.”

The horror story Smita Patil narrates from the autobiography of Baby Kamble, a Dalit writer, runs along these lines. For the women among Dalits, it is ‘triple whammy'. Patriarchy victimises Dalit women as much as ‘impurity' associated with their caste and the social exploitation. Dalit girls are married at as young an age as eight or nine. They are punished by their in-laws without inhibition or restraint for not meeting their endless demands in housekeeping. Should the harassed girl try to escape, she is caught, and a wooden log is fastened to her leg through a hole hewn in the foot. In “Exploring Dalit Women's Oppression,” Padma Velaskar says, the experience of Dalit women is “destructive” due to what she calls the “multidimensionality, simultaneity and intensity of oppression.” It is no secret that caste differences exist even in religions other than Hinduism, and this in fact shows that Christianity and Islam are indeed the organic products of the Indian soil. The extent of stigmatisation and exclusion faced by the lower castes among Muslims and Sikhs respectively is discussed by Imtiaz Ahmad and Ronki Ram.

Yoginder Sikand says that contemporary Indian Muslim scholars advise against marriage between people of unequal status. Arguing that the divide between the high-born and the low-born among Muslims goes as far back as the 14th century, he refers to Ziauddin Barani, a Turkish scholar, who in his Fatwa-i Jahandari requests his master, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, to order that nothing other than the religious injunctions related to fasting, praying, charity and pilgrimage should be taught to the ‘mean' people. Barani also wants teachers to be punished if they imparted education to the ‘low born' because “plenty of disorders arise owing to the skill of the low born in knowledge.”

Prathama Banerjee's “Caste and History Writing” is interesting, but somewhat disappointing. She tries to show that the history of caste may not have the same chronological trajectory as that of a nation or a religion. While proposing the centrality of the body in the history of caste, Banerjee says people of different castes live in separate areas, limit contact with each other according to the pecking order, and observe different social etiquette with people of other castes, etc.

Intimate knowledge

At the same time, Banerjee quotes, approvingly, a statement which says that Dalit women scavengers had intimate knowledge of the households from which they were excluded and goes on to specify the means by which they do so. Surely, there have been much simpler methods of getting to know others' habits, what they ate and so on. Unlike technologists, social scientists are not expected to solve problems or even answer fundamental questions. They would have done their job well if they raised some searching questions. By raising such questions from diverse perspectives, the contributors have enriched this volume. The book deserves to be read by those who are tired of listening to the wails of the “pilgrims of darkness”, while those who are put off by the writings of the narrowly focussed specialists in Dalit studies will find its wide sweep particularly appealing.

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