Among the functions of art and literature is to transcend boundaries. Thus, one view considers all those literary works that attack the caste system as part of Dalit literature, even if not created by Dalit writers.
Can there be reservation in literature? Have writers belonging to the underprivileged and oppressed classes or castes been ignored, thereby buttressing the case for some kind of affirmative action? Even if reservation in literature cannot be quantified in terms of percentages, should preferential treatment be meted out to Dalit writers by including their writings in school and college syllabi and by bestowing literary awards and other honours on them? Are Dalit writers really being discriminated against because of traditional upper-caste dominance in literarture? Is literary merit an elitist notion that aims at keeping the underprivileged out?
These and similar other questions have been at the centre of literary discussion in Hindi for many years now. How important they are can be gauged from the fact that a news magazine recently focused its annual literary number on conducting a debate among senior and younger writers on the issue of reservation in literature. The debate has turned out to be very lively and open-ended, with both sides proffering valid and convincing arguments. It’s clearly not an issue on which the final word can be easily pronounced.
While in Marathi and some other Indian languages, Dalit writing emerged as a formidable force many decades ago, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in Hindi. Over the past two decades, Dalit discourse has gained wide currency because of the emergence of a number of writers —Omprakash Valmiki, Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Mohandas Naimishray and Ajay Navaria, to name a few. As creative writers, many of them did not make the mark but attracted attention because of their powerful content. It was the first time that Dalits themselves were writing about their suffering, the horrors of caste oppression, social discrimination and obvious as well as invisible humiliation. For the first time, a totally different world unfolded itself before readers and the explosion of Dalit creativity virtually shook the foundations of the literary establishment. Yet, the new trend received tremendous support from all quarters because most Hindi writers are not consciously casteist.
However, fierce debates started raging when Dalit writers — for example, Dharmvir — began to attack icons like Premchand for being “anti-Dalit”. They claimed that only Dalits could faithfully describe their experiences, as writers belonging to upper castes did not have access to them. Not to remain content with this, Dalit writers started demanding a fair share in literary awards, nominations to various bodies, recognition by literary critics and inclusion of their writings in syllabi at various levels of education. A few writers even suggested that Premchand’s celebrated short-story “Kafan” should be replaced by a story written by a Dalit writer as Premchand too suffered from caste prejudices. Such demands gave rise to the debate about ‘reservation in literature’ because they virtually disregarded the notion of literary merit.
Asghar Wajahat, a front-ranking short-story writer, novelist and playwright, opines that the primary function of art and literature is to transcend boundaries. Many white writers have written wonderful books about black people and their lives. Similarly, in our country, many of those who do not belong to the minorities or the tribals have written very good books about them. It may be true that a Dalit or a woman may have very important and original experiences but there is no guarantee that they would automatically get transformed into good literature. Premchand may not have had the kind of experiences a Dalit would have, but through his creativity, he could empathise with Gheesu and Madho and that’s what turned “Kafan” into an all-time classic. Tulsi Ram, an important Dalit author and a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, too disagrees with the view that only Dalits can write authentically about Dalits. He puts forward a suggestion that all those literary works that attack the varna system should be considered part of Dalit literature. Not many Dalit writers would see eye to eye with him on this point.
Dalit writing has thrown up a number of excellent autobiographies in recent years —Tulsi Ram’s “Murdaiya”, Sheoraj Singh Bechain’s “Bachpan Mere Kandhon Par”, Omprakash Valmiki’s “Joothan”, Mohandas Naimishray’s “Apne-apne Pinjare” and Kaushalya Vasantri’s “Dohara Abhishap”, just to name a few. Non-Dalits could not have written them as these are imbued with the specificity of the Dalilt experience. They certainly deserve one hundred per cent reservation.