The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | ‘Written text cannot be the only source for writing Dalit history’

There is a need to rely on oral history, proverbs and remnants in culture and traditions, and deconstructing them based on the path shown by Pandit Iyothee Thass, writer and historian Stalin Rajangam said

January 27, 2024 07:13 pm | Updated February 19, 2024 03:57 pm IST - CHENNAI

Dalit History: Text and Context Reading and reconstructing Dalit history through Dalit non-fiction Stalin Rajangam in conversation with G. Gurusamy (Tamil), at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Saturday.

Dalit History: Text and Context Reading and reconstructing Dalit history through Dalit non-fiction Stalin Rajangam in conversation with G. Gurusamy (Tamil), at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Saturday. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Writer and historian Stalin Rajangam on Saturday said that inadequate documentary evidence was a unique challenge faced while writing Dalit history, and therefore, one could not primarily depend on written text as the source while writing it.

In a conversation with G. Gurusamy, writer, researcher and Head of the Department of Tamil in Arul Anandar College in Madurai district, at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 on the topic ‘Dalit History: Text and Context Reading and reconstructing Dalit history through Dalit non-fiction’, Mr. Rajangam said history was constructed based on what could and what could not become text in the past; this in turn becomes a primary source for writing history later.

“Absence of documentary evidence cannot mean that Dalits did not have history,” he said. Thus, he added, there was a need to rely on oral history, proverbs and remnants in culture and traditions and deconstructing them based on the path shown by Pandit Iyothee Thass.

Read our live updates of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024, Day 2

He said that the publication of Pandit Thass’s writings by G. Aloysius in the late 1990s proved to be a turning point in writing Dalit history, as his writings helped in changing several stereotypical perceptions about Dalits that existed before.

Citing his findings from his research, Mr. Gurusamy said that the arrival of Europeans and colonialism played a major role in transforming castes and their hierarchies. He emphasised that the Census done by the British in 1901 and 1911 was particularly important in cementing caste hierarchies based on the varna system.

He said several castes wrote “stories” about their imagined histories and termed these stories as “Puranas” to accord them sanctity. He said it was during the writing of such stories that the Dalits were projected as being in the lowest of the hierarchy so as to establish the relatively higher positions of their respective castes. He argued that the Manusmriti was not written by one person at a particular point in time but evolved with contributions, often contradictory, from many, over a period of time.

Replying to a question from the audience on the alleged hesitation in questioning the role of intermediate castes in the violence witnessed in the present times against Dalits in Tamil Nadu, and relegating the opposition to caste to the limited scope of opposing Brahmins, Mr. Gurusamy said blaming only the Brahmins for caste-based discrimination was an injustice.

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