The problem

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THE idea of Dalit as a perspective has evolved during the past ten years of my research on Dalit society and history. I see my work as a conversation with Dalit writers, writings and politics, one that has fundamentally re-shaped my own intellectual journey. As a caste Hindu, I have been struck by the absence of Dalit points of view within mainstream Indian historiography, and by the necessity of bringing these points of view into active dialogue with caste Hindu narratives of Indian history, society, nationalism and colonialism. The articles in this issue seek to take seriously Dalit perspectives by bringing them into conversation with caste Hindu perspectives which are far too often passively accepted, not simply as the authoritative representations of Indian society and history, but as the only representations. My own education really began in 1992-93 when Dalit friends pointed out in no uncertain terms that there are no Dalits in ‘Indian’ history. However, they also made it clear that Dalits and Dalit mohallas are some of the most common objects of study for the sociology and anthropology departments of various universities. Dalits are made into objects of study in ways that caste Hindus and their neighbourhoods rarely – if ever – are.

As I began to pursue this, I found that I had a great deal to learn from my many interactions with Dalits in different parts of North India, and from Dalit writings in the Hindi language, both past and present. These writers and intellectuals had points of view on everything that were markedly different from the rest of Hindu/Indian society. Their views of Hindu religion and society, Indian history, nationalism, colonialism, and the larger world, stood in sharp contrast to what I had learned during my formal education at Delhi University. In my own research I have attempted to bring Dalit perspectives into conversation with the agendas of mainstream Indian historiography. The platform provided by Seminar offers an opportunity to extend this conversation.

I will offer two examples to illustrate what I mean by a Dalit perspective. The examples, one from the 1940s and another from the 1990s, capture the contradiction between the positions of Dalits and non-Dalits over what constitutes ‘secular’ politics. A recent familiar event, the decision of the Bahujan Samaj Party to form a government in UP with the support of the Hindu-right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in 1995 is one example. Prior to this, in 1992, the BSP had walked out of its alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP). BSP leaders argued that as far as Dalit priorities were concerned, there was no real difference between the Congress, the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. The BSP’s refusal to have any alliance with the SP, and its electoral alliance with the BJP were described by the mainstream media and intelligentsia at the time as opportunist, and its refusal to join what were portrayed as the secular forces was severly criticised.

The second example is of the Congress nomination of Ambedkar from the Bombay Legislative Assembly to the Constituent Assembly in July 1946, paving the way for his appointment as law minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Predictably, the Hindi media in UP welcomed this decision and described it as a final triumph of Indian (Congress) nationalism. On the other hand, many Dalits viewed Ambedkar’s turnaround as a betrayal of their struggle of the last 20 years, especially the sustained agitation by the SCF (Scheduled Castes Federation) throughout the 1940s. Ambedkar addressed this criticism in one of the most important speeches of his career, delivered in April 1948 at Kanpur. He clarified that he had joined the government to ensure that the Dalit agenda, for which he had fought for 25 years, was incorporated into Congress policies. In addition, he asserted that Dalits must transform their separate identity into a political force with its own distinctive agenda. Not surprisingly the media, especially the Hindi media in the Cow belt, vilified him for preaching communal politics of the Muslim League variety. These two disparate examples bring home the point that both Ambedkar and the BSP had a distinctive Dalit agenda which was not recognized as legitimate by mainstream Hindu opinion. In this note, I will lay out the broad contours of the Dalit agenda that was fashioned in North India in the 20th century.

The category Dalit is now extensively used in both academic and non-academic literature across the world, and in India even the most orthodox elements in Hindu society, as well as the intelligentsia, have taken to using the category Dalit. Indeed, today we can talk of a virtual Dalit Studies in which Dalits are studied from a range of positions and standpoints around common themes: their struggles, identity politics, and efforts to achieve social justice, equality and power, battles for reservations, and ritual status, to name a few. But this begs the question: why should Dalit Studies be confined to studying Dalits? Instead of viewing Dalits as an object of study, I wish to propose that the category Dalit can also be used as a perspective for approaching the study of Indian/Hindu society and history, colonialism and nationalism, democracy, modernity and the larger world.

In this, an attempt is made to evaluate and study Indian society and history, literature, labour, gender, Hindu religion, intellectual formations, the Dravidian movement, and democracy from Dalit standpoints. There is a fundamental rupture between Dalit and non-Dalit writers and activists in the ways they analyze and interpret various facets of our society and history. What we have are two different worlds. We thus propose that Dalit is a perspective.

This point is demonstrated by outlining the evolution of a perspective in Uttar Pradesh that emerged through Dalit social and cultural struggles, Dalit politics and Dalit writings. We suggest that through these diverse activities Dalits worked out their own distinctive world view during the first six decades of the 20th century, a perspective that did not exist earlier, but emerged in the 1920s and slowly acquired a concrete form between the 1940s and 1960s. Ultimately, it is a perspective that today shapes and influences different facets of Dalit lives, and has the potential to reshape the larger Indian society, as well.

By the 1960s, a commitment to the liberation of Dalits, social and economic progress, a sense of pride in Dalit identity, and a firm resolve to resist the domination perpetuated by Hindu society had all become securely ingrained in the minds and actions of both Dalit activists and ideologues, commitments which are evident today. Dalit identity became the foundation for the formation of a new politics, raising a new set of issues and mobilizing all Dalit castes collectively under a single umbrella. The core issue of refashioning a pure, ‘untouched’ identity remained, but the most significant contribution of this new politics lay in the emergence of a Dalit identity as a foundational category for social and political organization of knowledge, lives and agendas.

Dalits questioned and rejected categories like untouchables, Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Harijans that were coined by colonial and Hindu/nationalist discursive practices. This was not merely to contest dominant ascriptions of their identities but also, more importantly, to question the notions of impurity and pollution attached to their community, identity and history. Various Dalit castes in different parts of India raised this issue independently by claiming that they had discovered a pure past, and a pure identity, either within Hindu religion or outside of it. Familiar examples are the assertions of the Adi-Dharmis and Balmikis of Punjab, the Satnamis of Chattisgarh, the Namasudras of Bengal, the Chamars, Pasis and Bhangis of UP, the Shilpakars of Kumaon, and the Mahars and Chambhars of Maharashtra. I would characterize these initiatives as the first stage in the evolution of a Dalit perspective. Through a range of organizations and caste mahasabhas, Chamars were the first Dalit community to launch a struggle to redefine their identities in UP in the 1910s and 1920s.1 This struggle was launched initially to contest the dominant colonial and Hindu narratives of their ‘untouchable’ identity by emphasizing the ‘purity’ of their lives and by demanding a status equal to that claimed by caste Hindus.

From police files we have sustained evidence that in the 1920s Chamar mahasabhas mobilized their communities in urban and rural areas by organizing meetings and demonstrations to sustain and spread these ideas.2 It was in the rural areas of the western districts of UP that the movement began to appeal to well-off Chamar agricultural peasants. Although Chamar protests were evident in many parts of the state, there is evidence to assert that the most organized and sustained agitation took place in western Uttar Pradesh. These protests were first noticed in 1922 in the districts of Meerut, Moradabad, Bulandshahr, Badaun, Bijnor, Bareilly, Pilibhit, Agra and Aligarh. By 1923-24, evidence of Chamar protests came from other districts like Saharanpur, Etah, Etawah, Mainpuri, Mathura, Dehradun, Lucknow, Unnao, Kheri Sultanpur, and Pratapgarh, as well as from districts in eastern UP like Benares, Jaunpur, Basti and Gorakhpur.

To sustain the movement, a series of practices were promoted and adopted by Chamar organizations, such as abstaining from impure practices like leatherwork, eating beef and consuming alcohol, maintaining a vegetarian diet, and engaging in specific Hindu religious and ritual practices. In addition, Chamar groups also demanded access to schools and education, and protested against the practices of untouchability, numerous illegal cesses and begari imposed on Chamar peasants by caste Hindus. From early on Chamars were keen to show their loyalty to the British government, a fact reflected in the nature of resolutions passed at these meetings.

In December 1927 the leaders of the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha in UP made a claim for a more inclusive achhut or ‘untouched’ identity to unite disparate Dalit castes. The Mahasabha laid out its agenda in a conference held on 27 and 28 December 1927 in Allahabad, an event that was widely reported and discussed in contemporary newspapers in UP.3 The conference was proclaimed as the first All-India Adi-Hindu conference, and was attended by 25,000 Dalits from UP. Another 350 delegates participated from Punjab, Bihar, Delhi, the Central Provinces, Poona, Bengal, Madras and Hyderabad.

The Adi-Hindu Mahasabha was described as a movement of all untouchables and Swami Achhutanand was declared their true leader. The struggle against social injustice was described as achhut nationalism, social uplift as their religion, and self-respect as their Home rule, and the audience was advised to ignore Hindus who called them ‘traitors’. By emphasising their achhut identity, the leaders of the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha were hoping to build a new politics that would bring together all Dalit castes – Doms, Mehtars, Pasis, Lal Begis, Dhanuks, Koris, and Chamars. As an evidence of these claims see the Adi-Hindu petition published after this article.

Simultaneously, the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha raised these issues in a petition submitted to the Simon Commission during its tour of India in 1928. The Simon Commission received similar petitions from Dalit organizations in different parts of UP and India. They provide us with useful material to understand the various facets of the Dalit agenda that were being assembled around this time.4 What is striking is that most Dalit organisations which submitted petitions to the Simon Commission were unanimous in claiming a separate achhut identity, making this a marked feature of Dalit politics of the time. Most of the ideas of the Adi-Hindu movement were also widely shared by other Dalit groups across UP, including the Adi-Dharmis from Dehradun, the Kumaon Shilpakar Sabha of Almora, the Jatav Mahasabha of Agra, the Dom Sudhar Sabha of Garhwal, and the Chamar Sabha of Kanpur. Further, evidence from CID weekly reports of these years (1926-30) indicates a good deal of activism conducted by Adi-Hindu organizations.

Through their struggles in the 1920s and 1930s, Dalit activists and organisations in UP gradually formulated an agenda that addressed the concerns of their community as well as issues that mainstream nationalist organisations like the Congress had raised with regard to the vision of an Indian nation and democracy. A more passionate and elaborate discussion of these themes is evident in Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu’s book, Bharat Ke Adi Niviasiyon Ki Sabhayata (The Civilization of India’s Original Inhabitants) published in 1937 from Lucknow. In claiming that achhuts were the original inhabitants of India and descendants of the dasas, asurs and dasyus mentioned in Brahmanical Hindu texts, Dalits were challenging, both colonial and Hindu interpretations of their identity. Achhut was declared as the identity of all ‘untouchables’, separate from the Hindu community. Adequate safeguards for achhuts in various elective bodies in the form of separate electorates was a demand which was to become the cornerstone of their struggle in the coming years. Indeed, by the 1930s, their charter of demands included proportionate representation in legislative bodies, reservations in government jobs, adequate Dalit representation in the Congress ministry, permanent rights over land by changing the tenancy acts, fixed wages for agricultural labour and for the removal and skinning of dead animals, rights to use public wells, the abolition of begari, the right to convert to any religion, and rejection of the term ‘harijan’.

Ambedkar ki Awaz Arthath Achhuton ka Federation (The Voice of Ambedkar or the Federation of Achhuts) was the title of Nandlal Viyogi’s 1947 book published in Allahabad. The title proclaims the significance of Ambedkar and the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) in reshaping achhut identity and politics in the 1940s by giving it a new voice or awaz. A new feature of achhut politics in the 1940s was the emergence of the SCF as a party offering a political platform for all achhuts. In particular, the Federation brought together diverse achhut political and social groups – including Jatavs, Raidasis, Pasis, Dhanuks, Chamars, and others – into a single political formation.

By the 1940s proportional representation, education and an emphasis on a shared separate identity had acquired wider social support among achhuts.5 The appeal of the SCF lay in the fact that it provided an organisational body for Dalits to launch a concerted campaign against the ill-effects of the Poona Pact, particularly its denial of proportional representation for Dalits. Adi-Hindu leaders from UP as well as from other parts of India were present during the foundation of the SCF in Nagpur on 18 July 1942. In UP, the SCF was considered a worthy successor to the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha and rapidly replaced branches of the Mahasabha all over the state. According to Viyogi, the SCF also replaced achhut organisations like the Adi-Dharm Mandal in Punjab, the Depressed Classes League of Namasudras in Bengal and the Depressed Classes Association in the Central Provinces.

The SCF attracted Dalit organisations, particularly Chamar organizations like the Jatav Mahasabha of Agra, the Raidass Mahasabha of Allahabad, and the Kureel Mahasabha and Chamar Mahasabha of Kanpur. The Kumaon Shilpakar Mahasabha was the only non-Chamar organisation to join the Federation in its initial stages. Gradually, the establishment of district branches of the SCF also attested to its growing popularity in urban centres of UP. District branches were established in Agra, Aligarh, Allahabad, Etah, Etawah, Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, and Kumaon. The Uttar Pradesh SCF decided to launch a satyagraha in both 1946 and 1947 to protest against the Poona Pact, the Congress and the Cabinet Mission Award for rejecting their demands for proportional representation and a separate electorate. The SCF launched two different satyagrahas in Lucknow against the non-representative character of the Legislative Assembly, the first in July-August 1946 and the second from March to May 1947. There were other issues as well, which I have discussed elsewhere, including the abolition of begari, distribution of land to Dalits, free education and scholarships, and reservations of jobs within the government services.

To reiterate, the achhut agenda laid by the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha in 1928, including a programme for defining a set of rights, seemed to have reached fruition by the 1940s. It was no longer the idea of the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha alone, but one that was shared by various Dalit organizations in UP and beyond. This vision of achhut politics and commitment to rights continues to shape the lives of Dalits today.

It is my submission that by the 1940s the idea of united interests across all castes of Dalits under the shared identity of achhuts acquired hegemonic acceptability among groups who previously would not have recognized themselves as belonging to the same community. It was this perception of a shared agenda that convinced Ambedkar to join the Congress Ministry in 1947.

The formation of the Republican Party of India in 1956 did not represent an abandonment of achhut identity and politics, nor did it represent a move to class politics as suggested by a host of scholars. By framing the formation of the Republican Party of India as a shift from caste to class, we miss the Dalit point of view which envisioned the possibility of building political alliances without losing the focus and power of a united achhut identity and agenda. To cite one example, the Republican Party of India’s slogans summed up the mood of the times and revealed the ideological moorings of the party; ‘Jatav-Muslim bhai bhai: Hindu kaum kahan se ayee’ (Jatav-Muslims are brothers: where did the Hindus come from) or ‘Thakur, Brahman aur Lala: kar do inka munha kala’ (Thakurs, Brahmans and Baniyas: blacken their faces). If anything, these slogans indicate that the Dalit struggles against domination by Hindu society were fought along caste lines by emphasising a separate identity. Rather than dissipating, the attractiveness of a shared Dalit identity has continued to grow.

The most enduring legacy of the Adi-Hindu movement in UP was the conceptualization of a separate Dalit identity which was not merely a political category but also a social and cultural category – a way of thinking not just about Dalits but also about Hindu society. It is only through a recognition of the history of this movement and the way of thinking which accompanied the movement that Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu and millions of other Dalits were able to describe the Congress as a Hindu party, or advance their criticism of the left polity for refusing to address issues of social inequity. The sense that Dalits of UP had in the 1940s and ’50s, and still have today, of having their own agenda, was made possible only through the history and political organisation of these decades. The unmistakable feature of this struggle and its enduring legacy has been the conception of a clearly defined notion of a Dalit politics and agenda. Through the struggles and writings of the past century, Dalits have forcefully articulated a distinct vision and perspective by engaging with Congress nationalism, colonialism, Hindu reform organizations, and the communist movement. This issue of Seminar reflects and engages with this vision in ways that force us to dramatically re-evaluate caste Hindu representations of Indian history and society.



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1. Chamar Sabhas like Jatav Mahasabha, Jaiswar Mahasabha, Jatiya Chamar Sabha and many such sabhas were formed at the village level.

2. Officially known as Police Abstracts of Weekly Intelligence, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), UP. The weekly CID reports provide detailed accounts of Chamar protests in UP. See various CID reports between 1922-1926.

3. Report of All-India Adi-Hindu Mahasabha, 7 January 1928, submitted to the Simon Commission. Appendix: List of Memoranda, Evidence-UP/427, Report on United Provinces (3 Vols) Indian Statutory (Simon) Commission, OIOC, British Library (London, UK).

4. Almost all the representations are also available in the private papers of John Simon. MSS. Eur. F. 77/Simon Collection, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library.

5. See Rawat, ‘Partition Politics and Achhut Identity: A Study of the Scheduled Castes Federation and Dalit Politics’, in Suvir Kaul (ed.), The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (Bloomington, 2002), pp. 111-139.