Representing Dalit selfhood


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DALIT means ‘ground down’, or ‘broken to pieces’ in both the Marathi and Hindi language. First used by B.R. Ambedkar around 1928 in his newspaper Bahishkrit Bharat, the term gained new visibility in Maharashtra during the 1970s in the context of the literary and cultural efflorescence that saw the birth of Marathi Dalit sahitya. Today, the widespread currency of the term is also a belated recognition of Dalit militant claims upon a history of humiliation and suffering.

This article draws on material from the cultural and political history of Maharashtra to suggest that the seemingly self-evident and obvious history indexed by the term Dalit bears further scrutiny. I argue that Dalit is not a name so much as it is a field of contestation and significance. The emergence of the Dalit as a political subject is historically contingent, and problematizes dominant narratives of secular nationalism. As a politics of minority, Dalit politics revealed the Indian nation to be the political manifestation of Hindu majoritarianism. More significantly still, I would argue, is the necessity to think about Dalit critiques of caste inequality as forming a crucial chapter in a broader, global history of subaltern imaginations of political emancipation.

In the sections that follow, I examine three sites that reflect the complex and historically contingent circumstances under which Dalit emancipation was imagined: Jotirao Phule’s efforts to make Dalits crucial members of a larger political and ethical community of shudra-atishudras defeated by wily Aryan Brahmins; B.R. Ambedkar’s efforts to carve out a political identity for Dalits through his theory of minority; and finally, important postcolonial representations of Dalitness as literary artifact. Together, they suggest that: (i) caste, and especially untouchability, is the deep structure of secular and religious configurations of community, and that (ii) we cannot imagine rights and recognition without an account of Dalit political modernity.


Outside Hindu history – the politics of naming and the constitution of community: Jotirao Phule’s Satyashodak Samaj which was established in 1873 brought both non-Brahmin and Dalit activists in western India together around a critique of caste Hinduism. The politics of (re)naming was a central element of caste critique, drawing attention to habits and practices that had been naturalized so as to justify Brahmin hegemony. Indeed, as Phule noted, British colonization had enabled novel alignments of secular and ritual power. In this context, naming was a form of ideology critique, and a strategy of countering religious superstition through rational thought, by taking control over the act of representation. The category of the shudra-atishudra was a result of Phule’s effort to produce a new ethical community, as well as a unified political constituency, that could be united in the struggle against Brahminism.

If low caste identity was defined through its fundamental antagonism to Brahminism, its positive force derived from the genealogy of these communities which lay outside (Aryan) Hindu history. In a typically brilliant move, Phule transvalued colonial and national fascination with theories of Aryan conquest to argue that a permanent and irreconcilable hostility between Brahmins and non-Brahmins characterized caste society from its inception. Phule’s definition of history as the history of caste conflict further enabled his recuperation of a valiant Dravidian and Kshatriya history for the downtrodden communities.

And here, Phule privileged the untouchable communities of Maharashtra, the Mahars and Mangs, for putting up the strongest resistance against the Aryan-Brahmin invaders. Phule argued that the term Mahar meant Maha-ari or the ‘Great Enemy’, and that the Maha-ari had been severely punished by the Aryan Brahmins for the resistance. As punishment, the Maha-ari had been banished from society, condemned to poverty, and to feeding on dead carcasses.1 Eating of carrion was the most significant symbol of the Maha-ari’s defeat, and it would become a recurrent theme in explaining the root cause of the untouchables’ degradation. Phule thus recuperated Dalit history as a militant history, accompanied by degradation and defeat.


Early dalit activists such as Gopal Baba Valangkar also argued that the Mahars, Mangs and Chambhars were Dravidian Kshatriyas who fiercely resisted successive waves of Aryan invaders. Valangkar was an active member of the Satyashodak Samaj and after his retirement as an army havaldar in 1886, went on to found the Anarya Dosh Pariharak Mandali in 1890, in the town of Dapoli in Bombay’s Konkan region. In July 1894, Valangkar submitted the first important petition to the Bombay government demanding equal employment and civil rights for the untouchable communities. Valangkar was also the author of a 1888 polemical text, the Vinanti Patra. An extensive critique of caste exclusion, The Vinanti Patra is the first available record of Dalit literature in western India.

In this text, and in the reply to H.H. Risley’s questionnaire regarding the origins and practices of various castes, Valangkar provided an account of Dalit identity that deepened the history of humiliation. To remind the Maha-aris of their continued exploitation at the hands of the Aryan Brahmin invaders, Valangkar incorporated a repetitive structure of degradation and humiliation into his narrative of defeat and argued that the Mahar Kshatriyas had eaten meat to survive the Mahadurga famine of 1396. Again during the peshwai, the lower caste and untouchable communities found themselves facing severe religious exclusion under a Brahminical state. Thus in Valangkar’s account, Phule’s narrative of Dalit degradation assumed a repetitive structure that was reproduced across the historical epochs.


Though the narrative of defeat and degradation remained constant, other aspects of this account underwent important emendation. Written in 1948, Ambedkar’s essay, The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables, challenged the racial theories adopted by Phule and Valangkar, partly in reaction to colonial accounts of caste as another manifestation of racial difference, but also in reaction to the experiences of National Socialism and the Holocaust that defined the changed historical context in which Ambedkar wrote. In his history of the untouchables, Ambedkar extended the critique of Hindu history by introducing Buddhism as a forgotten agent of history, thereby locating religious and political antagonism at the very heart of this subaltern community formation.

Unlike Valangkar, Ambedkar altogether bypassed the necessity of arguing that the untouchables had been stigmatized for their practices, e.g., the adoption of degrading practices such as scavenging, eating beef or carrion. Instead, Ambedkar produced ‘Dalit’ as a distinctive ethical and political community. He argued that the untouchables were a distinct group of Buddhists, the Broken Men, who belonged to a group of wandering tribesmen defeated in battle as nomadic society gave way to settled agriculture. The Broken Men had become dependent on eating dead cattle for sustenance, and later, they were punished for refusing to accept Brahminism by being stigmatized as untouchable. In turn, the untouchables were represented as broken men, degraded, homeless, and fated to inhabit the margins. A destitute, territorially dispersed community of suffering, they were history’s detritus. Locked in an antagonistic relationship to Brahminism from the very start, they were history’s losers who exemplified a crucial space of alterity.

Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in 1956 was thus a return to a religion that he described as an indigenous democracy that had included women, outcastes and royalty alike. A complete rejection of Hindu inclusion, it was also was also a critical effort to remake Dalit selfhood by placing the Dalit self outside the deforming narratives of Hindu history. In this Ambedkar’s actions echoed, even as they effected a significant break from, earlier efforts to use history itself as a form of political and ethical critique.


Within the space of politics – Dalits as minorities: Dalits were a territorially dispersed community of suffering. The critique of caste ideology as well as efforts to narrate the Dalit self had marked their exceptional status. What, however, was the best mechanism for redressing a history of humiliation and discrimination? Is it possible to define a stigmatized and socio-economically marginal community as both equal to, yet different from, other political constituencies? That is, is it possible to equalize the status of unequal subjects even while maintaining their historic or cultural distinctiveness? Indeed this is the more global problem of recognition that feminists as well as other minority groups have encountered. Let’s trace this problem through a brief excursus of the Dalit question, however.

Ambedkar sought to democratize community from within through the critique of political Hinduism, and to democratize community from without by changing the grounding principles on which ‘minority’ was defined. As we shall see, both required working through politicized manifestations of community, or community-as-constituency.


During the 1920s, Ambedkar began arguing that the Depressed Classes ought to be recognized according to a new principle of minority, one capable of addressing the complex and multi-layered nature of caste inequality, whose manifestations could not be neatly divided between religious-ritual and secular domains. Ambedkar’s efforts to represent Depressed Class interests as the class interest of a vulnerable and stigmatized community, tried to move away from colonial definitions of religious communities as political actors, as had occurred with colonial conceptions of the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Rather, it was the material consequences of exclusion – destitution, poverty, illiteracy – that Ambedkar highlighted in an effort to redefine the principle of minority. Increasingly, however, it became clear that untouchables’ negative relationship to Hinduism was the crucial link in suturing together the distinct manifestations of caste inequality.

Ambedkar argued that untouchability was central to the caste Hindu order. From his position as spokesperson for an exceptional community, degraded and yet possessing a latent political power, Ambedkar argued that the untouchables formed the glue of the Hindu order although they were despised and marginalized. The principle of untouchability provided the single point of unification for the touchable but otherwise fragmented Hindu castes. In every other respect, differences of belief and practice fractured Hinduism irretrievably. To locate untouchability, that which was extraneous or supplementary to caste Hinduism as caste’s secret, was perhaps the most powerful attempt yet by anyone to provide a systemic theory of caste. How could this negative principle become manifest when it was precisely its misrecognition that reproduced the caste order? How to make the Depressed Classes visible as a ‘separate element’ whose interests were orthogonal to the Hindu community? We can use a Marxian analogy to argue that just as withdrawing labour power brings the economy to a standstill, what Ambedkar formulated for use as a political weapon, the demand for a separate electorate, was the caste equivalent of a general strike.


Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald’s Communal Award of 16 August 1932 allowed the Depressed Classes a double vote. They could vote for Depressed Class candidates through a separate electorate in areas where Depressed Class voters predominated, and they could also cast a vote in the general (Hindu) electorate. The award thus marked the anomalous status of the Depressed Classes as a degraded Hindu minority, within and without the Hindu community. Why had Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate for the Depressed Classes when other Depressed Class leaders, including his most significant political rival, M.C. Rajah, had shifted away from an earlier demand for separate representation? Answering this question requires that we engage a little further with the political logic of separate electorates.

Ambedkar understood Hindu ideology as justifying a complex form of inequality, characterized by secular and religio-ritual forms of exclusion. Thus if Gandhi (and Congress nationalists) characterized untouchability as a problem of religious inclusion, Ambedkar politicized the putative split between these two domains, and simultaneously questioned the terms of religious and political inclusion to argue that the horizon of emancipation could not be contained within existing social relations. But how was this sophisticated theorization of caste society to be operationalized? The separate electorate appeared to be a procedural mechanism that could enable ‘thick’ results.


By this I mean to suggest that because there was no single procedural mechanism or political form that could respond to the complexity of caste inequality, the separate electorate was an overdetermined political option from the start. By drawing attention to the Depressed Classes as a politically vulnerable non-Hindu community, the separate electorate could also position the Depressed Classes as politically consequential, since both Hindus and Muslims would have to recognize that the Depressed Classes ‘had the power to bring about a decisive shift one way or the other.’2 The separate electorate was a mechanism of (historical) redress because it endowed the Depressed Classes with political value by positioning them as an exceptional community on par with both Hindus and Muslims.

Ambedkar had repeatedly argued, however, that the Depressed Classes were distinguished by material deprivation, by their physical vulnerability, and by their stigmatized status within the caste order. They represented an altogether different principle of minority. This was indeed the political conundrum of Dalit identity: theirs was an identity to be transcended, not reified, but this could only happen by identifying themselves as a stigmatized community. One had to embrace one’s status as a degraded subject in order, simultaneously, to transcend that position.

Instead, Gandhi’s fast-unto-death and the ensuing Poona Pact, by reaffirming the identity of the Depressed Classes as degraded Hindus, also made the problem of untouchability an internal problem for the Hindu community. And here, there was no possibility of democratization, as the Hindu majority, the perpetrators of caste inequality, were being asked to ‘consent’ to transform themselves and forego their caste privilege. So far as Ambedkar was concerned, Gandhian reformism, with a focus on changing the hearts and minds of even the most orthodox Hindu, substituted penitence for procedural equality. It was not until after national independence, in fact, that full political citizenship would again come to be conflated with the reform and secularization of Hinduism.


Dalit selfhood as literary artifact: Gandhi’s intense and life-long struggles with the self were public knowledge. The ‘experiment’ was his improvisational form as he breached the boundaries between private conscience and public life, performing the self as an artifact that was constantly made and unmade. We do not, however, have similar access to Ambedkar’s interiority. This is indeed startling given that we possess autobiographies of other important national leaders. Gandhi and Nehru come immediately to mind of course, as does their reliance on the trope of ‘discovery’, whether it be the mysteries of the body, as with Gandhi, or of the authentic India, ‘Bharat’, which for Nehru was peopled by the simple peasantry rooted to the soil, lacking consciousness of the nation as a whole.

It is not that Ambedkar did not write, or speak to others, about his experiences of exclusion and the ferocity of caste Hindu discrimination. It is, however, a collective self that emerges as the source of literary expression, and it is a Dalit self denied social recognition, which speaks of alienation from the nation-form. Why Ambedkar’s hesitation in writing the self? Is it possible to think of an autobiography of the Dalit community, rather than of the self?


The repeated experience of exclusion from public space was an important element of Dalit narratives. Ambedkar wrote of travelling as a young child, and subsequently revealing his identity to a kindly stationmaster who had assumed he was an upper-caste child, that in turn effected a ‘repulsion’ in the man.3 Ambedkar’s description of the stationmaster’s visceral response to the revelation of his caste identity parallels Fanon’s famous description of racial corporeality, ‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’ In Fanon’s account the disgust and fear induced in the colonizer by the sight of the black body is paralleled by the self-hatred of the colonized.4 Caste identity is, however, different since it is not manifest upon the body, permitting some amount of dissimulation. For instance, Ambedkar’s difficulties in finding housing in Baroda on his return from the United States revolves, again, on counterfeit identity. He identifies himself as a Parsi to secure housing, only to be discovered, yet again.5 The precarious possibilities of dissimulation are constantly threatened by discovery. For the untouchable, as for the coloured man, public conveniences became sites that made them aware of the discriminatory grid of daily life.


If Ambedkar’s self emerges as the product of repeated experiences of exclusion, he was in turn represented as enabling a profound transformation of community. Representative of an earlier generation of Dalits with experience of direct participation in Ambedkar’s movement, Shantabai Dani’s Ratra Din Amhi (1990), Vasant Moon’s Vasti (1995), or even Narendra Jadhav’s account of his father’s life Amcha Baap Ani Amhi (1994), recall the social and political upheavals of the 1920s-1950s. Moon’s depiction of his life, like Jadhav’s father’s, is so closely tied to Ambedkar’s movement as to render self and community as one, held together by ‘Ambedkar’. Indeed Ambedkar’s name accumulates a sort of fetish value as it is repeated, circulated, made to stand in for the man, the movement, and for the Dalit future itself.

It was not until the 1970s, however, that the problem of Dalit self-hood was staged as a problem of literary self-representation, one that overturned traditional ideas about literary form and content. Dalit sahitya, the literature that emerged from this transformative period in Maharashtra’s politics in the 1970s, was deeply identified with the neighbourhoods and the working class ethos of Bombay. Dalit sahitya came to be defined by the often sexualized language of the Bombay slums, and by the disfigurement of literary Marathi. Namdeo Dhasal’s famous collection of poetry, Golpitha, (1972) that focused on the red-light neighbourhood in which he grew up, comes to mind. The progressive Brahmin playwright, Vijay Tendulkar, noted that Golpitha was an object lesson in the desperate material circumstances and the easy exchange of violence and intimacy that saturates Dalit life:

This is the world... of the jobless, of beggars, of pickpockets... Dhasal’s Golpitha where leprous women are paid the price and fucked on the road, where children cry nearby, where prostitutes waiting for business sing full throated love songs...


For upper-caste Marathi readers of the time, autobiographical accounts came to predominate their exposure to Dalit sahitya. Baburao Bagul’s Jevha Mi Jaat Corli Hoti (1963), Shankarrao Kharat’s Taral Antaral (1981), Pawar’s Baluta (1978), and Lakshman Mane’s Upara (1980) focused on narrating the painful histories of Dalit selfhood. Let us turn briefly to Daya Pawar’s autobiographical novel, Baluta (The Share), published in 1978.

Baluta draws upon the quintessential symbol of the Dalit’s humiliation, having to beg for leftover food as baluta, or his traditional village share as renumeration for performing stigmatized labour. Understood more broadly as the Dalit’s share or lot in life, Baluta historicizes the figure of the stigmatized Dalit by locating him within an economy of suffering. The narrator of Baluta undercuts the presumed veracity, the ‘reality effect’ of the autobiographical from the start, characterizing his story as a secret that must not be revealed, perhaps because of the shame as well as the pain that attaches to confronting the (collective) self of which he writes.

Dagdu Maruti Pawar

Who carries as his portion

This baluta of pain

Tied up in the folds [padaraat] of his clothes

Because of the structure of Indian society

I am only the beast of burden

Who manifests his words

His desire was that

No one should be told

I also feel

That we should not reveal this to anyone.8 

Pawar plays on the relationship between secret and revelation instead of celebrating the autobiographical as an authentic act of self-representation. Indeed, Dagdu Maruti Pawar is both a character as well as a concept; he is the secret sharer of Indian society, whose shameful experiences cannot be related without disavowing the pact of caste Hindu secrecy. The problem of Dalit selfhood also requires a transformation in ideas of autobiographical interiority.


Through this brief discussion of different aspects of a genealogy of the Dalit political subject, I wish to make a more provocative argument, and this is to suggest that the Dalit is India’s first modern, democratic subject. Stifled by the regulations of caste, degraded and humiliated, she had to think modernity through democracy, instead of crafting a nativist modernity that countered the colonial masters while falling short of democratizing the illiberal economies of caste.9 And yet, Dalit emancipation remains an unfinished project.

In this brief inquiry into distinct modalities of Dalit emancipation I have suggested that the problem is two-fold – that it is a problem of political rights and social recognition, but also a question of language itself, of how to approximate Dalit pain and suffering. In the process, history, politics and culture are all revealed to be critical sites where Dalit inclusion was rendered problematic, if not impossible. If defining ‘Dalit’ produced a crisis in each of these terrains, it was because Dalit activists and intellectuals – especially Ambedkar – posed the problem of equality not as an abstract thought experiment, but from the embodied space of stigmatized selfhood. Caste subalterns did two things: (i) they questioned the terms of religious and political inclusion, and revealed that the horizon of emancipation could not be contained within existing social relations, and by so doing (ii) they suggested that the experiences of caste subalternity can never be fully encompassed by the enumerative logic of the political majority and minority, nor the ameliorative logic of a reformed Hinduism. If caste, and especially untouchability, is the deep structure of secular and religious configurations of community and nation, can we address India’s political modernity at all without also addressing the subject who inaugurates that modernity – the Dalit?



1. Gulamgiri, Keer and Malshe, p. 72.

2. Bahishkrit Bharat, 20 May 1927, editorial.

3. ‘A Childhood Journey to Koregaon Becomes a Nightmare’ in Writings and Speeches, Volume 12, Part I, pp. 661-691.

4. F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Evergreen, 1952.

5. ‘Back From the West and Unable to Find Lodging in Baroda’, Writings and Speeches, Volume 12, Part I.

6. Cited in S.P. Punalekar, ‘Dalit Literature and Dalit Identity’ in Ghanshyam Shah (ed.), Dalit Identity and Politics, Sage, Delhi, 2001, p. 228.

7. Lit. vatylya, that which is apportioned.

8. Frontispiece, Daya Pawar, Baluta, Granthali, Mumbai, 1993 (seventh edition). The translations are mine.

9. Such an argument challenges extant studies of anti-colonial nationalism’s relationship to colonial modernity, including those perspectives associated with the Subaltern Studies collective.