On claiming dalit subjectivity


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It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry, ‘We must do something for the Untouchables.’ One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying, ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu.’ It is invariably assumed that the object to be reclaimed is the Untouchables. If there is to be a mission, it must be to the Untouchables and if the Untouchables can be cured, untouchability will vanish. Nothing requires to be done to the Touchable. He is sound in mind, manners and morals. He is whole, there is nothing wrong with him. Is this assumption correct? Whether correct or not, the Hindus like to cling to it. The assumption has the supreme merit of satisfying themselves that they are not responsible for the problem of the Untouchables.

B.R. Ambedkar


SINCE my initiation into the anti-caste debate following an engagement with Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Samya, 1996) – where he foregrounds his own subjectivity as a sudra golla-kuruma (an OBC) – I, a middle-class heterosexual Tamil brahmin male, have preferred to be critical of brahmins and brahminism and have rarely engaged with or written about ‘dalit issues’. Even in my professional career as a reporter, I have engaged more with brahmin hegemony and issues of brahmin subjectivity rather than issues that concern dalits.1 In doing so, I have, of course, drawn on my reading of Ambedkar, the nonbrahamin critiques of brahminism, and my engagement with the dalit movements.

I have subsequently treated debrahminisation, in the personal and social spheres, as an unending process. Caste identity is not just a question of consciousness; it is a matter of structure, of power. Even if I were to cleanse my consciousness of all ‘caste sentiment’, I would remain – in the eyes of the world – a brahmin. ‘Brahmin’ functions for me not as an originary identity, but as a social location that I cannot exit. Since the identitarian, structural and hierarchical aspects of caste function in a relational, relative sense, I cannot individually or socially cease to be a brahmin. I cannot erase the benefits and privileges that accrue to me from a brahmin birth – one of which is my essay in this issue of Seminar – but can try to use this privilege to interrogate brahmins and brahminism. Since I have charted the trajectory of my undying brahmin self in detail elsewhere,2 I shall not further flog the issue. My objective here, partly in response to Ambedkar, is to point out that ‘the object to be reclaimed’ is the ‘Touchable Hindu’, the nondalit.


In the invitation to write for this issue of Seminar, the contributors were sent an exploratory note which boldly stated: ‘Instead of viewing Dalits as merely a category or an identity that refers to a group of people, a cluster of castes who self identify themselves as Dalits, to the studies of identities, self-respect movements, social justice, equality, power, reservations, and so forth, the familiar tropes of analysis, I wish to propose that the category Dalit represents a "perspective" to studying and understanding Indian/Hindu society and history, recent experiences of colonialism and nationalism, democracy, modernity, and the larger world.’


This proposition disturbed me a good deal and brought back memories of my unwitting, short-lived involvement with the bimonthly journal The Dalit as an editor in 2002.3 With the ghost of my involvement with The Dalit yet to be exorcised, Rawat’s proposition triggered a slew of questions: Can the category dalit merely represent a ‘perspective’? Can it just be a standpoint? Can it be reduced to a theoretical method of intellectual and political inquiry, like say marxism, poststructuralism, feminism or even poststructuralist feminism? A ‘mode of understanding’ towards which anybody can aspire by using certain tools? And what are the tools/ideas/texts that would enable a dalit perspective? Can a dalit perspective be divorced from the experience of being termed an untouchable? What does all this mean especially when dalit does not refer to a homogenous group?

First, we need to understand, if not define, the term dalit. Both popular and academic usage of ‘dalit’ has come to function as a politically correct substitute for Scheduled Caste, harijan, untouchable, Depressed Classes and other antiquated descriptive terms. Yet, it is argued that dalit does not refer to a caste identity; that it in fact refers to those who fall outside the chaturvarna system; that dalit has an emancipatory potential which caste categories like kurmi, madiga or brahmin do not have; that dalit is not a caste, but an anticaste subjectivity. For Ravikumar, not all Scheduled Castes can be termed dalit, but only those who are born into castes designated as ‘untouchable’ can claim the dalit space.

‘Dalit’ is a subjectivity which one consciously chooses by rejecting caste. In Derridean terms, it is an expression of denial. However, ‘dalit’ has been corrupted as yet another term of reference for those who were once regarded as ‘Scheduled Caste’, ‘harijan’ or ‘the Depressed Class’. The term ‘dalit’ denotes ‘caste’ when used by nondalits and is a rejection of caste when used by dalits. Failing to understand this, others see dalits as organising under the rubric of caste.

This begs the question: can we term anyone who disapproves of caste as ‘dalit’? Only victims of ‘untouchability’ can deny the caste system and take on the subjectivity of a ‘dalit’. One cannot become a feminist because one is born a woman. The feminist position is taken up consciously. And only a woman can assume that subjectivity. Similarly, only an untouchable can claim the ‘dalit’ subjectivity. But s/he must also realise that this subjectivity is subject to change. If it is turned into a rigid identity, it runs the risk of being ruined as a caste identity.4


Such an understanding definitively excludes the possibility of those not born into untouchable castes – those who have not experienced untouchability – claiming to occupy the dalit space. Since the ex-untouchables are not a homogenous group, the details of what untouchability entails vary across geography, class and gender. There is room for plurality of experiences and perspectives. Untouchability is not a singular experience; what holds dalits together is the structural fact that they have all been termed ‘untouchable’ and subjected to exclusions of varying degrees, and their rejection of that identity. Dalit, thus, is related to identity, and at the same time is anti-identity (the rejection of the ascription of ‘untouchability’). Ravikumar also argues that dalit is not a permanent state of being but a temporary one; a state determined by the politics of our times.5 He is also wary of the dangers of defining, demarcating and theorising this space. Once that is done, ‘dalit studies’ would emerge as an academic discipline, a ‘dalit perspective’ would become a space that the mainstream can seek to occupy, and ‘dalit’ would settle into becoming yet another approach for an intellectual understanding of the world around us.


Rawat is not alone in positioning ‘dalit as perspective’. In her much-cited essay, ‘A Dalit Feminist Standpoint’,6 – written in the context of the emergence of autonomous dalit feminist groups in Maharashtra and following the call to commemorate 25 December (the day Ambedkar and his followers burnt a copy of the Manusmriti in 1927) as Bharatiya Stree Mukti Divas – Sharmila Rege, a brahmin, argues that such a standpoint is ‘more emancipatory’ and concludes:

A transformation from ‘their cause’ to ‘our cause’ is feasible for subjectivities can be transformed. By this we do not argue that non-dalit feminists can ‘speak as’ or ‘for the’ dalit feminists but they can ‘reinvent’ themselves as dalit feminists. Such a position therefore avoids the narrow alley of direct experience based ‘authenticity’ and narrow ‘identity politics’. (Emphasis in original.)


Conflating ‘non-brahminical renderings of feminism’ with the ‘dalit feminist standpoint’ (DFS), Rege asserts her right to encroach. Her position is of course part of a dissenting trend that resists mainstream Indian feminism’s idea that women can make common cause and speak together across castes, and emerges from a concern with the emphasis on ‘differences’ in feminist politics. DFS is a demand on mainstream feminists to engage with the realities of the caste dynamics of patriarchy and the specificities of dalit women’s oppression. Warning us about the ‘narrowness’ of authenticity-based identity politics, Rege claims that nondalits can reinvent themselves as dalit feminists, which is to say that they can transcend their nondalitness. Such a standpoint refuses to realise that existing identities ‘must be thoroughly understood before they can be either transformed or dismantled.’7 There is a need to realise that ‘identities are not something to transcend or subvert but something we need to engage with and attend to.’8


Extending Rege’s line of reasoning would enable me to claim that it is possible that I, too, as a ‘progressive nondalit’ can claim to represent a ‘dalit standpoint’, what Rawat terms a ‘perspective’. I could even claim to represent a DFS if I assume an intellectually and morally righteous position and reject the ‘narrowness’ of ‘experience-based authenticity’. Such logic, which seeks to divorce experience from knowledge formation, can also be used to claim that nondalits can produce dalit writing. It challenges the reification of experience as a ground for a politically charged knowledge claim; it challenges the claiming of epistemic privilege by dalits, and the ‘authority of experience’ claimed by oppressed categories, thus opening the doors of theorising dalit subjectivity to nondalits. If we view dalit as a subjectivity emerging from the rejection of a stigmatised identity, then we must be wary of the usurping of such a subjectivity by nondalits.

Paula Moya, seeking to salvage identity from both the postmodernist and essentialist onslaughts, says:

The significance of identity depends partly on the fact that goods and resources are still distributed according to identity categories. Who are we – that is, who we perceive ourselves or are perceived by others to be – will significantly affect our life chances: where we can live, whom we will marry, (or whether we can marry) and what kind of educational and employment opportunities will be available to us… an ability to take effective steps toward progressive social change is predicated on an acknowledgement of, and familiarity with, past and present structures of inequality – structures that are often highly correlated with categories of identity.9


In the context of caste society, the question of identity is inextricably linked to issues of representation. Since identity assertion is driven by a quest for equality, for social justice, the question of representation becomes most significant. When nondalits like Rege, Rawat, I and scores of others engage with ‘dalit issues’ with relative ease and equanimity, the space for such engagement is linked to our caste identity; it’s a space we claim/occupy by privilege of birth since ‘goods and resources are still distributed according to identity categories.’ It is the ease with which such a space becomes available that should make us even more self-conscious about the politics and dangers of access.

Therefore, when we seek to delink dalit from experience – deny its ontological significance – and position it as yet another approach to epistemic activity, or of doing politics, the issue of representation can be left unaddressed, as it often is. It can lead to a situation where nondalits can claim to wield the dalit perspective, assume a dalit or even a dalit feminist standpoint, and continue to exclude dalits from this sphere – and this is what happens. Those keen on a purposive, progressive politics must be especially alive to this scenario since it threatens to replicate structures of discrimination and exclusion – in other words, untouchability, as Chandra Bhan Prasad frames it:

Untouchability is such a doctrine that it does not fully liberate even the most rational, most emancipated, progressive-minded person from practising it, howsoever unconsciously. Contrary to the popular perception that untouchability is a ‘social evil’, it is in essence a doctrine of exclusion… if there is not a single dalit who is an editor of a national daily, an anchor on TV channels, or a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry, it is not by accident, but because of the doctrine of untouchability.10


The media, being in the private sector, claims immunity from the state policy of reservation and excludes dalits systematically. In the humanities and social sciences, and the academia in general, the exclusion of dalits in state-funded institutions despite the policy of reservation continues and remains inadequately addressed.11 The burgeoning self- financed research centres – CSCS in Bangalore, CSSS in Calcutta, Sarai-CSDS in Delhi – also do not have a policy of structurally accommodating dalits as producers of knowledge; they do figure as subjects of research for nondalits. After 23 years, the Subaltern Studies enterprise has yet to admit a dalit historian in its charmed circle. Such structured exclusion leads to a significant number of nondalits making dalits the subject of their research and documentation. These nondalits, however, rarely account for – or are made to account for – their own caste selves. The caste identities of most (nondalit) social scientists, intellectuals and journalists remain a matter of conjecture and inference based on surnames, or personal knowledge of a person. Whereas the dalits-as-subjects remain caste-marked, the caste identities of nondalits, and the inevitable and inescapable biases that inhere, are never made available for public scrutiny.


For instance, a recent research article in EPW, ‘Work, Caste and Competing Masculinities: Notes From a Tamil Village’,12 sought to map the shifting dynamics of masculinities among mudaliar men and dalit men in a ‘Tamil village’. The conclusions and theorisations arrived at by the three nondalit authors about the relationship between caste, class and gender among mudaliar and dalit men and women has attracted criticism from Tamil dalit circles. Besides a critique in the Tamil journal Pudhiya Kodangi,13 a response appeared in EPW too. C. Lakshmanan, contesting the methodological, empirical and theoretical claims made by Anandhi et al, points to the problem of the nondalit subjectivity of the researchers: ‘Particularly, when non-dalits articulate dalits’ cultural milieu and their social spheres, they expose their subjective notions.’14 He finds the exercise ‘blemished’ owing to the ‘reflection of the non-dalit subjectivity’ of the authors.

This is not of course an isolated instance of nondalit theorisation of dalit subjectivities, but is one of the few instances where the claims of nondalits have been squarely challenged. Since the article by Anandhi et al draws parallels with the constitution of ‘subordinated’ African American masculinities, it is significant that contemporary white academicians do not go about theorising the tensions of black-white masculinities without making available their own racial subjectivities for scrutiny.15


In another instance of nondalit theorisation of dalit (and bahujan) writing, Aditya Nigam offers a reading of what appears to be the dalit and nonbrahmin celebration of modernity, as in fact being a critique of modernity: ‘The task that I seek to undertake… is to read the dalit movement and its discourse as a text, against its own self-perception, in order to extricate the elements of an epistemology of its critique of modernity.’16 For such a ‘reading’ – which seeks to reduce the dalit engagement with issues to a mere ‘text’ that needs to be understood against its own self-perception – the meaning of the dalit movement and dalit writings is something that has to be ‘extricated’ by a nondalit theorist, a problem that Gopal Guru alerts us to, as we shall soon see.


Says Nigam: ‘It is by now common sense that there has been a considerable investment in modernity and its emancipatory promise among the dalits and more generally, among the many non-Brahmin castes.’ And he seeks to challenge this ‘common sense’ by offering us a reading which makes it appear that Chandra Bhan Prasad, Kancha Ilaiah, Periyar and Ambedkar are in their own ways critiquing the modern through their relentless resistance to the idea of abstract citizenship, the insistence on what was called ‘communal proportional representation’… inscribed in the very heart of dalit and non-brahmin politics from its very inception. The almost life-and-death contestations that took place around this issue and which unrepentant modernists like Nehru and Namboodiripad found so embarrassing, and which eventually found their embodiment in the Indian Constitution, points to the need to examine afresh the various layers of this relationship between the dalits and modernity.17

Where Nigam errs is in his partaking of the brahmanical commonsense that has constructed Namboodiripad and Nehru as ‘unrepentant modernists’. The dalit and non-brahmin critiques – if they can at all be collapsed into a monolithic dalit-bahujan category – hardly ever looked at players such as Namboodiripad and Nehru as modernists in the first place. Chandra Bhan Prasad – the unapologetic modernist who publicly celebrates Macaulay’s birthday – in fact dubs Namboodiripad as an unrepentant upholder of the caste system and characterises him as someone who ‘Hinduised Marxism’.18 The problem, therefore, lies in accepting the dominant brahmanical paradigm of modernity as a given, and then reading the dalit rejection of this paradigm as a critique of modernity. This is not the forum to engage expansively with Nigam’s formulations; but we need to ask: what is Nigam’s subjectivity while offering us this ‘Epistemology of the Dalit Critique’? Is it a marxist, brahmanical or postmodern subjectivity? Where is the need for a non-dalit to offer an epistemology of the dalit critique? Are dalits incapable of constructing an epistemology of their own?


In an incisive intervention, Gopal Guru interrogates the claims of nondalits acting as gatekeepers of ‘theory’ in the realm of social sciences, and offers ‘a moral critique of the intellectual representation of dalit issues.’ Here, he demolishes ‘the theoretical claims that have been made on behalf of dalits by non-dalits.’19 With a unique formulation called TTB – the top of the twice born – Guru offers us a new term to refer to those castes which most social scientists so lazily, casually and insensitively refer to as ‘upper castes’ (internalising the relativist upper-lower binaries as real). Laying bare the intellectual, material, political and moral conditions that deny the dalits-adivasis-OBCs the space that is required to nurture their ‘reflective capacity’, he concludes: ‘Indian social science represents a pernicious divide between theoretical brahmins and empirical shudras.’ Guru goes on to paint a bleak picture of the consequences of nondalits dominating the dalit theoretical space:

In view of the complete lack of theoretical intervention from dalit/bahujan scholars, some non-dalit messiahs have offered to represent dalit/bahujans theoretically. Their claim to fight this reverse orientalism on behalf of dalits looks attractive. It is argued by the TTB that they need to intervene in the dalit situation at the theoretical level only to restore voice and visibility to dalits and ultimately advance the dalit epistemological cause. But this also ends up producing reverse orientalism in a very subtle way. The claim to offer epistemological empowerment to dalits involves a charity element which by definition is condescending… these scholars choose to theorise dalit experience standing outside the dalit experience. This representation thus remains epistemologically posterior. (Emphasis added.)

Three years hence there has not been any serious nondalit response (from the high priests of social science theory) to Guru’s passionate critique. Writing in a special issue devoted to gender in a journal run by the Ambedkar Study Circle in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Swathy Margaret asserts her turf: ‘If we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and our detriment.’20

Guru’s and Margaret’s voices should serve as warnings to enthusiasts like Rege, Rawat, Nigam, myself and scores of nondalits anxious to play ‘progressive’ parts in the ‘dalit cause’, but unintentionally tripping on our own undying caste selves. Rather than using dalit as perspective and denying the task of editing The Dalit or a Seminar issue on dalit(s) to dalits, we would do better to heed Ambedkar’s suggestion and say: ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu.’



* This essay owes a lot to discussions with Ravikumar, the detailed comments offered by Nathaniel Roberts, the response of Meena Kandasamy and the reactions of Ramnarayan Rawat.

1. For an account of my own caste subjectivity as a mediaperson and also for an analysis of caste and the print media, see my ‘Covering Caste: Visible Dalit, Invisible Brahman’ in Practising Journalism: Values, Constraints, Implications, edited by Nalini Rajan, Sage, New Delhi, 2005, 172-198. Also see my Brahmans and Cricket: Lagaan’s Millennial Purana and Other Myths. Navayana, Pondicherry, 2003.

2. See my essay, ‘Notes on my Brahmin Self’ in Insight, July-August 2005, 11-16, available at <http://insightjnu.blogspot.com

3. The hypocrisy was made worse by epistemic charity – my name not figuring as editor in the imprint page for the two issues I had edited. The Dalit folded up in April 2003.

4. ‘The Duty of Irresponsibility’, special address at a workshop organised by Ministry of Social Welfare, Government of Kerala, for young dalit writers in Thiruvananthapuram on 16 March 2005; forthcoming in a collection of Ravikumar’s writings, Venomous Touch, Samya, Kolkata, 2006.

5. Chennai-based Meena Kandasamy, former editor of The Dalit, says: ‘When a dalit writer comments on a water dispute, or cinema, he need not necessarily be exercising his dalit subjectivity.’ Personal communication.

6. Rege in Anupama Rao (ed.) Gender and Caste, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2003, 90-99.

7. Paula M.L. Moya, ‘Introduction’, in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, eds. Paula M.L. Moya and Michael R. Hames-Garcia. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2001 and University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, 9.

8. Ibid., 17.

9. Ibid., 8.

10. ‘Untouchability and its "Hidden" Agenda’, in Dalit Diary: 1999-2003, Reflections on Apartheid in India, Navayana, Pondicherry, 2004, 56-57.

11. See Gopal Guru, ‘How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?’, Economic and Political Weekly, 14 December 2002, 5003-09.

12. S. Anandhi, J. Jeyaranjan and Rajan Krishnan, in EPW Review Of Women Studies, 26 October 2002, 4397-4406.

13. See Ko. Raghupathy, ‘Dalithkal Meedana Arivu Vanmurai’ (‘Intellectual Violence on Dalits’) in Pudhiya Kodangi, June 2004, 15-17.

14. ‘Dalit Masculinities in Social Science Research: Revisiting a Tamil Village’, Economic and Political Weekly, 6 March 2004, 1088-09.

15. An engagement with recent debates surrounding black masculinities in the US clearly shows a predominance of African American interlocutors – male and female – rather than whites theorising black subjectivities. For instance, feminist Cora Kaplan has ‘the distinction of being the only contributor who is not African American’ (p. xi) in the volume Representing Black Men, eds. Marcellus Blount and George P. Cunningham, Routledge, New York and London, 1996. Kaplan demonstrates how the liabilities of ‘turf protection’ can be worked through, to an extent, when the writer approaches the ‘other’ from a cultural critique of her own subject position. In ‘A Cavern Opened in My Mind: The Poetics of Homosexuality and the Politics of Masculinity in James Baldwin’, Kaplan bases her analysis of Baldwin’s representation of racialised genders and sexualities in a personal engagement with his work as a ‘left-wing, middle-class, white woman.’

16. See ‘Secularism, Modernity, Nation: Epistemology of the Dalit Critique’, in Economic and Political Weekly, 25 November 2000, 4256-68.

17. Ibid.

18. See ‘To the Editor, NY Daily Tribune’, in Dalit Diary, 31-33.

19. ‘How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?’, Economic and Political Weekly, 14 December 2002, 5003-09.

20. Insight, March-April 2005, 3.