• Dalit Memory, Imagination and the Nationalist Narrative

    “The danger with the singular narrative is that it plays well into the hands of right wing conservative caste Hindu elites.”

    In conversation with Chinnaiah Jangam

    April 24, 2018

    The Indian Cultural Forum spoke to Chinnaiah Jangam, author of Dalits and the Making of Modern India and a historian specialising in modern south Asian social and intellectual history. In this wide ranging conversation, he speaks on the nature of Dalit traditions of coping with, and resistance, caste discrimination and oppression. He insists on the inclusion of the Dalit narrative in the history of Indian nationalism, and  contextualises Bhima Koregaon in this narrative. He also exposes the appropriation of Ambedkar and Gandhi by the Hindu rightwing, masking their real intentions. In this wide ranging conversation, he speaks on the nature of Dalit traditions of coping with, and resistance to, caste discrimination and oppression.


    Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

    Indian Cultural Forum (ICF): You speak of the strong cultural memory of the dalit community in the past. We recall writer Bama talking about the dalit relationship with the land serving as a bond in the rural areas. What sort of "memories" replace these — if they do — among dalits in urban areas?

    Chinnaiah Jangam (CJ): Historically, Dalits have been denied access to a writing culture. The only way they could retain their culture and identity was through memory — of individual experience and, collectively, as social memory. For Dalits, memory acts like a protective layer, and it manifests itself in two ways.

    First, individual Dalits have to withstand, and overcome, loathsome, casteist, Brahmanical assaults, both physical and mental. They share individual experiences with their brethren and extended families to work out the means to cope with humiliation, oppression, and living in dehumanising conditions. As part of this strategy they weave humorous and rebellious songs, sign language, music and fables which expose the deceptive and hypocritical character of their oppressors.

    Second, the collective memory is narrated and performed by the satellite castes – for instance the Chindus, a “dependent caste” of the Madigas in Telangana. All Dalit castes have dependent satellite castes, and their primary duty is to narrate and perform the history of the patron caste. Satellite castes narrate alternative histories of Dalits countering demeaning Brahmanical renderings. They challenge caste hierarchy and discrimination; they illustrate the degeneration of human lives due to Brahmanism. They trace the roots of Dalits to non-Brahmanical anti-caste egalitarian pasts. Dalit histories in the form of oral traditions, folk narratives and performances subvert the dominant Brahmanical puranas, as also the Brahmanical renderings of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In Dalit Ramayanas, Ravana emerges as the hero from the perspective of the oppressed. So, through individual and collective memory, the Dalit imagination creates a tradition of being anti-caste and non-Brahmanical.

    “Historically, Dalits have been denied access to a writing culture. The only way they could retain their culture and identity was through memory — of individual experience and, collectively, as social memory. For Dalits, memory acts like a protective layer…”

    Urban Dalits are, generally, migrants from rural villages. Their memory of discrimination continues to haunt them. The everyday sufferings of extended families in the rural areas act as an impetus for their activism. Moreover, caste prejudice and subtle humiliations in urban settings seems to be invisible for the non-Dalits but for a Dalit it is an everyday presence, and a source of everyday anxiety.

    ICF: The Bhima Koregaon anniversary complicates the "nationalist" narrative — in this instance, it's the battle against the Peshwas that holds meaning, not the mainstream narrative of the battle against the British. Your comments?

    CJ: This is where my book, Dalits and the Making of Modern India, makes a unique contribution. It challenges and complicates the singular narrative of nationalism in India — we have to see nationalism as a plural narrative. The danger with the singular narrative is that it plays well into the hands of right wing conservative caste Hindu elites. That is why the recent rise of Hindu right in India is able to capture the imagination of ordinary people using the rhetoric of nationalism, even though it has made the least contribution – by way of either ideas or participation – to actual anti-colonial nationalism.

    I argue that mainstream nationalism as articulated by caste Hindus is imbued with Hindu Brahmanical consciousness, and that Dalit intellectuals and activists deciphered that contradiction. Anti-caste thinkers such as Jyotiba Phule, Ambedkar and others across British India pointed out the collusion between colonialism and Brahmanism. For them, both colonial state and the caste Hindu elites represented the same structures of oppression. From the Dalit perspective, the denial of material wealth and mental freedom precedes colonialism; but colonialism embraced Brahmanical structures and was able to rule by assimilating caste Hindu elites in its project. But the social reality of caste and untouchability led to an ethical crisis for colonialism, given its “civilising ideals (Christian ethic and liberal philosophy)”. Since the ideas of the civilising mission were used as ideological weapons to justify colonialism, it had to acknowledge the injustice faced by Dalits. The project of colonialism was not humanitarian, it was a purely an economic power relationship in which Dalits figured in the margins; but still, it had to address Dalit subjugation. Intended and unintended consequences of colonialism included the percolation of education down to the lowest sections of society such as Dalits. Access to education provided new employment opportunities, away from caste occupations and the language of rights. Based on the platform of colonial modernity, Dalits organized themselves politically, and altered the meaning of colonialism and nationalism. The meaning of colonialism is very different for the oppressed Dalits compared to their caste Hindu counterparts. It is in this context that Bhima Koregaon represents Dalit experience — their fight against the oppressive Brahmanical Peshwas under whom they lived as sub-humans. It is in this way that the meaning of colonialism has to be complicated, through the optics of caste experience, which provides an alternative social history of colonialism.

    “The appropriation of Ambedkar [by the Hindu right] is ironical because Ambedkar, as an anti-caste philosopher, argued the annihilation of caste is possible only by destroying the religious and ideological foundations of Hinduism.”

    ICF: The irony of excluding the dalit contribution to anti-colonial nationalism seems particularly sharp in times when the rightwing nationalist narrative is on the ascendant.  Would you agree?

    CJ: It is true that with the rise of Hindu nationalism, the socialisation and imaginative powers of Dalits are being violently contained. But during anti-colonial nationalism, the Hindu right’s nationalist imagination was a marginal force. The dominant nationalist imagination, articulated by caste Hindu elites, was imbued with Brahmanical consciousness; but it stood for a secular and inclusive nation with egalitarian values. They were more receptive and responded to Dalit critiques of nationalist politics, and accepted the Dalit imagination as central to the very idea of India. Otherwise how can we understand the role of Ambedkar in drafting the Constitution using anti-caste ethic and liberal philosophy? The Hindu right, with its covert Brahmanical agenda, is now trying to subvert and delegitimise Ambedkar’s ideas, and obliterate Dalit subjectivity and their role in the making of modern India.

    ICF: Would you comment on the various re-readings — including "appropriations" — of Ambedkar today?

    CJ: Ethically, conservative philosophy stands on empty rhetoric rather than substance. Because of its moral emptiness, it preys on all available ideas and opportunities to further its agenda. No wonder the Hindu right in its political avatar trying to appropriate two seminal figures, B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. The appropriation of Ambedkar is ironical because Ambedkar, as an anti-caste philosopher, argued that the annihilation of caste is possible only by destroying the religious and ideological foundations of Hinduism. In principle and practice Ambedkar is not amenable to appropriation by the Hindu right. As the recent protests and articulations by Dalits across India demonstrated, the Hindu right might have temporary inroads but in the long run it always stands against Dalit welfare and existence.

    In his attempts to appropriate Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi humiliates Gandhi’s ethical principles of inclusion and tolerance. He has no choice but to pretend to be a Gandhian because Gandhi is a global icon of non-violence and acts as a goodwill ambassador to India. The Hindu right does not have any ethical commitment to Ambedkar’s philosophy or Gandhian ideals, but they try to appropriate both because of the compulsions of political pragmatism or global diplomatic goodwill, all the while masking their real intentions.


    Read the extact from Dalits and the Making of Modern India here.

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