“We [Dalits] are still always asked, where is your literature, art and culture?” said Anita Bharti, the president of the Dalit Lekhak Sangh as the association of Dalit writers commemorated 25 years of its existence on the day India celebrated 75 years of its Independence. The Dalit Lekhak Sangh marked its silver jubilee with a day-long national conference on August 21 on the theme “Dalit Sahitya, Kala aur Sanskriti: Loktantra ke Aiyine Mein” or Dalit Literature, Art and Culture: Through the Prism of Democracy.

The conference marked a vital moment in the contemporary history of the Dalit movement as it critically reflected on the legacies of Dalit assertion and affirmation and laid particular emphasis on the radical possibilities of “breaking the caste system through literature”. While Bharti’s opening remark outlined the critical provocation for the conference, the entire event in Delhi was a consummate response – and counter – to Brahmanical charges that question the authenticity of Dalit-Bahujan existence or continue to define them in terms of a negation, as a void, an absence, a nullity.

The event affirmed that “Dalit literature is in essence Ambedkarite literature and Ambedkarite literature is ultimately Dalit literature”, as Ram Chandra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University argued in his opening remarks.

Members of the Dalit Lekhak Sangh. Current president Anita Bharti is third from left. Credit: Nikhil Pandhi

In his keynote address to a packed hall of over 500 participants, Chauthiram Yadav, a veteran academic and scholar of Hindi literature, argued that Dalit literature is the sterling legacy of BR Ambedkar. Importantly, through its key emphasis on exposing caste(ism), Dalit literature today has truly become an anti-caste canon, which needs to be critically researched, amplified and studied, not merely worshipped.

“To respect something is critically different from worshipping it [pujna], deifying it [bhagwan banana] and becoming its blind devotee [bhakt banna],” said Yadav. “Especially in the times we live in, there is a greater need to look at Dalit authors, writers and their literature through the lens of equity [aankhon mein aankhein daal kar dekhna] and neither look at it with vengeance [aankhen dikhana] nor turn one’s eyes away from it [aankhen churana],” Yadav added.

For the Dalit Lekhak Sangh, the Ambedkarite foundations of Dalit literature can be traced to the 22 vows, or pratigyas, Babasahab Ambedkar took on October 14, 1956, in Nagpur, when he formally renounced Hinduism and adopted the path of Buddhism.

In his vows, Ambedkar summarily rejected Brahmanical-Hindu modes of worship and their everyday hierarchical incarnations. Ambedkar’s critical belief in Buddha’s dhamma is wrongly, if Brahmanically, assumed to indicate a narrow adoption of “religion”. Instead, dhamma itself is a capacious term, which includes one’s civic duties, commitment to community-wellbeing, individual ethics and a belief in equity as the guiding principle of everyday justice.

In the same way, Dalit literature today is a “movement that insists on transforming hierarchy into equity” and equally rescripting the literary language of violence (with its erasures and obfuscations of Dalit-Bahujan experience) into the language of karuna (compassion) and maitri (affinity/friendship).

BR Ambedkar in 1950. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In its critical emphasis on the everyday lives of Dalit-Bahujan women, including the subjectivities and struggles of Adivasis and their indigenous ancestors, as well as the natural world, Dalit literature truly makes the annals of literature democratic. Far from how it is parochially imagined in a Brahmanical framing as the literature of pain (vedna) and perpetual sadness/suffering, Dalit literature, art and culture have – right from the 20th century till today – emerged as the vehicles of “chetna” or critical consciousness and reckoning.

In its commitment to the voices, stories and histories of Dalit-Bahujans, Dalit literature thus galvanises India’s most marginalised castes and classes to demand and claim lives of dignity. This chetna, for the Dalit Lekhak Sangh, is the true Ambedkarite elixir worthy of being celebrated today as opposed to the overbearing proclamations of amrit kaal, the caste-blind era of nectar, foisted upon India by the Brahmin-Bania echelons.

At the August 21 conference, scholarly reflections and presentations critically analysed a range of Dalit autobiographies, poems, short stories, plays and literary archives especially in the Hindi language. Equally, the conference was also a space to share stories that force a radical reckoning with the underlying caste-ridden structures and Brahmanical foundations of India at 75.

For example, one story, which became the subject of intense discussion went thus: When Babasahab Ambedkar was young, a boy of five or six in school, the teacher asked the class to answer a riddle: “What is it, which one can see but cannot ever touch?” Among the boys who sat in the front rows – reserved for the Brahmans and savarnas – one said, “The sun!”, another said, “The moon!”, yet another said, “A bird!”.

When the teacher turned to Ambedkar, who was sitting in a corner reserved for the “untouchables”, he responded: “That pot of water in the corner of the classroom, which I can see but cannot touch.”

Such stories, which blur the boundaries between fable, fiction, memoir and collective memory – and draw from Ambedkar’s lived experiences – also unravel the grisly genealogies of caste violence in contemporary India where nine-year-old Dalit boy Indra Meghwal was beaten to death by his upper-caste school teacher for allegedly drinking water from his pot.

As the conference participants put it: India has become independent, but the pot of water is still enslaved within the caste system. Such stories are crucial for unravelling the flawed nature of decolonisation, which did not emphasise the debrahminisation of Indian history, society, polity and culture.

Credit: Nikhil Pandhi.

In the context of democracy, Dalit literature is truly an exposition of the Ambedkarite vision, which affirms that to annihilate caste, we first need to acknowledge it, name it, identify its nuances, recognise its everyday humiliations and its persistent ability to naturalise inequity. Equally, the conference pointed out that the future of anti-caste literature cannot be outlined without recognising the depths of its humanistic history.

The ancestors of Ambedkarite Dalit literature can be recognised in the Buddhist Shramanas, Theras and Theris; the literatures of the Siddha and Natha traditions; Kabir; Phule, and equally include contemporary interlocutors like the Dalit Panthers, Adivasis, intersectional minorities and today’s Dalit-Bahujan sisters and brothers.

In this context, associations like the Dalit Lekhak Sangh have a vital role to play in society at large.

“Associations must encourage dialogue [samvaad] and engagement [between Ambedkar and Dalits; between anti-caste discourses locally and anti-discrimination discourses globally; and also between Dalits and other caste groups],” said Ratan Lal, a leading anti-caste historian. He was recently arrested and released on bail in connection with a social media post on the Gyanvapi mosque case.

Lal called for learning to identify the “conspiracies of Brahmanism”. “If we assume that everything is Brahmanical (as Brahmanical culture wants us to believe), then what is really ours to claim?”

He noted how Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals and students in Indian universities today need to also actively research, document and study the nuances of savarna society, in relation to which they have always been defined as “cultural enemies”. “Any association that functions as an insular gang ultimately becomes incapable,” said Lal.

The conference was also a forum to undertake a critical interrogation of Dalit literature itself (atmalochana) – a reflexive exercise that can unleash its true anti-caste potential.

“In the terrains of a democracy, Dalit literature cannot merely be an island,” said Kavitendra Indu, a leading Dalit academic, scholar and commentator. According to Indu the essence of democracy, right from the days of French Revolution, rests on fraternity. “And to build fraternity Dalit-Bahujans must ensure that the walls we built for ourselves at a particular point in history [to guard against external expropriation and appropriation] don’t end up incarcerating our own today.”

For Indu, imagining the future of Dalit literature requires questioning the tendency to uncritically fetishise “experience” [anubhav-vaad] at the expense of history, social science and the imagination. “There is still very little scholarship, academic or otherwise, on Dalit literature,” he said. “Writers mustn’t make experience a carte blanche for writing anything and passing it off as Dalit literature.”

Another aspect that was intensely debated relates to the literary and moral momentum of Dalit literature as critique. It was pointed out that Dalit literature today must be imagined capaciously and not only through the narrow prisms of protest and resistance. While there are those who stridently oppose Dalit literature from espousing the Gandhian ideal of non-violence, the stakes of this position, the conference pointed out, are complex as Ambedkar himself outlined and stood for constitutional values.

A vendor sells portraits in New Delhi on April 14, 2014, the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. Credit: Reuters.

The intersection of gender and sexuality in the experiences of casteism was also underlined especially to highlight the complexities of caste in everyday life. Rajani Anuragi, a leading Dalit-feminist poet and academic from Delhi University, said that the home and family is the one sphere where Dalit women have still not attained democracy.

Anuragi began by quoting a poem by the late anti-caste Dalit-feminist, Rajni Tilak, Hum Yuddh Nahin, Buddha Chahte Hain – We want the Buddha, not battles or war. “A Dalit woman never wants war, because in reality hers is the body, which is at the core of Brahmanical society’s caste wars,” said Anuragi. “Hers is the body that is injured and debilitated the most grievously by hetero-patriarchy.”

Priyanka Sonkar, a young Dalit-feminist writer, academic and activist who teaches at Banaras Hindu University, said that Dalit literature shows what a democracy truly ought to be. “A relentless process that doesn’t shy away from interrogating its own roots,” she said.

It was also argued by Dalit-feminists in particular that notwithstanding the need to define itself as an anti-caste counter-canon, Dalit literature must equally guard against a narrow-minded exceptionalism. “Buddha and Ambedkar always emphasised, ‘Don’t blindly believe my every word!’, test it upon your own life first,” added Anuragi.

Less than two decades ago, Dalit literature was considered to be nothing more than “khandit vimarsh” (fragmented/polluted discourse), opposed vehemently by progressives, Leftists, Marxists and the right-wing in equal measure.

Now, it forms the embodied grammar of an “asmitavadi vimarsh” (humanistic/anti-casteist discourse) whose resonances are unquestionably global. The Dalit Lekhak Sangh’s silver jubilee conference truly outlined why Dalit literatures need to be heralded as the radical preamble to a New India.

Nikhil Pandhi is an Ambedkarite queer-feminist researcher and anti-caste translator. He is currently a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Princeton University. His book-length translations of contemporary Dalit-feminist literature from Hindi to English are forthcoming with leading Indian/international publishers.