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Pedagogy of Resistance: The Use of Literature in Dalit Struggle

The Dalit literary movement is not simply a literary movement. It is a cultural and social movement, that expresses the aspirations of the tormented, oppressed Dalits.

We need an ongoing struggle…a consciousness that brings revolutionary change…that leads the process of social change. 

-Omprakash Valmiki, Joothan (2003).

Over the past four decades, Dalit literature has emerged as a separate and important genre in literature of many Indian languages. For the first time, Dalits began to write about their lives themselves. For long, they have been written about by others, by anthropologists, historians, novelists and sociologists. Several writings that come under this category have expressed the strong voice of the Dalits, articulating their aspirations to achieve equality. The modern movement for Dalit literature began in Maharashtra with the establishment of the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangh, as an alternative to mainstream Marathi literature. It was inspired by the ideologies of Jyotiba Phule and Dr. Ambedkar.

Several authors expressed Dalit concerns and issues in their writings. Baburao Bugul penned the pioneering collection of short stories Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti (When I Concealed My Caste) (1963) in Marathi, that shook the foundations of traditional Marathi literature in its radical depiction of social exploitation. Subsequently, Namdeo Dhasal, the founder of Dalit Panther consolidated a still growing body of literature. This movement of Dalit literature later spread to several other vernacular languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam, et all. Authors such as Manohar Mouli Biswas, Kalyani Thakur Charal, Omprakash Valmiki, Mohan Parmar, B.N. Vankar and many more have contributed to Dalit literature.

The transformation of the stigmatised identity of these former ‘untouchable’ groups to a self-chosen, assertive identity as Dalits articulates the collective struggle waged over centuries. The word Dalit has a Sanskrit root dal, which means to crush or to grind, it was first appropriated as a noun and an adjective by Jyotiba Phule and B. R. Ambedkar. It signified a political identity, as opposed to a caste one. It expressed the Dalit’s knowledge of themselves as oppressed people and reflected their resolve to demand liberation from a system that exploits them. Arjun Dangle writes, ‘Dalit is not a caste but a realization…related to the experiences, joys and sorrows, and struggles of those in the lowest stratum of society.’

The Dalit literary movement is not simply a literary movement. It is a cultural and social movement, that expresses the aspirations of the tormented, oppressed Dalits. Dalit literature is, rather a pedagogy of resistance, embodying a radically alternate sense of the Dalit self and makes a case for incorporating it in curriculum as an effort to undo hegemonic practices.

 Pedagogy of Resistance, Resistance in Pedagogy

According to Paulo Freire, transformative change is articulated when people develop their power to perceive the way they exist in the world critically and begin to view the world  not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation. In fact, Freire’s writings had roots in his lived experiences.

This could be one of the reasons why autobiography has been a favourite literary style among the Dalit authors. It reiterates the emphasis placed by them on the authenticity of lived experiences. Valmiki’s Joothan presents his experiences of birth and growing up in the untouchable Chuhra caste of Barla, Uttar Pradesh; his struggles to survive this life of perpetual mental and physical persecution, his transformation into a speaker and recorder of the exploitation he endured. His is not only an individual voice, but is also representative of a stigmatised community, whose annals find no place in mainstream Hindi literature. Joothan literally means food left on one’s plate. The word carries connotations of purity and pollution as jootha is equivalent to being polluted. Therefore, the title can be said to encapsulate the pain, humiliation and oppression that Valmiki’s community faced, as he gives a detailed description of collecting, preserving and eating joothan brought from the Tyagi homes. The Dalit narrator relives these traumatic experiences again.

In Advaita Mallabarman’s auto-ethnography Titas Ekti Nodir Naam (A River Called Titas) the everyday lives of the Malo, an untouchable fisherman community, find expression. The Malos faced contemptuous and oppressive treatment from the Kayasthas. Mallabarman believes that his community is not devoid of the voice of protest. However, it is the very lack of institutionalisation of their lives that makes them helpless in the face of injustice. They take on a variety of languages to express their anguish. His report weaves an alternative narrative, that reflects a promise of sculpting the Dalit ideology and glimpses of their lives. In this sense, it represents a literary counter-current.

Limbale’s ‘Akkarmashi : The Outcaste’ is a candid depiction of Limbales’s childhood as a half Dalit- the illegitimate child born of a Patil man and an untouchable Mahar woman. It contains a frighteningly graphic depiction of the wants and woes of a Dalit child. However, what might appear as a sudden transformation of a narrative from humiliation and hunger, to a philosophical and saintly detachment, must not be read as idealizing reality. It brings forth the desires of a better place, a better life.

The Dalit Counter Public 

Anupama Rao analyses the politicization of the Dalit identity and how the transformation of the stigma of untouchability into a vociferously contested political category was intrinsic to this process. Sharmila Rege opines that sociological and activist significance of Dalit literature lies in the fact that instead of having a literary intention, it aims to communicate the group’s oppression, imprisonment and struggle. The novels, autobiographies, literary criticism, short stories, memoirs and poetry penned by Dalit authors may be viewed constituting the Dalit literary ‘counter-public’.

American scholars, like Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner developed the idea of the counter-public, characterised by its contradiction with the socio-cultural structures of the hegemonic Habermasian public sphere and a space for the hitherto marginalised voices. This model of counter-public social space as the site for the creation of an alternate identity and oppositional interpretations of culture and history must be used in our understanding of the Dalit literary sphere.

Indeed, in Joothan, Valmiki demands the upper caste and upper class reader not to forget their privilege. Unlike conventional vernacular or English writing where the caste/class of the reader is consciously forgotten, Joothan’s dual addressivity problematizes the reader’s social position. While Valmiki’s literary jibes, irony, anger is directed at the non-Dalit readers, Dalit readers are seen as fellow sufferers.

Malabarman’s writings reflect his firm belief that human behaviour is rooted in social and cultural contexts of the space they occupy in society. Hence, Mallabarman’s pedagogy expresses the aspirations of a chaturtha duniya or a ‘fourth world’, inhabited by the marginalised and the oppressed.

Limbale’s production of Dalit literature is undoubtedly an affirmative action in direction of protest and revolt. Limbale’s authorship reflects a search for his fractured identity, born of  Dalit untouchable mother and  a high caste. Limbale questions the claim to sanctity and hypocrisy of the upper castes, who go to all extents to impair, derogate and violate the Dalits. Limbale advocates an equitarian society where the voices of his people are not unheard, worse repressed.

Concluding Remarks: Toward a Dalit Pedagogy 

In its vivid description of oppression and exploitation of the Dalits through the use of fiction, autobiography and literary criticism that Dalit authors employ are cultural performances. This way they create for themselves an alternate space and a socio-cultural identity.

There is a need to discuss the content material, nature, scope and method for a new discipline and persuade universities and colleges to introduce ‘Dalit studies’ in the social science curriculum. The making of such a curriculum initiates the process for decolonisation of the mind and of practice. A curriculum for Dalit studies and related issues, must not be confined to just a view from below or as an ethnography of native voices or a subaltern historiography. The making of such a frontier curriculum shall ensure undoing of hegemonic practices. It will equip a learner with skills to become intellectually, economically and politically self-reliant and self-critical. Dalit studies can contribute to making education politically significant by equipping a learner with skills to be free of fear, to enable them to decide on their own and to live a life of dignity, fulfilling the century old dreams of Phule and Dr. Ambedkar.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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