"Go, Get Education
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work—gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animal without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You have got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste."
Savitribai Phule, (January 3, 1831 – March 10, 1897)
We recently celebrated the 180th birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule and this makes for a good occasion to reflect upon Dalit literature and its political outcomes. Savitribai Phule was a social reformer, a Dalit feminist poet, and played an important role in fighting against the exploitation and deprivation of women. Tiffany Wayne, author of Feminist Writings from Ancient Times to the Modern World has described Phule as "one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists, and an important contributor to world feminism in general, as she was both addressing and challenging not simply the question of gender in isolation but also issues related to caste and casteist patriarchy."
Savitribai was the first woman in Indian history who, along with her husband Mahatma Phule, not only preached education of women but practiced it against great odds and even threat to their life by orthodox Hindus. Phule and Savitribai started educating women by challenging the prevailing cultural ethos which prevented the education of women and Shudras. Their pioneering work in educating women to my mind is a distinctive phase of Dalit literature. Some of her well known poems are: "The Plight of Shudras", "Go Get Education", "The Greatest Wealth", and "Rise to Learn and Act". Two books of her poems were published posthumously, Kavya Phule (1934) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1982).
Mahatma Phule and Dr Ambedkar translated their ideology into a political struggle—which should be the ultimate aim of any ideology.
Dalit literature has its origins in the exploitation of Dalits and symbolises a quest for equality and a rational attitude towards the problems of society. The exploitation and persecution of Dalits was sanctified by irrational religious dogma propagated by the Hindu orthodoxy. Thus, challenging this persecution necessitated taking a rational attitude towards society's problems. In this sense one can say that the teachings of Bhagwan Buddha can be counted among the first pieces of Dalit literature.
The thought that taught rebellion against exploitation was started by Bhagwan Buddha and later continued by Nanak and Kabir in North India and Sant Tukaram and Sangam literature in the South. However, this medieval period literature was reformatory and not revolutionary.
In modern times, the writings of Mahatma Phule and Savitribai were instrumental in again bringing major shift in the domain of Dalit literature. Mahatma Phule critically analysed the history of India and with irrefutable evidence established that Shudras and Ati Shudras are original inhabitants of this land and thus rightful owners of resources. He glorified shrama (labour) which is a basic requirement of economic growth. He devised very effective ways of spreading his literary work through the oral traditions. Powada (ballads) and Kalapathak (stage performance) were immensely popular among the weaker section, particularly Dalits in rural Maharashtra. He revolutionised the life of Shudras and Ati Shudras and his writings formed the roots of modern Dalit literature.
Mahatma Phule and Dr Ambedkar translated their ideology into a political struggle—which should be the ultimate aim of any ideology. The most decisive phase of Dalit literature was symbolised by the work of Dr Ambedkar who adopted Mahatma Phule as his guru (teacher). Dr Ambedkar was a true scholar who researched extensively about the Buddha's teachings and wrote a masterpiece TheBuddha And His Dhamma. He laid down in this book a very revolutionary way of life for Dalits—he propagated the equality, liberty, fraternity inherent in the Buddha's teachings. This writing of Dr Ambedkar translated into a socio-cultural revolution for Dalits. His act of embracing Buddhism with more than half a million of his followers was one of the greatest revolutionary phases in India. This event also symbolises a revolutionary act by Dalit to throw away shackles of Hindu tyranny and was the most practical outcome of Dalit literature.
The Buddha And His Dhamma... translated into a socio-cultural revolution for Dalits. [Ambedkar's] act of embracing Buddhism with more than half a million of his followers was one of the greatest revolutionary phases in India.
Dr Ambedkar's insistence that education is the only way to liberate Dalits and his efforts to establish several education institutions galvanised Dalits in Maharashtra and elsewhere in India. It also unleashed a new phase in Dalit literature. The new generation of Dalits, educated in institutions started by Dr Ambedkar, started critically analysing society and the place of Dalits in it .This resulted in a strong movement of Dalits, backed by literature giants such as Shri Raja Dhale and Shri Namdeo Dhasal in the mid 60s in Maharashtra. It was action-oriented and resulted in strong resistance against atrocities faced by Dalits. It later led to a movement called Dalit Panther which had a militant overtone although it was democratic in its ethos.
Mr Raja Dhale and other Panther writers openly and aggressively challenged caste discrimination and were ready to fight out the issue with right wing outfits like the Shiv Sena. Unfortunately this movement had political hues and was divided cleverly by the privileged section—this led to the demise of one of most decisive phases of Dalit literature, which nonetheless did leave a big impact on the minds of Dalit youth.
This phase witnessed rise of many Dalit writings by people such as Shri Waman Ohal, Daya Pawar and Laxman Mane. All of them addressed the ground reality in Hindu society in general and the condition of Dalits in particular. This was in contrast to the prevailing trend in Marathi literature which brushed social issues under the carpet and concentrated on romanticism or phony nationalism. This writing galvanised the life of Dalit youths and also led to social churning and at times tension.
The literature of these leaders and writers imbibed Dalits with a spirit of enquiry and made them understand that education was the only means to achieve progress.
There was a new wave of Dalit literature, concentrated to journalism, that spread the message of rationality. It invoked the constitutional machinery to alleviate problems faced by Dalits. It stressed the government to uphold the spirit of the Constitution.
Dalit literary representations have often challenged the writings of upper caste writers, which are located in the discourse of pity and sympathy.
The impact of the writings of Dr Ambedkar resulted in an effective movement started in Maharashtra by Late Shri Kanshi Ram by organising government employees from the Scheduled Castes, and which was later on embraced by the Dalit masses. Dr Ambedkar's message was truly implemented by late Shri Kanshi Ram who first started an association of Dalit employees, BAMCEF, and thereafter converted it into a political party known as the Bahujan Samaj Party. This was the first time in the history of India that Dalits captured political power, which was the logical aim of the works by Dr Ambedkar. The writing of Dr Ambedkar and the resultant political actions made Dalits politically literate and active, and made them vocal in asking for political space in Indian democratic society.
In the post-independence era, there has been a surge of Dalit writing. Many non-Dalit writers undertook scholarly and literary work addressing Dalit matters. However, while their writings touched upon the problems of untouchability and caste discrimination, they did not adequately represent the serious and fundamental issues plaguing Indian society. The non-Dalit writers only advocated minor reforms and adjustments and largely favoured the continuation of the existing unequal social hierarchy.
This biased representation has led to the emergence of Dalit writers and literature. The Dalit writers represented a clear awareness of belonging to a distinct literary culture and society in their writing (Tomar, 2013). Dalit literature today is aimed at creating an egalitarian society using constitutional methods. Unfortunately, the quest for political identity is absent because of fragmented society and the shameless opportunism of so-called leaders, who are more concerned with office positions than ideology. This is in sharp contrast to the strong ideological foundation at the time of Dr Ambedkar. Perhaps the educated class failed Dr Ambedkar and this has resulted in more atrocities against Dalits in all spheres of life.
[Dalit writers] are openly political because they pressurise the boundaries of what is considered as ''being literary'' in order to fight against unfair and degrading social customs.
The distinctiveness of Dalit literature lies in its confrontational nature. Dalit literature is not only an outcome of changing social consciousness but is also a symbol of revolt against the hierarchical regime which stands against the rights and freedom of Dalits. Dalit literary representations have often challenged the writings of upper caste writers, which are located in the discourse of pity and sympathy. Thus, the growth of Dalit literature arises out of the need for creating an identity for themselves and also the emergence of Dalits as a political entity.
Dalit literature narratives are, therefore, distinctive—they break many elite literature rules because they call for a new kind of experience. They are openly political because they pressurise the boundaries of what is considered as ''being literary'' in order to fight against unfair and degrading social customs. It is thus obvious that the Dalit literary movement based on the grounds of social oppression led by Savitribai Phule, Dr. Ambedkar, and others was marked by a sense of revolt and a great struggle—we owe them a lot for all their efforts for a caste-less society.
*The author is a retired bureaucrat and a Dalit rights activist. Views expressed are strictly personal.