The importance of a Dalit Consciousness' in Dalit writings


The importance of a Dalit Consciousness' in Dalit writings

(In commemoration of the Dalit History Month, we will be revisiting our archives with articles on the question of Dalit identity, politics and history throughout April. In this piece from September 2006, Shivam Vij the Indian middle-class anger against reservations for Other Backward Classes. More articles from the series are here.) Hindi Dalit literature’s moment has arrived. After years of obscurity and unflattering comparisons to the maturity and expressiveness of Dalit literature in languages such as Marathi and Tamil, creative Dalit writing in Hindi is finally reaching a more visible level of popular recognition.

Hindi Dalit novels, autobiographies, short-story and poetry anthologies, as well as volumes of literary criticism, are today being regularly published by Delhi’s top Hindilanguage publishing houses, Rajkamal and Radhakrishna Prakashan. Dalit writers infuse the pages of Delhi’s top Hindi literary magazines, such as Hans and Katha Desh, with their poetry, prose and political perspectives. And in January, for the first time, a Dalit writer working in Hindi, the Delhi-based author Ajay Navaria, will participate in the international Jaipur Literature Festival.

With the growing shift of Hindi Dalit literary voices from marginalised spheres of ‘alternative’ social discourse to more mainstream platforms, Hindi Dalit literature is quickly becoming deeply embedded in the changing cultural politics of modern India.

The importance of a Dalit Consciousness' in Dalit writings

But it is wrong to think of Dalit literature as speaking in a single voice in the Hindi literary and political landscapes. In what might be best categorised as the Hindi Dalit literary sphere, there exists a plurality of people, life experiences, literary voices and perspectives that often find themselves at odds with one another when trying to fulfil the demands of a mainstream audience for a recognisable, ‘authentic’ and even ‘digestible’ Dalit literary voice. There are fissures within the Dalit literary sphere, situated along the fault-lines of gender, geography (urban and rural) and class, which create a vibrant and vital field of debate over the strategies of ‘writing resistance’. The idea of a ‘Dalit consciousness’ is a central concept in both the creation and evaluation of Dalit literature. This is the Dalit chetna, an experiential and political perspective made up of the firsthand knowledge of caste-based oppression and atrocity, along with the political goal of a liberating awakening that results from the exposure of this atrocity as central to the maintenance of caste hierarchies.

Yet the realities of overlapping identities of class, gender and geography among the writers of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere necessarily complicate any simplistic or conclusive framework for an ‘authentic’ Dalit literary perspective. What results is a process of marginalising within the margins themselves – rendering, for example, women’s and urban-dwelling, middle-class Dalit narratives somehow less authentically ‘Dalit’, at least for those writers and readers who privilege male-centred and rural Dalit stories as most expressive of Dalit chetna.

As a consequence, there are a number of writers in those very margins pushing back against this singular centre, creating a vibrant space of debate that rethinks critical aspects of Dalit identity, literature and socio-political resistance. The heightened exposure of Hindi Dalit literature has been the result of a gradual buildup over just the past few years. In August 2004, the Hindi literary monthly Hans dedicated its annual special issue to Dalit literature, titled “Satta-Vimarsh aur Dalit” (Dalits and the Discourse of Power). The issue provided a high-profile platform for bringing together numerous and varied voices of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere; and, in a sense, presenting both the writers and critics of this literary universe – and the issues that matter to them – to a more broadly mainstream audience. The issue, guest edited by Navaria and the Delhi-based Hindi Dalit writer and critic Sheoraj Singh Bechain, featured interviews, essays, short stories and poetry by many of the most prominent and prolific authors of the sphere, including the Delhi-based Chandrabhan Prasad, Mohandas Naimishray, Jaiprakash Kardam, Mata Prasad and Rajat Rani Meenu, as well as Dehradun’s Omprakash Valmiki.

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