Criminalization of Dalit Thought and Action

dalit ambedkar

Assertion of Dalits and consciousness that began flowering in the second half of twentieth century was not to create submissive Dalits to any force of oppression. Its intention was very clear. Dalits said out loud that they had enough. They declared out loud that from then on, they would fight for their rights, dignity, history, culture, power and property. The monopoly on the resources, thought and action that was maintained from the Vedic times to the 19th century had to face the challenge from the Dalits who for such a long time endured the life of nothingness. Time for Dalits has begun. Nobody can stop. Nothing remains unchallenged forever. So is the slavery of Dalits and domination of the upper caste over their thought and life. Prior to nineteenth century, there were Sudras/Dalit who lost their lives in the process of fighting their rights. But from nineteenth century, coming of the missionaries and the European colonizers have directly and indirectly assisted Dalits to fight for self-liberation from the restriction on thought. Liberated mind produces reasoned thought and that would produce organized action. Pre-modern Dalits who were made to believe that he/she ought not think, limited their natural rationality for generating survival knowledge, producing culture of their own and for producing technics of production of their own. But he/she made sure that such a thought would not get in conflict with the laid out social norms or entered into the sphere of knowledge that is reserved for the upper caste. In other words, Dalits were forced to be ignorant and innocent by the Manu’s restriction on thought till nineteenth century, despite their knowledge production on material production and their independent culture proved that they are second to none in cultivation of thought. In other words, Manu made sure that Sambukhas and Ekalavayas would not pose threat to the monopoly of the Brahmins over knowledge. But after the external progressive elements liberated Dalit mind from Manu’s restrictions, the Dalit mind simultaneously focused on thought and action. Both went together. Their thought targeted superstructures of discrimination and their actions provided physicality to their thought in the form of challenging and breaking oppressive traditions and building a fresh. This brought Dalits with direct conflict with upper caste who began to sense the dangers of relationship between Dalit thought and action. Scared of public acceptance of Dalit thought and action as they both are reasoned, the upper caste began to criminalize both as the anti-religion, anti-culture and anti-social.

How dare are you to think the unthinkable, how dare are you to question the unquestionable, how dare are you to challenge the unchallengeable and how dare are you to do the undoable. This is still the inner voice of the upper caste who for reasons of civilizational standards not able to say it out loud. From thought to the action, the chronology of challenging the hegemony troubles the upper caste. To counter this, at various levels, counter measures are generated based the context. If it is village, even submissive Dalits would be remined of their limits. Even accidental ‘violation’ of the caste norms would not be forgiven. Moreover, it would be seen as an opportunity to remind Dalits of the position and guarantee that they would remain so in future too. The rural India uses violence, threats, boycott (socio-economic and cultural), blocking flow of essential material and the traditional justice delivery institution like panchayat to keep Dalits in control. Here, thought of Dalits would not be trouble for the upper caste/caste Hindus because Dalits engage with thought within the restricted caste norms. However, during last four decades, the rural Dalits are getting networked with the semi-urban and the urban Dalit platforms of promoting consciousness, fighting for justice, dissemination of Ambedkar thought, resisting discrimination and fighting for natural rights is on the rise so is the backlash. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of the rural and semi-urban networks of Dalit organizations and association by the Dalits working as teachers in schools, colleges, government offices and retired employees. The last category though in their sixties are quite active and providing visibility through their gatherings, discussions and participation in justice seeking protests so on. This network of Dalit educated and employed connecting the victims of caste violence of the rural India with urban India’s Dalit educated-activist-intelligentsia network. So, the semi-urban conscious Dalits, in the last four decades have emerged into not just as the network of dissemination of thought of Dalit ideologues of the past centuries but they also began to understand systems of discrimination at individual and community level and such an understanding resulting in the generation of narratives and interpretation of discrimination, building the means, methods and culture of protest, developing alternative culture and making efforts to write their history to build identities and arguments to fight for justices.

If Dalits are liberated from the restrictions of the thought, first conscious Dalit could focus on understanding structures of discrimination. At this stage, the upper caste/caste Hindus would find problem with the thought process of Dalits as long as it is not translated into discourse, debate and physical action. In fact, many uneducated Dalits in rural India would have the ability of understanding the politics of discrimination/oppression. That is to say that they being uneducated caste minority in the rural India does not stop them from thinking about how they ended up becoming untouchables, poor, powerless and dependent on the upper caste. Apart from this, some of their elder’s memory of caste oppression and repercussions they a result of young Dalits immediate responses to upper caste/caste Hindu atrocities also a thought process that calls for reasoned response. The ‘matured’ Dalit elders of the village always controls the radical thought process of the young educated Dalits to reduce physical attacks and caste animosity. For the elders, caste system, their social position, their role in the culture of the village and their parallel existence is normalized life as they and their ancestors lived such a life. However, the young educated away from the elders of the villages, in colleges, universities and other institution of education employment are independent to some extent and also comes under the influence of the learned urban Dalit intellectual   

New Sites of Thought and Action

Reservations in education and employment from 1950s, allowed young Dalits to shift into a new site which earlier dominated by the upper caste alone. Unlike their village and semi-urban forms of violence, discrimination and humiliation, Dalits would come across an environment that is completely new but in course of time, they realize that the sophisticated forms of discrimination and humiliation are worse than villages. At these two different spheres, government employees organize themselves into organizations and associations to fight against injustice in the hands of the upper caste colleagues placed above them and educated in the colleges and universities organize themselves too to address immediate concerns and, most importantly, they sharpen the thought process as they study caste, religion, social reforms, economy and politics in the universities. Despite being in different spheres as educated and employed, their common identity, of course, bring them together and share experience with each other. While the Dalit employees share their experience with the intellectual Dalit, the later would theories the experience of the earlier. They reciprocate with each other in this fashion. The emergence of Dalit intellectuals, in considerable numbers, after perhaps two decades of the implementation of reservations, becoming a challenge for upper caste monopoly of thought, knowledge and structures of power.

Dalit educated organizing and Dalit intellectual acquiring the ability of theorization are in fact problematic to the hegemonic structures in the long run. Phule, Savitri, Fathima, Sahoo Maharaj, Ambedkar, Ayyankali, Nangeli, Ayothee Thass during colonial times have done primary but considerable damage to the foundations of oppressive caste, social norms and religion.  Most of what was expected by ideological fathers from the new generation of Dalit intellectuals was not only began to be fulfilled but also, they are growing as mass and continuity in theorization of the life of Dalits is suffocating the upper caste. This would generate an anger that cannot be publicly displayed in physical actions or also cannot be translated into a verbal tirade. It is in this context, the upper caste uses their prowess to generate sophisticated methods of humiliation, discrimination, domination and monopoly. Since they still have hold on power, politics, educational institutions, law and order, legislative, executive and judicial spheres, media and property, their efforts of evolving sophisticated forms of discrimination would not face any blocks. In fact, they all, in different spheres of power, work together as members of a ‘secret society’ to reciprocate with each other.

When the degree of Dalit consciousness is bearable, the upper caste would adopt the attitude of the wait and watch along with sophisticated methods of discrimination and suppression. If the degree of Dalit consciousness is higher and unbearable that targets the foundations of Hinduism and caste, then the upper caste invokes all its channels to work against Dalits. This reaction from upper caste acquires aggression and in urban sphere and violent attacks on Dalits in the rural sphere.  The upper caste sets limits for the reaction of Dalits to their discrimination and humiliation. They have to react and respond within those limits. In the process of criticizing the discriminative structures, Dalits intellectuals are allowed to point out or ‘attack’ (critical of) the peripheral or residual imperfections in the Hindu religion. However, from 19th century to today, the slow progression in the degree of Dalit consciousness break those limitations and responds aggressively as intellectuals as well as justice seekers. Dalit intellectuals, apart from producing knowledge on Dalit history, politics and culture, they would also participate in the justice movements. The young Dalit educated, apart from getting education, they, with assistance and guidance of the Dalit intellectuals agitate for justice. In both cases, thought and action goes together.   

This engagement between thought and action, naturally expand and would eventually annihilate the caste and dump the religion. If eighteen percentage of people part of Hinduism breaks away from caste and religion, it would cause irreparable damage to the foundations of the both. It was this concern which was called as Gandhian Paranoia stopped breaking of Dalits away from Hindu religion. His hypocritical anti-untouchability campaign convinced some Dalit leaders of colonial times to trust him. But Ambedkar was not to fall into his plans. Continuation of his legacy by the Ambedkarits has been putting pressure on the custodians of the culture and religion who would never lose their social positions, culture, religion and history would do all that they can to stop the spread of Dalit consciousness. The upper caste has resources and means to counter the growing consciousness as anti-social, anti-culture, anti-state, anti-nation, destructive and so on. Those who involve in developing these narratives to present consciousness Dalit as some of sort of criminal knew that they are doing it on purpose despite knowing that such a criminalization is unfair and the so called social, state and nation are still unfairly remaining anti-Dalit. Dalits are still not part of the Hindu social. It is the Hindu social that dominates the state and nation. Therefore, obviously for the upper caste, the submissive Dalit is unproblematic and conscious Dalit is criminal.   

Dalit intellectual, by nature, would be aggressive and radical in their reaction to the atrocities and discrimination. But the Hindu social and state (political Hindu) would want Dalits to locate their anger and response within in the frame that is acceptable for the upper caste or at the most in Gandhian non-violent frame. In the earlier, the victim seeks justice from the culprit. Here, Dalit has to take what is given. In the latter, the victim has to beg for justice by not angering the upper caste and troubling the society. Given the monopoly of the upper case over these two, Dalits have already come to a conclusion that both these methods do not work. But using other methods would brand Dalits as criminals. Yet, Dalits seems to have no option but to adopt Phule-Ambedkar-Periyar radicality in their intellectual traditions and ‘break-burn-dump’ in activism. Ironically, the upper caste people intentionally not only blind themselves to see how they have been nurturing the age-old anti-Dalit socio-religious-cultural criminality but also shamelessly involve in developing more dangerous methods discrimination which could be done by lumpen intellectual criminals. To camouflage their criminality, using the support of the state and its institutions, they make efforts to criminalize Dalit intellectuality and activism.

Unfortunately, India as a nation, from the day it born, is under the control of the cultural majority and it started deciding the future of the nation. Congress at the helm of the affairs was not doing enough either in controlling casteist forces or in controlling cultural majority. For the religious and caste majority, dominating and discriminating the caste and religious minority became a birth right. Unity in diversity has always been a hypocritical formula to camouflage the real color of the cultural/caste majority. Hindus have always remained dominant. Earlier Dalit mobilizations have already challenged the domination and exposed the hypocrisy

Compared to the earlier, the current mobilization is much stronger, wider and witnessing the participation of large-scale Dalits. It is also getting the support of Marxist parties and organizations and the support of the religious minority like Muslims. Neel (Dalit) -Lal (Marxist) -Green (Muslim) emerged as caste-class-religious progressive solidarity formulation to counter the onslaught of the radical right-wing on Dalits, Muslims, and ideological minorities. However, the Dalit mobilization alone has acquired pan-Indianness. The current according Christophe Jeffrelot, current mobilization of Dalits is simultaneously happening in various states. Increased percentage of educated Dalits contributed to this pan-Indianness. However, one could observe a visible gap between the North, South and North East. Dalits across regions have commonality in suffering but they do not have a common language communicate. Even if the regional leaders speak to people of particular region in their own language, Dalit educated, intellectuals, political leaders, lawyers and activists must adopt English as the langue for connecting Dalits.  Dalits failing to take English language as means of communication is a biggest hurdle to pan-Indianness of Dalit movements. Victimhood is promoting Dalitness and Dalitality. Yet, if there is a common language that can bridge the gap across the regions.

Dalit intellectuals in colleges-universities-research institutions-NGOs-independent scholars-literary personalities forms into a formidable intellectual community that is capable of theorizing Dalit experience, creating witness on atrocities on Dalits, producing counter narratives and writing fresh histories and leading successful movements of justice. This, some time, was dependent on the upper caste progressive elements but now seeking independence from them too, it declares that it had reached vantage point. Therefore, they argue that they do not need the non-Dalit intellectual to theories Dalit experience and write their histories. They oppose the appropriation of Ambedkar and Dalit studies which is commonly called as colonization of Ambedkar. Since the educated would also organize and agitate, for Dalit intellectuals, it becomes natural to do all the three together. Not all of them, of course. There are typical careerist Dalit educated who think like an upper caste and start criminalizing the educated-organized-agitated Dalits. They maintain a visible distance from the so-called troublesome Dalits who are not serious about studies. Ironically, they take the side of the upper caste in the institutional set up who believe in the concept that educational institutions as sacred temples of learning and their pristine holiness needs to be maintained. Such an ‘unconcerned and submissive Dalit educated’ though less in number, their parallel existence works against the conscious Dalit and demoralizes them in their fight against discrimination and fight for justice. They are mainly drawn from urban and very less from rural.  However, their submissiveness would not go waste. They would quickly climb up on the ladder of career as they are not considered problematic. But the conscious Dalit would get into troubles almost immediately. In colleges and universities, Dalit intellectuals and students apart from questioning the discriminative policies and strategies of administration, they extend their criticism to larger policies of the government. Questioning is natural right in democratic country. But the people holding control of these power structures still believe that they are rulers of the caste empires (institutions and government) and the Dalits are showing the courage of questioning the unquestionable. Out of such an anger, the custodians of caste empires, given their access to power, generate methods of criminalizing both the thought and action of Dalits

The Bhim Koregaon Episode

Bhim Koregoan is site of pride, dignity, valor and action that offers an opportunity to Dalits say out loud that they are second to none in courage and valor. Perhaps, there were such episodes in the history of pre-modern as well as colonial India. Not much of it was written. When identity of the nation is built on the exclusive histories instead of the composite, Dalits who have already realized that their history is entangled in myths, marginalized and wiped out by the religious, casteist and elite historians, they would make every to effort to liberate their history from myths, bring it from margins into mainstream and restore the wiped out afresh by retrieving every minute piece of evidence for their history. After the victory of British East India Company’s Mahar contingent of around 800 soldiers against around 20, 000 Maratha Peshwa army near Pune on January 1, 1818 at Koregoan, Maharastra, British built memorial, Phule brought the incident into history, Ambedkar visited in 1927 and turned into site of celebration of Mahar valor and history and from then on Dalits are annually celebrating it as such. As long the Mahar history was not read as victory against Marathas, the Koregoan memorial was not seen problem. But the raise of Brahminic Hindutva that builds not only it’s identity as a superior community but also wish to form the base of the identity of the nation on its history and culture. With such an agenda, it creates history and culture. Any opposition to its promotion and propagation would be viewed seriously. Positioning the Bhim Koregoan history, memorial and its commemoration against Brahmins ruler and nation/nationalism is a conspiracy to criminalize the history of Dalits. However, the present Koregoan case where most of the serious Dalit and progressive non-Dalit intellectuals’ part of the 200 years commemoration of Koregoan victory on 1st January 2018 cannot be seen as single and unconnected incident. The anti-Dalit anger was building up from justice for Rohit movement in 2016. Increasing presence of Bhim Army, Jignesh Mevani’s Una movement, Celebration of Mahisasur in JNU against Dussera and the spread of Asura celebration in North-West-East tribal areas and general anti-RSS-BJP discourse by Dalit intelligentsia have all contributed to criminalize the Bhim Koregoan and its history. Of course, the sheer size of the event that could be read as the mood of conscious Dalits sent shock waves to the upper caste. 

The increasing presence of Dalits in social sciences and literature and proliferation in publishing houses focusing on the history of Dalits and culture, increasing counter to the dominant intellectuals, production of counter narratives which are posing threat to the hitherto dominated upper caste narratives on religion, history and culture, immediate justice seeking reaction to the atrocities and discrimination of Dalits and also increasing levels of consciousness among Dalits that is resulting in the development of mass organizations such as Bhim Army  have been troubling the upper caste dreaming to establish Hindu Rastra for some time. Celebrating Ravana against Ram, Narakasura against Sathaybhama and Mahisasura against Durga Devi is an organized counter by Dalits-Bahujan-Adivasis to a culture that is bound to be same for everyone. The Dalit Bahujan audacity of rejecting Ram and celebrating Ravan would not only pose danger to a package of Hindu culture that remained popular for so long but also exposes the upper caste literary, social and cultural criminality that destroyed and marginalized the history of pre-Aryan Nagas and Dravidians. In fact, a counter narrative to mythological texts is already underway which is troubling them. If the counter acquires continuity, the age-old culture would collapse and criminality would be exposed. It has to be stopped. This is what explains the criminalization of the Koregaon and Dalit leaders and intellectuals’ part of it. Creating, countering and celebrating history of Dalits is not new for Dalits. But it’s intensification causing discomfort.  As long as Dalits remain passive consumers of history, it would not be problem.  Ahistory of Aryans is historicised and the history of historical Naga/Dravidians is mythicized. Liberating the history from the myth allows Naga/Dravaidian Moolvasis and Dalits an opportunity to build their historical identity. Their thought would focus on theorizing Dalit experience and building historical and cultural identities and their action apart from focusing on questioning and challenging the superstructures of discrimination, also contributes to the process of creating democratic, scientific, rational and humanistic traditions which would treat everyone equally. Therefore, neither their thought nor their actions have any element of criminality. Their thought and action would eventually lead to the creation of just society.

Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao (Srisri),M.A,Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of History, Bharathidasan University 



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