From Buddhist texts to East India Company to now, ‘Dalit’ has come a long way
NEW DELHI: Like the much-discussed symbol of their martial triumph over caste Hindus — Bhima Koregaon — even the word ‘Dalit’ has a British link. It was an army officer of the East India Company, J J Molesworth, who mentioned the word Dalit in a Marathi-English dictionary way back in 1831.
It was also used by radical reformer Jyotiba Phule and recorded for contemporary use and for posterity by the British.
JNU sociologist Vivek Kumar traced the roots of the word to further back in history. “Dalit is found in Buddhist text Culluvagga Vinaya Pittaka,” he said.
To many Indians, the word Dalit is inextricably linked to Bahujan Samaj Party. Its founder Kanshi Ram travelled the length and breadth of the country using the term to mobilise the caste base and to unify the community in its struggle for self-respect.
Younger observers identify the word with the volatile debates of the 1990s, when BSP burst on to the national scene in a political assertion, accompanied by harsh attacks on Mahatma Gandhi and his coinage ‘Harijan’.
What Kanshi Ram did was to pit ‘Dalit’ against ‘Harijan’ and dub the latter as patronising and humiliating. “If we are god’s ‘The term ‘Dalit’ is associated with the community’s pride and assertion’
children, are caste Hindus the children of the devil?” he, and his protege Mayawati would repeatedly ask. The message did the trick and Dalits rallied around the blue banner.
To greying heads, though, this was familiar trope from earlier decades when Dalit Panthers first emerged. In 1972, Namdeo Dhasal and his colleagues formed the outfit and the Maharashtra-based group consecrated Dalit in the subaltern discourse.
However, Dalit Panthers and BSP borrowed from over 200 years of history during which the ‘untouchables’ moved from accepting discrimination as fate to fighting for equality. It started with a search for identity away from the one ordained by religious tradition. The community was variously referred to as “asprashya” (untouchable), “antaj” (last born), “antwaseen”
The 19th century revolutionary reformer Jyotiba Phule used “shudras and ati-shudras”, and “Dalit and pat-Dalit” to refer to backwards and ‘untouchables’.
Like Phule, it again took a radical emancipator, B R Ambedkar, to put the word Dalit in currency. In 1935, Ambedkar used the term in a pamphlet to organise a congregation of ‘untouchables’. However, Ambedkar himself preferred to call his community
“Depressed Classes” — that he used regularly during his lobbying with the English for the community.
The 1920s reflected a stress on indigenous roots — ati-Hindu, ati-Dravida, ati-Andhra, ati-Karnataka. A rebellious Manguram Walia in Punjab called the untouchables ‘ad-dharma’. There was also an adi-Hindu movement in Uttar Pradesh.
The dramatic emergence of two national platforms — Mahatma Gandhi and Congress — ensured the Dalit movement changed course. After Gandhi brought out ‘Harijan’ newspaper, Congress became the vehicle to spread the term. At the same time, the 1935 India Act clubbed ‘untouchables’ under a Schedule — and thus was born the label, “Scheduled Castes”.
The term SCs stuck, and spread. But it was officialese, impersonal, bereft of the punch a subaltern identity seeks. But it proved a long wait as Congress went about co-opting Dalit platforms and blunting the radical edge of the movement. Till the militantintellectual Dalit Panthers movement arrived in 1970.
As the Panthers splintered, Dalit movements disappeared. But the irreversible activism in the community sustained the word itself. And then came the BSP and its militant tone.
Source: The Times Of India, Sept 05, 2018