" Democracy was
also a great narrative and not merely a monolithic kind of democratic participation."

Report On Regional Conference, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad December 29-30 , 2007

Dalit Resource Centre (hereafter DRC), a nascent unit of Manav Vikas Sangrahalaya, successfully organized on its campus a two day workshop on 29th – 30th December 2007 around the theme “Dalit Public Sphere, Popular Literature and Social Change” under the project ‘Dalit Popular Booklets, Democratic Participation and Dalit Public Sphere: A Project for Research, Documentation, and Advocacy’. Many Dalit and non-Dalit writers, journalists and social activists of the Hindi speaking belt especially UP, MP, Rajasthan, Delhi and Bihar, participated in this workshop.

Literature, with its power to sensitize society about the deprived and disadvantaged sections of the population, is one of the most potent media for the creation of an ideal society. Unfortunately Indian literature, barring those produced in a few regions of the country, is spectacularly silent about Dalits, who are among the most vulnerable communities of the country. Yet, Dalit cultural and literary works develop a significant critical intervention in the thinking and writing about Indian society, history, culture and literature. Dalit literature is marked by revolt, since it is closely associated with the hopes for freedom by a group of people who as untouchables are victims of social, economic and cultural inequality. Dr. Ambedkar, through his examination of Indian history, mythology and the sacred texts of Hinduism made a powerful case for a distinct Dalit identity. He associated Dalit literature with a movement to bring about change and revolution in the Dalit community and his works enabled future generations of Dalits to assert themselves as subjects rather than as passive objects through political activism and literary writings.

The Dalit’s subaltern status is inherited from birth and is sanctioned by the sacred authority of the upper castes as eternal. The inevitability of their condition from which there is no reprieve in their real life is expressed by them through their literature and culture. These literary and cultural productions that mirror their pain and anguish strongly impact on the emerging social consciousness, which in conjunction with various other factors that have come into existence, is gradually loosening the stranglehold of Brahmanism and feudalism. Another important fact is that Dalits themselves are no longer ready to be silent victims of the deprivation to which they have been confined for centuries. Dalit literature has created its own tradition with social reformers like Buddha, Kabir, Phule, Ambedkar and Achhootanand as its signposts. Dalit Literature means writing about Dalits by writers with a Dalit consciousness. This literature narrates the sorrows, tribulations, slavery, degradation, ridicule and poverty faced by Dalits. Dalit life is excruciatingly painful, charred by humiliating experiences. Yet the experience of oppression does not imprison Dalits in eternal victimhood; rather it is then used by this community as a tool to mobilise themselves against the cruel and inhuman social order which supports caste-based discrimination. Dalit literature transforms an experience of pain into a narrative of resistance. Recognizing the centrality of human beings, their literature is thoroughly saturated with human joy and sorrows. It regards human beings as supreme and leads them towards total revolution.

Dalit writers have used these narratives as a form of political assertion for carving their own space in the public sphere and for reassertion of control over the construction of Dalit identity. This is especially important because Dalits have always been excluded from participating in mainstream public debate. Through this literature the writers have devised a way of uniting with a larger community to create a powerful group that can be used to fight against caste discrimination. Thus, pain, whether experienced as humiliation, as exclusion, or as actual physical violence, serves a similar purpose in their narrative, that is to expose the prevalence of untouchability, which is otherwise ignored in the public discourse. This pain has prompted Dalits to take recourse to writing and producing Dalit popular booklets for their political mobilization on a large scale. This phenomenon is however also visible in the whole of north India, especially in the Hindi-speaking domain. The outcome of this situation has been the re-creation of dissenting culture by the Dalits of all these states that has encouraged the sharing of the liberating ideas among Dalits of these states. Their experiences of humiliation, exclusion, or actual physical violence, all serve a similar purpose in their narratives, which is to expose the contemporary occurrence of untouchability that is otherwise ignored in the public discourse. These narratives have also helped in extending the Dalit public sphere since they have helped to rope in the marginalized Dalit communities within the overall Dalits into the democratic processes of the country. Further both the Dalit public sphere-in-the-making and the overall Hindi literary domain of the country have been democratized by the generation of a Dalit discourse that has reached out to the mainstream discourse. In this process an enduring base has been provided to the Dalit and non-Dalit public to articulate their experiences and attitudes. By exposing the existence of untouchability they try to construct the real identity of Dalits. For the Dalit readers of this literature, pain serves as a uniting thread. For the non-Dalit readers, reading about this pain arouses a feeling of shame and hopefully motivates them to change themselves.

Through these literary works Dalit popular writers are trying to help their people who are battling simultaneously on several fronts, to emerge out from this situation and acquire self-respect. With the help of poems, novels and other forms of literature that glorify Dalit history and culture as distinct from the meta-narratives, they are trying to communicate their agony and pain to their fellow brothers. Though Dalit emancipation still remains an unfinished project but the theoretical underpinnings for carving out paths for liberation are being discovered.

Objectives of the Conference
The primary objective of this conference was to create a network of Dalit and non-Dalit writers, journalists, scholars and social activists from the states of UP, MP, Rajasthan and Bihar, though the focus of our project is UP where the cultural situation is different from that in the other states. Another objective of the conference was to generate a corpus of knowledge on the emerging Dalit public sphere and to study the impact of Dalit identity assertion on the democratic processes of the country. The conference served both to sensitize society towards the multiple pains experienced by the Dalit communities, e.g. physical atrocities, social injustice, dishonour etc., and to discern the attitude and nature of reaction of the Dalit population to incidents of harassment and humiliation meted out to members of their communities by mainstream society. Through this process the ardent desire of dalits for acceptability, liberty, and equality in society was also elicited.

The conference probed a few vital issues related to the construction of identity in Dalit communities, such as, how do Dalit writers define Dalit identity through their poems, short stories, etc? How to equalise the status of unequal subjects while maintaining their cultural and historical distinctiveness? What are the circumstances that provoked physical torture, social injustice and psychological dishonor of Dalits? What are the reactions of Dalit population to such humiliation and harassment inflicted on them? Which type of role the booklets and their writers will play in sensitizing both the Dalits and non-Dalits? How will these booklets shape the Dalit vision? How do these Dalit writers define dignity of a person and community through their poems, short stories? How can they create a harmonious social environment for establishing self-respect and dignity of the downtrodden? What are the obstacles in the way to overcome humiliations and structuring of Dalit identity?

First Day of the Conference, 29th December, 2007
The first day of the two-day conference i.e.29th December, 2007 began with the inaugural session. The lamp was lightened by chief guest and famous critic of Hindi Literature, Shri Mudrarakhshasha, Lucknow. Prof. Pradeep Bhargava, Director, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad welcomed the eminent guests. This session was presided over by Shri Amarkant, famous writer and recipient of Sahitya Academy prize. He was honoured by Prof. Bhargava and all eminent guests on behalf of Institute. During his welcome address he opined that every community wants to keep its identity intact. When the resources of any community are snatched in the name of social order or a community is deprived of opportunities; either it becomes emotionless and accepts this deprivation as its destiny or dissent against it. The Dalit Resource Centre is trying to analyze different dissenting traditions of these deprived communities. Now their struggle is not for commodities but for establishing independent identity, for creating a new arena. One’s intensions while writing should not only be focused on creating identity but should also endeavor to create democratic consciousness. GB Pant Institute is working for the establishment of cohesive social condition where equal human status will be established on rational arguments not on status. He requested all the eminent participants and academicians to give their suggestions to create and strengthen public sphere.

Dr. Badri Narayan, Project Director in his introductory address added that creation and expansion of the Dalit Public Sphere that is underway all over the country in the recent past is the most effective means for increasing the participation of Dalits in democratic processes. The process of creation and expansion of the Dalit Public Sphere is being precipitated by the large number of Dalit Popular Booklets that are written by educated and aware Dalit writers. These booklets are the instruments for disseminating emancipatory ideas among grass root Dalits, motivating them to fight for their rights that had been denied to them by the upper castes for many centuries, and encouraging them to participate in the democratic processes of the country. The phenomenon of producing such booklets is much prevalent in North India.

In order to formulate strategies to strengthen the democratic participation of the Dalits and to create an interaction between Dalit writers and society, DRC has already successfully organized four village conferences. The network of grass root level educated dalits is now serving as a base for this second level gathering at the regional level. This second stage will be further extended to the third level i.e. national level conference that is planned to be held towards the end of September, 2008.

Shri Sanjeev, a prominent literary figure and executive editor of the Hindi magazine Hans, received the Kabir Chetna Samman, 2006. Kabir Chetna Samman is given by Dalit Resource Centre every year to a literary Magazine which is dedicated to the cause of the deprived. Shri Mudrarakshasha honoured him on behalf of the Institute.

Shri Amarkant, in his presidential address said that all literary efforts and even the Dalit movement would be meaningless if there is still a group which is deprived of basic amenities. Dalit literature should not only work for arousing sympathy but it should also work with the aim of establishing its ideology and its identity with a pragmatic approach. He opined that there is no dearth of talent in the Dalit society and their literary works will go a long way in redeeming the self respect and esteem of Dalits in the society. The Dalit popular writers should decide their path on this platform.

The theme of the First Session was Progressive Popular Literature, Dissent and Social Change. It was presided over by Shri Sanjeev, executive editor of Hans, New Delhi. Shri Sanjeev said that it was a privilege for him to be a part of the occasion. Hans has a great literary tradition which has proved to be a milestone in the realm of Hindi Literature. The magazine has also been striving hard for the empowerment of Dalits and women, which was why they had agreed to publish a special issue centered on Dalit popular literature. He confessed that it had been a challenge to publish the popular literature of the Dalits in Hans and he had received many negative comments over that particular issue. According to him Hans only provided a platform for popularizing Dalit writing among the general readers; the real credit should go to Dalit Resource Centre for trying to make it a part of mainstream literature. Though Hans has a tradition of supporting the cause of deprived sections but that particular issue took the effort further by attempting to understand the newly emerged progressive and revolutionary popular Dalit writing. Mainstream literature should accept it as a counter current and should analyze it without any prejudice. When a Dalit who has seen the real images of poverty, exploitation, violence, and unbearable human sufferings writes about his experiences his scale of aesthetic and his approach will be totally different from a writer who merely imagines them. But Dalits should be vigilant regarding the impact of the force of their literature and should harness it to combat the unequal structure existing in society through nonviolent means.

Dr. Devendra Choubey, JNU, New Delhi, added that this popular stream is carving a new identity for Dalits. However the need of the hour is to determine the conceptual depth of this popular literature. Only if it is strongly grounded conceptually will it have an effect on the mainstream literature and compel it to embrace popular literature in its fold. Dalit popular literature has a unique kind of simplicity, receptivity, acceptability and communicability and it is astonishing that writers of such literature used to sell their writings at cheap prices. At the time when the trend of writing Dalit popular literature began however this was understandable since the endeavor of the writers was emancipation of their community through their own cultural resources and not establishing a new literary genre. But today Dalit politics has overpowered mainstream popular literature and forced it to take notice of Dalit literature. The literature of the Dalits published in Hans would definitely compel general readers to contemplate on it.

Shri Mudrarakhshasa held that Dalits should adopt a broader vision and should accept the mainstream as an associate and not as a negotiator of the Brahmanical system. The ongoing Dalit movement needs the support of both the oppressor and the oppressed. He condemned the Dhamrashastras for projecting a narrow-minded notion of the status and progress of human beings. In the same vein it was grossly unfair to say that the Dalit popular writers were uneducated because persons who were successfully binding a community could not be uneducated in the real sense. It was imperative to acknowledge the innovative energy of these writers. Dalit is one who is a SARVAHARA, trampled on all fronts. He said that he has been trying to provide words to the choked and suppressed voices of the Dalits. He acknowledged that he started writing take revenge on society.

Shri Kanwal Bharti, a well-known Dalit writer, Rampur, while speaking on the occasion, deliberated that Dalit literature has become a literature of revolution. Though social change was not explicitly mentioned in popular literature but the whole ideology was to change the system. It was not against any particular community but aimed to awaken the people of its own community from their slumber. He confessed that this literature had made him a renowned writer and he is now engaged in uplifting his own community and society. Dalit popular literature had evolved into a distinct stream because of its distinct ideology and revolutionary consciousness. Shri Bharti congratulated Dalit Resource Center for taking the initiative for providing a respectful place to this popular literature which should be called a neo-awakening revolution. He also conveyed his thanks to the magazine Hans for stimulating society by printing the literature that would awaken the slumbering society and evoke researchers to work on such writings. This would greatly facilitate society to move towards an egalitarian and just system.

Dr. Badri Narayan concluded the session by saying that literature is a flowing stream and may be in the coming days this popular literature will turn into the mainstream while the present mainstream would move to the periphery. He added that only this radical, innovatory and dissenting force can dismantle the existing uneven system.

The Second Session was around the theme Role of Popular Booklets in Creating Dalit Public Sphere. This session was presided over by Shri Budhsharan Hans, Dalit writer and publisher, Ambedkar Mission, Patna. In his presidential address he appealed to the mainstream writers to accept this literature with an open mind. This literature first needs to be accepted and acknowledged by mainstream literature and only after it has constructed a strong platform for itself through the support of mainstream litterateurs will it be ready to be critiqued. According to him this literature serves as a weapon designed and developed by the writers to challenges the cultural hegemony of the upper castes. Shri Budhsharan narrated that once he had conducted an experiment to test the receptivity of these booklets by offering them for sale at marriage and death ceremonies. Surprisingly, they were widely sold at both the places. Shri Budhsharan insisted that writers of this literature did not want to win prizes, honour and recognition but wrote for the sole purpose of elevating the awareness of grassroots dalits.

Prem Kumar Mani, famous Dalit writer from Patna expressed his opinion that dissent does not need written language. It is capable of communicating its emotion through art and culture. He shared a painful experience from his childhood which was that once, motivated by his teacher he recited all the shlokas of his Sanskrit book and started using sandal mark on his forehead. However due to this act he incurred the wrath of the upper castes of his village who beat him vigorously for copying Brahmanical rituals in spite of being a backward. He was disillusioned by Brahmanism and wrote his first book Manusmriti ki Shav-Pariksha and started his journey of assertive writings. According to Shri Mani people who are striving for revolutionary change do not care for popularity, and are ready to tolerate negligence and pain.

Rajaram Bhadu, Social Activist, Jaipur, appealed to writers to feel the pain of this dissenting tradition. Dalits consider themselves as weak and dare to speak only in their own community but when they gain confidence from their expressions then they start asserting. He opined that a new stream has emerged in the form of Dalit biography. It is not only the story of a particular person but a painful narration of the whole community. According to him there should be decentralization of knowledge for its dissemination and the subjugated should improve their status through education. However they should not substitute the oppressors but should struggle for the rest of the Dalits with a critical approach. Only then will the liberation of the entire Dalit community be possible.

Second Day of the Conference, 30th December, 2007
The second day of the programme i.e., 30th December 2008, began with the morning session whose theme was Humiliation and Dalit Writing. This session was presided over by Shri Mudrarakshasa.

The first speaker was Shri Ratan Kumar Sambheria, a well-known Dalit story writer, Jaipur, who opined that although there is a well-known proverb that ‘literature is the mirror of society’ but Dalit literature should work as a lamp to enlighten society and not as a mirror. It should enlighten the Dalit consciousness to show the path of emancipation.

The next speaker Shri Premchand Gandhi, Dalit journalist, also from Jaipur, said that popular literature plays a tremendous role in awakening the masses. But writers of such literature should be cautious that it should work only for identity formation and not to create disharmony. In his opinion such literature should have clear philosophy, vision and aim.

Shri Premchand Gandhi was followed by Shri Bhanwar Meghwanshi writer, publisher and Dalit social activist who said emphatically that these small booklets are small in size but not in ideology. Because of their dedication to ideology they work as catalysts in society. They had a great role in precipitating many revolutionary activities and were very helpful in bringing awareness among the Dalit masses.

The last speaker Dr. S. Chaudhary said that Dalit literature would be long-lasting and innovative only if hypothesis were present in them. They should be able to transmit strength in the souls of the readers. According to him small booklets fulfill these preconditions. Though they had materialistic limits but they were not limited in vision. They were accessible to the whole community.

The second session of the second day was presided over by Prof. Ajay Tiwari, JNU, whose theme was Cultural Actions, Critical Consciousness and Dalit Struggle. Speakers of this session reviewed the impact of Dalit literature and how the Dalit writers through their poems, novels and other forms of literature are trying to arouse consciousness of their community members.

The first speaker Shri Virendra Yadav said that establishment of a Dalit government in UP was the result of the struggle started at the time of the Poona pact in 1932 for participation of SCs in the decision making processes of the country. But in the euphoria of being in the driving seat the issues affecting grassroots Dalits should not be neglected. The direction of the Dalit movement will decide the overall position of Dalits. He emphasized that the changing art-forms should be accompanied with changing revolutionary thoughts.

The next speaker Ashok Anshuman said that Dalit public sphere is the space occupied by the Dalits in the broader public sphere. He warned the Dalit writers that their cultural creations should not be limited only to entertainment but should work for social change. The struggle for Dalit identity should not convert into Dalit casteism but should be a device for mental revolution. He also expressed his opinion that the content of progressive cultural movement across the country should be filled with Dalit consciousness and Dalit issues should also be associated with national and international issues. Alongside the Dalit movement should also expand its horizon. The Dalits should not ask for a space in history but should reconstruct history from their view-points.

Prof. Ajay Tiwari said that a movement can turn into a revolution only if it is capable of igniting the souls of the people. Popular literature is capable of fulfilling the hopes of people, acting as a catalyst and creating a mental revolution in society. Marxism has to a large extent succeeded in transforming the social structure of our country. In the same manner popular literature has given birth to a new society named Sarvajan Samaj. He further added that division of society on the basis of caste and religion is only option to maintain an symmetry in society so instead of discarding any particular religion, we should work for establishment of an equalitarian society.

The last speaker of the session Dr. Panna congratulated the Project Director Dr. Badri Narayan and DRC for selecting the issue of deprived for their research. But the issues affecting dalit females should be given more attention because they are oppressed on many fronts. She cautioned that a person who neglects his dissenting power and his power of expression in quest of a beautiful life cannot progress. When a society looses its dissenting power it becomes like the incurable disease AIDS. So Dalits need to explore their right place in society with the help of the interventionist activities initiated by the DRC.

The third and final session of the second day was on the theme Journey of Popular Booklets. The first speaker Shri Guru Prasad Madan, famous Dalit writer based in Allahabad said that the literature being transmitted through these booklets is trying to help Dalits to emerge from their humiliating situation and acquire self-respect. These booklets are written and published by the Dalits themselves as their alternative voice. The process began in the colonial period and is still underway in the contemporary time. Through these booklets the writers are contributing immensely in the direction of Dalit knowledge production, struggle against hegemonic domination, and socio-political mobilization of Dalits.

Shri K. Nath, famous Dalit writer from Kanpur called upon mainstream writers to feel the pain of the community before criticizing Dalit popular literature on the grounds of language and aesthetics. Only then would they be able to understand the essence of Dalit literature. He had written a number of books to express his own sufferings like ‘Tiraskar’, ‘Mere Gao Ka Kua’, ‘Jati Apradh’, etc. He reiterated that his efforts to sensitize people will continue till people move to the streets demanding right to justice and equality. He claimed that as a born revolutionary he was full of hope and enthusiasm to purge society of injustice and atrocities and pledged to continue his struggle even in the face of atrocities. All his efforts were directed towards awakening the slumbering Dalit masses to assert their right to freedom, equality, and respect.

Shri Baudhhacharya, another famous Dalit writer from Allahabad stressed that a society is living only if it can respond to humiliation; if not it is dead. Popular literature is the expression of the response to this humiliation. Only sufferers could feel and associate themselves with this pain. However this literature was not intended to humiliate others. He felt that experiments such as the present one of bringing together mainstream writers and Dalit writers on a common platform would go a long way in not just extending the Dalit public sphere but also the participation of a larger number of Dalits in the democratic processes of the country.

Shri Trisharan, famous Dalit writer and publisher, Basti said that there were many Dalit writers who try to publish their writings with their own resources. They barely manage to install a printing machine in their houses, which were in very dilapidated conditions. Such Dalit publication centres could also be in tiny rooms that were hired for very small amounts and often found in those localities of cities that were unapproachable by any regular mode of transportation. Obtaining access to these centers was in itself like a walk on a tightrope. In such conditions one should not expect the publications to be of very high quality.

Shri A.R. Akela, famous Dalit writer and activist, Aligarh, opined that people who don’t know to defy are blind while those who don’t dare to open their mouths against injustice are dead. The Dalit popular writers could be often seen conversing in their local rural dialect, sometimes educated to such a little extent that they could barely manage to read and write. The question then arises why such a class is interested in writing these booklets and what drives them to spend money on their publication. According to him the motives of these writers and publishers were to spread social consciousness and not to earn profits.

At the end of the session the Director of the G.B. Pant Institute Prof. Pradeep Bhargava offered vote of thanks to all the participants and the audience.

On both evenings of the conference cultural activities were organized in the auditorium of the institute. On 29th a Kavita Goshti (Poetry Recitation) was held in which writers were requested to read out passages from their booklets and recite poems and songs to the audience on the existing social inequality perceived by them. Since most of the writings of the authors of Dalit popular booklets emerge out of their own experiences of the socio-cultural milieu in which they interact and were linked with their own existential questions, the reading of extracts from their own creations gave the listeners a local context. Some of the Dalit writers who read out their poems and writings on the occasion were Guru Prasad Madan, Ram Adhar ‘Aadhar’, Dheeraj Jamadar, A.R Akela, Netrapal Brijwasi and Om Prakash Patel.

On the same evening a cultural performance was held in which a play was staged by Shri Dev Kumar’s Apna Theatre from Kanpur. The play was based on the forgotten Dalit hero of the 1857 freedom struggle, Matadin Bhangi. Another performance was presented by the Praveen Shekhar and other artists of Backstage, Allahabad. The cultural performances proved to be a vibrant medium for propagating the message of the theme of the conference among the audience, particularly the illiterate section.

During informal interactions with the participants before and after the conference some interesting points regarding the Dalit public sphere in the different states of north India emerged.

  1. Participants from Rajasthan were surprised by the sharp identity assertion of the Bhangi community of UP. In Rajasthan in spite of a number of governmental and private assistance they were not at all geared up to speak out.
  2. Budh Sharan Hans stunned participants by sharing his experience of selling booklets at marriage and death ceremonies where his overall sale was upto 1.5 lakhs copies.
  3. New-comers like Bhanwar Meghvanshi provided a sense of relief to the elderly proponents of Dalit popular literature that their movement was secure in the hands of the new generation.

Some suggestions were also made by the participants:

  1. DRC should publish its research documents in both Hindi and English.
  2. Follow-up programmes of the Village Conferences should be held.
  3. Dalit Resource Centre should do something for increasing literacy rate among dalits, which was the main cause of their deprivation.
  4. DRC should intervene in policy-making processes for alleviating the condition of Dalits.

The Project Director assured the writers, scholars and activists that he would keep all their suggestions in mind but confessed that being in the academic field they had no direct role in the policy-making processes of the country. Their role was to try to awaken the community by their interventionist activities so that the awakened masses could acquire the power to fight for their own rights.

Overall, the Regional Conference succeeded in fulfilling its objective of creating a network of Dalit popular writers, intellectuals, activists and journalists at the inter-state level. The conference also helped in circulating the ideas about Dalit emancipation that were prevailing in the different states of north India, both among the educated sections and the illiterate ones who are unable to read the booklets themselves. This exchange and sharing of ideas would definitely go a long way in broadening the Dalit public sphere, which would also help to enhance the participation of Dalits in the democratic processes of the country.


Copyright © 2012 Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute. All Rights Reserved.
A project supported by the Ford Foundation