In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dalit Literature

  • Introduction
  • Dalit Literatures: Translation and Reception
  • Caste and Gender

Literary and Critical Theory Dalit Literature
by
Pramod K. Nayar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0101

Introduction

Dalit Literature is at once the expression of a “Dalit consciousness” about identity (both individual and communal), human rights and human dignity, and the community, as well as the discursive supplement to a ground-level sociopolitical movement that seeks redress for historically persistent oppression and social justice in the present. While its origins are often deemed to be coterminous with the movement dating back to the reformist campaigns in several parts of India during the 19th century, contemporary researchers have found precursors to both the Dalit consciousness and literary expressions in poets and thinkers of earlier eras, such as the saint-poets in the Punjab. Dalit literature’s later development has also run alongside political movements such as the Indian freedom struggle, even as B. R. Ambedkar’s campaign on behalf of what were then called the “depressed classes” intersected, sometimes fractiously, with the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi, and others in the struggle. Ambedkar’s own voluminous writings and speeches, tracts of various social and reformer organizations, debates, and letters also stimulated the literary. This bibliography includes primary texts in terms of foundational writings by B. R. Ambedkar, Jotirao Phule. and Periyar, followed by select examples of Dalit life writing, fiction, poetry, and anthologies that have brought together some of these texts. Later sections include critical-academic texts that cover some of the contexts, history, and development of Dalit literature. With more poetry, autobiographies, commentaries, anthologies, and compilations of Dalit texts appearing through the 20th century, the foundation for academic studies of the field of Dalit literature were also laid. Contextualizing Dalit texts in many cases, the essays and books listed here represent a wide variety of approaches. The contexts invariably involve the Dalit movement; the campaigns from the late 19th century; the various social, cultural, and political associations; the rise of Ambedkar and his influence; and other subjects. Many link Dalit narratives to other cultural productions, iconography, and practices. Others focus on the intersection of caste and class/political economy and capitalist modernity in the postcolonial state, or caste and patriarchy. And some others, working with Dalit literature from particular languages, offer a history of Dalit literature in that language. The role of this literature in shaping not only political mobilization but also the social imaginary of the Dalit communities and the public sphere are also key components of the protocols of reading and receiving Dalit texts engendered in the academic and cultural discussions around the domain. Aesthetics, politics, genre conventions, influences and the “voice” of resistance, anger, and despair are part of the discussion in many essays. Others offer comparative studies of Dalit texts. Read variously as the literature of protest, sympathy, solidarity, and resistance, Dalit literature thrives in Indian languages, and in multiple forms, although oral narratives and stories that are popular in gatherings and meetings remain largely uncollected. New forms such as the graphic novel have energized the field in recent years.

Dalit Literature: Select Primary Texts

The texts in this section open with the writings of B. R. Ambedkar, Jotirao Phule, and Periyar. These constitute the foundational texts, if one could call them that, of both Dalit sociopolitical movements and Dalit literary productions. The first significant anti-caste critiques are to be found in the work of the 19th-century reformer-educationist Jotirao Phule, and are brought together in Phule 2002. Ambedkar 2014b includes his key writings on the caste system; the mythography of religion; and political issues such as the question of suffrage, education, and the organization of states. What is extant as autobiography may be found in Ambedkar 2005, and his most famous critique of the caste system is Ambedkar 2014a. Periyar 2019 is a reprint of Periyar’s major tract on women and caste. Later subsections list important anthologies, fiction, life writing, poetry, and graphic novels.

  • Ambedkar, B. R. Annihilation of Caste. New annotated ed. New Delhi: Navayana, 2014a.

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    Ambedkar here presents a refutation of the caste system, drawing on political, economic, and social reasoning. From Hindu myths to Marx and economic relations, Ambedkar unpacks the iniquities and logical inconsistencies in the caste system. He also argues that Hindu reformers may seek political freedom from the British, but they would not allow a reform of religious beliefs or social practices that emerge from those beliefs. Political freedom without social reform, he proposes, is ineffectual.

  • Ambedkar, B. R. Writings and Speeches. Compiled by Vasant Moon. 17 vols. New Delhi: Ambedkar Foundation, 2014b.

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    This is the standard reference material for understanding the background to the Dalit movement. Included here are the speeches, books, essays, and journalism on the caste system, the mythography of religion, suffrage and electoral reforms, education, Gandhi-Marxism-Buddhism, the Indian National Congress, the English Constitution, and the Hindu Code Bill, among others. Key texts such as Annihilation of Caste are a part of this set.

  • Ambedkar, B. R. Autobiographical Notes. New Delhi: Navayana, 2005.

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    The only autobiography Ambedkar left behind was in the form of these “notes.” This slim volume gives us vignettes and episodes rather than a sustained narrative. It includes the famous visa story, the account of his school life in which he faced sustained discrimination, his return to India from the United States and the caste-based social antagonism that he met on return, among others. Poignant in parts, the Notes offers us glimpses into the contexts of the making of Ambedkar.

  • Periyar (E. V. Ramaswamy). Why Were Women Enslaved? Translated by Meena Kandaswamy. Chennai, India: Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Foundation, 2019.

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    First published in 1942, Periyar’s tract links caste/religion and gender inequality in India. Remarriage and widowhood are social conditions that contribute to the subjugated status of women. Ancient literary texts such as those of Thiruvalluvar glorified “chastity” and other “slavish concepts” (p. 3). He argues that “there is provision in nature for both sexes to be equal . . . but it has been changed artificially because of men’s selfishness and conspiracy” (p. 11). Later essays examine widowhood, prostitution, and remarriage within exploitative patriarchy.

  • Phule, Jotirao. Selected Writings. Edited by G. R. Deshpande. New Delhi: Leftword Books, 2002.

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    This brings together Phule’s key texts: Slavery, The Cultivator’s Whipcord, and the deposition before the Education Commission. In Slavery Phule claims the Brahmins were a race that invaded the subcontinent and enslaved, through the caste system, the aborigine natives, while exploiting the latter’s labor “to sustain . . . their own luxurious lifestyle” (p. 45). Phule argues that Hindu myths compound social differentiation and hierarchization. He discusses caste-based agricultural labor, the British government’s Brahmin employees, and compares the labor of women across castes in The Cultivator’s Whipcord.

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