Caste is a harsh reality of Indian society spanning regions and religions, and widely practised despite efforts by reformers over centuries to annihilate it. In fact, several renowned scholars in contemporary times have produced copious literature on caste and Indian society and politics, but something as simple and straightforward as chronicling the life, times and struggles of notable Dalits that can instill a sense of pride in their fellow brethren, and help them contextualise their history has been missing. I say this because historian and writer Ramachandra Guha has edited two volumes, Makers of Modern India and Makers of Modern Asia, but somehow missed producing a volume on Makers of Modern Dalit History. Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash Paswan, therefore, need to be commended for filling this gap.
It’s a known fact that Dalits fall in the bottom rung of Hindu society and have faced and continue to face hostilities and ostracism of the worst kind. What’s lesser known or perhaps less analysed by scholars is that caste is present in all religions present in India, even in those which unlike Hinduism are not categorised by varnas and are based on the concept of egalitarianism. This perhaps explains why Dalits could not escape their lower status by just leaving the fold of Hinduism and moving to say Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.
As eminent sociologist MN Srinivas has pointed out in his masterly works on caste in India, “Islam proclaims the idea of equality of all those who profess the faith, but in India it has been characterised by caste. Muslim caste differs in some respects from the Hindu caste system; there are no ethico-religious ideas justifying the hierarchy or regulating inter-caste relations through ideas of purity and pollution; there are no varna categories. What we have is a hierarchy formed by several jatis.”
Similarly, equality is a tenet of Sikhism, but Sikhs are broadly divided into sardars and mazhabis, the former consisting of high castes and the latter of sweepers. Srinivas has pointed out that there are three divisions among Indian Jews, and caste division occurs between Indian Christians, Catholics as well as Protestants. The point of highlighting these facts is that if a Hindu Dalit converts to either Islam or Christianity, his/her status remains the same and it is due to this that their plight continues to be what it is today, though there’s no denying that several positive changes have taken place over the years. The book brings this out in the life of some of the personalities depicted in it.
Interestingly, caste in India is not homogenous, and there is stratification within the Dalits too, with some sub-castes considering themselves superior to others. Sanskritisation — upward mobility by adopting names and practises of upper castes — is another phenomenon prevalent amongst Dalits. While the authors of Makers of Modern Dalit History have done an excellent job of profiling a range of Dalit personalities, they have somehow missed analysing these two vital aspects. I say this because their selection of profiles includes former president of India KR Narayanan and former deputy prime minister Babu Jagjivan Ram.
Where the authors differ from other writers on the subject is that they have not targeted Hindu society from a political perspective, staying away from the issue of a separate political identity of Dalits. This is what they have to say regarding their purpose of bringing out this volume: “Makers of Modern Dalit History is a humble attempt to document some of the creators of Indian history — men and women of the subaltern community who have been forgotten over the years. The book aims to contextualise the lives of these men and women and enable them to be a source of inspiration to the Dalit community and the society at large”. Nothing can be truer than what they say, for every community traces its lineage to a golden past of great personalities who shaped their community and draws inspiration from them. It would not be wrong to say that religion is nothing but this very practice that grows with time to bestow god-like status on some. If a community does not inherit a lineage, it creates one through its own efforts of bestowing cult status on some and in the process builds its history. The near-god-like status conferred on BR Ambedkar today is perhaps a sign of such a search by the Dalits and rightly so.
However, the authors, while welcoming Ambedkar’s contribution and even including him in their selection, seem to say that there are others who have been forgotten and need to be remembered. For instance, while the story of Rani Lakshmibai has been made immortal, that of her lieutenant, the brave and courageous Rani Jhalkaribai who came from the oppressed community, does not find mention in history books. Similarly, the stories of Sant Janabai, Savitribai Phule and Soyarabai are worth reading and the authors deserve to be complimented for bringing them to life. Despite being a voracious reader of Amar Chitra Katha during my childhood days, even I missed out on the stories of these personalities.
The stories of Valmiki and Ved Vyasa are important since both these personalities created epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, respectively which are widely read. But I am not sure how many from the current generation know that the writers of such monumental texts came from the oppressed sections of society. Ayyankali, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Gurram Jashuva, and Jogendranath Mandal are some other profiles that need to be brought back in the popular narrative if we are really serious about subaltern history.
One limitation of the book seems to be that the profiles are a bit hagiographical in nature and perhaps could have been a little more analytical and critical, especially the ones who are more contemporary in nature, like Kanshi Ram, Babu Jagjivan Ram, and KR Narayanan. Personally I would have appreciated it if the authors penned a couple of chapters in analysing the issue of reservation. How does the most backward among the backwards feel when some sections within them are able to corner benefits generation after generation and some are left behind for eternity? Is reservation really inclusive or an element of exclusivity has crept into it, which acts as a hindrance in mainstreaming Dalits, which was the main object behind such affirmative action? There are no easy answers to such questions, but it would be interesting if scholars like Ramabadran and Paswan analyse such aspects.
Makers of Modern Dalit History: Profiles
Sudarshan Ramabadran & Guru Prakash Paswan
Penguin Random House
Pp 224, Rs 399