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Gail Omvedt

Introduction: What is Marginality?

Marginality can be both a strength and a weakness. In a famous book, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, the feminist bell hooks (she spells her name lower case) argues that being at the margins of society gives one a better, more accurate view of that society than from its center. The Dalit view of Hinduism, of Indian society and its caste hierarchy, has always been more accurate than the brahmanic view. But, it has not been hegemonic. The fact is that the brahmanic view of India has been spread throughout the world, so that even (for example) in introductory sociology textbooks “Hinduism” is taken as being 5000 years old!

And with this, Dalits have suffered the pangs of marginality. Marginality has been embodied in poverty, ongoing caste discrimination, atrocities, enforced performance of many polluting occupations by the castes which had them as their traditional duties, for example Bhangis (Valmikis) still being forced to do the job of manual scavenging.

Dr. Ambedkar had referred to caste as an “organized hierarchy” with “ascending scale of reverence” and “descending scale of contempt”; he later amended the first part to read an “ascending scale of hatred.” The fact that Dalits were developing hatred rather than reverence for their oppressors was a step forward in their consciousness. It is perhaps this hatred that prevails today. However, the hierarchy – the spirit of hierarchy – remains, even among Dalits themselves.

Caste as Marginality

Caste is a specific form of marginality. It is both like and unlike race. It is like race in being a birth-related form of discrimination; it is unlike race in the elaboration of its hierarchy and its connection with the idea of pollution. (We must not think of “race” as biological; it is also a socially defined reality). Caste is unique to South Asia, and exists in some form in all South Asian societies – Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. (A Sri Lanka Tamil activist once told me that her parents were more upset about her sister marrying an Indian Tamil then her relationship with a Sinhalese: they knew the caste of the first, but not the second).

As a form of marginality caste has some specific characteristics. First, it is a hierarchy (as Babasaheb put it, a “graded hierarchy”): not only are Dalits marginalized, but so are the Shudras and other castes, though to a lesser extent. It is a hierarchy of exploitation, and here I use the word “exploitation” in a Marxist sense: the extraction of surplus, in which the labourer is left with only the necessities of life while the surplus beyond this goes to the non-labouring exploiter. In the caste-based hierarchy of exploitation, though, only the Dalits are purely exploited. The balutedars and farming castes above them in the ladder of exploitation receive a share of the surplus generated by Dalit labourer. Labourers at each rung in the hierarchy receive a share of the surplus from below; the rest, along with the surplus from that rung, is passed upwards, until it reaches the Brahmans and kings at the top: these (probably along with landlords, sardars and all) are purely exploiters.

The hierarchical chain is also one of types of labour. “Mental” and “manual” labour are separated in caste exploitation, so that purely manual labour is done by those at the bottom, purely “mental” labour at the top. Of course, all labour has a mental element, but the conscious, abstract mentality is what I mean here. The labourers at the bottom also do the “dirtiest” work. In today’s globalized, capitalized society most Dalits (and most OBCs) no longer perform their traditional occupation. However, the majority of them are found at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, in the dirtiest, heaviest and worst-paid jobs. Cleaning latrines, rag-picking, street sweeping – these occupations continue to be carried out entirely by Dalits, even when they have been made into class IV government jobs. And the fact that India continues to have latrines in which manual “scavenging” is necessary is an example of the carelessness generated by the caste hierarchy! – there is no great concern to remove the dirtiest occupations from existence, because this is work “designed” for others who are considered “by nature” fit only to do this. Such ideas remain, and the evidence of their remainder is in the continued existence of the kinds of work they generate.

Similarly, though a few Dalits and OBCs now get university degrees and become professional writers, computer analysts, professors etc., these occupations still remain heavily dominated by those who traditionally had a monopoly of knowledge – Brahmans.

The Issue of Atrocities

Atrocities of the worst sort continue. These are the means of enforcing the continuation of the hierarchy. Even today, the caste hierarchy is enforced in blood. Dalits walking in the wrong parts of town are beaten; Dalits caught beside a dead cow are suspected of killing it and slaughtered; Dalit women sarpanches daring to be defiant and claiming their rights are assaulted. All of these are “crimes” against the caste hierarchy.

Such atrocities continue everywhere, even in the home of traditions of progressiveness. Some time ago, in our area in western Maharashtra (the home of Phule and the center of his Satyashodhak movement), after a Matang boy and a Maratha girl ran away together, the mother of the boy was savagely beaten. She was from Wategaon, home of the famous poet-writer Annabhau Sathe, daughter of a former sarpanch and a member of Annabhau’s clan.

In the traditional caste system, the worst crime was considered to be varnasamkara, the mixture of castes: in the early Lingayat movement of Basava, when he arranged the marriage of the son of a dalit activist and the daughter of a Brahman, the fathers of both were savagely murdered by being dragged behind elephants. Even though Basavanna himself was a minister in the kingdom, he could not prevent this. Today the rulers do not openly enforce the prohibition; rather it is enforced by people themselves: it is this varnasamkara, arising from the urge of young people to break through their bondage that is behind most local atrocities.

Fighting Marginality: The Claim to History

Dalits as well as OBCs have continually fought their marginality. This fight has taken place at many levels and has taken many forms. There have been physical confrontations, though there is little open record of these. There have been ideological confrontations, and in some ways these are the most interesting. The most contested issues have probably been history and religion. Let us look first at history.

The history of India has been in many ways blockaded by Brahmanism; there is little of the history of Dalits and women in particular. Pali literature tells us of the great Chandala, Matanga – but there is little in Sanskrit or vernacular literature, though the name “Chandala” survived until fairly recent times. Women’s history has also been very much annihilated; we know from inscriptions, for instance, that queens were important in ancient times, because they are often seen as donors to Buddhist viharas; we know from such literature as the play Mrchhakatika (“Little Clay Cart”) that gannikas (otherwise called “courtesans”) held a significant place in society – but all of this is much disregarded.

 As for Dalits, there are traditional stories about the origin of Dalit communities – perhaps how among two Brahman brothers one was so careless as to allow a cow to die and so his descendants became untouchable. Such stories are even known of the great Guru Ravidas: Priyadas, the 18th century hagiographer tells that he was a Brahman in a former birth (because the brahmanic tradition would not allow for a real saint among Dalits) but had been condemned to be reborn in a chamar family for the “sin” of accidentally feeding meat to his guru.

 Today most Dalits find another history. Mahars – following Ambedkar’s own belief – may trace their origin to “Nagas” (this was a term, many scholars think, for the advanced “tribal” or lineage societies of ancient times), as well as of course to being original Buddhists relegated by triumphant brahmanism to the outskirts of villages.

Thus, Dalits are ready to insist that theirs is a neglected but proud history, that they were once rulers, once great, degraded by Brahmans for religious or other jealous motives. 

Fighting Marginality: Religious Alternatives

Dalits, at least most of them, recognize that the roots of their oppression are within Brahmanism, in the pseudo-religion now called “Hinduism.” This has led to a wave of conversion and religious differentiation. The most famous of these, of course, led by Dr. Ambedkar himself, was the conversion to Buddhism. Other Dalits (and OBCs also) have chosen Christianity, or Islam. Even the “Ravidasis” who were traditionally Sikhs though with a special attachment to Guru Ravidas, have been differentiating themselves from Sikhism after a murder a couple of years ago of one of the Ravidasi “Dera” leaders. They had always differentiated themselves in considering Ravidas a “guru” and not just a “sant” (Sikhism makes this distinction); now many are consciously and bitterly disassociating themselves from the Sikh tradition in general.

The Insights of Marginality: Anna Hazare

We have argued that marginality has given Dalits a more accurate vision of their society. One example of this can be seen in the case of Anna Hazare, for so long a media hero, projected as a guru and idol. Looking at what has been passed around on Dalit-oriented e-groups and websites, it is clear that Dalits were the first to see through his illusions.

This is a period of many kinds of reaction. In Maharashtra, multilingual brahman “mahaparishads” are being organized, with apparently more and more response. These call for marriages within the caste, for the repeal of the tenancy laws (which to some extent deprived Brahmans of land ownership and gave the rights to non-Brahman tenants) and for Brahmans to unite, ignoring regional and subcaste differences. “Brahmanism” is thus proclaimed to be higher than patriotism! — though the person who called for Brahmanic unity did not dare to mention the relationship of brahmanism and nationalism! Anna Hazare has not talked of caste or other issues, but it is clear that when he or others of his “Team” speak of “civil society” they actually means the high-caste, high-class elite.

“Khap panchayats” in north India are another example of the reaction of the times – the effort to enforce traditional caste norms on young people who are ready to defy them.In this situation, with some growing reactionary forces, the insights of leading Dalit representatives on Brahmanism and its implications for Indian society are badly needed. These should become hegemonic – for they can be a powerful weapon in the struggle for social change.

Moving from Marginality to Hegemony

Moving away from marginality, towards hegemony, is central to the annihilation of caste – which in turn is central for Dalits. But hegemony means that Dalits should not only take up their own issues but also emerge as leaders for all oppressed sections, including OBCs, women, adivasis, religious minorities (primarily Muslims and Christians). In other words, they should think in a broad way. For a period Dalits did not. For example, when the first Mandal Commission report came out, it was Dalits who were leading movements of OBCs to press for its implementation. I remember at that time Arun Kamble, then a Dalit Panther leader, saying “we don’t want a separate Dalitisthan; we are 85% — this country should be Dalitisthan!” That “we” are 85% showed an important inclusiveness. 

However, sometime later, when Arjun Singh announced a new effort to implement Mandal in education, Dalits stood aloof. “Let them fight their own battles” was the theme. Dalit resentment against OBCs seemed to have burgeoned. There were some justifications for this, since OBCs are often in the forefront of attacks and atrocities against Dalits, playing the role of police enforcers of the system. But, such resentment and aloofness would leave the broader anti-caste struggle without leadership. At the time it meant that the Dalit movement was turning into a mainly negative struggle against atrocities and for achieving a better position in society – rather than the fight that Dr. Ambedkar had called for: a struggle for the annihilation of caste.

Today it is heartening to see once again signs of a new effort on the part of Dalits to lead such a broader movement. Perhaps once more, in the words of Bob Dylan (a poet who Namdeo Dhasal liked!), “The times they are a-changing!”

Dr. Gail Omvedt has been living in India since 1978, became an Indian citizen in 1983, and works as a freelance writer and development consultant. She has also worked actively with various social movements including the Dalit and anti-caste movements, farmers’ movements, environmental movement and especially with rural women. A prolific writer, she has published a large number of books including Dalit Visions (1975), Violence against Women: New Theories and New Movements in India (1991) and Dalits and Democractic Revolution (1994). She is currently engaged in translating Tukaram, considered to be the greatest Marathi writer of all time.

(Originally written for the seminar on “The Dalit Experience and Marginality” at Delhi University. 16-18 February, 2012)

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