Studying Dalit history in the 21st century

Dalit studies are about much more than the enquiry of victimhood.

People offer floral tributes to a portrait of Bhimrao Ambedkar on his birth anniversary in Hyderabad, India on April 14, 2021 [AP/Mahesh Kumar A]

This April, Dalit History Month was once again celebrated by various educational institutions outside India, where special events were held to mark the occasion. Dalit History Month is closely associated with the celebration of the life and work of B R Ambedkar, the eminent Indian scholar, Dalit intellectual and social reformer, who has become a central figure in the Dalit struggle.

In India, the month of April is celebrated with different names such as Ambedkar Month, or Ambedkar Saptah (Ambedkar Weeks) with pan-India multilingual music festivals, lectures, publications, seminars, and art exhibitions to observe and meditate on Dalit culture and history.

The Dalit community draws recognition and inspiration from their most cherished hero, Ambedkar. As I have argued in my book Caste Matters (2019), he has become a god-like figure or a superhuman for the destitute, poor, resourceless Dalits. They stand by him and seek to utilize his life struggle as a guidebook to contest their poverty, oppression, and ruthless casteism at the hands of oppressors who self-identify as “upper” castes.

The Dalit community draws recognition and inspiration from their most cherished hero, Ambedkar. As I have argued in my book Caste Matters (2019), he has become a god-like figure or a superhuman for the destitute, poor, resourceless Dalits. They stand by him and seek to utilize his life struggle as a guidebook to contest their poverty, oppression, and ruthless casteism at the hands of oppressors who self-identify as “upper” castes.

Due to the enigma of Ambedkar, and the halo around his persona, the community celebrates his birthday, April 14, as the most important festival in our lives. The Hindu holidays of Diwali, Dushera, Holi, do not matter to us as much as April 14 does. A carnival around Ambedkar’s name is a mixture of celebration of his ideas and exhibition of the community’s strength in the streets of India.

Perhaps no other community elsewhere celebrates an intellectual’s birthday as an annual festival. Such celebrations by Dalits are a testament to their righteous devotion to the life of mind and pursuit of intelligence. We believe in the Buddhist ethos of dialogue and Socratic tradition of self-examination.

Indeed, Ambedkar’s recognition by his alma mater Columbia and the London School of Economics has become a point of great pride for Dalits, who have taken stories about it into nooks and corners of the country, in the slums, and in the posh colonies.

I grew up listening to these stories. There was even a message in circulation about a decade ago. It read that among the list of Columbia’s most celebrated alumni, Ambedkar was ranked as number one. The validity of this did not concern the poor, oppressed, working-class Dalits. They were in joy for the notice of a foreign university with high regard when his own country berated their most cherished son. By celebrating this news, the community indirectly planted the inspiration for the likes of me to strive to enter prestigious educational institutions, like Harvard or Columbia.

To celebrate their past, the Dalits commemorate the entire month not least for Ambedkar but also Jotirao Phule, a 19th-century anti-caste radical who lit a stick of dynamite to the entire thralldom of Brahminism. Phule, who was also born on April 11, 1827, was one of the front runners of the anti-caste movement in western India. He belonged to the touchable yet lowered caste in the Brahminical Hindu caste order. Along with his wife Savitri and friends, Phule started an education movement for the outcastes and women that was hitherto reserved for the Brahmin and their inferior castes. Phule became one of the founding fathers of social reformation and is considered the first Mahatma (“venerable”).

As more and more South Asian departments outside India take up Dalit History Month, it is important to reflect on what studying Dalits and their past is about. Dalit studies is a standalone multi-disciplinary enquiry into the condition of the vulnerable. It is a space to theorise ideas and give shape to the context for an appropriate praxis.

Dalit studies is an essential intellectual intervention for us to make sense of our collective tragedies. It is a curated space to debate and contest ideas to serve the larger purpose of humanity. What else is a better way to understand our future than looking through the lens of the ones who have been visualising the future in the pessimistic clouds for a consistent period of time?

The world needs to do more than merely recognising the plight of Dalits. Dalits are beyond victims. They are full human beings with eclectic personhood. The international institutes who are concerned with law, justice, democracy, modernity, history, hermeneutics, law, and capital can find the rigour of these ideas exercised among Dalit communities.

Dalits are the only community in the world who have sustained continual oppression at the hands of caste colonisers for over two and a half millennia and who have continuously resisted. Dalits own their land without submitting to the Brahminical interpretations of their pasts. That is why they redefine the meanings and idioms of Dalit life by asserting convincingly for the betterment of themselves.

Dalit studies projects outside India in various universities will bring in much-required exposure to the politics of knowledge-making. Dalits exist beyond the curvature of regionalism, language, and politics of representation. It is our common cause. In the era of reclaiming the world, we need a progressive approach with a liberal heart to manifest feelings of oneness. Dalit studies can offer that in the broader picture of knowledge-making, consuming, and dispensing, as the Dalit community itself tries to handle the class and caste dynamics within.

Dalit studies is an urgent project that examines and studies society, power, politics, culture, religion, art and linguistics. It has a possibility to create a snowball effect and inspire oppressed communities elsewhere whose identities were anthropologised for museum culture or heavily abstracted under the pretext of postcolonialism. They are original people and their study needs an original approach.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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