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The history of Dalits

Dalit as a category in the Pakistani context

The history of Dalits

Recently, a debate was started at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) with respect to the relevance of the category ‘Dalit’ in the social context of Pakistan. One could notice that the expression ‘Dalit’ was being deployed at will without considering the context in which Dalit as a category had been brought into use. I could also see a bit of confusion as to the subtle difference that the terms like ‘scheduled castes’, ‘Harijan’ and ‘Dalits’ signify because these expressions are contested largely because of their varied connotations. But my concern was somewhat different.

To me, Dalit was the category that had its origin in South India and their acclaimed leadership hailed from that part of the subcontinent. More so, Dalit as a movement came up as a reaction to the caste (varna) system which never had its crystallised configuration in the parts of the subcontinent which constituted Pakistan in 1947. In Punjab and Sindh, we had kinship system (Biraderi) which is inherently different from the caste system. The caste system was evolved in Gnaga-Jumna valley. Then it had a religious dimension too.

The social system sanctioned by Hinduism that consists of four varnas has produced untouchability and Dalit as a social category. In Pakistan, such varna system hardly has any existence. If at all, some scholars are adamant to use that category then they must theorise afresh so that it fits appropriately to Pakistani social context. If we trace the history of Dalits, much of the confusion can be set at rest.

Scheduled caste communities (Indian government balks at using Dalit as a category) exist across India, although they are mostly concentrated in four (South Indian) states and they do not share a single language or religion. According to the 2011 Census of India, Dalits comprise 16.6 per cent of India’s population. Oppressed communities inhabit throughout South Asia, but no specific details are available, particularly with respect to Dalit identity in other countries but India. Now we will turn to etymology and a brief history of Dalits.

The word Dalit is a vernacular form of the Sanskrit (dalita). In classical Sanskrit, this means ‘divided, split, broken, scattered.’ The usage of any social category in Pakistani context, which is etymologically linked to Sanskrit, is highly problematic. In these regions, Prakrit was being spoken in ancient times. This word, Dalit, acquired a new connotation in the 19th century and thereby came to mean “(a person) not belonging to one of the four Brahminic castes”. Some believed that the word was used in this sense arguably by the Pune-based social reformer, Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890), in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile “untouchable” castes from other Hindus.

However, many contend Gopal Baba Walangkar (ca. 1840–1900) to be the pioneer of the Dalit movement, seeking a society in which they were not discriminated against. Another pioneer was Harichand Thakur (ca. 1812–1878) with his Matua organisation that involved the Namasudra (Chandala) community in the Bengal Presidency. Dr Ambedkar (1891-1956), the greatest of the leaders of Dalits, himself believed Walangkar to be the progenitor.

As mentioned earlier, Jyotirao Phule was the one who gave wider currency to the term Dalit. The term Dalit has mostly been used to describe the communities subjected to social exclusion and untouchability. Such people were not included in the four-fold varna system of Hinduism and considered themselves as forming a fifth varna, thereby designating themselves as Panchama. The term came in vogue as a translation for ‘the British Raj census classification of Depressed Classes prior to 1935’. I could not find any Dalit Muslim leader having been mentioned in our history books. The credit for popularising that term goes to B. R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit and from a Marathi background. In the 1970s, its use was invigorated when it was adopted by the Dalit Panthers activist group. Here it will be pertinent to offer a brief perspective in which Dalit Panthers emerged and flourished.

The Dalit Panthers, who were formally established in 1972, was founded by Namdeo Dhasal and J. V. Pawar on 29 May 1972 in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Maharashtrian language was used by the Panthers to disseminate their ideology as a result of which that language attracted Marathi youth, who felt motivated enough to adopt it and popularise it. Ideologically, that organisation was embedded in the ideals which came about as a result of synthesis in the thoughts of Ambedkar, Phule and Karl Marx.

Practically, Dalit Panthers were deeply inspired by the Black Panther Movement of America (founded in 1966). Their militant literature, community service and political struggle were something that the Dalits could very well be identified with, and their movement drew impetus from Civil Rights struggle orchestrated by Black Panther Movement. They chose to call themselves ‘Dalit’ because it was ‘a casteless term’ that not only acknowledged but also challenged their history of class oppression; and ‘Panthers’ because ‘they were supposed to fight for their rights like panthers, and not get suppressed by the strength and might of their oppressors.’

The point worth making is the region (Maharashtra) which was the prime focus of that activism, which obviously was south India. Reverting to the earlier period when Dalits as a political force was just in its embryonic form, it was indeed interesting to note the fluidity in the Dalit identity.

M.K. Gandhi coined the word Harijan in 1933, translated roughly as people of God, to identify untouchables. Ambedkar did not like that name as it underlined the Dalits as integral part of the ‘Greater Hindu Nation’ rather than being an autonomous community like Muslims. Besides, many Dalits considered the term Harijan as ‘patronising and derogatory’. Some have even claimed that the term in fact referred to the children of devadasis, South Indian girls who were married to a temple and served as concubines and prostitutes for upper-caste Hindus, but obviously this claim could not be verified.

In 1932, the British government recommended separate electorates for Dalits in the Communal Award, which could establish their identity, quite independent of the Hindus. Such prospects sent tremors among the ranks of Indian National Congress. Its leadership saw a ploy of divide and rule in that recommendation. However, Ambedkar saw that recommendation beneficial for Dalits but when Gandhi opposed the proposal, after a temporary impasse, Poona Pact dissuaded Ambedkar to assert for the separate electorate. That, in turn, influenced the Government of India Act, 1935, which introduced the reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, now renamed as Scheduled Castes. But the cleavage kept widening with the passage of time.

Dalits then embraced Bhuddism as a religion with Ambedkar embracing it and later on Dalit Panthers adopted Buddhism at much wider scale. I will conclude by asserting that the category of Dalits got acceptability through the strivings of Panthers. Dalits might be thinking of reviving such an organisation again to confront the menace of Hindutva.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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