What is the importance of a Dalit Consciousness’ in Dalit writings. Explain with examples.

What is the importance of a Dalit Consciousness’ in Dalit writings. Explain with examples.

Dalit consciousness makes slaves conscious of their slavery. Dalit consciousness is an important seed for Dalit literature; it is separate and distinct from the consciousness of other writers. Dalit literature is demarcated as unique because of this consciousness’. Limbale is clear that Dalit chetna is an indispensable attribute of the Dalit literary aesthetic. It is intimately tied to the emancipatory ideology of B.R. Ambedkar, and it is the yardstick by which the dalitness of Dalit literature is measured.

Ambedkar persists as the primary symbol and inspiration of struggle and freedom in Dalit political, social and literary imaginations. Hindi Dalit author and critic Omprakash Valmiki (2001) grounds his detailed definition of Dalit chetna in the Ambedkarite ideology of emancipation.

‘Dalit chetna obtains its primary energy from Dr. Ambedkar’s life and vision. All Dalit writers are united with respect to this truth. The major points of Dalit chetna are:

  1. Welcoming the vision of Dr. Ambedkar on questions of freedom and independence;
  2. Being for Buddha’s rational, intellectual perspective and concepts of no-god and no-soul, and being against the hypocrisy of Hindu law and custom;
  3. Being against the caste system, against casteism, against communalism;
  4. Being against social divisions, and in support of brotherliness;
  5. Taking the side of independence and social justice;
  6. Supporting social change;
  7. Being against capitalism in the financial sector;
  8. Being against feudalism and Brahmanism;
  9. Being against supremacy;
  10. Disagreeing with the definition of ‘great poetry’ by Ramchandra Shukla.
  11. Being against traditional aesthetics;
  12. Taking the side of a caste-less, class-less society; and
  13. Being against hierarchies of language and privilege’.

Points 10 and 11 illustrate the clear connection between the concept of Dalit chetna and literary production. As the following discussion will demonstrate, the act of deconstruction that the concept of Dalit chetna articulates with respect to ‘mainstream’ Hindi literary culture and canon is being enacted methodically as an exercise in critical re-reading and revisionist aesthetics in public fora of Hindi Dalit literary critical discourse.

What I wish to demonstrate here are the ways in which the concept of Dalit chetna is being developed as a strategy for Dalit critical analysis, a kind of ‘test’ by which Dalit critics can judge the ‘dalitness’ of any work of literature, whether written by a Dalit or non-Dalit. Though I am not suggesting that the definition of Dalit chetna is in any way fixed, or its tenets universally agreed upon, I do want to underscore that it is almost without exception regarded by Dalit writers as the ideal for all Dalit literature, which is generally measured within the Hindi Dalit literary sphere by means of how closely it adheres to this ideal. It is a concept that permeates discussions of both the future directions of Dalit literature, as well as the critical re-readings of major works of literature of the 20th century that have widely been heralded as progressive in Hindi literary circles.

It is about these works of literature that Dalit writers and critics are most interested in offering their own analysis in order to locate their social and political stance in a position relative to Dalit literature. The focus is on writing that includes Dalit characters, or descriptions of Dalit life and experience. The critical act of reading and analysis, with a separate set of theoretical tools, allows Dalit readers to be restored to the position of subject, to be the ones writing, rather than simply being written about.

In such readings it is extremely important not just that a Dalit character is present, but rather how the character is portrayed, and how ‘realistic’ the narrative is. Though there is certainly a range of interpretations of Dalit chetna among Dalit readers and writers, in its generally accepted avatar it denotes a loyalty to and an expression of the Ambedkarite message of the human dignity of Dalits. It is Dalit experience rendered realistically, but for Dalit writers this realism is also dependent upon how honourably the Dalit character is portrayed.

With respect to Premchand, Dalit writers and critics have generally looked favourably on his stories that depict Dalit characters as simple, moral, hardworking and compassionate, however victimized they may be by the caste system. But in Premchand’s realism, sometimes a corrupt system breeds corrupt victims, as in his story ‘Kafan’, largely regarded in dominant Hindi literary histories as one of his most classic stories. In this famous story, the two main characters are Dalits, but rather than being idealized victims they themselves are slothful and immoral, and as Premchand writes, ‘knew how to profit from their impotence.’ Though many non-Dalit critics have detected in Premchand’s story a critique of institutionalized systems of poverty and caste oppression that are forces for dehumanization, many Dalit writers have severely criticized Premchand’s depiction of these two characters as such heartless and lazy drunks.

‘DALIT consciousness’ is an oft-used term. It is a concept that appears frequently in discussions of Dalit politics and identity. It can, at times, refer to the notion of political awareness, in the sense of consciousness-raising among certain sections of the Dalit population, and at other times refer to a collective notion of identity among diverse Dalit communities. For example, regarding Swami Achhutanand’s publication of the newspaper Achut in the early 20th century, Badri Narayan and A.R. Misra (2004) write, ‘No event in modern times has played such a significant role in awakening Dalit consciousness as the print medium and Swami Achhutanand was its architect in the northern belt of the country’.

Gopal Guru (2001), conveying a different sense of the term, in an essay about the contested terrain of naming and identity currently presided over by the term ‘Dalit’, suggests that ‘although the Dalit category has been put to political use by various agents at the all-India level, it has yet to become an integral part of the deeper Dalit consciousness’. Indeed in the pages of this very magazine in 1998 Eleanor Zelliot wrote an essay entitled ‘The Roots of Dalit Consciousness’, describing those elements in Dalit collective culture ‘which allow pride, self-respect and a vision of the future’.

These uses of ‘Dalit consciousness’ are genuine attempts to describe what are complex and amorphous concepts at best, shared constructions of meaning and perceptions of community and self that proliferate to different degrees across a huge and disparate pan-Indian Dalit community.

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