Thursday, May 5, 2011


Dear Brothers/Sisters
Jai Bhim!

I have been reading the series of emails from you all. First and foremost let me make it clear that this is not a new debate. It has been going on since the word "Dalit" become popular in social and political circles in early 70s. About 2 years back there was a similar debate in DMA where I expressed my strong contention why the application of "Dalit" has become very important. This entire discussion debate around the construct of Dalit as an identity is very vital to be understood in dept. I had in a paper recently discussed it at length and therefore I will copy that part from that paper as it is in bold. Since the paper has been used for some research writing, I would request the readers not to quote it.

Since the currently discussion surrounds the question of identity, it is essential to explore the construct of  identity. The question of identity is still a contested one. A section within the academia is against the usage of ‘Dalit’ as an identity. However any study on culture has to go in line with the community’s identity as a social entity. Hence it is essential to come up with a background on understanding identity as a source of culture and vice-versa. It is also essential to study source of power of social and political assertion. 

The construct of human identity has a long standing backdrop and conditions leading to that. Several factors that had affected had also contribution to the make. According to Gurr (1970), deprivation leads people to frustration and the greater the frustration, the greater the quantity of aggression against the sources of frustration. The social sharing of deprivation can be the starting point of protest. On the other hand, dissent becomes meaningful only when it has the backing of a group (Malik 1977). Thus collective action aimed at social change or resisting change is the initial process of identity formation of Dalits. Further, identity formation is based on the experience about oneself, experience in relation to others, who are different from oneself. In this regard it can be stated that identity formation is an interactional process (Louis 2003). 

Fernando Franco (2002) argues that there are two components that are interrelated in the process of identity formation. The first one is the ideological-symbolic component. This refers to the system of beliefs and practices that flow from the understanding of the position of oneself and one’s own group vis-à-vis others. This set of beliefs and its various cultural expressions provide the group with a shared meaning and understanding about who they are and what their role is in a given social context. The second is the material productive component and it refers to material, ecological and economic conditions shaping and determining the primary livelihood activities of the group and productive relation. In other words, it includes factors that determine the economic life of the group and consequently the relationships they enter into with each other and with other groups in the course of earning their livelihood. 

Sticking to this, it is essential to relate it to the already existing identity, taxonomy and nomenclature of untouchables such as Asparshya, Antyajas, Antya, Achut, Avarna, Panchama, Chandala, Bahiskrit, Harijan, Adi, Broken Man, Depressed Classes, Scheduled Caste, Dalit, Dalit-Bahujan, etc. These nomenclatures are besides the caste and sub-castes, clans and sub-clans, sects and sub-sects.

Sunani (2004) opinions that the origin of identity of any community could be identified in a more classical manner from their culture and cultural art forms. He argues that despite the intrusion of Sanskritisation, there are various myths of the community sustained not in a strictly written form, but verbally transmitted from generation to generation. These could be studied only if a serious attempt is made to study the origin of Dalit art forms and ethics and also by studying the cultural instruments used in these art forms. Both Franco’s and Sunani’s theories have distinguished eminence in the overall understanding of Dalit identity. Certainly a few vital aspects could be drawn from these two positions.

First of all there are several identities that are not voluntarily accepted or agreed by any subjugated people, but super imposed by a superior class or rank of people. This cataloguing is at large central to the theological position of Hindu scriptures enforced through the application of fear psychology and hypnotic God phobia. The broader standpoint of this argument is these terms came into existence for numerous taboos of pollution, which pushed them down the rug. In terms of occupation they are supposed to remove human waste, skinning animal carcasses, tanning leather, making shoes, washing cloths and providing other essential services and mostly lived outside the village. Besides these they were not only restricted in terms of space but also the type of houses should also be inferior in quality devoid of any facilities. This is what relates to the obligatory identities of untouchability Asparshya, Achut, in these references. Both Asparshya and Achut have the same meaning untouchable except for a difference in their language such as Sanskrit and Hindi. Antya comes from the word ‘Anta’ meaning last, which means that the last one was the untouchable. Ambedkar investigated the historical origin and various other aspect in many ways and comes to certain concrete positions.

“One set of facts comprise the names Antya, Antyaja and Antyavas is given to certain communities by the Hindu Shastras. They have come down from very ancient past. Why were these names used to indicate a certain class of people? There seem to be some meaning behind these terms. The words are undoubtedly derivative. They are derived from the root Anta. What does the word Anta mean? Hindus learned in the Shastras argue that it means one who is born last and as the Untouchable according to the Hindu order of Divine creation is held to be born last, the word Antya means an Untouchable. The argument is absurd and does not accord with the Hindu theory of the order of creation.” (Ambedkar 1990)

“According to it, it is the Shudra who is born last. The Untouchable is outside the scheme of creation. The Shudra is Savarna. As against him the Untouchable is Avarna, i.e., outside the Varna system. The Hindu theory of priority in creation does not and cannot apply to the Untouchable. In my view, the word Antya means not end of creation but end of the village. It is a name given to those people who lived on the outskirts of the village. The word Antya has, therefore, a survival value. It tells us that there was a time when some people lived inside the village and some lived outside the village and that those who lived outside the village, i.e. on the Antya of the village, were called Antyaja.” (Ambedkar 1990)

“Why did some people live on the border of the village? Can there be any other reason than that they were Broken Men who were aliens and who belonged to tribes different from those who lived inside the village? I cannot see any. That this is the real reason is to be found in the use of these particular words to designate them. The use of the words Antya, Antyaja and Antyavasin has thus double significance. In the first place, it shows that living in separate quarters was such a peculiar phenomenon that a new terminology had to be invented to give expression to it. Secondly, the words chosen express in exact terms the conditions of the people to whom it applied namely that they were aliens.” (Ambedkar 1990)

Accordingly if analyzed these entire sets of taxonomy came into existence in the order of establishment of the Chaturvarna and its testicles across the pre-Aryan gullible tribes of the territory in order to perpetuate the political power through social domination and thrashing off all previous identities. Therefore a new identity inter-exchangeable such as Asparshya, Antyajas, Antya, Achut, Avarna, meaning untouchable, outlawed, outcaste, banned, barred, disqualified, ineligible, etc. came into being, which become decisive in dominating the mainframe socio-religious life. Thus the identity of the untouchables in the traditional stratification system tended to be that of an unresisting weak slave. The identity was not of their seeking. It was inherited by them and perpetuated on account of the undisturbed social equilibrium ensuring such situation. 

The second set of identities is a whole set of representative one, among which three terminologies such as Untouchable, Depressed Classes, Broken Man were also mentioned by Ambedkar. Ambedkar used ‘Untouchables’ not to identify oneself with it, but in order to portray the condition of those in the lowest layer of the social ladder. Gandhi used the term Harijan to address the untouchables. He believed that the Chaturvarna has no flaws in it; it is only a proper representative of the embodiment of society however it was maligned with the absorption of untouchability (Gandhi 1927). According to him, “untouchability means pollution by the touch of certain persons by reason of their birth in a particular family.”(Gandhi 1961). However Dr. Ambedkar has a vivid understanding of untouchability and its historical process of origin. He was not just in opposition to untouchability practices but at large against the unequal human relationship distinctly defined through varnashram and caste. There existed a transparent rift on various issues between Gandhi’s outlook of sympathy towards the untouchables and Ambedkar’s affirmative stand of untouchables. Among many ideological disagreements, one crucial disagreement surrounded the question of Harijan.

According to Gandhi, the word Harijan is an assimilation of Hari (meaning god) + jan (people or children), which gives it a meaning ‘god’s people’; hence the popular argument goes as the populace in the lowest order are worthiest for God. He primarily appealed to the caste Hindus to use the word ‘Harijan’ instead of Antyaja. Some scholars have questioned: why Harijan and why only Hari and so on. Some also have argued on the point that if the untouchables are God’s children, then whose children are the touchable castes? As per the Hindu mythology, Hari is the second name of Lord Krishna. But to Gandhi Krishna was not the model god, it was Ram and that is why he was always in favour of establishing his ideal Ramrajya through all his later programs and projects. Hence the argument could also be phased out in the form of why he was reluctant to name the untouchables something like ‘Ramjan’ so that it would had given a better argument to his own concept of God’s Children. Or is the reason that Lord Krishna also hailed from the Shudra community, the Gopala or to be called the Yadava in modern taxonomy would be the ideal or nearest to become the ideal of the untouchables. For this reason the identification of untouchables as Harijan is as uncertain as the entire notion of Gandhi’s love towards them (George 2006). 

Right from the time, Gandhi tried to popularise the term Harijan there had been steady opposition to its usage. In May 1936, the All India Depressed Classes Conference was held in Lucknow resolved: “This conference expresses its sense of strong abhorrence and insult at the term ‘Harijan’ as it is applied to the Depressed Classes, and asks those who have no desire to insult the Depressed Classes not to use the term ‘Harijan’ in reference to them.” (Louis 2003). It is interesting to note as a consequence of this in 1938 the Bombay Legislative Council replaced the Harijan with Scheduled Caste. Despite the continued resistance of the usage of Harijan, the Government of India remained silent to take any official position until 1982, when a circular was served to all the states not to insert the word ‘harijan’ or girijan’ in any of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe certificates. However it remained in all other official documents except the caste certificates till 1990 when the government of India directed that for all official transactions, matters, dealings, certificates, etc. the Constitutional terms Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes in English and their appropriate translations in other national languages should alone be used for denoting the persons belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes included in the Presidential Orders (Louis 2003).

Nonetheless the most important part among the representative taxonomy being used was untouchable itself. As mentioned above Ambedkar used three different expressions. He used untouchable exclusively to describe the status of untouchables, its nefarious origin that stemmed from caste system an offspring of varnashram. The fact that institutionalised inequality of the caste system finds its worst manifestation in the phenomenon of untouchability was expressed by Ambedkar. The disadvantages tended to be cumulative. They were subjected to disabilities in different spheres. Cruelty against them tended to be extensive. Systematically degraded, subjected to paternalistic control, where not harshly victimised, the untouchables a kind of perpetual slavery with little of betterment in this world (Galanter 1984). In short, it is a system of “legalized inequality” and is “a variant of the ascriptive system of stratification in which the allocation of roles and statuses is governed by the non-rational principle” (Nagendra 1965). These were the principle aspects that Ambedkar tried to depict through usage of untouchables.

Depressed Classes was first used by social reformers and then used by government administration. The Depressed Classes include (a) untouchables, (b) aboriginal and hill tribes and (c) criminal tribes. Official figures of 1931 census shows that these untouchable castes were shown as depressed classes in the British records. In 1928 the Depressed Classes Association was formed which functioned until 1942 (Louis 2003). Much before this the leaders of the Depressed Classes pleaded before the Montagu-Chelmsford Committee that the British must remain in power and continue to provide protection to the Depressed Classes and others instead of leaving them at the mercy of the upper castes. Consequently in 1917, the congress for the first time expressed its concern over the issue of untouchability. The congress urged the people to understand the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all disabilities imposed by custom upon the Depressed Classes. But the party did not articulate any concrete demand or program to protect the interests of the Depressed Classes. On the other hand the Franchise Committee of 1918-19 recommended nomination from the Depressed Classes in Provincial Councils. The Act of 1919 accepted the recommendations, but leaders of the Depressed Classes demanded for separate electorate (Louis 2003).

Ambedkar at a later stage realised that it is not the best word for expressing the dire plight of the untouchables. He felt that it to be inappropriate and unsuitable. He wrote to the Lothian Committee “there is a considerable objection on the part of the communities which are now called ‘depressed classes’ to the use of the term in describing them. Besides the term ‘depressed classes’ has led to a great deal of confusion in the census because it includes others who are not strictly untouchables. Secondly, it gives the impression that the depressed classes are a low and helpless community when as a matter of fact in every province numbers of them are both well to do and well educated, and the whole community is acquiring consciousness of its needs, is charged with ambition for securing a respectable status in Indian society and is making stupendous efforts to achieve it. On all these grounds the term ‘depressed classes’ is inappropriate and unsuitable.” (Ambedkar 1987). Ambedkar and the committee that took up the matter with the Lothian committee preferred the term, ‘exterior castes’ or ‘excluded caste’ instead of depressed classes. The reason was that these terms are better expressive than other term, which means that even Ambedkar was not in favour of being identified as ‘depressed classes’.

A recently used term and more specifically, in the official records and documents is the newly coined term Scheduled Castes. During the past over 60 years it has become the recognition of the untouchables of India. The expression of Scheduled Caste was synthesised by the Simon Commission and embodied in the Government of India Act 1935. Accordingly the British Government published a list of Scheduled Caste for the first time in 1936. Thus the term Scheduled Caste is a British bureaucratic invention. It comes in line with outcastes, depressed castes and exterior castes created by the British administrators. While the term has useful moral neutrality, it is essentially legal in nature; the people in question have been transformed into a special legal class of citizens for certain purpose of the state (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 1998). This is not a term that makes ones’ identity as a dignified entity, nor does it lead to any sort of affirmation or assertion.

One of the new identity movements is that of conversion and many people and organisations consider this to be the ‘ture’ social movement and all energy is diverted to convert people into religions. The tyranny of Brahminical caste rigidity led Dalits to quit Hinduism, which always is a positive trend (George 2006). Writing on conversion Lancy Lobo says, “conversion as a phenomenon, leading to a change of faith has been one of the principal means through which social promotion was sought in India since ages.” (Lobo 1996). All sects within Hinduism that proclaimed equality attracted a large number of them. For instance after the thirteenth century the Bhakti movement spread all over India through charismatic persons like Ramanand, Raidas, Chaitanya, Eknath, Chokamela, Tukaram, Narsinh Mehta, Ramanuja, Basav and Nimbark. They preached equality, which the untouchables longed for intensely. Islam that came from outside found favour with them for the same reason not because it belonged to the ruling class (Lobo 1996) but it gave a new hope of equality and economic space to grow to the historically oppressed strata.

With the advent of the British a new system was in place. The British legal system, new employment opportunities in European families and in mills, factories, railways and the army and later the introduction of reservation in government jobs opened a new chapter in their lives. The untouchables perceived conversion as more than change of faith. It was a search for equality outside the Hindu fold. It was also the formation of a new identity among the untouchables.

The conversion to Islam, Sikkism and Christianity were also a threat to the upper caste domain. There have also been social movements like the Satnami movement among the Chamars in Chhattisgarh, Adi Dharma in Punjab (Juergensmeyer 1982), the Mahar movement of Maharastra (Zelliot 1992), the socio-political mobilisation among the Jatavs of Agra (Lynch 1969) and the anti Brahmin movement in south India being some of them. All of them reflected a common theme: the untouchables were asserting their dignity and quest for equality either within or outside Hinduism (Shah 1996). The religious discourse is thus a common feature of all the anti-caste movements. 

For example, the Satnami movement of the Chamars in the Chhattisgarh plains eventually became an independent religious sect (Russell & Hiralal 1916); the Dravid Kazhagam movement of Periyar EVR Ramaswamy Naicker which created a stir by publicly burning the effigy of Rama and celebrating the virtuousness of Ravana; the Nadar Mahajana Sabha in Tamilnadu (Hardgrave 1969); the Ezhava movement of Narayana Guru which culminated in establishment of a new religious sect called Sree Narayan Dharma Pratipalana Yogam in Kerala (Thomas & Taylor 1965; Ayyappan 1965; Samuel 1973), and the most pervasive Dalit movement (Zelliot 1969) led by Ambedkar curiously reaching its climax of mass conversion to Buddhism; they all signify an overriding hatred for the religious code of Manu and a proposition of an alternate faith for themselves. It essentially embodied dejection with the Brahminism, which was perceived to be the root cause for their sufferings. The most articulate expression of this dejection is found in Ambedkar's own analyses that hold overthrowing of 'Hindu' religious ideological hegemony as a necessary condition for the liberation of Dalits (Omvedt 1994).

Ambedkar’s mass conversion on 14th October 1956 was the major alteration in religion identity in recent history. The number of Buddhists in India jumped by 1670.71 percent between 1951 and 1961 largely because of the conversion (Zelliot 1992). Buddhist movement is still dynamic but has not proved a panacea. No doubt some of the neo-Buddhists have achieved upward mobility but the masses among them still remain economically and socially backward. Such economic and social differentiation has occurred among Buddhists despite the efforts to sustain links between the lower and upper strata among them. To the caste Hindus the neo-Buddhists still remained a Mahar. The reasons are twofold: 1) the upper castes do not easily concede social mobility; 2) in spite of thousands of cases of upwardly mobile neo-Buddhists, their masses are still in the city slums or are rural landless labourers. Zelliot (1992) argues that the educated and urbanised among them have achieved greater psychological freedom. They seem to have got rid of their age-old inferiority complex. They have a fresh sense of identity and newly acquired confidence. What is more, the youth among them have completely shed the superstitions that had cramped their existence and have adopted a more rational view of life.

There are still a lot of questions to be explored particularly with the converted Buddhists as well as looking at Buddhism in practical terms at an international level. A sizeable number of the neo-Buddhist, though claim to be converted to Buddhism, yet practise all Hindu rituals to the best extend. Ambedkar unconditionally mentioned the need to follow the 22-pledges in order to quit Hinduism in its quintessence. In essence the life style, rituals, worships, faiths, fasting, traditions are practically not in any sense different from that of the Hindus. Some of them even don’t forget to equate Buddha with Vishnu. When Hindu values had crept up in Buddhism to greater extents, is it really free from the strings of caste? Did is really rendered a new identity or has it suffixed to the existing one?

Conversion of course takes the untouchables to new avenues of identity, but has it given an identity bereft of caste? Even in conversion there are different levels. Webster (1976) opinions that history of conversion shows that in a given locality no two untouchable castes accepted the same religion. If they did, they went over to two different denominations within that religion. This too proves that caste remains a very powerful principle even in conversion. The main reason for their failure to achieve their objective is the upper caste reluctance to concede a new status to the Dalit converts, even to those few who have improved themselves economically. This hurts the Dalit elite, who do not want to identify themselves with the masses of their caste. Conversion has no doubt acted as a useful tool of self realisation, empowerment and individual upward mobility. Such tools are applied even today to draw attention of caste Hindus who then bend over backwards to appease them. Despite all the positive features and achievements of conversion, it could neither annihilate the stigma of caste nor could it improve the living standards of the untouchables.

Another recently used identity is Dalit. According to Bhagwan Das (1996) the word Dalit is the name adopted by the untouchables themselves and has been popularized by their intellectuals, militant groups like the Dalit Panthers, writers, etc. The word Dalit has its origin in the Sanskrit word dal meaning crushed, broken, oppressed, etc. It is being widely used by social scientists, scholars, and even jurists but not been defined by any official agency or court. Dalit includes people of ‘untouchable’ origin irrespective of religion, region and language. Attempts are being made……to bring all people of ‘untouchable’ origin irrespective of religious persuasion, under one banner, to assert their right to have an identity and be recognised as an entity independent of the dominant groups (Bhagwan Das 1996)

The term ‘Dalit’ is supposed to be used first by Jotirao Phule in his attempt to work for upliftment of Dalits. In this way the word Dalit is of relatively recent origin of the 1960s in public discourse. Marathi literary figures and neo-Buddhists began to use the word Dalit in their writings and the contributions of the literary initiatives in replacing Harijan and Achut with Dalit may be located as the first case of public use of the term Dalit. They expressed their anger, protest and aspiration through this new word (Louis 2003). The word gained concurrence in public sphere during the riots in Bombay in early 1970s. Dalit Panthers used the term to assert their identity for rights and self-respect. Later the term came to be used to include all the oppressed and exploited sections of the society. It has essentially emerged as a political category.

However beyond the question of origin and birth in identity, there are other aspects related to human being. Dalit identity and deprivation also needs to be understood in the context of depriving the right to possess assets, and ownership over rightful property. Their relationship with land, water, forests have given rise to an organic feud in caste relationship in its renewed dynamics. What is the identity of a landless in this country? Benami? Nameless? Or something else? In most part of the country Dalits are either small or marginal farmers or landless. Analysing it from the historical viewpoint of dialectical materialism, historical materialism and scientific socialism, they are the first plebeians of the country. Due to the obvious paucity of land or resources or employment the largest number of migrants from one state to another is Dalits. Sizeable numbers among them are bonded labourers too; in places like Chhattisgarh there still exists a form of caste bondage in the form of Kamiya. Their life condition is wretched and extremely inhuman. Women and children are subjected to atrocious harassment and torture. Is it not a life of slavery? 

The question arise is whether the subalterns of this land will ever be allowed to be equal in terms of social status, in terms of rights over resources, in terms of access to education, in terms of political rights, in terms of cultural liberty, in terms economic freedom and so on? Will there be a culture of change, a change of human mind? Identity emerges from within the power of affirmation. It is the process of developing human-centric attitude and tendency towards life-sustaining culture, which is the culmination of the essence of human values and dynamics of assertion. 

Barabara Joshi (1986) quotes Pantawane saying, “Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of god, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, faith and heaven because these have made him a slave. He represents the exploited man in his country. … Dalitness is essentially a means towards achieving a sense of cultural identity. The inferiority complex based on to be a Dalit has now disappeared. Now Dalitness is a source of confrontation. This change has its essence in the desire for justice for all mankind.” Raj (2001) mentions that Dalits has a people, identity and culture had been here for several millenniums. They have established their lives on the solid foundations of resilience, inclusiveness, equality, justice, peaceful coexistence, liberty and community living. 

Albeit Dalit is not a caste, it is undeniably a constructed identity. Recent studies on identities show that a new Dalit identity is on the rise, one that is determined than the old subordinate position. These subalterns identify themselves as Dalits. They find a new identity by coming together with the perspective “Dalit is Dignified” thereby rejecting the sub-human status imposed on them by the Hindu social order (Bharati 2002). According to Nandu Ram, though the term Dalit represents a broader social category of people, in more recent years, it has become a nationwide phenomenon and is widely used by all untouchables irrespective of the different traditions and the parochial caste distinctions (of Brahmanism) also becoming a symbol of their social identity. He states that, contrary to a heuristic understanding the term Dalit is currently used for and by untouchable castes all over the country. Even social scientists have started referring to the Dalits and untouchables or the scheduled castes interchangeably (Ram 1995). 

Based on all these analysis one could draw the fact that the identity of Dalit has become a symbol of resistance, liberation, coexistence and cooperation than that of pains, agonies and subversion. Therefore this overturns the earlier preposition that Dalit is undignified to a new one as “Dalit is Dignity”. The old one has transformed into a new dignified one in the present context.

Hope that these explanations provided above would provide some impetus in understanding the "Dalit" identity question. I have gone through the verdict and let me give a clarification that the Supreme Court hasn't put a ban on the usage of "Dalit", but calling any Dalit with his/her caste name. 

With all Metta

Creation of a casteless and peaceful society is indeed the first step towards just, egalitarian, and harmonious society. A society of equals, neither unequal nor more-equals, beyond the strings of caste, class, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Otherwise it leads to social oppression, political exploitation, economic deprivation, cultural domination, gender discrimination, class isolation, deliberate exclusion. Lets’ believe in a society beyond this....

Goldy M. George
Dalit Mukti Morcha

Jai Bhim Dear Goldy Sir,

Its nice to see your opinion in form of Paper, and your efforts to make as final conclusion.

However, expecting to know more about references and name of Research conference where has been published this. As per paper, Academia against this (Word Dalit) usages, which is a fact, suggesting to go through literature of period 1935~1957, which is key to analyse this topic (as Literature Review).

But I do appreciate your efforts. 
And, Again I am agree on your last sentence "Supreme Court hasn't put a ban on the usage of "Dalit", but calling any Dalit with his/her caste name. "

ANYBODY calls anyone by him/her past identity including Religion, Caste, Race, new words Dalit, Ati-Dalit etc, will not be appreciable. Rather, it will be appreciable to call him/her by his/her name given to show his/her identity as ALL HUMAN BEINGS IDENTIFIED.

And for this, WE SHOULD NOT GIVE ANY CHANCE TO CALL US BY that. Rest is up to your level of understanding/comprehension.

Although, Calling and non-Calling by his/her past Group identity, will not solve any problems of OUR PEOPLE, to solve we have to work for, with the direction GIVEN BY DR. BABASAHEB.


Devendra D. Meshram
Osaka, Japan.