Negritude, Black Power, and Dalits of India

While the negritude movement among the blacks helped them face the tide of racism and colonialism, a similar movement among the dalits of India may have helped build confidence. Dalits in India have several times been compared to the condition of colonized African slaves. However, the Dalits have led life under a far more sinister culture, mostly oppressed by upper classes of India. Interestingly, these upper classes constitute a small percentage of the Indian population.

Dalits, or ‘Shudra’ in common parlance have been subjected to segregation, untouchability derived out of perceived physical and ‘spiritual’ pollution, when associated with a person from that community. The British rule helped the dalits to carve an identity for themselves and could be a paradoxical benefit of the colonial process.

English education and exposure to western cultures have helped the Dalits of India to forge a new identity and writing, in any language has given Dalits a voice, which otherwise would not have been possible.

Education and exposure to literature have helped the Dalits to move forward from the ideas of contamination and pollution forced upon them by the upper castes. Identifying their situation with the blacks in America could have been possible only through exposure to education and literature.

Dalit Literature represents a powerful, emerging trend in the Indian literary scene. Given its overarching preoccupations with the location of Dalits in the caste-based Hindu society, and their struggles for dignity, justice, and equality, this literature is by nature oppositional.

With the growing translation of works by Dalit writers from various regional languages into English, Dalit literature is poised to acquire a National and an International presence as well as to pose a major challenge to the established notions of what constitutes literature and how we read it.
The primary motive of Dalit literature is the liberation of Dalits. Dalit struggle against casteist tradition has a long history. In modern times, because of the legacy of Mahatma Phule and Dr. Ambedkar, Dalit literature got impetus in Maharashtra.

Nevertheless, before the name came into being in the 1960s, such people as Baburao Bagul, Bandhu Madhav, and Shankarao Kharat were already creating Dalit literature. In its formal form it sprouted out of a progressive movement called “Little Magazine,” which was a kind of rebellious manifestation of the educated youth of those days against the establishment.

These Dalit youths found inspiration in the movement of blacks in the distant land of North America; their black literature and Black Panther became the role models of sorts for them. This protest gained its first expression in the form of a new literature called Dalit Literature. Poems, short stories, novels, and autobiographies written by Dalit writers provided useful insights on the question of Dalit identity.

Now the subaltern communities found a new name by coming together with the perspective ‘Dalit is dignified’ thereby rejecting the sub-human status imposed on them by the Hindu social order. Some of the famous writers of this genre are Mahashweta Devi, Baburao Bagul, Basudev Sunani, Bama, Abhimani, Poomani, Imayam, Marku, Mangal Rathod, Neerave Patel, Perumal Murugan, Palamalai, Sudhakar, D. Gopi and others.

The primary mode, in which the State in India conceives of justice for the Dalits, is that of reservation or distributive justice. As the life narratives suggest, the justice-concerns of the Dalits go much beyond the narrow confines of distributive justice and touch upon the so-called non-cognitive’ issues like fear, powerlessness, violence and humiliation.

The narratives confirm what Iris Young points out, that it is a mistake to reduce the idea of justice to distribution of resources alone. While thinking about justice, the concept of distribution should be explicitly limited to material goods, like things, natural resources, or money. This article is a modest attempt in that direction.

Today’s Dalit Literature that occupies a pride of place is actually born out of the heinous system of untouchability and caste discrimination that have been practiced in India for the past millennia. Like Black Literature, Dalit writing was characterized by a new level of pride, militancy, sophisticated creativity and above all sought to use writing as a weapon.

Dalit writers were quick to point out that the 2000-year-old history of oppression has not been documented at all: it is a literal holocaust that has slipped by without being put into words!

Marathi Dalit literature is the forerunner of all modern Dalit literature. It was essentially against exploitation, and made use of writing as a method of propaganda for the movement. It was not immediately recognized by the mainstream which was obsessed with middle class issues. The ideas of pollution and contamination, which are shocking to any educated person, have been brought forward by Dalit writers.

Today, English-speaking Dalits and tribals are less disrespected; therefore, empowered by English, Dalits can take their place in the new globalized world. English broke the stranglehold of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic teaching, a privilege of only the elite castes.

Strangely, postmodernism in the west has encouraged the ‘blacks’ of India to write more, and express themselves, and fight against a colonization which began when the Indo-European speaking upper class invaders entered and subjugated these indigenous populations. Sometimes, colonization and slavery could exist within a society for thousands of years and go unnoticed. Indian situation could be a good example.


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  • Madhuri Katti

    It is rather unfortunate that it has taken so long for Dalit literature to get due recognition and its rightful place in Indian literature. It did dare to hold a mirror to all the ugliness and filth while mainstream was busy romanticising the world.

    • Robert Lourembam

      It sure did! I see a lot of similarities between black literature and dalit writings. However, black literature is more extensive and varied, which is perhaps the reason for its popularity.

  • Sandhya Bhoi

    Yours statement about “pollution” in spirituality which makes a large margianalised group in india is touching one .

    To my knowledge Rabi Sing in Oriya language is a progressive writer, not a dalit writer.
    Really, it is great a concerne that in the age of Atom and Internet slavery in the name of caste still exists in shining India.

    • Robert Lourembam

      Thank you Ms. Bhoi.

  • Shaunak

    It is a common practice to address Dr. B.R.Ambedkar as Babasaheb Ambedkar; “Babarao” the term you have used may not be correct.

    Interestingly, the following article will be a good eye-opener, published especially on the eve of India’s Republic Day.

    • Robert Lourembam

      Thank you, Shaunak.

  • Shaikat

    Well written. I didn’t know about Dalits using the english language to their advantage like this. It’s very good to know and of course this makes them competitive on the job market as well. But I would be careful making claims that “invaders” came and subjugated the locals. Things are much, much more complicated than that of course. Geneological studies show that these “invasions” from central Asia happened in many phases over time and that many upper caste hindus have the same gene types as Dalits. I think there has always been a system of divided labor in India which was exploited by Brahmins to create the system we know today.

    • Robert Lourembam

      Thanks for visiting.. At the end of the day, these are all theories, and it depends in which context we are viewing them… However, English certainly would help the oppressed of India

  • Shaikat

    And of course more people knowing English helps India as a whole to compete on the global market. And to really help the Dalits and tribes of India, we need to get them out of the villages. That is where discrimination lives on and will live on for a while. Although discrimination does occur in the cities, it is definitely much less than rural areas. And of course if Dalits get some proper primary and secondary education, they can truly benefit from the reservations made for them in colleges, jobs etc.

    • Robert Lourembam

      Perhaps.. But that would overload the already crowded urban areas. There needs to be a change in the way people think. A paradigm shift has to occur.

  • chandra bhan prasad

    Hi Dear, to know more on Dalits and English, you may to visit ENGLISH THE DALIT GODDESS on my website /

    chandra bhan prasad

  • Megan

    What does the picture mean?

    • Jaiyant Cavale

      The Dalits were night soil gatherers. In many rural areas of India (and I bet many urban areas as well) they still clean and dispose human waste, and that is used as an explanation for the humiliating treatment that the mainstream metes out to them. This article in Times Online might help you understand a bit better:

      The picture seems to be a racist advertisement which depicts the obvious, in a perverse, nauseous manner.

  • bharathiraja

    it is happy to to touch with dalit people and their autobiographical events

    UGC project fellow for dalit literature

  • shpresa beka

    you should take off this 100 racism

    • Jaiyant Cavale

      We do not want to remove the photo because it would be like hiding the racism that exists. This is exactly how Dalits have been treated.. Like they are subhuman. And we would like everyone to know that such inhuman, dehumanizing racism still exists. It exists in the very country Dalits call their home. Taking this picture off would mean, we are ignoring the nauseating treatment that they have received from the mainstream society for thousands of years. I really appreciate your disgust at the picture. It is exactly the feeling the author wanted to evoke. It is only with these strong feelings that we become aware of the horrible things that we do to each other, and how we still call ourselves human. I was myself shocked and disgusted when I saw this image..

  • Joy

    I think a new dalit face will emerge among the Dalits as a whole. The Vernacular Dalits . As the dominant global language politics will be pro-active to take in it’s fold and accept expressions in English . The original authors will be left as the neo Dalits of the linguistic hegemony of the English groups and never be evaluated on its actual worth.

    • Robert Lourembam

      Thank you very much Joy for your comment.

      I absolutely agree. It’s about time that the paradigm shift happened. Dalit face will not emerge as a whole amongst the Dalits, but it will also gain its well-deserving respect and the place in the mainstream society, which also includes the field of writing.