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.