Dalit chetna in Dalit literary criticism


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‘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’ (p. 17, emphasis added).

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’ (p. 105, emphasis added). 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’ (p. 28).

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.

But in recent years Dalit authors and critics in the Hindi literary sphere have been attempting to develop a more specific definition of ‘Dalit consciousness’, one that is articulated in the expressive and interpretive practices of writing and reading. I will henceforth refer to this representation of Dalit consciousness as Dalit chetna, both to preserve the Hindi terminology and highlight the distinctive nature of the concept. Dalit chetna has emerged in recent years in a large body of Dalit literary criticism as a theoretical tool with which the architects of Dalit literary culture are able both to set boundaries for the growing genre of Dalit literature and launch a distinctly Dalit critique of celebrated works of Hindi literature. This article will focus on the second of these twin critical projects.

Dalit chetna is a fundamental component of an emerging theory of Dalit aesthetics, or saundaryashâstra. Critical commentaries such as Omprakash Valmiki’s Dalit Sâhitya ka Saundaryashâstra (Aesthetics of Dalit Literature) include chapters on the definition and correct understanding of Dalit chetna. Three anthologies of essays, interviews, poems and stories published in the late nineties and edited by Delhi-based publisher of Dalit literature Ramnika Gupta entitled Dalit Chetna: Sâhitya (Dalit Consciousness: Literature, 1996), Dalit Chetna: Kavita (Dalit Consciousness: Poetry, 1996), and Dalit Chetna: Soch (Dalit Consciousness: Thoughts, 1998) are compilations of works by myriad Hindi Dalit writers and critics debating the specific understandings and applications of Dalit chetna. More recently, the first line of Alok Mukherjee’s 2004 translation of Sharankumar Limbale’s Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature reads, ‘By Dalit literature I mean writing about Dalits by Dalit writers with a Dalit consciousness (chetna)’ (p.1). He goes on to define Dalit ‘consciousness’ as ‘the revolutionary mentality connected with struggle. Ambedkarite thought is the inspiration for this consciousness. 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’ (p. 32). 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’ (p. 31).

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 Chamâr characters as such heartless and lazy drunks.


For example Bhârâtîya Dalit Sâhitya Akâdemî (BDSA) president Sohanpal Sumanakshar (2005) writes, ‘Why would Premchand make such a characterization of [Dalits] in "Kafan"? Only so that he could win the praises of the upper caste brahmins and have them call his work "literature". Premchand indeed won the praise of the brahmins and was bestowed with the rank of emperor for his literature which displays dalits as loveless, soulless, base characters’ (p. 18).

For Sumanakshar, such characters are not ‘realistic’, and his notion of realism is inextricable from the requirements of honour and forthrightness outlined in the concept of Dalit consciousness. According to some, a lack of Dalit consciousness can come from a confusion between caste and class-related oppression. Omprakash Valmiki, a celebrated Hindi Dalit writer whose autobiography Joothan (2003) was recently translated and published in English, also finds fault with Premchand’s characterization of the Dalit men in ‘Kafan’, suggesting that Premchand wrongly conflates Dalits with farmers and peasants who face economic exploitation but who do not suffer from the specific problems born of the system of caste inequality. Valmiki writes: ‘The characters of Ghisu and Madhav in his story "Kafan" are Chamars, but the story does not raise any issue that is related to the problems of Chamars or Dalits. There is only a detailed depiction of their idleness and heartlessness. Even leftist critics believe this story of Premchand’s to be his best and most artistic. Many critics say that Ghisu and Madhav are representative of the agricultural class which is known as the lumpen proletariat’ (Valmiki 2004, p. 28).


The charge here that Premchand ignores the caste-related abuses faced by Dalits in a leftist, Marxist-progressivist outlook on Indian society is not uncommon among Dalit writers and critics. Valmiki argues further, ‘Not just Premchand, but several Hindi writers, thinkers and critics put all farmers, labourers, and Dalits in the same box when they think about them. But all these people do not have the same problems – caste is purely a religious and social issue, one which influences every other aspect of life. In Premchand’s works, this is a point of confusion’ (Valmiki 2004, p. 28).

In these critiques it becomes clear that the boundaries of the Hindi Dalit literary public are drawn in part in the space between caste and class, and Dalit critics are careful to mark their ideological difference from Marxist thinkers. Caste and its attendant problems are, in their thinking, entirely separate from economic inequality which is a symptom of social oppression rather than its cause. Premchand is relegated to the margins of Dalit public space by figures such as Valmiki, then, for failing to recognize the primacy of caste over class in the Dalit socio-political perspective.


Similarly, the point comes up repeatedly in Dalit critical discourse about Premchand that in matters of social reform, he was a follower of Gandhi, not Ambedkar. This is a significant matter for Dalit writers who feel that Dalit chetna was inspired solely by Ambedkar and who view Gandhi as a traitor to Dalits in the name of national unity. Mohandas Naimishray, another of Hindi Dalit literature’s respected and most frequently translated authors writes, ‘Was Premchand a storyteller with a Dalit chetna? The conception of Dalit chetna is so well-defined that it is not possible to attribute it to Premchand. He was a Kayasth by birth and Dalits cannot be blind to this fact... During Ambedkar’s Mahar movement when the Manusmriti was burned, Premchand kept silent and this is sufficient basis to say that he was not a Dalit writer’ (qtd. in Valmiki 2004, p. 28). Premchand’s political affiliations and public expression outside of literature are intrinsic to his inability to understand and convey a sense of Dalit chetna.

True to the form of public debate, however, there is another side to the literary and ideological debate over Premchand, one which suggests Hindi Dalit writers need to rethink the ways in which they judge and categorize literature. Anita Bharati, member of both the Dalit Lekhak Sangh (Dalit Writers Forum) and the Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM), both in Delhi, criticizes the reactionary responses of members of the Dalit community, such as the BDSA, who categorically refuse to include Premchand as a contributor to Dalit literature. She writes in defence of Premchand: ‘So then what is this opposition of Dalit writers towards Premchand? On one hand they believe that besides "Kafan" his stories "Thakur ka Kua", "Pus ki Rat", "Sadgati", and "Ghasvali" to be great Dalit stories, but on the other hand, taking up the subject-matter of "Kafan" they label him with epithets like "anti-Dalit" and "non-Dalit". If we were to make a comparison between Premchand’s Dalit characters and other Hindi writers’ Dalit characters, then we can decidedly conclude that Premchand’s characters are everywhere more prominent, argumentative, fearless, rebellious, and willing to clash with Brahmanism’ (Bharati 2004, p. 210).


Other Dalit writers too have warned of the danger of defining Dalit literary reception along caste lines. Literary critic Mohammad Azhar Dherivala (2004) suggests expanding the notion of Dalit chetna to include authors such as Premchand in an article about another of Premchand’s short stories, ‘Thakur ka Kua’ (The Thakur’s Well). This story generally garners more positive response in Dalit circles than ‘Kafan’ and is often used as an example of how sympathetic Premchand could in fact be towards Dalits. A poignant story with blameless Dalit characters, it illustrates the depths of the depravity of Dalit existence. In his article highlighting the Dalit chetna inherent in such a portrayal, Dherivala includes a powerful statement about the dangers of caste-based interpretations of literature: ‘By dividing contemporary authors, writers and poets into "Dalit writers" and "non-Dalit writers", we are not only dividing literature, but aren’t we also trying to join Dalit chetna with some kind of "agenda"? …Another danger from creating this kind of division is that it may seem that "Dalit literature" and "savarna (upper caste) literature" should be separated. In doing this we will impose a hierarchical division on literature. This question has been brought up here because in trying to impose their standards or "agendas" on Premchand, [Dalit writers] are forcing him into the guise of a "non-Dalit writer", and they will have closed off his literature from being included in this wider meaning of "Dalit"’ (p. 16).

Dherivala’s appeal to rethink ascribing the authority to represent Dalit consciousness only to those who are Dalit by birth represents the more liberal, inclusive side of an ongoing, deep-seated debate in the Hindi Dalit literary public. Can only Dalits experience and epitomize Dalit chetna? Should a specific caste identity be required in embodying a narrative subject who is authorized to tell stories of caste-related suffering? These are fundamental questions about who constitutes the Hindi Dalit public sphere, about who has the ultimate authority to speak, not as an individual, but as a representative of the community.


Several contributors to volumes of Dalit literary criticism have also focused their attention on the works of early 20th century Chhayavâd poet Nirala, and their evaluation of the nature of his writing has generally been much less contested than that of Premchand. True to the spirit of classic Chhayavâd lyrical content and style, many of Nirala’s poems are romantic odes to nature and love, though a few of his poems do express clear critical commentary about social inequalities. It is to these poems that some Dalit critics have turned to measure their conformity to Dalit chetna, resulting in a largely positive response and attempts to claim Nirala for a growing list of contributors of Dalit chetna to ‘traditional’ Hindi literature.


Although Valmiki, above, expressed a refusal to accept those writers heralded by nationalist-era critics like Ramchandra Shukla as the epitome of Hindi literary aesthetics, supporters of Shukla’s critical legacy have also joined in the discussion. Several special issues of the journal of the Acharya Ramchandra Shukla Research Institute in Varanasi, Mândand, have over the last several years been dedicated to critical discussions surrounding Dalit literature.

In one essay, critic Devdas Tembhare (2000) suggests inroads Dalit chetna has made in 20th century Hindi literature beyond works penned by Dalit authors. Much of his attention is on the works of Nirala. Tembhare suggests, ‘In contemporary Hindi poetry, Nirala voiced a preliminary form of Dalit chetna in his poem "Breaking Stones" (Voh Torti Patthar). Indeed he did not name the character in the poem a "Dalit", but is not the description of her condition the description of Dalits in reality?’ (p. 6).

Tembhare goes on to highlight sections of both ‘Breaking Stones’ and ‘Beggar’ (Bhikshuk), pointing out the affinities between poetic descriptions of a woman labourer and beggar that express both sympathy for the individual and outrage at the manifestation of social inequalities, and the kind of revolutionary mentality so often ascribed to Dalit literature. He suggests, ‘Nirala was not a Dalit, he definitely had a deep sympathy for Dalits. At the time of the above-mentioned poems by Nirala, the notion of "Dalit chetna" for changing the minds of the masses did not exist, but his importance in developing the concept of Dalit chetna was no less significant’ (p. 6).

Dalit literary critic Rajkumar Saini (2000) also credits Nirala with a prescient understanding of Dalit chetna. He cites a verse of Nirala’s as one of the first literary appearances of the term ‘Dalit’. He writes: In the history of modern Hindi poetry, the great poet (mahâkavi) Nirala was probably the first to use the word ‘Dalit’:

‘Dalit jan par karo karunâ

dîntâ par utar âye prabhu tumhârî

shakti varunâ.’

[Show compassion to Dalits/come lord Varuna and end their suffering/with your power.]

‘It can be said that Nirala is praying for Dalits, offering a message of compassion, but today’s Dalit chetna has little faith in prayer or compassion. Rather it has developed and been organized with protest as its aim. It is aggressive and infectious and gives precedence to resistance, opposition, and struggle. Nirala wanted this too, but in his time such a Dalit chetna had not yet developed’ (pp. 93-94).


Saini’s analysis suggests an evolutionary understanding of Dalit chetna. Attributing the beginnings of the elaboration of the concept in literature to Nirala, he also allows that poetry such as Nirala’s written today would not stand up to the Dalit chetna test. Dalit chetna today is a thoroughly modern critical concept in the mode of deconstruction. It is an expression of denial, a theoretical tool that contributes to the destabilization of traditional notions of social hierarchy and cultural authenticity. Contemporary Dalit critics are specific about both the current nature and the importance of Dalit chetna. According to Valmiki (2001), Dalit chetna is elemental in opposing the cultural inheritance of the upper castes, the notion that culture is a hereditary right for them, and one that is denied to Dalits. He suggests, ‘Dalit chetna is deeply concerned with the question, "Who am I? What is my identity?" The strength of character of Dalit authors comes from these questions’ (pp. 28-29).

In Valmiki’s sense of the term, Dalit chetna is what gives Dalit literature its unique power. Like Limbale, he asserts that this sets it apart from more ‘traditional’ literature. And though there have been other writings by Dalits in the history of Indian literature, such as Bhakti poetry and the early 20th century writings by Dalits in the ‘little magazines’ of western India, these failed to change traditional understandings of caste in society and cannot truly be called Dalit literature because there was no expression of Dalit chetna. Rather, the concept of Dalit chetna is wholly modern, even deconstructive in its ability to clear the way for a new understanding of Dalit identity.

‘Dalit chetna does not just make an account of or give a report on the anguish, misery, pain and exploitation of Dalits, or draw a tear-streaked and sensitive portrait of Dalit agony; rather it is that which is absent from "original" consciousness, the simple and straightforward perspective that breaks the spell of the shadow of the cultural, historical and social roles for Dalits. That is Dalit chetna. "Dalit" means deprived of human rights, those who have been denied them on a social level. Their chetna is Dalit chetna’ (Valmiki 2001, p. 29).


In conclusion, Dalit chetna has become an essential component of the growing Dalit literary critical lexicon. And such literary criticism is increasingly developing as a critical component to the Dalit project of claiming space in the public discursive sphere. Now Dalit writers are not only in a position to represent their own lives and tell their own stories, as they have been since the advent of Dalit literature several decades ago, but with the creation of a new Dalit critical discourse, they are also in a position to assess the representation of their lives by others. In some cases they may reject works that have long been understood to have sympathetic Dalit characters, and in other cases they may find affinity with authors who have not traditionally been celebrated as socially engaged. But the discussion will undoubtedly continue, and with it the definition and critical employment of the concept of Dalit chetna will continue to evolve and be refined.



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