IntersectionalityCaste Writing Our Own Histories – Why We Need Dalit History Month

Writing Our Own Histories – Why We Need Dalit History Month

We need Dalit History Month to bring forth the stories of resistance, resilience & heroism of people who've been sidelined in academia.

The month of April is celebrated as Dalit History Month.The call for celebrating April — the birth month of Dr B R Ambedkar — as Dalit History Month was given by Tamil Dalit activist Paari Chezhian in a blog post, (reproduced here) in 2011. The concept of this initiative — inspired by Black History Month celebrated in the United States in the month of February — was put into action by a six-member team of Vee Karunakaran, Christina Thomas Dhanaraj, Asha Kowtal, Sanghapali Aruna, Manisha Devi and Thenmozhi Soundararajan in 2015. Now in its third year, Dalit History Month has taken a wider community-level form with a number of individuals and organisations contributing to the project.

The need for Dalit History Month is felt the same way as the need historian Carter G Woodson felt for the Negro History Week in 1926: to reclaim the agency of a mass of people who have historically remained peripheral in the consciousness of the academia and the state, and to bring forth their stories of resistance, resilience and heroism. In the words of Woodson, “If a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

We need Dalit History Month to reclaim the agency of people historically sidelined in both academia and the state.

It cannot be denied that caste Hindus have historically ill-treated Dalits and committed violent crimes against them. But there are also many stories of Dalits resisting this violence and indignities. Historians have failed to note these instances with sincerity. Contributions of Dalits to various spheres of life have similarly been erased.

Historian Chinnaiah Jangam in a recent paper in Economic and Political Weekly highlights the contributions of three Dalit communist leaders — Nambury Sreenivasa Rao, Bethala Yesudas and Thupakula Simhachalam — whom the communists themselves have forgotten. Jangam accuses that “the exclusion and dehumanisation of Dalits and other oppressed is so complete in Hindu Brahmanical literature and imagery that a Dalit can never see his/her self-being reflected in that iconography. Even the academic writings, including that of the Subalterns, are not exceptions.” 

This isn’t surprising because Brahmin Savarnas maintain a complete hold over institutional spaces. They are the only ones to write school textbooks, edit journals, author monographs, produce edited volumes and make documentary films. Bahujan scholars and journalists have historically been kept away from these exercises. Therefore, the history writing in India has been a product of Brahmin Savarna consciousness.

Ajinkya Gaikwad, assistant professor of political science at SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai says, “Savarnas dominating the historical discourse is a natural consequence of the logic of hierarchical (social) superiority which put them in control of knowledge and its dissemination. Later, history became a social ‘science’ and study of documents/manuscripts became critical. Again, most of this documentation had been done by the Savarna elite which was ‘reproduced’ by their descendants. This sustained their control.”

The history writing in India has been a product of Brahmin Savarna consciousness.

Brahmin Savarna scholars choose only those topics that they find relevant, topics they deem important, topics that might further their careers. Their upper-caste social conditioning prevents them from looking at Bahujan struggles and contributions as important, and in the rare cases that they do, their upper caste consciousness comes in the way of truthful investigation.

Gaikwad says, “One can clearly see the impact of social location on historical narratives. Historical understandings that emerged from Nehru and Ambedkar, for instance, are completely opposite. Nehru’s Discovery of India celebrates unity in diversity while Ambedkar’s Revolutions and Counter Revolutions does exactly the opposite.” 

Upper caste scholars, even though well meaning, rarely shed their class interests. They treat Bahujan masses as objects to be studied and analysed like an atom or a molecule; they study their social backwardness in isolation, invisibilizing the oppressor; and they end up labelling, caricaturing, essentializing them, doing more harm in the process than good.

Bahujans will have to write their own histories.

Bahujans are a vast mass of people — made up of thousands of castes — and therefore their histories are that much varied. They have a rich history of oral narratives, folk tales, myths and songs. The challenge in front of Bahujans is to excavate the past and document it for the digital age so that it will help in countering Brahminical history as well as raising Bahujan consciousness.

Dalit History Month project has embraced multiple media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and a web portal to reach out to a broader audience. Other initiatives, such as Dr B R Ambedkar’s Caravan, Velivada, Round Table India and Dalit Camera are also playing a crucial role in challenging the hegemony of Brahmin Savarnas in knowledge production, and in shaping Bahujan narrative. A Brahmin cannot be trusted or relied on to write about Bahujan struggles and achievements; Bahujans will have to write their own histories.

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