Democracy is meaningful only if it allows fair and equal opportunities to its citizens, including substantive participation of the worst-off social groups in social and political affairs. However, nowhere does democracy function with such ethical riders. Instead, it is always the powerful and the rich minority that hegemonises public institutions and disallows ordinary people from having engaging and critical perspectives against the ruling elites.
In India, the ideological perspectives of the Dalit-Bahujan masses are often relegated as narrow, sectarian or particularistic, whereas ideas promoted by the social elites are marked as secular, nationalist and even universal. Dalit-Bahujan ideas are seen as detrimental to the Hindu civilisational heritage and antithetical to the nationalist Hindutva project.
In the current political context, though the right-wing proponents have projected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as being inclusive of Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis, when it comes to incorporating their social experiences, literature and political ideas, it seems that the government is unwilling to have any sincere association. Instead, the right-wing wields anti-Dalit rhetoric as its political agenda.
The recent exclusion of literary texts by Tamil author Bama and Telugu writer Sukirtharani (alongside Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’, a story about an Adivasi woman) from the syllabus of Delhi University’s English Department simply re-endorses the right-wing’s fear and hatred towards alternative scholarship coming from marginalised people.
The 'Visionary' Social Elites
In the conventional Hindu discourse, Dalits are not recognised as capable humans who are entitled to equal rights and intellectual abilities. In the past, they were treated worse than animals, forced to perform the most menial of jobs, and were even brutally killed if they opposed the order. In contemporary times, conservative social elites still operate by upholding social prejudices that see Dalits as poor meritless souls or people dependent upon the mercies of the state.
In political discourse, they are treated as people incapable of offering any grand national vision or ethical ideas. Interestingly, the social elites looked upon themselves as divine and dignified entities, endowed with visionary power to provide grand objectivity to humanity. The ideas of Indian nationalism are crafted by such “virtuous” social elites.
Dalit-Bahujans can participate in nationalist endeavours but cannot become their master or determine their ideological prospect.
The social and political histories of nationalism were dominated by secular figures like Nehru and Gandhi, or, in the current context, by hyper-Hindutva ideologues like Savarkar.
Dalit-Bahujan icons like Jyotiba Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Periyar Ramaswamy, Birsa Munda, etc., were marked as petty rabble-rousers and seen as harmful for the Hindu social order.
For a long time, events and struggles for social justice found no mentionable space in national academic curriculums or intellectual discourses. It is outside the academic discipline that the Dalit-Bahujan ideology and movement became popular and more acceptable.
It Empowers the Learner and Scares the Ruling Class
Dalit-Bahujan ideas and literature are influenced by Phule and Ambedkar, and therefore, they often appear reformist or radical. The motivation is to make social life better for the poor and marginalised communities, including women. They raise alarm against immoral social sanctions, discriminatory customs and rituals, patriarchal control and violence, and highlight the limitations of the modern state in ameliorating the slave-like conditions of the depressed classes.
Dalit literature empowers the learner to reflect and act critically against the dominant and oppressive social rules and exploitative economic order. However, such critical writings or challenging thoughts about social ills and patriarchal domination are often seen as an attack on the rich “heritage” of Hindu civilisation.
Dalit-Bahujan literature has been reviled by the ruling classes because of its radicalism.
In 1987, the right-wing (especially the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra) militantly opposed the publication of Ambedkar’s ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ and called for a ban on it.
Dalit intellectuals and authors are often stereotyped as a hostile political camp that hates Brahmins and unceremoniously reprimands the traditional caste system and social practices.
In 2014, in Tamil Nadu, certain conservative caste groups demanded a ban on Perumal Murugan’s novel ‘One Part Woman’, suggesting that his work hurt religious and community sentiments. The right-wing believes that Dalit-Bahujans’ critical approach brings Hindu religiosity and Hindutva nationalism into crisis. Therefore, to safeguard the social order from such radical opposition, its arrest and exclusion becomes necessary.
Similarly, our universities are not seen as democratic institutions where faculty and students can explore multiple possibilities to understand science, nature and social realities. In contrast, the current dispensation wants to utilise academic institutions as an instrument to turn young minds into the flagbearers of Hindutva’s cultural project.
The Dalit-Bahujan Movement Won't Be Stifled
The right-wing expects that intellectuals, scholars and students shall function as sincere followers of Hindutva nationalist ideas and shall not challenge the traditional Hindu cultural values. People must perform their duties under the dictates of the social elites and stay obliged under the Brahmanical social order. Historical and political literature, especially by Dalit-Bahujan scholars, resist such repressive ideological format, and therefore, the right-wing condemns it as being ‘heretic’ or ‘anti-national’.
The dropping of Dalit authors and critical texts from the DU syllabus is thus not surprising, as the right-wing does not see academic institutions as spaces for free expressions and intellectual discourses — it sees universities as ideological battlegrounds.
However, though the backlash against Dalit-Bahujan ideas and literature is intense under the current regime, it will not halt the progress and popularity of the revolutionary Phule-Ambedkarite project. Dalit-Bahujan political and social ideas are not dependent on elite institutional support — they are rooted in the everyday struggles of the oppressed people, their folklores, local cultures and their vision of a better society.
Multiple social media platforms have already ensured that beyond the governmental control on free expression, there exist other democratic spaces that can support radical Dalit-Bahujan voices. It is often outside the walls of universities that oppressed communities have expressed their political concerns fearlessly.
Today, the right-wing must be delighted by excluding some Dalit-Bahujan texts from the syllabus of the university, but it is difficult to erase the monumental contribution that the Dalit-Bahujan intellectual scholarship has made. Such suppression would only provide a fresh impetus for thinking critically and would mobilise more people against such exclusionary academic practices.
(Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor at Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)