If culture carries over into one’s writing, for Dalit writers, it’s the fight against culture that carries over in their works. With the breakdown of the traditional caste system moving Dalits up the professional ladder, many from various fields find it rather uncomfortable and sometimes downright humiliating to still be referring to ancient texts that clearly enunciate caste system.
M Vinodhini who teaches Telugu literature at the Yogi Vemana University in Kadapa says she finds it extremely disturbing to be teaching children some text from the Vedas that denounce Dalits. “Let us take the text of ‘Shakuntalopakhyanam’ for example. This text is based on ‘Manusmriti’ that does not recognise Dalits as human beings and relegate them as ‘panchamas’. How is it possible to teach this text to our children? Many non-brahmins have also come into teaching and they find it extremely offensive,” she pointed out.
Speaking at a panel discussion held at the fourth edition of the Hyderabad Literary Festival, she was accompanied by activists, poets and writers among others, who addressed the issue of oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalit community. The session was moderated by Gita Ramaswamy who has worked extensively in villages with Dalits on issues of wages, land rights and against various atrocities.
Prominent Telugu Dalit writer and women’s activist, Gogu Shyamala, expressed her consternation over the ‘sympathy’ other caste communities shower their way.
“Many of non-Dalits look at us with sympathy. They treat Dalits like victims who are in dire need of their help and charity. However, Dalits want to carve their own identity in lifestyle, agriculture and language. Everyday, we face a cultural and ideological battle,” stated Shyamala.
The Dalit writer had once written a poem titled ‘Beef is My Life’, to protest against those who unfairly castigate Dalits for consuming the meat. “People from every society eat beef (either openly or in secret). However, when a Dalit consumes beef, he/she is punished for it. We have no human rights. According to the Hindu religion, a Dalit woman does not have the right to have a family. This is practised even today in our temples,” she fumes.
For literary critic Purushotham K, an anthologist and expert in pedagogy as well, the romaticism associated with villages irked him considering the upper caste always had the upper hand in villages.
“In the evolution of Telugu literature, there has been a constant case of romanticism with the village. All the left-oriented people and singers praised their village. However, a village was never a democratic and human space as there are no rights for Dalits. There are no human beings, only caste beings,” he explained.
He also drew comparisons with the west in seeking an identity for the Dalit community.
“In the western world, people are identified as individuals. However, in India, people are identified by the caste they belong to and Dalits have absolutely no value. Here, if a lower caste individual commits a crime, the entire community pays the price for it,” he explained.
The panelists concluded that despite living in the 21st century, many of the problems faced by their kinsmen were regressive, and the way forward is to move beyond the caste-politics.