Review | 'The Dalit Truth': Weak anthology that fails to shed light on proposed truth
If you have lived your life as a Dalit in India, you probably would think you need to read this book, but you don’t––there is nothing here that you do not already know.
Published: 24th July 2022 05:00 AM | Last Updated: 23rd July 2022 01:20 PM | A+A A-
As an anthology, the volume under review is slightly weak. It does not cast any fresh light on the Dalit question, nor does it say much that is dramatically new. It comprises a dozen essays, brought together by a talented civil servant who quit services to join politics full-time, purportedly to discuss Ambedkar’s vision for a different India, but never quite got around to do it. There are far too many books on the Dalit condition in India for this one to gain much traction.
The book presumes to talk about the Dalit Truth, but does not engage with it to argue what that truth is. Is it simply the discrimination, or the banality of that discrimination that constitutes “the Dalit truth”? Indeed, if you come from a socially privileged background, you are likely to have led a very insulated life, in the course of which, you may not even have registered the various ignominies that the Avarna people are subjected to. If so, this book should neither be the first book on the Dalits that you read, nor the most important one, yet, but it is one you should not altogether give the slip.
Despite not being the most representative anthology of the most important currents of the increasingly prolific body of literature on the Dalit experience in India, it has a few veritable gems–– four to be precise. The two contributions that add the greatest value to the volume are by Bhanwar Meghwanshi and Badri Narayan, carrying piercing analysis of not only how the present- day BJP and its politics of Hindutva managed to gain leverage among the various Dalit communities across the country, but also where exactly the Dalit political constituency lost its momentum.
In his insightful essay, Meghawanshi analyses how the BJP promoted all those sections of the Dalit community who never benefited (neither from Congress, nor from the politics of the Dalit-based parties like the BSP), giving them access to state patronage. Narayan, by contrast, highlights how the language of Dalit politics has changed from mere job reservations to a search for dignity, and how the BJP is factoring this into the larger narrative of aspirational India––thereby appearing to be not using them for electoral politics, even as they do just that.
The other memorable piece is Raj Sekhar Vundru’s perceptive treatment of Ambedkar’s own political vision, presumably summarising his significant research on Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel. Vundru points out that the integration of the Dalits (the untouchables of the Colonial records) was by no means a foregone conclusion in the 1930s and the shape and contours of the Hindu community that we see today, with the Dalits being a part of it, was an outcome of the process of definition of the citizen body that Ambedkar himself did not endorse, either willingly or happily. One may feel glad for the Poona Pact, whereby the untouchables had to abandon their separate electorate for a general one with reserved seats, but it should come as no surprise that no Dalit, who is conscious of his own condition, sharesthat feeling.
What it actually means to be Dalit is treated in a very unacademic essay that serves as an eye-opener–– from the lens of cinema by Pa Ranjith, the highly acclaimed maker of two successful films, Kaala and Kabali. That a film with Dalit protagonist may actually be stalled by producers, fearing that it would lose money, that producers and film distributors may even back out from marketing a film if the protagonist is played by a Dalit, may come as a shock to many who live in their bubbles of social privileges. The essay deserves to be read simply for the bubbles it may prick.
If you have lived your life as a Dalit in India, you probably would think you need to read this book, but you don’t––there is nothing here that you do not already know. If you have not experienced what it is to be a Dalit in India, you might think you don’t need to read this book, but you do.