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What Your School Never Taught You About Dalit History

As Dalit History Month comes to an end, let’s recount some untold stories and eradicated narratives about dalits and their history.

History is rarely neutral. By a rule, it always skews in the favour of the victor. Anything recorded, or not recorded, in our archives is deliberate, as is the language used and the number of pages that have been devoted to it. Even the inclusion – or not –  of accompanying photographs suggests something. It all exists for a specific reason: to possibly represent an idea. Then what does it mean that Dalit history in NCERT textbooks never progresses beyond an inquiry into victimhood? Or what about the fact that caste is written about as if it were an untoward practice in faraway history? 

Up until my first year of college, I took it for granted that a Dalit history existed separate from History that already was. It was only when I was toying with the idea of studying history at college and told my father about it that he said, quite indifferently, “Really? What’s the point? It’s all a big joke.” This was funny because my dad was obviously being his usual contrarian self, but I also couldn’t disregard the suggestive militancy behind his quip. As the truism goes: until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.   

In school, my classmates couldn’t argue more single-mindedly about how caste had become ‘invisible’ in urban spaces (patronizingly explaining to me how it was about class now) while almost comically missing the fact there was not a single Dalit person in the classroom at the time. Nor had any ever stood by the blackboard and taught them. While they all insisted caste had become indiscernible, it materialized in their languages; I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard ‘Chamar’ and ‘Chandal’ being thrown around as offhand insults. It became clear that caste never became invisible; the people at its hierarchical end had. 

In Silence of the Archive, Simon Fowler talks about the narrow view that events recorded in history provide us with. He introduces the concept of ‘archival silence’ which suggests that our collective histories are full of narrative cavities. Historians play the central role of selecting records, and what is often selected for inclusion is not always what is the truth. It is they who write the books, author monographs, compile volumes, and decide what is taught in schools. We want to find evidence of marginalized narratives in history, but these records rarely make the cut. They, in this case, is a Brahmin Savarna consciousness. 

Impelled by my father’s puncturing remark, I finally took an interest in learning about these ‘missing’ histories. I decided to go on a self-directed study. But any information on the topic was conscientiously inaccessible. Any meaningful research about it was behind a considerable paywall and written in impassive academic language. Why was the history of people who resembled the majority of my classmates almost colloquially recognized but I had to probe so deep into academic bookshelves to find out the prerequisites about these people? It was like trying to learn about a missing secret society when – mind you – it was the lived reality of more than two hundred million people I was looking for. Where had it gotten lost?

Dalit History Month is only a recent phenomenon in India, having been officially started only in 2013.  It is a women-only collective full of Dalit women in science and humanities that specialize in the issue of caste apartheid and the history of their people. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, one of the founding members, said that she was inspired to start the initiative after being tired of having her history be misrepresented by people from ‘oppressor caste backgrounds. 

As reported on Firstpost, she said: “To us, these events, struggles, songs, leaders are not just words in a paper, they are not the blocks through which we build our careers or political propaganda that is slowly stacked up to erase the true history of this subcontinent, they were our own lives, these are our truths. We live the consequences of these truths every day. We are alive because of the resilience and struggles of the past. So we wanted to come up with a process to where the marginalised can own, tell and celebrate their own history. This is what has resulted in the participatory transmedia project that is Dalit History Month.

Though she’s one of the fortuitous survivors of a ravaged people’s history, I never knew about Jhalkaribai until I went looking for her. A Dalit woman soldier in Rani Laxmibai’s army, she played a key role in the analysis and strategizing the battle of Jhansi during the rebellion of 1857. Born into a poor Dalit family, she started out as a regular soldier in the queen’s army but quickly rose in ranks to the position of advising Laxmibai on vital matters. Having an ‘exceptional strength of will’, she was as much a confidante as an advisor to the queen. 

At the height of the conflict at the fort during the Battle of Jhansi, she disguised herself as the queen to distract the colonial army, so that Laxmibai could manage a safe escape. It was Jhalkaribai that continued to fight the battle, while Laxmibai rode off into the sunset. Perhaps, the most upsetting part is that her identity as a Dalit woman has been suppressed in popular narratives. In fact, most of her mainstream portrayals do not characterize her beyond the complexity of a sacrificial pawn or a loyal servant. But her legend has remained in the collective memory of the people in Bundelkhand for centuries. Her heroism in fighting against the colonizers of East India Company has been memorialized in Bundeli folklores and also become a symbol of Koli (Scheduled Caste) womanhood. 

Of course, there are many more stories like this that are just missing from our archives; many narrative gaps and ignored subplots in our histories. Some accounts were never documented, some were maliciously destroyed, yet some extended in ways that the dominant power structures had no means of contending with.

Whatever the case, the result is simple: our archives, as Verne Harris describes, are: “at best a sliver of a sliver of a sliver”.  So how does a community that was never given a voice preserve itself against history? The experiences of Dalit, tribal and Bahujan people survive, mostly, in oral narratives, folk tales, myths and songs. As Historian Chinnaiah Jangam says, “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.” It is thus important to pay attention to these non-traditional forms of expressing histories such as myths, folktales, songs, and oral narratives. 

To gauge how inclusive the curriculum was at the University of Delhi, I talked to a senior of mine who just graduated with an honours degree in History. She told me that they didn’t have any specific papers for Dalit history, only ‘a subtopic that dealt with it’ (emphasis mine). Even with my literature degree, there was a deficit of subterranean voices; the reading lists were often more servile to the diaspora in the US than to the unremembered of this country.

On-campus, I was often a witness to groups of ‘progressive’ upper-caste people, taking embittered jabs at the ‘north-easterns with iPhones X’ and ‘OBCs arriving on Pajeros’ with a few casteist slurs thrown in for good measure. In that initial semester, my Dalit, Bahujan and north-eastern classmates often trod cautiously, occupying contrite spaces. Many had an impostor syndrome, and remained silent in classes, feeling like they don’t really deserve to be there. It is disorienting how many of the Bahujan students shared the identical paranoia of having been admitted to their very prestigious colleges due to ‘an administrative malfunction’, and fearing that they would be ejected once this secret was out. A concern as irrational as this I never encountered in the UC students – who, by mistake or design, shared their last names with the founders and gurus of these institutions. 

Since the Dalit identity cannot assimilate itself into the conventions of Brahmin-Savarna iconography, they rely more on non-traditional forms of expressing their histories such as idiomatic language, narrative rituals, myth-making, folk tales and songs. These are the things that the gatekeepers of modern scholarship are hesitant to admit. They express scepticism towards the reliability of such conventions and question their historic value. This a casteist practice springing from an ethnocentric bias. I remember how the NCERT history book implicitly referred to Birsa Munda as an erratic, mystical figure, destabilizing his relevance as an important freedom fighter in India’s struggle against British colonialism. There was also no mention of Jhalkaribai in those textbooks, though her story is infinitely vital.

However, more revisionist historical literature is gradually surfacing to challenge popular narratives. One such book is ‘We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement’ by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon that talks about the involvement of women in the anti-caste movement, which I highly recommend. After all these years, these women are coming forward to say, ‘But yes, we were there. You just weren’t looking’. But change doesn’t seem to be coming fast enough.

The histories of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasis are still just a Did-You-Know box in NCERT textbooks, a perfunctory footnote in the books of Ramachandra Guha. So where do we start? To borrow an expression from Saidiya Hartman, the practice of translating Dalit suffering into Brahmancial pedagogy has got to go; this is an issue that needs to be politically redressed. We need to structurally divest the mainstream narratives of their intransigence and absoluteness. We need to consider the likelihoods of someone who has never been at the historical advantage of having their likelihoods considered. Then we – you and I – need to tell a different story, this time. 

Read also: The Curriculum Culture: History and Politics and Syllabus

Image Credit: The Indian Express

Sushrut Yadav

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