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How to Tell the Dalit Story

Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, has come out at a time when more Dalits in India are asserting their rights, and more non-Dalits are speaking up against the discrimination towards the community. Gidla’s book, published in the US in July and in India this month, is the story of the country through the eyes of the “untouchables”. India has completed 70 years of its independence, but caste still exists and discrimination based on it manifests itself in different forms. At 26, Gidla, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US, where she worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York. She was laid off during the recession in 2009, and has since been working as a conductor with the New York City Subway.

In a phone interview, Gidla, 54, speaks about her book, writing, her raw anger, and caste in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you describe yourself? Which identity precedes the other?

A Dalit, someone who is left-leaning, then I guess…a conductor. Caste is first because we are made aware of it all the time. If I go to India, I know it based on how we are treated. And since I wrote this book, caste has become my first identity here as well. In fact, my basic identity even now is that of a Dalit more than a writer. It is more like a conductor who became a writer rather than a writer who is also a conductor. I am more caste- and class-conscious than anything else. When I was young, I would say I am a Naxalite or a Communist first. I think I started becoming conscious of my Dalit identity in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh, where an entire settlement of untouchables was attacked by a mob of high-castes. It really jolted me and many of us out of our oblivion.

You started out trying to figure your story. At what point, on interviewing your family, did you realize you needed to write a book?

Initially, the phone calls were about finding out where I came from, but very quickly it became clear to me that it constitutes a book. I was shocked to realize that very few generations ago we were actually living in the forests and living off of the forests, and how we came to settle to doing agriculture—which is basically the point of civilization. My family was a part of that huge transition—from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. Unlike, say, places like Germany, where it took several centuries, these huge transitions took place in a very small duration of time for my family—from forests to plains, from tribals to civilized people, from tribals to untouchables, from worshipping totems to practising Christianity. Also, I realized how one becomes an untouchable. It’s not like some people randomly got assigned untouchability, some Brahminism. There is a material basis for this segregation. That caste and its evolution can be explained was fascinating to me.

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Excerpts: The Essential Ambedkar by Bhalchandra Mungekar

ambedkarIntroduction

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the tempo of the world has been accelerating forward at a breathtaking speed. However, in India, an indigenously created caste-based segregation, our version of racism, a minute and comprehensive form of discrimination and oppression that has existed for millennia, has been at work with the same speed, but unfortunately in the opposite direction. For the section classified as the Depressed Classes, day-to-day life is in itself a grave struggle, a manifold fight for survival.

In every modern, democratic nation, people want to feel fully alive rather than merely survive. In order to for them to do so, the polity is required to imbibe a sense of socio-economic and political equality, as well as liberty. However, in India, this is not, and has never been, the case, and there is no way to know how long, in the ongoing civilizational process, this human greed for adoring and enjoying certain privileges over others is going to last. But as long as inequality and discrimination exist, a struggle to get rid of this yoke by the deprived masses will certainly continue to be part of the socio-political fight for generations to come.

The nature of the struggle by the sieged population fighting to annihilate these caste fortifications has always been defensive rather than offensive. The credit for this civility goes to  Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the tallest, yet most neglected and often misunderstood intellectual-political leaders in the mainstream socio-political discourse of modern India. Perhaps because he fundamentally challenges the iniquitous Hindu social order, he has been rendered the most controversial of the mass political leaders in India. However, the fact remains that his key text, The Annihilation of Caste, contains persuasive arguments, heavily supported with solid facts, as well as a sophisticated, logical tone. This seminal book on the one hand depicts a rebellion against caste and untouchability and wants to destroy it; and on the other, it advocates non-enmity with coercion towards the tormentor, implicitly advising that there are always other practices available to push forward a struggle for justice responsibly rather than indulging in punitive violent measures. So the epoch-making approach Ambedkar adopts, though corrective and hence confrontational, is both a peacemaking as well as peacekeeping one.

Ambedkar  and Gandhi

Ambedkar was the pioneer intellectual in the study of caste and untouchability. He delved into such details that with all their possible and conceivable dimensions, he fought caste discrimination at all given levels: social, political, economic and educational. His Annihilation of Caste is both an illuminative as well as a redemptive text. Ambedkar used his writings and lectures to confront a world of indifference and betrayal in order to pursue his reformative agenda, equal in dimension to that of Gandhi’s. The power of his reason was such that Gandhi described him as a ‘challenge to Hinduism’. But unfortunately he did not receive the attention, the critical acclaim, or the adulation he deserves, the way Gandhi did. Ambedkar was of the view that political safeguards for Untouchables were necessary as the Untouchables constituted the largest minority, and that without these safeguards they would not be able to enjoy political and social freedom. This was viewed as a direct challenge to Gandhi’s unchallenged leadership and therefore the conflict between the two was inevitable.

Being a multifaceted personality—an economist, a sociologist, a barrister, an editor, a constitutionalist of the first rank, a professor, an able parliamentarian, an educationist and a commentator on Buddhism—Ambedkar was predestined to engage himself beyond personality conflicts and look into the problems of India from both a macro as well as micro perspective.

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