Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Dalits Overcoming Violation and Violence: A Contest between Overpowering and Empowering Identities in Changing India

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Dalits Overcoming Violation and Violence: A Contest between Overpowering and Empowering Identities in Changing India

Article excerpt

   Today, if you pause here in the middle of the twentieth century, 
   you will observe the wounds 
   that have festered and bled for centuries: they are stains 
   that you have admired volubly as historically inevitable. 
   Fields with ripening crops, orchards bursting with fruit, 
   emerald green meadows, chimneys of cloth mills, 
   factories producing a thousand delights, machines in the mines, 
   skyscrapers peeping into space: 
   capital towns and mansions where, 
   on the spacious terraces, the seats of power are set out in a row, 
   with no end to the traffic of their occupants: 
   As you set off all this opulence, don't forget to observe 
   the footprints of each generation lashed by the wind and the rain, 
   burnt in the sun. 
   One alter the other, all are ground in the mill; 
   All tread along the river of time 
   with no change in their condition--with their hands empty: 
   the thorn of each sorrow they have endured 
   fastens into the heart of each great [wo]man; 
   on the bank of the river of opulence 
   you may observe, beneath the footprints, 
   the stains of blood. (1) 

Situating Dalits in a caste-based Indian society: broken and yet striving-for-wholeness, oneness

Besides the traditional approaches, Indian society can also be studied through the lens of caste. Two distinct and distinguishable components of society cannot be disregarded in any such caste-based social analysis. In general these two components exist within their own geographical, cultural, social, political and economic worlds, and their interaction is proscribed by centuries of religio-social constraints and constrictions. And yet there are ongoing attempts to reimagine and reinscribe these conventional patterns of intercourse.

On one side we have the caste communities, which consists of four hierarchically ordered castes. (2) The Brahmins (priests) are the preservers and protectors of the eternal laws of the universe (Dharma). The Ksatriyas (rulers and warriors) are the defenders and the guarantors of the safety and security of the community. The Vaisyas (business people) are the conservers and distributors of wealth. And the Sudras (the labourers) are the working majority involved in the production of essential commodities. There is a clear separation between the first three castes, which are ritually pure and socioeconomically dominant (referred to as the twice-born), and the fourth, labouring caste, which is ritually suspect and socio-economically dominated (referred to as the once-born); but they together form the constituents of the Hindu human community.

On the other side, obliged to, but outside of, this fourfold Indian caste society exist the outcaste communities. Even though this populace includes about 16 percent of Indian society, it was thought of as being sub- or non-human, and thus was not included in the understanding of society. It continues to live outside the borders of the Hindu caste society with the labels "outcaste", "untouchable", "exterior caste", "depressed class", and "dalit". In an ironic manner, the term "Dalit" is used as a category to signify those communities that have been ejected by the caste system as outcastes--and yet it strives to forge a movement of anti-caste peoples. Thus, Dalit is not a caste identity but an anti-caste collective movement aiming to dismantle the caste system. It gathers under one umbrella all the communities cast out from the caste system, uniting in order to break, in a decisive manner, the structures of such a hierarchical and oppressive institution.

The vulnerability inherent in constructing the term "Dalit" to keep other communities out of this collective by utilizing the caste versus outcaste indicator, while at the same time projecting it as an anti-caste people's movement, cannot be underplayed. On the positive side, this has led to temporary solidarity between Dalit and other oppressed Sudra communities controlled by Dalit interests. …

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