First published: 18 September 2022 | Updated: 25 January 2023
2022 has witnessed the publication of some significant books in the field of Dalit studies. I enlist here six of my favorite picks based on the criteria of conceptual novelty and the potential to advance the anti-caste discourse.
My first pick, Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition (North Atlantic Books, 2022). The Foreword of the book has been written by Tarana Burke and the Afterword is authored by Cornel West. Thenmozhi is a major Dalit activist and author based in America. The key terms used in the book are trauma and healing. While the caste-induced wounds and injuries are experienced daily by the Dalits in the Indian subcontinent as well as in the diaspora, it is important, more than ever, to think about how to “heal” – oneself and others – from the disabling effects of caste. It is one thing to diagnose the cancer of caste plaguing the world. But it is also absolutely necessary to invent a cure. Thenmozhi’s work is going to be a major contribution to rethinking the existing strategies of annihilation of caste at the social and collective levels while it will also shed light on the private and individual efforts of healing from the damages caused by caste atrocities both at the physical and psychological levels. The Trauma of Caste is destined to open up new avenues to advance the gendered and psychologized anti-caste discourse. Thenmozhi’s masterly comparatist insights into the other political and religious minorities has all the potential to turn the book into a global bestseller.
My second pick, N. Sukumar’s Caste Discrimination and Exclusion in Indian Universities: A Critical Reflection (Routledge, 2022). The book deconstructs the myth of merit as promoted in the academia and exposes the inequalities – predominantly caste-based – that structure the institutional spaces. It foregrounds the notion that, for the Dalit students, the academic space is fundamentally a dystopian universe, a universe which is filled with suffering and injustice. Therefore, they continually experience an “educational apartheid” and many of them are led to the path of suicide where suicide becomes “a testimony of protest.” The book comprises six chapters and the chapter titles are enough to evoke interest of the reader. The first chapter is called “caste and academia” and it offers a nuanced study of the various casteist dimensions structurally rooted in the academic sectors across the country. Other chapters are named as follows – “Dalits and Higher Education in India: A Fact Sheet,” “Unequal Spaces: Mapping Caste Discrimination in Indian Universities,” “A Social History of Indian Academia,” “‘My Birth is My Fatal Accident’: Social Semantics of Dalit Students’ Suicides” and “Conclusion: Social Cosmology of Merit and Pervasive Injustices.” The book is a product of thorough research and comprises data tables that convincingly establish the arguments of the author. This is a ground-breaking work and in my opinion, a must read for every India academic.
My third pick, Anand Teltumbde’s Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt (Routledge and Aakar, 2022). An earlier edition of the book was published by Aakar in 2016. As a theoretician and scholar of anti-caste discourse, Teltumbde needs no introduction. Some of his works have already achieved the status of primers of anti-caste discourse, including The Persistence of Caste and Republic of Caste. The so-called Mahad Satyagraha involved the Dalits, under the leadership of B. R. Ambedkar, fighting for access to water from the public tank of Chavadar. The march included in the agenda of the conference held on 20 March 1927 is considered to be the earliest civil rights movement in India asserting the right of the “untouchables” to use water and public water bodies. The movement is usually known as satyagraha, a term referring to non-violent resistance, but Teltumbde revisits such folkloric notions and brings out the true history of the two Mahad conferences that are key to any understanding of the revolt. In six chapters and eight appendices, Teltumbde’s book takes us through the nuanced history of the revolt, culling data from Marathi archival sources. It contains the enlightening original account of the revolt from the first convener of the Mahad conference and the Dalit communist, R. B. More. Overall, this book is a must read for anyone interested in Dalit history.
My fourth pick is the anthology titled Concealing Caste: Narratives of Passing and Personhood in Dalit Literature coedited by Kusuma Satyanarayana and Joel Lee (Oxford University Press, 2022). This anthology brings together Dalit texts translated from various languages and focused on the singular theme of “concealing caste.” It narrates the stories of those who, though born into Dalit communities, have somehow eluded the stigma because they have somehow been able to conceal their caste identity. They have “passed” and have been perceived as belonging to the higher caste. Their caste identity remains a “public secret” and they apparently manage to escape casteism. But their choices may sometimes be painful and lead to “devastating consequences.” The anthology comprises eight autobiographical essays – some originally published in English – and eleven short stories translated from seven Indian languages. It begins with a critical and comprehensive introduction from the editors which elaborate on the theoretical framework and scope of the anthology. The authors included are Baburao Bagul, Omprakash Valmiki, M. M. Vinodini, Pratibha Jeyachandran, Ajay Navaria, Surajpal Chauhan, Sharankuar Limbale, Jai Prakash Kardam, C. Ayyapan, B. R. Ambedkar, Kausalya Baisantry, Urmila Pawar, Manoranjan Byapari, Shailaja Paik, and Yashica Dutt. In my opinion, concealment of caste identity is a widely experienced psychosocial phenomenon. The sensitivity of the topic should not prevent one from addressing it. This anthology is important because, for the first time in anti-caste scholarship, it brings to the fore the vicious effects of the caste system on those who are forced to hide their birth-based identity to be assimilated into and accepted by the mainstream Brahmanical society.
My fifth pick is Shailaja Paik’s The Vulgarity of Caste: Dalits, Sexuality and Humanity in Modern India (Stanford University Press, 2022). Apart from the rich content, what strikes me is the methodology of the book, rightly highlighted in the widely circulated bibliographical description. Scholarship in Dalit studies is usually either based on an Ambedkarite framework or centred on anticaste movements. Paik makes a deliberate departure from these and unearth the history of caste-based stigmatization through a specific cultural tradition of the Untouchables, called Tamasha. Tamasha is a theatrical practice associated with the Dalits in Maharashtra. It is a travelling public theatre and is perceived as vulgar because of its sensuous aspects. The female Tamasha performers whose sociosexual labour enables the very theatre are looked down upon to such an extent that they are considered lowlier than and unemployable as a housemaid. They are regarded immoral, despicable and lacking manuski or human dignity. They are ashlil (vulgar) and not assli (authentic) Marathi. The Tamasha women, as Paik argues, experience an ambivalence combining the violence meted out to them because of their sex-gender-caste status and the pleasure they provide onstage. They are projected as “caste slaves” while they are also artists with agency and earning money. However, because the ashlil gets attached to the body of the performer and not to the theatrical art, alternative economic opportunities are foreclosed to them. They are destined to remain Tamasha women and the stigma of being ashlil stuck with the forever. Divided between three parts, Paik’s ground-breaking research comprises six chapters and a conceptually rich introduction and conclusion. In terms of the theoretical richness, methodological innovation, and critical analysis of the performative, the book constitutes a major contribution to the anticaste discourse and opens up new avenues in the field Dalit studies.
My final pick is Shashi Tharoor’s Ambedkar: A Life published by Aleph. Tharoor attempts to write a biography of Ambedkar that would be critical to the extent that it does not become a hagiography. He states that Ambedkar’s life is worth examining because he is perhaps the most popular, though controversial, icon of India, comparable only to Gandhi. Tharoor deduces this from a survey of journalists that reveals that Ambedkar statues across the country surpass the statues of any other Indian. He freshly narrates and reflects on the various moments of Ambedkar’s life and diverse facets of Ambedkar’s herculean achievements. Tharoor, however, highlights what he calls Ambedkar’s four “flaws,” namely, a) his condescending attitude towards the Adivasis; b) his “denigration” of Hinduism; c) his “ungracious” disagreement with Gandhi; c) his unflinching faith in the power of the state to transform the social condition of the downtrodden. To a politically sensitised reader, it would be obvious that Tharoor fails to transcend the confines of Gandhian ideology of which he, as a member of the Congress Party, is a major representative. After all, he did author the book Why I Am a Hindu in response to Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu. Ambedkar was radically opposed to Hinduism whereas Tharoor as well as Gandhi have often been criticised as the promoters of soft Hindutva. Tharoor begins the book by stating that he may be objected to for writing a biography of Ambedkar since he himself is not a Dalit. It is, however, obvious that Tharoor’s savarna anxieties are very much unresolved in the broader text of the book itself. The book seems unable, at times, to transcend the savarna consciousness. However, there are strong cases made for Ambedkar, at other occasions, for instance when Tharoor describes him, with significant justification, why Ambedkar was India’s first male feminist. Overall, the book is worth giving a read.