How the Dalit Literature has played an important role in gender equality

by Giz TimesMay 29, 2015

Dalit Movement in India and how the Dalit Literature has played an important role in sowing the seeds of gender equality in India.


 The word “Dalit” may be derived from Sanskrit and means “ground”, “suppressed”, “Crushed” or “broken to pieces”. The word was perhaps first used by Jyotirao Phule in the 19th century, in the context of the oppression faced by the erstwhile “untouchable” castes of the twice-born Hindus.


People often misinterpret Dalit as a caste. It is important to note that Dalit is not a caste but a category. It is a designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as untouchable. They consist of various social groups, castes and they speak various languages .Since Dalit is not a caste but a category, it may be regarded as that section of the society which is considered as the “other”. These “others” have been discriminated against and pushed to a periphery since time immemorial. The word Dalit was used in the 1930’s as a Hindi and Marathi translation of “depressed classes”, a term that the British used for what are now called the Scheduled Castes. In 1970’s the ‘Dalit Panthers’ revived the term and expanded its reference to SC’S , ST’S and all those who were discriminated and exploited on politically , economically and in the name of the religion . So “Dalit, rather than being a caste, can be regarded as a symbol of Change or Revolution “, says Dr. Jugal Kishore Mishra.


“The organizational or institutional efforts made by Dalit leaders for the liberation of the downtrodden masses could be termed as Dalit movement. It is a movement of protest against untouchability, casteism and superstitions. It aims at the uplift of the Dalits to the level of non -Dalits.”

Thus we can say that the Dalit Movement aims at eradicating some of the old Hindu Conventions of “untouchability”  ,discrimination on the basis of religion, casteism , superstitions  ; thus establishing equality , liberty and social justice for all the communities which are regarded as the “other” by the society .



Untouchability has always been considered as a social evil and religious and social reformers like Buddha, Ramanuja , Ramananda , Chaitanya Mahaprabhu , Kabir , Nanak and many others have made great efforts to eradicate it . Similarly , many organizations like Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj have put their efforts to secure social , religious and cultural equality for the Dalits. The British Raj’s administration changed the political and social system of India and gradually established the principles of Equality, Liberty and Individualism. A new environment emerged in the society where the process of westernization and sanskritization got brewed up; the consciousness for positive rights was created, the general awareness took a new turn culminating in far-reaching political and sociological changes.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was perhaps one of those flaming souls who worked hard and struggled to provide the basic human rights to all the oppressed classes. The all India Depressed Association and the All India Depressed Classes Federation, the principal organizations of these classes, initiated a movement to improve their conditions. They aimed at improving their miserable economic conditions, and to spread education among them. They worked to secure for them the rights to draw water from public wells, admission to the schools, and to the use of roads; and enter the public temples. The Mahad Satyagrah for the right of water led by Dr. Ambedkar was one of the outstanding movements of the untouchables to win equal social rights.

Mahatma Gandhi gave the name “Harijans” to these oppressed classes. By calling them as children of god, Mahatma Gandhi had already impacted the psyche of many Indians and invoked the feeling of brotherhood in them. The All India Harijans Sevak Sangh , founded by Gandhi in 1923 started numerous schools for the Harijans . The Government of India Act, 1935 and the Bombay Harijan Temple Worship Act played a useful role in putting the Dalits in par with the others. To enforce the provisions of law more strictly, the Untouchability (Offences) Act (1955) was passed to fix penalties for not observing the law. Besides, to enable the Harijans to overcome their backwardness, they were provided with special educational facilities. The Union and the State Governments now spend huge sums of money on their advancement and on projects to remove untouchability. The strategies, ideologies, approaches of Dalit movement varied from leader to leader, place to place and time To time. The ‘Dalit consciousness’ came to the fore in different forms and shades. Thus, some Dalit leaders followed the process of’ Sanskritization’ to elevate themselves to the higher position in caste hierarchy.They adopted Brahman manners, including vegetarianism, putting sandalwood paste on forehead, wearing sacred thread, etc. Thus Dalit leaders like Swami Thykkad (Kerala), Pandi Sunder Lai Sagar (UP), Muldas Vaishya (Gujarat), Moon Vithoba Raoji Pande (Maharashtra) and others tried to adopt established cultural norms and practices of the higher castes. Attempts were also made to organize Dalits politically in order to fight against socioeconomic problems. Dr. Ambedkar formed the independent Labour Party in 1936. He tried to abolish the exploitative Khoti system prevailing in Kokan part of Maharashtra, and Vetti or Maharaki system a wage free hereditary service to the caste Hindus in the local administration. He tried to convince the Government to recruit the Mahars in Military. Ultimately he became successful in 1941 when the first Mahar Regiment was formed.With the growing process of democratization. Dr. Ambedkar demanded adequate representation for Dalits in the legislatures and in the administration. Government of India Act, 1919, provided for one seat to the depressed classes in the central Legislative Assembly. In 1932, British Government headed by Ramsoy Macdonald announced the ‘Communal Award’.The award envisaged separate electorate for the Depressed Classes. Mahatma Gandhi went on a historic fast in protest against Communal Award especially in respect of depressed classes. The issue was settled by famous Poona Pact, September 1932. It provided for reservation of seats for depressed classes out of general electorates sets. The Constitution of India now provides ‘for reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes in proportion to their population in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha under Article 330 and 332.



 Dalit Literature, which forms and important and distinct part of the Indian Literature, emerged into the forefront and as a prominent voice after 1960 , starting with the Marathi Language , and soon appeared in languages like Hindi , Kannada , Telugu and Tamil , through narratives such as poems , short stories and most importantly autobiographies, which stood out due to their stark portrayal of the atrocious reality and the Dalit Political scene. Dalit literature denounced as petty and false the then prevailing rather bourgeois and romantic portrayal of life by the Sadashiv Pethi literature. The silence of the Sadashiv Pethi literature on Dalit issues was highly conspicuous by the absence of any mention of the abject poverty-stricken lifestyle of the Dalits, and the utter oppression the Dalits faced, at that time, from the higher castes. One of the first Dalit writers was Madara Chennaiah, an 11th-century cobbler-saint who lived during the reign of Western Chalukyas and who is also regarded by some scholars as the “father of Vachana poetry”. Another poet who finds mention is Dohara Kakkaiah, a Dalit by birth, whose six confessional poems survive, throwing light on those troubled times It was in the 20th century, in 1958, that the term “Dalit literature” was used for the first time, when the first conference of Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangha (Maharashtra Dalit Literature Society) was held at Mumbai, a movement driven by thinkers like Jyotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar Baburao Bagul (1930–2008) was a pioneer of Dalit writings in Marathi. His first collection of stories, Jevha Mi Jat Chorali (When I had Concealed My Caste), published in 1963, created a stir in Marathi literature with its passionate depiction of a cruel society and thus brought in new momentum to Dalit literature inMarathi; today it is seen by many critics as an epic portraying lives of the Dalits, and was later made into a film by actor-director Vinay Apte. Gradually with other writers like,Namdeo Dhasal (who founded Dalit Panther), these Dalit writings paved way for the strengthening of Dalit movement. A significant fact is that in the history of Dalit Literature and Bhakti Literature, the history of Mala Dasari/Mala Dasu/Mittala Ayyorlu was ignored.These are the priests, who perform rituals for all castes in this country, and themselves come from different castes. Unfortunately, they have been branded as untouchable priests. They have a long history in this country. The roots come from Tiruppani Alwar, one of the Alwars of twelve members Alwar tradition of Vaishnavism. They are practising priests even today. They wear sacred thread and perform pujas in temples, yet very few people know of them.


Although the Dalits have always been considered as outcastes, the dalit women have faced the worst kind of discrimination. The traditional taboos are the same for Dalit men and Dalit women. However, Dalit women have to deal with them more often. Dalit women are discriminated against not only by people of higher castes, but also within their own communities. Men are dominant in Dalit communities. Dalit women also have less power within the Dalit movement itself. Dalit women are discriminated against three times over: they are poor, they are women, and they are Dalits.


For A women to write and then to be a Dalit women and write is a huge thing. The literary canon has been consisted mailnly of the male writers. This is because the whole society has been highly patriarchal and phallocentric in nature. Women, since time immemorial have been considered as mere objects of desire and commodities. As Karl Marx says – “Women in a patriarchal society are considered as social hieroglyphics or commodities to be fetishised “. However, it is important to trace when and how they actually became objects which later on led to their writings, to be considered “low” standard. The scriptures have always portrayed women as goddess or Virgin Mary; or as the seductive eve. Women have always been assigned two extreme roles, thus making them helpless in terms of recognizing themselves as humans. ‘His’tory has always been in the favor of men and women have always been marginalized by the ‘holy men’ who wrote the scriptures. It is also interesting to see how the scriptures have always been misinterpreted by men and used by the society to its own advantage. The men are always thought to be brave and not to cry whereas a woman is always groomed to be shy and submissive. Roland Barthes, in his theory of ‘Toys’ talks about the psychological inducement to render the society in general and the minds of all men and women in particular – a phallocentric one . The girls are always given dolls to play with, so that they can learn how to nurse; the boys on the other hands are given the helicopters and fighting toys. And if , ‘unfortunately’ , a girl or a boy does not fall into their respective category , then they are pushed to a periphery – from which they can ‘never’ return ( because the societal conventions won’t let them transgress their forbidden territory and come to a ‘normal’ world) .

First, it is a curse to be born a woman. Second, if you are born one, you are required to confine yourself to household chores only. Third, if at all, you get a chance to study (‘god forbid’), you are supposed to learn only feminine subjects like cooking and embroidery. Fourth if at all, you are intelligent, then you are a ‘witch’ or a ‘dayan’ for the society. Fifth, if at all you plan to write, you are the worst kind of woman ever born and your writings would not fall into the ‘elitist’ literary canon. Sixth, if you are a Dalit , black or low caste woman , then you will not be allowed to breathe in the society. Such is the condition of women in a society, that even if they emerge today to take‘revenge’, they’ve got a reason for it.

The Dalit women writers have worked a lot to bring into light the situation of a dalit women and how they are suffering. Literature is perhaps a very strong medium in igniting a fire in everyone to rise up and voice their disgust at the evils of untouchability , which makes a person feel like he / she is an uncouth savage and often force a Dalit women in India to commit suicides. Dalit Literature, today, has succeeded in emancipating women and giving them a voice of their own.


  1. The Prisons We Broke by Baby Kamble


Writing on the lives of the Mahars of Maharashtra, Baby Kamble reclaims memory to locate the Mahar society before it was impacted by Babasaheb Ambedkar, and tells a consequent tale of redemption wrought by a fiery brand of social and self-awareness. The Prisons We Broke provides a graphic insight into the oppressive caste and patriarchal tenets of the Indian society, but nowhere does the writing descend to self-pity. With verve and colour the narrative brings to life, among other things, the festivals, rituals, marriages, snot-nosed children, hard lives and hardy women of the Mahar community. The original Marathi work, Jina Amucha, re-defined autobiographical writing in Marathi in terms of form and narrative strategies adopted, and the selfhood and subjectivities that were articulated. It is the first autobiography by a Dalit woman in Marathi, probably even the first of its kind in any Indian language. 

  1. Karukku by Bama Faustina


In 1992 when a Dalit woman left the convent and wrote her autobiography, the Tamil publishing industry found her language unacceptable. So Bama Faustina published her milestone work Karukku privately in 1992-a passionate and important mix of history, sociology, and the strength to remember. 

Karukku broke barriers of tradition in more ways than one. The first autobiography by a Dalit woman writer and a classic of subaltern writing, it is a bold and poignant tale of life outside mainstream Indian thought and function. Revolving around the main theme of caste oppression within the Catholic Church, it portrays the tension between the self and the community, and presents Bama’s life as a process of self-reflection and recovery from social and institutional betrayal. 

The English translation, first published in 2000 and recognized as a new alphabet of experience, pushed Dalit writing into high relief. This second edition includes a Postscript in which Bama relives the dramatic movement of her leave-taking from her chosen vocation and a special note ‘Ten Years Later’.

  1. The Grip Of Change by P.Sivakami


The Grip of Change is the English translation of Pazhaiyana Kazhithalum, the first full-length novel by P. Sivakami, an important Tamil writer. This translation also features Asiriyar Kurippu, the sequel in which Sivakami revisits her work. The protagonist of Book 1, Kathamuthu, is a charismatic Parayar leader. He intervenes on behalf of a Parayar woman, Thangam, beaten up by the relatives of her upper caste lover. Kathamuthu works the state machinery and the village caste hierarchy to achieve some sort of justice for Thangam. The first Tamil novel by a Dalit woman, Pazhaiyana Kazhithalum, went beyond condemning caste fanatics. Sivakami is critical of the Dalit movement and Dalit patriarchy, and yet does not become a ‘caste traitor’ because of her participation in the search for solutions. The novel became an expression of Dalit youth—eager and working for change. In Book 2, Author’s Note, Kathamuthu’s daughter Gowri, the author of Book 1, traces the circumstances and events of her novel. The result is a fascinating exploration of the disjunctures between what happens in the author’s family and community, and her fictional interpretations of those happenings.



When asked from a English Honors male graduate, he said – “In my perspective  , The dalit movement has succeded in granting the Dalit literature a separate canon and this in turn has helped in the emancipation of Dalit women all around the globe and especially in india .But the question is , is it a true victory or a temporary win ?”

Are all women writers treated at equal par with men and are all Dalit women writers treated as an equal of women like Arundhati Roy , Shobha Dey or JK Rowling ? The truth is that the politics of canonization is so intricate that it has layers and layers of discrimination within it on the grounds of gender, caste, religion, region, color, race, etc.  The equality can be achieved by giving proper education not only to males, but also to females.  All men and women should be taught to respect all humans. Recently, Emma Watson, the brand ambassador of ‘He For She’ campaign stated that there is a need for all of us to not give ant ‘conventional ‘roles to the either gender.


“For me, as a male belonging to a middle class family, maybe I cannot feel what a Dalit woman would feel. But by reading and writing about such social issues, I can at least try to understand the need for women to be treated at a par with men. Since, “Charity begins at home “, therefore, all men should try and spread awareness regarding equality of gender. Feminism has already started, now equality can be achieved only by removing the “stereotypical “roles in a society. And this movement of equality can start only when all men initiate it within their own houses – with their own mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives and daughters.”

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