Eleanor Zelliot’s interest in Babasaheb Ambedkar and his movement goes back to her graduate student days when she was preparing for her Ph.D. thesis. In the early sixties, she first spent a year and a half in India gathering material on Dr. Ambedkar. Her study took her further in the field and back into the history Maharashtra trying to find out roots of his most unusual movement among the ‘untouchables.’
Eleanor Zelliot has now gathered the product of some thirty years of her scholarship on the social, political and religions movement of ‘Untouchables’ led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar into one volume. This collection of essays spans the history of the movement from its nineteenth, and includes the political developments and the Buddhist conversion.
In all 16 essays are collected in the volume. They are thematically divided into four different parts, viz., background, politics, religion and Dalit literature.
An essential reading for those interested in understanding contemporary India.
Laird Bell Professor of History at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, Eleanor Zelliot holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her first period of study of the Ambedkar movement was in 1963-65. She has since returned to India many times, and has written over thirty articles on India’s ‘Untouchable’ movement. She has also edited with Maxine Bernsten The Experience of Hinduism, translated with Jayant Karve Ghasiram Kotwal by Vijay Tendulkar edited with Philip Engblom the Marathi issue of the Journal of South Asian Literature, contributed many maps to the Historical Atlas of South Asia, and written extensively on the medieval saint poet Eknath and the Bhakti movement.
I began my study of Dr. B.R. (Babasaheb) Ambedkar and his movement when I was a graduate student preparing for my Ph. D. thesis. I read all I could for a year and then in 1963-98 spent a year and a half in India under the auspices of the American institute of Indian Studies, gathering material on Dr. Ambedkar. The study of a low caste movement was then a rather novel thing for a historian. Most modern historians had worked on the nationalist movement or the British period or the revolt of 1857. Social history was beginning to be recognized as a necessary field, and in the 1960s studies of the Dravidian movement, a Saraswat caste and a Kayastha were published by American historians. My study, however, took me further into the field (most people who met me thought I was an anthropologist since historians did not go to villages) and it also took me further back into the history of Maharashtra, trying to find the roots to this most unusual movement among the Untouchables.
Although I have published in other areas, namely, the Bhakti movement, Maharashtrian intellectual history, and maps on many his torical subjects for the South Asia Historical Atlas, my life has continued to be dominated by Babasaheb Ambedkar and his movement. No other Western scholar has studied the movement as a whole, although Owen Lynch, as an anthropologist, has written on the Jatava movement in Agra which was greatly influenced by Ambedkar. And so as a reluctant ‘’expert’’ I have responded to requests for articles over these twenty-six years, trying to make sure that volumes and caste and politics, religions and politics Indian political thought and Indian leadership contained on this historically important movement. The new wave of encyclopedias on Asian history and world religion, the new edition of source of the Indian Tradition also recognized the need, for the first time, to include untouchability and Ambedkar as entries, and I have diligently responded to these requested. With my teaching and this constant necessity to produce meaningful articles come another factor-----the continuous growth and change Ambedkar’s movement. There were new developments and publications in the field of Budhist conversion; the Dalit panthers arose as a new force; ,movement began to produce literature of such quantity and quality that Dalit Sahitya become a prominent part of the Marathi literary scene, and spread to the neighboring states of Gujarat and Karnataka. With this constant need to be aware of new trends in the movement, with the continued pressure to write short articles, I was unable to turn my 1969 Ph.D. theses ‘’Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement’’ into a published book. I hope to do that yet, although I will not use the word Mahar, since that Limits the movement.
In the meantime, I have edited a selection of my articles to make those widely scattered publications more available to those interested, especially in India. There are many faults in this collection. For one thing, I am an incurable optimist, and that tone predominates. I find Gandhian influence at times helpful, when many of Ambedkar’s followers would literature and institutions, when others might feel it has lost its momentum and some of its idealism. I find the politicization of Ambedkar’s followers important, although the Party he founded is riven with splits and without national or state political power. I find the fact that no one leader has replace Ambedkar a natural phenomenon, rather than a lacuna to be mourned.
A fault in this volume is that it is often repetitive. I have tried to remove what I could without rendering an article unable to stand on its own. There I also a lack of theory which may trouble the social scientists, and a lack of comparison with other movements, in India and in America. I have often done this in speech, but since my articles were all written in response to requests, and no one requested such topics, those comparisons remain in my head. I have also not dealt specifically with the increasing violence in India against ex-Untouchables and Dalits. I have suggested that when the lower castes reject their traditional duties and attitudes, there is retaliation in areas where they are vulnerable, but the reader will have to turn elsewhere for a thorough coverage of the current scene.
In technical matters, references have been somewhat standardized, but the anthropological system of internal references has been allowed to stand in those articles in which it was used. Some errors and unclear passages have been corrected. Substantive additions have been enclosed in square brackets. An attempt to bring the reader more up-to-date with recent material is made in addendums at the end of some chapters and after sections II and III on religion and politics, respectively. And finally, after much thought I have abandoned diacritical marks, and have even allowed varied spellings, such as Cokhamela and Chokhamela, Gaekwad and Gailwad, to stand.
These essays go out to the reader, as does all my work, with thanks to all the people of Maharastra who shared their knowledge, their spirit and their love for Babasaheb Ambedkar with me. They number in the hundreds, but among them a few must be singled out for their constant and indispensable help: the late Professor S.D. Gaikwad, K.N. Kadam of Yarvada, Vasant and Meenakshi Moon of Nagpur and Bombay, and Sudhir and Pushpa Waghmare of Pune. I alone, however, am responsible for both fact and interpretation in my writing.
My use of the title From Untouchable to Dalit was to indicate the idea that the Untouchables of India had themselves chosen a new identity, that of ‘’Dalit’’ ----- ground down, oppressed ---- to indicate their lack of belief in being polluting, their condition was the fault of the cast system, and their inclusion in the Ambedkar movement of all those subordinated by their religious, social and economic status. The word I now current among all those who subscribe to these beliefs, although ‘’harijan’’ is still current among Ggndhians and many high castes and ‘’scheduled castes’’ is the legal term for Untouchables. I have used the term, aware the not all Dalits are comfortable with it, to indicate the vitality and innovation of the Ambedkar movement.
In the short space of time since this book was published in 1992 there have been some new developments in the Ambedkar movement and a great many new publications. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar continues to be ever more important, although almost forty years have passed since his death in 1956. What is even more interesting, however, is that there continue to be innovations in the religious, social, political, educational worlds that he attempted to change.
For the first time, to Dalit movement of western India has been thoroughly amalyzed. Gail Omvedt has taken the upper Deccan---- Maharastra, Andhra and Karnataka, the Marathi, Telugu and Kannada speaking areas---- as her field, and brought into play geographic and prehistoric factors as well as history and sociological analysis. In my mind, it is the most creative Marxism since D. D. Kosambi. Omvedt explains why the Phule-Ambedkar movement has been omitted or marginalized in most histories of modern India: caste was seen as subsumed in class by Marxist and leftist historians (who dominate the field); the nationalist movement was idealized as inclusive of all India by nationalist historians, who saw pre-independence history ‘’only in terms of political opposition to a foreign power’’ (omvedt 1994: 16).she analyzes Ambedkarism with a keen sense of Ambedkar’s own total grounding in India reality. Her title, Dalits and the Democratic Revolution, indicates her understanding of the democratic vision of Dr. Ambedkar, even as he struggled with varied economic and political ideologies. While there are many biographies of Dr. Ambedkar, none (including my own Unpublished 1969 Ph.d. thesis) have probed Ambedkar’s writings as thoroughly or analyzed Ambedkar’s political and economic choices and his responses as carefully or docu-mented his rejection of caste and Brahmanism and ‘’Nehruvian secularism’’ (Omvedt 1994:242) as well. Her work has been facilitation by the series of writings and Speeches of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, edited by Vasant Moon and Published by the Government of Maharastra. These volumes, soon to number seventeen, allow a close study of all Ambedkar’s thought.
Another new sociological analyses by M. S. Gore (1993) has been made possible by the accessibility of the Ambedkar volumes and the republication of Ambedkar’s Marathi Editorial by Ratnakar Ganvir. Using Robert K. Merton’s theory of the sociology of knowledge, Gore first sets Ambedkar’s thought in a universal paradigm and then sets that ideology in a chronological historic perspective. Gore’s note on his late consciousness of the importance of Ambedkar is touching, and his study is set both in the context of his earlier devotion to Nehru and Gandhi and his more recent studies of the non-Brahman movement (1989) and Maharshi Shinde (1990) and in his policy of using Ambedkar’s own writings rather than involvement with the movement and its participants.
Another new area of publication is that of Dalit literature. The first comprehensive anthology of dalit writing was published just as the first edition of this book appeared and so escaped mention. Arjun Dangle’s Poisoned Bread (1992) would be more complete if it had included work by Gangadhar Pantawane and Raja Dhale, to name a few omissions, but it does have an extensive selection of poetry, short stories, autobiographies and essays. The first three genre have been published separately in very attractive paperback editions as, respectively, No Entry for the New Sun, Homeless in My Land, and A Corpse in the Well. I find the collection a little more pessimistic and dark in tone than I find the Dalit movement itself, but I am most grateful to Arjun Dangle and Priya Adarkar of Orient Longman for this first large collection. For other new material, see my publications listed on p. xx and Dharwadker (1994) in the Bibliography of this Introduction. The first English translation of Dalit theater, Datta Bhagat’s ‘’Routes and Escape Routes,’’ which was a very successful TV play, appeared in 1994. Another first is a new Dalit journal in English Departmentat Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. He has titled it The Downtrodden India: A Journal of Dalit and Bahujan Studies, and the first issue appeared early last year. I think subordinte India would be a better title, encompassing both Datlit and Bahujan (the majority, the masses) and carrying an undercurrent of insubordination and revolt. Ranveer studied black women writers at Yale under a Fulbright fellowship.
The growth in Dalit Literature seems to be in an ever widening circle of dalit writers, not only women but now various adivasi and nomadic groups. Women poets Hira Bansode, Jyoti Lanjewar and Surekha Bhagat have published books. The initial circle of Marathi poets has expanded to include Gujarati and Kannada writers. All these poets appear in the Marathi journal Asmitadarsh (mirror of identity), the dalit literary journal edited by Gangadhar Pantawane, which celebrated its twenty-fifth year with great fanfare December 1992.
The 1994 annual conference of Asmitadarsh illustrates just how closely tied Dalit literature is with reality. On January 14 the long battle for the re-naming of Marathwada University in Aunrangabad was won, and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University became a fact. On January 15, as the Asmitadarsh conference was meeting in one part of the city of Chandrapur, watching a Dalit play by Premanand Gajbhiye at two in the morning, the Library of Dr. Ambedkar College in another part of Chandrapur was torched and completely destroyed. No one, of the, of course, claims responsibility.
The Innovations of Women
Once of the most interesting new event is the first Dalit Women’s Solidarity conference which brought Buddhist, Charistian, Muslim and Hindu women together in Bangalore in march of this year. A few men and some high caste Hindu women were also present, and Vimal Thorax of indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi tell me that she asked the high caste women there why they did not protest atrocities on Dalit women, and the leadership was drawn from several states. The literature on Dalit women is growing but does not reveal all the stages of their life or their progress. Older studies of Bhangi women in the North (this level of women not directly represented in the conferences) are by Mary Chatterjee (1981) and Malavika Karlekar (1982). Karlekar told me that she could not do further studies after the women asked her, ‘’what good does your study do for our lives?’’ A question which does indicate some awakening.
An interesting collection of biographies of Dalit women in Maharastra, many of them Buddhist but mone educated, is Sumitra Bhave’s Pan on Fire (1988). Gabriele Dietrich’s chapter on Dalit women (1992) is excellent for the Tamil world. Women in the Ambedkar movement were the subject of Marathi book by Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar, and a condensation of their findings appeared in English in 1992. There is a fascinating account by Kumud Paude of her difficult path to becoming a teacher of Sanskrit in Arjun Dangle’s collection (1992).
It seems to me significant that the first really inspiring film on Dr. Ambedkar is feature file produced by dalit women, Dr. P. Padmavathi of Andhra. Leaving her clinic in the hand of her pediatrician husband, she worked for seven years to make Dr. Ambedkar, and her hope is that it can be released with Marathi and Hindi dubbing, with English sub-titles added to the original Telugu version. Her Ambedkar is tirelessly dedicated to knowledge, to the welfare of all Dalits, including women.
Just last year I was asked by some highly educated followers of Dr. Ambedkar if I was going to do a book called ‘’From Untouchable to Buddhist’’, since this group resented the term ‘’Dalit’’ as negative, even demeaning. I replied that I could not, since not all Dalits were Buddhist, and that the term Dalit was not only to be interpreted as ‘’the oppressed’’, but also as ‘’the proud, the defiant’’. As long as there is a group of group, chiefly Untouchable and in some case Backward Castes or Scheduled Castes, who are the victims of caste oppression, there must be a term to describe them and the literature they create to tell their stories. The rejection of ‘’Dalit’’ by those who are able to take their destinies in their own hands in understandable, and in many ways a good sign, a sign of progress. But the title of the Human Rights Watch report, Broken People: Caste Violence against India’s Untouchables, by Smita Narula (1999) also reflects a reality, a translation of dalit in one of its meanings as ‘’ground down, broken’’. The reader of my essays will find much that is positive, much that is hopeful. Both realities---- oppression and a dynamic movement against oppression----must be kept in mind. When Martin Macwan won the Kennedy award for his work on the Dalit Human Rights Campaign, he said, ‘’To me Dalit is not a caste, but a moral position . . . one who respects all humans as equal is a Dalit.’’
Some Notes on New Approaches, New Books
The release of Jabbar Patel’s feature film, Dr. Ambedkar, in India has brought the life of Ambedkar in a very positive way into this media, video tape of which is not available. However a cassette of the music is available. Equally innovative is a new website, ‘’Ambedkar.org’’ which contains dozens of articles about Dalit, including Ramchandra Guha’s Gandhi’s Ambedkar’’ which suggests that in some ways Ambedkar is now the only all-India pre-independence hero. Also available on the web is a 26 page bibliography prepared by Simon Charsley and his group at Glascow: www.gla.ac.uk/acad/anthropology/Sisc.htm. The Dalit International Newsletter (P.O. Box 932. Waterford CT06385) is now in its fifth year of bringing thoughtful articles about dalit developments. An important development for me is the publication of Gail Omvedt’s translation of vasant moon’s Marathi autobiography, Vasti (Hindi bustee or slum locality). It will be released in 2001 by Rowman and littlefield as Growing Up Untouchable in India with my Introduction, the first Dalit autobiography to be published in the U.S. and a very vibrant story which reflects the complexity of the Dalit conept.
What follows is a list of some of the most important or unusual of the many new books on dalits or Untouchables. Note that many of them are from Europeans, and published in the west:
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