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Against Brahminical Tradition: A Dalit Critique of Indian Modernity

Against Brahminical Tradition: A Dalit Critique of Indian Modernity

kesava kumar


Dr. P. Kesava Kumar

kesava kumar‘I don’t know when I was born/but I was killed on this very soil thousand years ago/ ‘dying again and again to be born again’/ I don’t know the karma theory/I am being born again and again where I was dead.’1 ~ Kalekuri Prasad

History!/ all these years how could you hide/ the fire in our mouth…./how could you tolerate/inequality and inhumanity2 (Juluri Gowrishankar)

With a smile on his face/ Shambhuka is slaying Rama/ with his axe/Ekalavya is cutting Drona’s thumb away/ with his small feet/ Bali is sending Vamana down to pathala/ With needles in his eyes/ and lead in is ears/ Manu, having cut his tongue is seen rolling on the graveyard/ standing on the merciless sword of time/ and roaring with rage/ The Chandala is seen hissing four houndson Sankaracharya/ Oh..!/ The History that is occurring today/ Is the most Chandala history3 (Siva Sagar)

‘The burden of reason, dreams of freedom, the desire for power, resistance to power: all of these are elements of modernity. There is no promised land of modernity outside the network of power. Hence one can not be for or against modernity; one can devise strategies for coping with it. These strategies are sometimes beneficial, often destructive; sometimes they are tolerant, perhaps all too often they are fierce and violent.’4


Dalits are an oppressed people for many generations due to the caste system of India. Dalits are the worst victims of the caste system. In the name of caste, they are often degraded, discriminated, humiliated, insulted and exploited. Caste is an elaborate social system that influences all other institutions of the society. It is an important marker of traditional Indian society. Caste is carried through religion. In India, the caste system and the Hindu religion are interlinked and inseparable. There were various attempts to reform or transform the Indian society to make it humane, democratic and modern. The intellectuals of social reform and Indian nationalist movement were forced to negotiate with colonial modernity on many accounts. The nationalist social aspirations were articulated by the elite and liberal intellectuals, who happened to be the people of brahminical class, on behalf of the nation. They seemed to be modern in their appeal and traditional in practice. Through their literary, cultural and philosophical discourses they shaped the Indian modernity. This modernity definitely differs from the western modernity. To a certain extent, they managed to overcome the western imposed tradition-modern dichotomy.

Indian thinkers like Gandhi and Ambedkar, offer new ways to look at the Indian self which essentially differ from western modernity. The contemporary Dalit movement, which is inspired by the philosophy of Ambedkar, is not only critical about the Hindu brahminical tradition but also exposes Indian modernity for its brahminical bias. The very notion of modernity keeps on changing with the articulation of the respective social agency. The meaning of modernity underwent a significant change with the assertion of Dalits in public spaces, the access to which had been denied to them for centuries. In this paper I would like to illustrate the complexity and ambiguity of modernity in relation to Dalits through the writings of Telugu Dalit literature. In other words, the paper highlights the distinctive modernity of Dalits in contrast with western liberal, colonial and brahminical modernity. Dalit modernity too attacks the liberal modernity which is based on mere individualism of western liberalism. Dalit modernity is located in the embedded self. In other words, it argues for reflexive individualism. The source for this kind of individualism is the moral community based on equality, liberty and fraternity. Dalit modernity even projects a different kind of communitarianism based on the principle of social justice. The communitarian Dalit modernity attacks the conservative communitarianism of brahminism. However, Dalit modernity mediates both liberal and communitarian philosophies by showing their limitations and also appraising their strengths in a novel way.

Dalits’ Entry into the Public Sphere

The decade of eighties in Andhra Pradesh is known for a radical assertion of Dalits, women, adivasis and the Telangana people. These struggles are not only critical about dominant philosophical thinking, but also put a responsibility to record the past based on these foundations. They made a conscious attempt to interrogate the dominant traditions in order to liberate them. They have raised several questions relating to the nature of the State and the developmental strategy pursued by it. They created a new universe with an alternative value system. Knowledge about them could be found mostly in their literary and cultural articulation. Their literature is overshadowed by the philosophical inquiry into the conditions of the good society, the good person and, the good life.

Literature is a primary means by which a community situates itself in place. The literature in the written form has established itself as ‘the literature’ with the advent of print technology. The print culture not only succeeded in marginalizing the oral forms of larger social groups but also facilitated the modern public sphere. For a long time this sphere is mostly dominated by the educated brahminical class, though theoretically this space is available to everybody. The recent entry of Dalits into this modern space has not only created tension, but also provided alternative philosophical insights through their literary and cultural works. This gives us the opportunity to read the politics of modernity in Telugu literature. On the one hand, Dalit literature blatantly opposed the brahminical tradition, and on the other hand, it further radicalized the politics of alternative struggles.

The Karamchedu massacre of 1985 and the Pro-Mandal agitations in 1991 shattered the modern secular pretensions of various social and political institutions. One of the features of contemporary Dalit movement is that it engaged with the politics of the modern public sphere, which is seen as a secular space (in the spheres of literature, cinema, university and political party etc). It is the Dalit struggles and their assertion that showed the casteist brahminical character of these spheres. From the decade of eighties onwards, a considerable Dalit middle class is visible in Indian society. Their presence was felt in the public sphere for the first time. They are resisting the hegemony of the upper castes in these spaces by asserting themselves in all possible ways. For the upper caste people, it was as if the space which was so far reserved for them exclusively, suddenly became uncomfortable and they are becoming irritated with the entry of Dalits into their spaces. One can see the antagonism between these two in universities, literary and cultural fields. The university, the city, cinema and literature are predominantly urban spaces where the above said encounters are very often witnessed. The upper castes have suddenly picked up a liberal language to corner the Dalits.

With the entry of Dalits into the various public institutions, one common response has been that the objectives of these public institutions have been subverted. To put it in other words, the universe of values constituting these public institutions has been thwarted. To make sense of this, one has to find a relevant conceptual framework. Partha Chatterjee offers one. According to him, there are two worlds: a world of middle class constituted by modern norms of freedom of speech, voluntary associations and individuals capable of choice; another is a world of subalterns constituted by other concepts which does not come under this modern bourgeoisie rubric. There is a relationship of pedagogy between the former and the latter.

The entry of Dalits into modern public institutions, cause a rupture between the two universes. The universe of public institutions is underpinned by modern rationality and concomitant values as created by the modern nation State. The introduction of the universe of Dalits into public institutions results in, broadly, two consequences. It questions the nature of translation and application of modern values of liberty and equality in modern public institutions. Secondly, the visions of public institutions enter into a phase of crises of understanding and coherence. This interpretation helps us to understand the nature of hatred and conflict in public institutions. But, it also sets in other agendas of shedding the potential of modernity to liberate Dalits from the shackles of tradition. Dalits share an ambiguous relationship with modernity.

When modernity entered India, the Indian traditional intellectual community had seen it as a threat to the Indian social structure. To protect the age old brahminical societal structure, the upholders of tradition moved to keep it intact. They started the process of monopolization of modernity by embracing the epistemologies of modernity – such as the basic sciences and technical education. Initially, when modernity opened up new opportunities, with its inherent economic viability, the Brahmin intellectuals gave up traditional epistemologies and embraced modern epistemology purely for material prosperity.

Ambedkar’s conception of Modernity

Ambedkar is a culmination of all alternative movements of his time. He is the source and inspiration of contemporary Dalit movement. Like the elites of his time, Ambedkar too tried to overcome the tradition-modernity dichotomy. His critique of tradition is accompanied by his refusal to accept ready-made alternatives manufactured in the West. He is critical of both modernity and tradition. He attacked Hinduism and its claims as religion, but at the same time, he keeps away from western thought. He believes that legal and political institutions do not have the capacity to reconstruct social solidarity, and therefore tries to provide a social basis for a liberal and political ethos. In this sense, he is critical of modernity. But, at the same time, he highlighted that a social reconstruction cannot be achieved without taking into account the legacy of tradition. He further considers that legal and political institutions do not have a capacity to reconstruct social solidarity, and therefore tries to provide a social basis for the liberal and political ethos which does not mean an uncritical acceptance of western modernity or indigenous traditionalism.5

Ambedkar does not believe in mere individualism, whereas the individual is the centre of liberal and modern life. He emphasizes community life but disagrees with other communitarians like the conservative Hindutva forces and Marxists. His philosophy is essentially ethical and religious. He upholds the moral basis of life while allowing critical reason to operate. Therefore, he visualizes a moral society that is based on the ideals of modernity. He considers Buddhism as the only religion which can respond to the demands of modernity and culture. Buddhist teachings, he believes, appeal to reason and experience.

Dalit Critique of Modernity

When modernity entered India, the Indian traditional intellectual community had seen it as a threat to the Indian social structure. To protect the age old brahminical societal structure, the upholders of the tradition moved to keep the tradition intact. They started the process of monopolization of modernity by embracing the epistemologies of modernity – such as the basic sciences and technical education. Initially, when modernity opened up new opportunities, with its inherent economic viability, the Brahmin intellectuals given up traditional epistemologies and embraced modern epistemology purely for the material prosperity. At this juncture, the whole process of embracing modernity by the intellectual community of the times, raises very interesting questions. For instance, it asks why the Brahman community embraced modernity? What were the reasons for the monopolization of modernity? Did they allow modernity to go into corners to transform the basic structure of the society? If it was not the case, was it the fault of ‘others’, who were not able to absorb modernity?

If we assess the impact of modernity on Indian society, the under-privileged sections of the society hardly benefited from it. If one thinks of possible reasons for this, one can easily come to the conclusion that the modernity project, in the nineteenth century, was monitored by the social elites of the times, and came from the Brahmin community. Apart from monitoring and controlling the whole process of modernization, there were constant conscious interventions by this community to ensure their interests are secure by not allowing the fruits of modernity into other sections of the Indian society. This resulted in the halting or postponing of societal transformations. To reserve the fruits of modernity for them, they constantly realized the price of modernity. Apart from providing new avenues, modernity has implications for social transformation. The elites have to overcome their own traditions and cultural beliefs. To resolve this kind of a situation they had started defending their cultural traditions and simultaneously enjoying the material benefits of the modernity at colonial times.

The relationship of the Dalits to the modern State, both colonial and postcolonial, is ambiguous. It is important to re-look at political /cultural practices of Dalits to understand the Dalit response to State and modernity. If one emphasises the discursive aspects of modernity, it offers enormous possibilities to talk about Dalit suffering/ humiliation and oppression. It can also be said that Ambedkar’s argument for creating a moral community is possible only if one emphasizes the discursive aspects of modern experience.

Further, modernity, as imposed on the third world countries has been attacked from many fronts. Modernity is considered as a necessary extension of colonialism. Modernity in India came as a package with colonialism. There is an attack on the general philosophical beliefs of modernity such as notions of Universalism and its truth claims. There is an attack on the very values of post-Enlightenment thought, on its conception of secularism and rights etc. As observed by Javeed Alam, people readily reject terms like secularism on the grounds that they are alien to and lack any affinity with ‘Indian culture or traditions. However, other terms such as democracy or equality are readily acceptable.’6 This may give a clue to understand modernity which has taken roots in the Indian context and its complexity.

Modern is historically embodied form of enlightenment. Whatever is entailed under enlightenment as values, beliefs, principles, ethics, morality and so on, has been thought of as universal – not just in an abstract sense but as something universalizable in the thinking and practices of all human beings. Colonialism has a historical connection with capitalism and therefore also what we have referred to as entrenched modernity. The capitalism in the colonies have demonstrative with all the features of distorted consciousness, racial superiority, arrogant cultural exclusiveness, and intellectual condescension over and above political control of those inferiors whom it has subjugated.

The writings reveal that Dalit relation to modernity is complex. It is also, in some sense critical about the general understanding of modernity, that is modern development, science and reason. Dalit politics refuses to get incorporated into the binaries of nationalism/colonialism and secularism/communalism. It also resists universalism, the unmarked and abstract citizen as a centre of the emancipatory discourse of modernity. It is equally critical about the abstract ‘working class’. In other words, it constantly speaks with and against both the liberal and the radical conception of man and society. Ambedkar doesn’t believe in mere individualism, whereas the individual is the centre for liberal and modern life. He believes in community life that is rooted in a moral society and is based on the ideals of modernity. He makes differences with other communitarians like conservatives (Hindutva forces) and Marxists.

The trajectory of modernity in post-colonial India is a very complicated one. The Brahminical Hindu elite’s engagement with the modernist project is quite interesting. The liberation of the self/nation is imagined in the spiritual and cultural domains. In its initial phase, Hindu nationalism started internal social reforms. The project of modernity pursued by these social elites of post-colonial India has ended up as anti-modern. As Partha Chatterjee notes: “…the search for the postcolonial has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity’. The modernization process carried the tag of the tradition. This ultimately led to the confrontation of secular state and the Nehruvian ideal of modernity by the Hindutva forces in contemporary times. In Post-independent India, the Nehruvian project of ‘modernity’, ‘development’, and ‘progress’ through big dams, heavy industries and scientific institutions benefited the upper caste groups more than anybody else. This lead to the generation of capital in India but it did not develop a capitalist culture and its values. The upper caste groups didn’t come out of their feudal mindset. On the other hand, Dalits are marginalized and dislocated. This situation often meets with conflicts and tensions in the nation. Any radical assertion of Dalits is suppressed by the State. The political institutions become oppressive. Secular democracy may become a farce. Further, the governability for ruling class becomes a serious problem until and unless it attends the situation in a real democratic spirit.

On the other hand, the Dalit’s involvement with the colonial-mediated modernity project was too complex. In a feudal set up, where Dalits are degraded and humiliated in the name of caste and social norms, colonial modernity, to a certain extent, facilitated to become conscious of their objective condition. The institutions set by the colonialists promised political, legal and social equality at least theoretically, if not practically. In this respect, Ambedkar is in favour of the active intervention of the State to bring Dalits into the modern sphere. In early days, Brahminical social elite too felt the need for modernizing Dalits. For this, they prescribed habits of ‘purity’ and the need for ‘education’ for Dalits. When more Dalits are entering the public space so far reserved for upper castes, through State-sponsored developmental programmes, it creates antagonism and conflict. With an increased assertion of Dalits and their struggles, and the marked visibility of Dalits in post-independent India has frustrated the upper castes. They pick up a new liberal language to counter the Dalits against the spirit of liberalism. For instance, when Dalits are fighting against the hegemony of caste, the upper castes dismiss this struggle as casteist. Dalits talking about caste is considered as parochial and anti-modern by them. Further, they argue for an economic basis for any emancipatory project of the State. In the anti- Mandal agitation this attitude can be witnessed. Upper castes find various strategies like this to maintain the status quo in society. Casteism of the upper castes took modern incarnation in the public sphere, and started articulating their interests in modernist discourse like, purity and pollution, ‘hygiene’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘merit’.

One more interesting point is that, the upper castes started discrediting the modern political institutions in the context of the entry of Dalits into it. They go on propagating that these institutions got ‘corrupted’ by blaming the lower caste people. They even go on opposing the very foundations of the secular democratic State of the nation. They argue that this secular democracy based on the ‘rationality’ of western colonial model, is not based on indigenous cultural and philosophical traditions. At this point, Dalits came to the rescue of secular democracy. The upper caste intellectuals, by taking the post-modernist position, that ‘science is a social construct’, started justifying the philosophies of irrationality and dogmatism as science. It had a negative implication for Dalits. In this context, Ambedkar and Dalits of post-colonial India, are arguing in favour of ‘scientific reason’ of modernity that is rooted in indigenous traditions. This could be seen in the literary and cultural narratives of Dalits of contemporary writings. The modernity manifested in Dalit literary narratives is different from the reform oriented (brahminical) modern telugu literature.

Telugu Modernity: A Brahminical Intervention

Historically, the social groups, which had acquired political and economic dominance, enjoyed the privilege over cultural production and others got silenced. Western influenced middle class, those who later played a major role in molding the nationalist struggles, were involved in the production of literary writings. It is obviously, the upper caste group’s ideals and aspirations and their worldview reflected in literature too. In the post independent India, modern State was unable to uphold the promised ideals of good life and better society to the vast number of the oppressed of this country. In the political writings of literature of this time, there emerged an upper caste middle-class man as a protagonist. He is sympathetic to the lower classes and he articulates their needs and is seen to be mobilizing the oppressed masses. There are very few writings which talk about Dalits and their life. Those that exist come out as the sympathy of the upper caste writers towards labourers as a part of the class struggles. The protagonists in the literary writing are always from the upper caste groups. They are portrayed as shouldering the responsibility to reform/educate Dalits. This completely lacks knowledge about the authentic Dalit life and their experiences. These upper caste writers have constrains to perceive the lives of other communities. These socially sensitive upper caste writers could not mobilize the support of their communities to their imagined ideals and many of them moved towards spiritualism. Most of the writers came from Brahmin middle class families. In latter days, the intensified struggles aspiring the communist ideals too failed to capture the Dalit imagination and the question of caste remained immune to their discourses. Till the 1980s, the entire literary discourse centered on the concept of the abstract human being, erosive of all cultural markers like caste, color, religion, region and gender.

However, the modernity in Telugu literature reflected through the reformist agenda of intellectuals of Telugu society. Modernity is identified with the spoken language than textual language. The modernity articulated through the genres like drama, novel, short story and free verse than classical poetry. The issues identified are practice of untouchability, problems of women and importance of education. For this, either they negotiated within tradition or to reform the tradition in the backdrop of colonial education. In later days, the progressive agenda of the communist movements have taken up the project of modernity in the name of class struggle. They are not explicit in their articulation about caste or patriarchy. Special reference to this is considered as pre modern and celebrated an identity of the class. The idea of class not only conceals these realistic social identities but also indirectly helps in maintaining the hegemony of caste and patriarchy. The social agency mediating modernity through their writings is mostly the brahminical class or broadly upper caste men. With the emergence of conscious intellectuals from the lower castes and women exposed the shallowness of the above said modernity. They problematized the writings of their predecessors on the issues of “authenticity” and “representation.” They evaluated them from the unchanged social life of contemporary times. In other words, the new intellectuals are assessing the literary modernity through its social functioning. In this process, not only questioned the canons of literature but also dismissed the celebrated telugu modernists like Gurujada and Sree Sree. Celebration of Jashua, the Dalit writer could be seen as a Mahakavi as against the progressive writer Sree Sree. Normatively the modernity manifested through the Dalit literature is different from the earlier Telugu literary writings. 

In Telugu society, the medieval time witnessed the emergence of non-Brahmin intelligentsia like Vemana, Potuluri Veerabrahmam and argues in favour of denouncement of caste system, social inequality and oppression.7 Both the nationalists and liberals of later times, fail to understand the caste system, since most of them are drawn from the upper castes. The social reformers such as Veerasalingam and Gurajada Apparao are considered as the ‘founders of new epoch in modern Telugu literature’ are confined to the problems of the Brahmins only. While they sought to reform certain evils of the Hindu social system, they failed to grapple with the ideological and institutional framework of brahminical Hinduism. And these social reformers did not inherit and continue the medieval Bakthi tradition, it was discontinued. Given their social background and intellectual and cultural tradition, they could not profess anti-feudal and anti colonial/caste ideology and consciousness. Unlike the saint poets they did not revolt against all kinds of social evils. They were selective in philosophical and ideological standpoints. In that sense, they failed to generate and build a popular cultural and ideological movement against caste system.8 In the nationalist and post-independent times, Dalit scholars took inspiration from this medieval Bakthi tradition.

Manifested modernity in Dalit Literature

Dalit intellectuals negotiated their philosophical views to the larger society through the medium of literature than any other form. They are organic intellectuals in the strict sense of Gramsci, having the elements of thinking and organizing the community as against the traditional brahminical intellectuals. In this sense, Dalit literature has to be seen as the process in creation of counter hegemony against brahminical hegemony. Dalit literature is significant in many ways – culturally, historically and ideologically. Dalit literature enriched with content and description of Dalit struggles for human dignity. There has been constant effort from Dalit writers in translating the condemned lifestyles and practices of marginalised people into symbols of protest and pride. Dalit writers gave rich meaning to aspects of Dalit life that brought respect for them. In the process of writing their own history, they thoroughly interrogated the existing histories of dominant caste/class groups in their literary writings.9

An ideal society should be mobile and it should be full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts. In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association.“~B R Ambedkar. In simple terms, Ambedkar viewed that an ideal society would be based on liberty, equality and fraternity.10 Ambedkar favors a democratic tradition that stands for reason rather negating it. He felt the Hindu religious tradition need to undergo a radical reform. Caste is a natural outcome of certain religious beliefs which have the sanction of shastras. To abolish the sanctity and sacredness of caste, one has to destroy the authority of the Shastras and Vedas. For this, one has to destroy the religion of both sruti and smriti. Ambedkar was not only proposing the indigenous tradition that stands for reason, but also tries to link up that tradition with the governing principle of politics. As Ambedkar is the source of inspiration for Dalit movement and his thought is reflected in Dalit literature.

In the process of writing their history, they are collecting the memoirs of the collective suffering. The Dalit writer through his writings interrogates the brahminical past, which has the character of humiliation, atrocious for Dalits.11 The suffering of the Dalits for generations is identified with the very nature of brahminical society. The struggle for human dignity and self respect can be seen in all the writings of Dalit literature. Human dignity and self respect are the primary source of modernity. The Human dignity can be attained only through fulfilment of social and economic equality. In a democracy, citizenship is prerequisite for its functioning, in case of Dalits, it is negated due to its casteist nature. The craving for the citizenship could be seen in the writings of Dalit literature.12 Against the monopoly of knowledge by the brahminical class, Dalits argue that ‘Knowledge is nobody’s property; It is the wealth of all jatis‘.13 In fact, Dalits are a productive class, the real knowledge is produced out of their collective labour.

Dalit Novel and Modernity

Chilukuri Devaputra’s Panchamam, Vemula Yellaiah’s Kakka and G. Kalyana Rao’s Antarani Vasantham are historic Dalit novels of contemporary times, written by the Dalits in late nineties. The commonality of these novels is the depiction of Dalit life, and argues for the liberation of Dalit community. But these novels are not only located in three different regions (Rayalaseema, Telangana and Coastal Andhra respectively), they also represent three different political positions. The imagination of community and the construction of the Dalit self too varies. However, the struggle against caste hegemony and assertion of Dalits of postcolonial India is the common theme of these novels. These novels inform Dalit discourse of modernity.

The novel Panchama is the story of a Dalit becoming a Revenue Divisional officer (RDO) and a victim of hegemonic social system of upper castes. The hero of the novel Sivayya belongs to a Madiga community of a village in Rayalaseema, and his father is an illiterate cobbler. He is a staunch Gandhian and is later attracted towards communism, under the influence of Suresh. Suresh, a Dalit youth came to the village of Sivayya as a teacher in a school exclusively run by an NGO for Dalit children. He rebelled against the caste system by organizing Dalits against the everyday insults and humiliations by the upper castes in public spaces. He quit the job in the NGO, and decided to lead the underground life by joining the Naxalite party for the cause of Dalits. At one particular moment, Sivayya too decided to go in the line of Suresh, but dropped that idea on the advice of his well wisher and civil rights activist Purushottam. He becomes a Deputy Collector and is posted as RDO in his own region. His sincerity towards his duty and commitment to his community often puts him in trouble. On the one hand, the upper caste landlords are intolerant to this Dalit bureaucrat and on the other they make all attempts to bring him under their control. But he stands independent, assertive, truthful and always committed to justice. He becomes a checkpoint to unlawful exercise of the power of the upper caste, since he is not obeying for the re- convey of ceiling land in favour of the upper caste sarpanch, Seetharamappa, by using his political nexus with his upper caste community in the government, implicates him in a corruption case. The author argues for the real political power for the emancipation of the exploited lives of the Dalits as in the line of Ambedkar. The novel comes to the conclusion that the Dalit even after becoming a big officer like Sivayya or a deputy chief minister like Krupakararao could not do anything, in a system which favors the upper class. This ‘inability’ is effectively used by the upper caste in their favor.’14 Further, the novel conveys that there is no other world (maro prapancham, maro prastanam, these phrases are popular with the progressive writer, Sree Sree) or Ramarajyam (dream of Gandhi). Dalit people has to struggle by standing the edges of the untouchability, have to think on standing on the edges of the exploitation, the treatment of inferiority, get the fistful of self respect from poverty ridden life, and has to learn revolt from the untouched helplessness.15

The upper caste writers, reformers, nationalists or progressives, often felt the need of education as an ideal to resolve all the problems of the Dalits. This novel too carries with this ideal, a Dalit boy believes that he can emancipate his community through education and by reaching the highest job. Soon he realizes that it is difficult to stand with his community even constitutionally, unless until caste and class ridden system collapses. Dalits have to be conscious of the caste exploitation and has to assert for the rights. In other words, the novel reflects on the shallowness of the promised modernity in its practice as in the case of Dalits. Caste has constrained the freedom of the Dalits. So Dalits anticipating political power based on the total freedom and liberty. Dalit modernity internalizes the equality and rights through struggle. The central character Sivayya symbolizes the Dalit self, as educated, conscious, committed, with the quest for the justice and even looks like a coward and inferior in particular situations due to the caste system. The Dalit self travels from the Gandhian to communist, but is not committed to both. In practical life, feels suffocated, isolated, and helpless, though successfully he has reached the highest position from an ordinary poor rural Dalit life. The modern secular democracy becomes a farce in a caste ridden society. It is believed that the whole social system has to be changed for real democracy. In the case of Dalits, it is possible only through the collective struggle against the dominance and exploitation of the upper caste. The author indicates indirectly that Sivayya and Suresh are complementary to each other in marking the Dalit identity.

Kalyana Rao’s novel Antarani Vasantham (2000)16 is a landmark in Dalit literary and cultural history from the Dalit point of view. The novel recorded the collective social experiences and struggles of Dalit community. The social memory of a community, transmitted over generations, has been put in a written form. The novel is a written social document of Dalit culture, which is predominantly in oral tradition. This novel is an attempt to search a collective identity of the Dalit community. It is the chronicle of the life of six generations of Dalits. This records a hundred years’ struggle of the Dalit communities. In the context where the elite scholars do not consider lower caste peoples’ struggles, culture, philosophy, life styles and history, this novel becomes the source book for culture, history, politics and philosophy of Dalits. Kalyana Rao explained how the Dalit culture is born from the lower caste peoples’ involvement in labor. They spontaneously and naturally composed the songs from their life. Apart from the value of entertainment, the Dalits used cultural performance symbolically as a social protest against the dominance of hegemony of upper caste social groups. It explains Dalit struggles in various forms in a given social conditions. The novel depicts not only the sufferings of Dalits but also joyful moments in their life. This novel is an attempt towards writing history, philosophy, politics and culture of Dalits in a comprehensive form. In Antarani Vasantham, constraints to freedom of Dalits, comes from an enemy who is an upper caste. The idea of freedom itself indicates for Kalyana Rao, a perpetual flow of resistance by Dalit community to an upper caste community. Dalit community has been described as a focal point of creativity, resistance to oppression and a character of purity. This is effectively indicated through central character Yellanna who eloquently represents a creative, upright and assertive individual. This is one way of expressing dalit freedom or a mode of being dalit. One of the characters, in difficult times of community life says, we are born just not to be killed but to live too.17

Antaraani Vasantam is a story of seven generations of Dalits. More than that, it is a struggle of Dalits at different points of time. In this novel the lead character named Ruthu is a writer. The novel runs with the recollection of her memories. The story of Dalits narrated for the period of more than hundred years in the form of women’s memories. Her memories go back to four generations before and two generations after her. The memories are loaded with suffering, pain, agony, anguish and struggle. This is the case with every Dalit life. Precisely because of this, author hints that memories are of not the past but they have their continuity in present and also projected into the future. This novel is a significant piece of Dalit literature to trace back the Dalit struggles to generations. The novel focused on a point that Dalits have no freedom without struggle. History reveals for Dalits, struggle is not an idea, but a necessity for the survival of Dalits. This has been illustrated by considering different historical contexts, with different strategies employed by the Dalit. The novel projects the Dalit universe that is filled with both pleasure and pain. Generally, in the upper caste writings, Dalit is a subject of misery and suffering. The writer’s strategy is to generate sympathy towards Dalit condition. Contrary to this, Kalyana Rao depicts the Dalit self as assertive and resists any kind of dominance and exploitation. This Dalit self directly is set against the caste hegemony. The author tried to show that Dalit subjectivity is authenticated and had a moral worth with their involvement in labour and production process. The Dalit culture has lived through the collective social experiences and continued to the present through oral form. This has been performed through social memory. The novel proves that life, struggle, culture, literature, philosophy and politics are not different for Dalits. Moreover, this novel constructs the history of Dalits, which is not available either in official history or in archives.

Kakka is a novel about the Madiga community of Telangana region. In the history of Telugu literature this novel has multifold significance. This is the first novel on Madiga community as such by the Madiga writer Vemula Yellaiah. In his 40s, Yellaiah started writing Dalit poetry in the late 1990s. The author’s quest to capture Dalit life as a whole made him opt for the form of novel as a medium of expression. This piece has been written in the backdrop of Madiga Dandora movement. This novel projects madigaisation (dalitisation) as an alternative to the predominant upper-caste ideology. It also opens up the internal contradictions and violence within the community. The other striking feature is that the whole story runs in Telangana Madiga dialect. So far the dominant dialect of coastal Andhra has been used in writing of novels. This novel came from the place where revolutionary struggles prominently took place. The writer seems to be uncompromising with radical Dalit identity and indirectly criticizes the prevailing left culture and tries to critically read the left tradition. This novel ends up with conscious educated Dalits along with civil-rights groups together fighting for the cause of Dalit struggles of village.

On the other hand the idea of being Dalit in Kakka is different. It identifies that constraint to freedom to Dalits is not just from an outsider but also from the very community. The central character Kakka faces too many hardships from within community as well as from outsiders. For instance, the mother of Kakka was accused of an illicit relation and was subjected to social boycott by the community. Kakka was denied an opportunity to take up the duty to perform madigarikam (caste profession) that is considered a honour in the community. Thus the constraint within the community projects a different community and a different kind of self-awareness. And of course, he has to fight a valiant battle against the other communities, which has traditionally been dominant in the village. It is also shown that in times of struggle against upper castes, Dalits came together and fought valiantly.

These three novels are significant because they involve a deep exploration into Dalit culture. They tried to bring out various positive aspects of Dalit culture to the fore. Antaraani Vasantam has celebrated the rich and vibrant cultural traditions of the Dalit community by going to the origins. The novel Kakka could effectively bring out some of the inhuman social practices of Dalit communities, which may be helpful in internal reforming. Thus a deep exploration of Dalit life through the novel may result in strengthening of Dalit cultural identity. There is a scope to come up with much more serious Dalit novels in future by touching all aspects of Dalit life. The novel Panchamam shows the limitation of liberal modernity adopted by the constitution of the nation, and felt that it failed to protect the aspirations of educated Dalits in practice. The novel goes back to the Dalit tradition of madigarikam. It is another kind of protest to assert the Dalit identity against the dominance of the upper caste. The novel Antarani Vasantham constructs the Dalit identity only through rebellion against the caste and class dominance.

The above mentioned writings reveal that the Dalit writers have a definite image of moral order through which they understand Dalit life and history. The Dalit modernity proposed by the Dalit writers is based on a social imaginary, which is obviously different from the both colonial and dominant modernity of the Indian nation. The understanding of a person, Dalit selfhood and morality are shaping the modern identity of Dalits through their narratives. Morality has to be articulated through the respect for others, dignity, integrity, well being and common good. The moral world of the Dalit writer has not just emerged out of the ideas of sense of respect for human agency but also from the fuller understanding of life. Dalit self can be described or evaluated only with reference to the upper caste people who are surrounding him. In assessing Dalit identity, one has to look at both, where he is speaking and to whom. In defining identity, one’s moral concern of a subject is not enough, and also demands a reference to the community. Our being selves are essentially linked to our sense of the good, and that we achieve selfhood among other selves. We understand ourselves inescapably in narrative. There is a close connection between the different conditions of identity, or of one’s life making sense. The qualitative distinctions play a crucial role in defining our identity and making sense of our lives in narrative. The qualitative distinctions give the reasons for our moral and ethical beliefs. The modern sense of the Dalit self is not only linked to and is made possible by new understandings of good but are also accompanied by new forms of narrativity and new understandings of social bonds and relations.


Modernity has been connoted with many meanings such as ‘value’, ‘rationality’, ‘western’, ‘colonialism’, ‘development’, ‘capitalism’, ‘secularism’ ‘humanism’ and so on. Dalit relation to modernity is complex and even ambiguous. Dalit modernity has to be understood in the context of Dalit liberation from humiliating, exploitative, oppressive brahminical tradition. Dalit modernity is centred on the value of human dignity and self respect. In persuasion of this, it interrogates the irrational, unjust and dogmatic practices of Hindu social order on the basis of scientific reason. And at the same time tries to assert its own self, upholds its indigenous tradition by claiming the elements of humane democratic practices. Dalit modernity overcomes the tradition–modernity dichotomy that has been set in the interests of the Western. In India, the fruits of modernity is enjoyed and monopolized by the brahminical class in the material level, and at the same time maintained intact with their traditions in spiritual / religious level. This has been continued from colonial to postcolonial times. Dalits are systematically excluded in this project. Dalits as the victims of the project of ‘development/progress’, of post independent India, are negotiating with the larger nation from its fringes. The modernity appropriated by Dalits is ‘rights’ centered and argues in favor of democratization of indigenous tradition. They are negotiating with the ideals of modernity to overcome the social exclusion, exploitation, suffering and humiliation imposed by Hindu tradition. The Dalit modernity mediates the liberal, radical and communitarian philosophies in its own way, both by associating and differentiating from these political traditions on different points. It is a critique of Indian modernity essentially carried by liberal Brahmin elite. The Dalit modernity proposed by the Dalit writers is based on a social imaginary, which is obviously different from the both colonial and dominant modernity of the Indian nation. The social imaginary in Dalit intellectuals ignites the sense of identity to recapture their own history, which is marginalized so far.



1. Prasad, Kalekuri. (1995). ‘Pidekedu Atmagouravam Kosam Talettinavadni’ Am Raised for a Fistful of Self-respect) (Translation Lakshminarasiah) In Kesava Kumar and K. Satyanarayana (Eds.), Dalit Manifesto. Hyderabad: Vishphotana, 20

2. Gowrisankar, Juluri.(1994). Padamudralu. Tenali: Poetry circle.

3. Sivasagar, a dalit writer marking the assertion of dalits in writing their own history against the brahminical history centred around advaita of Sankara. See Sivasagar. Nadustunna Charitra (Tr. Laxminasaiah) G.Laxminarasaiah, The Essence of Dalit poetry; A socio- philosophic study of Telugu Dalit poetry, Hyderabad: Dalit Sana publications, 34. And also see Sivasagar (2004).Sivasgar Kavitvam, Hyderabad: Bahujana Book syndicate, 263.

4. Chatterjee, Partha.(1999).Talking about our modernity in two languages, A Possible India, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 280.

5. Kesava Kumar .P., Jiddu Krishna Murti’s Conception of Tradition and Revolution : A Critical Study. (Doctoral dissertation , University of Hyderabad, 1997), 232.

6. Alam, Javeed. (1999). India: Living with Modernity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 4.

7. Vemana and Veerabrahmam are non Brahmin philosopher saints and yogis of pre modern times and confronted the brahminical Hinduism.

8. Satyanarayana. A.(2005). Dalit Protest literature in Telugu : A historical Perspective, Dalits and upper Caste, Esays in Social History , New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers, 81-82.

9. See Sivasagar. (2004).Sivasgar Kavitvam, Hyderabad: Bahujana Book syndicate, 263.

10. Ambedkar, B.R. (1989).(Moon, Vasant. (Comp.)).Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol.1, 57.

11. Yendluri Sudhakar in his poem : ‘I am still a prohibited human being/Mine is an expelled breath/ Trying a barb tree leaf to my aist/And a tiny spittoon to my mouth/Manu made me a wretched human animal among others/The moment he left a mark of prohibition on my face/My race/Was gradually murdered… history pinched my thumb/Present history is asking all the fingers/Now we want a voice of our own/We want a voice that can choose what can do good to ourselves’.

12. In this Country we want a piece of land/These clouds has to be vanished/These walls must be collapsed/This silence/ must be bursted / this gum/ must be dried up/ O man/ I want real citizenship /Could you give me! ..what do I want/I want you/ I want a place/ In your heart/ I must wash my hands/ at your home/you must come to my hut/ and ask our girl for marriage/we must become /relatives/friend! This country/must become ours/as we walk hand in hand/this uneven earth/must become smooth/will you come? What we want now is not bloody cash/ A fearless voice that discerns what we want/ A new constitution, a new state/A new earth and a new sky. See Nagesh Babu, Madduri.(1998). Yem kavali, Meerevultu (tr.Laxminarasaiah), Narasaraopet: Sreeja Publications, 74.

13. ‘When hands/ From over the ‘Mala’ hamlets/ and ‘Madiga’ huts / Throw themselves on the fields/Banks of the fields blossomed/Trees flowered/And fields fragrant with crops’. See Gowri Shankar, Juluri. Padamudralu. (Tr. Laxminarasaiah) In Kesava Kumar and K.Satyanarayana (Eds.) (1995).Dalit Manifesto, Hyderabad: Vishphotana, 35-36.

14. Devaputra, Chilukuri.( 2000).Panchamam, Hyderabad: Lifeline Communication, 262.

15. Ibid., 272.

16. Kalyana Rao, G.( 2000).Antarani Vasantham(Untouchable Spring), Hyderabad: Virasam.

17. Kesava Kumar, P. (2005). Emergence of Dalit Novel : An overview, In I.Thirumali (Ed.) South India – Culture, Sagas, New Delhi:Biblimatrix.

18. Kesava Kumar, P. (2005).Performance of Social Memory, In Contextualization of Vikalp, Alternatives August.  



 Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is a writer and professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi. He received Ph.D. degree from University of Hyderabad. He authored Political Philosophy of Ambedkar: An Inquiry into the Theoretical Foundations of the Dalit movement, Jiddu Krishnamurti: A Critical study of Tradition and Revolution and Dalita Vudhyamam: Velugu Needalu (Compilation of essays on Dalit Movement in Telugu). He regularly writes on issues relating to literary and cultural politics of dalits. He maintains a blog,


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