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Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity

Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity

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Workshop Report on
‘Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity: Mapping Dalit Cultural Heritage in Contemporary India’,
7-8 December, 2012, Convened by Ronki Ram

Ronki Ram

1. The topic and the goal

The workshop entitled Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity: Mapping Dalit Cultural heritage in Contemporary India was organized by International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden, The Netherlands at Lipsius, Cleveringaplaats 1, Leiden on December 7-8, 2012. The workshop focused on the emergence of Dalit cultural heritage as a counter-culture to the mainstream culture of upper/dominant castes social set-up and world view. If any social institution or phenomenon that can be singled out to boldly mark the centrality of the Indian society, caste qualifies to be the foremost one. Anti caste movement has a long history in India. It was further radicalized by the emergence of Dalit movement with the entry of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar into the highly contested political domain of the colonial and post colonial India. Dalit movement adopted various strategies in its tirade against social exclusion and made concerted efforts for the emancipation and empowerment of the socially excluded sections of the society.


To begin with, the Dalit movement spearheaded by Dr. Ambedkar attempted to find a way out of caste discrimination and social exclusion while focusing on social reforms within Hinduism. It tried its level best to pierce through the iron-curtain world view of caste hierarchy by cultivating a sense of social interaction across caste divide through proposals of inter-caste marriages and food sharing, on the one hand, and launching Satyagrahas (non-violent mass struggles) for the entry of Dalits into Hindu temples, on the other. Finding hard to achieve its goal, the Dalit movement took a sharp turn in the 1930s to mobilize its vast constituency towards the critical direction of building a counter-culture for the sole purpose of empowering downtrodden by offering them a distinct social identity different from their tormentors based either on their forgotten cultural past or seeking a refuge in an egalitarian religion. With the adoption of the constitution (prepared under the Chairmanship of Dr. Ambedkar) in independent India, the Dalit movement also found a solid support from the state of India in its efforts to bridle caste and build an egalitarian social order through state affirmative action.

For a quite some time, Dalit social mobility based on cultural assimilation (Sanskritisation) came to command a large following among the extremely marginalized sections of the society. But with the advent of Dr. Ambedkar, a strong alternative and powerful Dalit movement emerged on the basis of conversion to Buddhism. However, another equally powerful Dalit movement that found an immediate appeal among the ex-Untouchables became popular by the name of Dalit cultural heritage. Initially, the Dalit cultural heritage movement found its tender sapling growing on the meticulously fertile field cultivated by the strenuous efforts of Jotirao Phule and the protagonists of the Adi-movements (indigenous) in different parts of India. Since then the domain of cultural heritage has fast been emerging as a politically contested site where the hitherto marginalized and socially excluded Dalit communities started learning how to deploy it as a viable agency in their identity formation processes and struggles.

The workshop spread over seven engaging sessions, during its two-day programme, focused primarily on various dimensions of the emerging Dalit cultural heritage in contemporary India and the ways it impacts the identity formation processes among the historically socially excluded sections of the society. Currently, Dalits in contemporary India are closely engaged in a herculean task of building their exclusive centers of cultural heritage at the local and national levels. Through this highly critical and challenging process of constructing Dalit cultural heritage, Dalits are, in fact, exhibiting their dormant and long cherished will to build a separate Dalit identity which could help them not only to overcome caste discriminations and social exclusion but also gain dignity and visibility in the hitherto dominated public sphere in the mainstream Indian society.

India has a credible reputation in preserving varied cultural heritage centers. Ironically, Dalits hardly figure anywhere in these most sought after popular centers of cultural heritage in India. They often attribute their conspicuous absence in the mainstream cultural heritage centers to their historic exclusion from the civil society as well as to the dominant discriminatory social structures that relegated them to the periphery in the name of their so-called low caste birth – based as it was on Varnashramdharma (four-fold Hindu social order). They also allege that their indigenous cultural heritage was deliberately destroyed as well as made oblivious with the clear purpose of denying them any space whatsoever in the corridors of power. From their pre-Aryan sovereign status, they were allegedly reduced into Dasas (slaves) and subsequently divested of all that was worth of keeping identity alive and throbbing with a sense of pride. It is often alleged by the authors of the currently circulated Dalit Gaurav Gathas (Dalit prestige stories) that Dalit were not only divested off their rich pre-Aryan cultural heritage but also forcefully put into the task of building the dominating Aryan cultural heritage where they (Dalits) would have no place to stand once the projects were completed. It is in this context that many of the Dalits who have been struggling for self respect and equal rights at different fronts often talk about the emptiness of their identity in the mainstream cultural heritage. They are of the firm views that the only pragmatic way for the historically deprived and oppressed Dalits communities to overcome their slavery and drudgery was to retrieve their lost cultural heritage by bringing forth their misplaced glory through rebuilding on their pre-Aryan sovereign existence and dignified identity.

The nascent ongoing diverse Dalit cultural heritage project seems to coalesce tradition and modernity. In the concerted efforts of retrieving Dalit cultural heritage, the tradition ceases to be a value of the past and the modernity loses its aura in the fast acclimatizing present cast in the images of yesterdays. It is in this critical context that tradition and modernity have been acquiring new meanings and nuances to the advantage of the socially excluded sections of the society. Consequently, this has also been leading to a sort of perennial social conflicts between the hitherto dominant communities and the ex-Untouchables who find the resurfacing Dalit cultural heritage quite hard to digest. Whereas, Dalits in the resurfacing of cultural heritage find a hope of reclaiming their long-overdue share in the local and national structures of power. Quite interestingly, the Indian developmental state takes keen interest in emergence of Dalit cultural heritage and its role in the enhancement of the Dalit identity and the effective participation of the ex-Untouchables in the participatory democracy of the country. Proposals are being prepared to make policy matters to declare Dalit parks and places of Dalit icons as centers of Dalit cultural heritage. The fast resurfacing of Dalit cultural heritage, in fact, has quickly drawn the attention of electoral politics in India so much so that in some sharply divided state and parliamentary constituencies it has become a popular electoral contest arena. It has taken on different facets. The most prominent among them are Dalit parks and statutes of Dalit icons (especially Gautama Buddha, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Babu Kanshi Ram), Dalit imagery in the forms of colourful calendar cultural, constructing prestige stories, dedicating Dalit shrines to ex-Untouchable Bhakti Saints (especially Guru Ravidass), raising memorable buildings in the memory of Dalit forefathers (jatheras), compiling matching spiritual literature and even fighting virtual wars at YouTube!

2. Presenters and chairs

The workshop was designed to bring together field scholars from a variety of disciplines and spatial/cultural backgrounds to have a critical and open dialogue on the emerging trajectories and contours of nascent Dalit cultural heritage in contemporary India. The workshop had total eleven full papers chaired by equal number of known experts from the diverse social sciences background.

• Sukhadeo Thorat: Chairman-Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, India (presenter and chair)
• Paramjeet S. Judge, Department of Sociology, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India (presenter and chair)
• Badri Narayan: G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, India (presenter and chair)
• Rajiv Lochan: Department of History, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India (presenter and chair)
• Eva-Maria Hardtmann: Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, Sweden (presenter and chair)
• Ashutosh Kumar: Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India (presenter and chair)
• Meena Dhanda: Department of Philosophy and Cultural Politics, University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom (presenter and chair)
• Ramnarayan Rawat :Department of History, University of Delaware, United States (presenter and chair)
• Kristoffel Lieten, Prof. Em. University of Amsterdam & Director IREWOC (International Research on Working Children)
• Nira Wickramasinghe, Leiden University Institute of Area Studies, The Netherlands (Chair)
• Erik de Maaker, Leiden University Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, The Netherlands (Chair)
• Pramod Kumar, Institute of Development & Communication, Chandigarh, India (Paper read by Ronki Ram)
• Surinder Singh: Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India (presenter)
• Ronki Ram: IIAS & LIAS, Leiden University (presenter and chair)

3. Presentations

Dr. Ram Narayan Rawat in his paper Forms of Dalit Historical Narratives in the Twentieth Century North India: The Chanvar Puranic and Adi-Hindu Histories built a counter thesis to the mainstream historical narratives while critically tracing the origins of the ‘Chamars’, one of the various Dalit castes, in the lost cultural narratives of Dalit histories. He primarily talked about Chanavar Puranic and Adi-Hindu Histories. Based on ethnographic-archival study, his paper raised a major concern that the scholars of fast emerging Critical Dalit Studies discipline should be cautious to embrace a singular, meta-narrative about the explication of Dalit cultural heritage episteme. He underlined the urgency of locating ‘diversity of visions’ for a graphic understanding of scattered universe(s) of Dalits. He further pointed out that the purpose of developing a Critical Dalit Studies perspective requires a close engagement with ‘dominant methodological paradigms to formulate distinctive Dalit agendas’, which would eventually help in building a counter-culture to the entrenched structures of domination, inequity, oppression and exclusion.

He drew his insights about the alternative Dalit narratives based on Chanvar Purana (Kanpur 1910), Syryavansh Kshatriya Jaiswar Sabha (the royal lineage of Kshatriya Jaiswar (Chamar) sabha) (Lahore 1923), Pandit Sunderlal Sagar’s, Yadav Jivan (Agra 1927), and Ramnarain Yadvendu’s Yaduvansh Ka Itihas (Agra). The sources of Dalit counter-cultural histories, said the author, lies in popular Puranic (a major form of Indic historical narratives) and colonial and nationalist sources. The author emphasized on the fact that non-Dalit scholars showed no interest in the sources of Dalit history. He laid emphasis on getting engaged with Puranic history with the purpose of unraveling Dalit cultural heritage. He also laid emphasis on the point that forefathers of Chamars made a historical mistake that threw them from higher status of caste hierarchy into the lowest ebb of social scale of the Hindu social order. What the author wanted to say in his eloquent presentation was that the Chamars of North India at one point of time in the long cultural history of the region were enjoying respectable social status in the society. However, at some point of time they slipped from their privileged rank due to some mistakes and thus turned into lower castes. He tried to show through his incisive research that the rich cultural heritage and respectable social past of these equally respectable people who were turned into socially excluded sections of the society in the past can be located from the often neglected Dalit Puranic sources (Chanvar Purana) and other available rich colonial sources. While relying on such sources, the Dalit actors are no longer, the author opined, relegated to the periphery. On the contrary, they are at the forefront of mainstream knowledge production.

Another equally seminal point that the author highlighted in his engaging presentation was that Dalit struggles need not to be circumscribed within “identarian politics”, they rather represent a consistent upsurge against the frozen structures of hegemonic narratives of hierarchical and exclusionary social practices including the most obnoxious untouchability. The author further pointed out that these divergent Dalit historical narratives should not be considered merely an armchair exercise in the intellectual domain of the expanding Dalit counter-culture; in fact, they have been providing the necessary basic strength to the various Dalit movements sprouting with visions of social equality, Dalit emancipation and empowerment.

The presentation was followed by an engaging discussion. A large number of question were raised by many of the participants. One of the moot question which emerged during the discussion hour related with the most controversial issue of Dalit social mobility and the question of annihilation of caste in India. Many a participants asked the author if the sole purpose of Dalit ( in this particular case of his presentation Chamar) social mobility is to seek parity with upper caste through rewriting Dalit histories and escape from the stigmatized social identity emanating from title of Chamar, historically a socially excluded lower, then how this very approach of social mobility would help fight the discriminatory structures of caste? Would not such an approach in a way supports the very logic of the caste system?

Prof. Badri Narayan’s presentation (Crossing Borders: Bhagait Folk Ballad Tradition of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and Nepal) argues that an alternative non-Brahminical art and cultural tradition of some of the extremely marginalized Dalit communities (Mushahars, Dusadhs, Pasis, Kumhars, etc.) have been developing fast over a long stretch of Indo-Nepal border in both India and Nepal. In his field based critical study, the author built an interesting thesis which highlights the emerging trajectories of Dalit cultural heritage defying the artificial state boundaries separating people of similar cultural ethos and background who have been rising to their lost glory by inventing/constructing/ retrieving/ relocating their rich cultural symbols, stories, idioms to contest the hegemonic discourses that were deployed strategically by dominant upper castes to exclude and penned them down for centuries. The authors narrated various cases of Bhagait tradition which has become very popular among the downtrodden of the region. This local-low castes- people based cultural tradition distinguished itself from the dominant-upper caste-hegemonic cultural tradition in the sense that in this tradition ‘the songs are not sung in praise of gods like Rama and Krishna that are popular among the upper castes but are sung in praise of their folk heroes or Bir (brave) and Gosai, who are related mostly with low and subaltern castes’. The low and subaltern Birs and Gosais are the social construct around which new Dalit narratives are woven to challenge the social hegemony of Brahminical social order (BSO). The main contribution of Bhagait tradition lies in constructing a rich haul of Dalit cultural heritage in terms of alternative Dalit tradition of local Dalit deities. Bhagaits are itinerant bards across the Indo-Nepal border.

The Bhagait tradition comprises of Bhagat mandali (a team of gayan (singers), mulgayan (chief singer) and subaltern discourses created around local Dalit stories. The singers (usually 10 to 12 led by a chief singer popularly known as Bhagaits), play an important role at the local levels among the subaltern groups. The local Dalit communities’ members invite the Bhagait singers to perform on various special occasions where the latter often enact as priests who perform the role of a mediator between the Dalit people and their deities. On some of such occasions the Bhagaits also perform the role of a curative expert who relieved the people from various types of diseases and the so-called bad effects of evil spirits.

The author explained how over the year the popular Dalit Bhagait tradition has undergone some changes and has also eventually entered into the urban setting. One of the most striking differences which can be noticed in the conduct of this low caste tradition of redeeming the cultural ethos of the Dalit communities is that it has now developed into a sort of popular lower caste entertainment agency. However, the Bhagait tradition, the author emphasized, has been able to maintain its sacred sanctity alive while keeping its entertainment and sacral function quite distinct and separated. What makes this tradition an icon of popular Dalit cultural heritage, said the author, is its transmutation into a written form as a large number of literature in the form of novels, plays, modern theatre etc. are being created based on this tradition. The growing local vernacular Dalit literature based on the Bhagait tradition and its expanding popularity in the urban setting has not only politicized this indigenous Dalit tradition but also presented it as a reservoir of Dalit counter-culture.

This power-point based presentation generated a lot of discussion during the question-answer session. The central theme of the discussion revolved around the following questions: In what ways the Bhagait tradition based Dalit counter-narrative is essentially different from the already dominant hegemonic narrative of Brhaminical caste discourse based on Hindu Itihasa-Purana tradition? It seems that the Bhagait tradition in its attempt to reconstruct the Dalit counter culture in the medium of Dalit deities and heroes is replicating the similar cultural world for the Dalits which they wanted to challenge in the courtyard of their tormentors. How and in what ways the Bhagait tradition offer Dalit an alternative vision to seek equality and dignity within the Dalit counter public while borrowing massively from the style and contents of the so-called Brahminical sacred tradition?

Dr. Eva-Maria Hardtmann‘s paper entitled Dalit Women in Poetry, Art and in the Global Justice Movement primarily contextualized within the universe of famous World Social Forum (WSF) held in Mumbai in January 16-21, 2004. What made this World Social Forum rather unique and historic was the way it brought into focus feminism within the agenda of Global Justice Movement (GJM). The participation of South Asian Dalit Women in this global event was worth of taking serious note so much so that neither before nor after such an enthusiasm came to be seen at similar global gatherings. The presence of a large number of South Asian Dalit Women at the WSF gets further importance based on the fact they were doubly oppressed and marginalized both my men in the Dalit movement and by the Indian feminist movement. In India the Dalit women, argued the author, began to organize at the national level way back in the mid 1980s, built feminist alliances transnationally in the 1990s, and came to shape the WSF in Mumbai in 2004.

Eva-Maria’s presentation, with a focused perspective on Dalit feminism within transnational activist networks during the last decade, was based on a point of departure of her ethnographical material collected during the WSF in Mumbai. She emphasized on the need to understand the background of Dalit feminism, and in what context it emerged. In her paper, the author made an attempt to understand Dalit feminism in India in the wider critical context of poetry and art in India and related it to the broader Dalit counter-public. During her presentation, she touched upon the role of Dalit activists joining global protest against economic crisis, cyber-exclusion, and Dalit women connections with Dalit social forums. The presentation drew some sharply pointed questions relating to the conspicuous absence of Dalit women poets and the form of arts South Asian Dalit women are involved into and their links with Dalit politics in general and the question of Dalit women empowerment in particular.

Prof. Rajiv Lochan‘s paper (Finding a Voice, Instituting Memories – Rhetoric and Ideas in Creating and Sustaining ‘Bahujan-Mulniwasi’) dealt with one of the most critical themes of current Dalit identity politics i.e. creating a shared memory of repression and suppression through the agency of the non-political All-India Backward (SC/ST/OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF). While caricaturing the discourse of Dalit identity politics, the author explicate its central episteme ‘bahujan’ (literally ‘the majority’) and the ways it transformed over two decades into an equally powerful episteme popularly known as ‘Mulniwasi’ (literally ‘the indigenous people’) in the 1990s. The term Mulniwasi, said the author, carries within its ambit a vast notion of historical imaginations about the oppressive operations led by the marauding Aryans rendering the indigenous people homeless and relegating them into periphery, the nature of their current plight, strategies adopted by their tormentors to divest them off their sovereignty and to keep them disadvantaged throughout since then, the inadequacy of the state affirmative action to uplift them and much more. The entire presentation revolved around the processes and dynamics of indigenous historical imagination as taken up and developed within the vast organizational network of Dalit and minority communities employees federation in India. The author presumed that by looking at the efforts of the BAMCEF based as it is on the idea of ‘bahujan-mulniwasi’ could help understand the nature of the new ideological moorings that are being sought for the emancipatory struggle of the socially disadvantaged.

In his presentation, the author has cogently articulated how the BAMCEF has shaped over the years ‘an inchoate group of people into a meaningful body that has emancipatory capacity’. The author further highlighted that such an inquiry was based on three core questions: emancipation from whom, from what and for what purpose. This study is based on author’s close interaction with BAMCEF for over twenty years both as participants and observers and the vast body of literature that this organization has produced over all these years.

This presentation raised some sharply pointed question like that the mainstream social construction paints the indigenous people as homogenous category/group whereas they themselves are a divided house as BAMCEF too consider them a motley of different social background. What measures, if any, BAMCEF takes to bring them under single roof in the real sense of the term? Is it not true that the Bahujan Samaj Party (a political offshoot of BAMCEF) in itself has emerged as a political party of Chamars only?

Dr. Meena Dhanda in her power-point presentation (Adh Dharm Samaj: The Social Vision Of Darshan Rattan Ravan) articulated about the emerging leadership of Valmiki community in Punjab based on her ethnographic study of its locales, personal interviews with its activists and leadership, and readings of the literature produced within. She also has had access to some of the large public gatherings of the community in question during one of her field visits to Amritsar. During her presentation, the author primarily focused on the personality, leadership style, organizational framework, and literally and political ambience of the AADHAS (Aadi Dharam Samaj) led by Darshan Rattan Raavan. She presented AADHAS as a new social forum which distinctly represents one of the extremely marginalized Dalit communities in Punjab (Valmikis).

Darshan Rattan Raavan, the president of AADHAS was presented as a social reformer who wants to consolidate political power by creating an upstanding leadership amongst the youth, especially by improving the state of existence of his community by making efforts to gain for them genuine advantages of the state affirmative action, focusing on women’s education, superstition free alternate anti- Hindu religious culture, a drugs-free environment etc. She took serious note of addressing him by a known social scientist of the region as “a kind of Parcharak” who uses “the idiom of religion to gain dignity… religious identity then becomes a parallel identity to other identities”. The author termed such remarks about Darshan Rattan Raavan as a “projection of an academic mentality of opportunism where career aspirations determine the trajectory of one’s research and any thought of selfless dedication and genuine solidarity with the oppressed is dismissed out of hand?”

The author projected the social vision of Darshan Rattan Raavan as a potent agency that could eventually help the Valmiki community to attain social emancipation and empowerment. The social vision of Darshan Rattan Raavan, according to the author, includes consciously avoiding references to Hindu God and Goddesses, eschewing Sanskritised Hindi, promoting the cause of sewer-man’s human rights, gender justice and paying respects to the promoters of the just human cause like that of Ambedkar, Martin Luther King, Jagjivan Ram, Shabana Azmi and Arundhati Roy. The most striking aspect of his social vision that the author underlined boldly is the characterization of young Dalit men as the culture of 4Ms, i.e. motorcycle, mobile, muscle, and mustunda (hooligan).

The presentation was followed by an interesting discussion focusing on Chamar vs Valmiki politics at the state level, and personality and identity based Dalit politics. Some of the questions were related with the most burning and current issue of caste and identity based Dalit politics in contemporary Punjab and the ways it gears the Valmiki community towards the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

Mr. Surinder Singh‘s presentation (Dalit Cultural Heritage in Punjab: A study of Jathera Shrines of the Ad Dharmi Community) based on ethnographic field study touched one of least discussed aspects of fast emerging Dalit identity formation processes in the current Punjab. The phenomenon of reverence of Jathera shrines among the Dalit of Punjab has been gaining wide currency as explained by the author in this presentation. Dalits in Punjab have been constructing and reconstructing multi-stories shrine in the memory of their reverend forefathers as an endeavor to create memorial cultural heritage reflecting on their sense of pride. The author is of the opinion that the process of remembering the jathera and construction of shrines also creates, mediates and invents relationship between the Dalits in Punjab and the widely scattered Dalit diasporas. Jathera shrines, said the author, are not only used as religious/cultural sites to worship Dalit ancestors but the construction of such sacred monument buildings is a witting search for the lost Dalit identity and cultural heritage roots. In the presentation, the author has coherently built linkages among local economy, Dalit cultural heritage and the rising Dalit consciousness in the region. Through the medium of his field based collected information, Mr. Singh underlined the fact that more the prosperous a Dalit community is the more fabulous would be its jathera shrine. The role of the diaspora Dalit community members in constructing the multi-story jathera shrine buildings is also highlighted in the presentation. The author further stated clearly how the construction of the jathera shrines are linked with the pride of Dalit gotra (clan lineage) and caste identities. The process of depicting caste identity through the construction of jathera shrines is exemplified, said the author, through putting the symbols, pictures of symbolic figures, slogan and spiritual poetry of the lower castes Sants (spiritual figures) at the places and walls of the jathera shrine buildings.

Another important aspect of the presentation is its emphasis on the links between political patronage and the promotion of Dalit cultural heritage in Punjab. The author cites various example reflecting on the thick involvement of the political personalities in the promotion of the jathera shrine culture among the Dalits of the region. He talked about the economic grants released by the Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Members of Parliament (MPs), Presidents of the Municipal Corporations (MCs) and the village Sarpanches for the construction of such shrines.

The presentation was followed by the question hour session. Most of the questions were related to the political economy of the emerging Dalit jatehra shrines and the impact of this distinct Dalit identity formation on the politics and the empowerment of the downtrodden.

Prof. Ronki Ram in his presentation (The other Modernity and forgotten Tradition: The Resurfacing of Dalit Cultural Heritage in Contemporary India) talked about the concerted efforts of the historically socially excluded sections of the Indian society, popularly known as Dalits, who have been engaged with a herculean task of reviving/inventing their lost cultural heritage at the grass-roots and national levels. It highlighted the dialectics and logistics of various techniques and strategies as adopted by them to rebuild/invent their lost/imagined cultural heritage and the ways it help them in acquiring distinct and separate social identity in a highly stratified social set up. The process of Dalit cultural heritage, said the author, have passed through different stages at different intervals in the country. As far as Punjab is concerned, it was the Ad Dahram movement that provided the initial spur to the nascent phenomenon of Dalit cultural heritage.

The most obvious agency of Dalit cultural heritage in contemporary East Punjab is the mushrooming growth of Ravidass Deras. The other equally important agencies of Dalit cultural heritage in the state are Dalit folk songs, poetry, music, Dalit autobiographies, statues of Dalit icons, monumental buildings dedicated to the memory of ancestors (jatheras), and large scale production and circulation of small size booklets sharply depicting Dalit past, heroes, and counter narratives. Ravidass Deras, articulated the author, are the only Dalit religious centers where religious and political figures (Guru Ravidass and Dr. Ambedkar) are blended together and projected publicly as the messiahs and redeemers of Dalits. Architecture of Ravidass Deras is distinguished from that of the mainstream religions in the state. Ravidass Deras have carved out their own distinct architecture which is a mixture of Hindu, Sikh and Islamic contents. In addition, these Deras have also developed their own dress code, sacred scriptures, religious symbols, sacred slogans, salutations, ceremonies, rituals, ardas (prayer), Kathas (scared stories), Kirtan (musical rendering of social hymns), and religious festivals and auspicious days/dates. The presentation, however, focused mainly on Ravidass Deras, particularly Dera Sant Sarwan Dass, Ballan (DSSB).

DSSB enriched Dalit cultural heritage in the region by establishing various Ravidass shrines, bhawans (memorial halls), hospitals, libraries, schools, news papers (weekly), and vocational training centers in the state. The sants of DSSB convened regular sant-sammelans (spiritual congregations), another noble way of disseminating the message of evolving Dalit cultural heritage among the followers of Ravidass Deras. To promote Dalit cultural heritage Sants of DSSB prepared a number of cassettes, compact discs (CDs) and video compact discs (VCDs) of the spiritual teachings of Guru Ravidass, the patron Sant of Ad Dharm movement and the rallying centre of Ravidass Deras including DSSB. However, of all the major contributions made by DSSB towards retrieving the lost Dalit cultural heritage, the construction of a mammoth ‘Shri Guru Ravidass Janam Asthan Mandir'(Temple of Shri Guru Ravidass’s Birthplace) at Seer Goverdhanpur, a locality in the suburb of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) is the most significant. Dalits from India and abroad contributed enormously towards the constriction of the temple. Within a short span of time it has become a main pilgrimage center of the Dalits. Every year during the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidass, this temple attracts millions of devotees from India and abroad. Another major intervention by the Sants of DSSB in the emerging domain of Dalit cultural heritage in Punjab is the declaration of Ravidassia Dharm as a distinct religion of its followers.

The presentation received a number of question relating to the different dimensions of the separate Ravidassia Dalit identity and the relevance/irrelevance of such a religion based identity for the empowerment of the formerly socially excluded sections of the society. What could be the possible social and political consequences of such a distinct religion based Dalit identity for the over-all caste question in the already highly segmented Punjabi agrarian society?

Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat‘s paper (Rise of Dalit Arts and Imagery: Instrument of Protest and Hope) touched the unexplored but rich domain of Dalit visual arts and imagery (painting, prints, sculpture, architecture, and other forms such as wall posters and photographs) and the ways it has been rather meticulously deployed as a non-violent method of social protest and viable instrument of hope for the ex-Untouchables in India. During his eloquent presentation perforated with slides of Dalit visual arts, Prof. Thorat highlighted the hidden meanings and connotations of such art so far neglected almost absolutely in the realm of mainstream social science. The author traced the history of Dalit arts and imagery to Ambedkar anti-caste civil right movement between early 1920s to mid 1950s in various forms. However, the author continued, it took more visible and recognizable expression since the early 1990s and finally caught the critical eye of the experts in the field only in 2000s.

Dalit visual arts, said the author, represented various dimensions of excluded Dalit life. He quoted a number of Dalit artists whose works have been documented in the seminal works of scholars working on caste and Dalit questions in India. In the expert opinion of the author, Gary Tartkov is the first writer who captured and conceptualized Dalit arts. Other writers who have done a considerable work in this emerging sub-field of critical Dalit studies, according to the author, are: David Santon and Saurabh Dube, Nicolas Jaoul, Owen Lynch. The seminal works brought out by these scholar writers provided a rich haul of literature on Dalit visual arts and imagery which is both, as the author quoted Tartkov, ‘a register of social reality and an instrument to change it’.

Dalit visual arts and imagery, said the author, served as a two-pronged instrument in the direction of Dalit emancipation and empowerment. The first signified a ‘switch over from Hindu religion and cultural symbols to those associated with Ambedkar and Buddhism and similar traditions. The other is an ideological change that this new arts and imagery carries with it, signifying the changes in principles that govern the ways in which Dalits now define identities and the ways in which they relate to others’. As far as the shift is concerned, it rejected symbols of social hierarchy and encouraged a shift to the alternate symbols that underline social equality and struggle for equal rights and dignity. The author further said that, “[i]n making this shift Dalit art provides us an insight into the social transformation that is underway, that involves not only rejection of the caste system and excluded life, but an embrace of efforts to create a new social order and social relations based on the principles of equality and social justice’. The author concluded his presentation while emphasizing that ‘Dalt art and visual imagery in contemporary India from a Dalit oriented perspective open up a new arena for considering our shared social development.’

The presentation was followed by an engaging discussion reflecting on varied dimensions of the possibility of the development of the Dalit visual arts and imagery into a sort of didactic counter-culture which would eventually usher into Dalit counter-public. Some of questions were also raised to identify the basic parameters for the recognition of the genre of the Dalit art and imagery. How Dalit art as an art differs from the mainstream art and imagery? Is it that the Dalit art and imagery always expressed itself in exclusionary terms only? What could be the other positive dimensions of Dalit art and imagery independent of the negative Dalit cultural heritage?

Prof. Ashutosh Kumar began his presentation (Dalit Deras as Critical Sites of Counter Culture: Explaining Why Political Parties Do Flock to the Deras) raising two sets of question relating to the lack of ‘presence’ and ’empowerment’ of the Dalit community in the corridors of political power. It is in this context that he proposed to focus on the role of the Deras as a potential space for the emergence of Dalit counter-culture as a potent agency of Dalit assertion. This in turn, as the author emphasized, based on the fact that ‘the mushrooming of the deras and their ever increasing role in influencing the political choices of their followers, most of whom belong to the socially and economically marginal indigenous groups as well as the migrant low castes farm/industrial labourers, is being recognized by the political parties as evident in the leaders cutting across party divides flocking to the deras in elections after elections’. Another equally focused observation that the author made in the beginning of his presentation was that ‘the contestation and representation of the dalits and backward castes has remained confined to mere ‘presence’ in the party forums or in the legislative bodies. It is obvious that there has hardly been a sincere attempt on the part of any ‘effective/relevant’ party in the state to mobilize the dalits, constituting one third of the state’s population for democratic purposes’. Instead, averred the author, the contending political parties dominated by upper castes leadership prefer to chose the ‘softer’ option of flocking to all sorts of Deras during elections to influence their top management to give verdict in their favour for en- block voting.

For an in-depth understating of the transmutation of the Deras from primarily a blend of sacred social, cultural and political arenas into critical domains for the invention of Dalit cultural heritage, the author raised the following question: How to make a sense of the mushrooming growth of deras in the state and how and why are they different from the earlier deras in this context? To what extent, the growing clout of the deras especially the Sikh deras as alternative socio-religious spaces across the state can be attributed to the decline of the autonomy of the two highest religious bodies of the community namely Akal Takht and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC)/ Why in terms of sociological origins, most of the deras followers are dalits and backwards castes even as many of these deras are not lower-caste based and are even headed by the Sants/Gurus/Babas belonging to the dominant community?

The author is of the view that the current hobnobbing between the political parties and the Deras has emerged ‘at a juncture when politics of the state has undergone a paradigmatic shift in the sense that ethnicity as determinant factor seems to be receding into the background with communal peace and development taking the centre stage in the electoral arena as one reads the election manifestos or follows the campaign’. While critically exploring the politicization of Dalits and the Dera factor in the much contested electoral arena of the state politics in Punjab, the author minced no words in refuting the growing political assertion ignited by the fast expanding constituency of Dalit Deras and their seminal role in the spread of Dalit cultural heritage within the region and beyond. Why despite the growing constituency and the influence of the Dera factor, questioned the author, Dalits in Punjab assembly and parliamentary elections failed to carve a niche for themselves in the state?

The presentation led to an interesting discussion. One of most common query that figured in all most all the questions was concerned with pros and cons of the linkages between the Dalit assertion and the political victory in the periodic assembly and parliamentary elections. In order to measure the temperature of the rising Dalit assertion in Punjab, many a questions raised, is it essential to compare it with that of the political mileage in terms of electoral gains? If the role of Dalit Deras in building Dalit assertion in the region is minuscule then why it is so that the political leadership across the parties make bee lines at their entrances on one or the other alibi?

Prof. Paramjit S. Judge’s presentation (Dalit Culture and Identity: Valorisation and Reconstruction of Tradition among the Chamars in Punjab) was a fresh and significant intervention in the sense that in the whopping build up of the Dalit literature over the last few years, one hardly finds a piece on the ‘virtual wars’ being fought on the You-tube signifying the ever widening canvas of Dalit assertion and the resistance it faced from the protagonists of the forces of the status-quo. His eloquent presentation revolved around the main issue of how virtual wars between the Chamars (one of the most outwardly mobile Dalit community) and Jats (the dominant peasant caste) are fought on the internet and how the former have been engaged in this very process in constructing a counter-culture. The learned author had also discussed how such wars made the distinction between the diaspora and non-diaspora Punjabi fuzzy.

The author categorized virtual wars into two segments. At the first level, the virtual wars are carried out as a mode of enactment in the visuals presented in the form of songs as well as the themes of those songs. At the second level, the two warring communities (Jats and Chamars) exchange arguments, often vituperative, in the form of comments they make on the contents of the songs. In a fit of rage, said the author, the comments often transcended the boundaries of the contents and entered ignominiously into the filthy domain of defacing the body and character of the very singer of the song as a symbolic of the community in question. In such virtual wars, the author continued, body of the singer degraded into a site of aggression (particularly sexual) and the newly earned wealth of the Dalit diaspora became a critical site of prosperity. Body of the macho Dalit male is also depicted as solid face of emerging Dalit assertion. The actors on both the sides of virtual wars are shown as the consumers of modernity and perpetrators of tradition. The actual and the existential domain of ethnic cleavages and caste divides are metamorphosed into ‘symbolic universe’ depicting the deep-rooted sinews of the dominant structures of social forces often oppressive and exclusionary. It is at the stance of these oppressive and exclusionary social structures that the virtual wars are fought as the savior of their respective camps. Chamars took it a big pride in their newly earned wealth and hard earned social position, explained the author, which still needed to get due recognition in the rival camps; they proudly exhibit their so-called low caste status through the medium of the catchy contents of the songs sung on the You-tube that portrayed them as the rising sons of Chamars. On the other hand, the rival warring camp represented by Jats leave no stone unturned from the way of smashing such hyper-glamorous social prestige and position of the erstwhile ex-untouchable boys who now dared to challenge their so-called bread guarantors.

As far the visual presentation of virtual wars is concerned, Guru Ravidass, Dr. B, R. Ambedkar and DSSB emerged as the main iconic figures on the You-tube representing the socially excluded sections of the society. However, it is at this level, said the author, that a phenomenon of duality surfaced configuratively among the Chamars of Punjab, ‘that is, politically they support Dr. Ambedkar and, at the same time, they have not responded to his call for conversion to Buddhism”. Another duality that the author talked about underlined the fact that ‘both Dr. Ambedkar and Guru Ravidass do not subscribe to violence in their writings and preaching. However, most of the visual presentations of this genre of songs carry powerful symbols of violence. These songs show hockey sticks, baseball bats, swords and guns’.

The author concluded his presentation with three implications. First, the virtual wars have shattered the myth of possibility of casteless society. Instead of taking back seat, the caste identities, emphasized the author, became strong and have been deployed to capture power. They have also become exclusive. The second, social equality needs to be understood and achieved without achieving casteless society. And third, the bludgeoning phenomenon of exclusive caste identities hinders the process of social inclusion in a democratic system, particularly in the private sphere.

The presentation was followed by an engaging discussion revolving around the central issue of strengthening of caste identities in contemporary India. Some of the comments and questions raised the issue of public vs. the private in understanding the complexities of the emerging phenomenon of exclusive caste identities in cyber-age in border state of Punjab.

Dr. Pramod Kumar‘s paper (Dalit Identity Architecture: From Selective Adaptation of Cultural Symbols to Nurturing of Exclusive Sites) was read by Ronki Ram. Dr. Pramod Kumar could not attend the workshop on health grounds. The central thrust of his paper is on selective cultural adaptation by the lower castes of dominant cultural standards and at the same time to construct parallelism in terms of cultural forms and nurturing of exclusive sites to bargain for equitable representation in the domain of both public and private. There is sufficient evidence available, claimed in the paper on the basis of intensive field study, to show how Dalits were selectively appropriating certain traits of dominant castes. While further complicating the phenomenon of specific cultural practices, the author cautioned against possible misunderstanding of the dubbing the entire process as ‘sanskritisation of Dalits in Punjab’. Against the established notion of the ‘sanskritisation of Dalits’, the author in this critical study established the notion of ‘competitive parallelism’ which aimed at to form a common Dalit identity and at the same time wanted to lose that same identity. ‘This parallelism’, said the author, ‘is in convergence with the exclusive spatial sites being established’. It aimed at ‘nurturing a exclusive Dalit identity in comparison with Jat Sikh identity’. The formation of Mahila Mandals, Deras and Gurdwaras are some of the most obvious cases of such emerging exclusive and parallel cultural domain as cited in the paper. Within the expanding domain of exclusive and parallel Dalit cultural heritage, Dalit Deras figured most prominently. They have ‘put the Sikh ethnic claims in a weak and crumbling position by challenging the monolithic claims of Sikhism. Herein lies one of the potential strengths of these Deras as they have not only represented the marginalised sections of Punjabi society (primarily in terms of caste and class) but at the same time they have put into question the monolithic projection of Sikhism and thus putting the state into a tight spot whereby it has to simultaneously balance the contesting claims of the people voiced through Deras due to electoral compulsions with close connections it historically has with the Sikh clergy in politics, whereby state and religious – political institutions of Sikhs are highly intermeshed’. It is in this context that the politics in Punjab, emphasized the author, has been providing a bargaining space to Dalits in the state.

The final session of the Workshop was marked as concluding remarks. In this session, Ronki Ram, convener of the Workshop, provided a synoptic view and a conclusion of the engaging discussions held during the two days technical sessions of this international academic event. He emphasized that Dalit identity formation and its representation emerged as the central view point during the Workshop. The emerging Dalit identity formation processes tended to be characterized as multiple in its contents and deeds as against the usual singular-monolithic. In fact, the multiple Dalit identity formation processes in contemporary India were reminiscent of the diverse social domain of the ex-untouchables sections of the Indian society who were as sharply divided along castes lines as the other four Varnas of the Hindu social order.

As far as representation of such a highly differentiated and contested domain of lower castes identity formation processes are concerned, it is quite obvious that there emerged several distinct cultural heritage centers signifying the multidimensionality of such on going processes. Some of the papers presented during the Workshop highlighted the multidimensionality of the Dalit cultural heritage processes while concentrating on different cultural ethos and their representation in the form of emerging divergent centers of Dalit religion(s) and culture(s), prestige stories, historical narratives, virtual wars sites, Dalit visual arts, imagery and poetry etc. etc. Thus the contemporary India has been witness to the growth of several distinct Dalit cultural heritage domains and counter-cultures as against a single unified Dalit cultural heritage domain. The emerging domains of Dalit cultural heritage are being looked at as new vistas of Dalit emancipation and empowerment. They are presented as centers of counter-culture which facilitate the former socially excluded sections of the society in getting them re-jointed with their forgotten histories and rich cultural traditions of sovereignty.



Ronki Ram

ICCR Chair Professor of Contemporary India Studies,

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies & IIAS,

Leiden University, The Netherlands.