Caste is a very complex social phenomenon. Typified by social stratification and preserved through endogamy, it designates ritual status in a hierarchy where everyday social interactions are based on cultural notions of purity and pollution. The caste system functions on the premise of structural inequality in which some people have high status, whereas others are deemed to be impure. Dalits (formerly Untouchables) are integral to the system even though they are mistakenly referred to as ‘outcastes’. Relegated as ‘polluted’ and inferior human beings, they are ostracized socially, politically, and economically, and endure myriad forms of discrimination.
Whilst caste is sometimes perceived as a South Asian phenomenon, this impression overlooks the fluid nature of caste, which transcends specific cultural contexts. After all, caste discrimination extends beyond both religious and national environments. It affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority of whom live in South Asia.Experiences of caste-based discrimination among South Asian migrants in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America has long remained hidden but is now surfacing within the public domain as victims increasingly assert themselves. This has attracted media attention as well as legal and institutional inquiries. The United Kingdom and European Union have begun to address the issue, that latter of which recently passed a resolution designating caste-based discrimination as a human rights abuse. Given this, we feel that caste-based discrimination must be approached as a global phenomenon.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye during her presentation of the first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination to the Human Rights Council on March 21, 2016 said, “ This is a global problem affecting communities in Asia, Africa, Middle East, the Pacific region and in various diaspora communities.” She also stressed that “caste-based discrimination and violence goes against the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ categories of individuals which is unacceptable.” Ms. Izsák-Ndiaye warned that discrimination leads to extreme exclusion and dehumanisation of caste-affected communities, who are often among the most disadvantaged populations, experiencing the worst socioeconomic conditions and are deprived of or severely restricted in the enjoyment of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Why Dalit History Month?
Taking into account this emerging scenario, we feel it is important for us as scholars working on South Asia with a special emphasis on Dalit scholarship to aid in the dissemination of Dalit history. Dalit movements and Dalit literature were highly influenced by Black history. Scholarship on black history month shows us that it was through the widespread dissemination of black history during Black History Month and elsewhere that a social consensus on racial discrimination and injustices of slavery came to the fore. Likewise, there have been attempts within India and elsewhere to replicate the tradition of Black History Month. Such efforts, we believe, will help non-Dalits within India and abroad to understand and address pressing issues related to social discrimination based on birth.
The common-sensical view that existed and still exists is that Indian history was upper-caste male dominated which also became celebrated as part of the nationalist history. Going against this tradition and by talking about ‘History from Below,’ the Subaltern Studies Scholarship altered historiographical practices by recording narratives of people from the margins such as peasants. However their scholarship came under strong criticism because it elided the question of caste and its history. Today, Dalit Studies is an emerging field of scholarship that raises such questions and discusses those omissions. It draws upon inquiry into the subjective experiences and cultural practices of Dalits, which enables us to understand how Dalits negotiate with the state, engage tenets of democracy, their contribution to nation building, and how they claim the public sphere.
Scholarship on Dalit History is a form of cultural politics that attempts to transform the ways in which Dalits represent the past. Dalit history functions within the realm of a politics of recognition that, by producing counter narratives, challenges and subverts dominant narratives; phrased differently, it tells an alternative story. Though Dalit histories are replete with stories of discrimination, atrocities and injustices, it also celebrates the achievements of the dispossessed who struggle against stacked odds to live a dignified life of equal status.
Given the fact that University of Edinburgh is committed to diversity and recognizing voices from the margins, we are organising events in the School of Social and Political Science to celebrate April as Dalit History Month. This attempt is aimed at making the University of Edinburgh acknowledge as an institution the significance of the caste question. There are critically important forums that address Racism and Xenophobia, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT History, but Caste does not factor into any of these existing discussions and, therefore, we feel that it is important to bring caste to the fore in order to contribute to and further enrich these critical conversations through commemoration of Dalit History Month. Following the success of the anti-Apartheid movement as a global phenomenon, we feel that anti-caste movements should have a global outreach. Celebrating Dalit history month at a time when we are celebrating B.R.Ambedkar,s 125th birth anniversary would be a fitting tribute to multifaceted leader who was the chief architect of Indian Constitution, a legal luminary, statesman, political and social theorist and above all a crusader for social justice.
This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.
Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies.