Friday, March 19, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Dalit Symbolism and the Democratisation of Secular Spaces

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Dalit Symbolism and the Democratisation of Secular Spaces
Friday 19 March 2010, by Harish S. Wankhede


In the recent past, wider discussion and debate have been built over
the issue of mega-construction works undertaken by the Uttar Pradesh
(UP) Government. Intellectuals and social activists were worried that
public money was being drained out in such a big way to build
something which blatantly represents the political symbols of a
particular political party. In the media also we have noticed severe
criticism against these construction works by describing them as
ecologically dangerous or political gimmick over a petty emotional
issue which the current government has undertaken. The critics argue
that the Mayawati Government indulged in excessive immaterial
symbolism without understanding and prioritising the need for deeper
social changes required for the empowerment of the Dalits and other
sections of the poor. The criticism of the intellectuals and the media
represents an exclusivist middle class artificiality without taking
into cognisance the value of these symbols and the way in which the
statues and symbols have spread historically. They negate the meanings
and stakes involved for the people who are mobilised around these

I believe that the main motive behind such quasi-moral and selective
attack against the UP Government is not as simple as is explained by
the critics; otherwise there are multiple other examples in which
wastage of public funds is starkly visible but these never become an
issue of contestation in public debates. I would like to argue that
the core of the problem is located within the standards of aesthetics
and the subjective interpretation of cultural history, shaped and put
forward by the social elites. The symbolism crafted under Dalit
aesthetics deconstructs these given standards and provides new
meanings to the public spaces.

The Usage of Dalit as Objective Appendage

Dalit as a socio-political concept appears frequently in the
contemporary discussions on Indian politics. Most of the social
scientists have positively valued it as a particular and alternative
perspective of some caste groups and has targeted the hegemonic
domination of the modern 'universal' model of social progress
represented by the 'mainstream' caste Hindus. While upholding the
Dalit perspective as a radical model of social transformation, it was
never granted legitimacy by the academic community as the
representative voice within the post-colonial studies. In the study of
history through this perspective, it is argued that it lacks
diachronic scientificity essential for any discipline. Dalit as a
collective identity was related and defined under the narrow
boundaries of a particularistic approach, political ideology and the
beholders of alternative religio-cultural values and it was argued
that it has limited elements to become a universal approach.

The perspectives of Dalits are stereotyped as the ideological
constructs of lesser merit, and prejudiced in the general academic
world as another counter-voice of a passionate but irrational being.
In political discourses, academic seminars and ideological debates
their methods are ridiculed as infantile and criticised for lack of
social consciousness which is universally applicable like the other
modernist positivist ideas. This commonsensical prejudice and hate
creates an understanding about the Dalit in public reasoning. Such
classification of the Dalit perspective as lesser and other
perspectives as universal, is reiterating the notion of superiority
and impurity within the public discourse. The Dalits because of their
dehumanised past are devalued, their capacity of thinking as
individuals is questioned and cunningly portrayed as the voice of the
community and therefore of less merit. This is a form of academic
violence which promotes casteist myths and beliefs concerning the
presumed inferiority and incapability of the Dalits. Thus Dalits
become a static community, prisoner of a Dalit stereotype. This is a
sheer casteiest attitude created by the socio-cultural norms of the
society which distrusts, fears and envy the capabilities of Dalits in
breaking the hegemonic modernist constructions built by the
upper-caste elites of the Indian society.

Most of the Dalit thinkers are also content with such analysis and
have internalised 'Dalit' as a separate perspective with a limited
audience to address. They candidly admit the inferiority of the Dalit
perspective in the popular mainstream discourses. They also lack the
courage to assert the Dalit perspective as a competent method of
analysis and hurriedly embrace the hegemonic academic codes of the
upper-caste Hindus. The desire is to be a part of the collective
mainstream academic circle or to become 'general' or 'universal'; this
is a process of Sanskritisation which is unknowingly adopted by most
of the Dalit thinkers. I will call it Brahmanisation of the Dalit
minds. Under such adopted commonsensical model of 'Particular and
Universal', the Dalits are ghettoised and condemned as incapable,
incompetent to produce sociological theories, meta-narratives, and
universal symbols of inclusivity. Even the democratic appeal of the
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for a sarvajan empowerment is scrutinised
with a critical hypothesis that the possibility of such manoeuvring is
less as the leadership has history of deep indulgence with the
empowerment of a specific social group or to enlarge its petty
political success.

Such gross misrepresentations of the Dalits reduce them to an
identified collective category in the academic community, having the
single agenda of constructing the 'other' (Manuvadi, Brahmin,
upper-caste Hindus) and charge against this enemy for the unjust and
unequal relationships perpetuated in the society. The Dalit
perspective is therefore allegedly criticised by the mainstream
academic community for finding solace and comfort in continuous
representation of their dehumanised past in the modern world. Dalits
are incapable to provide inclusive symbolisms, a universally
sensitive, transcendental philosophical model for a better world
because they are deeply rooted and entrenched in the 'other' and all
their academic interventions are peripheral only to their own
self-obsessed constructed centre. The Dalit perspective is not even
seen as a representative counter-argument of the socially excluded
groups. This perspective, which has a distinct experiential
epistemology because of its social particularity, was never
acknowledged in a fair manner. The Dalit perspective has further
substantiated these arguments of unfairness by explaining the livid
experiences of their degraded social presence and how the given
traditionalist and nationalist nomenclatures are insufficient to
address their concerns.

The New Claimants of Historical Knowledge

Such discriminatory treatment is visible further when it comes to the
valorisation of the national leadership. Indian history is inseparable
from its brahmanical origin and it necessarily imposes a tacit version
of cultural and political history over the people. Brahmanism is seen
under the Dalit perspective as the ideological and institu-tional
system which forcefully monopolises knowledge and power by excluding
and dominating other social groups of the society. The elites have
constructed historical knowledge by making Gandhi as a National and
Ambedkar as a Particular icon when they were at the helm of political
affairs. Such claims that belittle the contributions of the leaders of
social struggles operate under a superior caste psyche which
eventually regards the upper-caste leadership as national and others
as specific, regional or caste icons. Therefore, breaking such
ideological construction is an essential prerequisite for the
contemporary Dalit perspective. The reconstruction of history is
necessary to ignite the minds of ignorant masses as they are mentally
enslaved through the extensive integrationist symbolisms of the social
elites. By mobilising the masses on alternative symbols, the Dalit
perspective has historically tried to defeat the philosophical
foundations of brahmanical elites. Today, following the democratic
churning of six decades, a representative government led by the BSP
has aspired to build an alternative consciousness by making Ambedkar,
Jyotiba Phule and Shahu Maharaj as true National leaders.

The stereotypical humiliated Dalit image needs a makeover in the
current juncture of democratic spaces to enable Dalits to represent
themselves as equal citizens and these symbols have the capacity to
transform the Dalit image in a very positive way. Public acceptance of
alternative cultural and religious symbols re-emphasise the Dalit
presence as the independent assertion of organic knowledge and
challenges the hegemonic social norms that locate the Dalits as an
abnormal appendage to the great Hindu tradition. Such motivated effort
hurts most of the intellectuals and social activists because it
demands a different language and thought process to understand the
social reality in which they feel very uncomfortable. To avoid the
debates on caste and its current value in political circles, the
critics are trying to mobilise people on symbols which they believe
are secular, universal and acceptable to the traditional standards of
aesthetics. The rise of Dalit politics is consistently seen as an
attack against the secular and collectivist abstract standards of
upper-caste imagination and avoids the understanding of this assertion
through a subjective ethical argument crafted by the Dalits.

Construction of an alternative vision of Indian history has been seen
as an essential entity within the Dalit perspective. The symbolic
assertions by inventing popular myths, folk heroes, and cultural
attributes related to the pride of the socially deprived people are
reconstructing historical narratives with a futuristic vision. Such
historical imagination deconstructs the brahmanical notions of history
and become a decisive force to mobilise subalterns around the renewed
collective identities. The recent politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party
of erecting grand monumental structures on the name of Dalits and
other Bahujan leaders is a medium to propose an assertive positive
identity which can be utilised to illuminate the minds of socially
oppressed sections from their inverted negative psyche which they have
internalised under the caste-based oppressive social order of the
present times. Such occupation of public space also legitimises their
claim over the knowledge of history and consecutively formulates an
argument for a greater democratisation of history through subaltern

The mainstream subjectivity has consistently represented Dalits as
dependent objects by specified nomenclatures. As a result, Dalits were
consistently denied the status of subject and were always represented
by others as a submissive category parasitically attached to the
paternalistic brahmanical normality. Subversion of such negative
instrumentality of social identity as sheer object becomes the
revolutionary élan within the Dalit perspective. It not only
deconstructs the Dalit identity as empowered one but also demands
mainstream space to become an equal subject with the capacity to
re-associate and negotiate with the given objects.

Value of Symbols

The new monuments constructed in UP represent an alternative
symbolism, radically different from the normally adopted values,
political beliefs and standards of secular public symbols to which the
critics had adhered so meaningfully. These symbols directly hurt the
pride and prestige of the elites who have historically constructed
most of the national symbols and claim for its universality among the
public. The social elites have valued history with a romantic
broadening and have even included popular myths and folklores as valid
historical contents. In the past, the valorised history of the social
elites was not even open to any hermeneutic analysis and any attempt
which tries to democratise history was craftily dismissed. The
contemporary political period is a terrain of democratic contestations
as history is reviewed by multiple claims, intentions and ideological
persuasions. Historical narratives are seen as a social capital which
is utilised by the intellectual junta to develop a concrete
consciousness about the past. The Dalits are the new entrants in this
knowledge system with a poised motive to debrahmanise history in a
radical way; however, their efforts are criticised in the crudest
manner in most of the public debates.

The erected symbols are embedded with a set of progressive values and
radical contents. The classical Left critics have adopted a normative
comparison claiming that such aesthetics is rooted in bourgeois
tactics and hardly provides any material benefits to the poor. Such
diachronic distinctions between material and aesthetic values and
prioritising the prior over the other have consciously undermined the
embedded values of these symbols for bringing about a radical social
change in the public psyche. The value of these symbols is dependant
on their capacity to deconstruct the socio-cultural hegemony of the
social elites and provide democratic spaces to the voices which were
raised in favour of the socially deprived sections.

The symbolism based on naming statues, memorials, awards etc. stands
as a major feature of the Dalit movement in India. The conjecture is
that the imposition of such icons through statues and other symbols in
public places can contribute to develop an understanding among the
public by which the oppressed sections are projecting their model of
alternative state, nation, culture and political philosophy. These
statues seem to be the focal point for renewed aspirations towards
democracy and equality, while the ceremonies organised around them
have provided these oppressed citizens the opportunity to assert a
sense of their presence in the social and cultural life. The
iconisation of the Dalit heroes in public is the most assertive
gesture of growing democratic consciousness of the socially deprived
sections as these groups were perpetually excluded from all the claims
of human rights and dignity. The symbolism constructed by the UP
Government has the capacity to dethrone the hegemony of abstract
elitist standards of public and national symbols with its aggressive
alternative representation. These symbols, including that of
Mayawati's statue, have a tremendous appeal among the oppressed
sections as they look upon these statues with a poised aspiration that
will bring social empowerment, dignity and justice.


The debate over the erection of Dalit symbols at public spaces is
burdened with middle class reflexivity and therefore the critics do
not understand the ethical values supplemented by these statues. The
statues explain the unheard claims of Dalits to become an integral
part of the normal public life which was historically denied to them.
They provide a new meaning to the secular spaces by democratising
these in a subs-tantive way. These symbols have demonstrated that the
Dalits are endowed with concentrated reflexive agency having the
capacity to promote themselves as a group of equal beholders of all
the public spaces.

The author is an Assistant Professor (Political Science), Ramlal Anand
College (E), University of Delhi.


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