Dalit Autobiography as Political Assertion


By- Sarah Beth


An important similarity between Dalit autobiographies and the autobiographies of other marginalized groups is the difficult struggle these writers face to gain the right to speak. Sidonie Smith's work on women's autobiographies has noted the necessity for the author of a marginalized group to renegotiate narrative authority of autobiography, which has been originally defined and continually policed according to the interests of the dominant (in this case, male) community.


More than anything else, the ‘right' or ‘ability' of the marginalized group to write literature comes under immediate contestation, and Dalit writers have likewise been forced to fight for the right to speak as well as to redefine the boundaries of what can be said.


Dalit writers have attempted to negotiate this challenge of securing narrative authority by emphasizing the ‘experience of discrimination' and ‘Dalit identity' as two necessary criteria for both writing and critiquing Dalit autobiography. Phrases such as “only he or she who has suffered this anguish knows its sting” clearly delineate narrative authority for the Dalit writer.


For example, one well-known Dalit writer, Shyauraj Singh ‘Bechain' explained in an interview that autobiography is an especially valued form of Dalit literature since unlike poems, novels or short-stories, it can only been written by a Dalit.


Thus, it is through the politics of identity that Dalits have—at least for the genre of autobiography—successfully re-negotiated narrative authority since the nature of autobiography itself means that Dalit identity confers on the autobiographer a kind of uncontestable authority to speak.


Dalit autobiographers also negotiate the issue of authority to represent the Dalit community by presenting their autobiography not as a result of their desire for personal recognition, but as a response to the requests from the Dalit community for representation. For instance, in the prefaces of both Joothan and Tiraskrit , the author bases his decision to write his autobiography on the requests of the Dalit community.


After Valmiki's short autobiographical essay was published in a journal, he attests that “responses came even from far-flung rural areas. The Dalit readers had seen their own pain in those pages of mine. They all desire that I write about my experiences in more detail.”


Similarly Chauhan writes, “The readers of these magazines [where several short autobiographical articles were published] sent me letters for two continuous years, among them senior literary writers but also villagers. And through their reflections, I realized that only those who have also felt the pain of Dalits can understand.”


Thus, Dalit autobiographies are not simply the narration of a Dalit's life-story. They are also used by Dalit writers as a means of political assertion. In an interview, Surajpal Chauhan spoke about writing a second autobiography. He said, “I had never in my life thought that I would write an autobiography. So now I am collecting stories I now remember which I had missed before. I had to rush to write the first one since the movement needed it .” (emphasis added)


While there are many intriguing aspects to this comment, what is clear is that Chauhan views his autobiography as a political statement and part of a greater movement of resistance.


Thus, Dalit autobiographies serve as a dissident space within the literary public in which the Dalit writer can speak out against untouchability and contest the institutional narrative that caste no longer functions as a social force in modern India.

They are, as Paul Gilroy claimed for African American autobiographies, that is, a process of ‘self-emancipation' in the creation of a ‘dissident space' within the public sphere. At the same time, as Gilroy claims, they are also, a process of ‘self-creation' through the narration of a public persona.


Thus, autobiography also serves as means for Dalit writers to reclaim narrative authority over the construction of the ‘Dalit self'. While dominant Indian society has identified Dalits as ‘inferior', ‘polluted' etc., Dalit autobiographers ‘re-write' selfhood, so to speak, in their description of their life and the life of their community.


Whether they are extolling the positive aspects of Dalit society—such as the meaning of ‘prosperity' rather than ‘filth' given to the rearing of pigs—or whether the writers are criticizing aspects of their cultural practices—such as Chauhan does regarding child marriage and in fact the use of pig's blood in marriage ceremonies—both writers give alternative meanings to their social traditions. Dalit society is not inferior, as is claimed by the upper castes, but is ‘different', or ‘oppressed' or ‘inventive in the face of extreme exploitation'.


Thus, rather than describe their life only as one of ‘victimhood', pain becomes transformed into a uniting, ‘enlightening' experience in which an assertive Dalit identity is realized and incites the individual to action and political struggle. Watching their community continually oppressed by the upper castes, the protagonist of the Dalit autobiography does not experience his pain ‘lying down', but rather pain incites him to unite with his community in a fight against caste discrimination.

Similarly, the process of ‘reliving' this pain, while writing the autobiography is not viewed as a process of healing or forgetting in order to move on with one's life. It is a way of solidifying individual connection with the larger imagined Dalit community and at the same time contributing to the political assertion by presenting ‘facts' of one's life to contest casteism.


Towards this effort of strengthening the unity of the Dalit community, Valmiki's autobiography serves as a list of all those Dalits the author believes have contributed to the movement, a narrative technique Perkins terms ‘roll call'. He describes the accomplishments of Marathi Dalit writers, of various editors who published Dalit articles in their magazines, and of Dalit social activists.


To conclude, the presence of the Dalit voice in the public arena is one of the most important contributions of Dalit autobiography, and in the Hindi belt in particular, it has been a presence long overdue. Once that space is achieved (even to a limited extent) however, it is interesting to note what Dalit writers then do with it—in other words, not only their mere presence but what Dalit writers say becomes important.


To this end, Dalit autobiographies in Hindi are very clear. Their narrative agenda is to expose the continuation of caste discrimination, even in modern times, and even in the urban centers of India. It attacks the basis of this caste discrimination in a variety of ways, but especially through a stable focus on the ‘factual' recounting of experiences of discrimination. In the autobiographical form, these ‘facts' become uncontestable truth, since no one knows more about an individual's life experiences than the individual himself.


Furthermore, the autobiography serves the additional function of re-affirming and strengthening the link between the individual Dalit writer and the larger Dalit community. Through this union comes the ‘strength in numbers' needed to contest the institutionalized social order of caste in India.


An increasing understanding and awareness of these contributions of Dalit autobiography must also take into account the cultural and historical processes under which they arose in the Hindi belt, including the social location of the Dalit writer himself.


Finally, Dalit autobiography is considered a form of political assertion for a number of reasons. Besides giving Dalit entrance into a public space through identity-based narrative authority, autobiography provides a space for Dalit writers to regain control over the constitution and meaning of Dalit selfhood and join in a show of strength with the larger ‘Dalit community'.



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