Hall of shame: Dalit woes take centre stage
Srijana Mitra Das, TNN, Jan 23, 2011, 02.42am IST
JAIPUR: In 'Hall of Shame', a Jaipur Literature Festival session,
writers Chandra Bhan Prasad, Meena Kandasamy and Patrick French
discussed ways by which Dalits were identified and excluded.
"There is no caste' gene," said French. "Despite bans on
inter-marriages, no exclusive caste-based genes developed among
Indians. So, there's no scientific basis for castes." Kandaswamy
responded. "The concept of 'upbringing' is used instead. If I poured
water clumsily into a jug, my awkwardness would be explained by my
'Dalit upbringing'." Prasad commented that methods to 'identify'
Dalits were used by non-Indians too. "When I visited Durban with a
delegation, foreigners came to have pictures taken with 'the Dalits'."
Kandaswamy said she initially didn't use a Dalit writer' tag.
"When I translated a Tamil Dalit writer, people got suspicious. They
enquired, Are you a Dalit?' was asked constantly, I started saying,
yes." She remembered how insulted she felt visiting the editor of a
prominent newspaper down south. "He only spoke to the politician
accompanying me with this translated book. He asked him, "Is she a
Dalit? She speaks good English." To the packed hall, Kandaswamy
continued, "Indians are always in denial about the caste distinctions
Prasad felt economic liberalisation was changing mindsets
considerably. "Earlier, people lived by social markers like sacred
threads," he said. "Now, they are switching to economic markers.
Mobile phones, money, cars are becoming more important than caste or
colour." Kandaswamy disagreed, pointing out Dalit villages in the
south made prosperous by Gulf earnings. "Despite their wealth, no-one
is willing to marry them or make them friends. Instead, they get
attacked by the police acting with Brahmins. Caste emancipation is
much more political than economic."
Remarking how he had never heard of inter-dining' before he read
Gandhi who disapproved, French said, "Ambedkar didn't fit the Congress
Party's version of history written after 1947. He was never mentioned.
Today, he exists widely but as a statue. He is used as a political
symbol but not explored as a writer, a thinker, which he was like
Orwell, deeply passionate and very direct." Prasad enquired, "How many
people here have invited a Dalit home to dinner? That is a marker of
how we view caste today. After a few drinks, people confide they think
Dalit guests would mix soda in wine, demand meat, laugh loudly." The
audience responded by laughing loudly, moved by indignation over
injustices old and new.
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