The Dalit perspective represents an alternative imagination of India as proposed by Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar and some other scholars. For example – Ambedkar considers India both as “prabuddha Bharat” (enlightened India) and “bahishkrit Bharat” (ostracized India). He also incorporated the philosophy of both Jyotirao Phule and Periyar.
Jyotirao Phule is known for commenting British Raj is better than Peshwa Raj. He appreciated the British for introducing equality before law and rule of law. He was also critical of congress nationalism and was against Brahmanism. Nevertheless, he also highlighted the flaws of British rule.
Periyar was initially a member of the Indian National Congress (INC) but eventually got frustrated with the Brahminical attitude of the INC leaders. He started the ‘self-respect’ movement rejecting Brahmanism and Hinduism.
B R Ambedkar
The majority of Dalit leaders were critical of the lack of commitment on the part of upper caste leaders to share power with Dalits and bring social equality. Ambedkar’s book ‘What Congress and Gandhi had done to Untouchables’ highlights this in detail.
Ambedkar was influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity. In ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ he mentions that “if Tilak had born Dalit, he would have demanded annihilation of caste as his birthright”. For Dalits in India, Swaraj without extinction of caste carries no meaning. He described nationalism as a consciousness of kind and the existence of ties of kinship (fraternity).
Ambedkar on India
Ambedkar was so much concerned about Dalits that any form of struggle without referring to their problems had no importance to him. He held that Hindus are segmented communities. Hence, India is not a nation but a big community of communities. Without fraternity, political unity is unsustainable. Without political unity, India will be just a state and not a nation.
Ambedkar on Nationalism
The freedom of a country cannot be separated from the freedom of its people. Nationalism is an expression of inner unity, a process of social assimilation, a dynamic desire to live as a nation. Nationalism is the negation of casteism, communism and is rooted in humanism.
He alleged that INC was not just against Dalits but also workers. He showed that once INC ministries were formed in 1937, they brought in many conservative bills e.g. they amended the Industrial Disputes Act and made strikes illegal in Bombay.
In the high noon of India’s struggle for freedom, Dalit intelligentsia expressed its support to the British government on the ground that the so-called upper-caste Hindu leaders were not inclined to share power with Dalits. They felt that, without social revolution giving equality to Dalits, change in political leadership would only strengthen the hold of the upper castes over Dalits.
The Dalit attitude has been criticized as anti-national by nationalists and right-wing historians like Arun Shourie.
Prof. Gopal Guru says Arun Shourie’s criticism is politically motivated and there is a need to understand Ambedkar’s perspective more scientifically.
Gandhi and the Dalit perspective
The subaltern perspective differs from the Gandhian notion of social change and reform which emphasizes moral aspects like service, compassion and care. By these Gandhi sought to dissolve the contradiction and eliminate the possibility of oppositional imagination. Against the language of morality, Dalits leaders preferred struggle and self-help.
Gandhi’s social and caste status gave him the luxury of “seamless spatiality”. Gandhi could move in and out of any space, from the upper to the lower castes.
The leadership of the national movement viewed the problem of Dalits as a religious matter and did not want division within the Hindus. However, Gandhi did had concern for the Dalit cause. As he states, ‘without eradicating untouchability root and branch the honour of Hinduism cannot be saved’.
Gandhi could read the design of the government in creating division within Indian society by announcing the Communal Award. He thus strongly resisted the proposal of the British govt. to create a separate electorate for Dalits.
Whereas Gandhi and other mainstream nationalist leaders were concerned with uniting Indian society against the British, the Dalit intelligentsia strongly believed that without empowering Dalits from their any form of political freedom was not beneficial. However, the efforts made by nationalist leadership to create public awareness about the sufferings of Dalits and the initiatives through the anti-untouchability movement, constructive programs, temple entry movements etc. paved the way to empower Dalits.
Perspectives of contemporary scholars
Analysing Dalit movements in Maharashtra, Andhra and Karnataka, Gail Omvedt, an American-Indian sociologist has observed that “…the Dalit movement and the overall radical anti-caste movements were a crucial expression of the democratic revolution in India, more consistently democratic – and in the end more consistently “nationalistic” – than the elite-controlled Indian National Congress.”
Valerian Rodrigues has argued that ‘irrespective of their other differences, Dalit Bahujan thinkers conceive the nation as a good society where its members, considered as individuals or collectivities, respect one another, protect mutual rights and show concern and solidarity. Self-respecters, therefore, felt that as long as there is the existence of untouchability, all talk of freedom and self-rule is empty’.
Ranjit Guha in ‘Subaltern Studies’ declares that “the historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism – colonialist elitist and bourgeois-nationalist elitist”. He says that there are no attempts to understand and write about how the subaltern view and practice their politics. A parallel subaltern domain of politics existed uninfluenced by elite politics and possessed an independent, self-generating dynamic.
S.N. Gaikwad states that Ambedkar may be anti-national, however, he was correct in rejecting the elite hegemony. He forced INC to be more responsive towards the concerns of Dalits. He held that there is no justification for the Gandhian theory of patriotism as it means submission to local tyrants. Ambedkar rejected intolerance and hypocrisy.