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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 symbols.

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 perspectives.

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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