By Ashok K Singh
30 January, 2006
A three-day seminar held recently to debate and deliberate on introducing Dalit Studies in universities provided fascinating insights into the space this emerging but exciting area of research could occupy in higher education. The area opens up the possibilities of studies of thought and ideas, issues and concerns from ancient to the modern world. It has the potential of bringing about truly radical changes in the way one is taught to look at our history and society, politics and culture, literature and art, and everything that concerns human relationships. It has the potential to upset many established notions of social sciences and our understanding of Indian history. In fact, the debate over the writing of Indian history that has so far engaged the attention of historians would appear to be intellectual banter if the depth of Dalit Studies was truly explored and mapped. Last month, a beginning was made towards exploring the content material for evolving a curriculum for
Dalit Studies in Indian universities. Deshkal Society, an NGO that has been working among a section of Dalits in Bihar, took the initiative in taking the issue to the doorsteps of higher education for debate. It is noteworthy that the Deshkal Society thought to involve the administrators of universities – vice chancellors and pro-vice chancellors – and the teaching community of Bihar to discuss what could form the course material and content of Dalit Studies at the higher education level. Amazingly, the response of the teaching community and the administrators was overwhelming. At Bodh Gaya in Bihar, over 200 college teachers gathered to attend the opening session of the seminar.
It was a deliberation of a kind. By the end of the three-day seminar, the issue was not whether Dalit Studies should or should not be taught at the universities. None of the participants representing top ranking universities even remotely questioned the desirability of introducing Dalit Studies. Some, however, wanted the issues to be debated thoroughly before rushing in to setting up new departments where Dalit Studies could be taught as a discipline of post-graduate research. Some speakers cautioned against Dalit studies suffering the same fate as Gandhian Studies and Women’s Studies in the universities.
Their worry was purely on account of the failure of the universities to link the studies of Gandhian thought to employment opportunities. The same was said of women’s studies. Universities that had opened the department of Gandhian Thought with enthusiasm were forced to close shop for lack of interests on the part of students. Gender Studies still attract students at home and abroad but the interest of students has waned there as well. It may have something do with the decline of the feminist movement on the campus and outside all over the world.
It would be a tough task for the universities to fashion the curricula for Dalit Studies once they decide on incorporating the subject as part of the post-graduate studies or setting up a separate new department of higher studies and research altogether. Who is a Dalit? Some one born in a caste identified in the Scheduled list of the Constitution? Or would it include even those who are outside the list but remain at a similar social and cultural level?
The most fascinating debate took place when the seminar came to discuss Dalit literature. What is Dalit literature? Something written by someone born in a Dalit caste or someone outside it? What is a Brahmin produces first rate poetry, story or a novel around issues that concern Dalits? Will such writing qualify as Dalit literature? For instance, where would one place the celebrated Kannada writer UR Ananthmurthy? His novel, Sanskara, that deals with the issue of untouchablity with the sensibility that few works of literature (whether by Dalits or non-Dalits) have displayed, earned him worldwide acclaim. Will Sanskara qualify as Dalit literature? Ananthmurthy himself is a Kannada Brahmin. He was present at the seminar and, in fact, presided over the session on Dalit literature. He was not expected to comment on the issue.
There is a strong and vocal school of Dalit writers who firmly believe that only writings by born Dalits must qualify as Dalit literature. They present a simple argument. Nobody can feel the pain and suffering of a Dalit except a born Dalit. Therefore, few outside the Dalit caste can express their suffering with the intensity of feelings that a Dalit writer can. Though there are historical pointers to the contrary, it is difficult to quarrel with such an approach. The French grandmasters Zola and Balzac produced great novels about something they were thoroughly unfamiliar with. Ananthmurthy’s great novel is a case in point.
Then there are the social sciences that will form the major area of studies and research of the Dalit Studies curricula in the universities. History, Sociology, Political Science will be the major disciplines that will have to incorporate and assimilate areas of Dalit Studies. They will present even more complex issues of inclusion and exclusion that will influence the course material and content of Dalit studies. Most Dalit intellectuals will advocate the rewriting of history and sociology from the perspectives of Dalits to qualify as disciplines to be taught at the post-graduate levels. But one is sure the area of studies will evolve its own character as it develops after being included in the university.
The importance of Dalit Studies can be reemphasised not merely from the perspective of Dalits but also non-Dalits. One of the major objectives of Dalit Studies will be to sensitise the non-Dalits with the issues and concerns of the Dalits. Therefore, it would be erroneous to speculate that Dalit Studies would target mainly the Dalits. That will be one way of ensuring that Dalit Studies don’t meet the fate of Women’s Studies.
Some vice-chancellors who attended the seminar promised to take the initiative to introduce Dalit Studies in their universities in Bihar. It was agreed that introducing a paper or two dealing with Dalit Studies at the post-graduate level could make a beginning. Because, setting up independent departments would require some policy matters to be sorted out. The seminar left nobody in doubt that the introduction of Dalit Studies would vastly enrich the university curricula. The Deshkal Society will now need to embark on the second phase of its project by actively working with the universities until the Dalit Studies become the part of the curricula of higher education.
There is pressure from students, researchers and universities for working on this count. There is a substantial presence of Dalit students and researchers in the major national universities. They have been churning out important research papers, MPhil and PhD in areas of Dalit interest. The quality of research suggests these have vast potential to develop into independent branch of academics. The on-going political empowerment of Dalits must be reflected in the educational and the cultural institutions. Dalit Studies will act as a bridge between Dalits and non-Dalits in promoting greater understanding in society – past and present.