The Reading Room: 7 Dalit Voices on Books They Want People to Read More to Understand India’s Caste History and Politics
Recommendation: The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India by Owen Lynch (Columbia University Press, 1969)
This is a well-researched book that evolved through extensive fieldwork in the western part of Uttar Pradesh. I recommend it because I think it’s one of the caste-themed classics written by a master writer like Lynch. It is a social story of an evolving assertive consciousness among Dalits in their daily lives.
It’s writings like these that I like to read again and again. People may find it useful as it attempts to document the history of Dalit consciousness formation within the broader context of society, culture and politics. It can also be read because it mixes history and ethnographic terrain, necessary to document the history of the marginalized, who mainly circulate in the oral cultures and public memories of these parts of our society.
- Chinnaiah Jangam
Associate Professor, Department of History, Carleton University, Canada | Author of Dalits and the Making of Modern India
Recommendation: Caste Annihilation by BR Ambedkar (1936)
This book was originally written in 1936, an unspoken speech meant to provide a theoretical framework for Savarna Hindus to annihilate caste. This founding text analyzes incisively the social, religious and historical roots of the caste. It shows how it shaped the cultural, political, economic and moral structure of society through the centuries in South Asia.
Contemporary India faces an existential threat from the rise of Hindu supremacist politics which is shaking the foundations of plural existence and constitutional morality.
To understand the roots of the current situation and counter the growing violence against Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and other minorities, Annihilation of Caste sheds light on the origins of callous and inhumane attitudes and violent culture among the ruling castes rooted in Brahmanical religious ideology. which normalizes so much violence and injustice.
This book is a theoretical text for all who are interested in protecting the democratic foundations of India based on the ethics of constitutional morality which guarantee freedom, equality, justice, brotherhood and dignity, regardless of caste, sex, religion and economic status. Reading this text not only opens eyes to injustice in society, but also provides tools to rectify them in order to build a compassionate society.
- Dilip Mandal
Writer and columnist
Recommendation: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020)
Unlike Indian sociologists like GS Ghurye, MN Srinivas, DP Mukerji or Louis Dumont, Célestin Bouglé and many other Western authors who have studied caste mainly from Hindu texts, Wilkerson masters the subject better because she has a point of view on the oppressed. She has studied the systems of birth-based hierarchies in the United States, India, and Nazi Germany and finds that all of these systems have a similar infrastructure.
Wilkerson views caste as a pathology, a problem of gigantic proportions that has affected and still affects millions of people and makes their lives miserable, while placing millions more in a privileged position. She also gives a full definition of caste: “Any action or structure which seeks to limit, retain or place someone in a definite rank, seeks to keep someone in his or her place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of its perceived category. , can be considered casteism. This will help readers understand caste from a global perspective.
- Shepherd Kancha Ilaiah
Political theorist and social activist | Author of Why I’m Not a Hindu
Recommendation: Land, Arms, Caste, Woman: Memoirs of a Fallen Revolutionary by Gita Ramaswamy (Navayana, 2022)
Gita Ramaswamy was born a Brahim girl who rebelled against Brahmanical rituals. For example, she writes that when she started menstruating, her mother and family members told her that if she touched divine idols, they would break. But, in her Catholic school, she was taught the sciences where she was told that menstruation was a key biological phenomenon in childbirth. This was the beginning of his rebellion against Brahmanical superstitions and traditions.
She became something of a Naxalite revolutionary, but there too she rebelled against the culture she was trying to build between men and women, their practices and the goals they were trying to set for her. Then, for a decade, in Ibrahimpatnam near Hyderabad, she fought landlords on behalf of Dalit bonded laborers. Thus, she was a Brahmin woman, who fought for the liberation of the Dalits and became a strong Ambedkarite. Along the way, she also became a publisher and published several books of Dalit, Adivasi and Black literature in the Telugu language.
I would recommend this book, especially to Brahmanic writers and thinkers, on how to narrate/write about Brahmanic superstitions and ritual texts, which were never liberating. Ramaswamy says the texts she read from Europe were more liberating for women and other oppressed people. Education in English for Brahmin women was more liberating than the curriculum of Brahmin reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Ramaswamy credits his Catholic school upbringing with instilling a progressive mindset in him. This is a deeply personal account of a privileged woman’s journey to self-actualization and social awareness.
This book surprised me, because never in the history of India has a Brahmin man or woman written about the oppressive backward culture of Brahmin families – how they treat women, the kind of rituals they practice at home, how they do not introduce their children to productive work or larger social groups and live in cocoons thinking they are living in the best culture. It is not only the study of Dalit life that is important. It is important to study Brahmin life at home to understand how they came to build rituals and myths and the oppression they impose on their own women and on society as a whole.
- K Raju
congress leader; editor, The Dalit Truth
Recommendation: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson draws very interesting parallels between the Indian caste system and the way in which African-American discrimination operates. It brings out many nuances that we usually overlook when looking at the Indian caste system because we take it for granted – it is rooted in our belief system and religious thought process. Babasaheb Ambedkar (and thinkers like him), who dissected the caste system and its origin, was and are exceptions.
I like this book because it really brought out the complete architecture of the lies of the caste system, and brought to light in detail the terrible practices that white people have perpetuated against the black community and of which we, living in India, are not fully aware. Some of the atrocities that were committed against black people were even worse than what the Germans did to Jewish people.
Now, because most Germans today accept that their ancestors committed these atrocities during the Holocaust, there is a kind of repentance among them. But in America, that hasn’t happened yet. Many whites still believe they have the right to treat blacks the way they do. Wilkerson’s book highlights all of this and more.
- Nikita Sonavane
Lawyer and co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project
Recommendation: Mahad: the march started every day by Bojja Tharakam (The Shared Mirror Publishing House, 2018)
There are two reasons why I chose this book: first, because it contextualizes and establishes the historical significance of the Mahad Satyagraha whose relevance has been deliberately diminished by ‘traditional’ historical accounts. I particularly enjoyed reading this book because it is not just about the value of a community made “untouchable” exercising their basic right to clean water led by one of their own. But also juxtaposes this with the Dandi Walk, a form of staged affirmation that has been catapulted into the historical imagination.
Second, Tharakam’s identity has been primarily associated with his exemplary work as a human rights lawyer. However, with this book, he puts on the hat of a legal historian by summarizing the challenge that Dr Ambedkar posed to the law of Brahmanism with this Satyagraha – a march that Bahujans in India “continue to march every day” .
This book was published by The Shared Mirror, an excellent anti-caste publishing house that has published many incisive writings like this.
- Urmila Pawar
Writer and activist | Author of Weave of Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs
Recommendation: Striyanchya Unnatisathi (For the Advancement of Women) by Ashalata Kambale (Sugava Prakashan, 2020)
This Marathi book is a collection of 21 essays by Professor Kambale which have been previously published in various magazines and newspapers over the years. It also includes research papers by the author which have been published by the University of Mumbai and the Vacha Trust. These essays deal with a wide variety of subjects ranging from the situation of women during the Vedic period to those of the era of Buddha; from the women’s education movement of Jyotirao Phule-Savitribai to the women’s empowerment ideology of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar; changes made by Hindu Code Bill to the recent Me Too movement.
Dr. Ambedkar analyzed the historical reasons for the sad condition of women in his time and also offered a way forward for their emancipation. The rights granted to women by the Indian Constitution and those by the Hindu Code Bill provide the framework for a dignified life for Indian women. But what does this dignified life mean? And what are the rocks to achieve freedom? These are the questions this book attempts to answer.
An anthology of poetry from the era of Buddha Therigatha was one of the earliest women’s literatures in the world. In Striyanchya Unnatisathi, Prof. Kambale delved into various aspects of Therigatha and its contemporary significance. The main struggle of the 21st century is between constitutionalism and theocracy. If Indian women want to taste the air of real and lasting freedom, they must side with constitutionalism.
(Translated from Marathi by Manoj Dattatrye More)
Compiled by Shashank Bhargava