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Bridging the Cataracts of Silence

Gurpreet Bal

Edited by Manu Bhagavan and Anne Feldhaus
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 222, Rs. 625.00


This anthology, a tribute to the life and work of Eleanor Zelliot, compiles the issues, topics and works closely associated with her. Zelliot virtually pioneered studies on anguish among dalits and changed the very paradigm of such studies. Her principal focus remained on untouchable or dalit movements in India and she chose to work both in English and Marathi thus allowing her subjects to tell their stories from their own perspective. The book under review concentrates on the political spaces in which dalits operate, as well as on those that dalits have created. As political history is the arena in which Zelliot has made her most basic contributions, the essays on this subject constitute the bulk of this volume along with an updated list of her publications.   The emergence of a new political subject—who is a dalit?—allows us a field of contestation and significance, that is, as a political category with a history. Dalit means ground down or broken to pieces in both Hindi and Marathi. B.R. Ambedkar first used the term in 1928 or so in his newspaper but the term gained new potency in Maharashtra during the 1970s, a period of literary and cultural efflorescence. The history of naming and constitution of community reveals the role of early dalit activists to interpret (construction of?) the reality for them—indigenous people to martial a past sought to lay claim on military employment in British army. Jotirao Phule lauded the Mahars and Mangs for putting up a strong resistance against Aryan-brahmin invaders and constructing an alternative discourse showing the ‘indigeneity’ of dalits and their struggle against the brahmanical hegemony. Also Valangkar asserts the heroism of untouchable communities who were basically kshatriyas, fought against the Aryans 21 times before they were finally defeated and were banished from the community and forced to eat carrion, wearing a black thread—a symbol of servitude. By 1940, Ramnarayan S. Rawat argues, we were in the making of a separate dalit perspective to understand the dalit identity and political agenda which is still being pursued. By the 1960s a commitment to the liberation of dalits, a desire for social and economic progress, a sense of pride in their identity, and a firm resolve to resist domination by the Hindu society had all become securely ingrained in the minds and actions of dalit activists and ideologues. Today dalit can be recognized as a perspective that defines ...

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