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Exclusion and Agency

Rohini Mokashi Punekar

Edited by Imtiaz Ahmad and Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay
Deshkal Publications, 2007, pp. 283, Rs. 595.00

Edited by Sukhdeo Thorat and Narender Kumar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 386, Rs. 725.00


As the title suggests, the common theme that runs through the essays contained in the first volume is dalit agency and assertion articulated in and against fraught social and political conditions. Manifested against newer forms of oppression and dominance in post-independence India, dalit assertion is evidence of an active and vibrant consolidation of the former untouchables. The short introduction by Shashi Bhushan Upadhyay, also one of the editors of the volume, traces a brief history of the dalit movement as we know of it today. Drawing mainly from the work of Eleanor Zelliot, Upadhyay situates the beginnings of the movement in late 19th century colonial India with the demand of ‘manuski’: the right of the dalits to live with dignity. While urbanization, industrialization and recruitments in the British Army blurred the traditional occupational identities of the dalits to a limited extent, the Census and some affirmative measures introduced by the colonial government were instrumental in triggering off a quest for identity and equality among the marginalized castes. There emerged, from the late 19th century onwards, thinkers and leaders from the marginalized castes who attempted to marshal a separate identity for these castes and questioned brahminical hegemony. The political thought of B.R. Ambedkar, which forms the fountainhead of dalit activism in contemporary times, has therefore to be seen in this historical context.   The volume is divided into four parts. The first section titled ‘Dalits and Society’ encompasses six essays that examine, with the help of empirical field studies, the realities of caste conflict on the ground. The excellent essay by Suguna Ramanathan and Jyotsna Macwan on dalit identity is an extension of their longer study Journeys to Freedom: Dalit Narratives. With a rare luminosity the authors explore the question of identity in the dalit world, itself structured on a hierarchy of jatis, which militates against the crucial need for dalit unity in the changing political and economic context of Gujarat in particular and the nation as a whole. This essay is both compassionate and incisive in the focused analysis it offers of the challenges confronting the constitution of a unified dalit identity that have their roots in traditional inequity and are compounded by contemporary changes. While the jatis higher up in the dalit hierarchy, such as Vankar and Rohit, have benefited from government policies, economic development or religious conversion, the caste that has lost out the most is Valmiki, untouchable ...

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