Studying Dalit history in the 21st century | History News

This April, Dalit History Month was celebrated again by various educational institutions outside India, where special events were held to mark the occasion. Dalit History Month is closely linked to the celebration of the life and work of BR Ambedkar, the eminent Indian scholar, Dalit intellectual and social reformer who has become a central figure in the Dalit struggle.

In India, April is celebrated with different names such as Ambedkar Month or Ambedkar Saptah (Ambedkar Weeks) with multilingual music festivals, lectures, publications, seminars and art exhibitions all over India to observe and meditate on the culture and history of the Dalit.

The Dalit community is recognized and inspired by its most esteemed hero, Ambedkar. As I pointed out in my book Caste Matters (2019), he has become a god-like figure or superman for the destitute, poor, resourceless Dalits. They stand by him and try to use his struggle for life as a guide to combat their poverty, oppression and ruthless casteism by oppressors who identify themselves as “upper” castes.

The Dalit community is recognized and inspired by its most esteemed hero, Ambedkar. As I pointed out in my book Caste Matters (2019), he has become a god-like figure or superman for the destitute, poor, resourceless Dalits. They stand by him and try to use his struggle for life as a guide to combat their poverty, oppression and ruthless casteism by oppressors who identify themselves as “upper” castes.

Due to the mystery of Ambedkar and the halo around him, the community celebrates his birthday on April 14th as the most important festival in our lives. The Hindu holidays of Diwali, Dushera, Holi are less important to us than April 14th. A carnival around Ambedkar’s name is a mixture of celebrating his ideas and exhibiting the strength of the community in the streets of India.

Perhaps no other community elsewhere celebrates an intellectual’s birthday as an annual festival. Such celebrations of the Dalits are evidence of their righteous devotion to the life of the spirit and the pursuit of intelligence. We believe in the Buddhist ethos of dialogue and the Socratic tradition of introspection.

Indeed, Ambedkar’s recognition through his alma mater Columbia and the London School of Economics has become a point of great pride for Dalits, who have brought stories of it to nooks and crannies of the country, in the slums and in the posh colonies.

I grew up with these stories. There was even a message circulating about a decade ago. It said Ambedkar was ranked number one on the list of Colombia’s most famous alumni. The validity of this did not apply to the poor, oppressed working class Dalits. They were delighted with the announcement of a foreign university of high standing when his own country cursed their most esteemed son. In celebrating this news, the community has indirectly planted the inspiration for people like me to seek entry into prestigious educational institutions like Harvard or Columbia.

To celebrate their past, the Dalits remember not least Ambedkar for the whole month, but also Jotirao Phule, an anti-caste radical from the 19th century who lit a dynamite stick for the entire Thralldom of Brahminism. Phule, who was also born on April 11, 1827, was one of the front runners of the anti-caste movement in the West Indies. He belonged to the touchable but lowered caste in the Brahmin Hindu caste order. Together with his wife Savitri and friends, Phule founded an educational movement for outcasts and women that was previously reserved for the Brahmins and their inferior castes. Phule became one of the founding fathers of the Social Reformation and is considered the first Mahatma (“venerable”).

As more and more South Asian departments outside of India host Dalit History Month, it is important to think about what studying the Dalits and their past is all about. Dalit studies are a stand-alone, multidisciplinary study of the condition of those in need of protection. It is a space to theorize ideas and form the context for appropriate practice.

Dalit studies are an essential intellectual intervention for us to understand our collective tragedies. It is a curated space to discuss and dispute ideas to serve the greater purpose of humanity. What could be nicer than understanding our future than looking through the lens of those who have visualized the future in the pessimistic clouds over a constant period of time?

The world needs to do more than just acknowledge the plight of the Dalits. Dalits are beyond victims. They are full-fledged people with a versatile personality. The international institutes dealing with law, justice, democracy, modernity, history, hermeneutics, law and capital can find the rigor of these ideas in the Dalit communities.

Dalits are the only community in the world that has been continually oppressed by caste colonizers for over two and a half millennia and continuously opposed. Dalits own their land without submitting to the Brahmin interpretations of their past. Therefore, they are redefining the meanings and idioms of Dalit life by being persuasive about self-improvement.

Dalit study projects outside India at various universities will enable the urgently needed discussion of the politics of knowledge formation. Dalits exist beyond the curvature of regionalism, language and politics of representation. It’s our common cause. In the era of the reconquest of the world, we need a progressive approach with a liberal heart to manifest feelings of unity. Dalit studies can create, consume and distribute this in the broader sense of knowledge as the Dalit community itself seeks to deal with the class and caste dynamics within.

Dalit Studies is an urgent project that studies and explores society, power, politics, culture, religion, art and linguistics. There is an opportunity to create a snowball effect and inspire oppressed communities elsewhere, whose identity has been anthropologized for museum culture or highly abstracted under the pretext of post-colonialism. They are original people and their studies require an original approach.

The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.