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Reclaiming and Celebrating Dalit Histories

Cynthia Stephen | May 7th, 2018 | Bangalore

Cynthia Stephen at a talk, during the 127th Birth Anniversary of Ambedkar, an event conducted in NJ, USA


Caste has its impact on the core of the Indian society. The Dalits once obscured as untouchables, are perhaps one of the world’s best-kept secrets. As is the life and work of Dr. B R Ambedkar; one of the world’s most influential yet one of the most underappreciated protagonists from the makers of India.

Consequently, in 2015, Equality Labs, a Human Rights and Technology outfit based in the USA, initiated the Dalit History Month drawing inspiration from the Black History Month, during which events are organized all over the country to recall and ruminate on our histories. The event of March-April 2018 honours the towering national figure and member of the Dalit community Dr. B R Ambedkar. 14th of April,2018 marks his 127th birth Anniversary. 

The term ‘Dalit’, which the former untouchable communities in India now prefers to be known by, is a term that means ‘broken’ or ‘crushed’. It has a common lineage with the term ‘dal’, which are split lentils, consumed as part of a daily meal in every Indian home irrespective of the class or creed as the most common and cheapest available source of protein. It successfully displaced the term ‘Harijan’ (People of ‘Hari’, God) that was coined by Gandhi in the early 1930s designating the untouchables; however, it was resented by them and was eventually declared illegal. Dalit as a preferred term was adapted into the common usage in the 1970s along with the rise of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra, inspired by the Black Panthers movement in the USA.

One of the outcomes of this short-lived movement was a surge of writings by Dalits, creating a new literary genre called Dalit literature. The daily yet extraordinary struggles of Dalit men, women and children were inked in their ethnic languages, far removed from the literary form that readers – comprised mostly of elite or middle classes with some level of privilege, were familiar with. These stories were mostly personal narratives. Dalits in other parts of the country, such as Karnataka, Andhra, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat began to write their own stories and produced powerful poetry and songs, which remains a trend to the present day.

But the histories of these peoples are mostly still resident only in the minds of their elders or in the stories they recall as oral histories. To retrieve these histories meant reviving the lives of the ancestors of Dalits, a project that would hold great value to Dalits themselves, since mainstream historiography, and Indian historiography, in particular, are mostly dismissive of people’s history and are instead more invested in histories of conquest, empire, imperialism, and colonialism.

The term DAWNS is an abbreviation for ‘DAlit Women’s Network for Solidarity’. This was the first time Dalit women wrote of the need to find a new language to articulate our own experiences, lives, issues and our visions for themselves and the world. It was the first time the term “Dalit Womanism” was used to define their mobilisations which were different from the mainstream feminist movements in India; an attempt to define the term and explain how it differed from the mainstream feminist movements.

Consequently, in 2015, Equality Labs, a Human Rights and Technology outfit based in the USA, initiated the Dalit History Month drawing inspiration from the Black History Month, during which events are organized all over the country to recall and ruminate on our histories. The event of March-April 2018 honours the towering national figure and member of the Dalit community Dr. B R Ambedkar. 14th of April, 2018 marks his 127th birth Anniversary.

On 22nd March 2018 Equality Labs organised the release of the report “Caste in the United States”, in Boston, by Prof. Cornell West, a noted public intellectual and political philosopher. The report was an account of a survey they conducted of 1000 of the diaspora Indians, including Dalit, Non-Dalit, first generation NRIs and those who were born or came to the US in infancy. This being the first ever survey to document experiences of caste in the USA, the report created a stir both in India and the USA, as well as in cyberspace.

Another notable event was the serendipitous finding and publishing (online) of the ‘DAWNS statement’, a lost historic document. It was the outcome of a conference held in Bangalore on 17th and 18th February 2006 entitled “Dalit Women’s movements: Leadership and Beyond”.

The term DAWNS is an abbreviation for ‘Dalit Women’s Network for Solidarity’. This was the first time Dalit women wrote of the need to find a new language to articulate our own experiences, lives, issues and our visions for themselves and the world. It was the first time the term “Dalit Womanism” was used to define their mobilisations which were different from the mainstream feminist movements in India; an attempt to define the term and explain how it differed from the mainstream feminist movements.

This year, as a part of this event I have had the privilege of being featured as the Dalit History Month speaker in the USA. I have spoken at events, often combining speaking invitations to universities and theological seminaries with events organised by Ambedkarite community groups, to name a few – The Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA), Ambedkar International Mission (AIM), Association for India’s Development (AID). The universities concerned were in Boston (Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Boston Study Group); Detroit (Ann Arbor Michigan); Atlanta (Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary); Washington DC (Institute for Policy Studies); New York (Union Theological Seminary and Last Girl Standing, an event which was part of the UN Committee on the Status of Women); New Jersey (AIM and Periyar Ambedkar Study Circle) Chicago (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago); Berkeley (UC Berkeley and Dalit Sikh Community organisations); Claremont (Claremont Colleges).

This included talks entitled “Dalit Feminisms, Dalit Futures”, “An Ambedkarite Vision for the 21st Century”, “Ambedkar, the Man of the New Millennium”, and “Ambedkar and Periyar – Champions of Women’s Rights”.

The tour was concluded on a note of solidarity with Indians in the diaspora, interfaith groups, universities, community groups and students all committed to working together for social justice and equality everywhere, because as the saying goes, ‘none of us are free till all of us are free’.


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