Customers browse cloths inside a store in Mumbai | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Customers browse cloths inside a store in Mumbai | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
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The same pamphlet that targeted Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi, also said this about Manish Sisodia: “He is a handsome man but a SC cannot be handsome”. A year ago, a 13-year-old Dalit teenager was beaten up in Gujarat for wearing leather shoes and jeans.

The moment one says the word ‘Dalit’, a particular image, mostly inspired by social media, comes to mind — an image of a half-naked, malnourished person living in a village. Such images are often generated to evoke pity. India’s urban citizens, living in their comfortable apartments, scroll through these pictures — sometimes indifferently, sometimes with a degree of sympathy. And then they move onto something else.

What if someone tells you that Dalits actually look sexy and urbane? Most Indians won’t buy it. Some upper caste people might even get angry and defiant: “If they are wearing good clothes and partying then what the hell ya! What’s the whole fuss about oppression?” But that’s actually the point.


Also read: 17th Lok Sabha looks set to confirm Ambedkar’s fears: no vocal Dalits in Parliament


Dalits are not aliens who reside in tiny stories on the fifth page of newspapers. Neither are they limited to remote corners of the country where politicians sometimes visit for a ‘photo-lunch’, bringing their own food and water from outside. Dalits are around you — participating in a college fashion contest, eating a burger at McDonald’s, or hanging out at a pub.

The most important thing that the Dalit movement needs is to change the imagery associated with the word.

Looking ‘Dalit’

It’s important to make Dalits part of mainstream imagery. Perhaps a Dalit with a beer in hand dancing wildly in a nightclub to DJ Snake songs. But the pictures of oppression suit condescending academics and filmmakers. It helps ‘sympathy storytelling’ rather than taking a nuanced look at the subject.

Though perhaps not fully comparable, the situation is different in America. Blacks are not always presented as voiceless and powerless, despite being a historically oppressed community. In fact, Black culture is very much part of the US pop culture, and they are trendsetters in the field of music, fashion, dance, and films. They have a grip over the mainstream imagination and their style is in fact emulated by people across the world.

In India, the situation is quite the opposite. Here Dalits in mainstream films like Lagaan are made to look a certain way and on top of that assigned names like  ‘Kachra’ (garbage). Writer Harish Wankhede writes on Dalit representation in Indian cinema: “But the Dalit, as a person, remained distant from the normal imagination of a civilised person. The Dalit character is showcased as scantily dressed and primitive (Mrigaya, 1977), dark and pale (Damul, 1985) patriarchal and alcoholic (Ankur, 1974), corrupt and immoral (Peepli Live, 2010). A Dalit character as a cheerful, happy and a normal family person has hardly been shown on screen.”


Also read: Why India’s politicians get away with casteist slurs and abuses on Dalit leaders


‘You don’t look Dalit’

Has the word ‘Dalit’ become synonymous with misfortune and misery? Recent data clearly shows that there is also a growing group of well-to-do Dalits in cities. In addition to opting for medical, IAS and private sector jobs, the new generation of Dalits is also discovering unexplored fields of literature courses, filmmaking and even startups. I am an author and filmmaker from the same community.

This is not to deny the reality of the dismal images, but the debate is about monopolising only one kind of image and being carefully oblivious to others, thus, carrying forward entitled biases. It results in ‘othering’ of a community. This is also the reason why an urban Dalit expressing his/her Dalit identity is often questioned. “But dude, you don’t look like a Dalit,” we are told. After all, what is the use of a smiling and cheerful Dalit who is manoeuvring through the new world in a confident way?


Also read: Dalits vs Hindutva: The story of a ‘baraat’ in UP reveals what’s making BJP sweat


Tips from Ambedkar

Ambedkar who, undoubtedly, is the most visionary leader to be born in the country, wanted to dismantle such images and that is the reason he wore suits. His pictures show an intellectual man dressed in a suit; oozing with confidence — challenging the very idea of how a Dalit should look.

Even the statues of Ambedkar are high on symbolism. Anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul writes, “The statue’s usual iconographic features are the three-piece suit, the tie and the pen clipped in the front pocket, that recall Ambedkar’s excellence in higher education and statesmanship; the raised arm recalls his relentless struggle and his stature as a national leader; and last but not least, the Constitution recalls his contribution as Chairman of the Constitution Committee.”

Every image is symbolic. To change this politics of image-making, Dalits need to create their own unique subversive images, so that they are no longer at the mercy of some unimaginative visual maker.

Perhaps, they can present themselves as the new age intellectuals or Instagram-savvy youth. So that the next time they walk into a bar, they can shake hands proudly and say, “ I am a Dalit and I like to party hard on weekends.”

The author is a filmmaker and author of the book: Love in the time of Pokemon. Views are personal.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. This is such a well written article! Every group wants to be seen and heard, and have their story told alongside the stories of other groups. However, telling the story of poverty is very one sided and only serves certain interests. Showing the progression of Dalits into middle class society normalizes them and furthers social acceptance. Seeing Bollywood movies with Dalit university students and young professionals would be wonderful. AND it should not hurt the chances of those in the group who are still struggling for economic and social gains. Seeing a few Dalit folk who are doing well doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands still struggling.

  2. The question was raised by DM and not by a villager ,DM knows about these brands because his ward must b using them ,so whenever there is claim for equaility ,upper caste has problems b it clothes, shoes,watch ,whatever

  3. There is nothing wrong with a Dalit enjoying life and being portrayed as such. I’m sure shops including Zara or Armani do not ask for a caste certificate before selling their wares. The problem is that if Dalit is portrayed as well to do, mixing with society at large, the society doesn’t have a problem. No one asks who is sitting at a neighbouring table at a restaurant or bar! However, the Dalit community itself has a problem as others will question ‘ If a section of the community is at par with the upper caste socially and economically, then why are they still getting the privileges of reservation?’ This naturally results in resentment. This is the reason why no one in the community wants to publicize their good social standing. However, for the benefit of the community as a whole and especially to give hope for those who are still underprivileged, the well to do in the community must come forward, display their improved social standing and simultaneously assert that they are now capable of competing with’upper castes’ at par and do not require the crutches of reservation any more. Can anyone in the community do that?

  4. If you really want the SC/ST and OBC in the mainstream, remove reservation and quota for everyone. Let them compete. People are segregated into castes so that some can benefit from the government handouts and privileges while others pay Taxes to fund these handouts only becoz they were born in a certain caste. Reservation is the biggest hurdle in eradicating casteism in India.

  5. Now I am totally convinced that whatever nonfiction article, essay or book written by an Indian novelist, script writer or film maker is more likely to be better than fiction. I cannot understand why and how these type of pathological liars are given space in a platform like the Print. Print is contributing to the divisive tactics of the Brits and the Commies. The word Dalit is an insult to any Hindu, including the marginalized and mistreated ones. Assigning an adjective as a noun is bad enough. Determining one’s identity based on how others treat you, is cruel to the actual Hindus who are mistreated because of the Jati they belong to. Catholic priests have sexually abused hundreds of thousands of young children around the world for decades, if not centuries. Would Catholic children be known by the Latin word for abuse? I doubt. Muslim women are literally slaves in most Islamic countries. Would they known by the Arabic name for slaves? I doubt it. The puppets of the West in India have literally pledged their intelligence as collateral for some temporary material benefits. Fortunately, all Hindus in India are waking up and realizing how people like this author have mistreated them by spreading lies and false narratives. Right now, all Hindus are saying ” Hum sab Hindu Harijan hay, Hum sab Harijan Hindu hay”.

  6. This great article reminds me of the great leader Mr.Rahul Gandhi being very upset of Mr.Modi wearing a expensive suit and calling names. Now i understand why he was so upset

  7. The Author has raised a very valid point and majority of the comments here are, unwittingly, proving him right. It is the complete denial of truth so typical of the Indian psyche. Remember all the mini dress clad Julies or Marias, with a big Cross hanging on their necks in Bollywood movies or even the De’Souzas or Peters swigging alcohol with one hand and puffing on a cigar with other?? They are the typically accepted representation of a certain religious community. Upper caste Indians feel insecure in having to share their place in society with others who they consider to be below them socially.

  8. My God.. I cant believe…. The Print who Under a Propoganda is Working towards Inciting Hatred Among Dalits towards Rest of Hindus, and now have Fallen so Low to promote the evil Cause.
    Now coming to the Article ,
    No Survey, No Truth, And They are saying WHAT SOCIETY WOULD SAY ABOUT dalits….
    Matlab, Khud Ne hi Imagination kar diya ki agar Dalit achche kapde pehnenge to Log kya Bolenge….aur uspar article bana diya….

    Wah… Neechta ki had….

    • ‘ neech’ is a caste slur. You yourself proved the point that most hindus have caste biases.

  9. BTW Zara is a mid market brand. It is available in malls in India and you can buy for a thousand Rupees or more. Armani is something even senior business executives can’t afford. So, you have not researched the headline itself. What does it say about the rest of the story?

  10. This is the most idiotic article. Who care who wears branded clothes and auxiliaries. The fact is that most Indians don’t even know what is Armani and Zara, especially people from villages and smaller towns where caste-ism is prevalent.

  11. The Print, who pays you for such bullshit? I suppose you are going to be begging soon. You have no quality, no standard of journalism.

  12. Unfortunately, Now Muslim become new Dalits in Modi’s India… that too dalits of 50s 60s

  13. Living in western world for over 65 years, I fill any oppression of the dalits hurts my heart. It makes me feel that the tyrants are in every corner of India.
    To make fast advances in modern world Indians need to think in terms of new waves of technologies that will transform world. Upper caste Indians should
    get out of this HINDU rut of caste. Only way is to think in terms of genetics. Everyone’s gene are basically the same in makeup. It is the evolved customs that make us different. Therefore, think advancement of Indians through science and not oppression of the weak.

  14. Is this more necessary than people starving for food?? What does this article is signifying? If a person is rich and goes to a brand store , they do not ask for their caste. It is stupid article in my opinion and it’s title is going to spread more hatred.

  15. Some unknown miscreant circulates a derogatory pamphlet against an AAP contestant in Delhi. It also has one line against the contestant’s colleague, Mr Sisodia. And, lo and behold, a whole article on Dalits is invented and printed in The Print. How silly can these people be? Day after day, we hear only of the travails of Dalits, as if the rest of the society is rolling in wealth and trouble free.

  16. ThePrint is so full of bigots. They are still stuck in medieval ages. We don’t differentiate between Indians and Hïnđū Đhärm followers have their castes according to the work they do, not the other way round.

    • but some people still discriminate haven’t u seen videos doing rounds on social media in which dalits are being called worthless dirt etc…… see reality come out of city and live in village and u will understand why there is need of such article..

  17. Well, that may be writers views. Infact large chunk of dalits are in Hindu fold only. Most of the down trodden class who converted to Buddhism along with Dr. Babasheb, Ambedkar the Architect of Indian Constitution, have dethrone the undignified tag of Dalit. Now all Those who follow Ambedkar ideology take pride and call themself as ‘ Ambedkarite Buddhist ‘ following the historic mass conversion to buddism Ambedkarites have have excelled in every walk of life. Ambedkarites reached all over the world. Now it’s high time media and so called upper cast intellectuals stop ridiculing Ambedkarites.

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