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In JNU, works of Gail Omvedt and Dalit scholars are relegated to ‘underground’ networks

I joined JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies in 1995, and found that books and archival materials on Dalits and Adivasis were scarce. Keeping up the Brahminical caste status was a primary motive of these studies.

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For a Dalit, it is very intimidating to be a researcher and pursue career in the sphere of ideas in India. To begin with, the writing and research world is predisposed to Brahminical ideology, and everything is stacked against them. In this way, the field of academic research across disciplines is dominated by Savarna Hindu elites. They even monopolised non-academic spheres such as journalism, print, and electronic media that shape public opinion. Added to this is the historical legacy of denial of educational opportunities that never exposed Dalits to the tradition of writing as cultural heritage — that is why Dalits generally are unsure about what they write and doubtful whether their experiences are valid enough.

Striving to get validation from the Brahminical elites becomes a significant challenge. Dalits’ writings and perspectives were condescendingly devalued on the pretext of lack of theoretical or language sophistication. Thus, sailing against Brahminical domination and establishing oneself as a scholar is arduous in India and even in the West and North America.

In this context, I started my research life in the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1995. The centre, with world-renowned historians like Romila Thapar, K.N. Panikkar, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Majid Siddiqi, Mrudula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, and Harbans Mukhia, was an intimidating place. When I joined to do Master of Philosophy, many friends and acquaintances used to tell me I will not survive in the centre as very few Dalits completed their research degree from it.

I was lucky that K.N. Panikkar took a personal interest in my research and cared for my well-being. However, that does not absolve CHS doyens’ caste and class elitist biases. They were preoccupied with saving secularism from the onslaught of Hindu Right, and Dalits and other caste oppressed people’s pasts and futures did not even figure in their blind spots.

Also read: Gail Omvedt took caste to global audience that was fed only a Brahminical point of view

Challenges for Dalits-Adivasis in a Brahminical setup

In the post-Mandal and post-Babri Masjid destruction era, intellectual and social life in the university campuses in India underwent a radical transformation. The stigma around caste identity and the taboo around an open discussion about caste had been broken. Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students started asserting against the Savarnas’ arrogance and exposed their hypocrisy by debating their inherited caste privileges.

When I entered the JNU campus, Dalits were already a force to reckon with but shrouded in Left parties-dominated student electoral politics and ideological hegemony. Reflecting that reality, the Left and liberal intellectual space in JNU, especially the faculty members, had little to no interest in the past and futures of Dalits and Adivasis. The Centre for Historical Studies had a policy that students with an MA degree from any other university had to do one-year course work to catch up with the CHS’ standards. I had done my master’s from the University of Hyderabad.

Given the hierarchical nature of Indian academic life, many students admitted from outside CHS for MPhil felt humiliated and, with disorientation, fell through the cracks and left. Given my research interest, I took two courses: Indian Sociology, taught by Satish Sabharwal; and Modes of Protest, led by Majid Siddiqi. Satish Sabharwal prescribed fascinating sociological studies on caste, and I read them passionately. Majid Siddiqi was maverick and had a condescending attitude towards me but showed interest in my research. He was sure that I would not cope with his demands. I shared my research interests and told him about the Telangana region where I come from. He made me read writings on Telangana armed struggle that opened my eyes.

Also read: Why Gail Omvedt is celebrated but Arundhati Roy was seen as appropriation

Dalit Underground and reading Gail Omvedt in JNU

Despite having such rigorous intellectual and academic resources, books and archival materials on Dalits and Adivasis were scarce in the JNU library. As a research student, when I was looking for readings on the issue of caste and Dalit histories, library shelves were packed with sociological and anthropological studies on caste in the villages such as M.N. Srinivas, Louis Dumont, Morton Klass, Andre Beteille, Veena Das to Christopher Fuller’s writings. Cumulatively, all those academic studies produced a consensus theory of caste in which Brahmin always remained on the top, and the rest of the society idolised and mimicked them. Keeping up the Brahminical caste status remained a primary motive of those studies. One can never hear the protest or dissent voice of the caste-oppressed people against Brahminism.

However, the first-generation Dalit and Adivasi students face intellectual and social vulnerability when they enter campuses like JNU. The lack of adequate exposure to English language education, with no social and cultural capital, adds more challenges. In this context, they discover the underground network built by oppressed caste scholars and activists before them through informal interactions, i.e., United Dalit Students Forum. This network acted as a lifeline and support system that kindled a new hope and showed them there were many like them struggling at the margins.

Thus, the conventional academic writings and the dominant academic narrative in JNU offered no avenues to pursue research on Dalit and Adivasi lives. The underground network fed resources in terms of books and support mechanism to share each other’s stories to cope, aspire and thrive as community.

In those days, we could count on our fingertips the number of faculty in JNU from Dalit backgrounds. Among them, legendary Sukhdev Thorat and Nadu Ram stood out as well-wishers and approachable ones. Through this network, I learned the rich history of anti-caste struggles and the writings of Eleanor Zelliot, Gail Omvedt and Rosalind O’Hanlon. Research scholars like G. Aloysius, K.Y. Ratnam, and Gajendran Ayyaturai shared books on anti-caste movements and African-American histories. It was through this network that I met Chandra Bhan Prasad and Vivek Kumar, and other fellow anti-caste imaginaries.

It was amazing that they used to collect radical theoretical works and life writings, mainly K.Y. Ratnam’s room, which used to be an underground library on anti-caste and anti-race struggles and histories. I borrowed, and read Malcolm X’s autobiography from his collection. This network became a contact point for emerging anti-caste scholars and invited Eleanor Zelliot, Gail Omvedt, Kancha Ilaiah, and Gopal Guru in 1996-97. It was a thrilling experience to see our icons on campus giving post-dinner lectures and discussions that inspired us to pursue intellectual endeavours.

Also read: Delhi University should have the courage to read Kancha Ilaiah

Gail Omvedt and the anti-caste pedagogy

It was through the Dalit Underground network that I was introduced to the writings of Gail Omvedt. The first text I read was her seminal book The Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India. The experience of reading it was a feeling of liberation that showed the rich history of the anti-caste movement. Moreover, it provided a radical perspective that when the privileged caste Hindus articulated anti-colonial nationalism, the anti-caste intellectuals were reimaging an emancipatory world that was anti-Brahminical and anti-colonial.

Most importantly, reading Omvedt’s other books, especially Dalit VisionsThe Dalits and Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India showed us how to think and write about anti-caste histories in South Asia and provided tools to write alternative histories. Through footnotes from her texts, one could search alternative archives and excavate hidden figures in history across India. Finally, through her academic and popular writings, professor Gail Omvedt became a pioneer of anti-caste pedagogy.

Chinnaiah Jangam is Associate Professor of History, Carleton University, Canada. He tweets @cjangam. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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