Ashoka in Vijayadashami – National Archives, Central Libraries failed Dalit-Bahujan story
reThe history of alit-Bahujan is marked by the absence and exclusion of dominant historiographical writings. The National Archives and Central University Libraries in India have failed to record the Dalit-Bahujan experiences or their cultural nuances. This lack of formal documentation means that much of the culture and history of the Dalit-Bahujan survives only through oral narratives, passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, ethnographies, myths and folklore. Engaging with these oral repositories takes us beyond existing notions about marginalized communities in India and the Brahmanic and Eurocentric prejudices inherent in them.
The exclusion from archives has only widened the gap in the recognition of Dalit-Bahujan knowledge production in India. This is different from the West, where scholars of popular culture and oral histories have shown a keen interest in preserving Dalit-Bahujan history. For example, the Smithsonian Archives have preserved oral recordings of the Dhola epic by singers such as Ram Swaroop Dhimar and Matlol Singh. This recognition infuses their work with dignity, something that Indian archives and storytelling have largely missed. But traditional historiographical institutions in India have kept not only the stories of Dalit-Bahujan, but also any recognition of the caste system.
There have been some efforts, however. The Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, has a Dalit Resource Center, who lead Basti-level conferences and workshops and documents the oral history of the Dalit-Bahujans. Likewise, institutes like Nagaloka in Nagpur, Maharashtra, were important sources of Buddhist deposits in India.
But the responsibility of recording the history of the Dalit-Bahujan has rested mainly on the shoulders of the memory and imagination of the people, and cultural symbols have played an important role here – not only in keeping the history alive. the dominant castes have almost buried, but also to question their authoritarian views and practices that have relegated the Dalit-Bahujans to the margins.
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Exclusion of Dalit-Bahujan stories and oral history
The historical writings in India have mainly focused on the glorification of the worldview of the ruling castes. The writing process itself is shaped by the existing power dynamics – who can write whose story. The hegemonic caste-ruled social order has controlled the way traditional narratives are told and the oral traditions of the Dalit-Bahujans ignored.
A striking example is the story of King Ashoka. The Dalit-Bahujan community considers him to be a non-Aryan (Dasyu), who was a Mulnivasi and a Shudra. Ashoka’s acceptance of Buddhism is seen as his revolt against the existing social order as enunciated in the Vedas. It is alternative stories such as these that mainstream historiography has blatantly ignored, creating huge gaps in our understanding of not only Dalit-Bahujan history, but history and culture as well. Indian in the broad sense.
The caste system’s control over the performing arts cultural realm, which dictates the myth, storytelling, and languages used in performances, has subsumed Dalit-Bahujan culture into mainstream narratives. This (diversion) of appropriation created a Brahmanic homogenization of Dalit-Bahujan art and culture. As a result, Indian caste-based society not only forgot the history of the marginalized, but also created a historiography of displaced identities.
Oral recounting of Dalit-Bahujan history offers an alternative to the established understanding of Indian history. This is important as it enriches our engagement with the daily cultural frameworks of Dalit-Bahujan society such as their celebration of festivals, icon idolatry, rituals, etc.
However, the contestation of this appropriation and this homogenization takes place in a new popular cultural space. Jamaican-British sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall defines the cultural space as a “place of negotiation” where a “struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in this struggle”. This struggle is negotiating its position to reconstruct identities that have been embedded in the dominant culture. The creation of this popular cultural space in India is therefore a necessary alternative which calls into question the authenticity of the dominant practices of existing cultural castes.
Some of the new pop-cultural spaces can be seen on popular Twitter and Instagram accounts such as @TribalArmy, @EqualityLabs @AmbedkariteIND, @bhim_warriors_official, @Dalitdesk etc.
Read also : New autobiographies of Dalit women open up private and intimate spaces, rewriting history
Ways to approach oral history
Oral history has failed to go beyond the sociological and anthropological imagination. Historian Meleisa Ono-George, who has done extensive research on race and gender histories, especially those of black women, argues that history is not only about what is known to the general public, but also about the process and politics of its production. Therefore, who tells the story, who listens to it and who tells it are crucial parameters in understanding what is historicized and what is ignored.
Oral history has helped make the voices of oppressed communities heard around the world. Oral repositories of black culture are reflected a lot in their hip-hop music. Likewise, Soca-Calypso music has preserved the essence of the Caribbean diaspora. The history of art is strongly committed to these forms, thus giving the necessary credibility to the oral narratives of the fringes.
Sadly, Dalit-Bahujan narratives have not had their rightful place in the historical process of India due to widespread prejudices against oral history. Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals who have tried to fill this gap with their writings on oral narratives include Mata Prasad, Dr Vijay Kumar Trisharan, Dr Rajendra Badgujar, SS Gautam, Satnam Singh and Shanti Swaroop Baudh.
Examining the strata of Dalit-Bahujan oral traditions shows how well their history and culture are embedded in people’s daily lives and practices. Much of Dalit-Bahujan history has also been distorted by Brahmanic mythical interpretations. For example, the Dalit-Bahujan community believe that the Ashoka Vijayadashami festival has a Buddhist genesis, celebrated as Dhamma-Vijay Diwas. However, the Brahmanic interpretation has made it a myth of Ramayana, which is blatant cultural appropriation.
Yet another important way to approach oral history is through caste life accounts. A caste life story is not just a literary document; it involves lived experiences and daily struggles against dominant caste structures. It also unveils Dalit-Bahujan narratives and how the community has responded to cultural homogenization and oppressive caste structures. History researcher-author and professor Shailaja Paik specifically discussed the limits of historical studies in engaging with the narratives of Dalit women, leading to their marginalization and making them “Transgressive subjects”.
Engaging oral narratives through music is another important aspect that can help explore the history of the Dalit-Bahujan. Evidence of Dalit music goes back to ancient texts such as Rajtarangini.
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Working again with oral history
The engagement with art, music, culture, festivals and performances are some of the crucial aspects of the Dalit-Bahujan living world. This oral history must be integrated and systematically engaged by giving them adequate space in archival sources, museums and libraries.
Oral histories of the Dalit-Bahujan community are not part of class discussions and writings about them are not recognized and included in the production of knowledge. Castes in textbooks are always treated as “something out there”.
This non-engagement with oral histories or their exclusion from traditional archival sources reflects a triumphalist view of understanding history and nation-building, which has necessarily excluded Dalit-Bahujan narratives.
An engagement with oral history is a community approach who can deconstruct colonial and Brahmin history in a culturally meaningful way. Additionally, engaging in oral histories beyond the anthropological imagination can do justice to a bottom-up approach to understanding historical nuances. Genuine recognition of the history of the Dalit-Bahujan is the least that can be done to bring dignity to their work and to their cultural work.
Kalyani is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She tweets to @FiercelyBahujan. Opinions are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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