Histories that Make the Heart Quake

By Des Raj Kali

Dalit writing is one of the most distinctive new additions to Indian literatures. Despised and marginalised for millennia by the upper castes, the Dalits have begun to come into their own after independence. Indeed, in some languages theirs is perhaps the most alive segment of the literature.

The Dalit tradition is well represented in Punjabi literature, but before we get down to cases we need to examine certain aspects that make Punjabi Dalit writing different from all other traditions. Moreover, it’s my personal belief that it’s impossible to understand any aspect of a region’s literature if you’re ignorant of its history. It’s absolutely indispensable if you want to understand the nuances.

Long reflection has made me sceptical about many of the beliefs prevalent in Punjabi society, and I’m constantly surprised that these beliefs are so widespread, taking on the colour of unspoken myth. Take one question, why do Dalits make up such a large part of the population? The number is 37 per cent. Another question that begs to be asked, “Why, unlike other states, is the face of discrimination kinder and milder here, and also different?” “In what ways is it different?” It seems to me that no one has really cared to go into the matter. They’ve simply accepted the most popular explanation without question.

The answers that are given, both in society and in the literary community, are far from satisfactory. I’m constantly troubled by what I feel are facile generalisations about a complex question as I try to understand where the truth really lies. It’s a continuing battle between what I hear and what I actually see.

I hear, for instance, that the Sikh tradition is the major reason for the difference. It’s the official sanctioned belief, in fact, that Sikh tolerance is the reason why so many Dalits live in Punjab, as the environment is more benevolent.

My own belief is that this statement is a myth. As I look around me (it’s become second nature by now) I see little evidence of Sikh benevolence on Dalit society. Consider the following: Dalits rarely worship at any but their own gurdwaras. Indeed, the discrimination is such that even the gurdwaras they build have to be in the name of Guru Ravidas (a 15th century crusader against untouchability, himself an untouchable).

Take a walk through the Sikh tradition. I have done so myself. You will search in vain for evidence that it made any great contribution to tolerance, even in the histories of the Gurus themselves. It is true, however, that the Gurus collected the voices, in the Guru Granth Sahib, even of those sants who were known as Dalit. That much has to be conceded, but even this ought to be considered in the contrast between nirguna andsarguna aspects. But this is a war of the intellect, between differing worldviews.

Coming to more concrete ground, every Sikh believes that the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) was the community’s Golden Age. The Dalit communal memory, however, recalls a time of tears, suffering and persecution. Almost for the first time, they are denied entry into gurdwaras. Before this, it is said that Dalits had the right of entry. Their plight worsens after this, especially after 1920-25, when the British are masters of India. I have reflected at length on these matters in my work.

If there is one prevailing influence that I have noticed, whether in my own family, village, or all of Dalit Punjab, it is that of the Sufis. Indeed, their influence is profound, deep-seated. In addition, there are the Nath traditions, whose effects, too, are impossible to overestimate.

On a personal note, my father’s guru, Sant Pritam Das, belongs to the Chishtiya school. His name? Pritam Das Chishti. His guru was Sarwar Sarkar Sant Brahm Das Chishti Phillaurwale. He has a large establishment in Phillaur. These Sufi divines are all Dalit.

When Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar came to Ludhiana in 1951 or thereabouts, it was in large measure due to the persuasion of Sant Brahm Das.

We have now come to the key question. What’s the connection between Sufis and Dalits? One clue lies in the stone plaque outside the Phillaur ashram; “Dera Adi Dharmi” (the home of those who live by the Primordial Faith, where men are men and all are equal). It has great significance for me as a

From this point on, the goal is certain, though the search continues. It is also at this point that the cultural underpinnings of Dalit history begin to reveal themselves and I start to understand the meaning of this declaration.

The “Adi Dharmi” sentiment starts to become a force around 1925 in Punjab and spreads across the regions. In the South it is E V Ramaswami Naicker, universally known as “Thanthai Periyar”, and his self-respect movement, in Punjab and the neighbourhood it is the “Adi Dharmi” led by Mangu Ram Mugowalia of the Doaba region (the fertile tracts between the Sutlej and the Beas rivers).

As it grows stronger, this movement recognises Dalit beliefs as the Primordial Faith and declares that they are not Hindu.

In the 1931 Census (it was the last to recognise caste) some five lakh Dalits register as “Adi Dharmi”.

Gail Omvedt and Mark Juergensmeyer, two well-known American scholars, have done considerable research on this phenomenon.

Now the connection between Sufi teaching and “Adi Dharmi” sentiment becomes clearer, like the sun rising after a long, sleepless night. As I continue my examination, history suddenly wears a newness and provides glimpses of truth never seen before.

Talking about Dalits, I’ve always said that we have to know where our stories come from. We’re a marginalised people, so who writes our histories? The truth is that the story of our origins and beginnings comes not from us but the ruling culture. It is this elite that claims, falsely, that it knows our secrets. That is why if autobiography is a major stream of Dalit writing it’s because we’re finally telling ourselves the truths that we were so long prevented from saying. We are now getting control of our own world.

Now we can talk about many things, about ourselves and our worldview, of the Cārvāka teachings (classified as a faithless nāstika system) that were destroyed, and of our poets whose voices were forced into silence all these eons. That is why so much of the work in Dalit literature wears so personal a stamp, especially in Punjabi.

Consider two of our most eminent Dalit poets, Lal Singh Dil and Gurdas Ram Alam. Their work has a highly personal, even autobiographical, colour. They both acknowledge their poetry is full of an angst that is personal.

But this anguish is a familiar one. Every Dalit has experienced it sometime or other in his life. This is what makes it universal, and enables every Dalit to identify with their work.

The humiliations society heaped upon them informs their writing through and through. It’s a matter for wonder, however, that there is no trace of anger or violence in their writing, which is characterised by a warmth and humanism that can only be properly appreciated when it’s read. And the same goes for prose, whether short fiction or novels. That is why it’s so easy to tell when a non-Dalit writer addresses a Dalit audience.

Can a non-Dalit really understand the Dalit’s world? It’s a long-running debate in Punjab, where the examples of novelist Gurdial Singh (Jnanpith) and Wariaam Singh Sandhu (Sahitya Akademi Award) are often cited. But a close study of their works shows that their inclusion of Dalit characters is more a case of tokenism than anything else. The real plight of Dalits and the reasons why they’re being ground down are thus always glossed over, and so their exploitation continues.

It’s worth noting that whenever there’s a serious debate on Dalit literature, the story of Lal Singh Dil always comes to the fore. The reason is that he was a naxalite, part of an avowedly egalitarian brotherhood, and his notes on discrimination inside have the ring of a truth that cannot be dismissed.

The fact is that, for the moment at least, we can’t get away from real life tales in Dalit writing.

It is the personal in the writings of people such as Balbir Madhopuri, Sarup Syalvi, Mohan Lal Phillauriya, Gurmit Kudialvi, and others that excites discussion as much as the quality of their work.

In my own novels, Paraneshwari, Shanti Parv, and Pratham Pauraan, I use the stories of my family, and the Dalits in my village, stories that are part of our oral tradition. So these, too, are autobiographies. Paraneshwari is the story of a Dalit family in a Doaba village. The Sufi, Udasi (another extremely influential school of Dalit divines) and Nath influences are central to their lives.

As I search for the community’s intellectual and cultural roots, I feel increasingly that it’s in the world of the Naths, Sufis and Siddhas that their salvation lies. It is here that they first found respect, found recognition, pride and people who embraced them as their own. The sense of inclusion that they feel is of immense importance. It is this, and the feeling at last of self-worth and comfort in one’s own skin that I’ve tried to convey in this novel, creating a new kind of mythos in the process.

Working in this way raised even more questions about history. Taking a critical look at the available material I wrote Shanti Parv and Pratham Pauraan in an attempt to find answers. In the second, there’s the attempt to show that the reason Punjabi society is characterised by relatively mild discrimination is that none of the old scriptures are set in this land, freeing it from the burden of orthodoxy and ritual purity.

I’ve tried to explore the historical reasons for this as well, examining the extent and the manner in which the Puranas have been responsible for caste discrimination. The novel relies on some mythological characters to drive the narrative as it grapples with the twin questions of Dalit and women’s status, both of whom are regarded as “wombs of sin” in the Puranas.

Shanti Parv is more like history as fiction and comprises an attempt to sum up the social status, economic condition and the place in administration of the Dalits from the time of Ranjit Singh to post-Independence India. It includes the attitudes of the Raj and how various movements influenced the lives of Dalits in Punjab. Importantly, I’ve also tried to trace the influence of Dr Ambedkar and the way his decision to embrace Buddhism affected the average Dalit, and the reaction of the sants.

The Green Revolution is understood by most people as a time when the state and its farmers became enormously wealthy. But it was also a time of rising joblessness for Dalits replaced by tractors, combine harvesters and other machines. It led to a sizeable migration to the cities where, too, they suffered the pangs of unemployment. All in all, it was a time of deep distress for Dalits even as Punjab became the nation’s breadbasket. But its canvas is wider than these parochial concerns.

One part of the novel, “Bhaagmal Paagal ki budbud”, is focused on this. Another part, “Comrade ki budbud”, considers the revolutionary spirit in an attempt to understand it, and takes a look at both terrorism and state terror. A third part, Retired Prof Jauhal ki budbud is about the bureaucracy that rules our lives.

But these are points for another discussion another day. We have to concern ourselves with the Dalit question. And in this connection there is a development that is hardly ever debated even though it is crucial to the way Dalit history developed in Punjab. That is the Muslim incursions and their effects. For Dalits these invasions were an outright blessing. The existing social order was sharply disrupted wherever they went and opened up. As a result, many communities hitherto beyond the pale gained admittance again. Punjab’s “chamar” community has a great many families who migrated from southern parts because the environment was more conducive.

The second great event was the arrival of the Sufi brotherhoods. They followed the conquerors and their inclusiveness was a breath of clean air so long fouled by the rancid odour of dead ritualism. They found kindred spirits in the Naths and Jogis, giving them added strength and recognition. The history of these interactions needs to be examined in greater detail, as does the effect of British rule.

The “Adi Dharmi” movement of this time spreads in a wave, and then becomes “Kabir Panthi”, from where the Valmiki Sabha is born, and the Ramgarhia Federation, too. These developments also must be studied as they are bound to provide many answers to the Dalit question in recent history.

Returning to literature, it’s often said these days that Dalit writing shows no stylistic distinction. Critics are in the habit of deriding the lack of innovation, but I think they exaggerate too much. Today’s Dalit writer is as much clued into post-modern sensibilities as anyone anywhere else.

As for style, I’d like to draw some attention to my own work. Paraneshwari, for instance, contains passages that are bound to excite debate, thus giving the writing depth and perspective. In Pratham Pauraan the mythic characters are in constant dialogue with the others. And for Shanti Parv I’ve used the computer hyperlink style, so the reader sees two lines of narrative, with the one above linked to the one below, the “budbud” that can be read simultaneously.

Other Punjabi writers, too, have experimented freely with technique and style in both prose and poetry. Thus, the work of Lal Singh Dil, Balbir Madhopuri, Mohan Tyagi, Sarup Syalvi and others too numerous to name are among the most discussed, and are considered among the best examples of Punjabi literature.

In this impressive body of work, the poetry of Lal Singh Dil always stands out. His take on history is different; you could say it has a slant all its own. That makes it distinctive and lends it great weight in the balance where truth is measured. It’s the authentic voice of Dalit angst. He sings of the ancient poetic traditions whose tongues were silenced, or the poets burnt alive, a world where despair was the only possible condition.

He finds a kindred soul in Santram Udaasi, whose poetry, too, speaks of the long night of anguish that the Dalits have suffered on the margins. Santram belonged to the Malwa region, where Dalits are part of the Sikh society.

Here, too, however, they are given the lower status of mazhabi Sikh. Maybe this is the reason why it is so backward compared to other parts of Punjab. Santram thus comes from the true Dalit tradition, as does Gurdas Ram Alam, another major poet.

Intellectually, Gurdas Ram is part of the Progressives group, but his work is centred on the Dalit condition. He is the first, in his poetry, to invite his people to step out of the high walls of superstition and myth that hem them in.

Among the prose writers we must mention the name of Manmohan Bawa, whose work pits the Dalit consciousness against the other sensibility to open a new and exciting debate in Punjabi letters. Though he makes free use of mythical characters in his stories, the real intention is to provide a perspective on today’s world.

It should be recognised that Dalit writing has a deservedly honoured place in Punjabi literature. Not only that, it is widely read, publishers have no hesitation about producing it, and therefore it provides thinkers with a great deal of material for introspection. Indeed, I would say that in this day it is the Dalit contribution that gives Punjabi literature its edginess and weight.

There are so many aspects to be explored, but writing about them is often like a lash on bare skin. These are histories that make the heart quake, leave the mouth dry and will have you weeping tears of blood.

(Translated by G K Rao)

Note on Dalit-Sufi connection

The oppressed Dalit community in Punjab took the Muslim Sufis because of its message of tolerance, love and universal brotherhood, at variance with the militant aspects of their core religion— Islam.

Dalits comprise 37 per cent of the population in contemporary Indian Panjab and remain largely marginalised, though not as blatantly as in the  15th century-the time of Bhakti poets like Kabir and Ravidass, both of whose works finds a place in the “Adi Granth” compiled by the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak, whose own poetry is a part of the premier text of Sikhism.

It was then, perhaps to make sense of a violent, unjust world dominated by the land owning upper-castes, that the Hindu Dalit community enthusiastically embraced the message of Sufism of the Qadri and Chisti orders.