Two things have happened recently. Delhi University dropped out of English program two Dalit authors, triggering widespread buzz and backlash. And the National Crime Records Bureau published its 2020 data, listing, among other things, crimes against Scheduled Castes (SC) in India.
Bihar, the state with the country’s third largest SC population according to the 2011 census, figures prominently in the second, and conspicuously absent in the first. In the latest NCRB figures, the state recorded the second highest number of recorded caste crimes in the country. The DU episode led to a conversation about Dalit writing in India, but few Bihar authors were among those cited.
So what is happening with Dalit literature in Bihar? In a populated state with politically mobilized lower castes, why has subordinate literature not yet achieved popularity, and what are the consequences of this limited visibility?
“In the 21st century, in the era of panoptic visibility, a large part of the Dalits in Bihar live and die in the dark,” explains Richa, 29, a graduate in Hindi literature from the University of Magadh in Bodh Gaya, who did not want to give his full name. “My last name makes my caste apparent. But I’m just speaking as someone who lived and studied in Bihar, and I can tell you this – the savarnas and some mainstream CBOs don’t even know many words used by the Dalits. Their language, their way of life, their folk tales, their lived experiences are not documented and are therefore conveniently invisible, ”she adds.
This lack of documentation stems from exclusion at various levels. According to the 2011 census, more than half of the population of the SCs in Bihar cannot read or write – the overall literacy rate of the SCs is 48.6%, with the literacy rate not being uniform between the different castes listed in the state. SCs who manage to complete their college education speak of prejudice and discouragement in academic spaces.
Among the state’s prominent Dalit literary voices is Budh Sharan Hans, 79, who retired as deputy collector in the government of Bihar, wrote short stories and essays, and published a monthly magazine, ‘ Ambedkar Mission ‘, for almost three decades now.
Sharan says that when he was in college, the atmosphere towards Dalit writing was hostile. “I was born in the village of Tilora in Wazirganj to a lower caste family in 1942. After school, I spent my time tending to livestock; that too, not my own cattle. I was then among the few Dalits to take a Masters course. For MA in Hindi Literature from Magadh University, I had to submit a thesis. Most of the students chose subjects related to mythology, “the representation of nature in the poetry of Sumitranandan Pant”, and so on. These topics meant nothing to me.
I decided to write about the vocabulary used by the lower castes – what are the various tools of a shoemaker called, what a barber calls the bag that he carries with his equipment. My teacher, a Brahmin, was livid. I remember he asked me: ‘You expect me to speak to the lower castes to verify what you write !!’. These are the people who controlled, and still control to a large extent, the world of publishing and writing. You can imagine how much they will encourage Dalit literature, ”says Sharan.
Over the years, the lower empowered castes have made efforts to make reading accessible within the community. Sharan runs an initiative called “jhola pustakalaya” (library in a bag). “We put say 20 books, of fiction, of philosophy, of Amedkarite writings, in a bag, and we leave the bag in a colony of SC. Once that quarter has read its fill, they return the ‘jhola’ and we pass it on to another domain. Literary spaces try to keep us away. So we take literature into our spaces, ”he says.
Other authors say things have improved over the past 10 to 20 years, but there is still a long way to go.
Karmanand Arya, author and assistant professor of Hindi at the Central University of South Bihar, Gaya, says that while a Dalit author will now have an easier time getting published, recognition and representation are far away. “Bodies like Sahitya Akademi are always out of reach for us. The Dalit authors they promote are primarily based around or have connections in New Delhi. There has been a lot of Dalit writing in Bihar over the past few years, but you can hardly find anything online which limits accessibility. Few of the Bihar-born Dalit authors are taught at state universities. Much of the Dalit writing concerns their own experiences, which fail to show the upper castes in a big light. This is presented as “autobiographical” literature and therefore not “great” literature, ”Arya says.
Arya has edited a volume of short stories by fellow Dalit author Vipin Bihari, and is working on publishing other subordinate writings in collected volumes.
Regarding representation in state university programs, Professor Uday Raj Uday of Women’s College Khagaul, says the selection process needs to improve. “At present, there is no standard curriculum taught throughout Bihar; universities develop theirs. So sometimes the personal preferences of those who decide on the program creep in. However, there is now talk of the government standardizing the program somewhat, and that could prove to be more inclusive, ”he said.
There are others who say that literature as a whole, and not just Dalit literature, is not doing very well in Bihar. Ramesh Ritambhar, professor at Ram Dayalu Singh College in Muzaffarpur, says: “The culture of reading itself in Bihar leaves a lot to be desired. With the exception of some popular English authors like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, people don’t exactly line up to buy a fiction book. We teach Dalit literature at university level; there is a whole section called Dalit Chetnakhand. But if you are asking why few well-known great Dalit writers have emerged in Bihar, you have to understand that writing as a profession does not pay a living wage. More and more Dalits are educating themselves, but they are moving into engineering, civil service, professions that can improve their standard of living.
Musafir Baitha, another Dalit author and recipient of Bihar’s Navodit Sahityakar Puraskar (an award for aspiring writers) in 1999, says this is where the need for government and institutional support is greatest.
“The government of Bihar gives publishing grants of up to Rs 3 lakh annually to new authors in Hindi and Urdu, and it also has an award for outstanding work in Hindi, to which authors from all over the country are eligible. But more focused schematics can help Dalit writing. In addition, the concept of publishers approaching authors and paying them royalties is virtually absent. It is the authors who turn to the publishers, whose role is simply to print the books. There is no question of publicity tours and conferences. In addition, the teaching of Dalit literature in classrooms is still largely superficial. Teachers who are not from these castes have no idea of our lived realities, and little willingness to learn.
Baitha’s PhD focused on Dalit autobiographies in Hindi. He and Karmanand Arya also organized a collection of Dalit poetry from Bihar and Jharkhand.
Sharan says it’s just as good that Dalit literature has stayed away from the big publishers. “If a mainstream publisher sells my book, its price will be prohibitive; the book will become unaffordable for half of the Dalits in the state, ”he said.
But why, despite having a strong political voice, has the Dalit community still not formed a large “mainstream” market? To this, Baitha says that the votingbank policy does not fit well with the reform. “To instill a strong reading culture, the community needs a social reshuffle. You have to tell them that “this is also for you”. But Dalit politics in Bihar are still limited to asserting identity.
Uday Raj points out that “Dalit” in Bihar is not a monolith. “The community is fragmented into a multitude of sub-castes. Governments have developed targeted programs for specific sub-castes, with electoral gains as a guiding principle, ”he adds.
There are still others who say that publishing and recognizing published authors is only half the battle. “A whole treasure of Dalit stories can be found in the performing arts, it is the orature. And it is not at all documented. More and more theater artists ask me to upload their videos. They understood that this was their only means of documentation, ”explains Jainendra Dost, filmmaker who heads the Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training & Research Center in Chhapra.
“Stories like Reshma and Chuharmal (love story of an upper caste woman and a Dalit man), the legend of Raja Salhesh (a Dalit folk hero) are always played out in the villages to great applause. But the high castes place them in the box of “popular art”, which is not “great literature”. In addition, Dalit dialects are different from what the Savarnas speak. But these dialects are not considered worthy of being called literary. Basically anything different from savarnas is inferior, ”says Dost.
What this exclusion has guaranteed is that while the voices of a certain section are not heard, the oppressive practices of the other section escape scrutiny.
“Literature is supposed to be the mirror of life. Well, in Bihar that mirror is foggy and stingy. The lives, the experiences, the entire existence of some sections have yet to be clearly reflected in it, ”said Arya.