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Dalit Visions by Gail Omvedt

Book Review

Gail Omvedt started the book on expected lines, i.e., by denouncing vedic tradition as the central focus of Hinduism. 

She highlights the dangers of Hindu nationalism and outlines the Gandhian (reformist) and Nehruvian (secular) methods adopted by different sections to counter this danger. She argues that the attempt is flawed because it validates the general identification of the Hinduism with the tradition of India or “Hindu” with “Bharatiya”. 

Then she goes on to introduce the dalit approach which “proclaim a politics of identity” and which “define ‘Hinduism’ itself as an oppressive class/caste/patriarchal force.” 

The introduction gives a snapshot of the trajectory of dalit politics in India especially from the 1970s with the founding of the Dalit Panthers. 

I have always felt a discomfort listening to or reading dalit discourse because of its outright denouncement of all that is valued by Hindu tradition. I think I was expecting something different from this book. However that matter was laid to rest when I read in the introduction that “the impetus to challenge the hegemony and validity of Hinduism is part of the very logic of Dalit politics.” 

Along with popular faces of the movement like Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar the book introduces some lesser known dalit activists like Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai and Mangoo Ram. It also critically analyses the challenges faced by the movement at different stages and how the dalit consciousness spread wider over a period of time ultimately leading to their political empowerment. 

However, the book admits the failure of the dalit movement to achieve the task of demolishing the Hindu religion and establishing a distinct dalit identity. Given the current state of dalit movement it seems obvious that the movement has lost its militant nature and political empowerment has come without a corresponding economic empowerment. 

This, I think, is the reason why politicians are engaged in tokenism that appease the impoverished dalit voters. Raising of Ambedkar’s and Kanshi Ram’s statues in UP by BSP is part of this exercise to create an iconography that sustains the hope for Dalits in India. But the reality remains that neither a new park nor a statue can offer a solution to the crisis that dalits find themselves in. Gail Omvedt also fails to offer any potential solution to the predicament faced by the dalit movement. 

Also, while Omvedt believes that evocation of people’s past will continue to have a role in the formulation of a new society, in which the major dalit theme remains that of confidence and aspiration, she is able to acknowledge only those reinterpretations of puranas and history that denounce the upper castes and highlight the exploitation of the sub-altern like in the case of Eklavya or Shambuk. However, I believe there is also ample scope for dalit empowerment in those reinterpretations of scriptural literature that view dalit characters in a positive light. An example would be the reinterpretation oft criticised ‘Purushasookta’ in which shudras are supposed to have originated from the toes of the purusha. A positive reinterpretation of this focus on the fact that toes are the symbol of reverence in Hindu customs (lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, etc.).

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