India’s Hidden Apartheid and the Poetry of a Dalit Woman Activist

“Judgment day is long since due.”(Kandasamy, “Hymns of a hag”)

India Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s “Untouchables”, a
report that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) published in 2007 very clearly presents the state of Indian Dalits. The report states that the Indian Dalit is exploited, poor, under-educated and unable to live safely and comfortably, i.e. even their most fundamental needs of safety and shelter are not met in this country. They are continuously exploited both by individuals in the society and by the system and the governmental machinery that was erected to protect them. Not only are various forms of insult and deprivation but also everyday physical violence very common in their lives. They are humiliated, discriminated against in various ways, severely beaten and even brutally lynched by the powerful upper caste groups. All because of their “Caste—crueler than disease, emotionless, dry” (Kandasamy, “Prayers”). All because they were born to lower castes, or they dared to hope or dream for t he upliftment of their lot. The constitution guarantees equal opportunities and an honourable life to all Indian citizens; not for the Dalits. Practically for them, as the majority of the cases of atrocity prove time and again, no rights exist. The reason behind this exploited and subaltern-human existence of a considerable proportion of India’s population is rigid social stratification that is caste based. Various governmental institutions are composed of individuals whose identities are cast in the mould of caste. It is impossible for a human agent to transcend the barriers set by their very own identity that is socially programmed. If the ghettoization of the Jews was inhuman then the same must be true in the instance of an unofficial yet definite segregation of Dalits in India when it comes to residence, employment and basic public amenities. This paper is an attempt to look at the age-old barrier of caste in India, on a point of time that’s a decade after the world has entered a new millennium. It’s also an attempt to look at the condition of the Indian Dalit through the eyes of a woman. To do so, it has taken the poetry of a Dalit woman activist as its point of departure. Although the previous line essentializes Meena Kandasamy, it does so with her own consent. She describes herself in her wordpress blog as “a 26-year-old Tamil woman obsessed with Dr. Ambedkar’s dream of caste annihilation” and in her profile it’s given: “Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator. Her work maintains a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism”. In her “Another Paradise Lost”, once more, she is, “showing solidarity/ with activists and dissenters”. She is a committed writer and proudly asserts so. She writes, and tries to bring forth change through literature. The paper does not focus on her as a person, and on her personal emotions or views. It attempts to distil from her poems lines expressing the Dalit concerns, anger, angst and hope for change in a corrupt and rotten social system. As Paul had very aptly put: “In a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of the language is complicated, interesting and definitive” (Paul 60).

Kandasamy’s blog on wordpress is an adequate presentation of her poems. The present paper quotes her poems from her blog. Her poems are powerful, heartfelt and angry. The source of their power is millennia long exploitation of Dalits in India. They are driven by the dominant current of reactions against an exploitative system. They assert an individual or caste pride same as the various movements of the coloured peoples of the United States, South Africa or many other parts of the world do. These peoples whose voices had been suppressed for a long time, and who had been marginalized completely, had a Blakean choice before them. They could either create their own system or follow that of the others. Instead of choosing to live as branded “infra” humans in a malevolent and maleficent system, these “challengers of hierarchy” chose differently (“Another Paradise Lost”). They opted for liberty (limited initially but finally full) and equality, if not fraternity with amity, to begin with. Only God has the hypothetical power of creating matter ex nihilo. He is the only exception to the law: “Nothing will come out of nothing.” All human products of imagination are definitely the outcome of the creative processes of human mind, but that site of creation (the subject as an entity) is itself the point where various intersecting lines of effect meet. It is a very interesting thing when two peoples separated by several hundred miles of oceans, without any definite and prominent socio-cultural exchange, produce literature that has themes that may be called mirror images, albeit with unique features of their own. This paper uses Gangadher Pantwane’s comprehensive definition of the term “Dalit”:

To me, Dalit is not a caste
He is a man exploited by
the social and economic
traditions of this country.
He does not believe in God,
Rebirth, soul, Holy books teaching
separatism, fate and heaven
because they have made him
a slave. He does believe in
humanism. Dalit is a symbol
of change and revolution. (2-3)
Officially, India gained independence in 1947, so did the Dalits, in theory. The ground reality is different. Untouchability was decreed unconstitutional in India on paper but the people of that caste were never freed of the stigma in practice. They continued being the unpurchased slaves of the upper castes because of the monolithic social structure of India. The courses of the history of subjugation and exploitation ran on smoothly as ever. Voices were raised and action taken against the atrocity. The responding voices are a legion, but their core concerns are pronounced and clear, as is evident from an analysis of the poetry of the Indian Dalits. As the essay “India: ‘Hidden Apartheid’ of Discrimination Against Dalits” records, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reported in 2007 “the plight of Dalit women and the multiple forms of discrimination they face. Abuses documented in the report include sexual abuse by the police and upper-caste men, forced prostitution, and discrimination in employment and the payment of wages”. There is a limit up to which such a treatment can be tolerated. This limit had been crossed a long time ago by the exploiters as “Agony is not always a forgotten memory” (Kandasamy, “Prayers”). The hitherto dormant volcano of the hearts of the Dalits erupts and the lava of their anger, discontent, frustration and angst flows out with force. The age old system of oppression and discrimination finds staunch opposition. Those who had been silenced by the forces beyond their control wrote back. Their poems assert their identity and the pride they take in it. They also emphasize their right to be treated as equals to their fellow mortals who claim themselves to be the more equals among the equals. The dispossessed, those whose dignity was snatched away, reclaim it and don’t hesitate to snatch it back from the usurpers even violently, if the occasion demands it. Upper caste men and their gods are equally hated and condemned in Dalit poems of catharsis. In fact, “the Caste Gods deserve/ the treatment they get” (“Reverence:: Nuisance”). It becomes clearer in Kandasamy’s “Maariamma”:
We understand
why upper caste Gods
and their ‘good-girl’ much-married, father-fucked,
virgin, vegetarian oh-so-pure Goddesses
borne in their golden chariots
don’t come to our streets.
We know the reasons for their non-entry into slums.
Actually, our poverty would soil their hears
and our labor corrupt their souls.
Moreover, “God, Lifeless as ever—watched grimly with closed eyes.
In resigned submission”, when His upper-caste favourite sons were creating, perpetuating and strengthening the exploitative caste system through millennia. Thus, “Life teaches: there are different Gods at different temples” (Kandasamy, “Prayers”). Even gods have caste in India. The upper class pantheon wouldn’t accept a Dalit goddess Maariamma, until she is sanitized, alienated from Dalits and is made a part of the upper caste gang of gods. The same holds for the Dalit human beings.
Dalit Women, the subaltern among the subalterns, the invisible, yet irritatingly present entities of this discourse, have been subjected to the worse kind of oppression. Yet their voice is heard amid the tumultuous uproar of multitudinous voices. In fact, it has never been silenced completely. They have their own history. A history in which are narrated various small victories of common yet uncommon Dalit women of the past. The women today feel proud of their “fore-mothers” and tell Paracetamol legends of the ones who:
Married a man who murdered thirteen men and one
Lonely summer afternoon her rice-white teeth tore
Through layers of khaki, and golden white skin to spill
The bloodied guts of a British soldier who tried to colonize her. . .
Young woman near my father’s home, with a drunken husband
Who never changed; she bore his beatings everyday until on one
Stormy night, in fury, she killed him by stomping his seedbags. . . (Kandasamy, “Their daughters”)
The Dalit women have never been so effectively silenced as their middle class counterparts from Hindu upper castes. The oral and performative aspects of their expressions cannot be discounted as they have had a strong tradition of lavanis and tamashas where they have presented their thoughts candidly, although they are new to the expression in the form of printed words. The twenty-first century Dalit woman proudly asserts her identity and rights. She has the power to destroy the exploitative system and the exploiter too. She has the cause, willingness and means and she vents her rage:
Thin, stark-naked and with fire for eyes.
Killing men whom I despise.
Bewailing the woeful life I led.

Thronging ghettos, to unbend bent backs.
Handing them knives, ’least an axe.

Haunting oppressors to shave their heads.
Cutting all their holy threads.
Experiencing joy as they bleed.
Dance, rejoice my black black deed. (Kandasamy, “Hymns of a hag”)
The anger and hatred of the part of the poem quoted may appear as extreme to some. Yet, it is a very practical recourse for the powerless, as history is theirs who have the power and means to write it. The marginalized subaltern never gets the centre stage. Where all action is shown in progress they remain “invisible” as always. As Fanon or Malcolm X proclaimed, these voices assert that violence must be employed if needed, against the exploiters whose best interest is in maintaining the status quo through perpetuation of their hegemony. It is the process of maintaining the hegemony that has taken a lot of ideological support and practical methods that have congealed into policies. The Indian Dalit had to face a challenge to his caste identity and responded in various manners. The extent of hopelessness was compounded by the fact that they were the doubly dispossessed and marginalized in both their class and caste. The Indian Dalit woman was facing discrimination and exploitation at their worst level. Although untouchable, as the upper castes decreed, they were molested, raped and in general, were treated like some sort of freely available sexual cattle slave. Their exploitation, physical and systemic, continues to this day, despite the huge array of laws and acts that guarantee their safety and well being. Kandasamy presents the plight of the Dalit woman in her “Narration”:
I’ll weep to you about
My landlord, and with
My mature gestures—
You will understand:
The torn sari, disheveled hair
Stifled cries and meek submission.
I was not an untouchable then.
I’ll curse the skies,
And shout: scream to you
Words that incite wrath and
You will definitely know:
The priest, his lecherous eyes,
Glances that disrobed, defiled.
I was not polluting at four feet.
The themes of hatred and resistance against the exploiters are very common in Kandasamy’s poems. In this they are like other Dalit writer’s poems that, rising from the soil, raise disturbing issues. They prove that the grand narrative of the Enlightenment – the great ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the rational end of all social systems and the attainable or desirable state of existence – is only there to beguile the masses. In reality, for an Indian Dalit, there is neither liberty nor equality, and fraternity is nowhere to be seen. Reason has been proven powerless in redressing the wrongs perpetrated by an iniquitous system of institutionalized exploitation. Therefore, the subaltern must catapult themselves to the stage of power play using any means whatsoever. Their language is charged with the power to burn the social customs and the desiccated traditions that have given the Dalits a life worse than that of animals.

Long years of exploitation, subjection and subjugation would have broken any normal human being, but the Dalits are made of some sterner stuff. Their resilience and power to resist and rise like the phoenixes, have made it possible for them to rewrite history. The twenty-first century Dalit does not leave his life in the hands of the Hindu upper class, all explaining, fatalistic twin theories of dharma and karma, as Kandasamy’s “Justice is…” clearly presents. As Marx’s once famously equating religion with sedative of the masses, dharma, its indian equivalent that comprised a lot more in it, performed the sedative, explanatory and exploitative functions variously. Dharma along with the theory of karma became the most potent tool of explaining the marginalization of Dalits to both upper and lower castes for centuries. Thus it aided interpellation, very poisonously, insidiously and sweetly too. But “the truth about Dharma” as the poem presents, is that “the man Dharma … is a bastard”. The natural and predictable outcome of such a realization is that “all [their]… hopes die and [they]…stop all… expectations”. There is no hope of any kind of help from either god or the upper class, because: “Those above are (mostly):/ indifferent bastards” (Fire). The Dalits live “In an arid land of arid human minds” (Kandasamy, “Prayers”).

Of course, hatred and anger are not the only things present in Kandasamy’s poems. The voice resisting exploitation is fully aware of its own strength and dignity. She takes pride in her Dalit identity. It is the Dalit identity and self-image that are affirmed in her poems again and again. Then there is a hope that the hitherto marginalized and silenced powerless masses will be able to build a new world for themselves. In “We will rebuild worlds” Kandasamy writes of a world that will be built “from shattered glass/ and remnants of holocausts”. It is a world of the collective Dalit dream that she envisions in her poem, but before it becomes possible, there’ll be several reckonings. The upper caste exploiters will be asked “to produce the list / from hallowed memories / of our people disgraced/ as outcastes / degraded / as untouchable at / sixty-four feet / denied a life/ and livelihood”. Had it stopped at just insult and giving the sub-human status to fellow human beings in a democracy that guarantees equality to all its citizens, it would have been just atrocity. The statistics in India prove beyond just that. It is not at all an exaggeration when the poet writes that they are “done to death … charred to death forty-four of our men and women and children / because they asked for handfuls of rice/… and other ghastly carnages”. Life becomes unbearable and death the only possible and practical respite for people who are forced to millennia of life-in-death. Yet, all is not lost. There is hope and the grit to hold that hope alive. It is the hope for a future revolution that sustains the Dalits in the darkest of their hours. They will learn resistance and violence, just as they had learnt muteness and subjection. They will dare to dream, and in their dreams will come all that will make them rise. The revolution, says the poet, will definitely begin with the Dalits learning to “stand up straight / put up a pretty fight/ redeem and reclaim/ the essence of [their]… earth”. She presages a new world: not created by the upper caste gods and men, but by Dalits themselves, “set to defy the dares the /diktats the years the terms / the threats”. There will be a time when they will realize their state of powerlessness, along with the power that lies within. They will rise that day to change the rotten state of the world that’s their yet not theirs. The subaltern will rise and create space for himself, and also the voice, newly found, with which to attempt to tell his stories to all who wish or not to hear them. It will all begin, like all the other past revolutions, suddenly. The hindsight will reveal the mechanism and nature of the factors involved, but at the time of its actually happening, it’ll be abrupt and unstoppable. With the cycle of revolution gaining momentum, the hitherto oppressor-oppressed roles will be reversed. It must be marked that this revolution is not a non-violent, Gandhian type, but a violent one of the kind Fanon had presaged. It’s certain that the revolution will come, and the Dalit say that “It will begin when never / resting we will scream / until / our uvulas tear away and our breathless words breathe life to the bleeding dead …our words will rush/ in this silenced earth / like the rage of a river in first flood”.
Eklavya’s story is repeated very often and he becomes the modern symbol of the wronged Dalit: exploited by the upper castes and through the insidious working of the centrifugal forces of the rigid caste based Indian society that systematically marginalizes them. Kandasamy’s “Eklaivan” has a note of consolation, probably from his guru, that offers him alternatives: “You can do a lot of things/ With your left hand”. The poem is similar to the official storyline, until the final break that gives it a surprisingly militant note: “You don’t need your right thumb, / To pull a trigger or hurl a bomb”. Such a state of being naturally produces hatred and anger. This anger is not at all specific to the poet. It is found elsewhere with the same intensity:

Let us go to the village
O Jamni
I want to buy a gun
gun? why Jivali?
are you mad?
Why do you need a gun?
Ali Jamni, you do not know
Poor Shambuk
was meditating and practicing vedas
And then?
Rama killed him mercilessly.
I want to shoot Rama
and also
I want to kill Drona
who demanded
Eklavya’s thumb as
Gurudakshina. (Pandya 6)

The themes of hatred and resistance against the exploiters are very common in Dalit poems. Trivedi points towards it: “the hopes and aspirations of the exploited masses, the problem of untouchability, the exploitation of Dalit women by higher caste men, are the themes of Dalit literature. The aim of Dalit writers is to expose the evil of caste system and injustice done to them by higher castes” (Trivedi 4). The voices of the subaltern, freshly raised, rising from the soil, raise disturbing issues. They prove that the grand narrative of the Enlightenment – the great ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the rational end of all social systems and the attainable or desirable state of existence – is only there to beguile the masses. In reality, for an Indian Dalit, there is neither liberty nor equality, and fraternity is nowhere to be seen. Reason has been proven powerless in redressing the wrongs perpetrated by an iniquitous system of institutionalized exploitation. Therefore, the subaltern must catapult themselves to the stage of power play using any means whatsoever. Their language is charged with the power to burn the social customs and the desiccated traditions that have given them a life worse than that of animals and auguries of violence can be discerned too. The modern Dalit is intellectually emancipated as the result of a century’s long struggle. There were tricks played with verbal chicanery in the past that now fail to fool. The very word play and logic of the brahmanas are now being used against them, as in Kandasamy’s “Advaita: The ultimate question”: “Non Dualism/Atman Self/ Brahman God/ Are Equal/And Same. / So I /Untouchable Outcast/ Am God. / Will You/ Ever Agree? / No Matter/ What You/ Preach Answer/ Me… Can/ My Untouchable/ Atman And/ Your Brahmin/ Atman Ever/ Be One?
Dalits have been silenced for such a long time that their endless wait has taken a life of its own. The Indian fatalism had ensured that they blamed their fate for their state of being, and then, unable to borne any more, the silence “it breaks into wails” (Aggression Kandasamy). History doesn’t always repeat itself. In Indian context, a perpetual state of helplessness, silence, marginality, i.e. subalternity, would finally lead to revolutions.
the outward signals
of inward struggles takes colossal forms
And the revolution happens because our dreams explode.
Most of the time:
Aggression is the best kind of trouble-shooting.
Like the snake of “Another Paradise Lost”, the Dalit poet, activist too bothers for history. The snake revealed very incisively: “‘Look here comrade, my credentials/ are different. In heaven, I was/ an activist. An/ avid dissenter”. It is actually a very artful re-telling of the popular upper class myth of the forefather of the Pandavas, the great emperor Nahusa. He reached heaven after his death and was respected there too, until he “wanted to know why/ caste was there”. He was enjoying the fruits of his worthy deeds among the gods and sages until he dared to challenge the very existence and stability of the system from within. The unequal and iniquitous division of labour worried him as he was “a rebel/ pleading for liberty-equality-fraternity’. He was banished from the paradise in another and altogether different case of paradise lost in which “Tradition triumphed over reason’ and, ironically “and the good were cast away”.
The half-mocking, half-serious tone comes handy in poems like “Becoming a Brahmin” in which the “Algorithm advocated by Father of the Nation at Tirupur. / Documented by Periyar on 20.09.1947” is looked at:
Step 1: Take a beautiful Shudra girl.
Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin.
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child.
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times.
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.
Algorithm for converting a Pariah into a Brahmin
Awaiting another Father of the Nation
to produce this algorithm.
(Inconvenience caused due to inadvertent delay
is sincerely regretted.)
The Dalit will not wait endlessly. New age has brought new possibilities to rewrite history and the subaltern is creating space and is also speaking and is being heard. The very challenge that seemed fruitless and pointless in not so distant past now appears practical. Mobility through social strata has been made possible, and it has made possible for the hitherto dispossessed and marginalized to “make money… [and] grow dam rich” (Kandasamy, “For sale”). The most coveted equality to worship in the temples that did not allow entry to Dalits, the same right for which wholesale movements were planned, executed and failed, was won through change in the equation. The equation was changed by the entry of one simple variable on the side of Dalits: money. Thus was created the creamy layer, the privileged among the underprivileged. It was this very layer, created within half-a-century within the independence of India that had the means to buy its place of equality before gods:
He also buy a standing place
at da front and da special prayer
in his name all at twenty more.
Priest with ash and holy smoke
come to him, give extra blesses for
a cool crisp fifty my bud gives.
He stand there and stare,
stare hard at the Gawd;
his first time in temple. (“For sale”)
There are differences in the themes and concerns of the poetry of the Dalits of various times and climes, yet there is a stream of commonality that runs through them. Specificities notwithstanding, the insults, wounds and scars these peoples share give their voices the same intensity of pain and poignancy. Internalization of the prejudices of the dominant group and their assertion and perpetuation by the very people against whom the prejudices were held, is a common mechanism for survival. It creates a set of alienated people who neither belong to their people nor are accepted as equal by the others. Social and caste mobilization are excruciatingly slow and very unsure processes whose rate or outcome can never be controlled or predicted with certainty. Moreover, black skin with white mask (or Dalit skin with upper caste mask) is not a psychologically healthy combination. Neither is it right, ethico-politically and socially. The Dalits – dispossessed and silenced – belong to one body. Their resistance to the phallogocentric social structure and their attempts at critiquing or deconstructing are very logical ends to the centuries old process of planned dehumanization. Their heroic resistance has brought about several changes in the structure and functioning of the exploitative system. How deep these changes have percolated and how fundamental in nature they are, has yet to be seen and tested. In the meanwhile, the longest march for a seemingly unreachable goal must not stop.

Works Cited

Kandasamy, Meena. “Eklaivan”. 1 June 2008. Web. 29 December 2011.
—. “Profile”. n.d. Web. 29 December 2011.
Pandya, Mahesh. “Uttar Gujarati ni Jivali”. Hayati. Tr. Darshana Trivedi. Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Academy: Ahmedabad, 1999.
Pantwane, Gangadhar. “Dalit: New Cultural Context of an old, Marathi Word”. Contribution to Asian Studies, XI.1977-78.
Paul, S. K. “Dalit Literature and Dalit Poetry: A Brief Survey”. Dalit Literature: A Critical Exploration..eds. Amar Nath Prasad and M. B. Gaijan. Sarup & Sons: New Delhi, 2007.
India Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India’s “Untouchables”. UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). February 2007. Volume 19, No. 3 (C).
“India: ‘Hidden Apartheid’ of Discrimination Against Dalits”. Human Rights Watch. 13 February 2007. Web. 31 December 2011.


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