Why Dalit History and Historiography?

P. Sanal Mohan


Indian history has witnessed a variety of historiographies and Dalit history is one among them. We do have substantial historical scholarship across different historiographies—Nationalist, Cambridge,Marxist, Subaltern, Feminist— that has helped problematize almost all aspects of Indian history across different periods.  It is in this context of critical intellectual production that one situates Dalit historiography and Dalit history.  Dalit history, as it is articulated today, refers to critical intervention in Indian historiography which is capable of opening up any problem in the latter from a Dalit perspective. As intellectual engagements, Dalit history and historiography  should be in a position to enter into a dialogue with the most developed forms of historiographies existing today. In other words, one of the concerns of Dalit history and historiography should be to develop critical instersectionality by engaging with different historiographical genres. One immediate concern could be to rethink the intellectual resources of dominant/critical historiographies— Nationalist, Cambridge, Marxist, Subaltern, Feminist—and challenge the certainties they produced, for example about the caste formation in India historically.  Dalit historiography will have to critically engage with the dominant historiographies in order to explore the experiences of Dalits in India and retrieve the masses of Dalits as makers of their own history even as they were dominated by the caste elites.

Explorations of Dalit Experiences

In the last few years scholars in critical history and social sciences have been writing about Dalit experiences. (Guru and Sarukkai 2012, Mohan 2015, Rawat and Satyanarayana 2016, Satyanarayana and Tharu 2011)   While scholars have been situating their arguments based on solid evidences of various kinds that showed multiplicity of Dalit experiences, there have also been efforts to accommodate Dalits into the narratives of the dominant castes or classes.  The latter eventually led to the denial of agency to Dalits.  This had happened in the case of many Dalit communities in North India after they were grafted to the Hindu Right’s narratives. What critical Dalit history and historiography would do is to historically situate Dalit experiences in the context of both larger structures of socio economic formation and their regional and local variations.  For example, in certain contexts, emphasis would be on Dalit experiences in agriculture and commodity production including questions of landlessness and land ownership. In some others, it could be related to problems such as caste slavery and untouchability. In still other contexts the concern could be with Dalit religion and religiosity including ‘conversion’. Questions of affect could form another fertile area of enquiry.  We may research on family structure, love, sexuality and a variety of related issues that would have shaped the humanity of Dalits. Such an effort will take us to questions concerning the mentality of Dalits and their everyday life.All of these relate to history of emotions that remains to be explored.Therefore, the efforts of the Dalit History month would be to direct our attention to such unexplored areas of Dalit history to show their potential as research questions.

A very important political question is rooted in this academic endeavour.  This relates to the larger concerns of the politics of recognition,dignity, and identity.  It is these that connect Dalit History Month to Baba Saheb Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders in various parts of India. Before Ambedkar there was Mahatma Joti Rao Phule who articulated anti-caste thinking and helped organize social movement. In Kerala we should refer to iconic leaders such as Ayyankali, Poyikyail Yohannan (Sree Kumara Gurudevan), Pampady John Joseph, Kavrikkulam Kanadan Kumaran, Paradi Issac Abraham, Kaviyur KC Raj, Rev. Stephan Vattappara and many others of the twentieth century who were instrumental in mass mobilization for a democratic transformation of Kerala society. There is a curious manner in which the conditions of slave castes here were compared with the conditions of the enslaved Africans in the Americas particularly in the US and the Caribbean Islands. In fact, in the mid nineteenth century writings of  Henry Baker Jr.(1862), the famous British missionary in Travancore, we read about a Pulaya Christian Slave who was likened  to Uncle Tom, the protagonist of the famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852). In addition to this, the countless articles published in the international abolitionist journals carried narratives of slavery in Kerala comparing it to slavery in the Atlantic world.  Similarly, Samuel Mateer, the well known British Missionary based in Thiruvananthapuram, wrote (1883) about the Pulaya slaves comparing them with the African American slaves.  In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1907) was taught in the slave schools in Travancore by the CMS Missionaries. These examples show a certain kind of intertextuality of the narratives of slavery as they were experienced in the Atlantic World and Kerala, much before the academic interventions that culminated in Dalit History Month. Therefore Dalit History Month demands refocusing on and critically reflecting on the politics of recognition, dignity and identity that became central issues of Dalit historiography.

The agendas of anti-caste thinking and practice of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries continue to inform various mobilizations and critical intellectual practices even today. In addition to this, we have, for some time, different genres of history writing in which many Dalit protagonists are engaged in.  Such writings are important as they try to analyse histories of Dalit social movements, biographies of important leaders, family histories and histories of religious institutions such as Dalit Churches (Joseph nd, Kozhuvanal 2006, Raj 2010 Mathew 2015, Patric 2014). Accessible either as manuscripts and or as texts published through small- time presses, these works put forward a certain variety of vernacular history.  Dalit History Month should be an opportune moment to think about such historiographic practices both in terms of their ideas and their specific historical practices. Exploration of some of these texts show that their authors could formulate new objects of analysis, however amateur their efforts might appear. In other words, we get a feeling that it is not just an additive history that we are encountering here.  On the contrary, there are definite moves to think about history by seriously bringing up new images and experiences of the past.  In this, they are helped by Dalit social memory in a substantial manner. Alongside we also identify the genera of family history, histories of the local Dalit Churches and faith communities especially from the mid nineteenth century onwards. 

A Note on the Sources and Methods of Dalit History 

As in the case of any history we understand that there are multiple sources and methodologies for doing Dalit history.  As mentioned earlier in this discussion, Dalit history has to create sometimes its own archive- much different from the conventional archives that are treated as sources of information.  More importantly, Dalit history would do well to follow the critical perspective that would look at archives themselves not as repositories of finished information. Rather, the emphasis has to be on the conditions of their production. It would mean that the archive has to be approached as a site of already produced knowledge that had framed things and meanings in a particular manner. Critical historians and social scientists have already dealt with this question substantially.  They have identified it as a point of departure which would take the historians ‘along the archival grain’ and against the grain.  We may also consider the necessity of doing interdisciplinary research as Dalit history demands the researchers to navigate the unchartered waters of analysis.   

Coming to the archives per se; we may depend on the already available sources of information- the archives organised by the state. Additionally we also need to access private archives, archives of social movements, religious organisations etc. Researchers have already shown the significance of regional and local level archives in addition to the metropolitan archives to do research in the area of Dalit history. Special mention may be given to the sources that are scattered but available with the people who were part of various social movements. The archives of various missionary organisations such as the Church Missionary Society, London Missionary Society, the Salvation Army, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the Foreign Parts, and the Basal Mission, among others, provide substantial information on the experiences of Dalits in Kerala and various other parts of India for the last three centuries.


References and Selected Readings

This list is not exhaustive.

Ambedkar, B.R. 1945. What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables? Bombay: Thacker & Co., Ltd. 

Baker Jr. Henry. 1862. The Hill Arrians of Travancore and the Progress of Christianity among Them. London: Werthiem, Macinthosh and Hunt. 

Barak, Judith Misrahi and Abraham, Joshil K. Dalit Literature in India. New Delhi, Routledge. 

Barak, Judith Misrahi, Satyanarayana, K. and Nicole Thiara. 2019.Dalit Text: Aesthetics and Politics Reimagined. New Delhi: Routledge. 

Berg, Dag- Erik, 2020. Dynamics of Caste ad Law: Dalit Oppression and Constitutional Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi and Rao, YagatiChinna. 2018. The Past of the Outcaste: Readings in Dalit History. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan. 

Brueck, Laura. 2014.Writing Resistance. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Chentharassery ,THP.1989.Ayyankali. Trivandrum: Prabhat Book House.

Dasan, M, Pratibha,V. Pampirikunnu Pradeepan and Chandrika, C.S.2012.The oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing. New Delhi : Oxford University Press. 

Ganguly,Debjani. 2008.Caste and Dalit Life Worlds: PostcolonialPerspectives. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan. 

Gupta, Charu. 2015. The Gender of Caste: Representing Dalits in Print. New Delhi: Permanent Black. 

Guru, Gopal, ed. 2011. Humiliation: Claims and Context. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

Guru, Gopal andSarukkai, Sunder. 2012.The Cracked Mirror: An India Debates on Experience and Theory, New Delhi, Oxford University Press. 

Guru, Gopal and Sarukkai, Sunder. 2019. Experience, Caste, and the Everyday Social. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Joseph, Achamma. nd. NallavanumViswasthanumayaDaivadasan (Mal) Self publication by the author. 

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1982. Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in Twentieth-Century Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Kozhuvanal, Kunjukutty. 2006. AnikkaduAdimajanathayumLekhuCharithravum. Anikkadu (Mal):Indian Education Development Charitable Society. 

Mohan, P. Sanal. 2014.  Modernity of Slavery: Struggles against Caste Inequality in Colonial Kerala. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

Mateer, Samuel. 1883. Native Life in Travancore. W.H. Allen & Company.  

Mathew, Peter. 2015. Interviews with Dalit Christian Elders of Kottukappara, Karikkottakkari and Parakkappara, Manuscript(Mal). 

Narayan, Badri.2006.Women heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India. Culture Identity and Politics. New Delhi: Sage. 

Omvedt, Gail. 1994. Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movementin Colonial India. New Delhi: Sage.

Paik, Shailaja. 2014. Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination. Routledge. 

Patric, Stanly. Malabarile. 2014. DalithChristavaCharithravumVarthamanavum (Mal). Kochi: Viani Printings. 

Nagaraj, D. R. 2011. The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India. Prithvi Shobhi, ed. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. 

Raj, KC Kaviyur. 2010. ChennaikkaludeIdayilekunjadukal(Mal). Kottayam: CSSC. 

Rao, Anupama. 2009.The Caste Question: Dalits and the politics of Modern India. New Delhi: Permanent Black. 

Rawat, Ramnarayan and Satyanarayana, K. eds. 2016. Dalit Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Rawat, Ramnarayan. 2011. Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalit History in North India. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 

Rege, Sharmila. 2006. Writing Caste/ Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios. New Delhi: Zubaan.

Saradamony,K.1980.  of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House. 

Satyanarayana, K. and Tharu, Susie, eds. No Alphabet in Sight. New Dalit Writing From South India(Dossier I Tamil and Malayalam) Delhi, Penguin Books, 2011 

Satyanarayana, K. and Tharu, Susie, eds. 2013. Steel Nibs are Sprouting: New Dalit Writing from South India (Dossier IIKannada and Telugu). New Delhi: Harper Collins. 

Still, Clarinda. 2015. Dalit Women;Honour and Patriarchy in South India. New Delhi: Social Science Press.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. B. Tauchnitz.

Washington, Booker T. 1907. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography. Doubleday, Page & Company. 

Zelliot, Eleanor. 1992. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.


About the Author: Professor P. Sanal Mohan is currently the Director of the KCHR.