The Sunflower Epoch: Definitions of Dalit Before and After Ambedkar

This was meant to be submitted as a writing assignment at a place I attended for a while. That submission never happened but I rather like this, warts and all. 


The time is the 1970s. The fresh-faced idealism that came up with the Republican Party of India has now dissipated into a fizz of factionalism and insularity. The hope of coexistence, recognition and perhaps most important of all, the idea that it is possible for all sides to put the past behind them that was stirred in the hearts of all harijans or shudras or outcastes as the firecrackers of 1947 turned our newly free sky into a Christmas tree of light is now behind them. What settles in those hearts now is jaded pessimism. And sorrow. And rage.

Little has changed for the broken man. The precious few who could break free from the tight clutches of tradition look back to their broken brothers and sisters and write tear stained songs and poems. Namdheo Dhasal is a poet. And even though he recognizes that the future of the broken lies in the hands of the broken themselves, he cannot help but look back once more to the sunflower giving fakir and all he represented. “After a thousand years, we were blessed with sunflower giving fakir. Now, now we must like sunflowers turn our faces to the sun.1

That fakir represented an epoch in the dark history of these broken men and women. That history traces a sequence of ugly blots along the greater history of India itself. It coexists with the varnas, the Buddha, the Mughals, the British, The Indian National Congress and the state of affairs we are in today. Their story is the marginalia to India’s legacy. And it is far from over.


We do not know when this story really begins. Early Indian society was patriarchal in structure with inheritance not only restricted to property but, in most cases, occupation. So, the son would learn his father’s trade and teach it to his son and so on ad infinitum. It is also known that at some point after 500BCE the religious elite began to codify social norms and regulations into Sanskrit texts called Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.

These texts were responsible for the classification of people into four distinct categories or varnas: The Brahmanas, The Kshatriyas, The Vaishyas and The Shudras. And then, of course, there were the untouchables. They were the scavengers, ‘savages’ and those who could not be easily classified into the existing orders. This concept emerged from the idea that the lower castes could pollute the upper ones through touch because the work done by the Brahmanas was pure and that by the Shudras or Chandalas was polluting or impure.

While we do know for a fact that this piece of dogma existed within the Shastras, it is not known how prevalent these ideas were, or whether they were universally accepted. Evidence, in fact, points to the contrary. Brahmanical mandates regarding gotras, the rules of marriage, descent, succession of the throne and even occupation were often ignored by some groups and sometimes did not reach all sections of society.

In addition, there were religious groups who reacted very openly against these classifications. The Bhakti movement in South India, the Buddhist Sanghas, the Jainas and the Lingayats are among them.

Despite this, this system of social stratification persisted through the years to come. The Deccan Sultans came and went. The Mughals arrived. Caste distinctions in the Indian village remained ever constant.

Even though agricultural land was abundant, sections of society were denigrated to performing menial labour, pushed into poverty only because of their caste. With the coming of the British, their morbid curiosity about the ways of the Orient and their extensive surveys, the caste identities of the population became all the more stark. The colonial government helped matters along by allotting administrative work to the Brahmanas and upper castes and menial labour to the lower castes.


The arrival of Gandhian Nationalism in the early nineteen-hundreds would mark the next major change in the popular perception and, rather more importantly, the self-perception of the Untouchables.

The Mahatma’s relationship with the untouchables was always a complicated one. In his dual role as a political leader and social reformer, the eradication of untouchability was always one of his prime concerns. During the ‘first’ Independence Day in 1930, Gandhi had explicit instructions on how to celebrate it, allotting some amount of time to the service of untouchables. His encouragement of performing menial tasks usually relegated to castes added to his appeal among them. He even went so far as to state that he wished to be reborn as an untouchable. “if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition. I, therefore, prayed that, if I should be born again, I should do so not as a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, but as an Atishudra.”2

Given Gandhi’s status as a messianic saviour of the colonised population, his opinion on the integration of these untouchables into mainstream society should have gone unopposed like all his other opinions. But it didn’t. And that opposition came from a very unexpected place.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was an exceptional figure in 20th century British India. The son of an untouchable sepoy of the Mhow cantonment, his early education was spent segregated from the rest of the school. He recounts his experience of being unable to drink water from the common vessel unless it were to be poured down from above by an upper class peon. He sat on a dry old gunny sack he had to carry home himself after each day’s classes. Eventually, he became the only untouchable student at Bombay’s prestigious Elphinstone high school and the first untouchable to be admitted to Elphinstone College. Through a scholarship, he was able to pursue his postgraduate education at Columbia University in New York and then at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics. The fruit of nine years of dedicated higher education for Ambedkar was proficiency in Political Science, Economics and Law.

These were skills which put him in a position very few untouchables could even dare to achieve then. They helped him fight the broken man’s corner with the white man’s language.

And he did fight their corner, sometimes going toe to toe with the revered father of the nation. In the first Round-Table conference in 1930, he represented the Depressed Classes (or untouchables). The most iconic altercation between these two national leaders took place during the Second Round Table Conference when Gandhi vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for the Depressed Classes.

This changed things, not just for Ambedkar and Gandhi but also for the untouchables, whose reaction to Gandhi’s protest and subsequent hunger strike was less than entirely supportive. As N.S. Gehlot writes: “The intense feelings of the Dalits against Gandhi were manifested by black flag demonstrations against him on his return to Bombay.3

Eventually, Ambedkar was forced to relent to Gandhi’s plea for the safety of untouchables throughout the country.  “If Gandhi died, in villages throughout India there would be pogroms against the Dalits. They would be massacred.”4 But this acrimony between the Mahatma and Baba Saheb continued for a very long time. Ambedkar would later go on to claim that Gandhi, while maintaining a façade of being in support of abolishing untouchability in front of the English-language press, actually wrote against it in a Gujarati newspaper.

Gandhi, for his part, claimed that it would not be possible for the system of untouchability to be abolished if separate electorates and policies of reservations were put into place. He also spoke in favour of the caste system as a religious concept, claiming that untouchability was a mutation of something that was once good and that caste differences should not be done away with wholesale. Ambedkar was dead against that and encouraged the burning of copies of The Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text in which the varna system was codified. Eventually he even espoused that untouchables should abandon Hinduism altogether and embrace Buddhism.

Regarding the inclusion of those of the Depressed Classes into Parliament, a compromise was arrived at between the Mahatma and Ambedkar with the Poona Pact of 1932. The concept of separate electorates was done away with but a percentage of seats were to be reserved in both houses for untouchables. But this never stretched to anything beyond a compromise. Some claimed it was too little. Others claimed that it was too much.



It is in the midst of this conflict about reservations, social justice and the blotting away of past evils that issues of identity and nomenclature come to play.

Even during the early history of the fourfold varna system, the specific names and identities of the lower castes were blurry at best. While the roles of the shudras and athisudhras were relatively well defined, there were a variety of other social categories (each distinctly named) that an individual could belong to with nebulous systems of power relations connecting them to each other and to the upper castes. There were the chandalas, scavenger outcastes who Chinese Buddhist historians claim were forced to live separate from the general public, there were the nishadas, hunter-gatherers who lived in the forest and mlechchas, ‘barbarians’ from foreign lands.

There was also the complex system of jatis or sub-castes in which those practicing the same occupation would be classified into the same group. In essence, it is possible to infer that a whole host of ‘types’ of people who did not fit into the four varnas were placed into lower castes or other derogatory categories by the Brahmanas. This malign mess of categorization based on hazy family history and random theories had its impact far into the future. It became a matter of identity. And in the case of the caste-system in India, identity bleeds into language in very disturbing ways.

Gandhiji’s preferred term for the Depressed Classes was harijan, which means ‘God’s people’. This term had a mixed response among the untouchable community. Gandhiji’s own caste lay between him and the people of God he cared so much about, a schism neither side could quite manage to bridge. This, to some extent, contextualizes Gandhi’s repeated impassioned cries that he would, if he could, turn shudra.. But for a lot of the shudras he was trying to appeal to, the fact that he refused to support getting rid of the system as a whole made his status as the saviour of the untouchables questionable.

Nomenclature morphed into different forms even in the official spheres of jurisprudence and government. Depressed Classes transformed into Scheduled Castes, implying castes that were on the schedule (or list) of untouchable communities.

The new names did little to transform the situation for individual untouchables in towns, cities and most especially villages, the terminal end of India’s federal administrative system. They were still denied access to common property like pools and wells. They were ghettoized, oppressed and violated. The untouchable woman was a particularly easy target for upper caste men.

From this oppression came a new name, a name chosen not by a political scientist or a benevolent Mahatma but by the broken themselves. Dalit became a new name and a new identity: disillusioned, anguished and militant.


A definition of Dalit has been a contested issue among social scientists, anthropologists and lawmakers. Sunita Reddy Bharati says: “Dalit is not a caste, it is a constructed identity, which is a reality that cannot be denied.”4 This lack of specificity when it comes to the boundaries and extents of Dalit stems from the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization of Dalit students, poets and thinkers drawing inspiration from the Black Panthers of America.

The Panthers emerged from among the slum-dwelling educated class of Dalit youth in Mumbai and gave rise to an entire new genre of Marathi literature. The movement grew to encompass a variety of broken people under its umbrella but the origin of Dalit always came back to the untouchables. The mahars or shudras.

The violence of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry represents a paradigm in the self-identity of the Dalits. That paradigm stems from an epochal moment in their history, distinct from the peace and non violence of the Mahatma. The Panthers were violent, not just in their methods but also in their poetry. Dhasal invokes not a reworking of existing upper-caste society but a destruction.

That violence originates from an intellectual violence; from a sunflower giving fakir who set fire to copies of the Manusmriti, who forced the Father of the Nation to threaten to fast to death before eventually relenting and who never for once advocated anything less than burning the entire enterprise of caste relations down.

Before the Ambedkar Epoch, there was, as there always has been and continues to be for the broken men, misery and sorrow. But Ambedkar brought a unified identity and an equally unified rage against the mechanisms that had arbitrarily forced the Dalits down for centuries.


The real test for India’s untouchability problem post-Ambedkar lies not only in the position of untouchables today but also in the popular perceptions of the other castes towards them.

Issues of caste based violence (especially against women) continue to happen but their frequency and social acceptability are very different from the time of the Panthers. Untouchables are gaining significant access to mainstream society and the present generation shows signs that there is hope for an abandonment of all caste distinctions in the foreseeable future.

But, sentiments towards policies of reservations, equity and special treatment get icier by the year. One side argues that continuing these measures only increases the gulf between Dalits and the rest of India. The other side argues that it is not fair to promote the employment and education of an ironically ‘arbitrary’ category of people at the cost of the employment and education of ‘hard-working’ members of the general category.

With India subtly riding the coattails of a worldwide trend of populism and nationalism, we may eventually have to deal with the Dalit being in a similar position to a black man in Trump’s America. And with fears like that baying at our doors, just how less broken is a broken man in 2017 than one in 1947? The situation is not one which either Gandhi or Ambedkar would be proud of. And we aren’t any closer to a solution than those men were.

A new generation of sunflowers try to turn their face to the sun and the rest of us watch, as uncertain as ever.


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