Workshop Report on
'Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity: Mapping Dalit Cultural Heritage in Contemporary India',
7-8 December, 2012, Convened by Ronki Ram
1. The topic and the goal
The workshop entitled Harnessing Counter-Culture to Construct Identity: Mapping Dalit Cultural heritage in Contemporary India was organized by International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden, The Netherlands at Lipsius, Cleveringaplaats 1, Leiden on December 7-8, 2012. The workshop focused on the emergence of Dalit cultural heritage as a counter-culture to the mainstream culture of upper/dominant castes social set-up and world view. If any social institution or phenomenon that can be singled out to boldly mark the centrality of the Indian society, caste qualifies to be the foremost one. Anti caste movement has a long history in India. It was further radicalized by the emergence of Dalit movement with the entry of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar into the highly contested political domain of the colonial and post colonial India. Dalit movement adopted various strategies in its tirade against social exclusion and made concerted efforts for the emancipation and empowerment of the socially excluded sections of the society. To begin with, the Dalit movement spearheaded by Dr. Ambedkar attempted to find a way out of caste discrimination and social exclusion while focusing on social reforms within Hinduism. It tried its level best to pierce through the iron-curtain world view of caste hierarchy by cultivating a sense of social interaction across caste divide through proposals of inter-caste marriages and food sharing, on the one hand, and launching Satyagrahas (non-violent mass struggles) for the entry of Dalits into Hindu temples, on the other. Finding hard to achieve its goal, the Dalit movement took a sharp turn in the 1930s to mobilize its vast constituency towards the critical direction of building a counter-culture for the sole purpose of empowering downtrodden by offering them a distinct social identity different from their tormentors based either on their forgotten cultural past or seeking a refuge in an egalitarian religion. With the adoption of the constitution (prepared under the Chairmanship of Dr. Ambedkar) in independent India, the Dalit movement also found a solid support from the state of India in its efforts to bridle caste and build an egalitarian social order through state affirmative action.
For a quite some time, Dalit social mobility based on cultural assimilation (Sanskritisation) came to command a large following among the extremely marginalized sections of the society. But with the advent of Dr. Ambedkar, a strong alternative and powerful Dalit movement emerged on the basis of conversion to Buddhism. However, another equally powerful Dalit movement that found an immediate appeal among the ex-Untouchables became popular by the name of Dalit cultural heritage. Initially, the Dalit cultural heritage movement found its tender sapling growing on the meticulously fertile field cultivated by the strenuous efforts of Jotirao Phule and the protagonists of the Adi-movements (indigenous) in different parts of India. Since then the domain of cultural heritage has fast been emerging as a politically contested site where the hitherto marginalized and socially excluded Dalit communities started learning how to deploy it as a viable agency in their identity formation processes and struggles.