Report on Brainstorming Session

On November 3 & 4, 2009, Brainstorming Session, ‘Cultural Resources & Forging a Democratic Order: Marginalised Groups in Northern India’, was organised at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, with the support of Ford Foundation, New Delhi. It is the second project of the Dalit Resource Centre (DRC), which is engaged in various research, documentation and outreach activities around the theme of socio-political and cultural empowerment of the Dalits.

This project focuses on the contemporary socio-political situation of UP, the most populated state (16.60 crore, 2001 Census), land area of 2.36 lakh sq.km., with 70 districts. Various religious sects emerged and flourished in UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Punjab and Orissa in the 15th century, most of which form a part of the study. This project plans to explore the socio-cultural roots of Dalit empowerment and their struggle against inequality generated through the hierarchal caste system, which deprived them of all their socio-cultural and political life. The language of the present Dalit politics in north India is seen as political phenomena. The language of dissent and emancipation has been shaped historically through the movements of various cultural sects: from Bhaktikalin era (15th Century) to the Shiv Narayani sect (18th Century), to the Ambedkarities (20th Century) – spanning 500 odd years.

This project is being conducted with the objective to bring forth the vitality that has permeated in the culture of marginalised communities due to the interaction with the cultural narratives developed by the popular medieval Bhakti saints that were produced in the medieval period exist even today with various creative additions and deletions. In this project, we will analyse the cultural resources of the sects in question that are the underpinning of the present day Dalit cultural resources, in order to explore how they are facilitating the Dalits to develop a critical thinking to fight against the century old social injustice faced by them and to participate in the democratic discourse of the society.

This workshop provided an innovative vision to the project to make this discourse more significant. The objectives were discussed, on which the Dalit Resource Centre (DRC) would work, to nurture the project. In this workshop academicians of related fields were invited, who explored the scope for studying the different dimensions in the said project.

During the Inaugural Session, the Director of GB Pant Institute of Social Science, Prof. Pradeep Bhargava welcomed the guests and appreciated the efforts of the DRC Project Director Badri Narayan. He dwelt on the rise of Dalit politics in UP and said that the advent of Mayawati is an interesting phenomena and added that there is need to delve deeper in these subjects, understanding how religious sects and cultural resources help forge a democratic order.

Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, political scientist and an eminent Oriya poet, informed that six sects would be studied in this project. While interpreting Kabir, Ravidas, Bhimaboi, etc several time periods evolve. We need to find out the reception of these sects. For example, in the 1990s, we know that the Indian Constitution has articulated our aspirations, justice and equality but the presence of these noble values in the Constitution is not enough to shape our society. It was felt in the 1990s that law alone cannot make a homogenous society. However, there are elements in the marginalised traditions, which can be helpful in the discourse of homogenous society. What are the ideas that might be used instrumentally to reshape our society? What is the meaning and relevance of the 200-year old tradition? What is the sense of equality in these sects? Bhakti is a generic notion. There is something unique in each and every Bhakti tradition. We need to reinterpret Bhakti to create a new sense of power. Fifteenth century created grounds for vernacular modernity. How people are using these resources of critiquing? How these can be used in contemporary discourse to create new ideologies? How these cultural resources are creating a new social order or persuading the old one? Furthermore, we need to reinterpret the values of our sage-poets.

Badri Narayan, the Project Director of DRC, said that Dalit assertion in politics was understood by scholars, analysts and journalists as political rise. But, we need to understand the relationship between politics and Dalit dissenting culture and its relation to everyday cultural life and cultural memories. Speaking during the inaugural session, he said that this project would trace the socio-cultural roots of Dalit politics. He explained that for the study four resources would be drawn from. First, we would see how political language emerged from the heterogeneous cultural sects. Secondly, Indian Constitution, French Revolution, American protective and discriminative policies and French social politics impacted the vocabulary of Dalit discourse. It needs to be seen how and from where these influences came and how it merged in it. Thirdly, the relationship and interface between tradition and modernity needs to be studied. Lastly, the relation between the politics of folk and politics of dissent has to be understood. Furthermore, the language of governance becomes a part of Dalit discourse and how it gets transformed into the language of governance. We would try to analyse the consciousness of this language. Extensive documentation of the five sects, its Vanis, Bhajans, Lokgayani on the cultural seats of these sects would be undertaken.

The keynote speaker of the inaugural session, Prof. Rajen Harshe, Vice Chancellor, Allahabad University, said that it was a golden day as several learned people, thinkers, critics and activists were present. When we think about culture, we do not pay attention to language. Culture should begin with language. Language is a medium of exchange of ideas, wherein culture grows its roots. And this is how culture gets its recognition. We somehow forget language. This should be pondered upon.  Somewhere society is contained in language just as language is contained in society. Recounting an article from Marathi magazine, he talked of different meanings of water. To a boy in Mumbai, water came from fridge, while for a Dalit boy of Marathwada, it had to be brought from great distance, traversing a different path, which was not used by upper castes. Here, through language, the cultural connotations of water changes and provides different social meanings for the city-bred Mumbai boy and the Dalit boy from Marathwada. We seem to have forgotten the importance of ideas that are contained in language.

He further added that when we examine the Vangmaye (complete works) of Ambedkar we see that he talks about common folks who shape history. People like Ambedkar and Phule were not escapists. They did not turn their backs to harsh realities. In this context, we see that Ambedkarite literature inspired everyone, Dalits and non-Dalits. His works helped bring about socio-economic change of the Dalits. It also voiced the dissent and exploitation of the Dalits. Now, we see Dalit theatre in Maharashtra, which is a new and interesting phenomenon.

The Administrative Officer, Bhaskar Majumder, proposed the vote of thanks in the inaugural session.

Badri Narayan initiated the First Session, Ravidas, Dalit Community and Politics’, the second session of the first day, stating that in Punjab we see the movement of the Ravidasis (as the followers of this sect are called). What all contributed to the popularity of Ravidas in Uttar Pradesh and how are these sects linking with Dalit politics? Many such questions are surfacing in Dalit politics. Prof Raj Kumar Hans from Punjab, who is associated with MS University, Baroda and is a fellow of Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, would tell with it in detail.

Prof. Raj Kumar Hans, IIAS, Shimla, opened the discussion of the first session. He said that we see European influence in history which has been written so far. New ideals were surfacing at that time, which was attacking the system of that time. It also brings forth a new ideal, in which we find three thinkers, Namdev, Ravidas and Kabir. They demolished the old ideas and gave birth to a new movement.

The wonderful thing about these three poets is that they preceded Guru Nanak. They had close ties with Punjab. Namdev passed away in a village of Punjab, Ghuman. Versus of Ravidas, who stayed in Punjab, were included in Guru Granth Shahib. Kabir had personal interaction with Guru Nanak. The specialty about Guru Granth Sahib is that it incorporated the teachings of gurus (teachers) other than the Sikh gurus. This feature of inclusion, an ability to absorb the ideas of other teachers, is an exclusive feature of the Holy Book of the Sikhs, which is revolutionary. These three sage poets, Namdev, Ravidas and Kabir, attacked the old and decadent system, helping Guru Nanak flower. Strangely, in the first 300 years, Dalit were absorbed in the Sikh mainstream but in the next 200 years, caste factor started raising its ugly hood and the Brahmins started controlling the Gurudwaras. Citing an example of Dalit resistance, he stated that the Dalits are once again asserting their autonomy. As a reaction, Dalits built a temple with the idol of Ravidas exclusively, wherein idols of Sikh and Hindu gurus were removed. Thus, an automonous religious movement was born to create and maintain the religiosity of the Dalits. Their voice of dissent has sharpened.

Atma Ram, eminent poet and litterateur, pointed out that when we deal with cultural resources we see that there is a direct clash between spirituality and religiosity. While religiosity created differences and had divided the society for thousands of years, spirituality had waged a war against it. Entire Bhakti Movement, between 12th and 18th centuries, was a movement of artisans. Blacksmith or cobbler is a bigger scientist than a technocrat, as he sees spirituality in his creation. They had a voice of their own, as they were not dependent on the urban dwellers. A piquant situation arose, when we see that artisans emerged as spokespersons. Thus, we hear Kabir say, “Hari ko bhaje Hari ka hoi, / Jaat-paat punchey na koi” (Those who pray to God belong to God / with no questions about caste or creed). Bhakti Movement did not discriminate between people; it was a quantitative process, during which there was a qualitative change, which may be termed exactly as renaissance. We need to explore the values of the sage-poets that became the basis of attacking the State apparatus. The question of identity emerged very powerfully in the ensuing struggle of these poets. Bhakti Movement exposed three malpractices: (1) discrimination in the society, (2) there is no need of a contractual system, the Purohitism, between Man and God and (3) the State has nothing to do with ideology, it is anti-discourse and that is the reason why it never gave proper space to this Movement. He added that the two important poets Kabir and Ravidas were disciples of Ramanand.

Kanwal Bharti, an eminent Dalit writer and critic demolished his earlier stance and said that though earlier he believed that Buddha influenced the Bhakti poets, his present research show otherwise. Refuting the stand of the earlier speaker, he said Kabir and Ravidas were not amongst the disciples of Ramanand. He clarified that Ravidas is a misnomer. He should be called ‘Raidas’, as that’s how he referred to himself in his verses. Kabir and Raidas were no bhakt (devotees) in the traditional sense. They were Nirguna (the Formless) saints. There was no concept of mukti (salvation) in Kabir’s works. They both were part of the Aajiwak tradition of the Bhakti Movement. Kabir and Raidas said more or less the same thing, though the former was sharper in his criticism of the society and launched direct attack on the system of that time. Raidas was gentler in his attack.

Raidas became a medium of the political polarisation of the Chamars. He also inspired another popular sect, Satnami, another major sect of the Chamars. It was established in Punjab (including Haryana of the present time), Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, around 1672 AD. Bhakti Movement was a religious renaissance, which linked Dalits with their true religion. These saints though looked down by upper castes, were revered by the Dalits. As Dalits were from the menial class, they did not follow the caste system but believed in Samta (equality). These Dalit saints played an important part in the democratisation process of the society.

Sardar Kuldeep Singh dealt with Guru Granth Shahib. He said that after Rig Veda, the most important literary and spiritual document is the Guru Granth Shahib. He quoted the Director of KM Munshi Institute, Agra, who told him so. Guru Nanak spoke for the marginalized people. He recited several verses from the Holy Book. Quoting one of the verses from the Granth Shahib, he said that the noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore too was inspired by the noble concepts from Granth Shahib. He drew interesting parallels.

In the Second Session, Kabir and Language of Dalit Assertion, Atul Dwivedi, cultural activist, struck the keynote of the discussion, when he stated that though Kabir demolished idol worship in his verses his followers started offering their prayers to him, as their God. Possibly, when lesser mortals fail to follow the teachings of any Guru, like Kabir, they bestow divinity on him. He informed that that the acceptance of Kabir by the huge mass base of marginalised people, offers a great resource. He pointed out that Kabir’s verses are sung in various Hindi dialects, five of which are in and around Allahabad, other than the dialects of Bundhelkhand and Malwa. In Bundelkhand region alone there are about two lakh singers of Kabir’s verses. He wondered why despite a large cultural resource base of Kabir, the academic resource is highlighted and if the cultural resource is also being marginalised.

Prof. Mahapatra offered an interesting comment and said that when we bestow the status of God on anyone, we give a high status to that person. But, it is also a kind of alienation. The real Kabir that we find in the appropriation of the folk artistes include the common men.

The next speaker, Prof Sadanand Shahi, from BHU, opined that the marginalised find solace in Kabir’s verses. The Dalits and the marginalised are condemned as Murkh to be flogged socially as idlers (kamchor) and thieves (chor). The oppressed classes are used as abuses like chor-chamar in everyday language. The saints of the Bhakti tradition did not only bring about a religious revolution but triggered a social revolution as well. He opined that Kabir is most useful for the Dalit politics of the present era.

Ashish Tripathi, from BHU, said that it was revolutionary of Kabir to talk to God in people’s language, in one’s lingua franca (mother tongue) and thereby share the innermost experiences. Bhakti Movement needs to be seen as fuelling social mobility. Dwelling on the politics and relevance of Kabir, he added that post-1990’s, Dalit politics is shifting towards Kabir, as Muslims moved away from the BSP. The Dalit politics of the present era has to return to Kabir, from whom it can learn fearlessness.

Vinod Tiwari, BHU, opined that politics of an era chooses its alternatives from existing traditions. We need to understand Kabir in this backdrop. Dalit politics used the symbols of Kabir for assertion. He stressed that it would be wrong to trap Kabir in parochial boundaries, as it would limit the global-stature of the sage poet.

Sanath Das, a Kabirpanthi seer from Rewa, agonised that Kabirpanthis did not understand Kabir. They buried his ideologies by resorting to idol worship and following the caste system. It’s a deep rooted conspiracy to Brahmanise Kabir, as he gave life-force to the Dalits and the marginalised. The oppressed were worse than living corpses. Brahmachari Dharmendra, another Kabirpanthi seer, opined that Kabir offers immense possibility to all sections, cutting across caste and class. It’s wrong to search Dalit politics in Kabir. He was a saint, not a politician. Kabir offered symbiosis of Hindus and Muslims, as Christians did not exist then. He argued that Akbar’s political tradition of Hindu-Muslim unity can be traced back to the ideals of Kabir.

In the Third Session, Mahima Dharma and Shivnarayani Sect, an Oriya poet and critic from Bhubhneshwar Kedar Mishra said that Bhima Bhoi, born in 1845 was a poet and led a Grihastha life. He added that the role of Bhima Bhoi in and outside of Mahima Dharma is contradictory. Currently there are many divisions of Mahima Dharma. Earlier, in census reports it was treated as an independent religion but now it is clubbed with Hinduism. It was Brahmanised but now it’s reemerging as a Dalit movement. It’ impact is palpable in the Naxal movement, Dalit movement and Hindutva movement (RSS). Kabir’s soul is present in Bhima Bhoi.

Bishnu Mohapatra, while talking about Bhima Bhoi said that Dharma is a word which Bhima Bhoi often uses in his poems. He pointed out that the time around 1866 witnessed great change. The time has come to critically evaluate the conventional attitude on Bhima Bhoi and Mahima Dharma. Manoranjan Das, an Oriya poet and documentary film maker from Bhubhneshwar said that there is a need for finding out new perspectives on Mahima Dharma. Mahima Gosai was very radical in his behaviour and action.

Prof. Lalit Joshi, an academician from Allahabad University said that country has entered into the post literate world. The biggest problem of a post-literate society is that the people can read but they don’t want to read. We need to see how we can contextualise Dalit discourse in contemporary times. We must examine the process of marginalisation in history and study its impact on culture?

Ashok Anshuman, a historian from Bihar University, Muzaffarpur, talked about Dalit assertion between 1810 and 1931, how through Sanskritisation they were searching their new identity. Madanji, a Dalit writer and critic, informed about the role of Shiv Narayani sect in social harmony and how Shiv Narayan, a Kshatriya, gave respectable position to the Dalits.

The Fourth Session, Roundtable was initiated by Arindam Roy, DRC, who with the help of power point presentation gave a gist of the sessions. An interesting discussion followed, which is being detailed in the vision-statement.

Vision-statement of the Brainstorming Session:

    1. Prof. Harshe suggested that there is need to re-think the entire literature of the sage-poets of India and we must also include the sage-poets of Maharashtra, who brought about a social revolution in that state.
    2. Prof Bishnu Mahapatra felt that there should be greater participation of women in such sessions. We should also probe the role of women in these sects. He hoped that in this project new methodological insights would develop that might help in understanding new horizons, emerging out of equalitarian notions.
    3. Prof. Hans said that though these sects show the path of salvation to the grassroots, democratisation of the mind is yet to be achieved, which is the biggest challenge of research;
    4. Atma Ram was of the view that we have to explore the hidden notions of democracy in these cultural resources of marginalised sects. Otherwise, the entire effort would be a waste, as it would strengthen the State’s notions of democracy, which is often in opposition to our objective;
    5. Bharti said that research should be carried out fearlessly and we should not shy away from challenging our pre-conceived notions. Truth is most important and the academic world should not become its hurdle.
    6. Dwivedi suggested that research should unearth Kabir hidden in folk language (lokbhasa) and folk literature (loksahitya) and link those folk artistes, who breathe Kabir in their daily lives, with the mainstream.
    7. Prof Shahi said that we need to explore the enigma of Kabir, which makes him not only relevant but also vital in contemporary times.
    8. Tripathi opined that how the metaphors of Kabir are shaping and sharpening the politics of the present time. If political practices are linked with social cause of the Bhakti poets, a new tradition might be shaped for society.
    9. Tiwari stated that the research should dispel the veneration of the sage-poets and establish how they might enrich politics and society.
    10. Sanath Das suggested that the research should utilise the various resources kept in mutts, literature and understand its academic depth.
    11. Mishra said that Bhima Bhoi is being used by political groups as icons to serve their ends but we must explore him as a resistant poet and social activist.
    12. Joshi cautioned that the research must be careful about its gaze (drishti), how it views the marginalised sections.
    13. Anshuman said that it is very important to understand the process of appropriation of the Dalits as member of these sects.
    14. Madanji suggested that it is necessary to study how the grassroots are still linked with the soul of these sects. If need be, research should explore the places of these sage-poets.

The outcome of the Brainstorming Session proved valuable for ideation that was achieved through debates, discussions and interactions between the various scholars, academicians, Dalit activists, et al. A wonderful churning of thought processes helped create a common platform for some diverse opinions as well, through healthy dialogue, which was essentially democratic in letter and spirit. It also helped strengthen the networking. Some of these valuable suggestions are being incorporated in this project. We are sure that this would help us probe deeper in our research and unearth some rare gems, which would greatly enrich the study and the project.

On both days, cultural programmes were held in the evenings. It included bhajans of Shivanarayan presented by Ganga Bishnu and party, Allahabad, Kabira bhajans by Chandoolal, Katni and Nirguna compositions of Kabir by Vikramjeet Dhayani and Manju of Jaunpur. On the second day, Bidesia and Nirguna songs were presented by Ram Kailash and party and Sangeeta Rai, Allahabad.