News Analysis: Upswing in Dalit writing, but where are the readers?

B. R. Ambedkar
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By Somrita Ghosh

New Delhi–Dalit literature is on an upswing with several new authors highlighting the plight of Dalits in India and pointing out solutions to the many grave problems they face — but the genre, by and large, is still thirsting for readers.

There are not many publishing houses that focus specifically on Dalit writing, but a quick look at their recent offerings — fiction as well as non-fiction — suggest Dalit writers, particularly young authors, are increasingly focusing on the steps needed to bring about change.

“Instead of just writing about the socio-economic conditions or the situation of the marginalised class, the new writers are concentrating on how to improve their status and penning solutions instead of stating the problems,” S.S. Bauddh of Samyak Prakashan told IANS.

Samyak Prakashan, located in Madipur in West Delhi, is one of the few publishing houses solely dedicated to Dalit writing. As is Gautam Prakashan, run by S.S. Gautam, who noted that even authors from poor financial backgrounds are now taking an interest in writing.

“Earlier, Dalit writers would be people who were ex-servicemen, people who had managed to come out of poverty, get an education and secure a government job. They had the opportunity to write books, below-poverty-line people had no opportunity. But now, things are changing,” Gautam elaborated while sharing his analysis of the ongoing trends in Dalit literature.

According to Ashok Das, Editor, Dalit Dastak magazine, recent incidents like the death of Rohit Vemula and JNU student Muthukrishanan Jeevanantham have provoked many youngsters to take to writing.

B. R. Ambedkar

“There is a lot of anger among the youth. They are not ready to be oppressed, rather are becoming vocal about the discrimination they face, be it in educational institutes or at work places. Young people are taking up the pen to ventilate their angst,” said Das, who stepped into publishing books two years back.

Publishers say that a majority of Dalit writing comprises non-fiction and there is little scope for writers to foray into the world of fiction.

“Dalit autobiographies are quite popular, because they reflect fact and not fiction. It is a grim reality that is difficult for us to ignore and subsequently that is reflected in our writing,” Gautam maintained.

The history of Dalit literature can be traced back to the 1850s when it gained prominence through the works of Savitribai Phule — wife of Dalit thinker and social reformer Jyotirao Phule — a feminist considered to be the first to pen works on the plight of the marginalised class.

“However, it is Ambedkar who is considered to have brought a revolution in Dalit writing. He is the pioneer of Dalit literature whose book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ is an inspiration for the marginalised class,” Bauddh noted.

Despite the rise in number of writers and interest in writing about Dalits in India, the genre is still struggling to expand its horizons. The publishers said that around 150 books are brought out every year, including those written in regional languages. Why then is the popularity of these books still very limited?

“Firstly because of a lack of readership. Only those (upper class) who have curiosity about our issues show interest in reading our literature. These comprise people who are into either academics or doing some research work,” Das pointed out .

The publishers also blamed the government for restricting the access of the books to public libraries and maintained it has amounted to imposing an “undeclared ban” on Dalit books.

“A reason why people are not even aware of Dalit literature is because its reach has been limited. Public libraries run by the government don’t take our books. So how will the readers know about them?,” Bauddh asked.

The publishers also added that there is little recognition of their efforts by the government and reiterated that the number of Dalit writers who have been given Sahitya Akademi or Jnanpith awards is still very low.

They also maintained that they have forayed into publishing to bring about positive change and not to make a profit.

“We are not businessmen, we are revolutionaries. We didn’t step into publishing with the aim of making profits but to ventilate our struggle and the discrimination we faced. It is more a battle of ideologies,” Bauddh contended.

The publishers said finance still remains a big challenge for them. Bauddh and Gautam, both former government employees, left their jobs to turn into full-time publishers.

However, they added that they would continue to publish and highlight the plight of Dalits in India even at the cost of continued losses.

“I had invested all my savings, provident fund amount, to start the publishing house. There is no profit in our work,” Gautam noted.

“We will continue to publish; financial losses cannot diminish our purpose,” Das said.



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