A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

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The Development of Theoretical Principles of Dalit Literature

Vikas Singh and Vikas Jain

When the term Dalit appears in conjunction with the term literature, then this literature clearly stands apart from traditional literature. The cause of this standapartness is the consciousness embedded in the word Dalit, which rests on a social and cultural foundation. Before the use of the word Dalit, the jatis that had been considered untouchable were identified by names such as Chandal, Antyaj, Shudra, Avarna, Asprishya, Pancham, Harijan; names which reminded them of their inferior position in society. These labels were ascribed by the Savarna groups, with the assumption that they were superior and others were inferior. Having rejected all these ascriptions, these jatis have now decided upon the word Dalit as their identity. It is the consciousness embedded in this word that is the cause of them having arrived at such a self-description. We can appreciate the sentiments embedded in this term on the basis of the following opinion of Ramachandra:

The word ‘Dalit’ is a word that denotes pride. This term also carries the awareness of oppression and victimization. The revolutionary sentiment of being continually reminded of the acts of the oppressor class is also embedded in this word. It also has an echo of consciousness. The word ‘dalit’ makes one aware of a sense of responsibility, and not one of sympathy. It can then be said that along with communicating the meanings of the word ‘dalit’, the dalit discourse is also geared towards social change and transmission of a ‘dalit consciousnesses.’ (Ramachandra, 2003, p.179)

In this explication, the word dalit can be seen as the thought and theoretical principle on which the entire Dalit literature rests. Several authors have attempted to define it on the basis of the question “Who is a Dalit?” However, we believe that these definitions do not merit a recapitulation here. All that we require to recollect at this point is that a Dalit is one who has suffered dalan and daman, oppression and victimization; one who has been suppressed; one who has been oppressed; one who has been exploited; one who is on the margins of society;  one who is considered abhorrent; one whose human rights have been denied. Other than this, the social class which has been called “Scheduled Caste” in the Indian Constitution is mainly included in this category.

In India, brahmanical ideology and state power have been in alliance for centuries, on account of which the lower castes have been oppressed. The Manuwadi (based on the prescriptions of Manu) social order had strongly snared the lower castes in its tentacles and state power had always lent its support in this act. Even today, there are many political groups in power who support such a Manuwadi social order. However, whenever the alliance between the Manuwadi ideology and state power has weakened, the jatis considered inferior have experienced a new political consciousness, and they have spoken for their independence, equality, and rights. The rise of the niraguna saint poets (coinciding with the arrival of Muslims) from the jatis deemed inferior, and the emergence of thinkers such as Jyotiba Phule and Dr. Ambedkar after the arrival of the English can be considered as good instances of this phenomenon where the Dalits have experienced an awakening.

The British made an important contribution to the form in which the Dalit consciousness presents itself today. Shukla (2013, p. 39) opined that the Bhakti movement arose because of the arrival of Muslims; we believe that the Dalit movement arose because of the arrival of the British. This however does not mean that there was no Dalit consciousness before this. The consciousness was surely there. However, the opportunity to grow and spread became available only after the arrival of the British in India, when the doors of education and knowledge were opened for the jatis considered inferior. This made them aware of their ancient history, and oppression. The emergence of thinkers such as Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule and Dr. Ambedkar became possible only because they could access education, and the Dalit consciousness spread as a consequence of their thinking, and spread in the form of a movement. Along with the development of Dalit consciousness and Dalit movement, Dalit literature also developed at the same time.

Buddha, Sarahapa, Kabir, Ravidas, Guru Ghasidas, Jyotiba Phule, Narayan Guru, Periyar Naicker, Mangu Ram Ji, Swami Achhootananda, Chaand Guru, Hira Dom, Dr. Ambedkar; this is the tradition of Dalit thinkers from whom Dalit movement, Dalit politics, and Dalit literature acquired an ideology and built independent theoretical principles of its own.

Budha’s thoughts were developed by saint poets, among whom were several Dalit poets and the foremost among them was Sarahapa. Buddhism lays great emphasis on equality and logic and this is what Dalit literature has foregrounded. Saint poets rejected the existence of God as well as the Soul, which also forms a major pivot of Dalit consciousness.

Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule together undertook several very important tasks for the emancipation of Dalits and women. In 1848 CE, they started a school for women. Then in 1873 CE, came Jyotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri, which helped Dalits become aware of their oppression. For such undertakings, they had to face much hardship and opposition, and despite not being untouchable themselves, they were treated as such. Narayan Guru gave the clarion call of “One Caste, One Religion, One God”. Mangu Ram Ji popularized “Ad Dharm” in the Punjab. Swami Achhootananda published many magazines and launched the Ancient Hindu Movement. Chaand Guru launched a movement to eradicate the word chandal, and inaugurated the “Matua Mahasangha”.

It is in this chain of thinkers that we recognize Dr. Ambedkar, who imbibed the most significant aspects and principles of the Dalit tradition and presented them in their contemporaneous form. He laid great emphasis on education, equality and independence. In 1956, he abandoned Hinduism based on oppression and the varna system, and converted to Buddhism, a religion based on equality, independence, and scientific thought. He took 22 sacred vows while converting; vows that have an important place in the Dalit consciousness, and permeated Dalit literature, thus contributing to the building up of the theoretical principle of Dalit literature.

It is necessary to cite the significations of the word “Dalit” and the tradition of Dalit thinkers because this is where Dalit literature draws its ideology and energy from. There is a general consensus that the prime source of the energy of Dalit consciousness is the life of Dr. Ambedkar. On this basis, Om Prakash Valmiki (2008, p. 31) has drawn up a list of the main postulates of Dalit consciousness. These postulates hold a significant position within Dalit literature. They are:

1. Acknowledging Dr. Ambedkar’s philosophy on questions of liberty and independence.

2. Buddha’s atheism, rejection of Soul, scientific temper, and his opposition to pietism and ritualism.

3. Opposition to varna system, caste discrimination, and communalism.

4. Support to fraternity and not to separatism.

5. Support to freedom and social justice.

6. Commitment to social change.

7. Opposition to capitalism.

8. Opposition to feudalism and brahminism.

9. Opposition to hero worship.

10. Disagreement with Ramchandra Shukla’s definition of epic.

11. Opposition to traditional aesthetics.

12. Support to varna-less and classless society.

13. Opposition to linguistic and gender chauvinism.

Shukla (2013, p. xxviii) opined, “Literature is the collective reflection of the ideology of the people.” Therefore, as these postulates permeated the ideology of Dalit thinkers and writers, they also found a significant place in Dalit literature. Denial of the existence of God, opposition to varna system, support to freedom and equality, and opposition to feudalism and capitalism; these concerns have been foregrounded in Dalit literature. Om Prakash Valmiki acknowledges this fact and writes:  

A new consciousness was instilled among Dalits by the life struggle of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. It would be more appropriate to call it the consciousness of liberation struggle. The same consciousness, with its serious concerns for Freedom and Independence, then becomes an inspiration for writing and is reflected in Dalit literature. Questions that concern Dalit literature include atheism, denial of Soul, scientific temper, opposition to pietism and ritualism, support to social justice, opposition to varna system, opposition to feudalism, opposition to capitalism and free market, opposition to communalism, and opposition to cultism. (Valmiki, 2002, p.52-53)

The key points that Valmiki has highlighted are precisely the theoretical underpinnings of Dalit literature, and can be postulated as under:

  • Dalit literature is a literature of suffering.
  • There is rejection and rebellion in Dalit literature.
  • Dalit literature is based on self-realization.
  • Dalit literature carries social commitment.
  • Dalit literature reposes no belief in God or Soul.
  • Dalit literature supports scientific temper, and opposes pietism and ritualism.
  • Dalit literature advocates equality, independence, and rights.
  • Dalit literature opposes feudalism, capitalism and free market.
  • Dalit literature rejects the appreciation of literature based on Sanskritic and Western poetics.
  • Dalit literature stands in opposition to brahminism and varna system.

The theoretical principles of Dalit literature were built on a combination of these characteristic features. It may be pertinent to discuss these postulates at length.

The agony that the Dalit castes suffered for thousands of years was revealed to us only through Dalit literature; it manifests itself clearly in its poetry and autobiographies. This agony is neither of one person nor of one year; it is of thousands of people over centuries, which is why this agony comes before us as being that of a society. The rejection and rebellion that mark Dalit literature are also consequent upon this suffering and oppression. In fact the experience of living in such an oppressive tradition is what has been elaborated upon in Dalit literature and has given rise to questions of empathy and self-realization found within the literature. How is it possible for anyone to acquire a feel of the life that Dalits have lived for thousands of years?

Dalit literature is the literature of social commitment. Its main objectives are equality, independence and the establishment of a social order free of oppression. Elements of revenge and violence do not figure in Dalit literature. It stands in firm opposition to theism and belief in the Soul, and this is abundantly clear in Dalit poetry, short stories, and autobiographies. In “Tumhari Gaurav Gatha” [“The Tale of Your Glory”], Om Prakash Valmiki (2013, p. 28) writes,

            Why does the deity not awaken,

            after it is anointed?

            Why does the deity stay fixed,

            when it is witness to hunger and cruelty?

            How much milk have you poured in drains,

            having snatched it from the mouths of hungry children?

Similarly, Dalit literature opposes religious ritualism and displays of piety. It stands in opposition to all such rituals of Hinduism which are rooted in oppression. In his poem “Asthi Visarjan” [“Immersing the Ashes], Valmiki writes,

I have decided not to bathe in such a Ganga

where the vulture-eyed priest

locks his eyes

upon the coins and rupees

kept among the ashes.

To swoop down,

even before they are immersed. (Thorat and Badtya, 2008, p. 32)

Just as it opposes religious ritualism, Dalit literature also opposes brahminism. We can read this in Malkhan Singh’s “Suno brahman” [“Listen, you Brahmin!”]. He writes,

            The journey of our slavery

            begins at your birth.

            So will be its end,

            when  you meet your end. (Thorat and Badtya, 2008, p. 29)

We read such opposition to God, Soul, brahminism, and religious ritualism in Om Prakash Valmiki’s stories too. Situating itself in opposition to all such established systems, Dalit literature speaks of equality which lies at the foundation of Dalit literature.

Dalit literature also rejects the critical tools and theories of Hindi literature which are derived from Sanskrit and Western poetics. Om Pakash Valmiki avers,

The aesthetics of Hindi literature are based on Sanskrit and Western aesthetics. Thus, their critical yardsticks prove incapable of appreciating Dalit literature. The foundational roots of Sanskrit literature are feudal and brahmanical worldviews. Similarly, the aesthetic perspective of Western literature is also capitalistic and feudal. (Valmiki, 2008, p.45)

Therefore, it is required that we create new critical standards for appreciating Dalit literature, the worldviews of which are neither feudal nor capitalistic. Only a worldview rooted in equality can inform critical perspectives to appreciate Dalit literature.

To conclude, it may be stated that the long tradition of Dalit thinkers, taken together with Dr. Ambedkar’s influence awoke a new consciousness among Dalits. It is this consciousness that informs Dalit literature, and is now revealed to us as the theoretical principle of Dalit literature. This theory of Dalit literature inaugurates an era of democracy in Hindi literature by according Dalit writings their rightful place, which had been hitherto ignored.

[Translations of all quotations from Hindi sources to English by Vikas Jain.]


Ramchandra.  (2003). Hindi dalit vimarsh ki vaicharikta [The conceptualization of Hindi dalit discourse]. In Devendra Chaubey (Ed.), Sahitya ka naya soundaryashastra [The new aesthetic of literature]. Delhi: Kitabghar Prakashan.

Shukla, A. R. (2013 [First pub. 2002]). Hindi sahitya ka itihas [A history of Hindi literature]. Allahabad: Lokbharati  Prakashan.

Thorat, V. & Badtya, S. (2008). Bharatiya dalit sahitya ka vidrohi svar [The rebellious voice in Indian dalit literature]. Delhi and Jaipur: Rawat Publications.

Valmiki, O. P. (2002). Dalit chetna aur Hindi katha sahitya [Dalit consciousness and Hindi literature]. Samakaleen Janamat, October-December. 

Valmiki, O. P.  (2008). Dalit sahitya ka soundaryashastra [The aesthetics of dalit literature]. Delhi: Radhakrishna Prakashan.

Valmiki, O. P. (2013) Dalit sahitya: Anubhav, sangharsh evam yathart [Dalit literature: Experience, struggle and reality]. Delhi: Radhakrishna Prakashan.


Vikas Singh teaches Sanskrit at Zakir Husain Delhi College (Evening), University of Delhi.  He has authored numerous research articles, along with a book Milind Panha mein Bharatiya Sanskriti [Indian Culture in Milind Panha]. 



Vikas Jain is a Delhi based scholar and translator, and teaches English at Zakir Husain Delhi College (Evening), University of Delhi. He has published research articles on the theory and practice of translation, and social media.