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Making Visible the Invisible Dalit – A Study through Dalit Literature

Week 3 of the Spring Term will feature Divya Rao on “Making Visible the Invisible Dalit – A Study through Dalit Literature”.


The dalits (formerly the persecuted ‘untouchables’ in the Indian caste system) account for about a quarter of India’s billion-plus population, and are also significantly located throughout South Asia. Yet, their invisibility within mainstream arenas (of political office, cultural legitimacy, linguistic presence, historical apperception, and economic empowerment) is disconcertingly conspicuous. One of the reasons for said invisibility, my research identifies, owes to the problems and politics involved in representation itself of any marginalised group within the postcolonial nation-state. I explore this dilemma of representation through the lens of South Asian dalit literature, traversing the literary to deliberate on the political. Postcolonial discourse typically views adversely representations of the oppressed subaltern (such as the dalit) by the relatively empowered intellectual. Its preoccupations with the politics of who represents whom, why and how, while unarguably vital, invariably stagnate at suspicion or rejection when an intellectual extraneous to the subaltern class represents the subaltern. The resultant, worryingly dogmatic notion within discourse is that the subaltern is always-already muted and disempowered by the privileged intellectual who, coercively or non-coercively, speaks of/for them. The status-quo of the invisible subaltern, it follows, remains unchanged despite representation. In contrast, with relation to the dalits, my research suggests the possibility of an alternative, constructive model of representational practice – participatory, collaborative, non-coercive. The implications of such an affirmative dimension to representation, I anticipate, uphold an unmooring of the dalits’ muteness, making visible their hitherto invisibility. In turn, this would offer avenues to re-imagine dalit apperceptions and identity; a project that is long overdue in re-imagining South Asian cultures, nationalisms, and historiography in the twenty-first century. ​