Dalit Writings and the Critique of the Mainstream Public Sphere

Nisha Mariveetil, University of Calicut, Kerala
W. S. Kottiswari, University of Calicut, Kerala

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Dalit writings from India have been read as trauma narratives. They have also been treated as “cultural apparatuses” of the human rights discourse. This paper proceeds with these two approaches to Dalit writings and shows how they have contributed to the strengthening of what Nancy Fraser (1990) has termed the “subaltern counter- public.” This would be done by showing how writers highlight the presence of a “dysfunctional” public sphere by writing about the experiences of dalits. Through articulating about this “dysfunction,” dalit writings align themselves with a literary counter public print sphere which in turn strengthens the discourse of the “subaltern counter public.”

Keywords: Dalit writings, public sphere, human rights, subaltern counter public


What are the implications of the publication and circulation of Dalit Writings from India? A huge corpus of criticism has emerged in relation to Dalit Writings ranging from the demand for “alternate” aesthetics, to treating them as discourses on Human Rights violations. Contemporary scholarship on human rights has highlighted that it is not enough to focus on the legal or the juridical language of human rights alone to gain a better understanding of human rights violations. Instead, it requires a “cultural apparatus” which may include literary forms also (Mc Clennan & Slaughter, 2009, p.1).Mc Clennan and Slaughter have also pointed out how critical attention has been directed to literary forms of writing which can supplant the human rights discourse like the spy novel in the context of post 9/11(p.13), the relationship between sentimental novel and human rights as explained by Sarah Winters (p.15). Following Sidonie Smith, Kay Schaffer, Ron Eyerman and Jeffrey C Alexander, Pramod K Nayar has treated Dalit Writings as trauma narratives and established their connection to the Human Rights discourse. He has shown how “newspaper coverage, documentation of violations” (Nayar, 2009, p.1), victim life narratives all constitute the “cultural apparatus” of human rights discourse. This paper takes off from this juncture and attempts to show that dalit writings, by articulating about gross violations, have strengthened what Nancy Fraser (1990) has termed “subaltern counter public.” The paper achieves this by examining certain themes that constantly appear and reappear in Dalit Writings, linking these themes to the “dysfunction” of the public sphere.

“Subaltern Counter Publics” according to Nancy Fraser are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated groups invent and circulate counter discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretation of their identities, interests and needs” (1990, p. 67). In this essay, Fraser points out the desirability of several counter publics that compete with each other because it “means a widening of discursive contestation” (p.67). The inability of the mainstream public sphere to cater to the “public” makes it a dysfunctional public sphere. Through grouping themselves under a subaltern counter-public, dalit writings create a platform from whence the mainstream public sphere can be critiqued. Dalit Writings have been treated here as a literary counter-public which is a part of the subaltern counter-public.

The paper limits the choice of Dalit Writings to two genres namely that of the autobiography and the fiction. It is presumed that these two genres are able to incorporate a plethora of “voices” which are very essential for any critique of the public sphere. Additionally, the genres of autobiography and novel have been the most utilized and the most translated genres in Dalit writing. Autobiography as an elite genre was appropriated by dalits to suit their needs. Autobiography became an important genre in Dalit writing because it could be used to contextualise the lives of Dalits in the larger socio historical process. Individuals through their life stories were able to raise voices for the muted. Studies have demonstrated how the narration in dalit autobiographies is similar to the Latin American testimonio due to the shift between the “I” and the “we.” Being able to accommodate a plethora of voices within a single text, the dalit autobiography provides the scope for poly-vocality. Studies like that by Joseph Slaughter have linked the notion of public sphere and human rights through the genre of the novel. According to him, the realist novel is the “predominant narrative form that abstracts and regulates the communicative social relations of the national public sphere” (2007, p.155). As Edward Said observes, it also provides the bourgeois reading public a sense of the limits of their aspirations and the possibilities of their growth in the nation (1993, cited in Slaughter, 2007, p.156).Thus, Slaughter argues that the choice of the novel explored the “possibilities of and boundaries of emancipation of the individual in the new political formation of the rights-bound nation state” (2007, p.156). Instead of being conventional realist novels, dalit novels explore how the public sphere in the nation state occasioned what Slaughter terms as “systemic exclusions” (2007, p.156), yet by the exercise of the choice of the novel sought to expand the notion of the public sphere…Full Text PDF

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