Of Ploughmen and Drummers: Dalit Consciousness in Nepali-Language Literature
The word dalit, whose dictionary definition is ‘broken’, or ‘oppressed’, is the term most commonly used in contemporary South Asian discourse to denote members of a range of originally artisanal castes who have embarked upon a struggle against historic oppression and discrimination. Dalits number approximately 3.5 million in Nepal, constituting 13.22% of the total population, according to the 2011 census. Despite huge social and political change over the past 60 years or so, Dalits remain at the very bottom of Nepali society in terms of all key development indicators and continue to face discrimination, exclusion and violence, both direct and structural. The under-representation of Dalits in Nepali-language literature until the late 20th century—both as the subjects of texts and the authors of texts—is very striking. The category of Nepali-language writing now widely referred to as dalit sahitya only began to emerge after 1990, and little has been written about it in English; my research is designed to fill this lacuna.
My paper will be based upon extensive readings of Dalit Literature and conversations and interviews with a wide range of writers and intellectuals, mostly from Dalit backgrounds, in Kathmandu, Karnali and Sudur Pashchim, in 2022.
Paper outline I will produce an overview of the history of writing about and by Dalits and then introduce a chronologically-ordered selection of Nepali-language texts (primarily poetry and fiction) in which Dalit characters and Dalit-related issues have been portrayed, written between about 1935 and the present day by both Dalits and non-Dalits. I will then define and contextualise the concept of Dalit Consciousness (dalit chetana) that first arose in an Indian context and has now spread to Nepal, and trace the development of this dalit chetana within these texts.