Saturday, May 13, 2006

Literature : Dalits in Premchand's Stories

Premchand and his Dalit writings By V.B.Rawat

Premchand is one of the finest storywriter of India, whose writings are very much close to the grave realities of rural India, where caste and gender discriminations were rampant. He wrote at a period when Gandhiji was not only leading a decisive battle against the British Raj but also working on removal of untouchability and communal politics perpetrated by the Hindu Mahasabha as well as Muslim League.

Hindi literature was never as open to caste and gender inequalities as Premchand enriched it through his writings. Most of the writers like Pratap Narain Mishra, Ramchandra Shukla, Bhartendu Harishchandra and others came from upper caste background and rarely mentioned issue of discrimination in their subject. Prior to them, it was either bhakti, which dominated Hindi literature. There was rarely an issue of discrimination and biases in the Bhakti except for the strong voices of Kabir and Rahim. Both of them were systematically ousted and sidelined by the brahmanical kshatraps of literature despite their enormous popularity among the masses. Both Kabir and Rahim did not fit in Hindutva’s saffronisation process. Other than them, the authors were content with sophistry of Sanskritised Hindi though Bhartendu’s writings were linked to common man as he tried to instill ‘national pride’ in the form of growth of your own language and literature. Yet, Premachand was different from his generations of writers. May be one reason for that was his close linkage with Urdu. Most of the Urdu stalwarts those days were the outcome of glorious Ganga-Jamuni tehjib of United Province. In terms of Hindu Muslim relationship, there was not much difference. Muslim Zamindars and Hindu Talukdars were secular in their oppression towards the marginalized. Therefore, the authors and writers from this stream were more focused on communal amity and rarely raised the issue of feudalism and caste oppression. This secular class in Hindu and Muslim came from upper elite of Indian society. One reason for the growth of Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb was that Shia Nawabs who ruled India depended heavily on Hindu bureaucracy which was predominantly Kayastha. That was the reason that despite being Kayastha, Premchand understood the dynamics of communalism and came to be known as progressive writer. Later, the influence of Gandhi is found very well in all his writings. Yet, Premachand caste characters do not do justice to his narratives. Therefore, it would not be unfair to say that Premchand used stereotyped image of Dalits and day today idioms used against them in the Hindi heartland to strengthen the plots of his stories. In this way, rather than helping the cause he might well have hurt the issue of Dalits awakening in the Hindi heartland. The fact is that no Dalit awakening ever seems to matter for Premchand otherwise that would have been reflected in his writings.

No doubt credit should go to Premchand for bringing these issues in his popular writings yet they don’t make him a revolutionary writer. Many Dalit writers had complained about Premchand for being rhetorical and insensitive to Dalit issue and blamed him for lumpunisation of Dalit characters, particularly citing the example of his story ‘ Kafan’. Thereafter, many upper caste ‘experts’ joined in a dabate blaming the Dalits for being caste mind and ‘insulting’ an author who brought Dalit issue in Hindi literature. That might be true that Premchand brought Dalit’s character in Hindi writing but question here is in what form?

Time has changed and so has Dalit movement. There was a time when very few of the Dalit writers were involved in writings. Today, there is a new breed of Dalit writers challenging the upper caste mindset and their creations. In fact, writers like Om Prakash Valmiki and Suraj Pal Chauhan have challenged the brahmanical hegemony in story telling. It is a good sign of a vibrant Dalit writing, which was thoroughly absent from the Hindi heartland that new writers are emerging and so are new movement of different communities relating to their history, culture and assertion. Let me be clear here that Dalits writing has been very effective and powerful in Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Bangali. Great saints like Namdev, Tukaram, Ayankalli, Ayotidas, Ambedkar and at later stage likes of Daya Panwar, Namdev Dhasaal have made a solid name for them. It is ironical that in the Hindi heartland such things remained absent but after the political mainstreamification of Dalits in the form of Bahujan politics, a large number of new writers have up with their superb narratives and description. This shows that there is an ambition among them to come up and challenge the brahmanical hegemony.

There is no doubt about the fact that Premchand was a ‘progressive’ writer in Gandhian mould. He was growing when the country saw Gandhi becoming a ‘spiritual’ leader. There were very few who could understand the danger of Gandhi’s saffron underneath. Premchand was not among those who could sense a danger of ‘mahatamnisation’ and the hysteria that it was creating. In the Eastern Uttar-Pradesh when Gandhi visited, masses came to worship him. Gandhi was not a political leader but a spiritual leader and his saffron helped him create a hallo around him. A remarkable and insightful social analyst like Premchand should have seen the hollowness of such a bogus viewpoint. True, the Hindi heartland was never known for revolutionary politics yet it look rather immature if he had not heard of Baba Ramchandra Das and his peasant struggle in Avadh or fight of Swami Achhootananda for the dignity of the Dalits in United Provinces. When Gandhi was at the helm of our nation’s political affairs, Ambedkar was also rising on the horizon. The interaction between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of caste is still a subject of intense debate and no doubt about the fact that Gandhi comes out as deeply conservative orthodox Hindu lacking statesmanship. These debates were also published in Gandhi’s Harijan and Navjeevan. One does not know where Premchand stood on this. I am sure he must have been a faithful reader of these two papers that Gandhi brought out and conspicuously remained silent on the entire debate.

The debate in the Dalit circle was ‘whether Premchand should be called a Dalit writer or not. The fact is that Premchand cannot be termed as a Dalit writer, not because he was not born into a Dalit family. Some people might bring that criteria also but I am sure if one goes by Premchand’s writing, there is nothing specific which a Dalit could be proud of his writings. Premchand has used common idioms to project his view point. On certain occasions, he has tried to show ‘pity’ on a Dalit character yet no point his hero is a Dalit rebellion in true sense of Dalit revolt against the brahmanical hierarchy.

His stories always portrayed the Dalit stereotype. They were dirty, drunk and rustic. In ‘dono taraf se’ his portrayal of a marriage in the Pasi family of Manjhgaon is like this:
‘Today, there was a marriage in the Pasi family of Manjhgaon. I reached there. The Barat had come from far away. The Baratis were asking for liquor while the host had a big no for the same. The Baratis wanted that the women dance according to tradition with band.’

Another quote: ‘a woman who seemed belonged to a high class family said to another woman: Look at this Maharani. Her husband dine with Chamars and she has come here to purify herself.’ Clearly, indicates Premchand notion of high class.’ The lead hero of this story is a Brahmin and his social reform by sitting at Chamars house.

In his story ‘Saubhgya Ke Kode’, Premchand again showed inter caste marriage between a Dalit man who became ‘acharya, a teacher of theology, hiding his caste and a Brahmin girl. But this marriage is shown after the Dalit has virtually converted to upper caste philosophy. Even at the end the Acharya, who happen to be a Dalit, remain apologetic of hiding his caste from his wife Ratna, who was a Brahmin and yet married her. Perhaps, Premchand did not find anything positive in Dalit culture which could be shown as a history of Dalits. The fact of the matter is that Pasis ruled many parts of the state. Some of them had participated in freedom movement. In Chauri Chaura, a majority of those who sacrificed their lives were Pasis, Chamars and Muslims. There were very few Brahmins. It is strange that while Gandhi become hero of Chauri Chaura for his so called non violent struggle, the poor who lost their lives never got any mention in the writing of great people like Premchand.

His famous story “Mantra’ also end in victory of Sanatan Dharma over the forces of evil led by the Mullahs. He says that the Dalits converted to Islam because they did not find any respect in Hinduism and now since the upper caste priest has started sitting with the Dalits, the forces of conversion are no where. Again, the hero of this story is not a Dalit but a Brahmin whose heart changes once he see the threat of conversion. Premchand, therefore, does not find time to condemn the caste system. He only speak of violence against Dalits in a more superfluous way as Gandhian were known as. Rarely, he could be as strong against caste system as Rahul Sankrityayan who demolished the myth of brahmanical tolerance. Premchand’s Dalit are basically poor Harijans of Gandhi and upper castes have to involve them in their work. Premchand therefore write from an upper caste view point where the definition of a good man is who has change of heart, who is dining with the untouchables and visiting in their bustees. His revolt comes from the upper caste, who may take on his own caste men mildly though but rarely does his characters speak against caste system as such or brahmanical varna system.

It is not that Premchand was living in an isolated time. He might not have heard that much about Ambedkar in those days but definitely as a caste Hindu he, I am sure, must have heard of Vivekananda who x-rayed the brahmanical caste system and condemned the priest craft. India’s religion is don’t touchism, he said. While Premchand in Banarase might have been influenced with Gandhian philosophy, one of the contemporaries Rahul Sankrityayan revolted against the Varna system rejected the call ‘ return to Vedas’ and analyse excellently ‘tumhari Kshay’. But like Gandhi, Prem Chand cannot be called a revolutionary writer.

Critiques suggest that he was one of the doyens of the progressive writer’s movement in India led by the likes of Sajjad Jahir, Dr Mulk Raj Anand, Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I had the fortune to know Mulk Raj Anand from close quarters. Working with him over two and half years, I understood his humanism. At no point of time was Anand a religious man. He was a thorough rational. In 1927 he wrote his novel ‘Untouchable’ which was a landmark. The description of the untouchable boy Bakha in this novel is unparallel. Inspite of his often rhetorical remark of being a Gandhian, Anand was a progressive writer who had guts to challenge even Gandhian thoughts. He was one among those who never recited Ramdhun at Gandhi’s ashram. If writings on Dalits are concern, Mulk Raj Anand remained far ahead of Premchand and his contemporaries. His Bakha has faith in modern flush system and does not mince word in exposing brahmanical hypocrisy.

Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ remain one of the worst stories as far as sensitivities towards Dalits were concern. He made Chamars look as if all of them were ‘kamchors’. His Jamindar was a kind person but according to author ‘showing kindness to Ghisu, a chamar, was like painting a black blanket with black colour.’ Can a writer who we claim to be icon of Hindi writing be such insensitive and castiest in his approach ? Premchand comes out as a prejudiced upper caste man in this story. Thankfully, these stories are now history otherwise, Premchand would have faced strong protest from the Dalit awakening.

Clear enough, Premchand was either unaware of the strength of Dalit movement and various other reform movements during the independence struggle or he deliberately ignored them. His Dalit characters are totally at the mercy of the ‘kind’ hearted upper castes. The heroes of his story are the caste people who rarely questioned the caste system and glorified the ‘sanatan dharma’.

No doubt, as a story writer Premchand remain outstanding as he desanskritised the Hindi language. His stories comes close to common man as he understood the psyche of the people of his time very well. He tried his best to portray the conditions of Dalits and marginalized though to change the heart of ‘caste Hindus’. His writings were not meant to awaken the Dalit masses against their systematic institutional oppression. Premchand thoroughly failed in attacking the institution of depressing caste system. He could not see any radical changes of revolt against the Varna system among the Dalits. It is more ironical because among the many Dalit-backward communities, there have been jokes and myths against Brahmins and Varna system.

It would not serve any purpose for any one to suggest that Premchand was a Dalit writer or not. This entire debate is out of synch as Premchand cannot be called a writer who wrote for Dalits. His entire theme is totally Gandhian meant for upper caste Hindus. There is no justification in terming him a Dalit writer or a writer who wrote for Dalits. He is none. However, that does not take away the credit from Premchand for being a one of the greatest story teller of our time. If his stories are to be seen from the purpose of stories that can shake the heart of even a powerful upper caste, then he might be a successful story teller.

Fifty years after our independence, it is essential that we analyse our so-called reformers, writers and historians. PremChand should be analysed like any other writer. Modern Dalit writers and analyst have a right to explode the myth build around Premchand. Any analysis of writings has to be based on the quality of his writings and not based on their birth. Premchand’s caste or religion therefore should not have any concern when we analyse his writings. Those who analyse Premchand out of his caste must realize that they also have a caste and if they write as per caste, twenty years later, their writings are also going to have the same scrutiny by their own caste men as they are doing to Premchand. However, scrutiny of a legend should not be termed as an offense. We must analyse our past and learn from it. Those who condemn the Dalit writers for questioning Premchand are the same who do not want to question Gandhi despite his mistakes. Such tendencies take us to fascist thought and action where every dissent is considered as blasphemous. Prem Chand is a legendary writer yet not beyond question. Given his mastery over subject, he could definitely have done much better. Some of the upper caste commentators have said why Dalit writers expect too much from Premchand. Unfortunately, that does not make a good commentary because it present them in poor light that they are afraid of constructive criticism. Nobody is bothered about what an author write. The problem rises when some one is imposed on an unwilling community as their ‘hero’ and ‘writer’. Both Gandhi as well as Premchand therefore cannot be termed as persons who brought pride and honor in the lives for Dalits. They had definite concern for them but did not have moral courage to question their faith and religion which was the fountainhead of this monumental blunder in the form of racial caste system. New generations of commentators as well as analysts have every right to question both of them and their writings. History is ultimately learning from the mistakes of our forefathers and not to accept whatever they wrote and said. That does not mean that we are being ungrateful to them. May be, it will give rise to new breed of intellectuals and writers who had the sagacity to stand up and challenge the status quo without minding getting published or not, even with the fear of facing a boycott from those in power. How can one call himself a creative person or an author or a critique if he or she is not a dissenter and cannot defend dissent despite being in disagreement with the same? Criticism of Gandhi and Premchand has to be taken in that spirit.

May 13, 2006