By Kushal Choudhary
Moving into the 20th century, industrialisation in the United Provinces, now the regions of northern India, was the massive force that called for large scale migration of subalterns into cities looking for work in factories, better healthcare and education.
In these new spaces of employment and occupation, the Dalit communities like the chamar, bhangi and dom people tried to find new opportunities relative to what was offered to them in the villages. What they found, unfortunately, was that there too, caste ensured that they were limited to the menial lowly work of domestic servants, sweeping, leather work, and similar occupations. Fair education remained a far-fetched dream as schools still practiced untouchability and were wrought with divisions based on caste hierarchy. This paradox of modernity, that is the liberation from the chains of caste-occupations in villages but insufficient progress in the upliftment even through the modern towns, was a feature of Dalit lives in the new century. These experiences found representation in the practices of the Dalit mohallas and bastis that lived in the various towns of United Provinces.
Against such a backdrop, the Nirgun Bhakti tradition was revived by urban Dalit migrants.
The tradition of Nirgun Bhakti in North India, or devotion for a formless, attribute-less god comprising the famous saints such as Kabir, Ravidas, Nanak and Pipa was an older anti-caste tradition of the 15th through 16th centuries. The Bhakti saints, through their bardship and poetry, are remembered as saints that questioned a hegemonic Hindu order, caste, and the absolute right of Brahmins over rituals and worship of god. While the Brahmanical order discriminated against the Dalits and other oppressed castes over centuries, these saints proposed that the formless (nirgun), perfect God they worshipped could never allow such discrimination. It can be said that the whole Bhakti movement in North India through the 15th and-16th centuries , was largely a Dalit-Bahujan counter-hegemonic culture where many lower-castes would find solace and a sense of respect for their own identities, identities that had have been compromised by Brahminism.
Fast-forward to the 20th century and Dalit and ‘lower’-caste migrants revitalized Bhakti and began to build more temples dedicated to Bhakti saints like Kabir and Ravidas, and a Dalit culture of selfhood and spirituality was cultivated. This resurgence of Bhakti was also accompanied by the new politics of Adi-Hinduism.
Started by few literate Dalits, the Adi-Hindu movement was formulated to be a discourse of reclaiming Dalit voices, where they speak on their own terms, for themselves. It was an indigeneity movement that raised the position of the Dalits in the history of Indian subcontinent. It claimed that the sections of the population termed by Brahmanical texts as the shudras, dasas, asuras were, in fact, the original Hindus, before Aryans, who had, over many centuries, been ousted from their own tradition. The movement claimed that the tradition of Bhakti egalitarianism had been the original existing tradition and that it had been replaced by hegemonic Brahminism by the Aryans. Thus they spoke of this old and original Adi-Hindu civilisation, comprising the Dalits and other ‘lower’ castes, were subjugated by Brahmanical conquest.
In defining such a history for political activism in the 20th century, a racial origin of the Dalits that is pre-Aryan is merged with the counter-hegemonic tradition of Bhakti that paves the way for a new Dalit ideology.
The founder and most prominent leader of the Adi-Hindu movement, Swami Acchhutanand was a personality belonging to the new urban spaces and its realities for the Dalits. He founded the Adi-Hindu Mahasabha in Etawah, a city on the banks of the Yamuna river in now western UP, in early 1920s with support from over 25,000 Dalits of that region. He also established a Adi-Hindu Press that published books and pamphlets pertaining to the Nirgun Bhakti tradition and the history of Adi-Hindu civilisation.
Crucially, the movement was also a considerable challenge to the nationalist non-cooperation movement of the Indian National Congress, asserting the fact that the British rule was of great benefit for the downtrodden lower castes. The movement demanded that the political rights of the Dalits be recognised by the British government, which was not talked about by nationalists. In knowing this it is important to understand the context in which the realities of the Dalits escaped nationalist ideals for a free-India and hence the Dalits had to fight for their own rights, against nationalist superficiality that couldn’t encompass minorities and their plight. But the Adi- Hindu movement asserted that there is no freedom for the lower-castes in a caste-Hindu devised nation and Independence.
Through their literary and political activism, the Adi-Hindu movement moved towards devising a separate Dalit identity, an achhut identity. The word achhut was used in poems and songs by the Bhakti saints of 15th-16th centuries, to mean pure/untouched/unchanging and often directly denoted the nirgun (formless) God. The movement too, using this meaning, asserted an achhut identity as a pure, original (Adi) inhabitant identity that can radically overcome the humiliation and discrimination. The word acchut is now being used to denote only ‘untouchable’ and can today be considered derogatory but crucially, that was not the original intent. The word achhut always meant ‘untouched, pure, undefiled’, an adjective, as can be still be evidenced from various Hindi dictionaries of that time and several literary examples of its usage in the public sphere.
The Adi-Hindu usage of acchut also attempted to unite diverse jatis under a new identity, which can be seen in the many conferences of the Mahasabha with the assertion of achhut identity and also in its follow-up federation, the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) in UP in the 1940s.
The pejorative use of this term in our time can be understood when we see that the Hindi literary and cultural-public space, voiced by upper-castes and Arya Samajists, insensitively attached the word achhut over time to be equal to the terms such as asprishya jati (out-caste) or nichi jati (low-caste). Regardless, such a use in anti-caste tradition is yet another strong example of a historical counter-hegemony that is spread not only over decades, but also over centuries. In this unique scenario in history, the spiritual tradition worked in an interplay with modern political and literary activism to give birth to a liberatory identity of the achhut.
Kushal is an independent writer based in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh. He is interested in the history of traditional and modern cultures of India. You can reach them at their email: email@example.com or through twitter: @kushalpitfall
1. Genealogies of the Dalit political: The transformation of Achhut from ‘Untouched’ to ‘Untouchable’ in early twentieth-century north India — Ramnarayan Rawat, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 52, 3 (2015): 335–355
2. Evolution of Dalit Identity: History of Adi Hindu Movement in United Province (1900–1950) — Om Prakash Singh, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress , 2009–2010, Vol. 70 (2009–2010), pp. 574–585