Let the voices of the oppressed be heard – KTU published the first Bengali Dalit book in Lithuania

Important | 2024-04-29

“As per the Indian Constitution, the practice of Untouchability in any form is forbidden. Yet, unfortunately, caste-based discrimination is still prevalent in India,” says Dr Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis, an Assistant Professor at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) in Lithuania.

In a recently published book, she introduces Bengali Dalit literature (Dalit, previously known as the Untouchable, is the lowest caste in India), a literary phenomenon not many are familiar with. The book, edited by Chakraborty Paunksnis and published by KTU’s publishing house Technologija, includes four plays in translation by a Bengali Dalit author Raju Das, two interviews with Raju Das and Namita Das, and an introduction by the editor.

According to Chakraborty Paunksnis, a researcher at KTU’s Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, the book “Trauma, Protest, Transcendence: Voice of a Bengali Dalit Playwright” is relevant to readers anywhere in the world who wish to build resistance to oppression. She believes that the issues discussed in the book are topical today.

“The readers will not only come to know about the caste system and its complex manifestations in contemporary India, but they will also be able to familiarise themselves with the nuances of Dalit literature. This book demonstrates how structures of oppression operate through such intersecting social axes as caste, class and gender, and it also upholds the resilient voices of protest against forces of discrimination and violence,” says KTU scholar Chakraborty Paunksnis.

Paunksnis KTU
Dr Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis, Associate Professor at the KTU Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities

One of a few existing translations of Bengali Dalit literature

Chakraborty Paunksnis became interested in Bengali Dalit literature while pursuing her MPhil degree in Women’s Studies. While preparing her dissertation, she had the opportunity to meet many Bengali Dalit writers. After relocating to Lithuania, in 2017, she continued her research on Dalit literature. In 2021, a translated version of her essay on the topic was published in the Lithuanian literary magazine Nemunas.

“I received some positive feedback, and this incident inspired me to take up the endeavour of publishing a book on Bengali Dalit plays in Lithuania. I was particularly interested in bringing out an anthology of Bengali Dalit plays since they have hardly been translated into English,” says Chakraborty Paunksnis.

For the first in Lithuania anthology of Dalit literature, she chose Raju Das’s work, who has been writing, directing and acting his plays for decades.

First in Lithuania Bengali Dalit anthology includes four plays in translation by a Bengali Dalit author Raju Das

Both he and his wife (Namita Das) are veteran Dalit activists.

Although traces of Dalit literary consciousness can be found in earlier times, yet Dalit literature, as a phenomenon, emerged around the 1970s. Since then, Marathi and Hindi Dalit literature have secured their places in the mainstream literary discourse. However, Bengali Dalit literature did not receive mainstream attention until the 1990s.

“The delayed emergence of Bengali Dalit literature owes to several socio-political factors, including the Partition of India in 1947. However, a form of Dalit consciousness was present in Bengal’s socio-cultural milieu during the colonial era. Hence, it is possible to argue that the roots of Bengali Dalit literature are extended far deeper in history, though, as a genre, it has emerged much later,” explains Chakraborty Paunksnis.

In today’s India, to be born as “untouchable” is still an agonising experience

The word “Dalit” is derived from the Sanskrit root “dal” which means to crack open, split, crush, grind and it forcefully expresses the oppressed status of the Untouchables in Indian society. In mainstream literature, one may find fictional accounts of Dalit life – one such example being the Booker-winning novel “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy. However, some scholars believe that high-caste authors cannot produce “authentic” accounts of Dalit lives since they do not possess the lived experience.

Chakraborty Paunksnis is critical of this claim. She believes that the important element that a writer of Dalit literature should possess is Dalit consciousness, i.e. being aware of the Brahmanical politics of caste-based discrimination and opposing the caste-induced deprivation of human rights.

“While it is true that a minute and intimate description of Dalit life cannot be presented by an author who is located outside the ambit of Dalit experiences, it is also equally true that the caste identity that is acquired at birth cannot be the sole criterion to determine who can/cannot produce Dalit literature. Caste-at-birth, alone, cannot vindicate the presence/absence of Dalit consciousness,” says the editor of “Trauma, Protest, Transcendence: Voice of a Bengali Dalit Playwright”, published by KTU.

Dalit literature
The book launch at the University of Calcutta, India

As a scholar, she believes it is crucial to analyse the nuances of identity politics and evaluate the necessity of initiating this debate in contemporary India’s socio-political context. Although the practice of Untouchability is forbidden by Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, caste-based discrimination is still present.

“Untouchability may not be as pervasive in today’s India as it was in earlier times, but low-caste communities are still denied their rights and dignity. Incidents of atrocity against the Dalits are also escalating at an alarming rate. Hence, to be born as an “Untouchable” will continue to be an agonising experience unless the caste system is completely demolished,” says Chakraborty Paunksnis.

Opposing discrimination – the only way forward

Although diverse, the four plays featured in the anthology, possess a common theme – the revolutionary consciousness of a Dalit subject.

“Although the plays are very diverse in terms of their settings, they unequivocally employ the rhetoric of resistance. Besides, these plays represent different periods; hence, the readers can also comprehend the entrenched nature of the caste system and its continuity in Indian society for centuries,” explains Chakraborty Paunksnis, a translator of one of the plays and the author of the book’s Introduction.

Human civilisations are guilty of marginalising certain communities based on their birth, sex, occupation or physical features. According to Chakraborty Paunksnis, historical data shows that the practice of untouchability similar to the one found in the caste system, was also prevalent in Europe.

One may argue that nowadays, in certain societies, class, as a social category, also indicates a status hierarchy. However, an individual’s belonging to a certain caste is ritual-based and hereditary, i.e. fixed and perpetual.

“This indelibility of caste makes it distinctly separate from class since the caste-ascribed identity cannot be altered despite an individual’s class mobility,” explains Chakraborty Paunksnis.

According to her, the oppositional consciousness is required to outgrow such situations – one must be informed about the origin, history and nature of the caste system, to understand why this system was constructed and how it is being perpetuated.

“While the existence of caste discrimination among the Indian diaspora is a highly debated topic, there are instances (e.g. the United States) where attempts are being made to bring caste-based discrimination within the legal framework of the country. Building resistance to diverse forms of discrimination is required to make our world a better place,” says Dr Runa Chakraborty Paunksnis, an Assistant Professor in KTU’s Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.

The anthology of Dalit literature, edited by Chakraborty-Paunksnis and published by KTU is one of the means to promote the message of equal opportunity and inclusivity. The book is available online.