ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Politics of Difference: Reflections on Dalit and African American Struggles

This paper tries to prize away the notion of difference from the rather impoverished sense of diversity and explores how this concept is used by subaltern groups struggling against the hierarchical ordering of social, political and economic power. It argues that the subaltern foregrounding of difference is not a politics that flows from cultural essentialism, but rather a culture that emerges from attempts to work out an alternative political future. The article, with cross-continental comparisons, attempts to extend and deepen our investigations of subalternity, and to return more sharply to the question that feminist and other oppositional movements have raised - how can modern societies and states take account of, and live with, difference?


Politics of Difference: Reflections on Dalit and African American Struggles

Gyanendra Pandey

This paper tries to prize away the notion of difference from the rather impoverished sense of diversity and explores how this concept is used by subaltern groups struggling against the hierarchical ordering of social, political and economic power. It argues that the subaltern foregrounding of difference is not a politics that flows from cultural essentialism, but rather a culture that emerges from attempts to work out an alternative political future. The article, with cross-continental comparisons, attempts to extend and deepen our investigations of subalternity, and to return more sharply to the question that feminist and other oppositional movements have raised – how can modern societies and states take account of, and live with, difference?

Gyanendra Pandey ( teaches history at Emory University, the United States.

n a recently published anthology, entitled Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA,1 some colleagues and I have attempted to re/affirm and radicalise the notion of “subalternity” by underlining that the condition is always negotiated (just as “belonging” is always differentiated); stressing again that it is not organised along a single axis, such as that of the economy, and insisting on the relevance of the concept to advanced liberal democracies and bourgeois societies in our day, no less than to the so-called developing and underdeveloped countries of the third world or to pre-industrial and premodern times. What I want to do here is to re-examine the idea of “difference”, in order to extend and deepen our investigations of subalternity, and to return more sharply to the question that feminist and other oppositional movements have raised, of how modern societies and states can take account of, and live with, difference.

In undertaking this task, it will help to prize away the notion of difference from the rather impoverished sense of diversity, of segments or minorities revolving around a centre (usually the n ation state), a move that assumes that the structure of society, the social organisation and range of political possibilities is always given from the start. I want to trouble this assumption in two ways. The first, which I hope will be readily conceded, is to recognise that difference is by definition manifold and fluid. Like subalternity, only perhaps more obviously so, the idea of difference cannot be thought or organised along a single (say, cultural or biological) axis. Distributed along multiple grids, it comes in i nnumerable forms, appearing differently in different places: malleable, evolving elements and tendencies that come into view and disappear, change, coalesce and reappear, in other forms, amid other networks, in other contexts. Thus, the idea of difference signals fundamentally, and importantly, a history and p olitics of becoming – not of the already normalised, stable and relatively immutable.

Second, I will relate the issue of difference – conceived of commonly as “deviance”, or discrepant “minority”, and in any event involving the pronouncement of radical alterity, allegedly based on natural (biological) dissimilarity or long-established and deeply rooted conditions of apartness (as in man versus woman, black versus white, African or Oriental against European, Hindu versus Muslim, Christian as against Jew, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans-sexuals as against heterosexuals) – to that of subalternity, i e, articulations of dominance and subordination, and the hierarchical ordering of social, political and economic power.

Historians and other social scientists have in recent years generated significant research and debate around the ideas of

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

s ubalternity and difference. In the main, however, work around these concepts has led to two different, one might even say a utonomous, narratives – one concerned ostensibly and primarily with subalternity, the other with difference. The most unexpected example of this split, in my view, may be the discourse on African Americans in the United States of America (USA), where the history of one and the same individual body, and a social assemblage identified as “black”, repeatedly tends to get channelled into several distinct streams – the history of the African American freedom movement, the black women’s struggle, labour history – with the call for intersectional analysis being put forward c onsistently only in the writing on the women’s movement.

I am not suggesting that scholars of African American history and politics have not written about several of these issues together. On the contrary, Darlene Clarke Hines, Jacqueline Jones, Nell Painter, Stephanie Shaw, Steve Hahn, Robin Kelley, Barbara Fields, Leslie Harris and many others have sought in different ways to breakdown the divisions that seem to arise between h istories of race, class and gender. Simone de Beauvoir famously pursued the twin questions of “otherness” and “subordination” in her inquiry into the category of woman. Sander Gilman has w ritten of how blackness and Jewishness feed on each other in defining the qualities of their difference. Gayatri Spivak has, in her extensive writings on feminist difference and gendered s ubalternity, always insisted on the intimate connection between the two.2

The difficulty is that, in much historical and contemporary p olitical analysis, one of these (say, race) gets reduced to another (class), or vice versa; and the history of the specific articulations of subalternity and difference disappears. Robin Kelley puts it well in making the point that “history from below” has had little impact on the study of African Americans. “There are those who might argue”, he says, “that all black history is ‘from below’, so to speak, since African Americans are primarily a working class population”. As a consequence, “Many scholars concerned with studying ‘race relations’ folded the black working class into a very limited and at times monolithic definition of the ‘black community’;” or, as Nell Painter has it, converted the black working class into “representative colored men”. For all the awareness about intersectionality, “the civil rights and women’s movements persist(ed) in keeping their agendas separate”, Jacqueline Jones noted in 1985.3 The relationship between pronouncements of subalternity and difference, and movements apparently based on these conditions, clearly needs closer investigation.

I suggested in my introduction to Subaltern Citizens and their Histories that the foregrounding of differences of gender, sexuality, caste, race, etc, at the hands of the state and the dominant classes, has long been a way of organising – and naturalising – subalternity. Thus:

Men are not ‘different’; it is women who are. Foreign colonisers are not ‘different’; the colonised are. Caste Hindus are not ‘different’ in India; it is Muslims, and ‘tribals’, and dalits who are. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (we should add: heterosexual) males are not ‘different’ in the US; at one time or another, everybody else is. White Australians are not ‘different’; Vietnamese boat people, and Fijian migrants to Australia, and, astonishingly, Australian Aboriginals are.

Difference becomes a mark of the subordinated or subalternised, measured as it is against the purported mainstream,

Economic & Political Weekly

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

the standard or the normal. What we are presented with are two terms in binary opposition, “hierarchically structured so that the dominant term is accorded both temporal and logical priority”.4 It is in the attribution of difference, then, that the logic of dominance and subordination has commonly found expression. The proclamation of difference becomes a way of legitimating and reinforcing existing relations of power.

What the disadvantaged, the marginalised and the subordinated – women, blacks, dalits, sexual minorities, conquered indigenous peoples, migrants and unsettled populations – have done, in response, is to deploy the very category of difference to demand a re/arrangement, if not an overturning, of prevailing structures of power. For 200 years and more, the political exertions of the subaltern could be seen as a striving for recognition as equals. The history of these efforts appeared as a history of sameness, and the right to sameness: “one man, one vote”, equal pay for equal work, the need to overturn inherited structures of oppression and discrimination, to capture state power, and so on. By the later 20th century, however, the battle has been self-consciously extended to encompass another demand: the demand for an acknowledgement and even privileging of certain kinds of difference.

The altered terms of argument grow out of an awareness that differences of gender, of communal practices and ways of being, even of incommensurable languages and beliefs, have provided the very ground for the diversity, density and richness of human experience. The new stance follows from a recognition that difference, and the very deployment of ideas of difference, has been the ground for claims of identity, unitariness, priority and p rivilege. Much feminist work has refused to accept any s imple d ichotomy between claims to equality and claims to d ifference, and argued instead that equality requires the recognition and inclusion of differences. “It is not our differences which separate women”, as Audre Lorde puts it, “but our reluctance to recognise those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences.”5

Such oppositional scholarship calls for a fundamental critique of the ways in which the idea of “difference” is deployed, and of the operations of categorical difference – an operation that of course marks out only particular “differences” as consequential for our broader social and political arrangements.6 It leads us to ask: how do the discourses of subalternity and difference simultaneously constitute and interrupt each other? What does a more sustained analysis of the elaboration of these concepts, in particular instances, tell us about the broader history of subalternity and difference?

Difference and the Modern State

A prominent theme in the history of the world since the 18th century has been the promise of emancipation, including the emancipation of societies and groups marked out as “backward”, or disadvantaged, or simply adrift from the “mainstream” of human history and progress, as it is conceived after the Enlightenment. In the context of new discourses of nationhood in 19th century Europe, it has been pointed out, the problematic of difference takes the political form of the “Jewish Question”. Marx’s essay on that question becomes a lasting comment on the impossibility of


the political emancipation of the Jew as Jew, that is, of political emancipation in a liberal mode – “tolerating” difference but demanding uniformity. The supposedly enlightened, tolerant, civil society of modern Europe, and with it the idea of the abstract citizen subject in the rational, universal order of the nation state, is challenged by the very existence – and individuality – of the Jew, who is seen as being too particularistic and yet too global, too rooted and yet too dislocated, at one and the same time.7 This is, of course a very particular and interested, nationalist reading of difference, about which I shall have more to say.

It is necessary to note that the Jewish Question is a metaphor for far more than the Jews. It is Muslims, to make the point bluntly, who are the Jews of the later 20th century and beyond – once again, too narrowly community centred and too worldwide, too parochial and too deracinated, to fit in as responsible (read unmarked and naturally belonging) members of the nation state.8 Yet, if the Muslims are the recognisable Jews of recent decades, the unrecognised Other of the era from the 18th onwards have been slaves and “untouchables”, women and other subordinated groups, whose existence and particularity mount an equally important challenge to the existing discourses of civil s ociety, uniform civil rights and the abstract citizen subject of the new national and democratic order. What happens to our account of emancipation/assimilation if the paradigmatic example of the history of difference is taken to be, not the Muslim or Jew, but dalits, blacks or women – other important assemblages that have also been marked as “different” at many points in recent history?9

The specific character of the dalit or black, and, stretching the point only a little, also the women’s case is that it is seen as being marked above all by conditions of subordination and deprivation, as opposed to the Jewish/Muslim case, which is reckoned primarily in terms of what would be described as “cultural deviance”. The latter is viewed from the start as a fully formed, alternative culture and dangerous Other, whereas the precise status of women or slaves or untouchables as Other (or as minority) is i tself in doubt. Several consequences follow, therefore, if we substitute the paradigm of the dalit/black/woman for the Jew/ Muslim in our investigation of political emancipation and the making of modern societies and states.

First, our attention should be immediately drawn to the m aking of difference, or of a minority (or minorities) not already established in their difference from the start. Moreover, if we take seriously the proposition that the production of difference, and hence minority, is a process, not a given demographic or sociological condition,10 it becomes all the more necessary to attend to the kind of minoritisation we encounter in the history of particular states and societies, and to examine the implications of distinct forms of minority existence. The post-colonial critic, Aamir Mufti, writes of his interest in “how liberalism historically has talked about the modes of apartness of the Jews and the history of their persecution in Western society, and the kinds of solution it has offered…”11 Is the same kind of statement even conceivable for dalits, or blacks, or women? Is the dalit/black/women’s question ever so precisely formulated? What would be the “modes of apartness” of dalits, blacks, women? Can the dalit/black/women’s question be posed as a question of emancipation/assimilation by a dominant discourse that already claims to accommodate or i nclude them? To say nothing of the question, how can women – or for that matter dalits or blacks – lay claim to the rights of separate nationhood (although, as we know, both dalits and blacks have done so at some points)?

Or again, consider the proposition that nationalism necessarily unsettles large numbers of people, rendering the minoritised populations potentially movable, and leading in many cases to the uprooting of entire populations.12 It is clear that the minoritisation of dalits, black, or women does not automatically render them movable. On the contrary, given the need for their labour, one might make the case that minoritisation is a way of keeping them in their place – in both senses of the term. On the other hand, the uprooting of populations (in the sense of settled social structures) may be precisely what a subaltern minority calls for in such an instance.

In re/thinking the diverse locations and uses of the proclamation of difference, then, the example of the classically subaltern communities – dalits, blacks, conquered indigenous populations, women – may have something unusual to tell us, given their uncertain and changing status as minorities, as insiders/outsiders who are essential to the continuance of a given social and economic order, and yet have to be confined to a subordinate or marginalised place within it, precisely for the maintenance of established structures and relations of power. A particularly important aspect of this inquiry may be the question: how do subaltern constituencies such as women, dalits, colonised populations, lowerclass immigrants, or sexual minorities, think of difference? How do they construct the category of men, of upper castes, of whites, and the politics of men, upper castes, whites and other groups in positions of privilege and power? What does this tell us about the history of subalternity and the politics of difference?

In what follows, I briefly consider the dalit struggle in India and the African American and women’s struggles in the US. I suggest that the example of these struggles enables us to reach beyond the confines of Enlightenment discourse and facile propositions about deviance, assimilation and tolerance, even though dalit as well as black thinkers and activists of the 20th century remained constrained by the frame of the nation state, and the language of majority and minority, in the articulation of an alternative politics.

India’s Dalits

The dalits or ex-untouchable castes of India – known at different stages as untouchables, outcastes, depressed castes, Harijans (Gandhi’s appellation) or scheduled castes (after the government of India Act of 1935 and the Indian Constitution of 1950) – have been haunted by deep social divisions among themselves, even as they have forged new community and solidarity in the political context of the anti-colonial and postcolonial struggles for d emocracy and social justice. In the decades preceding the end of British rule, as is well known, dalit spokespersons laid claim to being a “statutory minority”, a “separate element in the n ational life”, a “necessary party” to political negotiations regarding the country’s future, a separate community, even a “nation”, like the Muslims and the Sikhs.13 There were inevitably many d ifferent

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

grounds upon which dalit leaders advanced the claim for the identification of the dalits as a significant minority or c ommunity: among them, the shared experience or history of l abour and exploitation, propositions about shared sentiment and suffering, and, at the other extreme, the fact of statutory recognition.

The particular difficulty faced by B R Ambedkar, the preeminent dalit leader of the 20th century, and by other dalit spokespersons, in making the claim that dalits were a minority no different from Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Anglo-Indians and other such minorities, was plain. The shudras, atishudras, untouchables, depressed classes, scheduled castes, whatever the term used for the assemblage, gained their distinctiveness

– at least until they became a legally recognised minority – precisely from the fact of their untouchability, that is, the discrimination they suffered at the hands of Hindu society. Gandhi was quick to point out the paradox inherent in the dalit claim to existence as a separate minority. “We do not want on our register and on our census untouchables classified as a separate class”, he declared at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931. “Sikhs may remain as such in perpetuity, so may Muhammadans, so may Europeans. Will untouchables remain untouchables in perpetuity?”14

In this respect, the dalits were caught in an extraordinary bind: being defined by Hindu society – at the same time part and not part of it. Consider the ambivalence that appears in Ambedkar’s presentation, as independent India’s first law minister, of the case for the reform of the personal law of the Hindus. At one stage in the debate on the Hindu code bill, he referred to the Hindu shastras as “your shastras”. To a member’s interjection (“Your shastras?”), he responded by saying, “Yes, because I belong to the other caste;” and, a little later, “I am an unusual member of the Hindu community”. At another point in the same debate, he spoke of “our ancient ideals which are to my judgment, most archaic and impossible for anybody to practice”.15

There was clearly no easy escape from the aggrandising character of “Hinduism” even for a leader who had declared, 15 years earlier: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of (being) an untouchable…. It is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power”.16 It is in this context that Ambedkar opens up the question of the meaning of so-called Hindu society or community, with a radical reinterpretation of the Indian past – and therefore of the needs of the Indian future. Ambedkar’s recasting of Indian history as an extended and unfinished struggle between brahmanism and Buddhism was a move of farreaching implication. He was able to propose it, I submit, precisely because he spoke for a constituency very different from that claimed by the leaders of other, “pre-existing”, that is to say, on the face of it, already given and recognised, religious or racial minorities (or majorities).

Whereas the Congress’ distribution of the divide between the nation/people’s friends and enemies was into something called “India” and its “development”, on the one side, and anyone who would partition the country or detract from its development, on the other; and the best known “minority” version of the recent history and current predicament of the subcontinent was the Muslim League’s proposition of a federation of communities

Economic & Political Weekly

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

threatened by an arrogant and unduly privileged “majority”; Ambedkar went further in his re-examination of how these putative communities and their claims on the land and the people came to be. He wrote:

India is the land which has experienced class-consciousness, class struggle (in its most extreme form) … the land where there has been fought a class war between brahmans and kshatriyas which lasted for several generations and which was fought so hard and with such virulence that it turned out to be a war of extermination.17

“The history of India before the Muslim invasions is the history of a mortal conflict between brahmanism and Buddhism”, Ambedkar wrote again.18 Inequality was the “official doctrine” of brahmanism; Buddhism opposed it root and branch: witness, the very different opportunities it offered to shudras and to women.19 India’s untouchable communities were originally Buddhist, Ambedkar argued in his 1948 book entitled The Untouchables. They were thrust into the demeaning position of untouchability when they clung to Buddhism in the midst of a warrior and courtinspired resurgence of brahmanical Hinduism: “broken men” who declined with Buddhism.

We can … say with some confidence that untouchability was born some time about 400 A D. It is born out of the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and brahmanism which has so completely moulded the history of India…20

And yet, the claim on a Buddhist past, and the 1956 conversion to Buddhism, was not primarily aimed at providing “memory to a memoryless people”, to use D R Nagaraj’s evocative phrase, a lthough that was certainly part of the point, and part of the reason for the presentation of Indian history as the history of struggle between brahminism and Buddhism. Rather, as Ambedkar’s restatement of Buddhism showed very clearly, this was a conversion for the future. In Ambedkar’s view, as one scholar puts it, “Buddhism was the only viable religion, not only for the Untouchables of India, but for the modern world at large.”21 This regenerated Buddhism was to provide a religion or ethic for our times (and Ambedkar remained ambivalent about the use of the word religion to describe this ethic): a religion of humanity; of liberty, equality and fraternity – but especially of equality (between men and women, upper caste and lower caste, class and class); of reason; and of progress – with compassion and understanding and a minimum of violence.22

Investigators from the 1960s onwards found that the most common argument given by dalit converts in favour of the Buddhist dhamma was an argument about universal human dignity, the opportunity to “live like a man”, the restoration of self-respect and an end to feelings of inferiority, all of which followed from the rejection of Hinduism and its caste hierarchy: with conversion “we became human beings”.23 “Gautama’s dhamma is like no other”, as an anonymous dalit woman’s song has it: “A man finds humanity there”.24

Let me cite one recollection of a conversion ceremony to illustrate the point. This account of the move to the Buddhist dhamma in a remote Konkan village, a few months after Ambedkar’s death in December 1956, comes from Urmila Pawar’s recently published autobiography, Aaydaan (the weaver of bamboo baskets, which was the traditional occupation of the Mahar community in her region).25 “Actually none of us understood very well what exactly


conversion meant”, writes Pawar; “nor did we know much about this man Ambedkar who advised us to convert”. Yet the day of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s passing came to be “indelibly printed” on her memory.

Pawar, who was 12 at the time, returned from school to discover family elders and neighbours weeping: one of them, who worked in another town, decided to take the overnight train to Mumbai to catch a last glimpse of Babasaheb’s body. The atmosphere of mourning lasted for months, while information about Ambedkar’s death, his struggle and his wishes trickled in through dalits working in various places outside the village. Sometime during this period, preparations for dharmaantar (conversion) began. The conversion itself was a dramatic moment. Something changed, Pawar recalls. Faith in evil spirits, possession, and “incidents of ‘actual’ experiences of ghosts”, was finished after conversion; and people like Urmila’s mother, who had strongly b elieved in all of that, seemed to take on a new life.

The dharmaantar ceremony took place in the grounds of Gogaté College in Ratnagiri, the nearest large town. Urmila and her siblings went there with their mother and other people of the village. “People…poured in from everywhere”, she writes. In the midst of various announcements, the mantra of Buddham sharanam gacchami’ (I seek refuge in the Buddha) “floated down to us and we joined our voices with the chanting crowd”.

After the ceremony, the villagers were told to discard the gods they worshipped and throw the idols into the water. Urmila half expected that her mother would refuse, given that theirs was a priest’s family and also that many of the family idols were quite valuable. Instead, her mother “picked up some idols and threw them…(away) herself”. A dalit elder placed a small statue of the Buddha and a photograph of Ambedkar in Urmila’s mother’s prayer room. People went from house to house every evening venerating the Buddha, recalls Pawar. “Their faces glowed. You would think there was no longer any need to ask for happiness…as …(it) had automatically come to us” (emphasis mine).

Other recollections of dalit conversions to Buddhism in different villages and towns, following Ambedkar’s embracing of the dhamma in 1956, provide a similar sense of anticipation and of a political difference already at hand. In account after account, conversion appears as a magical time. “The diksha ceremony was completed in a joyful atmosphere”, writes Shantabai Krishnaji Kamble, of the ceremony in her husband’s village of Kargani in 1957. “The struggle yielded us three jewels –”, writes another dalit memoirist, Baby Kamble: “humanity, education and the religion of the Buddha…The flame of Bhim started burning in our hearts. We began to walk and talk. We became conscious that we too are human beings.” 26

Conversion was the making of a community, of a new politics and culture – a point to which I shall return at the end of this essay.

African Americans and African American Women

By contrast with the history of the dalit struggle to forge a unified and recognisable dalit community to establish its difference, the separate identity of the African American people and culture seems to be in place from their arrival on American shores – or so the legend has it. The experience of slavery, the legal and social barriers against access to basic resources for people of African descent in much of the US for much of its history, the visibility of skin colour, and the discourse of 19th century “science”, “civilisation” and “race”, have served to establish this as common sense. Hence, the force of Du Bois’ moving statement of how the A frican American

ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro, two souls … in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,

– this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

The American Negro does not seek to “Africanise America”, Du Bois goes on to say,

...for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would

not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he

knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes

to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.27

And yet, as we know, an African American character, culture and politics has never been available so simply or in such an accessible form. For a host of well-known historical reasons – including diverse origins, miscegenation, geographical and social dispersal

– much uncertainty, ambiguity and contradiction has attended the claim of such identity and culture. Let me illustrate the point through a reference to the debate among black feminists in the US, over black women’s primary political identity or commitment, and the “community” they would (or could) speak for.

Important activists and writers engaged with the issue of how the struggles against racism and sexism in American society might be brought into alliance have adopted divergent positions on the question. For bell hooks, “racial imperialism” as she calls it trumps “sexual imperialism” in US history. “Racism took precedence over sexual alliances in both the white world’s interaction with Native Americans and African Americans, just as racism overshadowed any bonding between black women and white women on the basis of sex”.28 Theoretically and in the law, white women may also have been the “property” of their men, she notes, yet they were not systematically subjected to the brutal oppression and dehumanisation of the black slave. The attempt of some white feminists to suggest a similarity in the day to day e xperiences of white and black women only reveals a shocking insensitivity to the plight of the latter.

Other commentators have made the same point. “In their p overty and vulnerability”, writes Jacqueline Jones,

black people experienced …historical economic transformations in fundamentally different ways compared to whites regardless of class, and black women, while not removed from the larger history of the American working class, shouldered unique burdens at home and endured unique forms of discrimination in the workplace.29

Consequently, and the evidence on this is clear, black women have remained single more often, borne more children, had the burden of heading single-parent families more frequently, remained in the labour market longer and in greater numbers, had less education, earned less, and been widowed earlier, than their white counterparts.30

In addition, as several scholars have noted, white women have widely served as agents of racism in the US. As one middle-aged

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

black woman domestic worker cited by Jones put it, “Black men will make a fool out of me if I let them, but it was a white woman who had me crawling around her apartment before I was 13 years old, cleaning places she would never think of cleaning with a toothbrush and toothpick!”31 The writer bell hooks recalls that in the mid-19th century Sojourner Truth had to bare her breasts to prove that she was a woman before she was allowed to speak at a political meeting – and that at an anti-slavery rally of white women and men. For whom, and on whose behalf, could the black woman (or man) speak, when blacks were recognised only as “female” and “male”, chattel and property, by most of white America?32

Audre Lorde says about differences among women that American feminists must reckon with: “Poor women and women of Color know there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery (on the one hand) and prostitution (on the other) because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street”. Lorraine Bethel makes the point more polemically: “What Chou Mean WE, White Girl?”33

The point I wish to underline is straightforward. While the importance of the women’s movement is obvious, in the US as elsewhere, the category of women and women’s rights is constituted only by suspending other differences – between women of different races, for example.34 Likewise, the category of blacks or African Americans works to a large extent by covering over a number of important differences within the black community – differences of colour, and the advantages that pale skin and straight hair might bring, in addition to differences of gender, sexuality, age, class and so on. Here is Audre Lorde again: historically, “difference had been used so cruelly against us” that we (blacks) would not tolerate any sign of divergence within “our externally defined…Blackness”.35

In the reconstruction of the history of the black-freedom struggle, writes Darlene Clark Hine, “Black women were conspicuous by their absence”. Hine notes that, for some time even after she had become a tenured professor of history, she herself had not thought of Black women “as historical subjects with their own r elations to a state’s history”. It was an “unwelcome” invitation from a local schoolteacher, and head of the Indiana unit of the National Council for Negro Women, Shirley Herd, that shamed her – as the only tenured black woman historian in the local university – into turning her attention to the history of black women in Indiana.36

As she began reading late 19th and early 20th century autobiographies of “migrating, or fleeing, black women”, it became clear, says Hine, that these women were sexual hostages and victims of domestic violence throughout the US. The relationship between black women and the larger society – white men and women, and to a lesser extent, black men – “has always been, and continues to be, adversarial”, involving as it did a “multifaceted struggle to determine who would control black women’s productive and reproductive capacities and their sexuality”.37

Interestingly, Hine now began to divide her survey courses on modern African American history into four broad themes: the Civil War and Emancipation, the Great Migrations, the Civil Rights Movement, and “the Changing Status of Black Women”. The lack of fit between the first three and the last tells its own story.38 In any event, investigations of the history of black women underscored for Hine the need for intersectional analysis, for

Economic & Political Weekly

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

“this particular group of Americans has always occupied the bottom rung of any racial, sexual, and class hierarchy”. Three issues have been central in the history of the protest and migration of black women, she argues: the fact (and fear) of rape, domestic violence, and the desire to escape severe economic exploitation and deprivation. Among other oversights, historians and other social scientists have paid too little attention to the working class status and economic condition of black women.

The fact is that the vast majority of black women have lived in overwhelming poverty, and a lack of attention to that fact has helped to foster erroneous impressions in the larger society of the mythical, h eroic, transcendent black woman able to do the impossible, to make a way out of no way.39

With those cautionary observations in mind, let us mark the specific conjuncture, and the specific constructions of history and social relations, that produce Du Bois’ “problem of the color line” as the central problem of the age, and his articulation of the “striving in the souls of black folk” towards the “ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race”. Recall that this is at the very beginning of the 20th century.40 He follows the above statement with the stirring lines,

there are today no truer exponents of the pure spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.41

Here, race and culture emerge in a somewhat essentialist form as the unifying principles in the history of African Americans and their struggle for human dignity: attributes almost inherent in the genes – and in “the souls” of black folk. At a later stage in his career, when he was strongly influenced by Marxism, Du Bois would have shrunk from many aspects of the above formulation. As the above pages should already have indicated, the matter of how particular subaltern communities and identities come into being, and what kinds of culture they invoke, is a question for historical investigation. I address this issue of unity and culture a little further in the concluding part of this essay, in order to underline my central proposition about the politics of difference.

Political/Cultural Difference

Let me return at this point to the history of the dalit conversion to Buddhism; for Ambedkar’s reflections on this long-drawn-out event help to clarify something about the manner of the establishment of political (or for that matter, religious) community. Increasingly from the 1930s, Ambedkar and a number of other dalit leaders had begun to advocate the renouncing of Hinduism as a means of solving “the problem of the Untouchables”. Gandhi, dedicated in his own way to the abolition of untouchability, differed. What was needed, he argued, was the reform of Hinduism, or “self-purification”. Conversion was not the answer. One cannot change one’s religion as if it were a house or a cloak, he wrote. For Gandhi, the threat of dalit conversion flowed from a political rather than a religious impulse.42

Ambedkar’s rejoinder to this is important for my purposes. Apart from making a pointed comment on precisely the political


character of much of the religious history of the world, and of much that counted as conversion, he met Gandhi’s “house and cloak” metaphor with an equally polemical but telling response. Religion today was like a piece of ancestral property, he noted, passed on from parent to child and accepted unthinkingly. “What genuineness is there in such (religious belief)…?”43 “The conversion of the Untouchables if it did take place”, he wrote, after a dalit conference in Bombay that considered the question in May 1936, “would take (place) after full deliberation of the value of religion and the virtue of different religions…. It would be the first case in history of genuine conversion”.44

The dalit leader here points to the long process of thinking and deliberation, both social and individual, that must accompany a dalit conversion. It is the process that counts, he might have added. For Ambedkar’s “first case…of genuine conversion” might also be seen as a first step in the making of a difference – which would be a political difference, whatever else it was.

The articulation of a similar political difference is evident in Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk too. Du Bois writes of the “little community” in the hills of Tennessee where he taught school for two summers in the 1880s, a community built around figures like the 20-year old Josie who worked day and night – at “service” (in white people’s homes), in her own home, in the fields and

o rchards; and her mother who talked of the sewing-machine Josie had bought to supplement the family income, of how Josie longed to go to school but they never had the savings to allow it, how the crops failed, and how mean some white folks were. “I have called my tiny community a world”, writes Du Bois:

and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a halfawakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief…; from a common hardship in poverty…; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughts together; but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in various languages…45

The political foundation of this making of “community”, and “common consciousness”, is unmistakable. Where are we to locate culture, and cultural difference, in this moment of resistance? Let us take a cue here from the important scholarship that has developed on resistance literature, as it has been called. Scholars such as Doris Sommer have stressed the importance of questioning the common sense belief in inclusive (and therefore readily comprehending) communities of readers, when it comes to reading the works of subordinated and marginalised groups and individuals. They have pointed to the “rhetoric of refusal” that is found in much oppositional writing – a refusal that marks the reader’s anomalous position and signals the distance of the reader from the narrator.46 It seems to me that a similar distance/difference is to be found in many aspects of dalit and African American self-assertion: but not, I submit, as the difference of pure culture.

In the case of the blacks and the dalits, as in that of many other subalternised minorities – the internally colonised we might call them, who do not inhabit a geopolitical space that provides easy ground for a politics of separatism or of independent nationhood (and I would include women here) – it has never been a straightforward task to mark out a sequestered domain of an autonomous culture. The claim of a unified and alternative culture and t radition is established here, if it is established, only through long and hard struggle: recall that in the women’s movement there have been strong arguments for and against claiming a separate culture of womankind. Here, culture and tradition are more d eliberately forged, and far more openly contested, than the cultural claims of more privileged groups with more secure cultural institutions (and funding) and greater access to political power; and the politics that accompany their construction are never quite so easily wished away.

The resistance/refusal found in the dalit, black or women’s movement is not that of an already available culture or identity – the culture or identity of women or ex-untouchables or people of African descent.47 The facet of resistance, the foreign accent or the inassimilable distance (to use Sommer’s words), is not the resistance of another culture. It is, instead, the resistance of a different politics, and the call for a differently imagined future. This is not a politics that flows from cultural difference (somehow already constituted), but rather a culture that flows from political difference – and an alternative political perspective.48

The above analysis of the cultural autonomy claimed by subalternised, oppositional groups may remind us of Gayatri Spivak’s proposition of “strategic essentialism”.49 My argument here is that such a strategy, if that is how we describe it, is less that of scholars studying subaltern groups and their histories, than of subaltern constituencies and assemblages themselves, seeking to modify or overthrow particular arrangements of power, and that the politics of such claims are less voluntaristic than the phrase strategic essentialism might suggest. Men and women, subaltern as well as elite groups, make their own history to a greater or lesser extent, but never (as Spivak’s sophisticated analysis itself points out) in circumstances of their own making, never just as they please. Hence the recourse to the language of nationhood and of minority rights in much of the dalit and African American politics of the 20th century.

Yet, in spite of the constraints of language and inheritance that they inevitably worked with, the dalit, African American and women’s struggles opened up new political possibilities and asked new questions. In their many-sided engagement with the history of subalternity and difference in India and the US, Ambedkar and Perriar, Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr, bell hooks and Audre Lorde, Baby Kamble and Urmila Pawar analyse the question of labour and exploitation in production; the oppressions of caste and race, quite aside from the matter of economic production and distribution; the subordination and confinement of women; the challenges and containment of different religious as well as political ideals and practices. Their work underlines the process of the creation of these confinements and oppressions, these identifications and these ideals. This is the history and politics of a becoming and of political/cultural communities yet to be, not – as it appears in much contemporary assertion and political debate – of already established, stable and relatively immutable identities and commitments.

Baby Kamble’s comment on the dalit struggle illustrates the point very well indeed:

The struggle yielded us three jewels – humanity, education and the

religion of the Buddha…. The flame of Bhim started burning in our

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

hearts. We began to walk and talk. We became conscious that we…are Alternative struggles against other elements and other arhuman b eings. 50

rangements of power have yielded up, and will still yield, al

“Yielded” is an important word – and it applies to the “us” in ternative communities, fresh alliances and possibilities, and this statement, the dalits as well as to humanity, education and still undreamt of futures. In the building of these alliances and religion. “We began to walk and talk. We became conscious…” possibilities, these dreams and these futures, difference will The struggle yielded up the dalit community, a dalit politics, and still have to be articulated. But difference, we must hope, as the outlines of a dalit future: not in the sense of an already variety, indeterminacy, play. Difference not as deviance, or e xisting community coming to consciousness of itself, but of his-disordered or medicalised condition; not as genetic inheritance, torical conditions and political practice producing new senses of but as political aspiration and endeavour. Not a pathology but community and of difference. a politics.

Notes d ominance and subordination, male and female, 30 Cf, Pauli Murray, cited in hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, ethnicity versus ethnicity, and so on. 147.

1 Gyanendra Pandey ed. Subaltern Citizens and

10 Mufti, Enlightenment, p 209. 31 Jones, Labour of Love, 316.

Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA (London: Routledge), 2010. 11 Ibid, p 11. 32 hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 159. 2 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, passim; 12 Ibid, p 13. 33 Lorde, Sister Outsider, 112; Bethel cited in hooks, Sander L Gilman, Difference and Pathology (Cor-13 See, for example, Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings Ain’t I a Woman, 152. nell 1985), 35; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can and Speeches (hereafter BAWS), IX, 181, 190; XVII, 34 hooks notes that the common comparison of the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Law-Pt 3, 418; and Vol I, 368; Eleanor Zelliot, From Un-“women” and “blacks” in white feminist critiques rence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpre-touchable to Dalit. Essays on the Ambedkar Move-of American history serves to exclude black womtation of Culture (Urbana 1988); and idem, In ment (Delhi, 1996), 97; Sekhar Bandyhopadhyay, en from consideration. Even feminists like Helen Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics, New “Transfer of Power and the Crisis of Dalit Politics Hacker and Catherine Stimpson use “women” to York, 1988, passim. in India, 1945-47”, Modern Asian Studies, 34, 4, refer to white women and “black” to refer to black 3 Robin D G Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics 2000, 903, 906. men, she argues, and others (“including even and the Black Working Class, New York 1996, 6, 14 BAWS, IX, 68. some black people”) make the same assumption; for Kelley and Painter quotes; Jacqueline Jones, 15 BAWS, XIV, 270-271 and 1162.

ibid, 140.

Labour of Love, Labour of Sorrow. Black Women, 16 Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit. Essays 35 Sister Outsider, 144. Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present, on the Ambedkar Movement, Delhi, 1996, 206. 36 Hine Sight. Black Women and the Reconstruction of (New York, 1986), 330. American History (Brooklyn: New York), 1994,

17 “India and the Prerequisites of Communism”, p 8 4 Elizabeth Gross, “Derrida, Irigaray, and Decon-of Ambedkar, Collected Works, cd (compiled by xxiii. struction”, Intervention: Revolutionary Marxist Anand Teltumble). 37 Hine Sight, 41. Journal, Vol 20, 1986, 72.

18 “Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient 38 “The Fourth Theme Has Been Problematic”, 5 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, (Berkeley 1984), India”, p 32 of Pt II of Teltumble, cd. writes Hine somewhat problematically; ibid, 51. 2007, 122; see also 112 and passim. 19 39

“What Is Saddhamma?”, BAWS, XI, 302; and Ibid, 38, 51, 52.

6 Joan W Scott, “Deconstructing Equality-versus-“Revolution and Counterrevolution in Ancient 40 Italy and Germany ad been unified; Japanese na-Difference”, Feminist Studies, 14, 1, 1988, I ndia”, p 57 of Pt II of Teltumble, cd. tionalism was in the ascendant; a regime of Poor p assim. 20 B R Ambedkar, The Untouchables. Who They Were Laws (to protect all the nation’s people) was well

7 Numerous scholars have written on this theme. and Why They Became Untouchables (1948; established in Britain and elsewhere; and even as Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony. The Shravasti, 1977), 204. European (and American) imperialism extended Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Cul-its sway in Africa and Asia, the idea of the self-de

21 Christopher Queen, “Ambedkar, Modernity, and

ture, (Princeton 2007), provides an important termination of nations was gaining ground.

the Hermeneutics of Buddhist Liberation” in

elaboration, focused on the question of Muslims

A K Narain and D C Ahir, (ed.), Ambedkar, 41 Souls, 52.

in South Asia; see p 51 and passim.

B uddhism and Social Change (Delhi 1994), 100. 42 D G Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of M K Gandhi, 8 This is not to deny the critical differences be-Vol 4, New Delhi, 1960, 41.

22 Ambedkar argued that communists too could tween the history of the Jews – a consistently

learn from the Buddha how to bring about the 43 BAWS, 404.

tiny minority in Europe, perceived as racially

“Bloodless Revolution” and “Remove the Ills of 44 Ibid, 404-05.

other, as killers of Jesus, as the only religious

Humanity”. “Communism of the Russian type

45 Souls, 102-3 (emphasis added).

minority until the post-Reformation era, a peo

aims to bring about (change) by a bloody revolu

46 See, e g, Doris Sommer, “Resisting the Heat.

ple without a state until the formation of modern

tion. The Buddhist Communism brings it about by

Menchu, Morrison, and Incompetent Readers” Israel – and that of Muslims, a very substantial

a bloodless revolution;” BAWS, 17, III, 515, 517,

in Amy Kaplan and Donald E Pease (ed.), Culpopulation that controlled large territories and

493. See also Martin Fuchs, “A Religion for Civil

tures of United States Imperialism (Durham

has had state power in many places from the in-

Society? Ambedkar’s Buddhism, the Dalit Issue

1993), 407-32.

ception of Islam until today. In that respect, the

and the Imagination of Emergent Possibilities” in

parallel between Jews and homosexuals may be 47 My colleague V Narayana Rao has spoken of the

Vasudha Dalmia et al (ed.), Charisma and Canon:

somewhat more tenable – with their similar his- culture – rituals, beliefs, practices – that

Essays on the Religious History of the Indian Sub

tories of being small minorities that are perse- t raditional “communities” in India, dalits and

continent (Delhi 2001), 250-73.

cuted in Christian Europe (the experience else- lower castes as well as upper castes, have had to

23 E g, studies by Eleanor Zelliot, Adele Fiske and

where was perhaps more mixed) until late leave behind in order to become part of the

Surendra Jondhale, cited in John C B Webster,

m odernity, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust. modern society and state, and stressed the need

R eligion and Dalit Liberation: An Examination of

My point, however, is about metaphor: of a mi- to write about the rich diversity of these cul-

Perspectives, Delhi, 1999, 84 and 88.

nority that never quite fits, and is seen as dan- tures; personal communications, and unpub

24 Cited in Eleanor Zelliot, “New Voices of the Bud

gerous to the nation/state – hence, the Jewish lished p aper. I am suggesting, however, that dhists of India” in Narain and Ahir (ed.), Ambed-

Question in 19th century Europe, and the “prob-these practices and traditions are not given lem” of Islam today. from the past: they are produced from contested

kar, Buddhism and Social Change, 196. See also the poems by Daya Pawar and Namdeo Dhasal,

and changing elements in a visibly contested

9 What, too, if the paradigm case of world histori

and Zelliot’s commentary on them, on p 203.

political terrain.

cal development is taken to be not Europe (which has clearly assumed this place from the time of 48 One might note the political claim that inheres in

25 Urmila Pawar, Aaydaan (Granthali, Mumbai,

Hegel and Marx, if not earlier), but north and 2003), 90-93, “I Have Relied on Maya Pandit’s the very act of naming a political assemblage as Translation of these Passages in Sharmila Rege”,

“dalit”, “black”, “African American”, adivasi, abory, according to Marx, England (then perhaps Writing Caste/Writing Gender (Delhi 2006), riginal, First Nation, “gay”, “lesbian” (not to men-Germany, then perhaps Russia) showed to the tion LGBTQ), and for that matter even “women”.

south America, or south Asia? In the 19th centu2 85-88, with minor additions and emendations in the light of the original Marathi.

world the face of the future. In the 20th and 21st 49 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds,

26 Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke (Chennai:

centuries, one might say it is the US, and China pp 197-221; idem “In a Word: Interview” in Out-

O rient Longman), 2008, 122.

and India, Bolivia and Ecuador. Better still, one side in the Teaching Machine (New York 1993); might recognise that there is no one face to 27 W E B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, New York, D anius, Sara and Stefan Jonsson, “An Interview world history, but many masks, donned in vari-1969, 45. with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” in Boundary 2, ous ways at various times to produce the illusion 28 Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, Boston, MA, 1981, 122. 1993: 3. of one world, with its natural ordering of 29 Jones, Labour of Love, 9. 50 Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke, 122.

MAY 8, 2010 vol xlv no 19

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 200.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 12.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top