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Marginalisation, Memory and Monuments

Mayawati's grand edifice to dalit icons is diminished by her personality cult.

It is indisputable that there is something skewed about our national memory and the heroes who populate it. The nationalist pantheon, whether of the Left or the Right, is largely dominated by a small demographic of upper caste men. There are a few token women and fewer from the less exalted castes. This is not necessarily a critique of the ideas and activism of these men but rather a fact of reality that needs to be acknowledged. Many of these upper caste, upper class men worked hard not only to overcome the privilege and power they were born into but also to destroy the institutions and structures which perpetuated caste, class, gender and other discriminations in our society. Their contributions to the anti-colonial struggle and to building India as a modern nation cannot be denied, but it cannot also be denied that despite all these efforts discrimination and prejudice remained high in Indian society. Caste, gender and class hierarchies could be reformed and ameliorated, but rarely was there space for an outright challenge to them. Not only has this dominance of upper caste, upper class men excluded reformers from castes, classes, regions, religions and a gender different from theirs from the national pantheon of heroes, it has also dyed the national imagination in colours which reflect the world view from the top of the social pyramid. The vast majority of India’s citizens have been, in a sense, marginalised from the national imagination and also from the construction of national memories and myths. How do those thus excluded enter the hallowed portals? How does a different memory, which places the leaders and representatives of the marginalised in this exalted firmament, become national?

In the past few decades a mass politics of the oppressed and marginalised has emerged. This politics is not willing to accept paternalistic benevolence and social reform, but wants to dismantle the structures of power within society; at the least it wants a share of power, it wants to exercise power. The upsurge of the dalits, the various communities forming the Other Backward Classes, the minorities and adivasis has altered India’s political landscape beyond recognition and is a welcome step forward towards achieving the goals of equality and justice. Much of the recent effort in the social sciences has been to address these and similar concerns. Parallel to this has been the churn in the social sciences and humanities which have endeavoured to break free from the hegemony of elite ideologies and bring to the fore the ideas and perspectives of those who have entered academia from the marginalised and oppressed communities.

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