Twelve books that form part of the arsenal of Dalit writing

11 January, 2021

One of the solid arsenals produced by the Dalit community, apart from its resolute commitment to love, forgive and fight, is the articulation, through literature, of human emotion, and writing about bodies and sexuality, compelling rage and justifiable challenges to authority. Over the first half of the twentieth century, besides BR Ambedkar, a proliferation of Dalit writers produced work in multiple vernaculars, writing in a tone that conveyed their selves in the most direct form. The list below attempts to cover some of the recognised and popular works, which gained prominence through their craft and expression. They have given rise to thought, philosophy and meditation, and let many bathe in the pain and joy they put forth.

For generations, Dalits had to be locked in someone else’s hateful interpretation. Their registers of protest and sweetness in life were not only undermined but stolen by their oppressors. Dalits, therefore, had to witness their beauty being manipulated and relegated to an ugly demeanour. Dalit writers, though, used this to their service. Time was made unavailable to Dalits, so they slashed the rigid conventions of temporality and space in their writing. 

The list below prioritises the titles according to the availability of the texts in English, and Anglophilic dominance continues to be a limitation to the dissemination of these texts. An enormous genre of Dalit literature, rooted in the ground like a giant old peepal tree, and sharp like winter sunlight, is yet to be taken on and made available by mainstream publishers, who exercise what I call “learned apathy” in their resistance to acknowledging these works. While researching for my book, Caste Matters, I benefitted from the wisdom and literary style of these books. They helped me experiment with my ideas, and I swam into the ocean of words they led me to. Some of the books in the list are staple reading within Ambedkarite families. Mine was no different. I grew up seeing these books at literary festivals, public functions, political rallies and religious events that had cited or mentioned them. 

1.     Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar (1936) in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 1. (Government of Maharashtra, 1979)

The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables by BR Ambedkar (1948) in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 7 (Government of Maharashtra, (1990)

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 5 by BR Ambedkar (Government of Maharashtra, 1989)

The former has become a de facto manifesto of the anti-caste struggle, which is, of course, not just a Dalit struggle but a struggle across castes. Dalits take the primacy because they have higher stakes in the issue and have been courageously fronting this battle, while other groups do not take an anti-caste stand despite having the resources, power, privilege and prestige to do so. 

In The Untouchables, (which is also part of a larger book, a sequel to The Shudras), Ambedkar placed before us the context behind untouchability and his theories about its origins—about how one becomes an untouchable. For instance, he looks back to one theory, which suggests that untouchables were Buddhists and that Buddhism was anti-Brahminism. The text goes on to say that Brahmins were the most aggressive consumers of beef and that the sacrifice of bovines and horses was normal. To stop the influence of Buddha, Brahmins went a step ahead and became vegetarian, and also made the cow a sacred animal. Ambedkar presents the idea that defeated tribes were made into “Broken Men,” or de facto slaves, and eventually adjusted into the untouchable caste status as outcastes.

Almost all of Ambedkar’s works are rich textual interpretations, with multiple references and sources to advance his critical arguments. The collection of essays in Volume 5 is an expansive commentary on untouchability and the lives of untouchables. Ambedkar is a serious scholar of Brahmins and Brahminism, exposing the cruelty within the Manu Smriti and producing an exhaustive study of Brahmin subcastes. According to Ambedkar, there over twelve hundred Brahmin castes in India, with a strict internal caste hierarchy among Brahmins. In northwestern India, he adds, there are around twice as many higher-caste Brahmins than middle-caste Brahmins, and around five times as many as lower-caste Brahmins. In the same volume, Ambedkar explains the opaqueness of class within the Varna system, writing that “Caste is a perversion of Varna,” as several “lines of class cleavage” divided the pyramid of castes into “blocks of castes.”

2.     We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement by Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar (1989)
Translated to English by Wandana Sonalkar (Zubaan, 2008)

Dalit women’s participation as central actors in the Dalit movement for the reclamation of the self has often been acknowledged. This book, first published in Marathi in 1989, is one of the most widely read and circulated books about Dalit women. It highlights those whose life stories are available but not yet recorded, less so theorised, and has been commended for its piercing analysis of how some of the prominent leaders within the Dalit community were women, yet they did not receive recognition for these roles.

The book profiles 44 extraordinary and inspirational Dalit women—including 13 who were deceased at the time of writing—who had been part of and led the Ambedkar movement, while dealing with pressure from their husbands, in-laws and societal stigma. Since Pawar and Moon found that many publications of the period “had virtually boycotted the Ambedkar movement and so news of untouchable activists,” they dug into archives, especially periodicals and newspapers brought out by Ambedkar and his co-workers. They travelled relentlessly across Maharashtra, trying to track down elderly women who had been witness to Ambedkar and his movement, and meticulously recording their accounts. This book was a labour of love—Pawar and Moon were not professional researchers or academics at the time, and their rigour transcended the aims of much scholarship, as they did it out of the love for the community. The stories collected in this edition are testament to the spirit of agitation and fighting without fear. Moon and Pawar’s work will remain an encyclopaedia on Dalit women for years to come. 

3.     Joothan by Om Prakash Valmiki (1997)

Translated from Hindi by Arun Prabha Mukherjee (Columbia University Press, 2003)

Dalit autobiographies are sociological representations that report historical and political situations in local scenarios, alongside first-hand impressions of the authors. These texts cut across genre and disciplines and are often missed out on by non-Dalit writers.

Joothan is one of the most powerful and widely read Dalit autobiographies. The title refers to a loaded Hindi colloquialism, with one of its meanings being that you eat leftovers. He talks about how his Valmiki community, most of whom were doing manual-scavenging work, strove to fight against the caste system. He recalls parts of his life, including how his father was adamant about educating his child and begged teachers and the principal of a school to help with this endeavour. This book is the most straightforward indictment of caste society, and Om Prakash Valmiki is not gentle or trying to tone down his words—he just states it as it is. This book, like other Dalit autobiographies, brought me closer to myself. Joothan remains a classic in Indian literature. 

4.     Jehnva Mi Zaat Chorli Hoti, or When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (1963)

Translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger, 2018)

One of India’s most powerful literary voices, Bagul argued that alongside Brahminical oppression, we need to remove feudal and capitalistic exploitation. He wrote a book in Marathi, Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti, translated by Jerry Pinto. I read it in Marathi. They say certain books redefine language and literature, and this is one of those. With it, Bagul elevated the status of the Marathi language. Bagul influenced a host of Marathi and non-Marathi literary writers, who drew inspiration from his intellectual acumen. He was an unassigned mentor to many juggernauts in the Dalit literary field.

Bagul also paints a picture of how Ambedkar was denied a visa and talks about how caste intervenes in daily life. The book bursts with flavour, and reading it is like putting a seatbelt on, holding tight and diving straight in, no warnings given.

5.     Karukku by Bama (1992)

Translated by Lakshmi Holmstorm (Oxford University Press, 2001)

This autobiographical book speaks about the writer’s everyday reality in the village of Puthupatti, in Tamil Nadu. She became a nun in her mid-twenties, and the book explores her struggle as a nun with the Catholic Church and after she left the seminary in 1992—the same year Karukku was published. It is a spiritual journey and reads like the ruminations of a traveller reflecting on spirituality, gender and protest, as well as her Dalit identity. The book will resonate with Christian and Muslim converts who parted with their Dalit identities to break away from the barriers imposed by Hindu religiosity. Bama presents concerns at the intersections of gender and caste, alongside a critique of religion. 

6.     Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature

Edited by Arjun Dangle (Orient BlackSwan, 1992)

A very well-curated anthology by Dalit writers, with many pieces of writing translated into English, the anthology is organised according to the following genres: Poetry, Autobiographical Extracts, Short Stories, Essays and Speeches. The gifted writer Daya Pawar’s powerful autobiography Baluta changed the approach to writing a Dalit life through an incredibly moving first-person narrative. Pawar’s strength lay in his ability to tell a story in an informative way. When narrating the incidents of his life, Pawar drew on a canvas of social history of the Mahars, his community. Poisoned Bread carried an extract from Baluta, which described the pitiable condition of Mahars who had to beg to work, eat carrion and protest for the right to access streets because the dominant-caste Marathas took offence at Dalit women’s shadows, claiming they polluted the Hanuman temple. The lives of untouchables were considered more disgusting than a lifeless stone god. A Brahmin clerk’s treacherous nature put an old Dalit widow in prison because he cheated her.

Bandhumadhav’s provocative short story “The Poisoned Bread,” after which the anthology is named, is a powerful testament to how education empowers one to counter the balderdash of casteist people trying to rationalise the caste hierarchy. The author’s grandfather begs a Patil—the landowner—for work. This is the genius of the caste system, in that it created beggars out of a proud caste, which had to be exploited as labour just for a “share in corn.” And in return the landowning castes behave as if Dalits should be grateful for this opportunity. One important lesson I took from the short story was that educated Dalits should embrace the habit of humiliating and publicly shaming their oppressors just by asserting their humanity. Nothing hurts the dominant-caste ego more than the outcaste spitting back. Things needed to be changed, and that is why leaving villages and getting education became a panacea for the survival of Dalits. Their success continues to be scorned by many dominant castes, but “knowledge cannot be taken away” is a famous saying in our community.

The editor Arjun Dangle’s expansive introduction to the anthology covers the evolution and influences of Dalit literature. Dalit literature was popularly recognised as part of the Dalit movement because it was capable of providing the theoretical backdrop to social and political movements. However, Dangle argues, as time passed, several obstacles, including Brahmins’ linguistic hegemony, ensured that much writing remained confined to the realm of literature. He makes an appeal to examine Dalit literature through the lens of revolution.

Of the many works included in this anthology, one that remained with me was Ashok Chakravarti’s poem “Harvest,” in which he writes, “The harvest of manslaughter is ceaselessly obtained here.” Another memorable line in the collection comes from the poem “I Will Belong To It,” by Dangle himself, which reads, “That one should, at masturbating age, sit twisting rope instead.”

7.     Ooru Keri by Siddalingaiah (1996)

Translated from Kannada by SR Ramakrishna, as A Word With You, World: The Autobiography of a Poet (Navayana, 2013)

I have never laughed so much while reading a book as I did this one. This work explores the author’s struggle as a student activist in Bangalore. It provides insights into casteist politics in Karnataka and how he fought against injustice. The genius in his writing lies in his ability to introduce humour very easily while writing about trauma and oppression. The urban Dalit slum in which Siddalingaiah grew up in Karnataka provided a certain sense of charisma, creating two worlds: one of pain and humiliation, the other of opportunities and livelihoods. Dalits report on this condition without feeling it necessary to add filters. The writing is graphic and intense.

Siddalingaiah is a charming Dalit youth who piques everyone’s interest around him. He is an activist, leader and organiser of the influential Bandaya movement, alongside Devanur Mahadevappa, Aravind Malagatti, Hanumanthaiah and a host of other luminaries, who created a stir with their challenge to the arrogance of Brahminical society. The Bandaya movement talked about the issues of farmers, labourers, the landless and the deprived. Siddalingaiah remains today just as pressing as he was during his schooldays—and just as potent a poet. 

8.     Strike A Blow to Change the World by Eknath Awad (2012)

Translated by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger, 2018)

This is one of the most personal autobiographies for me, because the writer came from my region, Marathwada. He speaks about working there, in one of the most feudal and casteist spaces, at least in the western part of India. Seeing my taluka, my district’s name, represented in English writing was enigmatic. It was an acknowledgement that we also have a story worthy of a publication in the English language.

Awad, fondly known as Jija, is a very famous activist, who is like a hero of a film. He is tall, handsome and winsome. He has the quality to challenge injustice without fear of repercussions. His autobiography reads like short episodes, one victory following another, and these make apparent his valour and negotiation skills.

He recounts how he utilised the law to teach lessons—whether related to fights on the streets and within the courts. I think that is very important. He draws the line “Strike a blow to change the world” from a poem by Annabhao Saathe, one of the great Dalit literary figures. The book also follows the trajectory of a Dalit child fighting to get education and the enormous difficulties it poses, from accessing school while having to balance poverty with family issues to nearly missing examinations.

9.     Dalits: Pasts, Presents, Future by Anand Teltumbde (Routledge, 2016)

 Teltumbde’s Dalits is a comprehensive account of Dalit life and politics. As a much-respected public intellectual and a scholar of Dalit studies, Teltumbde made an immense contribution to the study of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, and his work on India’s political economy is already well-known. Due to the growing onslaught by corporate capitalism, Teltumbde is firm that caste evolved from being a ritualist institution into a “class-like divide between Dalits and the rest,” a framework he uses for his analysis throughout the book. The book ends by looking to the future for the Dalit community and new trends in Dalit politics, its possible entanglement with neoliberalism and NGO-ised activism, and its place within Hindutva politics. Teltumbde believes the coming generations, mostly from the urban class, would lose their “umbilical cord with their respective castes.” This will potentially help upper-class Dalits rise above caste oppression. What remains unresolved is the nature of entrenched caste hierarchy in the rural areas among poor Dalits. This contradiction needs a learned response rather than simply relying on the institutions and character of democracy.

10.  Dalits and the Making of Modern India by Chinnaiah Jangam (Oxford University Press India, 2017)

This book explores misconceptions about caste—such as the idea that the British created and politicised caste in the colonial era—and looks deeply at pre-colonial legacies of caste. Set in Andhra Pradesh, it looks within extensive Telugu archives, examining how anti-caste movements were fought and negotiated in that belt. Jangam also points out the stereotypes prevalent in dominant-caste scholars’ work when they write about Dalits. He does not hesitate to call out his own friends from the dominant castes, who have participated in what he calls epistemic violence against Dalits. It is also no less critical of Christian missionaries who were trying to make Dalits into tokenistic sympathetic figures. This book deserves recognition because it will tell you how to write history, engage with sources and produce prescient, hard-hitting knowledge.

11.  Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History by JV Pawar (2017)

Translated by Rakshit Sonawane (The Marginalized Publication, 2018) 

This is a formidable book about the history of Dalit resistance during and after the Emergency. It chronicles how post-Ambedkarite Dalits were able to tap into internationalist politics and create a global vision, despite local obstacles. Pawar’s laborious work explores his personal archives and certifies his stature as a leading social historian of post-Independence India. He tells the story of the movement from a witness’s point of view and details how the Dalit Panthers clubbed together the struggle against Brahminism, capitalism and feudalism. With this book, Pawar, whose writings in Marathi are already staple reads for students and the general public, emphasises the importance of revisiting the glorious, yet short-lived, period of the Dalit Panthers. 

12.  Love After Babel and Other Poems by Chandramohan S (Daraja Press, 2020)

This text thinks about how, for a Dalit, the poetic space is not just a question of being poetic but concerns surrounding intentionality come in too. The poet Chandramohan S connects his experience with the experiences of people around the world—a woman with a hijab, a black person walking on the street, or those at the forefront of global conflicts. With his suave, rhythmic style, Chandramohan inserts a much-needed Dalit interpretation into the discourse with his poetry.  


Chamcha Age: An Era of the Stooges by Kanshi Ram (1982) (Samyak Prakashan, 2018)

AkkarmashiThe Outcaste by Sharankumar Limbale (1984) (Oxford University Press India, 2013)

The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing edited by Ravikumar and R Azhagarasan (Oxford University Press India, 2012)

Atrophy in Dalit Politics by Gopal Guru (Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, 2005)

Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India by Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine S Newman (Oxford University Press India, 2010)

The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs by Urmila Pawar (Columbia University Press, 2009)

Last Few Years of Dr. Ambedkar by Nanak Chand Rattu (Amrit Publishing House, 1997)

Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari (Sage Publications and Samya, 2017)

Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination by Shailaja Paik (Routledge, 2014)

Civility against Caste: Dalits Politics and Citizenship in Western India by Suryakant Waghmore (Sage Publications, 2013)

The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics by Gaurav J Pathania (Oxford University Press India, 2018)

Dalit Assertion and Bahujan Samaj Party: A Perspective from Below by Vivek Kumar (Samyak Prakashan, 2013)

Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women's Agency-narratives on Caste and Gender Violence by Roja Singh (Zubaan, 2019)

Coming Out as Dalit by Yashica Dutt (Aleph Book Company, 2019)