AMRIT DHILLON | 21 OCTOBER, 2016
A 'Dalit Museum' Is A Better Idea
Talk has begun of a ‘Ram Museum’ in Ayodhya. A Dalit Museum is a better idea, not in Ayodhya, of course, but in the capital. Something big and bold.
Last month, African Americans got their own stunning museum on the National Mall in Washington DC to document what happened to them and what they have contributed to America.
President Barack Obama said during the opening: “African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.” The National Museum of African American History and Culture depicts the events of the 400 years since the first slave ships landed.
So, what about a museum in New Delhi to chronicle dalits who have been exploited, humiliated, and degraded for, not 400 years but 2,000 years and whose story too is not the ‘underside’ of a larger Indian story but is ‘central’ to it?
This is not even a subject of debate, never mind on the drawing board. The experiences of dalits, how they worked and slaved, how they developed their own culture and traditions in response to the merciless exclusion by Hindu society - none of it is preserved.
Of course, some history and anthropology textbooks cover the history of dalits. And the life of Dr Ambedkar has been well documented. But, on the whole, there is very little. Since they were denied education, dalits themselves have not been able to document their experiences. Very few wrote memoirs or autobiographies.
Yet there is generation of elderly dalits who may well recall their childhoods and the lives of their grand-parents with fascinating facts and stories but no one is saving these testimonies and first-hand accounts.
Dalit author and columnist, Chandra Bhan Prasad, says that a large amount of knowledge will be lost with their passing: of the foods they were forced to eat, of the clothes they were told to wear, and the particular musical instruments they had to fashion for themselves because they were not allowed to play certain kinds of instruments.
In these homes, something might still remain of artefacts, utensils, photographs and jewellery. Dalit women had to wear their sari in a particular way and were allowed to wear only certain ornaments, such as tin bangles. Dalits had to wear a bell around their necks which they had to ring to alert any oncoming Brahmin of their presence lest it should pollute him.
Since no one is collecting, archiving, documenting and preserving these artefacts, much of dalit history will be lost. It is important to retain it, not only to ensure that no Indian forgets how dalits were dehumanized but also to make sure no Indian forgets what the upper castes have been capable of. It is so convenient for them to forget.
Museums are important so that we understand our collective heritage and reflect on our past. Good museums do things that touch us and move us. Since few upper caste Hindus ever socialize with dalits, how can they have any sense of this aspect of their past? By entering a Dalit Museum, at least a sliver of that experience will be brought alive to them.
South Africa has an Apartheid Museum, opened in 2001. In a brilliant touch, visitors pay the admission fee and are then arbitrarily assigned a racial classification: blacks, whites, or non-whites. Then they are directed to one of two revolving doors, one for blacks, one for whites. Straight away, on entering, they experience the racial classification and segregation.
Perhaps the Dalit Museum could segregate people randomly into different castes, with plastic tags around their wrists. The tags will determine, when they go for a coffee into the museum café, whether they sit outside the toilet or by the nice window (maybe the Brahmins would have to clean the toilet before being allowed to have a coffee!), what crockery will be used to serve them, what kinds of food they are allowed to order and what kind of service – contemptuous or polite – they receive.
But first of all, where is the Indian politician with the vision, where is the Trust or Foundation with the will, and where is the billionaire prepared to bankroll a Dalit Museum chronicling the lives of India’s 160 million people and their ancestors?