TN writers divided over following West Bengal’s Dalit Sahitya Akademi idea

Some say such an institution will provide a good platform for new talent, others feel it will result in ‘modern untouchability’ 

On September 14, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced the Dalit Sahitya Akademi to be headed by noted Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari.

The West Bengal government’s announcement that it will set up a Dalit Sahitya Akademi to promote Dalit literature has given rise to discussions among the literary community in Tamil Nadu for a similar institution. However, Dalit writers in the state are divided.

On September 14, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced the Dalit Sahitya Akademi to be headed by noted Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari. Interestingly, a couple of weeks earlier, Byapari, who was working in a government school as a cook, was given a job in a library due to his ill-health.

Tamil Nadu, one of the handful of states in the country with a considerable Dalit population, has a rich history of Dalit movements and publications even as many atrocities against the group continue to be reported.

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The Dalit literature in the state really started to flourish from the 1990s during the birth centenary decade of Dr BR Ambedkar, with some of the works of Dalit writers even being made into films. But in the almost three decades since then, only a handful of Dalit writers from Tamil have been honoured by the Sahitya Akademi. A similar institution in the state will help more people get recognition, feels one section of the Dalit writers’ community. 

However, there is another section that is opposed to such an idea, saying it will result in a new kind of branding and, consequently, “modern untouchability”.

“When you don’t brand writers from other communities such Thevars, Reddiars and Naickars as ‘Thevar writers’ or ‘Reddiar writers’, then why should you brand writers from the Dalit community as ‘Dalit writers’? There is politics in it. When you brand a writer as a ‘Dalit writer’, readers would think that he or she writes only about Dalit issues. We are sidelined and are not expected to write on other common problems. This is modern untouchability,” said Cho Dharman, who was awarded the Sahitya Akademi in 2019.

“A writer can write about any problems. A non-Dalit writer can also write about Dalit issues. A reader will be able to make out who handles Dalit issues better. Let the reader decide to accept or reject the work. Why should others label someone ‘Dalit writer’?,” asked Dharman.

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“Instead of creating such Akademis for specific communities; let the state create a Tamil Nadu Sahitya Akademi just like the Kerala Sahitya Akademi or Karnataka Sahitya Akademi,” he said.

Azhagiya Periyavan, who writes on Dalit issues, however, supports the idea. He says a Dalit Sahitya Akademi will provide a good platform for newcomers from the Dalit background to showcase their work.

Periyavan said there have been efforts in the past for a separate forum for Dalit writers. “In the 1980s, former MP ‘Dalit’ Ezhilmalai founded a publication called the Dalit Sahitya Akademi. The publication brought out the Tamil translation of Ambedkar’s 1948 book The Untouchables: Who were they and why they became untouchables with the title Mannin Maindhargalin Maraikkappatta Varalaru. They also published the thoughts of Iyothee Thass, a pioneer in Dalit activism, under the title K Iyothee Thassa Pandithar Sinthanaigal. In the 1990s, Dalit writers founded the South Indian Dalit Writers and Artists Federation. But all these attempts lost their sheen over the years,” he said.

While small magazines give space to newcomers, there is no exclusive publishing house to publish the works of Dalit writers. Often, the writers are forced to make compromises in their works to get them published, said Periyavan.

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Stalin Rajangam, a researcher focusing on Dalit issues, said the idea should be welcome. “Only three states — Maharashtra (from the 1970s), Karnataka (from the 1980s) and Tamil Nadu (from the 1990s) — have the separate genre called ‘Dalit literature’, which includes all forms of literary works like poetry, short stories, essays, novels and autobiographies. In West Bengal, such an initiative has started only now,” he said. “Let’s welcome the idea of a separate Sahitya Akademi. After a certain period, let the Dalit writers decide whether they need a separate Akademi or not,” he said

In Tamil Nadu, Dalit writing paves the way for other subaltern writings such as feminist literature. If the government sets up an Akademi for Dalits, it will do more good, he said.

“Unfortunately, the Dravidian parties are not focussing on documenting their own literature. CN Annadurai’s writings, for instance, have not been documented fully until now. While that is the case, it is wrong to expect the government here to set up an Akademi for Dalits,” Rajangam added.

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