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Amrit Dhillon

Amrit Dhillon

amrit dhillon

Why not a museum for the Dalits of India? Add to ...

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based journalist.

At long last, African-Americans have their own stunning museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to document their story and what they have done for the United States. As President Barack Obama said at its opening last Saturday: “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 ship landed.

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So how about a museum in New Delhi to chronicle the Dalits (earlier known as “untouchables”) of India who were exploited, demeaned and oppressed by the Hindu upper castes for 2,000 years? In India, this isn’t even a subject of debate, never mind a matter for 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.

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Some history and anthropology textbooks, of course, do cover the history of Dalits. And the life of India’s most famous Dalit, Babasaheb Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism to escape the caste system, has been well documented. But there is little else.

Because they were denied education, Dalits themselves have not been able to document their experiences. Very few wrote memoirs or autobiographies. There is generation of elderly Dalits who may well recall their childhoods and the lives of their grandparents, but no one is recording or saving their testimonies and first-hand accounts.

Dalit author and columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad says a large amount of knowledge will be lost with the passing of this older generation: of the foods they were forced to eat, of the clothes they were told to wear and of the musical instruments they had to fashion for themselves because they were not allowed to play certain kinds of instruments.

In their homes, there may still remain artifacts of Dalit life, such as utensils, photographs and jewellery. Dalit women, for example, 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 pollute him.

Because no one is collecting, archiving, documenting and preserving these personal histories and artifacts, 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, who form the self-indulgent and self-regarding elite of today, have been capable of.

American poet Sonia Sanchez, speaking about the opening of the African-American museum, told The Washington Post: “The great thing about it is that we came out of slavery and we built. And we build and we build, and that’s what we’ve done – in spite of all kinds of terrible things that have happened to us, we’ve built … churches and schools, and homes … We are a part of this great American landscape, and you are going to remember us. You’re going to remember us when you come to this museum.”

Where is the Indian politician with the vision, where is the trust or foundation with the will, and where is the Indian billionaire prepared to bankroll a Dalit museum to chronicle the lives of the country’s 160 million Dalits and their ancestors?

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