How important is English for the Dalits?

Manoranjan Byapari, the Dalit Bengali novelist who has written searingly about the continuing travails of the Dalits in India, recently spoke along with Kancha Illaiah in Kolkata Book Fair. The conversation turned into a bit of a debate about Dalits learning English. Manoranjan Byapari shared his thoughts about the book fair encounter on his facebook page. His FB status was translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha and then edited by Rahul Bannerjee

Two of us spoke up for the Dalit community at the Kolkata Book Fair this year: Kancha Ilaiah from Telengana and I from Bengal. Kancha sahib stated (or so I was told, for I don’t know English myself) that every Dalit should insist on learning English. He even claimed that English should be taught along with the mother tongue in primary school. He also said that it was because he wrote his first book in English that his voice travelled across the country and around the world very quickly. And that because B R Ambedkar had realised the importance of English deeply, he had written all his works in English, and so on.

What I said was completely different. It is not as though I have to fall in with someone’s views just because they are a celebrity from the Dalit community. I do not acknowledge any such compulsion. I felt what he was saying was incorrect, and so I opposed his viewpoint.

I always emphasise that there is caste within class, and also class within caste. What I have learnt from my own reading and understanding is that, ever since the time of B R Ambedkar, those who have led the agitations highlighting the problems of the Dalit community belonged to its upper reaches.
Those who are Dalits as well as poor face six specific problems: food, clothing, education, housing, healthcare, and social respect. For the leaders of the Dalit community, the first five problems have been solved in one way or another. What remains is just respect. This is the only issue on which they speak from different platforms and write in the media. What they’re trying to say is: we have become well-educated and cultured gentlemen, so it’s time for upper-class/caste society to acknowledge us as equals and accept us in their social circles. This is all they need for their discontent and their rage to die down.

But the ordinary Dalit does not seek such respect. It doesn’t even occur to him. I’ve seen that when a ‘bhadralok’ addresses a rickshaw-driver old enough to be his father in the most humiliating way, and then offers an extra rupee or two as the fare, the same rickshaw-driver is overwhelmed with gratitude. For he can use that money to buy a little more rice. Starvation is agonising, and this will bring him a little relief.

I am reminded of an incident from a long time ago. It was during the Durga Puja celebrations. A member of the Dalit community used to deliver water to different shops. One of his regular customers ran a biriyani store, a shop with a formidable reputation, which ensured that its owner never served stale food. On that particular day some of the biriyani had remained unsold. The next morning, spotting the water-supplier, the shopkeeper shouted – I have about four plates of biriyani from yesterday, come and take it. Courteously the water-supplier replied – Dada, let me just deliver the water to that shop there, I’ll collect it right afterwards. The shopkeeper said – I’ve waited a long time for you, the pots and pans have to be cleaned. Take it right now or I’ll feed it to the dogs.
The water-supplier’s face fell. He went up to the shop and packed the stale biriyani, garnished with humiliation, in his gamchha. He didn’t mind, but I felt myself smarting under the shopkeeper’s assault. Calling the water-supplier, I told him – You’re no better than a dog. He’ll give it to a dog if you don’t take it. How could you accept that biriyani from him after this? Distressed, he said – Dada, you think I don’t know he was humiliating me? But how does it help to know this? I haven’t been able to give my children a treat for Durga Puja. Can you imagine how happy they’ll be when I take this biriyani home? It was this thought that made me swallow his insult.

This then is the life of the Dalit poor. Helpless, powerless, and humiliated. I have risen from this class of people to talk about them. These are people who have no time to think about respect or status, for they’re perpetually stricken by thoughts of how to extricate themselves from starvation. These people, my people, cannot even give their children enough to eat—how will they send them to school? Instead they send them to do the dishes at roadside restaurants, to work as servants at gentlemen’s homes.

Even if they do manage to send them to school, none of the children make it as far as high school. Their education stops at Class Four or Five. How are they going to study in English? If they are put under pressure to learn a foreign language in primary school, they will neither master that language nor become proficient in their mother tongue. It will be far more useful for them to at least learn their own language properly.

And so I opposed Kancha Ilaiah. I said, let those who have the power to do it learn English, or even Hebrew for that matter. But there is no need to impose the language on ordinary people.
English is the language of the gentlemen’s class, it is the language of power. Wherever I go, I see that those who can speak English fluently are held in great esteem. I am aware that becoming experts in English will deepen the respect that Dalit gentlemen command, it will widen their circle of power.
But I will be able to consider fighting for the right to use this language only after I have released the class of people for whom I speak up from their first five problems. That is the war we must win first. Food and clothing. All else can come later.


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Manoranjan Byapari Written by:

Manoranjan Byapari was born in 1950, in Barisal (in erstwhile East Pakistan), and came to West Bengal, India, in the aftermath of partition. As a child in a Dalit refugee family, his childhood was spent tending to cows and goats and working in roadside tea shops and restaurants, and hence he could not attend school. Thereafter he worked as a casual labourer, sweeper, night-watchman, lorry-helper and rickshaw-puller. He was jailed in connection with political activity, where he learnt to read and write. He entered the world of letters in 1981 with the encouragement of the acclaimed Bengali writer, Mahasveta Devi, publishing an autobiographical piece in her Bengali journal, Bortika. He has written twelve novels and over a hundred short stories, besides essays and poems. He was awarded the Suprova Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy for his autobiography, A Chandal Life in History, in 2012. He lives in Kolkata.

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