Caste and the Indian Nationalist Novel: Contesting the Dalit Question in Kanthapura and Untouchable

 

Caste and the Indian Nationalist Novel:
Contesting the Dalit Question in Kanthapura and Untouchable

Ng Qi Siang, Yale-NUS College ’19

(Initially published in YNUJ Volume 3, 2018)


Abstract

This paper discusses the treatment of untouchables in Kanthapura and Untouchable, two of India’s most renowned nationalist novels. Probing a comparison between these texts at once establishes a dialogue between rival conceptions of untouchable citizenship – those espoused by the Indian National Congress establishment (i.e. Gandhi) and others by more crucial untouchable activists such as B. R. Ambedkar during India’s struggle for independence. While the Gandhian view of untouchables espoused in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) purports to improve the social condition of this subaltern community, it does so in a paternalistic manner that denies untouchables agency, self-determination and real improvements in their marginal social position. The only solution to Dalit social exclusion, argues Mulk Raj Anand in Untouchable (1935), is to recognize the systemic structural discrimination that untouchables confront within the caste system and consequently, to allow this subaltern community to work towards the abolition of caste through a distinct movement that better caters to their specific concerns. Through this comparison, this paper not only disrupts the notion of Indian nationalism as an unproblematic and homogenous force behind the leadership of Gandhi and the Congress, but also highlights contestation between different groups of English-educated nationalist leaders and intellectuals regarding the sensitive politics of caste.


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