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The changing fabric of Dalit life

126 years after his birth, Ambedkar’s sartorial-political statement continues to inspire the way Dalits dress and present themselves


B.R. Ambedkar points one finger of his right hand into the void, while the other hand tightly holds the Constitution. Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
B.R. Ambedkar points one finger of his right hand into the void, while the other hand tightly holds the Constitution. Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Dressed in a three-piece blue suit with a red tie, hair neatly slicked back, sporting black thick-rimmed glasses and a smile, B.R. Ambedkar points one finger of his right hand into the void, while the other hand tightly holds the Constitution.

In this image of the father of India’s Constitution, which is reproduced in every statue erected around the country, to his photograph with Mahatma Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malaviya, among others, at the second 1931 Round Table Conference in London, and from a group photograph with seven members of the Constitution drafting committee in 1947, to a family photograph with his wife, son and pet dog Tobby, there is one element in common: a suit.

In one of his poems, Yadi Acchoot Pahanta Hai Saaf Kapdey (If The Untouchable Wears Clean Clothes), Ambedkar writes: “Why is there atrocity on an untouchable, when he puts on clothes that are clean? How is a Hindu hurt by it?”

Like Gandhi’s dhoti, Ambedkar’s Western suit, too, made a political statement about India’s clothing hierarchy. For Ambedkar, the suit was a strategy for political resistance, an assertion of power, a means to break the caste barrier in a society that had rules even for the clothes that Dalits—or what the upper castes called untouchables—could or could not wear.

“Manudharma, or the laws of Manu, codify the rights and duties of various social groups prearranged into castes. According to that, we are told we can only wear the apparel of corpses, or ragged, old, dirty clothes. We are not supposed to be nicely dressed or even be clean,” says Dalit entrepreneur and writer Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Historically, upper-caste oppression found expression in sartorial superiority—a practice that lingers even today as a way of reining in Dalit aspirations.

Ajai Singh. Photographs by Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Ajai Singh. Photographs by Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Dalits were prohibited from wearing clothing and sandals from much before Ambedkar’s time. Even in places where clothes were allowed, the rules prohibited them from dressing well or even being fully clad. The dhoti could not be worn full length, the pleats could only be at the back, the blouse had to be of a particular type, the turban a certain colour, usually black and, in some places (like Travancore), the colour white was prohibited.

In the early 1800s, for example, the men and women of the Nadar community in the state of Travancore are known to have been forced to keep their upper bodies uncovered as a mark of respect to upper castes; a ‘breast tax’ was levied if they flouted the rule. If they had to cross an upper-caste locality, some Dalits would wrap clean clothes in a dirty rag and change only after passing that area. Elsewhere, Dalits sprinkled dirty water on new clothes to make them “caste-appropriate”.

Their bodies had to constantly bear what Emma Tarlo, professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, calls “symbols of untouchability” in her book Clothing Matters: Dress And Identity In India.

“History has these normative functions for a particular community people, and that extended to clothes as well. Dalits were victims of all kinds of exclusions. There is no way they could have been given any decision-making powers as far as anything was concerned. The clothes they wore were whatever they were given or whatever they were allowed to wear,” says Vivek Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

In some cases, it was the occupation that decided the attire. Since the most common was field labour, a dhoti that reached the knees was considered ideal. Or, as the book Khadi: Gandhi’s Mega Symbol Of Subversion by Peter Gonsalves mentions: “The Chandala were to work at the crematorium, hang criminals, drag those who attempted suicide in public, whip adulterous women, besides their usual occupation as hunters, fowlers and butchers. The clothes and ornaments they were allowed to wear were those of the dead and the executed.”

Ajay Singh with residents of Rasoolpur.
Ajay Singh with residents of Rasoolpur.

“Dalit women,” says Prof. Kumar, “were involved in midwifery—so whatever was there which was soiled during childbirth, was given to them. Dalit women also performed duties at the time of death, so whatever was left by the dead, they would get that.”

Premwati, a Dalit woman in her late 70s who lives in a village close to Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, wears what could pass off as a man’s shirt and a sari, one end of which drapes her head. She says this is the kind of shirt she wore even when she was young,that’s how everyone in her community dressed. The shirt is, in fact, a common sight among all women of her age group in the community. Dulari Devi, 75, says that because upper-caste men always looked at lower-caste women as easy prey, their men wanted the women to cover themselves as much as possible.

Both Premwati and Dulari Devi are wearing glass bangles, nosepins, earrings and anklets, but their necks are unadorned. As the book Sangati (Events) by Bama explains, neckpieces were for the upper castes, as were gold and silver, even brass. Most of the ornaments that Dalit women wore in the past were made of iron; even if they could afford to wear a bit of gold, they would be too embarrassed to do so.

Kanta Prasad, 65, who retired as a sales-tax head from the Uttar Pradesh government’s commercial tax department, says that even if an upper-caste person gave a lower-caste family clean, new clothes, they would not wear them. “How can a jackal wear the clothes of a tiger? That wouldn’t make him a tiger, right? It would just draw unnecessary attention,” says Prasad.

Premwati.
Premwati.

To ensure upper caste hand-me-downs didn’t give the impression that they were trying to pass off as upper castes, Dalits had to have identifying symbols: a black thread around their neck, a spittoon attached to their bodies, a branch around their waists, an untwisted turban called Taflad or a broom in their hands. While conducting interviews for her book, Tarlo had asked upper castes how they identified a Dalit; they responded by saying that they were dirty and filthy.

Rasoolpur, a village of around 170 households in Khurja tehsil, Bulandshahr, is a maze of narrow, dusty lanes strewn with buffalo dung. The veranda of each house is freshly swept, and the village folk are neatly dressed. “The pressure to look good, to be clean, is so much on Dalits because everyone assumes we are filthy untouchables. Even if a Brahmin is wearing torn clothes, he is still babu saheb,” says Chandra Bhan.

Ajai Singh’s childhood was spent in Rasoolpur. Now 37, he says he was privileged as he could go to school and afford more than just a pair of clothes. But on his way to school one day in 1991, he passed by a lane inhabited by Rajputs. As always, his shirt was tucked into his navy blue pants and his hair, well oiled, was parted on the left. An upper-caste man came up to him, pulled out his tucked-in shirt, sprung open the top two buttons of his shirt, tousled his hair, and said, “Remember, you are a Dalit.”

This is not an isolated incident.

Things may be beginning to change but the findings of a 2001-02 study—conducted by the non-governmental organization ActionAid in 565 villages across 11 states—found that untouchability was still being practised, in one form or the other, mostly in the private and religious spheres. In one out of 10 villages, Dalits were not allowed to wear new or bright clothes, sunglasses or footwear, or even use umbrellas or bicycles.

In January, a Dalit man in Karnataka was beaten up, stripped and then forced to wear a dead man’s clothes (The New Indian Express, 27 January). In 2015, a 22-year-old was thrashed for folding up his lungi while crossing an upper-caste street in Tamil Nadu (The New Indian Express, October 2015). In 2012, a Dalit in Haryana was beaten up for wearing a white shirt (Dainik Bhaskar, May 2012). In 2006, a Dalit in Rajasthan was assaulted for wearing new jeans and a T-shirt (The Times Of India, July 2007). In 2012, S. Ramadoss, the founder of the Tamil Nadu political party Pattali Makkal Katchi, sparked off a controversy by saying Dalit men sporting jeans, T-shirts and fancy glasses were luring upper-caste women into unworkable marriages.

“Are Dalits the only ones wearing Western clothes? The meaning of statements like this is, how dare Dalits wear such clothes and break the tradition of this age-old form of discrimination?” says Chandra Bhan.

A PhD in Hindi, Ajai Singh is now the principal of a school in Khurja, and can afford to laugh about how he quietly obeyed Rajput diktats. Most men in his village today wear clothes that his grandfather couldn’t have imagined wearing; there are around 50 bikes in the village and around 17 autorickshaws, and almost every house has at least two smartphones. Material markers are slowly overshadowing markers that reveal one’s caste or social station.

Seven decades after Ambedkar, seeing a Dalit man in a suit is not uncommon, although discrimination is still rife.

Dalits have achieved a degree of upward mobility that would have been unimaginable in the past. “Dalits these days can buy these symbols of power—mobile phones, satellite TV connections, bikes. And unlike the wealthy who are hiding their money, if Dalits have even a little money, they will show that off,” says Singh.

A case in point is Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. In 2003, during her birthday celebrations, she wore a diamond necklace, diamond-studded earrings and a bracelet. A national newspaper covering the event ran this headline on its front page: “For the oppressed, covered in diamonds—govt plays host at Mayawati’s birthday bash”.

The chairman of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dicci), billionaire Milind Kamble, says he is particular about his crisp shirts and well-cut suits. At Dicci, being well-dressed—in a suit—and clean-shaven is part of the dress code. Says Kamble: “Society wanted us to look ugly and dirty. Following Ambedkar, we are just trying to fight this discrimination.”

While there may be little that ostensibly distinguishes the upper castes from Dalits today, the Dalit flamboyance in attire (for those who can afford it) is hard to ignore. In Rasoolpur, teenage boys wear hats, colourful T-shirts and Bermuda pants; young girls colour their hair and sport stylish haircuts. Both symbolize the emergence of a new social order. Nineteen-year-old Yogesh Kumari’s father, who is a “10th fail”, as she puts it, ensured his daughter went to college. Even today though, she is called the chamariya’s daughter and teased about her clean clothes.

Globalization, which has influenced the way Indians dress, has also brought about a transformation in the way Dalits dress and express themselves. “Since we have this opportunity now, we want to do it all. People say our clothes are too blingy or we are too flamboyant. But isn’t this what happened with the blacks in the US as well?” asks Chandra Bhan.

In her book Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism And The Styling Of Black Diasporic Identity, Monica L. Miller writes about African-Americans: “Fastidiousness and ostentation in dress would seem to matter only to those keeping up with haute couture, but such choices are instead descriptive of radical changes in social, economic, and political hierarchies that result in new expressions of class, gender, sexual, national and racial identities.”

Similarly, in the midst of war and abject poverty in the Congolese capital Brazzaville, there are men who dress in tailored suits, silk ties and fancy footwear, to reclaim political dominance in times of economic deprivation.

For Dalits then, clothes reflect the shift in social and economic station assigned to them: from oppressed to relatively free, from poverty-riddled to empowered and upwardly mobile.

“The market today has clothes for everyone. Of course, the quality and price are different, but there is a conscious effort by Dalits to belong. Aspirations are more than before, courage is more, and the resistance is slowly building up,” says Padma Shri awardee and Patna-based NGO Nari Gunjan’s Sudha Varghese.

How Dalits are breaking the sartorial caste barrier has not been documented yet, but educated youth like Kumari and Singh, and the rise in the number of Dalit billionaires (now estimated at around 50) like Kamble, are indicators that the community is fighting the status quo, including its right to dress with flair.

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