Casteism, Untouchability and Marginalisation in the Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki


The literary history of Hindi Dalit literature is much shorter than its Marathi and Gujarati counterparts. The explosion of modern Hindi Dalit literature can be traced only in the early 1980s. Some modern critics relate it with north Indian bhakti poetry by Ravidas and Kabir.

After years of obscurity, now the moment of Hindi Dalit literature has arrived. Hindi Dalit novels, short-story and poetry anthologies, autobiographies as well as volumes of literary criticism, are today being published regularly. Since the late-1980s, Dalit literary phrase has shown a remarkable raise throughout the Hindi belt.

From 1947 to 1990, the voice of the Dalit poet has dominated literary expression by Dalits. Dalit literature has entered the syllabi of courses taught at the Lucknow University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Indira Gandhi National Open University and Delhi University. In this regard, the Hindi departments in the universities in the provinces are a few steps ahead of the centrally-funded universities.

Autobiographies in Hindi Dalit Literature:

In this larger area of Dalit literature of Hindi belt, autobiography has been the most significant genre. It was the impact of Marathi Dalit writings that the form autobiography developed in Hindi Dalit literature. Marathi Dalit autobiographies were being translated into Hindi. Around 1952-1954, the autobiography of Hazari was published sequentially in Hindustan under the heading, Ek Harijan Ki Ram Kahani (The Grand Narrative of a Harijan's Life), later it was translated into English entitled An Outcaste Indian. Joothan (Left-Overs) by Om Prakash Valmiki also got attention on national and international scale. Mere Bachpan Mere Kandhon Par (My Childhood On My Shoulders) by Sheoraj Singh Bechain is also having international recognition.

Some well-known Dalit autobiographers of Hindi, like Omprakash Valmiki, were either living in Maharashtra or like Mohandas Naimishray, who were at least in touch with the Dalit Panthers during the literary movement of the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, due to the reservation for SCs/STs there came to existence the Dalit middle class, who was competent to produce and preserve the new literature. Furthermore, the ‘Bahujan Samaj Party’ spread the concept of ‘Dalit identity’ across the Hindi belt, which was basically articulated by Dr. Ambedkar.

While going throw the autobiography, the striking features like Casteism, Untouchability and Marginalisation which are peculiar to the Dalit Autobiographies are observed.


In Indian culture the ‘caste identity’ predominates it remains always with the person right from his birth to death. Sometimes the so called highly educated persons are not free from such meant practice of untouchability. A newly appointed lecturer Shri Narendra Kumar Tyagi, once asked Omprakash for a glass of water. All the boys in the class started murmuring. He went for it but inner hesitation prevented him so returned without it and told him, ‘Master Saheb, I am not permitted even to touch those pitchers. Please send someone else … I belong to the Chuhra caste. … If you still want me to get you water, I will go.’ (Valmiki 64). The master got shocked and said, ‘No … sit down’ (Valmiki 65) and he personally went to have it. The writer calls him a coward and proves his education useless. He didn’t have the daring to drink water from his hand.

There are many examples of the teachers who played crucial role in students’ lives and helped them to build their career. The profession of teaching is noble and the teachers enjoy respect in the society. So, one cannot even imagine of his spiteful outlook towards the students. If he is unkind, he would bring disaster in the lives the students. Even today, the society has the kind of teachers like Brajpal Singh, having very poor psyche. He was teaching Chemistry which was Omprakash’s one of the favourite subjects.

From the very beginning, Brajpal, the teacher was very rude with Omprakash and he was intentionally kept out of the laboratory of Chemistry. Omprakash requested him to permit him to do the experiments and asked why he was doing so. But he didn’t bother to answer his questions. Omprakash discussed the matter with his friend Ram Singh. And as per his advice, he told every thin in detail to the principal. He promised Omprakash that everything would be all right. Due to lack of practice in laboratory, he could not perform well in the practical examinations. As a result, his name was in the list of failures. He got good marks in all other subjects except in the particle of chemistry. This proved that the principal himself was also one of the culprits in the plot against Omprakash. His father, who was already under heavy burden of loan due to the marriage of his daughter Maya, became nervous. There was a dark future before Omprakash only and only due to the shrewd mentality of Brajpal. Thus, Brajpal was proved a demon in the way of progress of Omprakash.

The caste Hindu society has very multifaceted caste structure. Dalits like Chuhra (Bhangi), Chamar, Mahar, Matang, Dhor etc. are called Hindus but they are untouchables and treated worse than animals by the rest of the Hindus. According to the Dalit Avatari leadership, “it is the Bhangi yearning for a religion (dharma) which makes this movement so dynamic and appealing. What Bhangis have had so far is not a religion because they have been deliberately excluded from dharma, but beliefs, deities, bhagats, religious practices and ceremonies of their own making which are the consequences of oppression.”(Webster 98) In the basti, the spirits of Kalwa and Hari Singh Nalwa are worshipped along with the goddess Mai Madaran. They are Hindus but never worship Hindu gods and goddesses. For example, at Janmashtami, in place of Lord Krishna they worship Jaharpir. During Diwali festival too, instead of goddess Lakshmi, they worship Mai Madaran by offering her a piglet or halwa. Right from birth to death, they perform all these rituals. But Omprakash never came under the influence of these gods and goddesses. He feels bhagat as a pretender. The father didn’t like his atheistic approach and was trying to persuade him to believe in what has been coming from their ancestors. There are many questions regarding the prevailing situation of the Hindu society that make Omprakash uneasy such as:
… If I were really a Hindu, would the Hindus hate me so much? Or discriminate against me? Or try to fill me up with caste inferiority over the smallest things? I also wondered why does one have to be a Hindu in order to be a good human being … I have seen and suffered the cruelty of Hindus since childhood. Why does caste superiority and caste pride attack only the weak? Why are Hindus so cruel, so heartless against Dalits? (Valmiki 43)

Even as a child, he could think over the basic questions of the oppression due to the caste system in the Hindus society. It shows the cruel approach of the high caste Hindus. If all are Hindus, why there is discrimination on the name of birth and caste and why all Hindus are not equally treated?

Omprakash is a government employee and a social worker, but the stigma of caste identity always with him. He came in contact with a sub-inspector Qureishi, who was good natured. Whenever he had to go on night duty, he would leave his wife at the house of Omprakash at 2.00 or 2.30 at night. Omprakash’s wife Chanda and Mrs. Qureishi would live like sisters. The caste never bothered them. A new commandant was transferred and his dwelling was next to Qureishi’s. Qureishi wanted to introduce Omprakash to the new Commandant because he was from his district. The writer didn’t want to meet him as he was from high caste. But Qureishi was insisted him saying. ‘You suspect everybody because you have developed a complex.’ (Valmiki 115) Omprakash didn’t utter anything and agreed to go with him. The commandant welcomed them affectionately but when he came to know that he was from Barla village. He enquired, ‘Barla is a Tyagi village. Which caste are you from? (Valmiki 115) Omprakash answered him he was from Chuhra, the commandant’s facial expressions changed abruptly to uneasiness. The next day, he told Qureishi, ‘Qureishi Saheb he is considered a low caste in our district. He and his like are not allowed to cross the threshold and here you are socializing with him, even dining with him.’ (Valmiki 115) Qureishi got astonished to know the attitude of such a educated person and stopped afterwards to say hello to him.

The disease of casteism is so deeply rooted in the minds of India people for centuries. The birth based caste system has made great damage to the Indian society as the person is judged on the basis of his caste not on the basis of his/her merit. If a person from upper caste commits any offense or provokes casteism, he is defended by his followers. But a person from Dalit community fights for the rights of the downtrodden, he is inferred. This happened with Dr. Ambedkar. He tried to give justice to SC, ST and OBC category through the constitution of India. The upper caste people did not like it as he tried to bring the SC, ST and OBC category equal to the people of open category.


In Hindu caste hierarchy Dalits were treated as untouchables. They were not allowed to enter at some particular places like temple, well, shops etc. and were treated worse than animals. After independence it was considered that the plight of the untouchables would be better as the untouchability was legally banned. But the casteist psyche of the higher caste did not change much. Omprakash’s father visited Master Har Phool Singh many time for the admission of Omprakash. After getting admission, Omprakash had to sit near the door away from the other upper caste students. Rest of the students used to sit on the mat while he had to sit on floor. The Tyagi boys would tease him calling ‘Chuhre ka’ and many times he was beaten up by them. There were Ram Singh and Sukkhan Singh from Chamar and Jhinwar community with Omprakash in the school. They all were good at their study but the stigma of caste identity always followed them. If they went wearing neat and clean clothes in the school, the class mates would remark as ‘Abey, Chuhre ka, he has come dressed in new clothes.’ (Valmiki 3) If he and his friends went to school wearing shabby and old clothes, they used to say, ‘Abey, Chuhre ke, get away from us, you stink.’ (Valmiki 3) Thus, they are intentionally teased in the school and its campus that they would leave their study and turn to their traditional work.

When Omprakash admitted in fourth class, Kaliram and another two new teachers used to beat the untouchable students daily without any reason. Once Sukkhan Singh had a boil below the ribs, which was full of pus so he kept the shirt upper side to it to keep the shirt safe as well as to be safe from beating of the teacher. One day teacher’s blow burst the boil, Sukkhan Singh screamed with pain. Still the teacher abused him continuously with such filthy words but for the sake of decency of the Hindi language the writer doesn’t use such words in the text.

Generally, the innocent children are not aware of their caste identity. Therefore, most of the children from upper castes act in natural way with the lower caste children. It was the first time that Omprakash wished to wear an ironed dress. He asked one Dhobi’s son who was his classmate. In the evening he went to get the dress ironed, as soon as the Dhobi saw him, he shouted, ‘Abey Chuhre ka, where do you think you are going? … We don’t wash the clothes of the Chuhra- Chamars. Nor do we iron them. If we iron your clothes, and then the Tagas won’t get their clothes washed by us. We will lose our roti.’ (Valmiki 17). This incident hurt Omprakash lot, his heart became heavy with pain.

Due to the untouchability the talent and career of millions of brilliant students from untouchable communities have been distorted by the so-called high-caste teachers. Many untouchable students left schools only because of the most horrible treatment given to them by their respective teachers. There was a teacher of physical education, Phool Singh Tyagi who abused and beat the students without any proper reason. Besides physical education, he was teaching Hindi and was an in-charge of an N.C.C. His appearance and behaviour would constantly threaten students.

At the prayer time, he used watch the students’ row. He thought Ram Singh made some mischief so he struck at him saying, ‘Abey, Kala Daroga stand up straight or else I will make you crooked with my stick.’ (Valmiki 47) All the student laughed at the remark ‘Kala Daroga.’ Phool Singh got annoyed to the laughter of the students and went straight to Surjan Singh, Omprakash’s cousin, who was behind Ram Singh and all of a sudden he started beating ruthlessly with the help of kicks and belt non-stop till he lied on the ground. His derisive remarks still make Omprakash sad. He used to say, “Abey brother-in-law, progeny of a Chuhra, let me know when you die. You think you are a hero. Today I am going to draw oil from your tresses. (Valmiki 47)

Omprakash calls the Indian culture; ‘cruel and barbaric civilization’, seems suitable when one knows the realities of the wicked nature of the oppressors of this society. The people who have firsthand experience of the brutality of the so called upper class people can feel the wrench.

Savita a daughter of his aged friend Kulkarni, was emotionally coming near to Omprakash. He had very friendly relations with the Kulkarni family that he was invited to take bath at 4 o’clock morning of Diwali festival and Mrs. Kulkarni herself bathed him. It reminded him his mother. But Sudama Patil’s comment was making him restless when he said. ‘Maharashtrian Brahmins, that too, from Poona, they don’t allow Mahars to touch their dishes. That’s why their dishes are kept separate… that is how they behave with all Dalits.’ (Valmiki 95). So his friend Sudam Patil and Omprakash himself both thought that it would be more proper to tell her about his caste.

Omprakash wanted to clarify everything about his caste to Savita. He called on her and asked her the reason of the separate cup of tea given to Mr. Kamble. She replied at ease, ‘…The SCs and the Muslims who come to our house, we keep their dishes separate.’ (Valmiki 97). He gathered courage and asked her, ‘OK … would you like me even if I were an SC?’ (Valmiki 98). But she didn’t believe him. But when he convinced her to know the fact, she wept a lot because she and her family members that he is a Brahmin as his is surname ‘Valmiki’. The writer thought over deeply, “What a lie culture and civilization are?” (Valmiki 98) The Kulkarni family treated him as a family member. Savita loved Omprakash until she comes to know the caste. But as soon as she came to know his caste, she forgot all the precious moments of love and requested him not to disclose it to her parents. She wanted to keep her parents ignorant about the caste of Omprakash.

Here Savita represents the pseudo mentality of the upper class people. For her man made caste is more important than natural instincts which are god gift. It is a firm fact that her parents would have never accepted him as her husband if she would have told about her affair to her parents. After this incident Omprakash didn’t visit the Kulkarni family again as he was to join his regular duties at Chandrapur (Maharashtra). It is pitiable to know that how the caste cast identity dominates over all relationship it is able to break even the bondage of true love.


Marginalization is a kind of cursed system in which individuals or entire communities are kept aloof and they are deprived of basic rights, opportunities and even basic resources. Predominately, the untouchables were compelled to live in a corner of village to divide the village completely into two components i.e. Savarna and Avarna. It becomes very easy to distinguish the filthy surrounding of the Avarnas. Valmiki’s Barla village in Uttar Pradesh is not an exception of it. The locality of upper caste Tagas and the untouchable Chuhras was divided by a dirty pond. A johrei was usually known as Dabbowali. This place was used as an open latrine by the young, new married and old women. The Dabbowali was ever full of naked children, dogs, daily fighting, etc. The cleaning, agricultural and general household was done for the Tagas by the elders of Chuhras but the family couldn’t manage to have two decent meals a day. Many times the Chuhras had to work without wages and grain. Yet, nobody could dare to raise a voice against the landlords. The people from Chuhra communities were not called on by their first names but they were called as ‘Oe Chuhre’, and ‘Abe Chuhre’ the youngsters as well as the elders respectively.

Summing Up:

In Joothan Omprakash describes his experiences as a Dalit. In the caste Hindu society, where a person is considered pure or impure due to his/her birth in a high or low caste. No individual merit is taken into account when there comes the social status. The only criterion for the social status is birth in the particular caste. This autobiography shows the plight of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Omprakash begins with the description of ‘basti’ which is located outside the town. The whereabouts of the Dalit themselves symbolize the stand of the Dalit in the social hierarchy. The life style, the customs, unity and quarrels all is depicted minutely.

Works Cited:

  1. 1. Dangle, Arjun (ed.) Poisoned Bread, Bombay: Orient Longman, 1992. Print.
  2. 2. MLA. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Seventh ed. New Delhi: East West Press Ltd, 2009. Print.
  3. 3. Pawar, Daya, Dalit Sahitya Ssmmelan (Dalit Literature Conference), Lalit, XIII,3, 1976. Print.
  4. 4. Valmiki, Omprakash. Dalit Sahitya ka Saundaryashastra. Delhi: Radhakrishna. 2001. Print.
  5. 5. Valmiki, Omprakash. Joothan: A Dalit’s Life: trans. Arun Prabha Mukherjee. Kolkata: Samya, 2003. Print.
  6. 6. Webster, C.B. Religion and Dalit Liberation – An Examination of Perspective, Manohar, New Delhi: 1999. Print.

Dr. Chetan Joshi, Department of English, Sabarmati Arts and Commerce College, Sabarmati, Ahmedabad.