Nearly simultaneously, it’s the High Holy Days, Eid (last week), and now in the Hindu tradition, Dussehra, the celebration of the defeat of Ravana by Rama. (For my “Bong” friends, I believe it was also just Durga Puja over the weekend.) But not everyone celebrates religious holidays the same way. Case in point:
I was intrigued to see a headline from an Indian newspaper offering a surprising twist on Dussehra: “Dalits celebrate ‘Ravana Mela’ to oppose ‘Dussehra’.” There isn’t a whole lot there to explain how this has come about, or how widespread it is (the article only indicates that the group involved is the “Dalit Panther” organization in Kanpur, and that it’s been going on for about ten years). Another big question that remains unanswered from the news coverage I have seen is how the local community reacts to the pro-Ravana interpretation of Dussehra these folks are presenting. Is there active opposition, or is it tolerated? (Wikipedia lists a number of Ravana Temples in various places throughout India, including Kanpur, though it’s not clear whether caste is a factor in Ravana worship in general.)
Though I haven’t been able to find very much information about the “anti-Dussehra” practitioners, they do raise some interesting issues. One is their premise that the Ramayana is a caste narrative.
There is a hallowed tradition of differing interpretations of texts like the Ramayana in India. For instance, I know from reading Paula Richman’s work that there has been a long tradition, going back to the 1950s, of Tamil/Dravidian activists interpreting Rama’s quest as an anti-Dravidian crusade. In an article from the groundbreaking anthology, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition, Richman wrote about a Tamil activist named E.V. Ramasami, who published a Ravana-centric Anti-Ramayana in 1956, and actually went to jail for it. (See more about E.V. Ramasami’s later years at Wikipedia). However, the main focus in E.V. Ramasami’s approach, if I remember correctly, was regionalism: he saw Ravana as a defender of the “South” against Rama’s “Northern” incursions (caste was, admittedly, also a major factor for him). The Dalit Panthers are doing something a bit different.
But I wonder whether the caste interpretation is just in the mind of Dalit activists, or whether it goes the other way as well. Is there also a tradition amongst high-caste Hindus of interpreting the conflict between Rama and Ravana along caste lines? If so, that might help explain where the Dalit activists are coming from. Then again, if Rama vs. Ravana is really just a broader “good vs. evil” struggle, the injection of caste might be seen as idiosyncratic and unproductive.