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Parallel publics: an Indian history of democracy

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The Smuts Memorial Lecture

Dalit (former untouchable) groups in early twentieth century North India gave democracy an Indic genealogy by drawing from existing devotional and collective forms of practice to fashion a set of new ideological and spatial interventions. Through print and public activism, Dalit activists utilized the fifteenth century saints Raidas and Kabir, key figures of the heterodox Nirgun Bhakti tradition, as spokespersons for ‘human equality’, offering a spiritual critique of caste inequality. These initiatives enabled Dalit activists to engage creatively with liberal ideologies of representation to create novel forms of political practice at the turn of the twentieth century. Counter-demonstrations by Dalit groups from 1922 onwards sought to intervene in debates on democracy by parading with untouchable bodies and capturing public spaces in prominent towns of North India. The term ‘parallel publics’ registers the absence of evidence of these struggles and narratives within dominant Indian archives and academic discourse and recognizes the continued circulation of these histories, discursive forms, and practices within Dalit neighbourhoods.

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies occasional events series.

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