Ranajit Guha, 'Introduction', in Ranajit Guha (ed.), A Subaltern Studies Reader. 1986—1995 (New
5 Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. ix—xxii at p. xiv.
previous systematic work on the Indian context, we cannot be involved in any micro and macro analyses of social, economic, cultural, political and religious life without taking the structure and functioning of the caste system into primary consideration. Correspondingly I contend that any workable and germane configuration and exposition of this category cannot be fleshed out apart from excavating the caste dimensions of subalternity. The words of Partha Chatterjee are relevant here: 'No matter how we choose to characterize it, subaltern consciousness in the specific cultural context of India cannot but contain caste as a central element in its constitution.'6
The subordination and subjection that marks the life of Dalits in India bring them into the contours of a particularly contextual assembly of subalternity. 'Untouchables [Dalits] have retained their identity as a subordinated people within Indian society, and by this we mean to identify a condition that is far more severe than merely being bottom of an inevitable hierarchy.'7 This is not to deny that collectives held together by commonality of age, gender, class and office do not share in the state of subalternity; rather I am containing the scope of this analysis of domination and exploitation to reflect upon the specific manner by which the institution and ideology of caste engenders a contextual manifestation of subalternity that is tied intrinsically to the task of theology in India. Keeping this in the background, let me put forward a more restricted and focused definition of subaltern, which goes beyond the generalities of thinking of this category in terms of subordinated labouring people (as distinguished from the dominant elite) that are held together by an emerging contradictory consciousness in their search for a free and authentic life. The term subaltern signifies communities that are cumulatively and comprehensively disadvantaged and subordinated through the structure and agency of the caste system, which operates to benefit the dominant groups in retaining their social, economic, political and religious privilege. However, this formal definition will have material implications, which raises the following question: Based on a definition contingent on the caste system, which specific groupings need to be incorporated into the subaltern?
Partha Chatterjee, 'Caste and Subaltern Consciousness', in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 169—209 at p. 169.
Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany, 'The Untouchables', in Oliver Mendelsohn and Upendra Baxi (eds.), The Rights of Subordinated Peoples (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 64-117 at p. 115.
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