There will be general consensus that all communities outside of the caste society will form the substratum of the subaltern. Thus, dalit and Adivasi communities form the foundation of the subaltern. The various dalit communities, which have historically been cast outside human society by the Hindu caste social order, form the majority of the subaltern. It is important not to forget that this is not a homogeneous grouping. On the one hand, dalit is a symbol that embraces over four hundred different communities that are differentiated from each other in spite of sharing in the overall condition of being ejected from the social and religious interactions of Hindu caste society. On the other hand, much of the distinctiveness of the various dalit communities is played out within the framework of cautious repulsion rather than congenial solidarity. Thus, it is often almost impossible to bring together two different dalit communities that live in the neighbourhood of a common village for a common issue. The mutual suspicion and hostility, leaving aside the lack of solidarity, between the Paraiyar and the Arundhathiyar in Tamilnadu and the Malas and the Madhigas in Andhra Pradesh, have led to numerous sociological and theological studies.
The various Adivasi communities have also been kept outside the contours of the caste society. It is only the caste communities that can live within the borders of the main village. The Adivasis, like the dalits, live beyond the boundaries of the village. They have been exploited and marginalized by the caste communities both economically and socially. Adivasis too comprise over four hundred distinct tribes spread all over the country. Apart from the tribes of north east India, where many live in some autonomy from the Hindu caste social order, the Adivasis live in subservience to the caste communities and in tension with local dalit communities. Yet, both these communities share in the common experience of being economically exploited by the caste communities and being ostracized by its social and geographic world. The dalits and the Adivasis represent the underside of Indian society and the refuse of the caste system.
But what about sections of the caste community that share in some of the debilitations and marginalizations that affect dalits and Adivasis? Is there room in the subaltern community for them? The component of the caste community that I am referring to forms the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy, called the asat-Shudras (not-so-pure Shudras). In the four-fold hierarchical caste system the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were considered the twice-born and the Shudras were designated as the once-born. This primarily meant that the caste system conferred certain religious and social privileges on the first three castes, which it did not extend to the fourth caste. For example, the Shudras were traditionally not allowed into temples, were not permitted to read sacred scripture, and were not included in the social intercourse of the twice-born castes. There was a categorical status divide between these two segments within Hindu caste society. In the historical course of their interaction, however, because of the absence of Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in many regions, some sub-castes among the Shudras were able to acquire social and religious rights that were reserved for the twice-born caste communities; they were designated as the sat-Shudras (pure-Shudras) and they gradually took on the social and religious functions of the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The asat-Shudras thus continue to be exploited and marginalized by the twice-born caste communities and also dominated and subjugated by the sat-Shudras. The asat-Shudras are usually landless labourers like the dalits and the Adivasis, and they are at the base of the caste system.
Kancha Ilaiah, an influential contemporary political scientist, proposes that the dalits and the Shudras are bound together not only by their alienation and exploitation from the Brahminic caste communities but also by an alternate set of religious and cultural values that rebut the values of caste communities.8 Ilaiah polarizes Indian society along the lines of Hindu caste community versus dalitbahujan: while the former is inspired and directed by the Brahminic tradition (Hindutva), the latter is funded by its counter values that are drawn from the socio-economic and cultural heritage of labouring people. Such a dalit—Shudra worldview both critiques 'Hindutva philosophy, culture and political economy' and offers a more integrated, inclusive and egalitarian way of collective living. While there are many problems with such an easy binary notion of Indian society, for our purposes I merely want to point to the notion of 'dalitbahujan', which means 'dalit majority', as one contextual offering that seeks to build a cultural and economic basis for a more spacious identity for oppressed and marginalized communities in India.
Ilaiah has not included the Adivasis and has not problematized adequately the distinction between sat-Shudras and asat-Shudras. Nonetheless, his suggestion of the possibilities of the outlines of a civilizational pattern from the underside of Indian society and the forging of a cultural
Kancha Ilaiah, Why I am not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Calcutta: Samya, 1996) and Kancha Ilaiah, 'Productive Labour, Consciousness and History: The Dalitbahujan Alternative', in Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty (eds.), Subaltern Studies IX: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 165—200.
and economic commonality between the dalits and segments of the Shudras are important for our deliberations. I suggest that the category of subaltern be open to the inclusion of asat-Shudra segments with certain caveats. First, the cornerstone of the subaltern is taken to be the dalit and Adivasi communities; their historical experience of being the refuse of the caste society constitutes the basic building blocks of the subaltern community. Secondly, asat-Shudra segments of the caste community can be accommodated if they are willing to both renounce casteist customs (this would involve practising inter-dining and an openness to inter-marrying) and embrace dalit and Adivasi emancipation as the primary agenda. Thirdly, the collective is defined by its 'labouring classes' self-identity, which means that the subalterns set themselves up to be vigilant against co-option by the dominant caste communities, on the one hand saving them from the vested interests of the owner class and on the other hand guarding against the uninterest of the middle class. In other words, the subaltern is a collective of labour- or productivity-based and dalit- and Adivasi-identified communities, which forge solidarity through contradictory consciousness in order to live in freedom and dignity. Thus the prefix 'post' does not mean the eclipse of the dalit and the Adivasi marker; rather, it is a pointer to a future that negotiates difference and construes solidarity without denouncing the richness and depth of significations that are communicated by these identities. Further, it protects such identities from becoming essentialized and parochialized, and it is to this issue that we shall turn our attention in the next section.
subalterns as an anti- caste community
The historical crystallization of dalit identity formation cannot be seen in a religio-cultural vacuum. Dalit notions of self and other, of the historical and metaphysical worlds and of God and goddesses are configured within an ongoing interaction with the all-embracing or, more realistically, all-invading inclinations of the Hindu worldview of the caste community (which I referred to earlier as 'Brahminic or Hindutva' world-visions). Let me be clear that I am not endorsing Moffatt's thesis.9 He, after an in-depth study of the dalits' and the caste communities' various deities, festivals, leadership patterns and transactional rituals, concludes that 'every fundamental entity, relationship, and action found in the religious
Michael Moffatt, An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).
system of the higher castes is also found in the religious system of the Untouchables'.10 He further adds, 'Untouchables and higher caste actors hold virtually identical cultural constructs ... they are in nearly total conceptual and evaluative consensus with one another.'11 He calls this 'structural replication'; that is, according to Moffatt, the dalits replicate structurally, in an interdependent manner, what the caste communities manifest. Thus, Moffatt deduced that dalits religiously, culturally and socially express their own collective identity in conformity with the overall rationale and workings of the essence of the Hindu-Indian ideology based on purity and pollution.
I am critical of Moffatt's research,12 since he represents dalits as submissively living their individual and collective lives by 'replicating' (copying/duplicating/cloning/mirroring) the religious and social ideals and practices of the caste community, and as compliant and passive objects in a worldview that is cleverly devised by the caste community for their own benefit and welfare. He thus characterizes the dalit communities as incapable of self-reflective human agency that would tend to advance collective self-interest. Yet, Moffatt's study contains an element of truth that cannot be discounted, in as much as the formation of dalit identities within the historical context of the overarching and overreaching worldview of Hindu caste communities is constantly exposed to casteist configurations. My own work has attempted to rectify this lapse by delving into the resistive and constructive aspects of the dalit world-view in order to comprehend and circulate elements of this collective self-representation by analysing the symbols of the goddess and the drum. However, this was done against the backdrop of the powerful and persuasive dynamics of the worldview of the caste communities, which was actively involved in co-opting dalit communities to understand themselves within the structure and functioning of the caste system.
Even through the task of valorizing the self-representational and self-reflexive trajectories of the dalits' own worldview one cannot ignore the various ways in which the pervasive logic and practice of this caste-based worldview affects dalit identity formations. I started this reflection by locating such an example in a village in Tamilnadu, where the label dalit is invoked and yet it is appropriated in terms of a sectarian, or, most contextually, a sub-caste-like manner. However, construal of collective
Sathianathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 97—108.
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