Subalterns identity politics and Christian theology in India

Sathianathan Clarke puzzles on the ground, remembering the context

Let me start by stating how I have come to forge a relationship between subalternity, identity politics and Christian theology in India. In 2001 I took my class of twenty-four students to spend three days with a dalit Christian community in a Tamilnadu village in south India.1 I made this a requirement for my course on 'dalit theology', which I taught from 1996 to 2004 at the United Theological College, Bangalore. This pilgrimage was designed to enable all of us to journey into the community we studied in our classrooms. But it was also a journey into ourselves: our notions of self and other, our conceptions of mission and our realization of the nature of the Indian Church. During this visit, as is our custom, we slept and prayed in the church, ate, sang and danced with the families and spent our time visiting the various communities that made up this village.

Through our time there we discovered that the Indian community seemed to be divided along several lines. To begin with there was the caste community and the dalit community partition: there existed the obvious conventional division between the caste community and the dalit community. Apart from geographical distance, the lives of these two respective communities revolved around their own deities, their own cultural festivities and their own socio-economic network of interaction. Then, as is true of much of rural India, there was the intra-dalit community division. The Paraiyar was numerically the largest dalit community, which is traditionally engaged in agricultural labour. The Arundhathiyar was numerically the smaller dalit community, which is traditionally engaged with the leather business. The latter community was responsible for

A version of this chapter was first presented at a public lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

New Jersey, in October 2002.

curing leather and manufacturing various leather articles (from footwear to buckets used for agriculture). Finally, and also quite characteristic of Indian social life, there was the dalit community and the Adivasi community separation. The two dalit communities were deliberately distanced from another oppressed and marginalized community. The Irrullar, an outcast Adivasi community, was considered so low in rank and status that they were also looked down upon by the dalits. They traditionally live from harvesting the natural world and hunting birds and small animals.

These divisions have a long and complex history. However, while the division between the caste community and the dalits and Adivasis, on the one hand, has been addressed and dealt with in a variety of ways, the rupture between the dalit communities themselves and between the dalits and the Adivasis, on the other, has hardly been deliberated. Most alarming is the fact that in recent years the rift between the two dalit communities has deepened. Further, both the dalit communities have almost nothing to do with the Adivasis. Thus, the Irrullar community was not considered part of the 'reality' of the dalits.

I noted three things from my visit, which are relevant to this reflection. First, the animosity of the Paraiyars was directed against the Arundhathiyars rather than the caste communities. This stemmed from a recent panchyat election in which the Arundhathiyars supported a caste Hindu man against the dalit Christian women from the Paraiyar community. The Christian dalits tried to dissuade us from visiting the Arundhathiyar colony. In discussions it was clear that they did not think that anyone else shared the dalit identity with them. Second, the temple in the Arundhathiyar area, which was built over the last two years, was crowded with icons of non-dalit gods and goddesses. The goddess Mariyamman, who they claimed was their territorial deity, was there, but she was one among many others without any prominent position in the small temple. The person who functions as the priest was deliberately ambiguous in answering my question concerning this, and said: 'We had to please the many caste Hindus that gave us most of the money to build this temple, but only Mariyamman is taken out and made to bless our colony during the yearly religious festival.' In contrast to the Arundhathiyar, the Christians from the Paraiyar community have constructed a large Church with a tall bell-tower. The church building has nothing in it that reflects any local religious or cultural art forms or architectural styles. The cross and the church bell are the most conspicuous symbols that are lifted high on this edifice; a concrete signifier, perhaps, of the Paraiyar community's aspiration to pursue a new and different identity. Third, the indifference of the Christian dalits to the plight of the Adivasis was overt. There was an air of superiority that they communicated when talking about the Irrullar. The Paraiyar community confidently asserted that the caste communities treat them with much greater respect than the Irrullar because the latter were 'dirty' and 'unclean'. Ironically, these were the same terms that caste communities have traditionally used to distinguish themselves from the dalits.

All three communities outside the caste society (Paraiyar, Arundhathiyar and Irrullar) are socially marginalized and economically exploited, currently working as agricultural labourers on the lands owned by the caste community, and yet their inter-relationships among themselves are played out as if they have internalized the mindset of caste society. They live in their own separate geographical spaces and have their own cultural and religious shrines and festivals. Moreover, they tend to view their social interactions within a hierarchical framework. Thus, there is an implicit aversion to inter-dining and there is an explicit rejection of inter-marriage between themselves as communities. In fact, they informed us that some of the major clashes between these communities emanated either from differences about interpretations of the role that one of these communities ought to have played in the other's religious festivals or from romances that had taken place across their conventionally defined community lines. All three of these communities were treated as being outside the caste society. Thus, they were equally inferior to the populace of the main village, which made up the caste communities, but still they constantly vied for a more favourable status in their relationship with the caste community.

The situation that I have just described is not atypical. Let me underscore one finding at this juncture: dalit Christian communities may have concretized and contextualized the Christian gospel into their own particular historical context but this has not enabled them to broaden the scope of this good news to build community solidarity with similar oppressed communities. Nevertheless, in the doing of contextual theology, which is also liberational in objective, much has been achieved; for example, from the early i980s a voice has been given to local, thus far excluded, communities and the particular cultural resources of marginal communities have altered the contours and the contents of theology. Dalit theology and tribal theology are the concrete expressions of such a needed trajectory, and yet there may be reasons to deliberate on a different course of direction.

The time is ripe, I believe, to re-examine Indian Christian theology. The twenty odd years of dalit and tribal theology have succeeded to some extent in re-locating God. God was unsettled from the security of the heavens and brought low down to be touched, heard and seen among a broken people. God was released from various forms of Brahminic captivity and rehabilitated into the everyday struggles of a striving and resisting out-caste people. God was debugged of all the conceptual and metaphysical riddles of reason and scattered into the body politics of specific marginalized communities. Even so, all these theologies appear to have moved in one particular direction: linking God preferentially with one marginalized community without any consideration for links with other communities for whom God would have the same preferential option. Thus, there is the contracting of God to be with one specific local community, that is, the Paraiyars in this case, without the effects that would be produced by flowing sideways, that is, to the Arundhathiyar in this case. Hard questions are not to be evaded: might there be some connection between the particularizing and localizing of Indian contextual theology and its propensity toward parochialism and provincialism? Or to put the issue more bluntly, must concretizing theology lead inevitably to a form of communalization? There can be no doubt that more on-the-ground study must go into this question before it can be answered one way or another.

This chapter is an interim and constructive effort to address this issue. First, I suggest that we seriously invoke a roomier conception of community, which is less prone to becoming insular and more open to plugging into the Jesus as the Christ momentum. This of course I will do without surrendering the contextual and liberative objectives of theology. Second, after the process of working out my contention that 'subaltern' be accepted as such a candidate and relating its implication for identity politics in India, I reflect on the theological affiliations that lie between and betwixt the deliberation. This culminates in a self-reflexive effort to define Christian theology.

subaltern as an interpretive posture and a category of interpreters

I suggest that we employ the category of 'subaltern' to make space for the solidarity of various particularized and parochialized identities among the marginalized peoples of India. I utilize the term 'subaltern' in the activity of theology both as an interpretive posture and as a category of interpreters; in both cases, it qualifies the subjectivity that the theologian embraces.

Let me first comment on subaltern as an interpretive posture. The presupposition underlying such a declaration of a definite interpretive standpoint (or professed subjectivity) includes at least two components. On the one hand, it asserts that even if there is an objective viewpoint it is not achievable in the realm of theology. This liability for the discipline of theology stems from the fact that because it deals with the symbol of God in relation to human beings it cannot be done outside of human experience. Theology is not a recording or photographing of God's reflection on God followed by a duplicating of this knowledge to all human beings; rather it is reflection done about God by human beings. It is thus a discourse about God as related to human beings and the world undertaken by human beings; for the glory of God no doubt, but not without being saturated by the various aspects of human beings in their search for their own wholeness before God and in relationship to all of creation. On the other hand, the taking on of a specific viewpoint presumes a capacity to transcend the notion that theology is the testimony of each individual's experience concerning God, as though soliloquy is the only possibility open for this discipline. Rather, theology is understood to be inter-subjective; it cannot eliminate the community that exists around the individual theologian. To put it another way, since the 'I' that projects itself as the subject is socially constructed and committed, it is not possible to distil and craft a solipsistic worldview on God. A certain tension can be detected at the intersection between claiming one's own human situatedness in theological discourse and seeking to express that in communitarian ways, which is further complicated by the fact that such an interpretive standpoint is not chosen in a vacuum. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is relevant in determining the place of the 'subaltern' in the midst of the intricate mechanisms of power.

Gramsci, an Italian Marxist writing to counter Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, substituted the much-used phrase 'proletarian classes' with the word 'subaltern'. In proposing this term Gramsci was referring to the working classes, which were the objects of the economic and ideological exploitation of the dominating elite. He concentrated on the non-economic dimensions that the elite utilized to sustain their domination over the subaltern. He suggested that in order to sustain their control over the working masses, the dominating elite had to weave convincing and all-embracing worldviews, which would make it acceptable and meaningful to live under such repressive conditions. Hegemony, the name that Gramsci gave to this process, operates both to legitimize the conditions of domination and to offer a rationale for encouraging the dominated to participate in their own domination. Even a cursory reading of Gramsci's notion of hegemony will suffice to throw light on the vulnerability of theology; that is, it could easily serve the purposes of hegemony. Liberation theology was well aware of this propensity of theology and, in order to counter this tendency, it therefore calls for theologians to make a preferential option for the poor and the excluded, thereby undercutting any hegemonic propensity in theology. The theological rationale however stemmed from God's own preferential option for the poor as symbolized by Jesus as the Christ. Theologians imitate God's own bias toward the poor by committing themselves to the viewpoint of the marginalized and oppressed.

In the Indian context, however, one of the draw-backs in this process that I have pointed to has to do with the parochializing and commu-nalizing of the working out of such a preferential option. Thus, God's preferential option is actualized in essentialist terms, as though there is an ethnic boundary that must contain this privileged relationship between God and God's people. This in no uncertain terms negates the dynamic that was initiated and mediated by Jesus as the Christ: he ended the traditional understanding of God's covenant with people in terms of ethnicity and opened a new pattern of relationality. Again a Gramscian insight might help us in retaining the idea of a preferential option for the subaltern without limiting its ramifications to any one specific ethnic community. One way that Gramsci interprets the concept of subaltern accentuates the negative: people as objects of the process of hegemony, which is instrumentalized by the elites. But one can also tease out a positive reading from Gramsci's commentary on the subaltern: the emergence of a 'contradictory consciousness' in subalterns as they forge solidarity among themselves in order to live in freedom and dignity. Thus the subaltern are the working classes that are connected together, not by any ethnic or essentialist traits, but by their 'good sense', which seeks to escape the hegemonizing scheme of the elites in order to live in freedom and dignity. Dalits, Adivasis and other subordinated communities are bound together by a consciousness rather than an ethnicity.

What does this mean for the task of theology? Taking the cue from Gramsci, I contend that Indian Christian theology needs to interrogate and reinterpret God's preferential option in terms of process rather than in substantive ways. To put this in the language of physics: in the dynamics of energy rather than the stuff of mass. Thus, in advocating God as preferentially opting to covenant with subalterns we are stressing that God is aligned with the activity of people who participate in countering hegemony and embracing their own authentic freedom and dignity. This thrust calls for experiencing and expressing God's presence through the dynamic movement of people struggling for life and liberty. In line with this way of thinking, dalits and Adivasis and other marginalized groups are challenged to move beyond the claim that God is on their side because of their ethnicity. Rather, the emphasis is on participatory knowing, which involves a struggle alongside God in the cooperative journey toward authentic and free life. Thus, there is no claim to an ontological privilege in their relationship with God; rather, claiming God is conceived of as participating in God's working to bring about free and dignified life. For dalits and Adivasis, just as for all human beings, God is known as the source, sustainer and goal of life. Nonetheless, in an indirect way, because it is primarily the oppressed and exploited (dalits and Adivasis as the case in India suggests) that want to subvert the unjust and oppressive socio-economic and religio-cultural structures, they will more likely join in the working of God to bring about such a life of freedom and dignity for all, especially the subaltern. So implicitly participation in solidarity with God's liberative working is in a particular way more appealing and germane to the oppressed and alienated. Within this logistic scheme the issue is not set up in a manner whereby God is seen only on the side of dalits and Adivasis; rather, the argument seems to hinge on the practical possibility that if knowledge of God is conceived of in terms of participatory knowing through commitment to God's working in the world, then it is most plausible that the oppressed and alienated will inevitably take the side of God.

For the dalits, Adivasis and the other oppressed communities, this theological position, which does not presuppose the privileging of any human collective in terms of their ethnic reality, is a move away from the hierarchical mindset that leads to claims of exclusive priority of God's favour. First, it saves communities from the politics of measuring their own worth before God in direct proportion to the weight of their suffering; a trend that resorts to quantifying oppression in terms of once- or twice- or thrice-alienated, as if the more one accumulates the affects of marginalization the more one is preferred by God. Secondly, it retains the inclusive character of God while at the same time formulating a crucial role for the marginalized based on their participation in their own lib-erative struggles. Thirdly, it proposes an understanding of God's relationship with God's people which is based on participation in God's activity of restoring human freedom and dignity, so that all marginalized groups cannot expect anything apart from their own involvement. Finally, it reiterates the principle of self-help and self-worth in the process of liberation; total or adequate liberation is indeed a gift from God to all of creation but it is something which must be appropriated and shared in. This last point in itself frees dalits, Adivasis and the other oppressed groups from the false hope that liberation is a gift that can be received through God by the good will of the caste communities. The only hope for all exploited people lies in the working of God, who is the source, sustainer and goal of free and authentic life for all, and their own willingness and commitment to participate alongside God in this purposive and ongoing activity.

Even while making the point that one can create more space for thinking about subalternity in terms of process rather than substance, one must be careful not to disembody the subaltern. Thus, much more needs to be said about subaltern as a category of interpreters, particularly in relation to theology. What or who are the subalterns that energize human contrary consciousness in the activity of resisting hegemony and positing versions of authentic and free life? As I have already suggested, subaltern is the most suitable term to gather together various groupings in India through which theologians can commit themselves to reflectively view and critically re-view notions of God, world and the human being and their inter-relationships. In the discussion that follows I shall make a case for why the term 'subaltern' is the most fitting and appropriate for the present Indian context and how it becomes serviceable for the ongoing task of liberation and contextual theology.

Let me start by admitting that this is not a radically innovative suggestion in Indian historical and political theory. The term subaltern has been brought to the centre of theoretical discourse by a group of scholars referred to as the Subaltern Studies Collective. From 1986 onward the Collective has published eleven substantial volumes on south Asian history and society from a 'subaltern perspective'. In the Preface to Subaltern Studies, volume I, Ranajit Guha proposes the following definition: 'The word ''subaltern'' ... stands for the meaning as given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, that is, 'of inferior rank'. It will be used ... as a name for the general attitude of subordination in south Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way.'2 In a clarificatory note, at the end of this same Preface, he further opines, 'The terms ''people'' and ''subaltern classes'' have been used synonymously throughout this note. The social groups and elements

2 Ranajit Guha, 'Preface', in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. viiā€”viii at p. vii.

included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the elite.'3

It is important to point out that Guha symbolizes the search for a category of interpreters through which to write history in India within a context that had become used to opting between the Colonialist and the Nationalist schools of historiography. Historiography in India, according to Guha, 'has been dominated by colonialist elitism and bourgeoisnationalist elitism'.4 In a sense the Subaltern Collective engenders an alternate perspective that puts common people back into historical narratives. Subalterns 'constitute the mass of the labouring population' as distinguished from the elite in India.5 Their historical truths have been suppressed or discounted in forming historiography. It is such a subaltern standpoint that is professed by scholars of subaltern studies. One can notice some similarities in the history of theologizing in India. Until the 1980s the struggles in Indian theology seem to have been between missionary-advocated and nationalist-promoted theologies. The former school of theology was mainly preoccupied with fitting Indian theological expressions into the universal doctrines that characterized the essence of Christianity while the latter school of theology was principally concerned with valorizing a unitary Indian Christian vision that would be both comprehensive and contextual in order to function as an alternate 'master narrative' to the missionary-advocated Christian worldview. The subalterns, who form the largest section of interpreters, were missing in most of this theologizing. In the section that follows I want to interrogate this category of interpreters against the backdrop of the Indian theological movements by arguing how this could best contain the directionality of theology.

subalterns as post-dalit and post-adivasi community

The Subaltern Collective has popularized the term subaltern by clubbing together various categories of differentiation ('class, caste, age, gender and office and any other way') because of which people suffer subordination. There is no doubt that if we use the criteria of dominated versus dominating we could identify a host of groups that share in an assortment of debilitations and subjugations. As is clear from my initial case study, and

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  • salla
    What is subaltern theology?
    3 years ago
    Who was the discovered of subaltern theology?
    3 years ago
  • david
    What is the various step to enable subaltern theology?
    3 years ago
  • Beatrice
    What are sub alterns in theology?
    10 months ago

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