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Dalit Theology

By Sathianathan Clarke & Yoginder Sikand

07 October, 2007

Sathiannathan Clarke was, till recently, Associate
Professor at the United Theological College,
Bangalore, one of the leading Christian seminaries in
India. His book on Dalit Christian liberation theology
was pubished by the Oxford University Press.

Q: How did you get interested in Dalit Christian

A: I was born in an urban middle-class family and I
did not have much knowledge of Indian rural society.
When I was doing my degree in social work I got
exposed to rural life and had the opportunity to study
it in a somewhat systematic manner. That set me
thinking as to how I could get involved in any form of
social transformation. By then I had already decided
that I would like to serve the Church. Then, I went on
to do my Master`s degree, and for my dissertation I
studied the socio-economic conditions of sweepers in
the Madras Corporation.

After that I joined the united Theological College,
Bangalore, which is one of the leading Christian
seminaries in India. At that time we had started a
course in non-Christian religions. The Hinduism that
was taught here, as in other Christian seminaries, was
essentially the classical, textual, Brahminic
expression of Hinduism. But we had a person teaching
here called A.P. Nirmal who was talking about
alternate expressions of Indian religions, about Dalit
theology. And I, for one, was fascinated with this new
development that was just then beginning to emerge.

Between 1984 and 1987 I lived in a small village in
the Chingulpet district of Tamil Nadu, where I served
as a priest to fourteen village congregations, 99% of
whom were Dalits. That was when I really got involved
in working with Dalit groups, organising agricultural
labourers, providing relief during floods and so on.
Those three years of working with rural Dalits at a
face-to-face, everyday level were really instrumental
in developing my interest in Dalit issues, including
Dalit theology. Later, I went to the USA for my
doctoral studies in religion. There was a lot of
openness there regarding popular religion, and so
that`s how I decided to study Dalit religion and
liberation theology.

Q: In the course of your studies, what did you

A: To put it very briefly, I found that there is a
solid basis to argue that Dalit religion is not the
same as Hindu religion, as Hindutva ideologues would
insist, although it is certainly interactive with it.
On the other hand, some see Dalit religion as a
complete counter-culture or counter-religion neatly
divided from Hinduism, but that`s not how I see it. In
my view there is a symbolic interaction between the
two forms that comes about in such a way that the
subjectivity of the Dalits is written into their
symbolic world-view. Most of my work lifts up the
resistive and constructive elements of Dalit religion,
but not simply as either a counter to Brahminic
Hinduism or its `other` face.

Q: How does Dalit theology differ from liberation
theology as it has developed in South America?

A: Dalit Christian theology actually developed in the
wake of the emergence of liberation theology in South
America and black theology in the USA. All these
theologies are a counter to the colonialist, western
Christian theology, which is highly individualistic
and does not take history, especially that of the
oppressed, seriously. But what marks Dalit Christian
theology out is the centrality it gives to the
question of caste and caste oppression, which is
unique to India. Caste is an important category in
Dalit Christian theology in analysing social
oppression. This should be seen in the light of the
fact that the leadership of the Indian Christian
Church sought to convince its own members that
everyone was equal in Jesus Christ, that we are all
part of the body of Christ, despite the existence of
gross discrimination against the Dalits inside the
Church itself. What Dalit theology began to do was to
force the Church to recognise this discrimination and
oppression of the Dalit Christians.

Q: What about the role of the Dalit experience in
developing Dalit theology?

A: Yes, that has been central, too. A.P. Nirmal uses
the term `pain-pathos` to describe this, and he sees
this as the basis of constructing Dalit theology. And
this argument of God being preferentially intertwined
with the lives, experiences and struggles of the
Dalits was seen as the source of Dalit theology. So
the message that was put across very forcefully was
that a genuinely Indian Christian theology was not
simply about celebration and joy, but was also rooted
in the sufferings of the Dalits.

Q: Does the question of Dalit pride, in terms of a
positive affirmation of Dalit identity, play a central
role in Dalit theology?

A: It certainly does. Dalit theology affirms the
identity of the Dalits before God as people among whom
God is working for struggling against oppression. Here
the role of affirming pride in terms of who they see
themselves as in God`s eyes is central. This gives
them ammunition to place their identity with pride
before the wider human community.

Q: Has Dalit Christian theology managed to emerge as a
mass movement or is it still restricted largely to the
four walls of the seminaries?

A: It is difficult to answer that question in explicit
terms. Today, many Dalit communities are beginning to
feel empowered by claiming their Dalit-ness and using
that as a means of protesting against iniquitous
Church structures as well as a means for expressing
their identities and their special relationship with
God. On the other hand, many Dalit Christians
themselves have not responded positively to the
emergence of Dalit theology. They say, "We embraced
Christianity primarily to escape our Dalit identity,
so why are you trying to impose it on us again?". They
say that they are now Christians and so have nothing
to do with the Dalits. In other words, you have both
sorts of reactions to Dalit theology from Dalit
Christians. And then there are some Dalit Christians
who say that much of this theological business is of
no relevance for the common masses. They say, "You sit
around in seminaries and get free trips abroad for
conferences to talk about Dalit theology, but we
really do not get to share in all that". Now this sort
of reaction is a protest against the ways in which
Dalit theology is being done, but it is also a
knowledgeable protest. It comes from Dalit Christians
who identify themselves as Dalits in order to make
this critique.

Q: Are the reflections that are emerging from Dalit
Christian formulations being preached to Christian
congregations from the pulpits of the churches?

A: I should hope that this is being done, but,
frankly, very little follow-up work has been done
there. One of the main reasons is the apathy of
influential Church leaders, most of whom are of
so-called `upper` caste background. I see the role of
Dalit Christian theology as challenging the structures
of the status quo, both within as well as outside the
Church, which are primarily casteist. That is its
prophetic function based on what we believe that
Church should be. This is the task of unveiling the
structures of power that are putting on a mask of
neutrality to hide the operation of caste within the
Church but are still using the power of caste in ways
that are unjust. Dalit theology has another important
role--that of empowering Dalit communities to reclaim
their positionality in a way that could lead them to
bring out their own experiences and express them in
their own symbolic modes. This would add strength to
their struggle for empowerment and for a more equal
distribution of power and resources. And this is
actually happening today, through a networking of many
resistive forces, of which Dalit Christian theology is
one. This is part of the general awakening of the
broader Dalit community.

Q: Why has so little been written on liberation
theology by non-Christian Dalits so far?

A: That I cannot say, but perhaps that is due to the
fact that there are actually relatively very few Dalit
writers, although their number today is certainly more
than a decade ago. Further, a question that must be
asked here is whether the modality of writing in and
of itself has historically been more geared to certain
castes than to others. Denied access to writing and
education for centuries, the Dalits have expressed
themselves, their pains and their struggles primarily
through oral traditions, folk tales, songs, etc..

Q: Do you think non-Dalits can write Dalit theology?

A: I myself am not a Dalit, so in terms of what it
means to reflect on Dalit `pain-pathos` I cannot
really write Dalit theology myself. However, what I,
as a non-Dalit, can do is to interrogate the writings
of Dalit theologians and lift up offerings from the
Dalit communities that could form important
ingredients of a Dalit liberationist perspective. In
other words, at the very most I, as a non-Dalit, can
simply be a facilitator of the process of developing
Dalit theology. So, I would not call myself a Dalit
theologian, but simply a theologian who writes about
Dalits and Christianity. What I want to stress here is
that the Dalit Christians must be careful not to be
co-opted by caste Christians. They must not let caste
Christians appoint themselves as their spokesmen to
tell the world what Dalit theology is all about.

Q: What impact has the development of Dalit Christian
theology had on the thinking of non-Christian Dalits?

A: Not much, I guess. I`m associated with a forum
called Scholars for Social Justice, which includes
many non-Christian Dalit academics. They do not know
much about Dalit Christian theology, although they are
aware that there is this fervour in the Christian
community because the Christians have started putting
a lot of money into arranging Dalit conferences.

Q: What role does Ambedkar play in Dalit Christian

A: What we share with Ambedkar, and what needs to be
resurrected today, is the potency, value and
usefulness of religion as a symbolic framework. This
comes out very strongly in Ambedkar. Ambedkar believed
that true liberation for the Dalits was not possible
without religious change, or, in other words, a
reinterpretation of who the Dalits were. So, in this
link between religion and social emancipation, Dalit
Christian theology and Ambedkarism share much in
common. Where the two might differ is on the question
of the world-view of the Dalits themselves, something
that Ambedkar does not really explore. It almost seems
that he believed that it was completely overwhelmed by
the dominant Hindu ethos. But what recent
anthropological studies have done is to look a the
"good sense" preserved in the world-views of Dalit
communities that are not just fragment of Brahminical
schema. This suggests the possibility of retrieving
liberative elements from the world-views of the Dalits
themselves while constructing a Dalit liberation

This "good sense" to be found in Dalit world-views is
to be distinguished from what Gramsci calls "common
sense"-- something that is placed hegemonically on the
dominated. I do this in my discussion of the role of
the drum in Dalit religion in my book on Dalit
theology. There I show that according to some the drum
is simply a Brahminical design or device to force the
Dalit drummers to reiterate their low status, because
with the drum they had to deal with the skin of dead
animals, which was considered a source of "pollution".
But you can twist that around and consider the
subjectivity of the Dalit drummers themselves. In a
context where they were completely denied access to
the written word, where all communication was centred
round the temple which they could not enter, here you
have a people who, based on what they do every day,
can pick up an instrument and use it in such a way
that it starts mediating, just like the scriptures do,
between them and God.

Q: How does Dalit Christian theology see the question
of religious conversion?

A: I think here we share a lot in common with
Ambedkar. Conversion of Dalits to religions like
Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam or Christianity has been
above all a protest against Hinduism and its caste
structures. So, it`s more of a social issue than an
individual quest for spiritual truth. Gandhi saw
conversion of Dalits to non-Hindu religions as simply
a result of Dalit "vulnerability" and "gullibility".
Ambedkar, however, strongly refuted Gandhi, saying
that in converting to another religion, the Dalits
have consistently, consciously and collectively made a
decision based on what they have been denied by
Hinduism and what they are going to get by joining
another community. His point was that religion and
religious conversion is a social phenomenon and that
not everybody needs to jump for joy in their hearts in
order to be convinced of something. In India, says
Ambedkar, religion has always been a social
phenomenon, and he says that the Dalits will use
whatever it takes, including change of religion, to be
converted into what it means for the Dalits to be most
human. The highly individualistic way of looking at
religious conversion is really a Brahminic way of
perceiving things, which is very different from how
Dalits have seen it---as a means of social liberation.
As Ambedkar did, we need to counter the whole idea
that the Dalits are passive, dumb and easily misled
into conversion. That really disrespects their
humanity. We need to see how conversion has been used
by them as a powerful means of critiquing and
challenging the structures of "upper" caste
domination. But at the same time, we need to be aware
of the fact that even after their conversion, the
Dalits have continued to suffer discrimination. In the
case of Dalit Christians, the oppression is from the
wider society as well as from within the Christian
community itself.

Q: Many Dalit communities have sought to shed their
Dalit-ness by claiming a higher caste status for
themselves and adopting the practices and beliefs
associated with Brahminic Hinduism. What do you feel
are the potentials and limitations of this form of the
quest for upward social mobility?

A: This process, called Sanskritisation by
sociologists, has never succeeded in taking the Dalits
forward, and so to my mind, it should be unveiled an
countered. It only further divides the Dalits and
strengthens the caste system and Brahminism. Frankly,
today this strategy will not work because there are no
incentives for that, because in politics and in the
economic sphere the Dalits are now finding that it in
fact pays to assert, rather than deny, their Dalit
identity. So, as I see it, the trend is towards
assertion of Dalit pride, and reclaiming and
galvanising their identities. That was the path taken
by Ambedkar, and I really feel that that is the way

Q: But what dangers do you see to the Dalit movement
from the process of Sanskritisation?

A: Primarily, Sanskritisation threatens to co-opt the
Dalits into a hegemonic Brahminic system, where they
will still be at the bottom of the heap. You will find
that there is almost no debate in Hindu circles at all
on what caste or varnashrama dharma ought to mean. And
here, too, is the immense danger that the Dalit
liberation project faces from Hindutva. The Hindutva
agenda is concerned, above all, to weave together the
whole country into an ordered organism with Brahminic
Hinduism at its heart, disciplining anyone who dares
to dissent. This disciplining will be primarily
directed against social groups such as Dalits,
tribals, Christians, Muslims and others who are
pushing for the recognition of their own ontological
differences in order to improve their social and
economic positions.



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