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Dalits and Religion (1/2)

Panel Chair: Martin Fuchs | Friday, August 28, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

What is it that Dalits seek in religion? How do they understand religion? How do the problems of conceptualizing “religion” reflect in the ways the relations and problems of Dalits with the field thus categorized are being understood? (“Dalit”, originally a modern self-designation, is here to cover the historically discriminated people earlier termed “Untouchables”). The panel wants to discuss the different ways in which members of marginalized groups, whose authority in these (as well as in other) matters has traditionally been questioned or overlooked, structure religious discourses and define their religious practices. The category Dalit in actual fact covers a wide range of discriminated, but differently positioned groups of people. The relation between (religious) ideas-practices and social groups cannot be reduced to questions of identity, but has to be conceived as interactive. The panel will focus both on the ways religious practices and ideas are being articulated and appropriated by different actors as well as on the ways new and uncommon religious experiences and imaginaries are being formulated and expressed (this includes non-verbal modes of expression). Cases addressed in this panel may comprise religious movements and self-constituted denominations of Dalits, the engagement of Dalits with bhakti, the changing relations of Dalits with institutionalized Hindu religion(s), Dalit engagement with Christian and Islamic denominations, as the presentations may also encompass the local religious traditions of Dalits.

Milind Wakankar

The Anatomy of Subaltern Conversion

The paper examines the precise manner in which subaltern conversion must be seen as a philosophical inauguration of a range of negative theologies. The coming together in one act of radical social critique (of brahmanism) on the one hand, and the negation of the entirety of the representational repertoire of high Hinduism precipitates an event of unprecedented force. The paper uses the specific instances of Kabir (the low-caste poet, circa 15C) and Birsa Munda (the leader of the Munda revolt, late 19C) to make the point that this event is much more than a mode of self-empowerment and subject-formation. To this end, I revisit some of the material from my 2010 book on Kabir, Subalternity and Religion; I also re-read early attempts by the Subaltern Studies group of historians in the early 1980's to use Birsa as an instance of subaltern rebellion with religion at its core--their accounts were taken almost entirely from a landmark 1983 work by KS Singh on Birsa. In short, I will seek to return to the question of religion and revolt a decade after the end of Subaltern Studies, whose last volume was published in 2002.

Till Luge

The Bavari panth and the Dalit Question: Conflicting Constructions of History and Identity

The Bavari panth of eastern Uttar Pradesh is part of the Satnami family, a set of Sant groups that are or were tolerant toward and sometimes even composed of Dalits. Although the poetry composed by past Bavari panthi saints is soteriological rather than political, issues of caste, class, and religious identity are addressed at times and the notion that such divisions may derive from human nature is rejected. Today, however, the Bavari panth is largely controlled by members of the upper castes and rather oblivious to Dalit issues. Nonetheless, the panth is important to many Dalits, since they understand the history and nature of the panth in sociopolitical terms. This presentation shall contrast the different discourses on caste, class, and religious identity as found in the poetry of the saints and produced in interviews with and in the natural discourse of Bavari panthis belonging to various social groups.

Ishita Banerjee-Dube

Dalits and Mahima Dharma

How do radical religious orders of subordinate groups deal with caste in general and dalits in particular? Does the interrogation of caste and social hierarchy inherent in the tenets and practices of the faith allow dalits to become full-fledged members of the new community of adherents or do they still remain separate from members of ‘touchable’ castes? What impact does the gradual and shifting evolution of the religious order have on the everyday interaction of its lay members? To what extent do existing societal norms condition the tenets of the faith? How do dalit disciples juggle with and negotiate their identities as members of an associative community and that of an ascriptive one? My intervention will address some of these issues by tracking the growth and evolution of Mahima Dharma, a heterodox religious order of mid-nineteenth century Odisha that exists till today. Through an analysis of the doctrines and practices of the abstemious, itinerant ascetic preceptor of Mahima Dharma and his ‘tribal’ poet-philosopher devotee, as well as their diverse understanding and apprehension by ascetic disciples and lay members—consisting primarily of dalit and lower caste peoples, I will try and unpack the mixed and contingent world of Mahima Dharmis where doctrines and social rules get confounded and contested and new spaces are carved out only to get circumscribed. My brief account will attempt to lay bare the many meanings of being dalit within a ‘rebel’ faith; a faith that often gets subsumed by the overarching presence village and caste society and yet enables its followers to circumvent the norms of such society.


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