Archive for September, 2010

Margins of Faith

Rowena Robinson and J. M. Kujur (2010) Margins of Faith: Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India, New Delhi: Sage.

This seminar on Margins of Faith was a book release function jointly organized by SAGE Publications, North East India Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Indian Anthropological Association. The general introduction was given by Dr Soumendra Patnaik, Dept of Anthropology, Delhi University and President, Indian Anthropological Association. The panel was chaired by Professor Tiplut Nongbri, CSSS JNU and Director, North East India Studies Programme, JNU. The invited speakers were Professor Gopal Guru, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, Professor Virginius Xaxa, Department of Sociology, Delhi University, Dr Amita Baviskar, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University.

In his introduction Dr. Patnaik emphasized that the publication of M.N. Srinivas’s (1952) Religion and Society among the Croogs of South India, and Verrier Elwin’s (1955) The Religion of an Indian Tribe marked a significant moment for Indian Sociology/Anthropology to understand/study religion – not just everyday beliefs and practices but also its structural aspects. It is in this context, the Margins of Faith becomes very important that tries to explain the religious margin.

Gopal Guru

In his comment on the book, Gopal Guru pointed out that although faith is universal it also finds its own margins. The essays complicate this issue and ask who are at the margins of Christianity. To him, the ultimate aim of a faith is emancipation. The normative vocabulary of a faith is promising – love, compassion, etc. – through which religion tries to find followers. The question, however, is if the vocabulary is so promising why some people are at the margins? This is central to Dalits. The essays also deal with Dalit and Christianity question. The central issue is related to the struggles that the Dalits and Tribals are launching to redefine their identity and faith.

The chapters are interrelated and there is a dialectical dialogue among them. The essays also discuss that there is a new social/spiritual space that has opened up for the Dalits and Tribals which is enabling. However, we need to remember that there is a distinction between space and place – space is dynamic, progressive and fluid; where as place is static and rigid.

Guru also notes the following shortcomings – (1) The essay on Orissa is unclear in addressing the issue of identity between the Kandhas and Paanas. Can identity be dynamic if they are plural/multiple and fragmented? (2) The question of gravity – attracting capacity. Has Christianity lost its capacity to attract people towards itself? 


Virginious Xaxa

Xaxa praised the Margins of Faith as one of the best books that deal with the ethnographic and anthropological issues on Dalits and tribes. For him the book is very broad in scope as it deals with the following issues –

Caste and tribe

North and south India

Assimilation and indigenization question

Heterogeneity of practices and beliefs

Issues of identity and nationalism

Engages with popular religion

Great tradition and little tradition

Contestation between the Church and Hindutva organizations

Interface between Dalit/Tribal and Christianity

The book deals with the question of marginality and marginality is problematized not as homogeneous but as heterogeneous (differences at the margin). It looks at the marginality of Dalits and Tribals not in relation to the State but within Christianity. It also looks at the various levels of marginality. The question, however, is where do we place the issues of marginality, especially when the social structure/order is hierarchical and fragmented. For him, the universal Church itself is marginalized. The Church in India is decentralized and autonomous (Church of North India, Church of South India, etc.). There are varieties of Christianity and the religious practices and rituals are diverse. Xaxa criticizes the book for overlooking/ignoring the question of Gender.

Amita Baviskar

Baviskar discussed about the political economy of dispossession, displacement and tribal rights. She also talked about the Missionaries and their civilizing mission to incorporate/assimilate the tribals into the mainstream culture. It ignores the fact that the tribals/Dalits have their own ‘agency’. There are varieties of Christian experiences. New identities are created but marginality remains central even after the promise of emancipation. Religion, however, remains a source of solace. The people at the margins continue to fight for their identity even in the new religious sphere. Those of us who work on tribal development, we talk about political economy of struggle and marginality but not the non-material aspect or sacred aspect or spirituality. This is important in Niyamgiri hill which is a scared place for the tribals. We need to believe in the agency of the subaltern groups and also examine the structures of oppression.