The Rev. Dr. J. Jayakiran Sebastian is a Presbyter of the Church of South India and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
This article originally appeared as "Pressure on the Hyphen: Aspects of the Search for Identity Today in Indian-Christian Theology," in Religion and Society, Vol. 44, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 27 – 41.
The question of identity is not something static and backward looking, but is a dynamic reality, where the context demands that answers be given and positions be taken regarding who Indian-Christians are. The power of the hyphen in Indian-Christian existence resides in its ability to reconstruct and reconceive. The challenge before us is to navigate the hyphen and be prepared to explore our varied histories.
… multiculturalists who strive to constitute non-discriminatory minority identities cannot simply do so by affirming the place they occupy, or by returning to an ‘unmarked’ authentic origin or pre-text: their recognition requires the negotiation of a dangerous indeterminacy, since the too-visible presence of the other underwrites the authentic national subject but can never guarantee its visibility or truth.
It is now almost twenty years since, among other things, an article by Christopher Duraisingh in Religion and Society, laying emphasis on the hyphenated character of Indian-Christian identity, sparked off a debate about the nature of this identity of Indian-Christians in the contemporary context. Writers like Paulos Mar Gregorios have pointed out that the "Indian" component is far more differentiated and complex than previously thought, especially in terms of the relationship to Jainism and Buddhism. Others, like James Massey, have pointed out that the Dalit element, which forms an indispensable part of any discourse on identity has been systematically and deliberately left out of the discourse. In addition, the warning has been sounded over and over again that to subsume any discourse about women within a wider framework of identity-related discourse would be an act of irresponsible injustice.
The most notable recent contribution regarding the issue of Indian-Christian identity is found in the work of Sathianathan Clarke, who, in analysing a particular Dalit community, the Paraiyar, has pointed out just how complex this question really is, when he writes that
among the Paraiyar there is a forging of subjectivity by wedding together some ingredients that can be retained as signs of Dalit particularity with some components that can be skillfully appropriated as signs of human universality from the larger caste Hindu worldview. ‘Soft boundaries’ are seen to exist between subaltern and dominant cultural interaction, which enhances the points of relatedness.
Although one can debate the notion of human universality, the point being made is significant in that pertinent questions regarding cultural continuity and cultural difference in a complicated context of convoluted interaction have been raised. What is of importance here, too, is the issue regarding the nature of the boundary and the peculiarity of the phenomenon of relatedness and dependence. Needless to say, the coming of Christianity among such groups adds several more strands to the already tangled skein of the identity question.
Sober Indian historiography has questioned any attempt at a simplistic presentation of the interaction between peoples in the early millennia of Indian history. Making a quantum leap, one cannot forget the legacy of colonialism, which resulted in massive ferment at various levels of society, and also resulted in different groups within society attempting to forge new patterns of relational identity. The inescapable reality that new patterns of social, economic, political, religious and cultural inter-relationships and identities emerged through the colonial encounter cannot be simply brushed aside or dismissed with the comment that this was a terrible time and that it is good that things are different now. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
… for us to forget Europe is to suppress the conflicts that have shaped our identities; since it is too late for us to escape each other, we might instead seek to turn to our advantage the mutual interdependencies history has thrust upon us.
Hence, the question of identity is not something static and backward looking, but is a dynamic reality, where the context demands that answers be given and positions be taken regarding who Indian-Christians are. In the present context, such an endeavour assumes urgency, especially in view of the fact that ultra-"nationalist" organisations question again and again the identity of Christians in India. In this context the words of George Mathew Nalunnakkal are significant. In writing about the search for self-identity in basic communities, focusing on the Dalits, he writes that
these quests for identity and self-consciousness face caveat from various quarters, not just from reactionary and capitalist circles, … but also from fundamentalist forces under the pretext of nationalism, and incredibly from some of the revolutionary leftist parties as well. The market economy which has been heralded as the ‘new saviour’ by the capitalist forces, as part of the ‘one world’ culture, has imposed an overbearing homogeneity in all spheres.
Thus, in a context where the question of Indian-Christian identity is under pressure from different sides, one is justified in asking what baptism, for example, has really resulted in and how it has been interpreted and understood.
This leads us to focus on the issue of the "Christian" part in the question of Indian-Christian identity. It is clear that no totalising picture can be offered. In methodological comments in my doctoral work, which was aimed at reappropriating the patristic heritage as an Indian-Christian, I wrote that one must seek to ground ones identity within the "variegated heritage of the church." This heritage, which many Indian-Christian theologians have too often accepted uncritically, accepting the broad brush-strokes, without going into the nitty-gritty details, needs to be re-examined and re-evaluated so that the meaning of several concepts which such a heritage has spawned and which is reflected, often unconsciously, in the present attitudes of Indian-Christians, can be liberated "from the socio-cultural, philosophical and historical contexts in which they have been deified, and make their theological insights reincarnate in the life and concerns of the people. Only in this way can the Church become fully incarnate in India." In order for somebody or something to be liberated from the chains of particular contexts, one needs to have an understanding of the nature of such contexts. It is also to be recognised that it is through the re-reading and reappropriation of texts from the early period of the formation and quest for identity of the church that one can reclaim, question, and integrate the life-experiences of our ancestors in the faith, especially women, recognising that – then as now – the "universalizing effect of the Christian master narrative … concealed the subaltern status of many of its characters."
This contribution does not intend to offer a detailed analysis of identity in context, but rather, keeping in mind the complexity of the issue, where the words "Indian" and "Christian" have to be recognised as being loaded with both latent and extrinsic meanings and implications, certain guidelines are offered as a prolegomena to any detailed and differentiated discussion of Indian-Christian identity. It is to be recognised that in any such discussion the pressure lies on the hyphen, because it is there that the past, present and future intersect, opening up new possibilities through the movements on either side of the hyphen.
With this introduction, a brief attempt is now made to raise certain issues, which, I believe, are indispensable in the quest towards the development of an informed and more elaborate discourse on identity:
One of the things that is very often glossed over, often deliberately, is the reality that the power of the hyphen in Indian-Christian existence resides in its ability to reconstruct and reconceive. Things do not remain static either for the new convert or even for those who have already been Christians for generations. New situations call forth new articulations. The traffic in both directions across the hyphen can be particularly heavy at certain times due to various circumstances, putting immense pressure on it. Since both time and history are in a process of flux one has to be mindful and conscious as to what one means when one speaks of identity. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth notes:
[h]istory now is not just the convention where the present belongs to a controlled pattern of meaning governed by the past and opened to a future. History now is also in the interesting position of confronting its own historicity.
missionaries, statisticians and community leaders, one is justified in raising the issue as to how the various strands of something that is constructed, both chronologically and ideologically, can be disentangled so as to provide one with clues as to the "real." It is not that the strands are never available as something detachable, but rather that the strands themselves have interpenetrated and have been interpenetrated to such an extent that any easy talk of disentanglement is futile.
This issue can be illustrated with reference to the spectacular Western-music-influenced singing capability of several North-East Indian "tribes" who have converted to Christianity on a large scale in the last century and the beginning of this one. One needs to analyse how and where tribal identity in pre-Christian times overlapped with the offering of a new form of identity in the missionary era, followed by the process of the fecundation of the various strands in the projection of the self-understanding of the peoples themselves. In this sense what is available is an "imaged" identity, which recognises that there have been various attempt to "fit" people into identity models which are defined for them. Such models are never accepted passively, or even just as they are, but one ought to speak more of the seepage of such models into the consciousness and expression of the people, very often in spite of active or resigned resistance. This was especially true in the early period of the colonial and missionary encounter with the "natives." As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida densely notes:
the person writing is inscribed in a determined textual system. Even if there is never a pure signified, there are different relationships as to that which, from the signifier, is presented as the irreducible stratum of the signified.
In analysing the question of the identity of North-East-Indian-Tribal-Christians (note the number of hyphens, which offers a visual image of the complexity of the problematic involved), a recent contribution of Lalsangkima Pachuau offers us much to consider. Pointing out the extent of the identity dilemma and stressing the reality of difference, he writes that what one has to take seriously is the fact that the it is through the efforts of the "national majority" that the difference between ethnically distinct people in North-East India is undermined. "Consequently, the ‘tribals’ felt that they have been dragged into a ‘foreign’ system of social hierarchy which they resent." In any discourse which links identity and liberation one needs to know from what one is seeking liberation, in order to actualise the process of aspiring to such liberation. One also needs to know that there are contexts that have been created and imagined by ourselves as well as by the others.
It is when the signified question the basis of their signification that the recognition of the camouflaged elements in the hyphen becomes an issue right out in the open and builds up the pressure on the hyphen.
Any talk about identity has also to take into account the reality that the identity issue is not something which is value neutral. On the one hand there is the talk about a larger cross-cultural transnational identity. On the other there is the attempt to define a micro identity. One ought to note that the term "Christian" conceals more than it reveals. At the same time, one must recognise that the term "Indian" is a political construct. This understanding serves as an admonition against any form of an easy romanticised quest for the "original" which underlies the present form of existence. There are plainly very many competing factors which ought to be taken into consideration. In discussing this matter. O. V. Jathanna notes that "[w]hile the caste factor is the most dominant one, religious communalism, linguism and regionalism also need to be taken seriously, when we consider the question of identity in the Indian context." At the annual meeting of the (almost exclusively Roman Catholic) Indian Theological Association in May 1996, which focused on the issue of the identity of the church in India, the Final Statement said that "[t]he church in India must situate her identity in the context of 97% of the Indian population seeking their salvation outside the church without any reference to it." In the inter-religious context of India, such an assertion makes sense in that any attempt to discuss identity in isolation, as if Christian identity were an in-house issue, would only result in forgetting that the hyphen exists. However, such an assertion should not blind us to the reality that even within the fractional percentage of the people in India who are Christian, the identity issue continues to remain an existential issue. Godwin Shiri’s recent analysis of the life, beliefs, and practices of Dalit Christians in Bellary, Karnataka, and Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, reveals that
most Christian Dalits were deeply aware that much of their plight as people of ‘untouchable’ origin has continued inspite of accepting the Christian faith and much of their expectations in new community (church) have remained unfulfilled. However it appears that they have not lost their hope in the Christian faith in which they have invariably seen, and to some extent experienced also, a liberative potential.
The ambivalence which lies at the core of Christian identity in the Indian context needs to be both recognised and exposed. Pressure on the hyphen ought to result in the challenging of simplistic notions of group or religious identity which claims that there lies something deeper, something intangible, which is supposed to be the cement which binds people and communities together under a common label. The cultural critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak warns us that
[o]ne needs to be vigilant against simple notions of identity which overlap neatly with language or location. I’m deeply suspicious of any determinist or positivist definition of identity … . I don’t think one can pretend to imitate adequately that to which one is bound. So, our problem, and our solution, is that we do pretend this imitation when we write, but then must do something about the fact that one knows this imitation is not OK anymore.
One must not lose sight of the fact that in recognising that identity has a politicised dimension to it, those who have been intentionally and cruelly marginalised have to be suspicious of any attempt to speak with them, through them, and for them, especially when such attempts come from either those who historically were responsible for such marginalisation, or from those among them who are situationally privileged. The following quotation, coming from within the experience of feminist struggle, encapsulates this point that
[a] socially marginalized group does not have the power to exclude, silence, and command obedience from a dominant group. Its claims for epistemic privilege, lacking a social power on which to base them, cannot yield the same results as the self-authorizing claims of a dominant group and are, therefore, merely normative, compelling only for those who are theoretically persuaded by them, usually members of the socially marginalized group who find them empowering. Although the empowerment of its own members is an important goal for every marginalized social group, by claiming an authority based in epistemic privilege the group reinscribes the values and practices used to socially marginalize it by excluding its voice, silencing it and commanding its obedience to the voice of the dominant group.
Taken by itself, the above quotation might appear to negate all the efforts of the marginalised communities to give themselves the agency. It might even look as though the writer is trying to deny the marginalised the right to protest. This is certainly not what the writer attempts to do here. In her very complex but well-argued essay, she shows how the claim for epistemic knowledge – which, in the context of this article, would link it to the efforts to ‘politicise identity’ or to use identity ‘strategically’ – assumes a single centre of authority and also assumes making use of the language and tools of this authority. In this manner, epistemic privilege given to the experiences of the marginalised reinscribes the values of the dominant. This is problematic because such a position overlooks the presence of many-centred, institutionalised authority, and imagines that the practices of resistance are "free from the operation of the oppressive forces". Perhaps with this explanation, her comments quoted earlier become more meaningful for this discussion of identity, and her concluding comments on the use of the ‘master’s tool’, offer an intelligible link that connects the idea of ‘politicised identity’ with an ‘imagined identity’:
There are no tools that can replace [the master’s tools], nor are any needed, because when the oppressed feel a need to authorize speech, they are acting on feelings that are a function of their oppression. Speech needs to be authorized only where silence is the rule. This is an oppressive rule. It need not be obeyed, and the justification of disobedience in this case is not a special kind of expertise guaranteed by epistemic privilege but rather by the demands of justice. (emphasis mine).
Such an undertaking should also be clear as to why it is undertaken in the first place. All too often there have been attempts to articulate the "demands of justice" coming from those groups or countries which have benefited from the dearth and scantiness of justice issues during the colonial (political or even theological) era, benefits which empower even now, in the era of "partnership." The sober warning, coming from the field of culture studies, must not be forgotten, that
[t]he desire to ‘correct’ the omissions of the past within the western avant-garde … has led to a one-sided fixation with ethnicity as something that ‘belongs’ to the Other alone, thus white ethnicity is not under question and retains its ‘centred’ position; more to the point the white subject remains the central reference point in the power ploys of multicultural policy.
The recognition that the hyphen is not a "neutral" entity, but that it has been partly forged in the furnace of domination and superiority is something which cannot be overlooked. This recognition of the politicised nature of identity will be of assistance in the attempt to understand the characteristic of the hyphen as something which is not isolated but as an entity which has the power to draw together elements which come from the living past, while being informed about the machinations of the present, and anticipating an uncertain future.
Conclusion: Navigating the hyphen
One needs to make the affirmation that it is precisely through the experience of the pressure on the hyphen that several issues and themes which, for various reasons, remained peripheral to the dominant theological discourse, have now become an indispensable element of any discourse on the situation and identity of Indian-Christians. This, however, is not an isolated phenomenon, but has to be placed within the wider context of the globalization of culture and the attempts at standardisation, which has stimulated the attempt to rediscover the local and the indigenous. Recognising the pitfall of trying to easily privilege the one against the other and blurring distinctions across the divide, we must note that
[t]he present tensions between localizing and globalizing tendencies are symptomatic of a deeper, largely unconscious drama. It is not in the macrosocial structures of globalization and localization that one has to search for clues to some of the most interesting outcomes of the drama, butt in the interactions on the individual self. It is here that the essential dynamics are played out and the different social tendencies impinge, fracturing and reassembling a wandering self. The self as it navigates today’s interpersonal and physical space becomes a new type of wanderer torn from its original moorings.
It is this, our wandering self, that offers us Indian-Christians the challenge of understanding ourselves by recognising and affirming, as well as celebrating, the complexity of our existence in this vast and varied country. The challenge before us is to navigate the hyphen and be prepared to explore our varied histories, discover the outside forces, question the economic compulsions, be astounded by the cultural diversity, empathise with the experience of marginality, marvel at the memories that have shaped all these various selves, and offered, and continue to offer us, an identity or identities across the hyphen, as the various embodied selves that make up the assorted group of people who are called Indian-Christians.