Date of Award

2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Abstract

My dissertation explores the intricate relationship between secularism and identity in South Asian minority writing. Though India and Sri Lanka were founded as secular states in the 1940s, they have consistently failed to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities since the 1980s. Thus, critics have been debating whether secularism as a political doctrine--one that separates religion from the state to protect minority communities--is still relevant. However, this debate only assumes that secularism protects minorities, while I argue that secularism has actively shaped minority identity and experience. I consider secularism to be a process that facilitated the modernization of societies across the globe and consequently transformed communities in South Asia into "national-majorities" and "minorities."

I argue that while secularism as a political doctrine is not always present in minority writing at the level of content, the process of secularization (mentioned above) shapes and influences minority writing at the level of form and aesthetics. I develop this argument by examining the fiction and autobiographies produced by writers belonging to five minority communities in India and Sri Lanka--Muslims, Anglo-Indians, Burghers, Parsis, and Dalits (earlier described as "untouchables"). I demonstrate that minority writing cannot insert the narrative of the minority--either the individual character or the community--into the larger narrative of the nation (or the majority community). Some minority writers try to incorporate minority experience into the larger narrative of majoritarian-nationalism, and fail to do so. This failure is apparent in the tension within the aesthetics or the formal aspects of their texts. For instance, carnival and postmodern parody become strategies to counter realism and historicism, respectively, or there is a conflict between the confidence in the nation's progress and the fragmentation of the individual's experience. However, other writers avoid this conundrum by refusing to insert minority experience into national history, and instead foreground alternative narratives of identity that are intentionally fragmented.

Thus, instead of evaluating secularism as a political doctrine that has or has not protected minority communities, minority writing, I argue, responds to a more fundamental aspect of secularism--a process that facilitated modernity and shaped minority identity--and reveals the different strategies and experiences minority writers explore to grapple with their marginalization.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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