Saturday, May 18, 2013

A note on Identity Politics presented at the Samvimarsh on Cultural Nationalism  organised by the National Training Cell of the Bharatiya Janata party
New Delhi on May 4-5, 2013
Identity Politics: Handle with care!
-- Vinay Sahasrabuddhe

The dilemma with Identity Politics is like a two-edged sword. It can unite a cultural group but it can also give fillip to fragmentation if the whole gamut of issues is not handled with due care! At the core of the challenge of negotiating with identity issues is the fundamental thesis of developing a synergy between identities and recognising that larger and wider identities are supreme but they also are a sum total of smaller and indelible identities. Pt. Deendayal Upadhyay had rightly emphasised on this principle.

Identity Politics encompasses a broad spectrum of movements woven around a cause, which is essentially of a particular social/cultural or even regional/geographical identity. Prominent themes that have dominated the academic discourse on identity politics include secessionist struggles within countries, indigenous rights movements worldwide, nationalist projects, or demands for regional self-determination. Predictably, there is no straightforward criterion that makes a political struggle into an example of “identity politics;” rather, the term signifies a loose collection of political projects, each undertaken by representatives of a collective with a set of distinctively different social characteristics that has hitherto (many a time supposedly) been neglected, erased, or suppressed.

Identity Politics is both, a unifying force as well as a divisive one. Politicians in several countries where society is very diverse have played the game of uniting to divide very adroitly. There obviously are some short term and contextual gains as well as some longer-term losses in the whole process. A researcher has put this succinctly in the following comment: -
What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.

In countries that had undergone a colonial rule, the talk of cultural nationalism acquires a distinct dimension, which is that of pre-colonial indigenous cultural past. This involves appeals to a time before oppression, or a culture or way of life damaged by colonialism, imperialism, or even genocide.

Indigenous governance systems embody distinctive political values, radically different from those of the mainstream. Western notions of domination (human and natural) are noticeably absent; in their place we find harmony, autonomy, and respect. We have a responsibility to recover, understand, and preserve these values, not only because they represent a unique contribution to the history of ideas, but because renewal of respect for traditional values is the only lasting solution to the political, economic, and social problems that beset our people. Normally, all traditional cultures abhor divisiveness. About both, African as well as Asian traditional societies one can say that their native inclination is generally towards finding similarities and evolving a consensus. Nigerian scholar Adebayo Adedeji has said, “Africans are past masters in consultation, consensus and consent. Our traditions abhor exclusion. Consequently, there is no sanctioned and institutionalized opposition in our traditional system of governance. Traditionally, politics for us has never been a zero-sum game.”
How this traditional social system had both, adequate space for preserving distinctive features as well as scope for evolving a collective social defence mechanism in the context of India was portrayed by Charles Metcalf is a vivid manner. In 1761 Charles Metcalf has written to the 1832 Select Parliamentary Committee on the East India Company’s charter in brilliantly evocative term. He wrote: 'The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they can want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Pathan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sikh, English, are all masters in turn; but the village community remains the same...This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered, and is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence'.[1]
However, beyond the structures and systems that existed in India, what is more important is the India’s cultural unity in the midst of apparent diversities. To quote Rajni Kothari India is perhaps “the only great historical civilisation that has maintained its cultural unity without identifying itself with a particular centre….The essential identity of India has not been political but cultural….it was through a constant interplay between the political and the cultural, the secular and the spiritual, that the system was able to adapt itself to changing situations.”[2] One can safely infer that this culture of accommodation in India paved way to the smooth functioning of political democracy. Besides, unlike in China where state is also considered as the moral custodian, such a monopolistic stance of the rulers was never acceptable in India, thanks mainly to its tradition of “society’s autonomy”.[3]
All this makes it amply clear that inherent cultural unity with an essential spirit of accommodation at its core was something like a strong foundation on which representative democracy should have easily flourished in India.
In spite of all this, India and several other democracies too are facing challenges of dealing with those streams of identity politics that are proving to be divisive in nature and hence harmful for social and national integration. Factors that are a potential source of disintegration are as follows  --
1.     Limitless yearning for back-to-the roots – Conducting oneself socially and culturally is an evolutionary process. What was relevant yesterday may not always be relevant today. Change, as much as continuity is an integral part of the socio-cultural past of societies and civilisations. Hence, digging too deep into the past through an essentially puritanical approach is an indication of favoring stagnancy. Those who clamor for limitless yearning for back-to-the roots eventually harm the cause of cultural nationalism
2.     Unity in Diversity or other way round? : In India we celebrate our diverse social and cultural characteristics often describing it as Unity in Diversity. Unfortunately, the lure of identity populism is making the reverse i.e. Diversity in Unity appear more true. In our political narrative, political class has been overtly and covertly emphasising on the elements that separate a particular social group from the larger group, a sub-set of a set! Besides in Hindu society, it is very easy to renounce Hinduness as the idea or definition of Hindu is extremely liberal and flexible. To be accommodative and receptive to diversity is commendable but it also invites the dangers of an essentially revolving door approach where one can come and go as per his/her sweet will. The motivating factor behind all such thought processes has ---more often than not ---been politics of fragmentation aimed at electoral benefits.
3.     Employing adroit unifying strategies:  In order to overcome the threats of identity politics, pro-unity and integrity forces will have to employ effective unifying strategies in an adroit manner. These strategies necessarily should prevent social and cultural fragmentation. In that context, while the salad-bowl theory of social assimilation should not be opposed, the integrationists should also try to emphasise the ultimate truth of melting-pot theory. This, of course will have to be done carefully. The onus of making this happen is always on the better placed, socially and economically advanced sections of the society. Unless the aspirational India largely representing the educated, city-dwelling, financially well-placed and socially settled classes sensatise themselves towards the agonies of the deprived sections, this is hard to happen. In that context, imaginatively crafted pedagogical processes making people realise the essential unity of the society and the meaning of one-people, one-nation will have to be vigorously evolved and promoted.
4.     Systemic factors promoting fragmentation: Social fragmentation is inbuilt in our First-past-the Post electoral system. Otherwise fairly integrationist elements too indulge in harping upon diversities when it comes to electoral arithmetic. This happens because the path of electoral victory goes via greater fragmentation as atomization pays rich dividends in this system, and more importantly it is always easier to divide and rule. Harp on diversity- create an emotional insecurity – promote en-block voting through sectoral appeasement and eventually outsmart the social majority has proved to be the most effective strategy of political parties.

[1] Dewey C.J., Images of the Village Community (1972):a study in Anglo-Indian ideology”, ‘Modern Asian Studies’, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1972)
[2] Rajni Kothari, ‘Politics in India’ p.251
[3] ibid.p.264