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Time to move beyond identity politics

Prakash Nanda

Updated: January 22, 2016, 3:08 PM IST
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I do not know how successful I will be in my attempt, but I am trying to find out some clarity out of the terribly confusing press reports on the unfortunate suicide of Rohith Vemula‬, a research scholar at the central university of Hyderabad. The university is notorious for suicides. One understands that since its inception in early 1970s, as many as 12 students have ended their lives. But what is worrisome is that 8 out of the 12 have committed suicide after 2008.

Secondly, the students of the university, particularly those belonging to Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), the organisation to which Rohith belonged, have been quite offensive in the propagation of their ideology, which, in turn, is to protect and promote the interests of Dalits and Muslims. This group does not exactly believe in what we call our vital national interests on such issues as Kashmir and national integrity. And this group is not exactly famous for "tolerance" for others' views. So much so that in 2013, it had disrupted the talks of even Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

Thirdly, the disciplinary action (denial of hostel and library facilities) that was taken against Rohith and his friends followed some group violence – between ASA and the ABVP (the student wing of the BJP). And much against what we read in the papers and hear in the TV studios, the letters from the Union Ministry of Human Resources and Development (which in turn was urged by some Members of Parliament) did not result in the punitive actions. The University Administration acted only when it was asked by the High Court to do so on the basis of the complaint of the mother of an ABVP leader who was allegedly bitten by the ASA. And the matter is still before the Court.

Fourthly, in his suicide-note, Rohith has not blamed anybody. If anything, his note suggests that he was disillusioned by the overall socio-political realities of India. He was also not exactly happy with the functioning of the ASA.

Given all these, the unfortunate suicide by Rohith is the manifestation of a set of complex issues that cannot be degenerated to be an issue of a particular caste. But that is exactly what our politicians and intellectual elites are doing. They literally have reduced themselves to be vultures exploiting the dead body of Rohith to pursue their respective partisan agendas, all in the forms of "identity politics", democratic India's biggest misfortune. Rohith for them has become a "dalit" victim, though in strict sense of the term he was an OBC and got admission on merit, not on the basis of dalit-quota.

As social scientist Shiv Viswanathan has argued, identity politics has created "an atmosphere where ordinary behaviour varies between political correctness and rigid intolerance. Each of these grids creates their own particular kind of danger. Firstly the idea of majority and minority creates a dualistic politics rather than a pluralist one. A constitution which makes too many allowances for minorities makes a majority feel victimised. In retaliation, the majority group feels genocidal and exterminates minorities. The distance between majority and minority often makes citizenship and adherence to the constitution the first casualty. In an Orwellian sense, it creates a feeling that some minorities are more equal than others."

Viswanathan further argues that "the structure of ethnic politics creates an identity frame, which is oversensitive. Earlier, identity was an affable term. One's identity depended on context. Identity was an encompassing rubric including caste, kinship, tribe, faith, occupation, locality and even age and the self in a sense of play could even shuffle its repertoire of identities. Today identity is a fixed label with all the sensitivity of a mimosa plant. Identity becomes a form of anxiety which anticipates even imaginary threats to its stability."

It may be noted here how not long ago, the controversy over the publication of great cartoons by the legendary cartoonist Shankar in the NCERT textbooks and the shameful surrender of the Central Government to the diktats of the "dalit" parliamentarians had disturbed all the right-thinking Indians. The then HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, known otherwise for his intellect coupled with arrogance, had "agreed" disgracefully to withdraw the "offending" textbooks that depict the controversial cartoon on BR Ambedkar, who was the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, "wrongly" and examine the banning of cartoons altogether in textbooks. No member in Parliament challenged the spurious argument that school children are not mature enough to understand the subtle nuances of the political cartoons.

Ironically, the great Ambedkar was very much alive and active when the cartoon was drawn in 1949. He did not protest. But now the "Dalit" parliamentarians find that objectionable, and most of them belong to the Congress, their leader in this case being none other than KL Punia, presently chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and previously a senior IAS officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre.

Be that as it may, the whole question of identity politics and the consequent intolerance to others' views is now a trend that has assumed dangerous proportions in India. In this cartoon controversy, the "Dalits" protested invoking the identity factor. For them, Ambedkar is "their" icon. They see Ambedkar only though "Dalit prism", whereas the fact is that Ambedkar was a leader of "all" Indians and should belong to "all'. It is because of this identity politics that Mayawati wants to be known as a "Dalit" leader despite having prime ministerial ambitions.

Likewise, these days one hears a lot about Muslim issues and Muslim leaders. Some want India to have a "Muslim" President in the name of secularism; they are not interested in having a President of integrity and competence who could be a Muslim. Likewise, soon after assuming the office of Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, Akhilesh Yadav looked for a "Muslim" to be appointed as chief secretary. I think he did a great disservice to Javed Usmani by making him the chief secretary. Usmani, now retired, was reputed to be an outstanding IAS officer; he deserved to be the chief secretary for his record in service, but the chief minister reduced him to be a mere Muslim!

As mentioned, identity politics has come to signify a wide range of political activities and there are plenty of intellectuals who have come out with theories, founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Votaries of identity politics rationalise how members of that particular group asserted and used their distinctiveness to challenge the dominant order of the day to realise their legitimate dues from the polity and society. Political scientists such as late Rajni Kothari became the cult figure of identity politics by relying on notions of sameness to justify political mobilisation.

However, stimulating the theory of identity politics may be, the fact is that it stands as a ridiculous and dangerous approach to the issues facing India today. The notion that it is "right" to hold other people in a nation hostage through the threat of riots (physical violence) or smearing others' names (violence that makes trust impossible) can only push the rest of us to violence, if not today then tomorrow. There will be no democracy if everybody thinks or acts only as the member of a particular category or community. Unfortunately, this is happening in India today. Indians are more divided today than what they were before 1989, when identity politics got the biggest boost through the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations.

Finding that identity is indeed central to politics, and that conforming to a particular identity is a requirement for political participation, identity politics perpetuates identity rather than transcending it, which, ironically, is the goal of every liberal and democratic country. Other than the inherent totalitarian trait (concept of "me" and "my group" only) in it, identity politics does not cope with the fact that every individual has multiple identities. How does one juxtapose the imperatives of one's creed or caste with that that of the identity as a professional, as a member of a club or association, as a user of services such as transport, health, hospitality and entertainment, to just give an example? Will a dalit patient go to a dalit doctor? Will a Muslim go to a school or college only for Muslims?

Unfortunately, if we go by the current trends in Indian politics and remain silent, that horrific day is not that distant.

Given this horrendous prospect, it is time we moved from identity politics to a politics of identification. In the politics of identification, the political actors should identify with particular political causes and mobilise to achieve particular political goals. Such identification could locate problems based in identities, but it is not necessary that the reasons for that identification will be monolithic; these will vary from place to place. One cannot equate the problems of the relatively better off Meena tribes in Rajasthan to that of Juang tribes in Odisha. One does not need to be a supporter of Narendra Modi to discover that conditions of the Muslims in Gujarat are infinitely better than those in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Even among the Dalits, the sub-groups that the likes of Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan belong to do not have the same pains and anguish of the others. The point is that embracing an identification does not entail fixing the whole of the identity of a citizen in a particular location. In other words, we should focus on identification, not identity, for emancipation of our underprivileged.
First Published: January 22, 2016, 3:08 PM IST

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