The Politics of Belonging in India

Curated by Tiya Singh [ ]
11 August 2022

This reading list attempts to explore the new politics of belonging in India and intends to reflect on the present socio-political fractures that consequently arise, and explore alternative ways of looking at belonging.

Do all of us feel a sense of belonging? This question has become increasingly relevant to our times.When we think of the question of belonging, it could be in varying forms- be it  a feeling of being an integral part of our political processes, equal participation in the jobs, equal treatment in diverse socio-political spheres, or equal representation. It also means equal access to education, health. Finally a sense of belonging should also require a feeling of security, being cared for and nurtured. One may argue that the question of belonging in India is a complex one that has been pertinent since the inception of this nation-state, yet this question remains relevant more so today in an age of polarising politics and jingoistic nationalism.  

This question of “who belongs?” has been deconstructed and reconstructed throughout the years by scholars and civil society. In one way, territoriality often becomes a strong factor in how identity is perceived. For instance, in the North East, a complex mix of identity politics and the struggle for self-determination presents itself “the whole discourse on nationalism that seems to have hijacked the ordinary as well as the intellectual space of India these days seems such a misnomer when North East Indians fundamentally have to struggle for acceptance from their own so-called fellow citizens of India.” (Pinto 2016) 

Language presents itself as another tangled denominator in the perception of belongingness. As Hany Babu M T in the EPW article titled
‘Breaking the Chaturvarna System of Languages’ argues, “The Indian language policy is informed by a pull towards unilingual identity, inspired by the European model of nation state that is predicated on the homogeneity of its people. Language hegemony works at two tiers in India—at the state and the centre.” Language, just as the question of the land, is an important aspect of the question of belongingness in India. However, it is often treated as a political means for gaining short term expediencies. 

But all these questions are futile, unless we begin to unpack the imperial imprints inherent within these categories. To construct some kind of an order, the colonial rule often created categories of people, and while the idea suited their politico-economic interests, some of the practises continue till today. It then becomes critical to examine how our colonial past remains embedded in our idea of belonging. As William Glover argued in EPW-  “[g]reater awareness of the historicity of these debates, and thus of both the continuities and discontinuities between colonial and contemporary practice, are essential.” (Glover 2019)

"Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”  (Nehru 1947)

Seventy-five years ago, India was born with the promise of these empowering words. The colonial nation was divided into two, and India became a sovereign nation with an identity of its own. India is unique and complex because of rich cultural, regional and religious diversity as well as division of people on the basis of caste and economic status. In a nation tied together with such complexity, we often ask the question of what it means to have a sense of belonging to the nation of India, and why more so ever than before are we questioning who belongs to India? 

In India, the sense of belonging has been carved out of complex socio-economic realities. The question of belonging is both an individualistic as well as a political question, because to have a sense of belonging has a psychological motivation from the inside, as well as a political probe into who belongs. The idea of belonging to the land of India has become contentious in the recent times, and there are some specific tenets of this complex issues that have to be explored in some detail:

Identity and Religion

Headlines are routinely flooded with warnings that communal harmony appears to be buckling under the pressure of a growing wave of intolerance, misinformation and othering. While religion as a form of political appeal has been widely employed across the globe, and continues to be a powerful mobilising instrument, in India as well, division along the lines of religion seems to be gaining pace. In his analysis, James Manor grimly noted in his article, A New, Fundamentally Different Political Order: The Emergence and Future Prospects of ‘Competitive Authoritarianism’ in India that this wasn’t always the case. He observes,  

For decades, Indians tended not to fix tenaciously upon any of the numerous identities available to them—of which their religious identity was just one among many. (Manor 2021)

In the majoritarian form of politics in the country, one can observe that individuals become concerned with their own religious inclinations, leaving little room for fostering a political culture of religious diversity. Intolerance—masked as the ideology of universality of religion and shared culture—is spread to the citizenry. Manabi Majumdar remarked in her book review, ‘Representing Identities, Interests and Ideas’ that it is important to question to what extent the constitutional and institutional safeguards translate into effective group representation so as to achieve the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. She writes, 

These days the “identity of India” is often sought to be delineated, thanks to the modern Hindutva movement, in terms of a coercively homogenised Hindu identity, disrespecting the country’s enormous cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversities.

Secularism, in such a political setup, often takes the backseat. As Madhav Godbole in his EPW article titled, ‘Is India a Secular Nation?’ contended that this happens in part due to the general disillusionment with the idea of secularism both with the majority as well as the minority communities in the country - “A great deal remains to be done if secularism is to become a way of life in India. This will be possible only if there is a real political, social and intellectual commitment to it and, the state and central governments, the political parties, the civil society and the media strive for it.”

Homogenising politics

Religious majoritarianism seeks to ensure that all adhere to one, and only one idea of India, and anyone who doesn’t conform, does not belong. Through jingoistic speeches, campaigns and unexamined laws, the ideology slowly begins to seep into the daily conduct of the majority towards the minority. As Melwyn Pinto poignantly posed in his 2016 article Struggles of Intimacy and Belonging, “How can one be nationalistic—if such a concept is legitimate at all—when one has to struggle on a daily basis to belong somewhere?” (Pinto 2016) Under this wave of homogenization, minorities in India find themselves continually battling for something as fundamental as their identity— fuelling insecurity and dread for living in their own homeland.

It is imperative to understand how such homegenising tendencies are systematized in India. As this article by D Parthasarathy titled 'Citizenship (Amendment) Act: The Pitfalls of Homogenising Identities in Resistance Narratives' mentions-

The drive to homogenise societies and cultures in the image of the dominant elite and the suppression of pluralism are the integral aspects of the authoritarian projects, which is specially observed in multi-ethnic societies and nation states (Montuori 2005; Sarkar 1993; Conversi 2008). The trope of homogenisation, however, has to be examined carefully in the postcolonial, deeply hierarchical region of South Asia, where identities have been crafted amidst the struggles for freedom from colonial rule and the divide-and-rule policy of imperial statecraft. 

Parthasarathy further mentions that the government conveniently uses colonial tropes of homogenising diverse groups of people into broad categories—like for example of religion—that serves a specific kind of politics of inclusion and exclusion. This is done in a well-planned step-by-step process of marginalising one or a few groups at a time by co-opting currently marginalised groups into opposing and oppressing the current target of exclusion, subordination, and disenfranchisement. This political mobilisation strategy (Parthasarathy 2020) not only marginalises certain targeted groups of minorities, but also leads to ignoring the discriminatory practices and hierarchies within the majority groups, that in turns plays in the favour of homogenising politics.  

Strategic Political symbolism

As Shiv Viswanathan explained in his article titled ‘Narendra Modi’s Symbolic War’, political symbolism has played a major role in concretising exclusionary communal politics in India. He describes saffron nationalism as “A rhetorical battle fought with a new language, a glossary of refurbished concepts, a new mnemonic, a numbers game called development making creative use of symbols blending modernity and folklore.” In this paper, Vishwanathan explores how colour, clothing, gestures and vocabulary are an important part of political representation and how they play with the psyche of the voters irrespective of the actual impact of the work and promises of political parties. We see that since the past decade, there has been a major shift in the narrative of Indian politics and techniques of political contrivance. In today’s majoritarian politics, certain symbols are deemed populistic though their origins may be far from it. 

As a recently written, From the editor’s desk piece mentions, “the reconfiguration of certain symbols as fierce and violent depends on the politics of those who are seeking such symbolism.” This editorial points towards how specific symbols that have historically had a certain meaning, have been appropriated by those in power to conveniently manipulate its semantic in the present context. An example of some of these symbols are: the lion on the national emblem, the dhamma chakka, which have typically been seen as symbols of importance for the marginalised communities, and are today patronised symbolism of dominant political forces. 

There has been a significant reimagining of certain icons, architecture and history to view the chronicles of the past in a certain way that fits the tropes of tyrannical politics. 

The Public Sphere

The Constitution of India, albeit with its own set of colonial hangovers in the form of penal laws, is an extensive document which derives some of its content from diverse democracies across the globe, and largely promised to be secular, inclusive and accommodative. However, its liberal objectives have not fully permeated into practice in the public sphere. In today’s times we see that there are many instances that point towards a shift toward ochlocracy. 

Since 2014, mob violence, and open acts of intolerance are becoming more and more commonplace. “There have been far too many—mob lynchings, khaap panchayat dictats denying individual freedom, fatwas by sectarian-orthodox bodies, media trials and ostracisation of individuals holding different views as “anti-national” by ideological groups” (Scroll 2019). Their rising occurrence calls for analysis. And civil society has struggled to respond to this pressing challenge. As this 1964  article ‘Mob Violence and Mass Apathy-A Problem of Political Organisation’ puts forth-

Some social scientists have pointed out that mass apathy and mass violence go hand in hand and it is only the penetration of organised politics into the lower layers of society that can overcome mass apathy. In its essence, the problem is one of political organisation rather than of political slogans.

At this juncture, as a recent editorial, 'Bulldozing the Idea of Democracy', points out, “it is time to assess whether the idea of democracy in India has not come under the duress of unpunishable mobs and an unapologetic state apparatus.”The various legislative changes across states protecting cow vigilantism are one such example. In many of these cases, the identity and/or the religious affiliations of individuals are enough cause for them to become victims of targeted violence. This goes against the Constitutional values spelt out in the Preamble- of justice (social, economic and political), liberty (of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship) and equality (of status and opportunity).

The Digital Age and Novel Challenges 

Social media has allowed for a reconfiguration of identity and community in a disruptive manner. It has also given room to altern modes of political communication. This comment by Ghazala Jamil titled 'Tech-mediated Misogyny and Communal Vitriol,' points out that offers a sharp critique of the increased  targeting of Muslim women on the digital sphere and “the discursive boundaries set by Hindutva ideology and actors seeking to discipline Muslim women’s speech and punish them for dissent.” She continues; “Social media platforms are the digitised equivalent of the public sphere.”

Digital media has also made it easier to spread misinformation that is many a times unverifiable. 

While name-calling, fake news, and other types of low-level discourse and unethical political communication have always existed, social media has undoubtedly exacerbated these problems to another level. Observers have lamented how political discourse in the country has plummeted to new lows, with misinformation, insults, and mudslinging becoming par for the course even among seasoned and top political leaders. (Rao 2019

This further adds to the complexity of countering conspiracy theories and falsehoods, which continue to threaten especially the marginalised, and goads them to question their position in society. 

Manufacturing of History

The narrativizing of history is a political trope used by governments in power. However, a vigorous attempt at contorting historical facts in a way that it serves a few and deems people from minority groups as the “other” is something that we see around us today. This is a new kind of myth-making that replaces history and adds to disbelief.  It shapes the politics of belonging, as some are declared to belong, and others very starkly do not. R K Debbarma writes on dangers of the parochial manufacturing of India’s history:

 The obsession with India’s past, pride and self-worth has engendered extraordinary stifling of dissent, and normalised violence against those who call for these passions to be tempered with humility.

This cycle of fear created by groups striving for political domination has peculiar similarities to this 2002 article, titled ‘Legal Invention of an Artefact: Birth of Identity in Asian America’ by Anurima Banerji, where she writes about the case of racism in America. Therein the social imagery of race, gender and class was strongly institutionalised and internalised by some- 

White identity politics was central to the development of the American state, and informed all dominant conceptions of the nation, as seen from its immigration history and naturalisation laws. This helped establish, in turn, elaborate systems of difference based on race, gender and class interrelations, designed to maintain political domination. 

Democracy in Peril

On the international level as well, questions continue to be raised about India’s democracy, as evidenced by Freedom House reports or India’s poor performance in EIU’s Democracy Index, 2022. By systematic practices of symbolism, mobilisation and its brand of divisive politics, religious intolerance, and the curtailment of dissent weakens the very core of the Indian democracy, fragments its institutions, hampers the celebration of its diversity. It confines the socio-political culture to parochial frameworks, blocking true human development, and undermining the inclusive ideals put forward in the Indian Constitution.

This piece from the Editor’s desk proposes a way out, to protect from the continued objectification of certain minority groups-

On the conundrum of objectification, the inducted members allow themselves to be objectified by the dominant party. In turn, the members of such groups seek to objectify the constituency to which they socially belong. One can overcome the impasse of identity politics possibly by the enlightened critical insider, an insider who does not participate in their objectification and neither do they tolerate the objectification of lower-caste leaders who tend to exist on the conundrum of objectification.

But as Suhas Palshikar has argued in his 1997 EPW discussion “Gandhi and Ambedkar”-  “both Gandhi and Ambedkar, despite the saw Indian society as being composed of non-fragmented identities.” As Rajni Kothari has reflected in the EPW article called ‘India’s Political Take-off’ - “The future depends on the route along; which it then decides to move forward. If we know the wind, we can chart our ship with due preparation.”

As we revisit the idea of India in this landmark year that marked ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, it is important to question what it means to be Indian, what it means to belong and how we can escape the “narrow domestic walls” to build the tolerant society our predecessors envisioned.


Curated by Tiya Singh [ ]
11 August 2022