Identity Politics is Not the Evil it is Made Out to Be

The existence of identity politics in any democracy is an indicator of the vibrancy and health of politics.

There are several instances in the history of a nation when “identity politics” surges. In these moments, this term, “identity politics” is often used derogatorily as it presents a threat to the political status quo. In India, the notion of identity politics is rooted in the violent history of Partition and the demand for separate electorates for religious and caste identities. Since then, whenever a marginalised community has demanded space in politics, it has largely been seen as divisive, and as a threat to the equality and the unity of the nation.

However, Hindutva as a political ideology has managed to remain outside the ambit of “identity politics,” even though it is based on a specific communitarian identity and pushes for a political agenda. On the other hand, political organisation along the lines of caste, for instance, has been vehemently opposed, especially by the urban middle class who often tend to proclaim that caste no longer exists.

Over the years, many scholars have problematised the idea of “identity politics,” and more specifically discussed how it can limit the very emancipatory politics that it seeks to achieve. When do these situations arise and what are the ways in which we can overcome these limitations? In this reading list, we discuss the notion of “identity politics” and attempt to understand how it can positively impact democracies.

1) Identity Politics is Necessary in a Democracy

Identity politics is an inevitability in democracies. In fact, one could question the legitimacy of a democratic country if it did not provide space for identity politics. The existence of identity politics is an indicator of the health of a democracy because it means that marginalised sections are making an active bid for a share of power. As Asghar Ali Engineer wrote, the issue is never simply the assertion of a caste, religious or regional identity by itself, but how identity functions as “an instrument” to access material gains in a power set-up.

Democratic process intensifies power struggle, and hence, assertion of various identities assumes vital importance in a democratic set-up. Under authoritarian regime various identities may be suppressed or subordinated but it cannot be done under a democratic regime. Democracy is nothing if it does not give free play to power struggle between various sections of people.

2) Identity Politics is a Response to Majoritarian Ideologies

Dalit political assertions have, in particular, been accused of identity politics in a derogatory manner. The use of caste as a political identity to mobilise under has been seen as divisive since the time Kanshi Ram used it as an ideology to found the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Thereafter, the accusation of “identity politics” has resurfaced whenever the matter of caste-based reservations have come up, most noticeably in relation to the Mandal Commission recommendations. However these caste-based mobilisations were of utmost importance: Kancha Ilaiah pointed out how in postcolonial India, democracy was largely confined to the upper castes. He wrote, “Neither in family relations, nor in market relations and nor in political relations has democratisation of civil society taken place so far. The caste system has frozen mobility in social structures and socioeconomic relations.”  These political mobilisations therefore need to be read as attempts to unfreeze the order of things to get the wheel of social mobility turning.

The BSP leader Kanshi Ram put caste on the national agenda of political discourse in an altogether different form from the one that has been existing among the political parties. Earlier caste was a factor in ticket distribution and a source of reservation perks for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes But there is an increased feeling that caste is becoming an ideology undercutting the traditional notions of left wing and right wing politics in India Though there is disagreement among analysts on whether caste in itself can become an ideology and whether caste and class arc coterminous in the Indian context as caste points to a definite economic indicator of the poverty line of people.

Furthermore, in his article, Ilaiah contends that the rise of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh was actually a political response to the rise of Hindutva and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

There is considerable disagreement among political pundits about whether or not hindutva can be projected as an ideology. But there is no denying the fact that the stronger the efforts of Sangh parivar to project hindutva as an ideology of Hindu nationalism the greater would be the possibility of caste getting ideologised in the Indian context as it is basically a caste society and because the hindutva slogan of 'one religion one nation' will only provide enough ground to the dalit bahujans to assert their autonomy from hindutva as the dalit bahujans were never an integral part of Hindu religion. Kanshi Ram understood this ground reality and used the historical legacy of Phule, Shahumaharaj, Periar Ramaswamy Naicker and Ambedkar.

3) The Limits of Identity Politics

Writing in the context of the politics forged around ethnic identities in the North East that also coalesced around the experience of racism, R K Debbarma wrote that if identity politics evolves from an uncritical evaluation of the “self”, then it is often self-defeating. This is because the politics of the oppressed mirrors the politics of the oppressors in certain instances, and commands allegiance to the community.

For the identity politics in the region, such an assumption helps unleash its own desire for establishing one’s superiority. As someone one who is from this region and located in the region, I am constantly reminded to be proud of its history, heroes, places and culture. No doubt these tendencies have always been present in the region, but the obsession is novel. And, of late, it has largely been aggressively promoted by certain sections from within the region, especially on social media. It is in this inflated conception of one’s self-worth, contingent on uncritical appreciation of the past, which animates complicated politics of difference, that I wish to locate racism and discrimination; not in ignorance and prejudices.

Debbarma also talks about a “fossilisation of beliefs” within certain identity groups which is counterproductive to their original political project of securing political power for themselves. He argues that the manner in which this identity politics plays out in the North East mimics a colonial structure.

What we are witnessing in the region today is the fossilisation of beliefs in a delegated community, a community rooted in a particular place, as a political value. Political power is exclusively gifted to these communities, a power that flows from the core, which replicates itself as a colonial arrangement. But, the irony is that communities constructed on such desires cannot become self-authorising political agents, capable of building and sustaining a truly democratic politics on its own. These would always require divine assistance, the Indian state as the authorising agent.

4) The Need for a ‘Tomorrow’ in Identity Politics

If an identity that is meant to be the “site of resistance” for a community, becomes oppressive to the very people it is trying to emancipate, by replicating the structures of oppressors, then one has to re-examine the boundaries of the identity itself. One of the strongest criticisms of identity politics has been that it tends to “fetishise” the historical injustices suffered by communities, which can perhaps contribute to the “fossilisation of beliefs” that has been referred to above. In response to this, Gurminder K Bhambra and Victoria Margree provide a way forward by rethinking the way in which we conceptualise “identity” in relation to politics. They argue that identities need to be situated historically, but with a view of the future. The purpose of organising under an identity in the present is to overcome a historical injustice, with a view of the identity no longer being required in the future when the objectives outlined by the present political project have been achieved.

Identity politics, then, “needs a tomorrow” in this sense: that the raison d’être of any politicised identity is the bringing about of a tomorrow in which the social injustices of the present have been overcome. But identity politics also needs that tomorrow – today – in the sense that politicised identities need to inscribe that tomorrow into their self-definition in the present, in order to avoid consolidating activity around the maintenance of the identity rather than the overcoming of the conditions that generated it. That the tomorrow to be inscribed – today – in the self definition of one’s political identity, is one in which that identity will no longer be required, is not a situation to be regretted, since it is rather the promise of success for any movement for justice.

 

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