Identity Politics has become a prominent subject in the Indian politics in the past few years.
Rise of low castes, religious identities, linguistic groups and ethnic conflicts have contributed
to the significance of identity politics in India. The discourse on Identity, many scholars feel,
is distinctly a modern phenomenon. Craig Calhoun aptly describes the situation when he
argues that it is in the modern times we encounter intensified efforts at consolidating individual
and categorical identities and reinforce self-sameness. This is primarily a modern phenomenon
because some scholars feel that emphasis on identity based on a central organising principle
of ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexual preferences, or caste positions, etc, are a sort
of “compelling remedy for anonymity” in an otherwise impersonal modern world. It is thus said
to be a “pattern of belonging, a search for comfort, an approach to community.” However,
the complex social changes and the imbrications of various forces, factors and events in this
modern world have rendered such production and recognition of identities problematic. This
is to say that any search for an ‘authentic selfor identity’ is not an innocent and unnuanced
possibility; it involves negotiating other, often overlapping and contested, heterodox or multiple
‘selves’. Cascardi succinctly elucidates this by observing, “the modern subject is defined by
its insertion into a series of separate value-spheres, each one of which tends to exclude or
attempts to assert its priority over the rest”, thereby rendering identity-schemes problematic.
Nonetheless, the concerns with individual and collective identity that simultaneously seeks to
emphasise differences and attempt to establish commonality with others similarly distinguished,
have become a universal venture.


But the question is how do discourses on identity fit into the political landscape? What are
the political underpinnings of these discourses on identity? What are the organising principles
of movements that characterise themselves as those based on identity concerns? Can we
define movements of workers as an instance of identity politics? In short what is the politics
of identity and what are its organising principles?

Identity Politics is said to “signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in
the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups”. As a political activity
it is thus considered to signify a body of political projects that attempts a “recovery from
exclusion and denigration” of groups hitherto marginalised on the basis of differences based
on their ‘selfhood’ determining characteristics like ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, caste
positions, etc. Identity politics thus attempts to attain empowerment, representation and
recognition of social groups by asserting the very same markers that distinguished and
differentiated them from the others and utilise those markers as an assertion of selfhood and
identity based on differencerather than equality. Contrastingly placed, it is to imply that
adherents of identity politics essentialise certain markers that fix the identities of social groups
around an ensemble of definitional absolutes. These markers may be those of language,
culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, caste positions, religion, tribe, race, etc.
institutionalised in jargons, metaphors, stereotypes, and academic literature and reinforced
through practices of positive discrimination or affirmative action. The proponents of identity
politics thus, assign the primacy of some “essence” or a set of core features shared only by
members of the collectivity and no others and accepts individual persons as singular, integral,
altogether harmonious and unproblematic identities. These core markers are different from
associational markers like those of the workers who are defined more by their common
interests rather than by certain core essential naturally ‘given’ identity attributes of the groups
engaged in identity politics. Though many would argue that “worker” was an identity deserving
legitimacy and as a group, its movements can be referred to as identity Politics, but probably
the term “identity politics” as a body of political projects implied to in contemporary discourses
refers to certain essential, local and particular categorical identities rather than any universalising
ideals or agenda. The adherents of identity politics utilise the power of myths, cultural symbols
and kinship relations to mould the feeling of shared community and subsequently politicise
these aspects to claim recognition of their particular identities.
The strongest criticism against Identity Politics is that it often challenged by the very same
markers upon which the sense of self or community is sought to be built. It is despite the fact
that identity politics is engaged in numerous aspects of oppression and powerlessness, reclaiming
and transforming negative scripts used by dominant groups into powerful instruments for
building positive images of self and community. In other words the markers that supposedly
defines the community are fixed to the extent that they harden and release a process of in-group essentialism that often denies internal dialogicality within and without the group and itself
becomes a new form of closure and oppression.

Identity Politics as a field of study can be said to have gained intellectual legitimacy since the
second half of the twentieth century, i.e., between 1950s and 1960s in the United States when
large scale political movements of the second wave-feminists, Black Civil Rights, Gay and
Lesbian Liberation movements and movements of various Indigenous groups in the U.S. and
other parts of the world were being justified and legitimated on the basis of claims about
injustices done to their respective social groups. However, as scholars like Heyes point out
that although “‘Identity Politics’ can draw on intellectual precursors from Mary Wollstonecraft
to Frantz Fanon, writing that actually uses this specific phrase—Identity Politics—is limited
almost exclusively to the last 15 years.

In India we find that despite adoption of a liberal democratic polity after independence,
communities and collective identities have remained powerful and continue to claim recognition.
In fact, Beteille has shown that the Indian polity has consistently tried to negotiate the allegiance
to a liberal [individual] spirit and the concerns and consciousness of community. According to
Bikhu Parekh this process has recognised a wide array of autonomous and largely self-governing communities. It has sought to reconcile itself as an association of individuals and a
community of communities, recognising both individuals and communities as bearer of rights.
It was probably this claim for and granting of recognition of particular identities by the post-independence state of India that led many scholars to believe that a material basis for the
enunciation of identity claims has been provided by the post-independent state and its structures
and institutions. In other words the state is seen as an “active contributor to identity politics
through the creation and maintenance of state structures which define and then recognise
people in terms of certain identities”. Thus, we find identity politics of various hues abound
in India, the most spectacular however, are those based on language, religion, caste, ethnicity
or tribal identity. But having said this it would be wrong on our part to assume that each of
these identity markers operate autonomously, independent of the overlapping influence of the
other makers. In other words a homogenous linguistic group may be divided by caste affiliations
that may be sub-divided by religious orientations or all may be subsumed under a broader
ethnic claim.

17.3.1 Caste
Caste-based discrimination and oppression have been a pernicious feature of Indian society
and in the post-independence period its imbrications with politics have not only made it
possible for hitherto oppressed caste-groups to be accorded political freedom and recognition
but has also raised consciousness about its potential as a political capital. In fact Dipankar
Gupta has poignantly exposed this contradiction when he elaborates the differences between
Ambedkar and Mandal Commission’s view of caste. While the former designed the policy of
reservations or protective discrimination to remove untouchability as an institution from Indian
social life and polity, the latter considered caste as an important political resource. Actually,
the Mandal commission can be considered the intellectual inspiration in transforming caste-based identity to an asset that may be used as a basis for securing political and economic
gains. Though it can also be said that the upper castes by virtue of their predominant position
were already occupying positions of strengths in the political and economic system, and when
the Mandal heightened the consciousness of the ‘Dalits’ by recognisisng their disadvantage of
caste-identity as an advantage the confrontation ensues. The caste system, which is based on
the notions of purity and pollution, hierarchy and difference, has despite social mobility, been
oppressive towards the Shudras and the outcastes who suffered the stigma of ritual impurity
and lived in abject poverty, illiteracy and denial of political power. The origin of confrontational
identity politics based on caste may be said to have its origin on the issue of providing the
oppressed caste groups with state support in the form of protective discrimination. This group-identity based on caste that has been reinforced by the emergence of political consciousness
around caste identities is institutionalised by the caste-based political parties that profess to
uphold and protect the interests of specific identities including the castes. Consequently, we
have the upper caste dominated BJP, the lower caste dominated BSP (Bhaujan Samaj Party)
or the SP (Samajwadi Party), including the fact that left parties (for example use of caste
idioms for mobilising agricultural labourers in Andhra Pradesh elections in 1950) have tacitly
followed the caste pattern to extract mileage in electoral politics. The Cumulative result of the
politicisation can be summarised by arguing that caste-based identity politics has had a dual
role in Indian society and polity. It relatively democratised the caste-based Indian society but
simultaneously undermined the evolution of class-based organisations.
In all, caste has become an important determinant in Indian society and politics, the new lesson
of organised politics and consciousness of caste affiliations learnt by the hitherto despised
caste groups have transformed the contours of Indian politics where shifting caste-class alliances
are being encountered. The net effect of these mobilisations along caste-identities have resulted
not only in the empowerment of newly emerging groups but has increased the intensity of
confrontational politics and possibly leading to a growing crisis of governability.

17.3.2 Religion
Another form of identity politics is that effected through the construction of a community on
the shared bond of religion. In India, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism
are some of the major religions practised by the people. Numerically the Hindus are considered
to be the majority, which inspires many Hindu loyalist groups like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam
Sevak Sangh) or the Siva Sena and political parties like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or
the Hindu Mahasabha to claim that India is a Hindu State. These claims generate homogenising
myths about India and its history. These claims are countered by other religious groups who
foresee the possibility of losing autonomy of practise of their religious and cultural life under
such homogenising claims. This initiates contestations that have often resulted in communal
riots. The generally accepted myths that process the identity divide on religious lines centre
on the ‘appeasement theory’, ‘forcible religious conversions’, general ‘anti-Hindu’ and thus
‘anti-India’ attitude of the minority religious groups, the ‘hegemonic aspirations’ of majority
groups and ‘denial of a socio-cultural space’ to minority groups.

Historically, the Hindu revivalist movement of the 19th
century is considered to be the period
that saw the demarcation of two separate cultures on religious basis—the Hindus and the
Muslims that deepened further because of the partition. This division which has become
institutionalised in the form of a communal ideology has become a major challenge for India’s
secular social fabric and democratic polity. Though communalism for a major part of the last
century signified Hindu-Muslim conflict, in recent years contestations between Hindus and
Sikhs, Hindus and Christians have often crystallised into communal conflict. The rise of Hindu
national assertiveness, politics of representational government, persistence of communal
perceptions, and competition for the socio-economic resources are considered some of the
reasons for the generation of communal ideologies and their transformation into major riots.
Identity schemes based on religion have become a major source of conflict not only in the
international context but since the early 1990s it has also become a challenge for Indian
democracy and secularism. The rise of majoritarian assertiveness is considered to have become
institutionalised after the BJP, that along with its ‘Hindu’ constituents gave political cohesiveness
to a consolidating Hindu consciousness, formed a coalition ministry in March 1998. However,
like all identity schemes the forging of a religious community glosses over internal differences
within a particular religion to generate the “we are all of the same kind” emotion. Thus
differences of caste groups within a homogenous Hindu identity, linguistic and sectional differences
within Islam are shelved to create a homogenous unified religious identity.
In post-independence India the majoritarian assertion has generated its own antithesis in the
form of minority religions assertiveness and a resulting confrontational politics that undermines
the syncretistic dimensions of the civil society in India. The process through which this religious
assertiveness is being increasingly institutionalised by a ‘methodical rewriting of history’ has the
potential to reformulate India’s national identity along communal trajectories.

17.3.3 Language
Identity claims based on the perception of a collectivity bound together by language may be
said to have its origin in the pre-independence politics of the Congress that had promised
reorganisation of states in the post-independent period on linguistic basis. But it was the “JVP”
(Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) Committee’s concession that
if public sentiment was “insistent and overwhelming”, the formation of Andhra from the Telugu-speaking region of the then Madras could be conceded which as Michael Brecher mentions
was the “opening wedge for the bitter struggle over states reorganisation which was to
dominate Indian Politics from 1953 to 1956”. Ironically, the claim of separate states for
linguistic collectivities did not end in 1956 and even today continues to confront the concerns
of the Indian leadership. But the problem has been that none of the created or claimed states
are mono-ethnic in composition and some even have numerically and politically powerful
minorities. This has resulted in a cascading set of claims that continue to threaten the territorial
limits of existing states and disputes over boundaries between linguistic states have continued
to stir conflicts, as for instance the simmering tensions between Maharastra and Karnataka
over the district of Belgaum or even the claims of the Nagas to parts of Manipur.
The linguistic divisions have been complicated by the lack of a uniform language policy for the
entire country. Since in each state the dominant regional language is often used as the medium
of instruction and social communication, the consequent affinity and allegiance that develops
towards one’s own language gets expressed even outside one’s state of origin. For instance
the formation of linguistic cultural and social groups outside one’s state of origin helps to
consolidate the unity and sense of community in a separate linguistic society. Thus language
becomes an important premise on which group identities are organised and establishes the
conditions for defining the ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’.

Though it is generally felt that linguistic states provide freedom and autonomy for collectivities
within a heterogeneous society, critics argue that linguistic states have reinforced regionalism
and has provided a platform for the articulation of a phenomenal number of identity claims in
a country that has 1,652 ‘mother tongues’ and only fourteen recognised languages around
which states have been reorganised. They argue that the effective result of recognition for
linguistic groups has disembodied the feelings of national unity and national spirit in a climate
where ‘Maharastra for Marathis, Gujrat for Gujratis, etc” has reinforced linguistic mistrust and
defined the economic and political goods in linguistic terms.

17.3.4 Ethnicity
You will study in detail about the ethnicity in unit 26 of the book 2 of this course. There are
two ways in which the concept of ethnic identity is used; one, it insiders the formation of
identity on the basis of single attribute – language, religion, caste, region, etc; two, it considers
the formation of identity on the basis, of multiple attributes cumulatively. However, it is the
second way formation of identity on the basis of more than one characteristics – culture,
customs, region, religion or caste, which is considered as the most common way of formation
of the ethnic identity. The one ethnic identity is formed in relation to the other ethnic identity.
The relations between more than one ethnic identities can be both harmonious and conflictual.
Whenever there is competetion among the ethnic identities on the real or imaginary basis, it
expressed in the form of autonomy movements, demand for session or ethnic riots. You will
study about the major examples of ethnicity in Unit 26 of the book 2.


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