Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

A MAHA DALIT rally organised by the Janata Dal (United) in Patna in February 2010, months before the Assembly elections in Bihar. Nitish Kumar's strategy of identifying the poorest of the Dalit sub-castes as "Maha Dalits" and offering them socio-economic packages served him well. - RANJEET KUMAR

A MAHA DALIT rally organised by the Janata Dal (United) in Patna in February 2010, months before the Assembly elections in Bihar. Nitish Kumar's strategy of identifying the poorest of the Dalit sub-castes as "Maha Dalits" and offering them socio-economic packages served him well. - RANJEET KUMAR

The demographic make-up of South Asia has helped reinforce identity politics in each country in the region.

THE influence exercised by identity politics during the last two centuries in South Asia has been a subject of multidisciplinary inquiries. Historians are rather late entrants into this field; they were drawn into it only when History was invoked to legitimise its origin or to justify its contemporary articulation. When history thus became deeply implicated in the pursuit of identity politics, historians were called upon to explain its meaning and to trace its antecedents. Even then the interest of historians, by and large, revolved around the study of communal identity and its implications for national politics. The varieties of other identities, which practically crowded the social and political space, have bypassed their concern. This essay is an attempt not to fill that void by narrating the modes of articulation of identity politics in South Asia, which is a vast and complex subject, but to throw some light on why identity politics emerged as a dominant force in the region.

Religious dilemma of South Asia

Of the several common characteristics that the modern states in the South Asian region shared, their multicultural and multi-religious compositions have been the most conspicuous. They shaped the demographic pattern, influenced the course of social relations, defined the contours of cultural life and, above all, set certain parameters for the mutual relations of different countries in the region.

Given the commonly shared historical experience, particularly of colonial oppression and resistance, the region had the potential to develop a distinct personality in the post-colonial world through cultural solidarity, economic cooperation and political collaboration.

The history of South Asia during the past 60 years, however, did not realise such a possibility. Instead, the relationship between different states was influenced more by recriminations of the past rather than the possibilities of the future, leading to mutual suspicion, distrust and occasional hostility and even armed conflict. Among the many reasons that led to such a situation, an important factor was the compulsions of mutual vigil' undertaken by these states about the condition of the minorities who were the followers of their religion. The official response apart, popular opinion also played a role in exacerbating mutual tensions occasioned by religious oppression or discrimination. The religious condition of each country not only impinged upon its own internal situation but also affected the mutual relations between the countries constituting the region.

What prompted such an interest and consequent vigil was the nature of distribution of the religious population in these countries. The demographic make-up of South Asia has helped reinforce identity politics in each country. For, India' is present in the communal discourse of Pakistan and Bangladesh, so are Pakistan and Bangladesh' in India. The Tamil leaders of India are emotionally involved with the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Thus the ethnic and religious configurations were major factors in the formation and articulation of identity politics in individual countries. In all of them, however, identity politics has been in conflict with national and secular politics. In India it goes back to the period of the anti-colonial national movement in which an undercurrent of caste and religious identities was present.

The concerns and anxieties of the Muslim minority in India, the Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka were transmitted to their co-religionists in other countries in the region. The Hindus in India believed that they had a responsibility to safeguard the interest of the Hindus of Pakistan or Bangladesh or of Tamils in Sri Lanka. So did Pakistan and Bangladesh in relation to the Muslims who lived in India. Each of these countries looked upon itself as the protector of its co-religionists in the region. This religious positioning had two implications. First, it attributed a religious identity to each country, even in case of a declared secular state like India; and secondly, it overlooked the fact that it amounted to interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Being the most powerful country in the region, India tended to undertake the task of course correction' in neighbouring countries. The interference in East Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal are examples. India had sent its army to East Pakistan, presumably in defence of democracy, and to Sri Lanka, to help resolve the ethnic conflict. In recent times India evinced undue, and perhaps uncalled for, interest in the internal turmoil in Nepal. Such a self-assumed responsibility, which progressively gained ground after Independence, was an elixir for the politics of identity in individual states; more grievously it generated hostility towards others, leading to disastrous consequences. Several lives, including that of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, were lost in the process. No country in the region was able to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours, which intensified the tension between different religious communities.

Different categories

The politics of identity has many hues, demarcated by different states of consciousness prevalent in a society. They can be broadly grouped into two categories: the politics of domination and the politics of resistance. The main motivation of the former is the quest for power for which identity is invoked as a means of mobilisation. The latter is the politics of rights in which identity serves as a cohesive force for achieving internal solidarity. The identity politics of the majority religion belongs to the former, whereas the identity politics of minorities, such as Dalits and Adivasis, to the latter. In the last two centuries, South Asian countries witnessed several instances in which religious identity was at the centre of political movements. However, almost all of them were riven by internal contradictions: religion served as a powerful means of mobilisation; at the same time it also imparted to it political unreality.

Several examples of the role of religious identity in political mobilisation in South Asian society can be cited. The movement for the formation of Pakistan and the construction of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya are prime instances. Although religious identity has served as an emotive symbol to elicit instant political support, it has proved insufficient to ensure the continued sustenance of a sovereign state. That is the lesson the developments in Pakistan culminating in the liberation of Bangladesh affords. The majority of citizens in the western and eastern regions of Pakistan shared the same religious faith. Yet, they could not coexist as a nation, possibly because of internal colonialism practised by the ruling elite of West Pakistan. Given the cultural disparity between the east and the west, the cultural neglect was felt as cultural oppression by the intelligentsia. But whether it was the central issue in the separation of Bangladesh is doubtful, even if culture provided inspiration and legitimacy. The formation of Bangladesh was in fact the negation of the identity politics that had given birth to Pakistan.

The formation of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh, in which large-scale death and destruction of property took place, did not deter the progress of the politics of religious identity in India. Instead, it gave greater momentum to it. Until the end of the anti-colonial struggle the Hindu fundamentalist forces represented by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh were not able to gain much support. The trauma of Partition was effectively used by them to mobilise the support of the displaced Hindu population. In all the areas where the Hindus who migrated from Pakistan had settled, communal politics rooted in religious identity and hostility gained ground. Partition served as a launching pad for a large-scale mobilisation based on Hindu religious identity.

Among the several factors enabling the construction of Hindu identity politics during the post-Partition era, the projection of the outsider' as the enemy' and the Hindu cultural pre-eminence in the past were the most prominent. History became so integral to Hindu identity politics precisely for these reasons. The Hindu history written up as fables by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Navaratna Rajaram cast Muslims as barbarian invaders who indulged in the destruction of Hindu culture and civilisation as a religious mission. They argued that the Muslim invasion was not motivated by plunder alone; it was undertaken to achieve the religious objectives of conversion and destruction of temples. In contrast, the cultural and intellectual attainments and political and administrative excellence of Hindus were projected. To prove the point, the philosophical attainments of the Upanishads were quoted; the healing qualities of Ayurveda were referred to; and the political acumen and administrative skills of the Guptas and the Cholas were invoked. Hindu identity politics was anchored on these two interrelated arguments regarding Muslim aggression, on the one hand, and consequent Hindu decline, on the other. In the light of this experience, Hindu identity politics also assumed the task of imbibing self-confidence and pride in the glorious past and rectifying the historical wrongs' committed by Muslims.

The success of Hindu identity politics was primarily because of its ability to communicate and popularise these two ideas through a series of symbolic acts. Almost all political parties either incorporated the logic of Hindu identity in varying degrees or took care to refrain from injuring popular religious feelings. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) foregrounded Hindu identity as its political platform and experimented within it to arrive at a programme to unite Hindus. The nature of Hindu identity it projected, however, was Brahmanical in conception and content, and inbuilt into it was an attempt at hegemonisation of various castes and sects. The prime example of Hindu identity politics was the movement leading to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The tortuous path of temple politics demonstrated that mainstream parties took care to ensure that religious identity was not ruffled.

Religion: Two tendencies

Beginning with the accounts of medieval foreign visitors, a popularly held stereotype about South Asia has been the religious character of the people of the region. In fact, there was nothing particular in the religious life of the people to warrant such a characterisation. What led to this impression perhaps was the public performance of rituals and the annual journey undertaken by devotees to a network of pilgrimage centres. In the past there were only very limited number of such centres and the journey was so arduous that few people undertook it. In recent times, however, a visible change has occurred. The development of transport and communication, improvement in infrastructural facilities, the growth of an affluent middle class and state support to pilgrimage tourism have considerably enhanced popular participation in pilgrimages. Not only has the number of devotees who congregate in these centres swelled, but a large number of new centres of pilgrimage have emerged. As a result, religiosity has become so integral to the life of the people that the characterisation by the medieval travellers is more appropriate to modern times.

The two interrelated tendencies, which had a bearing on identity politics, and which developed simultaneously are the religionisation of politics and the commodification of religion. Both these tendencies had their roots in the increase in religiosity among the followers of all religions; religiosity being understood as distinct from belief in religion, and the fast-changing material conditions of life in the region. Although a global phenomenon, the influence of religiosity is particularly marked in South Asia. Working behind this are a variety of forces: unprecedented proliferation of religious institutions; effective marketing of religious ideas by godmen and godwomen; organisation of religious festivals as grand spectacles; investment of capital to improve the infrastructure at pilgrimage centres; and so on. The cumulative effect of these developments is the slow displacement of the secular from the public sphere by religiosity and obscurantist practices.

More importantly, participation in public events reinforced religious commitment and identity, which in turn generated social demarcation based on religious division and consolidation. The consequence of this division is that religious communities in South Asian countries are witnessing internal religious wars', which are both physical and ideological, though not of the same genre as the religious wars in the past. They do not begin and end with physical confrontation; they are essentially ideological and cultural wars', which continuously exist even when there is no physical confrontation. They are waged by all religions and religious groups, either in aggression or in defence. As a consequence, society in South Asian countries has become deeply divided on the basis of religion. In the process, religion has become the most decisive defining factor.

A growing tendency during the last century among the followers of all religions in South Asia has been the emergence of greater internal solidarity induced by the compulsions of self-defence. The cultural and political penetration by the imperialist interests of the West has led to the closing of ranks among Muslims, the virtues of Islamisation being upheld in the process. A large number of splinter groups emerged among Muslims during this period, representing different shades of response. Christian missionary work, devoid of much of its earlier philanthropic content and focussing more on evangelisation, has resurfaced in poorer countries.

Hindu fundamentalism has been striving hard for internal consolidation by incorporating Dalits and Adivasis into its fold. It does not limit its activities within the country but promotes long-distance religious nationalism to bring expatriates within the religious fold. Religious organisations, several of them supported by their respective governments, are engaged in spreading religious consciousness and promoting solidarity. These developments are orchestrated by a network of religious organisations and individuals who use religion for promoting their material interests. Religion has therefore spilled over to civic institutions and has become an important factor in public transactions. Consequently, the social and political consciousness developed in South Asian countries during the colonial and post-colonial periods has fairly strong religious overtones. It drew upon ethnic, religious or caste differences, in most cases harking back to their primordial origins. As such they were either religion- or caste-specific.

After their initial involvement with reform, most of them were engaged in community consolidation. The beginning of identity politics can be traced to the activities of such organisations, which campaigned for the rights of the members of their communities. This was primarily because, given the conditions prevailing then, the path to power and representation in administration was envisioned through community pressure. The caste and religious organisations all over the country, therefore, graduated from efforts at reform to demands of social and political rights. Several historians have argued that the colonial system of enumeration had contributed to the self-perception of caste or religious belonging. That may well be, along with several other factors. But the innumerable histories of caste written during the second half of the 19th century were not only a part of an effort to legitimise a hierarchy in the caste structure but also to proclaim their ethnic identity. In the 20th century, caste consciousness, which either already existed or was generated, was invoked for political mobilisation.

Identity politics in South Asia has drawn upon these tendencies occurring within the religious realm. It has a long history going back to the early phase of colonialism. The search for the cultural sources for national awakening in the context of colonial hegemonisation or oppression invariably reached out to religious traditions, among both Hindus and Muslims. As a result, within the anti-colonial movement, political formations inspired by religion and incorporating the followers of specific religions came into being. The formation of the Muslim League in 1906 and of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914 paved the way for the institutionalisation of identity politics and the incorporation within it of the followers of respective religions. During the post-colonial period, the influence of religiosity in civil society is reinforced by the nexus between the state and religion. In all countries in the region, the state is implicated in religion, either directly or indirectly. Pakistan, after a brief affair with secularism, chose to be an Islamic state. Bangladesh did the same. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism is the state religion. India has remained a secular state, but the deviations by the apparatuses of the state from the ideals of secularism are very many.

Marginalised groups

In contrast to this, the identity politics of marginalised and oppressed groups is rooted in opposition and resistance. Their marginality defines their identity, and the aim of the politics emerging out of it is more often aimed at inclusion and equality. This genre of identity politics is fundamentally different from the politics of Hindu religious identity. While the latter aims at the hegemony over marginalised groups, the main character of the former is resistance.

Until very recently, the identity of such groups was ignored or effaced by either the influence of dominant ideology or social power. For instance, women were confined to the domestic space, subordinated to the power and authority of the patriarchal ideology, which women themselves had internalised. The early autobiographies of women who participated in public life bear testimony to this paradox. The politics of women's emancipation, therefore, was as much a struggle against patriarchy as against the entrenched patriarchal biases of women themselves. Women not only acquiesced to male authority within the family but also fulfilled the role of its defenders and practitioners. That women also surrendered the agency of their emancipation to the care of the male was an indication of the hegemony the male exercised within the family.

Outside the domestic sphere, women had to depend upon the male to gain sufficient space for the articulation of their ideas and demands. As a result, during the initial phase men played the role of catalysts in women's attempts to break out of the traditional order. Notwithstanding the importance of this support, it proved to be an impediment in realising the quest for equality. What the male championed for and conceded to women during the period of the renaissance and freedom movement was rather limited freedom. It was only when women were able to extricate themselves from the control of the male and emerge as independent players that they were able to gain a modicum of equality. This transition, however, has given rise to politics of women as women, often without sensitivity to their social location.

The most powerful articulation of identity politics has occurred among the members of the lower castes, who were traditionally excluded from mainstream life in society. The emergence of Dalit consciousness can be traced to the period of the renaissance, even if the renaissance mainly addressed the problems faced by the upper castes, except in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Dalits suffered a double denial, both material and spiritual. They were excluded from common facilities such as the use of wells in villages or public roads or admission of children in schools. They were forced to live in segregated areas in villages. They did not have access to temples and could not conduct rituals at deaths or births, without the participation of Brahmin priests.

Implicit in these forms of exclusion was the possibility of the formation of an identity, in contrast to the Brahmanical order, which exercised ideological hegemony over the subordinate castes. The Dalit identity, however, was highly fractured because of the existence of several castes within the ranks of Dalits. Jyotiba Phule tried to give them an ideological cohesion through the work of the Satya Shodak Samaj, and B.R. Ambedkar sought to imbibe the necessary political content through agitation for social and political rights. The philosophical basis for unity was advocated by Narayana Guru in Kerala and practical programmes for promoting identity by Periyar' E.V. Ramasamy. However, none of them was an advocate of the continued existence or necessity of caste; what they tried to do was to address the then existing caste consciousness to go beyond castes. In fact, inherent in their conception was a denial of caste, as the only caste they envisioned for mankind was that of humanism.

In complete contrast to this past, not only has caste identity powerfully resurfaced in contemporary India but has also managed to be at the centre stage as a major mobilising force in politics. Most political parties now claim the support of one caste or the other. The caste and religious consciousnesses are both complementary and contradictory. They are complementary as caste identity is invariably located within religious identity. At the same time, caste identity also tends to fracture the monolith of religious identity. The success of the politics of either caste or religious identity would depend upon their complementarity. As a consequence, identity politics in India tries to bring together caste and religious identities in order to ensure wider social support. The effort has not succeeded so far because Hindu identity politics tries to incorporate the caste and tribal identities in its fold, which in actual operation amounts to cultural denial and oppression of Dalits and tribal people. One of the reasons for the failure of the politics of Hindu religious identity has been the incompatibility of its aims with the aspirations of Dalits and Adivasis, without whose support Hindu identity politics cannot muster enough support.

The identities other than caste and religion are increasingly gaining political articulation in the region. Some of them exist only in the margins, struggling for social attention and acceptance; some others surface intermittently with a well-formulated agenda. While the identity of sexual minorities is an example of the former, linguistic and tribal identities are of the latter. All these identities are real and socially constructed, but they cannot culminate in politics unless ignited by a sense of deprivation and marginalisation. That is the reason why all social identities do not necessarily generate their own politics. The existence of identity and its articulation in politics do not have a direct relationship.

The transition of identity into politics is an extremely complex phenomenon, mediated by a variety of factors and the conjunction of several historical forces. In South Asia, its origin can be traced to the mediation of colonialism, which legitimised certain social identities through administrative measures and communitarian conception of society. Religion and caste were indeed social realities in South Asia much before colonialism intervened. But the difference is that caste and religion existed, perhaps more cruelly, during the pre-colonial era, but not casteism and communalism of the order witnessed during the colonial or post-colonial period. The origin and spread of identity politics in South Asian countries can therefore be traced respectively to the legacy of colonialism on the one hand and the cultural backwardness and social obscurantism of a large section of the political class, on the other.

Slow process

The emergence of identity politics has not been a sudden and spontaneous phenomenon but a slow process of evolution. Its growth can be traced to the limitations of renaissance and nationalism, which, given the multi-religious and multicultural character of society, was forced to make a series of compromises with primordial identities. As a result, the society which emerged out of anti-colonial struggles continued to bear the burden of casteism and religiosity. It is a paradox that South Asian countries could not achieve organic' development, and as a result remained culturally backward, despite political advancement. It was in this culturally backward social space that identity politics flourished.

The 20th century was witness to the slow erosion of liberal politics and its unmistakable replacement by identity politics in South Asian countries. This change has been most conspicuous in India where religious and caste identities have crept into the political practice of almost every party. Many reasons can be attributed to this fundamental discomfiture of democratic politics. Among them two are most pertinent and decisive: the failure of the education system to provide secular socialisation and the inability of liberal and class politics to subsume primordial and ethnic identities.

Initial socialisation

The beginning of socialisation occurs within the precincts of the family as it imbibes its cultural and social perspectives, which in most cases are drawn from the religion, caste and class it belongs to. The initial socialisation, therefore, is not a matter of choice but is inherited by the circumstances of birth. Much before interaction with the outside world is possible, the family imparts an abiding cultural and social identity which, more often than not, is loaded with religious and caste sensibility. This is because the domestic space, in most cases, is governed by rituals prescribed by religious and caste traditions. The impression thus gained through early socialisation generally persists, as the family as an institution reinforces the virtues of conformity and discourages critical engagement.

An opportunity to overcome the influence of primordial identity thus created by the family, and to come to terms with different social conditions, through both experience and conceptualisation, is inherent in secondary socialisation. The most effective agency of secondary socialisation is education, which creates the space for a person to come into contact with a variety of social realities. This helps the engagement with the complexity of the world and to realise the limitations of the experience gained in the domestic space. The exposure to new conditions could be a startling revelation to many, disturbing their complacence and self-assurance and in turn enabling self-critical introspection.

It was such a transition that the advocates of liberal education, from Ram Mohun Roy to Abul Kalam Azad, had in mind when they advocated modern education. But over the years the impact of liberal education has considerably diminished in social consciousness, particularly of the middle class. This is possibly because of two interconnected phenomena: first, a decline in the secular character of education and, secondly, the increasing hold of religious and caste organisations over educational institutions.

Post-independent India pursued a secular path in education under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad, and so on, in order to create a modern society. When the governance fell into the hands of communal forces, they tried to undermine the secular character of education in order to create an ideological base for a Hindu state. Apart from this, communal organisations owing allegiance to different religions have been engaged for a long time in running educational institutions that promoted obscurantism and orthodoxy and sought to impart a mental training that militated against critical thinking. In India, education always had a communal tinge, arising out of the legacy of the colonial system; but the recent intervention of the state and the involvement of religious organisations have brought into being a middle class with a communal world view. They form the base of identity politics in contemporary South Asia.

Availability of political space

Another factor that facilitated the growth of identity politics is the availability of political space left open by the inadequate mobilisation of overarching identities that could subsume sectarian identities of caste and religion. The relationship between class identity and primordial identity is pertinent in this context. Inherent in the formation of class consciousness is the possibility of overcoming all other forms of consciousnesses. The relationship between primordial identities and class formation is not characterised by mutual inclusion caste and religion in class and vice versa but the former being progressively effaced or undermined by class politics and thus the sack of potatoes' realising their commonality. Unlike caste and religious identities, class identity is acquired through struggles, which help overcome primordial identities. The formation of the class, therefore, involves struggles with primordial identities, which exist in varying degrees in situations in which class formation is weak, ineffective and incomplete. A pure' class consciousness and identity would hardly exist in any society, as the ideological and cultural influence of other identities would inevitably be present. In other words, elements of primordial loyalties will continue to exist and cannot be wished away. It, however, does not mean their primacy.

The manifestation of class identity and politics in itself does not lead to the elimination of the already existing primordial identities. The implication of class identity and politics is that primordial identities are brought under the scanner and their unreality is underlined. Class and community are real in the social life of the people, but there is no community in which class is not present, except perhaps in the very primitive stage of human evolution. In contrast, class transcends communitarian loyalties.

The character of identity politics can hardly be read without taking into account class-community relationship. Given that a community is necessarily an ensemble of classes in which the interests of the dominant class prevail, identity politics does not represent the interest of the community as a whole, as is often claimed, but only of a class within it. Identity politics is therefore anti-democratic, as it does not address the interests of the collective which goes by the name of a community of caste or religion.

Text of the keynote address to a seminar on Identity Politics in South Asia conducted by Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, on March 21-23, 2011. The author can be reached at

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