In Post-Secular India, Identity Politics Needs To Be Accepted, Not Dissed
The right place to begin the march towards rational and inclusive politics is not to deny identity, but to embrace it.
In many ways, India has come full circle in terms of religious identity-based politics where we are now in a situation similar to what was obtained before 1947. The rise of Muslim parties like the AIMIM, the AUDF and the ISF brings the Kerala model of Muslim and Christian parties aligning with so-called “secular” parties to the national stage.
It would be easy to blame the “Hindutva” politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) — as the Lutyens lobby has been doing — for this development, but, if at all this trend should be derided, should the secular parties not take a larger share of the blame? Is it the job of “communal” parties to make secularism work or that of those seeking the “secular” label?
If we must blame the BJP’s politics for it, why not blame the Congress for the rise of Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League and Partition? Many Left historians do indeed do this, but a spade must be called a spade: despite the secularism epitomised by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi before 1947, Jinnah’s identity politics was widely backed by Muslims in India, especially in India’s Muslim minority provinces like United Provinces and the Madras presidency. This is what is happening today to Muslim politics in post-Partition India.
It is also worth recalling that B R Ambedkar, too, at one point, seemed to believe in identity politics. He had demanded separate electorates for the “depressed classes”, as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) of today were labelled before 1947.
It was only Gandhi’s indefinite fast which resulted in Ambedkar acquiescing in the Poona Pact, under which the depressed classes were to be given reserved seats in a joint electorate. In short, the voters would include all castes and communities, but the candidates could only be from the depressed classes. Only Muslims got their separate electorates which ultimately led to Partition.
Ambedkar was bitter about having to give in to Gandhi’s emotional blackmail, and the Poona Pact ultimately did not succeed in preventing Hindu caste identity politics from resurfacing under the leadership of Ram Manohar Lohia and Kanshi Ram.
In the south, caste politics had an even earlier history, with E V Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar) using vile, anti-Brahmin rhetoric to build caste-based political power that ultimately brought the Dravidian parties to power from 1967.
After the Mandir-Mandal fracas of the late 1980s, north India saw leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav build their political careers on narrow identity-based issues.
The Poona Pact succeeded in keeping assertive SC/Schedule Tribe politics and demands for a higher share of real power in check for a few decades, but ultimately it was undercut by Other Backward Classes and Dalit mobilisation.
The purpose of this digression into the Poona Pact and its ultimate whittling down is to underline a larger reality: identity-neutral ideas usually end up representing no one instead of everyone. The idea of the Big Tent, which is what the Congress party claimed to be till recently, works only if all the various groups representing various interests within that Big Tent see themselves as real stakeholders in power.
Just as the token presence of the late Jagjivan Ram did not convince the SCs that they had a real voice in the pre-1980s Congress party, the token presence of Muslims in “secular” parties is no longer seen as useful for the assertion of Muslim power that is proportionate to their share in the Indian population.
The Left never managed to become a bigger force in India because it did not see identity politics as important in its class-based view of the world. If the Left and the Congress had truly been able to transcend caste and religious identities, none of the caste- and religion-based parties, whether in the north or the south, would have been more than fringe players. Clearly, the project for erasing identities has had only a limited success so far.
What Jinnah wanted was the right to veto majority decisions in a unified India, and this was also what Ambedkar sought for the depressed classes when he asked for separate electorates before he reluctantly signed the Poona Pact.
Post-Partition, over the last two decades, and especially after the BJP realised that Hindus too wanted a direct stake in power to protect their religious interests, what we have seen is a gradual and growing realisation among all communities that they can only be represented at the high table by “one of us”. He or she cannot be a “nominee” of the big powers in the Big Tent.
Despite all the laws and exhortations of the Election Commission to eschew sectarian appeals, identity-based politics is the norm. What cannot be said openly, is now canvassed through dog whistles.
Which brings me to the core issue: why persist with the pretense that there are “secular” parties who represent all, when that is not what voters are telling us? “Secular” parties can indeed raise secular issues (growth, jobs, defence. Internal security, et al), but no one accepts them as neutral when community interests have to be balanced or when sections of people feel threatened by demographic change or loss of power.
When community interests are seen to be under threat, it is only the “communal” parties that are seen as authentic voices of a community. The BJP’s triple talaq bills may be quietly welcomed by most Muslim women, but few will even grudgingly concede openly that this is good for their community, for the BJP is not seen to represent Muslims.
The question: where do we go from here, where each community wants to be represented by its own people and trusted faces? Do we think of a new version of the Poona Pact, this time with Muslims getting reserved seats in a joint electorate? Or do we opt for a proportional representation system to replace our first-past-the-post one?
Even without constitutional changes, we can accept that there will be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jatav, Yadav, Ezhava and Vanniyar parties, and they will negotiate their own terms for sharing power. It is hypocritical to deny that identities exist; a better alternative is to allow people to be what they are and see how they can all share power.
The right place to begin the march towards rational and inclusive politics is not to deny identity, but to embrace it. Once this is done, it is possible for different communities to engage in a dialogue for mutual respect and negotiate compromise solutions. Once identities are accepted as kosher, the need to cling to them may also start diminishing.
Another good place to begin would be to allow all communities, Hindus included, to take their grievances with the others to a permanent truth and reconciliation commission, where historical injustices can be acknowledged, concerns addressed, corrective action taken, and social trust engendered.
Trust has to be built over generations, not through one grand act or gesture.
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