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7. The Identity Question

Political Identities and Identity Politics

Identity formation is a complex process. It calls for the sharing of a common culture on the one hand, and harps on separateness from others, on the other. As Stuart Hall argues

“Far from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside, they are the way in which we are recognised and then come to step into the place of the recognitions which others give us. Without the others there is no self. There is no self-recognition”(Hall, 1995;8).

In other words, identities take shape over a period of time for varied ends and through as varied means. They are historically arrived at, sociologically presented and discursively constituted. This necessitates a reading of the contexts located across cultural, social, political and economic spaces to comprehend what identities are and how they are constituted. However, what is fundamental to all identities is, as Laclau and Mouffe argue, a process of struggle for recognition from the other. Recall what you have read about ‘the other’ in the fourth and fifth modules. The other could be other individuals, contesting communities and social groups or the State. Politics of recognition bring together identities into a process of mutual reciprocity. In a country such as India, identities have been constituted around caste (dalits/brahmins), gender (men/women); ethnicity or nationality (Assamese/Bodos), language (Hindi/Non-Hindi speaking peoples), class and sexuality (Heterosexuals/Homosexuals and Lesbians).






Read the following excerpt from Dalit Identity and Politics, by Ghanshyam Shah (ed) pages 20-23.
Read the following excerpt from Dalit Identity and Politics, by Ghanshyam Shah (ed) pages 20-23.

Mahatma Gandhi, an ardent champion for removing untouchibility within the Hindu Chaturvarna framework, called the untouchable, 'Harijan'—man of God. The denominator was used in 1931 amid conflicts between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of political representation to Dalits on the basis of a separate community —distinct from Hindus. Gandhi borrowed the name from a Bhakti saint of the 17th century, Narsinh Mehta. He primarily appealed to caste Hindus to use the term Harijan instead of Antyaja. While giving currency to the word, he explained:

The untouchable, to me is, as compared to us (caste-Hindus), really a 'Harijan'—a man of God—and we are Durjana (men of evil). For whilst the untouchable has toiled and moiled and dirtied his hands so that we may live in comfort and cleanliness, we have delighted in suppressing him. We are solely responsible for all the shortcomings and faults that we may lay at the door of these untouchables. It is still open to us to be Harijan ourselves, but we can only do so by heartily repenting of our sin against them.

Gandhi hoped that ...probably, Antyaja brethren would lovingly accept that name and try to cultivate the virtues which it connotes...may the Antyaja become Harijan both in name and nature (Gandhi 1971: 244-45). The Congress party gave currency to the new nomenclature for untouchables during the freedom movement.

The term Harijan has been widely used by caste Hindus as a substitute for achchuta, i.e., untouchable. Many members of the Scheduled Castes also began to call themselves Harijans, so hoping that the caste Hindus would change their behaviour towards them. But the new category hardly enthused most groups within the Scheduled Castes, except a few who followed the path of Sanskritisation to cultivate the virtues of upper castes. It did not provide a new world-view, symbol or path to attain equal status, which they began to demand during this period. In fact, for Gandhi, the new category aimed at persuading caste Hindus to express repentance. By doing so, they were expected to change their behaviour towards untouchables. Dr Ambedkar and his followers did not find any difference between being called achchuta or Harijan, as the new nomenclature did not change their status in the social order.

Ambedkar believed, Untouchables do not regard Gandhi as being earnest in eradicating untouchability (Moon 1990: 254). According to him, saints (like Narsinh Mehta) never carried on a campaign against caste and untouchability. The saints of the Bhakti sect were not concerned with the struggle between man and man. They were concerned with the relation between man and God (Kumber 1979). Later, a section of the SC leaders rejected the term Harijan, considering it an insult rather than an honour. Dr Ambedkar had a different approach and philosophy regarding the emancipation of SCs. He strove for an egalitarian social order. Such an order, he believed, was not possible within Hinduism whose very foundation was hierarchical, with SCs located at the bottom of the order. The Chaturvarna system according to him, was integral to Hinduism. The reorganisation of the Hindu society on the basis of Chaturvarna is impossible because the Varnavastha is like a leaky pot or like a man running at the nose... religious sanctity behind Caste and Varna must be destroyed... that the sanctity of Caste and Varna can be destroyed only by discarding the divine authority of the Shastras (Moon 1979: 86-87). Second, Ambedkar did not have faith in the charitable spirit of the caste Hindus towards the untouchables. He asserted that SCs should get organised and educated, and struggle for self-respect rather than depend on sympathy.

Though Dr Ambedkar did not popularise the word Dalit for untouchables, his philosophy has remained a key source in its emergence and popularity. In a way, the word Dalit is of relatively recent origin—the 1960s—in public discourse. Marathi-speaking literary writers, neo-Buddhists by persuasion, began to use the word Dalit in their literary works instead of Harijan or achchuta, Dalit writers who have popularised the word have expressed their notion of Dalit identity in their essays, poems, dramas, autobiographies, novels and short stories. They have reconstructed their past and their view of the present. They have expressed their anger, protest and aspiration. Punalekar, for example, examines Dalit literary works and identity formation. The word gained currency in public spheres during the SC-caste Hindu riots in Bombay in the early 1970s. Dalit Panthers used the term to assert their identity and to stake a claim for rights and self-respect. Later, the term has been used with a wider connotation. It includes all the oppressed and exploited sections of society. It does not confine itself merely to economic exploitation in terms of appropriation of surplus. It also relates to suppression of culture—way of life and value system—and, more importantly, the denial of dignity. It has essentially emerged as a political category. For some, it connotes an ideology for fundamental change in the social structure and relationships. According to Gangadhar Pantawane: Dalit is not a caste. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. The Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of God, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, faith and heaven because these have made him a slave. He represents the exploited man in his country (cited by Das and Massey 1995: iv). Gopal Guru argues that the Dalit identity not merely expresses who Dalits are, but also conveys their aspirations and struggle for change and revolution.

Following Dr Ambedkar's ideology, some Dalit intellectuals stress the history of their separate identity in the philosophical postulation developed by the Lokayats and Buddhism. According to them, the world-view of Dalits is based on materialist philosophy which is essentially different from the world-view of Brahmanism. They were materialists and rejected karma, punarjanma (rebirth) and moksha (salvation). They attacked the caste system, considering its ideology a Brahmanical fraud for deluding and robbing the common people (Sardesai 1986: 120). Ilaiah, in Dalitism vs Brahmanism: The Epistemological Conflict in History, argues: The modern Dalit-Bahujan movements, while building up an anti-caste ideology, drew upon the dialectical materialistic discourses that started in a proto-materialist form with Indus-based lokayats or charvakas and continued to operate all through the history.

All intellectuals of the community, however, do not prefer to be called Dalits. Some of them have reservations about its usage. It is argued that this category compels Dalits with different experiences to carry the load of the muck of the historical past. That, they argue, does not reflect the ideology of Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar. This view is strongly contested by Gopal Guru. He argues that the Dalit category is historically arrived at, sociologically presented and discursively constituted. The formation of Dalit identity aims at uniting them as the oppressed at one level, cutting across religious and linguistic boundaries. It is secular in nature, and is not confined to any caste or religious community.

Does this extract help you answer these questions:

  1. What does `dalit` mean?
  2. How has the category of dalit emerged?


Subject positions






Let us now return to the discussion of identities. It is important to note that identities are not fixed and permanent. Their scope, meaning and content are open to continuous changes. Identities are fluid, multiple and contingent, depending on the context in which they are articulated. For instance, dalits have multiple identities, which change with their context. They belong to different religious communities and linguistic groups. One could be a Hindu, Muslim or a Christian dalit, as well as a chamar, Mahar, or Vankar Dalit and also a Gujarati, Maharashtrian or Bihari dalit. Each of these identities is often referred to as a 'subject position', therefore each individual in a society and his/her identity is constituted by continuous articulation and negotiation between various 'subject positions'. Chantall Mouffe argues that each individual occupies many subject positions at one and the same time.

Thus identities are subject to continuous changes and get displaced by new demands for either inclusion or exclusion. We privilege different aspects of our identities at different points in our lives and in different situations. In other words, in some situations gender may dominate, and our reactions to events will flow from our position and experiences as feminine or masculine, while in other contexts religious identity or national identity may be at the forefront of our responses.

This explanation runs the risk of oversimplification, because rarely are things so easy—our responses to events and people stem from the complex interaction of our different subject positions, and seldom, if ever, from only one perspective, even though one may predominate at any given moment. Read the following extract on the Bodos of Assam to see how new identities emerge.
[Click here to read an extract from 'We are Bodos not Assamese: Contesting a Subnational Narrative', from India Against Itself, Sanjib Baruah, pp. 174-176]




1. It is important to note that all identities, not merely the Bodo identity or Dalit identity, emerge over a period of time, in response to historical conditions. Can you demonstrate that identities are necessarily fluid and multiple? Try and list different facets of your identity and see if you can recognise how the aspects you privilege (Hindu/Christian/Muslim, etc; male or female; Kannada/Tamil/Telugu speaker) have changed over time and in different circumstances. 2. With specific reference to the excerpt above, what are the various methods used by the Bodos to construct a sub-nationalist identity?


Why are Identities Constructed?





Having understood what identities are and how they are constituted, we need to ask ourselves why they are constructed the way they are. Notwithstanding the fact that identities are infinite, fluid and dynamic, so that they are constantly shaping and re-shaping themselves, they are not arbitrary in character. They are not aimless and passive constructions.

Historically, various social groups have constructed certain kinds of identities because they have felt suppressed, exploited and dominated. It could be economic exploitation, political suppression or cultural exclusion. Other constructions may be motivated by the need to dominate, to prove superiority, like Hitler and his obsession with a pure Aryan identity.

Read this extract from the entry on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of large-scale political movements—second wave feminism, Black Civil Rights in the U.S., gay and lesbian liberation, and the American Indian movements, for example —based in claims about the injustices done to particular social groups. These social movements are undergirded by and foster a philosophical body of literature that takes up questions about the nature, origin and futures of the identities being defended. Identity politics as a mode of organizing is intimately connected to the idea that some social groups are oppressed; that is, that one's identity as a woman or as a Native American, for example, makes one peculiarly vulnerable to cultural imperialism (including stereotyping, erasure, or appropriation of one's group identity), violence, exploitation, marginalization, or powerlessness (Young 1990).

Identity politics starts from analyses of oppression to recommend, variously, the reclaiming, redescription, or transformation of previously stigmatized accounts of group membership. Rather than accepting the negative scripts offered by a dominant culture about one's own inferiority, one transforms one's own sense of self and community, often through consciousness-raising. For example, the germinal statement of Black feminist identity politics by the Combahee River Collective argues that “as children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different — for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being ‘ladylike’ and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression” (Combahee River Collective 1982, 14-15).

Indeed, underlying many of the more overtly pragmatic debates about the merits of identity politics are philosophical questions about the nature of subjectivity and the self (Taylor 1989). Charles Taylor argues that the modern identity is characterized by an emphasis on its inner voice and capacity for authenticity—that is, the ability to find a way of being that is somehow true to oneself (Taylor in Gutmann, ed. 1994). While doctrines of equality press the notion that each human being is capable of deploying his or her reason or moral sense to live an authentic live qua individual, the politics of difference has appropriated the language of authenticity to describe ways of living that are true to the identities of marginalized social groups.

As Sonia Kruks puts it:
What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (2001, 85).

For many proponents of identity politics this demand for authenticity includes appeals to a time before oppression, or a culture or way of life damaged by colonialism, imperialism, or even genocide.
[Heyes, Cressida, "Identity Politics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =]

As this entry points out, the political articulation of identities is motivated not just by an awareness of oppression, but by the perception that the oppression is because of a certain identity. In other words, to simply say ‘I am oppressed’ is not much of a political statement. To say, however, ‘I am oppressed because I am a woman/a dalit/a Christian/a dalit woman/a Christian dalit woman’, is to make a statement that falls in the realm of identity politics. Identity politics goes even further. After fixing the site of oppression, it aims to reclaim this site. Look again at Sonia Kruk’s statement quoted in the above entry. What needs to be kept in mind however, is the fact that although these rights are demanded as members of a group, underlying the particular is the notion of universal human rights—that all human beings deserve equal rights, and thus, those who have experienced oppression can make a claim for equality and justice.

In the Indian context for instance, the self-identification of scheduled caste or untouchable groups as ‘dalits’ was constructed to struggle against Brahminical hegemony and mobilise all those who suffered similar types of oppression. Often these struggles convert into organised social movements to achieve their demands. They build new symbols, idioms and values to create an alternative space. For instance, open confrontation between the Dalit Panthers (Dalit organisation formed in Maharashtra in the 1970s) and upper caste Hindus took place several times in the 1970s. The Worli riots of 1974 and the Aurangabad riots of 1978 are well known.





Click here to read Gail Omvedt "Ambedkar and After: Dalit Movement in India" in Ghanshyam Shah (ed). If you would like to explore the connections between identity politics and globalisation, you could read Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s article “Globalisation and the Politics of Identity” from the Autumn, 1999 UN Chronicle [Go to:]


1. In what ways did Ambedkar invoke the dalit identity to build a social movement?

2. In what decisive ways did the articulation of dalit identity change with the Dalit Panthers?


Identities and Democracy




We have learnt, from the previous section, that identities are often constructed to alleviate injustices and thereby contribute to a process of democratisation of social relations.

However, identities by the very nature of their construction are exclusivist. They are particularistic rather than universal. Proponents of identity politics argue that those who do not share the identity and life experiences of the members of an oppressed group cannot understand what it means to live life as a person with that identity. Identity politics is therefore based on specific and particular group interests.

However, in a liberal democracy, such as India for instance, the State recognises all its citizens as equal before the law and they have equal access as citizens, not as members belonging to particular social groups. The state in liberal democracy functions around the belief that maintaining 'neutrality' and 'universality' are absolutely essential to achieve equality for one and all i.e. to place our world as citizens ahead of the 'particularistic' interests that arise from daily life. The proponents of identity politics argue, to the contrary, that "the rhetoric of universality and equality has masked the persistent actuality of marginalised groups subordinated on the basis of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, sexuality, etc."

In other words, as Miller points out "equal access to citizenship has not translated into equal justice". For instance, all citizens share the fundamental political interest of having their rights respected. Consider freedom of speech. By law, a woman benefits from free speech no less than a man does. By contrast, identity politics informs us that women and men do not in fact reap the same benefit. For example, if a man expresses sexist views, he is 'silencing' women and therefore women, as a social group require certain special provisions so as to access freedom of speech as completely and meaningfully as men can. Thus, all identities can continuously and potentially strive for 'special' provisions around real and perceived forms of oppression, making it difficult to maintain the 'universality' of the identity of citizenship as it is differently accessed by different social groups. This has resulted in an irreducible tension.

As Trevor Purvis and Alan Hunt argue,

“Citizenship, conceived as a matrix of rights and obligations governing the members of a political community, exists in tension with the heterogeneity of social life and the multiple identities that arise therefrom. This tension expresses itself in the clash between the 'universal' citizen and numerous dispersed identities of which citizenship is but one. Citizens share the rights and obligations arising from that status and the concept of 'equality' arising from this shared status has very real implications for the politics of identity, since citizenship has traditionally claimed priority over other identities. In practice this has often resulted in the relegation of alternative identities to an extra-political or even pre-political status. Today these alternative identities have become overtly politicised and as a result the stability of the identity of `citizen` has itself been destabilised and contested”(T. Purvis and A. Hunt: 1999, 457).

Thus, resolving the dilemma between growing identities and 'politics of recognition' on the one hand and a possible reconciliation of these identities into a democratic framework on the other is an issue central to all democracies the world over.




Resolving the Dilemma?





There can be no return to the idea that citizenship identity can or should take priority over all other identities; but neither can the recognition of identities through rights by itself provide grounds for constructing a new and vibrant social solidarity. The more optimistic variants of identity politics look to the formation of coalitions and alliances between different identities to provide the basis for collective action and the potential for generating enduring solidarity. Notwithstanding differences, we could perhaps argue that there are two dominant variants in arguing as to how to resolve the dilemma between proliferating identities and maintaining and achieving a more universal democratic framework.

The first of these positions wishes to maintain the idea of citizen as an 'empty space' thereby allowing all identities to negotiate with and around the idea of citizenship. This would essentially mean to keep the process open-ended and make very little distinction between types of identities and the kinds of issues they raise. James Donald claims that

"the citizen needs to be seen as a position and not as an identity. When viewed from such a perspective, it is a position which can be occupied in the sense of being spoken from, not in the sense of being given a substantial identity" (Donald; 1996, 174).

The second kind of alternative to possibly resolve the dilemma is to counter the post-modern variant of identity politics that celebrates all asserted identities equally; for to do so negates the possibility of achieving a form of shared identity capable of grounding social solidarity. This implies that democratic citizenship cannot be committed to recognition of all identity claims or to the same form of recognition for every identity.

Here we encounter complex questions. For example, in what contexts is it appropriate to grant representative status to ethnic identities? In South Africa, where the struggle against racial categories was at the heart of the struggle against apartheid, it would seem inherently problematic to grant racial or ethnic representation, whereas in contexts where historically significant but small ethnic or religious minorities exist, their direct political representation may be not only expedient, but essential as for instance in the case of Muslims in India. Similar problems beset the question of the recognition of problematic identities. Where ethnic identities press for recognition, what should the response be to supremacist claims for recognition of an Aryan identity? The resolution of such a dilemma would vary with context, but needs to combine struggle against such a claim with caution about what forms of exclusion are exercised.





Click here to read the chapter "Politics of Identity and Difference" in Upendra Baxi, The Future of Human Rights, OUP, 2002. Please note that you will read more about the demand for special rights based on marginalized identities in a later module on rights discourses.

1. What type of resolution does Baxi offer between fluid identities and universality and do you agree with that?
2. Considering the issue of proliferating linguistic identities in India, how do you wish to engage with and ground them?

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