Identity politics can be regarded as a recent phenomenon in that it has become a prominent subject in Indian politics. The gradual and steady rise of low castes, religious identities, linguistic groups and ethnic identities has been an impetus to the question of identity politics in India.
Craig Calhoun on talking of nationalism says that in the modern era, it is a situation where intensified efforts at consolidating individual and categorical identities and reinforces self-sameness. This is primarily a modern phenomenon because some scholars feel that emphasis on identity based on a central organizing principle of ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexual preferences, or caste positions, etc, are a sort of “compelling remedy for anonymity” in an otherwise impersonal modem world.
This is to say that any search for an ‘authentic self for identity’ is not an innocent and unnuanced possibility; it involves negotiating other, often overlapping and contested, heterodox or multiple ‘selves’.
Cascardi observes “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. The practice of finding differences between individual and collective identities while at the same time finding channels of commonality have become a recent undertaking.
The politicization of caste must also be explored with an emphasis on understanding how caste is changing and coming to play new roles in modern India. Sharing Yadav’s view, this study is inspired by the more recent works by Badri Narayan, Lucia Michelutti, and Manuela Ciotti.
These contributions are concerned with the impact of these political changes on the social fabric of India and share an emphasis on castes as ‘discrete identities’ rather than caste as an all encompassing social and ritual system. Still, these scholars encourage a holistic view through exploring different aspects of the self-understandings of modern castes, and of the relation between these and new and emerging visions of the political.
What does it entail to be a ‘Dalit’? The term Dalit has been highly stigmatized and while this is true, how has this become a resource for political assertion?
The term Dalit refers to the formerly so-called ‘Untouchable’ population of India. The word came into Hindi from Marathi and means ‘ground’, ‘broken’, or ‘reduced to pieces’. According to Eleanor Zelliot, ‘[d]alit implies those who have been broken, ground down by those above them in a deliberate and active way’, and the word itself contains ‘an inherent denial of pollution, karma, and justified caste hierarchy’.
Consequently, it is a term with political implications as it designates both a condition of oppression, historical and contemporary, as well as resistance to this oppression based on a contestation of its rationale. From this it follows that the politics of the Dalit movement is based on identity.
‘Identity politics’, in South Asia has been used about cultural and religious nationalism, primarily to describe the Hindu political right-wing and at the same time it is also about the overwhelming experience of the creation of Pakistan, based on the idea that their religion made Indian Muslims ‘a separate and identifiable nation’.
In a sense, modern India was founded as a response to this idea, constitutionally insisting on secularism, pluralism and citizenship as the fundamentals of the nation. In the post-colonial era, the label identity politics has been applied to various forms of political mobilization in the sub-continent. In the 1950s and 1960s, mobilizations around regional languages lead to the reorganization of the states under the Indian federation along linguistic lines.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of a strong cultural regionalism in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, where it has dominated state politics ever since through the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and its subsequent offspring parties. Although language has been central to this mobilization, it also includes more fundamental notions of a distinct and separate culture, history, and ethnicity.
Also calculations of caste have a history within Indian politics, but the implementation of the Mandal report recommendations by the V. P. Singh government in 1990 marked the onset of a new kind of politics on the national stage. The report recommended a 27 per cent ‘reservation of jobs in the central government services and public undertakings for socially and educationally Backward Classes, other than the Scheduled Castes and Tribes’, i.e. the so-called OBCs.
The decision to implement these measures led to violent upper caste protests and a wave of suicides among students, mainly in North India, and the ensuing debate in the media was acrimonious. The Mandal affair re-actualized the debate on reservations also with regards to the Scheduled Castes, and it led to an increased polarization of caste identities. It also marked the beginning of the rise to power of new low caste political formulations.
This ‘new’ entry of caste into politics has been seen as a setback to the development of democracy, as encouraging parochial and crude identity manipulations, and as indicating the degeneration of Indian politics. ‘If one goes by popular accounts, the rise of casteism and its grip over electoral politics is the distinctive attribute of the 1990s’.
Further, the politicization of caste is ‘found to be even more disconcerting with the changed focus of claims and demands on the part of those who press their caste identities: from economic advancement to social status and political power’. ‘Caste’, argues Rajni Kothari, ‘can be used in support of secularizing and democratizing movements’.
A fundamental question underlying this debate is whether group identities such as caste are seen as detrimental to the functioning of democracy – a stance which implies that a politics grounded in the ‘difference’ of marginalized groups is inherently incapable of ending their marginalization – or whether the strategic employment of some form of essentialised identity may actually work to further the interests of such groups.
This group-identity based on caste that has been reinforced by the emergence of political consciousness around caste identities is institutionalized by the caste-based political parties that profess to uphold and give protection to the interests of specific identities including the castes.
It has proportionately democratized the caste-based Indian society but simultaneously undermined the evolution of class-based organizations. In conclusion it can said that caste has become an important determinant in Indian society and politics and this very realization is a core ingredient in the power politics in post-Independent India between competing and rival parties vying for the caste vote.
The ‘deepening’ of the Indian democracy has come with a fragmentation of politics, producing new political bodies representing newly politicized groups that express new demands in a new language. This development has shattered modernist expectations that democracy, industrialization, and economic liberalization would lead to a shift from ‘traditional’ primordial identities to people viewing their demands should be met individually through the ballot.
Rather, the formulations of rights claims in India have happened, and are now expected to happen increasingly along caste and community lines.