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Identity politics and the annihilation of castes

Identity politics and the annihilation of castes

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Anand Teltumbde

Identity, one’s sense of self and its persistence, as shaped through ascriptive and subjective processes, is natural to humans as social beings. Identity politics, however, is not natural. It is articulated through a persistent sense of discrimination and oppression, either innate or induced, along the axis of ‘defining’ one identity from among many. Identity politics thus necessarily veers towards becoming essentialist. Consequently, rather than understanding oneself as having heterogeneous and multiple identities, people are provoked to support the politics based on a particular identity.

Although ‘identity politics’ can draw on intellectual precursors from Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) – writers who have actually used this specific phrase[1] – it became more pronounced in the second half of the twentieth century through large-scale political movements (second wave feminism, Black civil rights in the U.S., gay and lesbian liberation, and the American Indian movements) which were based on claims about the injustices done to particular social groups. The specific discourse with its contemporary baggage has gained prominence only in the last twenty years. These social groups highlighted their identity in response to the experience of cultural imperialism (including stereotyping, erasure, or appropriation of one’s group identity), violence, exploitation, marginalization, or humiliation by others.[2]

There has been considerable scholarly interest in identity politics, highlighting its egalitarian and preservationist dimensions. The protagonists tend to see it in positive light because of its democratizing potential. It may, however, be noted that the specific dimensions of identity politics come forth, not as its generic attribute but in the specific context of a particular identity. The focus of this essay being annihilation of caste, it deals with politics based on caste identity, particularly by Dalits, who being the worst victims of the caste system and sans any stake in it, were expected to be the torch-bearers in the struggle for annihilation of caste.

Caste is considered as constituting the basic identity of people in the Indian subcontinent. Classically, it draws upon a hierarchical notion and a corresponding association of rights and obligations. Caste thus formed a continuum ranging from the notional superior-most Brahmin sub-caste to the inferior-most untouchable caste, the precise identity of which would be impossible to determine. This haziness of castes is the result of their sheer numbers as well as their dynamism. Caste, contrary to its commonplace notion, is not a static category, and has been constantly evolving through splits and mergers, in turn giving birth to new castes which, according to their material strength, stake claim to a higher ritual position vis-à-vis other castes in their respective locale. Likewise, geography determines the varying modes of living of people, which also made a difference to the social position of different castes. Caste thus constitutes a lifeworld of the people in the subcontinent with fluid boundaries.

This lifeworld was defined and concretized by the British colonial regime through the establishment of a modern state in India with its concomitant reliance on techniques of measurement. The decennial censuses instituted from 1872 as a part of this process enumerated, codified and ranked the castes, shaping and solidifying identities of people in a manner that could be used by the colonial state. As Chakrabarty observes, the colonial scheme reconstituted the meaning of ‘community’ or ‘ethnicity’ and gave Indians an important political message that would involve them into negotiating with the state for their betterment.[3] Expectedly, it unleashed a new dynamic of caste mobilization, making representations to the colonial state necessary for getting a higher rank than what was accorded to them in official records.

Initially, these mobilizations took the form of caste associations. The innate aspirations of castes to be ranked higher in the caste hierarchy manifested in constructing a self-image of high origin based on myths. Every caste, including the untouchable castes, had such myths that showed its origins as emanating from Brahmins, but which had fallen as a result of the intrigues of high caste people. It thus externalized the blame for its current state. Even as these castes accused the Brahmins of being the cause of their degradation, they did not discard the ritual framework but rather sought to emulate their customs, rituals, ideology and way of life, a process which came to be known as sanskritization.

When the British adopted policies of compensatory discrimination in terms of reservations of seats in the bureaucracy and provincial assemblies while extending self-government to the natives, the numbers game became important and new groups began to form on the basis of resentment against their non-representation. This further fostered the interrelated processes of the formation of caste federations. It gave a fillip to caste mobilization to enhance their numbers (to claim higher representation) and in the process began assimilating castes with loose boundaries. The aim behind this amalgamation of castes, however, was purely political.

With development in the means of communication, some castes seized the opportunity for horizontal integration, bringing about a pan-Indian caste-unification. This process, eulogized by some sociologists as ethnicization,[4] basically transcended the ‘classical’ caste boundaries and brought the collective to bear a new ‘ethnic’ identity. It represented a fusion of castes, and thus expanded endogamy. Scholars saw in this ethnicization of caste a potential to bring about positive social change, since it imparted a new identity, which apparently ignored caste-differentiation and grouped them into larger units, albeit based on caste.

This process of ethnicization reached its radical high point in the non-Brahmin movement launched by Jyotiba Phule in Maharashtra and later, in the Dravidian movement of Periyar in Tamil Nadu. It was basically catalyzed by the new ideas coming from European missionaries, which were propagated in schools, and eventually culminated in the theory of an ‘Aryan race’. Based on a study of the Indo-European linguistic family, William Jones in 1792 had invoked a notion of common, original race whose branches had migrated towards Europe and India. This notion was further developed during the mid-19th century by German Indologists such as Albert Weber, R. Roth, A. Kuhn and J. Mohl, constructing theories of a ‘Sanskritic race’ and ‘Vedic people’. When these ideas reached India they were immediately picked up by the likes of Tilak and Dayanand Saraswati for Hindu revivalism, arousing self-esteem among Hindus that they were the superior people who once ruled the world.[5]

These very ideas were used by Phule for an entirely opposite purpose. He constructed the ethnic identity of bahujan (shudra-atishudra), castigating Brahmins as invaders who enslaved the natives, and thus provided the lower castes with the motive force to fight. For the first time, all non-Brahmin castes were invited to unite on the basis of a common ethnic background – as the original inhabitants of India – against Brahmin domination. Although, Phule’s satyashodhak idiom was imbued with the symbols of kshatriyahood, the movement escaped the sanskritization trap since it rejected the upper castes as role models, calling them invaders, and despised their culture. A similar pattern developed in the South with the Dravidian movement, which engineered caste fusion by endowing the lower castes with an ethnic identity, not only as original inhabitants but also as Buddhists, as articulated by Pandit Ayothee Thass. It catalyzed the ‘adi‘ (original) movement transforming erstwhile caste indicative sabhas (organizations) into Adi-Dravida Mahajan Sabha and Adi-Andhra Mahajan Sabha in the then Madras province.

Caste mobilization for political purposes followed two inherent strategies: one, to assimilate many castes under the same identity and stake a claim for a larger part of the pie, and two, to cordon themselves off from being usurped by others in this process in order to preserve their own share for themselves. While the former strategy was adopted by the upper castes, the latter came to be adopted by the maturing Dalit movement under Babasaheb Ambedkar.

At the root of ‘identity politics’ lies the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can either define or fight against it. The battle against gender discrimination cannot be fought by men, just as the anti-racist struggles can only be waged by the victims of racism. In the context of caste, the issue of identity came into prominence when Dr. Ambedkar publicly denounced the Depressed Classes Mission of V.R. Shinde in a Depressed Classes Conference in May 1920 at Nagpur. This declaration effectively catalyzed self-articulation of the Dalit movement and stressed the importance of an autonomous ‘Dalit’ identity. The ‘Dalit’ identity also acted as a shield against Dalits drifting either to the capitalist Congress as ‘harijans’ or the communists as ‘proletariat’.

The real impetus to promoting caste identities came from the increasing competition in politics from the late 1960s. At the time of the transfer of power, the Congress had emerged as the unchallenged party which claimed to speak for all in contrast to the identitarian claims of the communal parties, both of the Hindus and the Muslims. The strategy actually worked to assimilate all the others, including the Dalits and tribes. While it pretended to make India an ‘ideocracy‘ by adopting an idealized constitution, in reality it continued with the colonial state apparatus in its coercive essence (insofar as all the operative laws like the Indian Penal Code were adopted in toto) and followed policies laid down by the bourgeoisie.[6] This phase was publicized by the intellectuals, both of the Left and Right, as Nehruvian socialism merely because Nehru’s rhetoric and its facade resembled the Russian planning system. It actually operationalized the Bombay Plan formulated by the Indian capitalists on the eve of the transfer of power in 1944-45. It provided a 15 year blueprint of investments, which in effect was translated into whatever policies that newly independent India followed.[7]

As a part of, or sequel to, this plan (to create investment opportunity and a vast market for capitalists in the countryside) and to address the aspirations of people (expressed through numerous peasant movements during the freedom struggle, reaching its high point in Telangana), as also to overcome acute food shortages faced by the people, the government undertook half-baked land reforms, followed by the capitalist strategy of promoting the Green Revolution. It created a class of rich farmers from among the middle shudra castes and seeded capitalist relations in the vast countryside. While the middle castes were hugely enriched and empowered with the collapse of the traditional jajmani system, the Dalits were reduced to being dependent on them for wage labour. The incipient capitalist contradiction in the countryside began manifesting through the faultlines of caste at the hands of the culturally unsophisticated shudra rich farmers wielding the baton of Brahminism into the new genre of caste atrocities starting with Kilvenmeni in Tamil Nadu in December 1968.

The class of rich farmers initially backed the Congress as the node of the vast countryside, but soon realized the importance of their own position and developed political aspirations. They created their own constituency, covering an entire band of middle castes, making use of their ritual non-differentiation and fanning the perception of a threat from the rising cultural assertion of Dalits in the villages. They soon made their mark in politics, graduating from gram panchayats to the state assemblies through the regional parties, precipitating a political crisis that consequently resulted in ushering in an era of coalitions by the mid-1970s. Thereafter, politics became extremely competitive, making the caste blocs very important.

The political parties began promoting caste identities to break as well as consolidate people according to their electoral strategies. The weakening of the Dalits with their repeated fragmentation rendered itself amenable to such intrigues. The reservation policy and the way it was operated only benefited increasingly smaller sections of the majority caste among Dalits, which created resentment in the next contending castes to demand their share in the name of all other non-beneficiary castes. The first such demand was voiced in Andhra Pradesh by the Madigas and has since caught the fancy of similar castes in many other states.

Scholars have criticized identity politics on many counts. Liberal political theorists such as Arthur Schlesinger, David Hollinger, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and others have argued that a strong sense of group identification endangers democratic processes and social cohesion, inhibits the ability to form political coalitions, and substitutes the determination of group membership for critical reflection, thus producing what Cornel West calls ‘racial reasoning’. Notwithstanding the Left’s compromises in going along with/collaborating with the popular identity movements, many leftist scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Tomasky, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, Bart Landry, Jim Sleeper, Todd Gitlin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Richard Rorty, Nancy Fraser, among others, have criticized what they see as the turn to identity politics.

Identity politics fractures the body politic by emphasizing difference at the expense of commonalities; because the focus on identity offers at best a reductivist politics, one that reduces assessment of political position to the process of ascertaining identity and makes ‘a fetish of the virtues of the minority.’ As Gitlin points out, all forms of identity politics are reductive: they are all ‘overly clear about who the insiders are… and overly dismissive of outsiders.'[8] He thus finds an emphasis on identities ‘intellectually stultifying and politically suicidal.'[9]

Faced with growing opposition and sustained attacks from the Right, the Left and the centre, identity based social struggles no longer enjoy what used to be a wide support to, and positive view of, minority social movements. The accusation that identity politics is prone to essentialism has been among the most persistent criticisms. Identity politics, celebrated as politics of difference by postist movements (post-structuralism, post-modernism, etc.) is basically meant to de-centre or subvert, rather than to conquer or assert by seeking to reclaim a stigmatized identity, to revalue the devalued pole of dichotomized hierarchy.[10]

While this criticism could well apply to the identity based politics of Dalits, the specificity of caste as a vicious identity, unlike any other, needs to be additionally noted. Identity integrates people sharing that identity. The racial identity of Blacks, for instance, brings coloured people together to make a common cause. Yet, there is nothing to differentiate them from the shades of darkness within that identity. When the sexual identity of gays or lesbians is invoked, all who identify as such are expected to come together and it is unlikely that any further divisions will emerge within the identity to fragment them.

The essence of caste, it may be seen, is not an identity but a hierarchy. Under exogenous pressure, caste feigns as identity but once the pressure is removed, it seeks hierarchy within and begins splitting. This in part explains why the ethnic identities constructed on the basis of caste in the emancipation project have not worked. The Dalit constructed by the Ambedkarite movement as a pan-Indian identity of the ex-untouchables appeared viable at one time, but in reality failed to bring all the untouchables together. Now it is getting further splintered along sub-caste lines. All the ethnic identities, both earlier and now, which used caste as their basis have met or will meet the same fate.

This disintegrative tendency in caste could be effectively thwarted by the promise of material pay-offs, which dwija castes in colonial times and some of the middle castes during the post-independence period (Gounders, Nadars, Marathas, for instance) could create to build what is called their ‘social capital’. This aspect, eulogized as the utility of castes,[11] may bring prosperity to the castes, rather than annihilate them. The recent comical phenomenon of Dalit capitalism need not be seen as emulating this aspect; it aims to grab state largesse for the prosperity of a few in the name of caste. Surely, it in no way will lead to a denial of caste. The manner in which the ruling classes have welcomed the idea, with the state enthusiastically rushing in to reserve four per cent in value of all government procurement, actually exposes its comprador character which is necessarily inimical to the interests of a vast majority of Dalit masses.

Identity politics has a therapeutic utility. In a fast changing world that pulverizes everything, people yearn for a fixity of identity in direct proportion to their powerlessness to counter the vertigo produced by postmodern disarray. The incomprehensibility of the modern world only leaves behind crumbs of hope for people like the Dalits, often inducing a psychological vulnerability which pushes them to seek shelter under identities. Identity politics provides a much needed intoxication to ignore the infirmities of the real world, thus creating a false sense of power. It obviates the complexity of their goal. These vulnerabilities, in turn, help vested interests to further prop up identities. The identity cobweb not only clouds the goal of annihilation of caste, but may well negate it altogether. The claim of identity mongers that since caste can never be destroyed it should be strengthened, needs to be questioned. Whether brought out in the open or not, it is implicit and inherent in the argument behind mushrooming identities among Dalits.

The identities such as Dalit, Dalit-bahujan, mulnivasi, and even Buddhist, are not the ‘real’ caste identities. Their very intent defies caste logic insofar they strive to bracket together the most oppressed castes. Moreover, this kind of reading smacks of a gross misconception of caste. Each and every identity constructed with the idiom of caste, howsoever anti-caste it may profess to be, has only ended up reinforcing it. The monster of caste can only be annihilated by an alternate idiom of politics based on class. Difficult as this may sound, history does not provide short cuts to cure its infirmities.



1. N.D. Arora and S.S. Awasthy, Political Theory and Political Thought. Har-Anand, New Delhi, 2007, p. 246; Juliet Perumal, Identity, Diversity and Teaching for Social Justice. Peter Lang, Bern, 2007, p. 32.

2. Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990.

3. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Modernity and Ethnicity in India’, in David Bennett (ed.), Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity. Routledge, New York, 1998, p. 98.

4. Robert R. Hardgrave, The Nadars of Tamil Nadu. Berkley, 1969, pp. 65-69; C. Jaffrelot, op cit. and S. Bennet to name a few. Robert Hardgrave saw the Nadar Mahajana Sangham, a caste association of Nadars, founded in 1910, promoting what he called ‘caste fusion’ as the unit of endogamy expanded. S. Barnett maintained that this kind of fusion tended to transform castes into ethnic groups… the transition from caste to ethnic-like regional caste blocks.

5. See C. Jaffrelot, ibid, p. 12.

6. Amal Sanyal, ‘The Curious Case of the Bombay Plan’, Contemporary Issues and Ideas in Social Sciences, June 2010. Last Accessed on 28 February 2012.

7. P.A. Wadia and K.T. Merchant, The Bombay Plan: A Criticism. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1946.

8. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars. Henry Holt, New York, 1995, p. 127.

9. Ibid.

10. Juliet Perumal, Identity, Diversity and Teaching for Social Justice. Peter Lang, Bern, 2007, p. 30.

11. R. Vaidyanathan, ‘Caste as Social Capital: Why Have the Gounders, Nadars, the Marwaris and Katchis Done So Well’, column22.htm. Last accessed: 28 Feb 2012.

[Courtesy: Seminar, May 2012]