Politicisation of identities : A modern phenomenon

The dynamics of identity varied from traditional to modern societies. Earlier, sense of belonging to a group identity was not associated with political nuances but with certain codified rules of social differentiation, and few important determinants of one’s identity were habitat, religion, language, kinship etc. Thus people had plural and flexible identities with a blurred frame of ‘we’ or ‘us’. However, it is in the modern time where identity assertions are based on clear and demarcated boundary, and also an acute sense of ‘we’ and ‘they’. Earlier this dichotomy did not exist. Traditionally, identities lacked such cognitive means that could keep people bounded to a particular identity group in an extreme collective sense. The reason for this could be their ignorance vis-à-vis the political potentialities of their numeric strength. Thus, it could be said that identities transforming into political nature is a characteristic feature of modernity. An attempt could be made to grasp this discourse of Identity politics shaped by the compulsions of modernity by citing Indian example.

In the Indian context, numerous examples could be enumerated to depict how modernity transformed the concepts of identity and political authority. We need not have to turn the pages of history of Indian rulers and kingdoms to have an understanding of this transformation. It is in this context that the arrival of Britishers and the post British period becomes a turning point in India because of its implications in modernising the traditional scope of identity. Britishers brought with them some agencies of modernisation that played significant role in this transition. Some of such important agents are:

Cognitive apparatus: As Sudipta Kaviraj in his book ‘Politics in India’ points out that through their knowledge and information of maps, figures and numbers, the Britishers infused a sense of territoriality among the Indians. ‘Census’, one of the most important tools used by them, changed the self perception of people materially. It is pertinent to mention here that even before the Britishers came to India, there were people belonging to both Hindu and Islamic faiths. But the sense of majority and minority community, which fundamentally changed their collective self, was induced by the cognitive apparatus brought about by the agents of modernity transported by the Britishers. Thus, people came to be identified with one chosen aspect of their identity on some particular points of time.

Education: Britishers introduced a unified system of education which exposed the Indian youth and middle class to the liberal and democratic ideas of the West through their literature and curriculum. Consequently, people got more awareness about their individual as well as collective potential to influence and shape their political destiny. This kind of Western education with doses of liberal ideology, in fact, helped people comprehend their culture with a non-ethnocentric approach. Apart from this, it also ushered in a sense of dignity and confidence amongst people which did not exist earlier. As Gellner points out, “the employability, dignity, security and self respect of individuals now hinges on their education. A man’s education is by far his most precious investment, and in effect confers identity on him. Modern man is not loyal to a monarch or a land or a faith, whatever he may say, but to a culture”.

Print Capitalism: The print capitalism (press, publishing houses, newspapers, drama, theatre etc.) strengthened and blossomed vernacular languages to full boom. Language became a tool to transit information and making it possible for people to recognise themselves with either this or that affinity, and hence entrenching a sense of identification. Benedict Anderson considers this ingredient of commercial book publishing on a wide scale, or what he calls ‘print capitalism’ as a huge factor for increased self assertion and mobilisation amongst people. He argues that it made possible, more than anything else, growing numbers of people to think of themselves in profoundly new ways.

Thus, there is no denying the fact that politicization of identities that are traditional or primordial is largely a modern phenomenon. One can identify and relate this trend everywhere, with J&K being no exception to it. Identity politics which is very relevant and at the very core to present scenario of J&K, is the offshoot of such agencies of modern times only. When we talk of identity of any region or community over here we are referring to such identities that have gone through the process of this modernization and politicization. In Jammu and Kashmir, identity played a crucial role in shaping the politics and it continues till date in one or the other form thereby influencing the private and public life of the people. It is the identity crisis only which led to a marginalized feeling among Kashmiri Muslims that cemented the separatist movement in the Valley as well as provided the initial popular support whether covert or overt to militant ways or so called the freedom struggle of Kashmiris for ‘Azadi’. Not only this, even much before all this, it was the sense of a common Kashmiri identity and common stakes in the resource distribution and economic gains that led to the call of ‘Kashmir for Kashmiris’ in the 1920s to drive the Punjabis out of the state employments. This movement was not divisive but inclusive and brought within its ambit all those comprising Kashmir irrespective of their religion or class.

In the Jammu region, the only viable and concrete issue from the very start to the present times with some mass appeal is that of identity of Jammu region as a whole and people in particular, vis a vis their counterparts in Kashmir. However, even within this encompassing identity of Jammu region are numerous smaller sub regional identities like Gujjars, Pahari, Dogra, Poonchi, Mirpuri, Kishtwari, Bhaderwahi etc. These provide food for thought to such concerned elites  who manoeuvre these already existing but unconscious identities, making them conscious of their distinctiveness and insert a feeling of deprivation vis-à-vis the other with the aim to achieve some political gains to establish their legitimacy and hold amongst masses, thus, bringing identity to the forefront in political arena. While talking of identity crisis, we can never forget the biggest geographical region of J&K i.e. Ladakh, which claims to be suffering from this paralysis for long time but whose hues and cries always go unheard amidst vociferous claims of Kashmiri crisis. Ladakhi identity on a closer look is split into two sub identities based on religion and they are always in contest with each other within their domestic sphere i.e. Ladakhi Buddhist versus Ladakhi Muslims. There is no doubt that people have attachments with their region, language, culture, religion etc. Such identities are present from the very start i.e. are primordial in nature, but it is of no political significance to those who actually live these identities. It is only after they become conscious or are made conscious of some sort of discrimination in the larger society and their number that such politicized identities are constructed and manipulation of symbols of such communities takes place. Thus, there is no doubt that identity and its nuances involve and attract a lot of politics. The key factor in the creation or assertion of identities is more political than emotional. It needs to be understood that identities have limited purpose of opening up politics, making it more competitive, making it more inclusive, through multiple identity politics. Instead of one marginal group within one identity competing with another marginal group within another identity, it is important to say that all marginal groups are having similar interest and therefore cannot be placed against each other. There is no denying the fact that all identities are exclusive and need to be transcended at some point of time. They should not be seen as end in themselves.


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