In an article in Nepali Times dated June 10 to 16, 2016, Bineeta Gurung says “identity politics is a divisive ideology that has outlived its usefulness.” But in the issue of dated July 8 to 14, Mukesh Jha argues that the basis of identity politics is change, and most of the time, it leads to an equal, progressive and inclusive society. Though the writers have restricted themselves to Nepal, the debate has a wider South Asian reference.
The most significant and lasting impact of the Maoist war in Nepal is the politicisation of ethnicity, Bineeta Gurung says.
“If you are a Madhesi you are automatically expected to align with Madhesi leaders whether you agree with them or not. As a Janajati woman, I am frequently criticised for resisting identy politics.”
According to her, a discussion on the politics of identity must address its underlying assumptions. There is a tendency to generalize that Nepal’s ethnic groups are a unified, coherent mass with similar problems, needs and goals.
Such essentialism assumes an ahistorical, universal unity among members based on a generalised notion of their subordination, Gurung says.
The Madhesi identity, for instance, is projected as homogenous, and any attempt to highlight existing differences within the community is met with accusations of whataboutery.
Ethnicity is assigned as the singular identity of Madhesi individuals over and above anything else, completely bypassing social class. In reality, Madhesis are themselves a socio-economically diverse community.
It is only by understanding the diversity within various structures of inequality that effective political action can be devised. But identity politics thrives on a dichotomous and binary definition of power: either you have it or you don’t.
This creates stereotypes. Khas Pahades are oppressors, Madhesis are the oppressed. Even the meaning of the word ‘elite’ is distorted to exclusively and reductively apply to the Khas Pahade community. Are all Khas Pahades better off than Madhesis? Are all Madhesis removed from positions of power in Nepal?
Class hierarchy has now been subsumed by ethnicity, increasing the risk of class exclusion. It is not just the working class from the ‘oppressed’ Madhesi community but also from the ‘oppressor’ Khas Pahade community that are excluded in the process. This kind of exclusion, rather than building the basis for equality, only serves to reproduce existing relations of inequality. Who is more vulnerable: a middle-class person from an ethnic community or a Khas Pahade from the working class?
What started as the politics of inclusion has now been reduced to building an exclusionary culture. The fragmenting tendency of identity politics is both socially and politically disruptive — be it in virtual space or in real life. Rivalry and hostility, and racist abuse are the norm.
Proponents of identity politics say state-led discrimination against ethnic minorities makes it necessary to form a broad coalition based on ethnicity. There is no question that ethnic minorities and Dalits were disadvantaged by the imposition of Hindu nation-state ideology during the Panchayat era.
Post-1990, the state’s identity-blind approach failed to accommodate the concerns of the socially marginalised. Additionally, the disproportionate representation of Bahuns and Chhetris in top positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary and polity was a direct result of the state’s neglect of marginalised communities. The state operated on the assumption that all citizens — irrespective of their social location — had equal access to state resources. Despite introducing progressive laws, enforcement was seriously lacking and there were plenty of loopholes, allowing continued marginalisation.
After a prolonged political stalemate, the new constitution of Nepal has emerged as a progressive document that institutionalises republicanism and federalism while arranging fundamental rights for those left out. It has its flaws. The citizenship law is a disgraceful blot but even here it can be amended, with persistent pressure, to have equal gender rights.
There are now two important questions. When identity is used as a political claim, what is the change desired? Is it the ‘condition’ of ethnic groups we want to improve or the ‘structural barriers’ stacked against them that we want overthrown? This can be addressed either by inclusive or transformative strategies, though they may not be mutually exclusive.
An inclusive strategy would aim to improve the ‘condition’ of ethnic communities by bringing them into existing structures of governance. Nepal’s new constitution is categorically for inclusion of the marginalised. It would, however, be smug to think that inclusive policies alone are sufficient to advance equality – these need structural changes for egalitarianism.
Transformative strategies are needed to remove the structural barriers arising from social norms, cultural stereotypes, and power and privilege in state structures that foster inequality. Redistributive policies in education, health, and employment are necessary to dismantle structural inequality. Interaction between class, ethnicity and gender in determining individuals’ lives should remain central to our understanding of the kind of change we want.
But it is meaningless to latch on to a divisive ideology that has outlived its usefulness. Instead of being handmaidens to communal politicians for whom the national interest is secondary, Nepali intellectuals should gather the courage to condemn the politicisation of ethnicity. If we desire a truly just society, emphasis on ethnic identity alone is likely to be ineffective unless it is accompanied by economic change ,Gurung concludes..
In Defense of Identity Politics
But in an article in Nepali Times dated July 8 to 14, Mukesh Jha says that the basis of identity politics is change, and most of the time, it leads to an equal, progressive and inclusive society.
The politics of identity stems from the common grievances of a social group, and can be a struggle against the structural discrimination of the state as well as day-to-day manifestations of inequality. Identity politics strives to make society progressive and inclusive: be it the feminist movement, the struggle for civil rights, the gay and lesbian liberation, or in the Nepali context the Madhes movement, Jha says.
Some critics, like Bineeta Gurung, argue that identity politics in Nepal is a by-product of the Maoist Revolution and that it has outlived its utility like the party itself. It is indeed ironic that people who eschew political philosophy, especially of the left, argue that only ‘class’ is relevant and not the grievances of people with respect to gender, caste, or ethnicity.
Marx’s defense of the class struggle failed to grasp the social reality of the Subcontinent which is inherently different than in the West. Marx did mention caste in some of his writings, but mostly ignored the discrimination based on it. In Nepal, caste and class intersect and cannot be viewed in isolation.
Identity politics attempts to reject the negative attributes offered by the dominant culture and transforms a person’s identity into a sense of pride, without being apologetic about it. For example, dhoti or bhaiya, were once derogatory terms used to address Madhesis irrespective of the class they belonged to. A respected university professor could still be called “dhoti” while in a public bus in Kathmandu. Today, a popular Dhoti movement has reinstated the pride of the cultural attire of the people of Madhes. Calling Madhesis “dhoti” might still be a popular racial slur, but it doesn’t offend Madhesis anymore.
The very notion that to be a Nepali one has to wear a specific set of clothes, speak a particular language, eat generic food and have definite facial attributes, is being challenged because of the politics of identity. It compelled contemporary nationalists to rethink and redefine Nepali nationalism.
Identity politics has made it possible for everyone to know about the customs, languages, and attires of fellow citizens. There was a time, a little more than a decade ago, when Maithili was considered a Bihari dialect instead of a language belonging to Nepal. The demands of proportional inclusion and political representation are extensions of identity politics that demand the recognition of everyone as they are, and not as someone the state once wanted them to be.
To be sure, identity politics has its own pros and cons. One such criticism is that those in favour of identity politics abuse everyone; specially on social media. This claim cannot be denied. However, to blame only one side would be unfair. The Internet is a free space where people express themselves in their own unique ways; some more aggresively than the others. Such aggression is not exclusive to identity supporters alone.
Despite the use of ugly language and abuse, the Internet, however, is only one aspect of society and does not represent society as a whole. People still talk to each other amicably, listen to views irrespective of how irreconcilable differences are.
Another criticism is that identity politics offers a blanket description of a social group which in itself is diverse and hence fails to address underlying sub-identities. In Nepal’s case, the Madhesi identity politics is presented as an example of the eclipsing of the diversity prevalent within the community. But no movement – political or social – has ever denied the presence of the diversity of language, caste or religion. There is more than one Madhes-based political party and the Madhesi Janadhikar Party (credited for the first Madhesh movement) even unified with the Janjati party to form the Sanghiya Janadhikar Forum with Ashok Rai as its vice president.
There is also a need to tackle the social problem of caste-based discrimination in the Madhes, against which prominent intellectuals have started a social movement asking for an apology and sharing meals with people from the Dalit community. This has been followed by official resolutions of ‘apology to the Dalit community’ presented in the general convention of the Terai Madhesh Democratic Party led by Mahant Thakur.
The identity movement is not just about being Madhesi or Janajati, but also about being from the Dalit community or the Madhesi Dalit community or a Madhesi Dalit Woman. Identity politics does not thrive on the dichotomy of ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us’. Did feminism thrive on women over men; the civil rights movement on blacks over whites, or the gay rights movement on homosexuals over heterosexuals?
Feminism never vilified all men, just as the African-Americans didn’t demonise all whites. Instead Bridges were built to transform opinions as well as learn of one’s own shortcomings. To claim that identity politics is dichotomous is not only ludicrous, but also shows the lack of an in-depth understanding of identity politics. The basis of identity politics is change, and most of the time, it leads to an equal, progressive and inclusive society, Jha asserts.