Republica Repost–Walking the Tightrope

[Beyond Identity Politics]

When growing up in Manipur in India, I knew Nepal as a distant land that was all our own, a nation of Nepalis, or, rather, “not India,” which was a place where the Nepali immigrants were treated by many people with insult that bordered abuse. Nepali kids were bullied at school as outsiders; families were regularly burglarized by masked men who often turned out to be neighbors (and the police didn’t care); and anyone who needed to cross state lines had to carry “movement certificates”. Because of such experiences Nepal was our romanticized homeland.

But when I eventually returned to Nepal, while the society was generally nice to my kind of families, I quickly found out that it was not for many others. People didn’t have to be “foreigners” to be marginalized. The national identity based on the ideals and ideas of the mainstream, the privileged, felt frustrating. I started recognizing the paradox of my father expressing his Nepali identity back in India by chanting mantras in Sanskrit: there was not much Nepali about those texts written in ancient India, but the dominant group where my family belonged had adopted the Hindu, caste-based, and class-shaped “Nepali” identity and taken it to India. 

Indeed, the Nepali immigrant community in India mirrored how the dominant groups back home ignored the more than hundred languages, how they marginalized dozens of ethnic cultures, and how they erased entire histories that didn’t fit the dominant “Nepali” identity. When I read the history of the nation in college, I was surprised that Bahun-Chhetris were relatively new settlers across the nation (they were new immigrants compared to ethnic communities such as Magars and Gurungs who ruled smaller kingdoms before Nepal was united). The Hindu king had descended from Muslims in India, while Muslim communities of the hills and the cities were marginalized and invisible. Diverse cultures had been “unified” by a violent family that had written the nation’s history to ensure its power and glory.

Two decades later, marginalized communities and groups are better heard; they freely fight for their rights, and many people from the mainstream are their allies. However, something else is causing disillusionment in me again. Here I share a few thoughts and observations about how identity politics can take us one step forward and two steps back.

One has to acknowledge that our society is, at least partially, waking up to its history of marginalization of women, ethnic and cultural/religious groups, and classes and castes.

Partially because whenever anyone points out the persistence of discrimination, prejudice, and abuse, those in privileged positions respond by repeating that “times slowly change.” But in spite of the hollow faith in the idea that humanity continues to automatically improve, we are making social progress in some areas. For instance, men don’t seem to talk about women as their servants; the upper caste have to at least pretend that they are allies of Dalit communities in their fight for justice; the rich and corrupt don’t enjoy much prestige in society.

On the other hand, the old hegemony is being replaced by new chaos. And that chaos is created out of a necessary step in social progress: the step of recognizing group identities and pursuing the unique causes of different groups by using the identities as rallying tools.

Group identity, especially when based on social, economic, political, and other causes, can be a powerful means for social change. But excessive focus on identity can overshadow the very issues that ought to describe the groups. One group can cease to see how other groups share the same issues and could work together. Marginalized citizens protesting injustice can inadvertently alienate allies; conflicts from pride and ego of different groups can erode social and national bonds. Indeed, the pursuit for equality and justice for all can be undermined when parts forget the whole.

Now, it is awfully hard to describe what “national” good is and what the “collective” bonds are, because we are just coming out of a history where the nation itself was defined in the image and interest of the few privileged. Until very recently, the Panchayat regime used formal education to convince citizens that the king is the nation and nation, the king.

The symbolic “garden” with four castes and thirty-six skin tones had a gardener who was also, literally, a god. A generation of people who believed that the four castes were born from top to bottom of Brahma’s body is still alive. Indeed, the same myths and symbolisms thrive among the younger generation. Most dangerously, under the roof of the new identity politics, many in the Bahun-Chhetri community are seeking to bolster their own heritage, values, and ideals—often without bothering to distance from the shameful past.

The excessive pursuit of separate and separating goals by different groups may seem necessary, effective, or at least efficient means for social progress; but it also fails to account for a lot.

First, if the whole is diverse and complicated, the parts are too. Imagine a once-poor and disabled Dalit man from a remote village who has now become a rich and highly respected doctor in a city and has overcome his disability. While it is easy to discuss one thing at a time, doing so may obscure where social issues overlap, how different people can come together.

Second, setting up silos of identity politics allows the old forces to set up new tents in the fancy new identity campsites. A classic example of identity politics gone wrong would be an Indian scientist from an upper caste family now working in the US, whom I recently heard arguing on a radio show here that his upper caste values are nothing but “family heritage” as worthy of respect and preservation as any other group’s traditions. When I listened to him, I was not only disgusted but also unable to formulate a good response. I can imagine Nepali intellectuals going through the same soon.

Third, when identity politics overshadows large-scale, border-crossing social issues, those larger challenges become nobody’s challenges. Identity politics usually focuses on ethnic, class, caste, professional, and education-based group-formation: it tends to ignore actions, behaviors, and outlooks. A powerful example of creating silos of identity is when people see “politicians” as a separate class of people, thereby convincing themselves that corrupted action/behavior is only prevalent among politicians.

Finally, when identity politics goes too far, it can stifle reason, discouraging frank discussion of issues. For instance, if I consider my last name as a more important basis of my identity than what I’m saying about caste system, then I am doomed. Especially because we are often the first generation coming out of the horrible history of caste system, because we are just starting to develop better language and discourse on the subject… we are likely to make mistakes every time we open our mouths (the very language we need to use for eliminating discrimination is full of it!). So, we need a lot of confidence (in ourselves and others within and across groups).

The challenges of language go even further. In our quest to seem more “advanced,” we have borrowed terms and perspectives that don’t fit local issues. For example, we didn’t bother to build on gender-blender traditions like mit-mitini (where same sex relations were cultivated on deeply meaningful cultural, socioeconomic, and emotional terms), like maruni (where gender lines were blurred by music, and general lack of hyper-separation of men-women roles). The society has instead borrowed two extreme ideas, both from the global west—homophobia on the one hand and the doomed-to-fail idea of Nepal as a global “gaytopia”—with neither side recognizing any local socio-cultural backgrounds on the issue!

As a nation in transition, we cannot overlook the multiplicity, complexity, and overlapping rings of our “identity positions” (if we want to use the term)—by history, by choice and interests, by perception, by ideas and ideals, and by material realities. And we also need high levels of tolerance, not stick to hard identity positions. Being a society that is coming out of so many layers of systemic social problems, we need courage to make mistakes, willingness to forgive others, desire to learn and grow, ability to laugh at individual and collective weaknesses.

We have to be honest, cultivate confidence and trust, and tackle the issues without sticking adamantly to identity positions. That is, we can avoid the drawbacks of identity politics while drawing on the strengths of difference and diversity.

Published in Republica on Dec 13, 2014

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