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Against entrenched identities

We can see ourselves and fellow citizens as members of groups — but our government mustn’t

Written by Harsh Gupta |
March 8, 2013 3:45:51 am

My piece (‘One versus group’,IE,Feb 13),coauthored with Rajeev Mantri,has received multiple scholarly rebuttals by Ashutosh Varshney,Javed Anand and others. While this debate about the role of group identity in today’s India must continue,it was important to interject because of the perhaps inadvertent characterisation of my central argument.

Advocating for a state agnostic to various sub-identities and a government that sees citizens only as equal and free individual Indians does not preclude said citizens from having as many “hyphens” as they want. Varshney’s writing (‘Why India must allow hyphens’,IE,Feb 13) that “If Indians can be Gujarati Indians or Hindu Indians,why can’t there be Muslim Indians or Christian Indians?”,is a strawman. Nobody is saying Indians cannot see themselves and fellow citizens as belonging to any group. The argument is simply for the government to not see Indians as Hindus,Muslims,Christians or so on.

I support the American model over the French one,not the other way round as Varshney suggests. Curbing certain clothing and accessories in France may be applied equally,but is still illiberal. America,barring some exceptions,also has undifferentiated citizenship,while still retaining a normative attachment to liberty. Its jurisprudence is evolving in such a manner that even its taxpayer-funded,race-based affirmative action programmes have to increasingly show that they are not based exclusively on identity and instead have intrinsic pedagogical or diversity benefits. Saying that “undifferentiated citizenship is an ideologue’s or a philosopher’s pipe dream… will unleash incalculable violence” while insinuating about Nazism is remarkable — the Jews,Gypsies and homosexuals knew all too well that the National Socialist state differentiated based on identity.

The “salad bowl” vs “melting pot” metaphor was mentioned in the context of left-liberals assisting the state in slowing society’s natural evolution from the former to the latter by further provoking group consciousness through identity-based policies. This does not mean Indian society must perforce be homogeneous,or that the state should social-engineer any majoritarian conformity. If society,despite getting a classically liberal state,still wants to remain a “salad bowl”,so be it. It is just not likely,and perhaps that is why certain vested interests do not want such a setup.

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As Thomas Paine wrote in his Common Sense more than two centuries ago,“some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them… [society encourages intercourse,the [state creates distinctions”. More,this strong but imperfect scepticism towards a central state initiating coercion in the name of any teleological historicism or “greater good” has — pace Thomas Paine,Karl Popper and other dead white men — always been inherent in Indian metaphysics,from Buddha to Gandhi. Building on this,many writers like myself are trying to create a liberal right. At the same time,even a grossly imperfect Indian right has to be compared with the incumbent party in power,not some hypothetical,utopian faction of philosopher- kings.

Coming back to policy,Javed Anand (‘By the majority,for the majority’,IE,Feb 28) defends the “rights of religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions”. Fully agreed,but Anand does not answer the simple question: why not extend these rights to the local “majority” as well? That was the critique of Will Kymlicka’s “external protections” in practice. If it is important for Muslims in Bengal or Gujaratis in Maharashtra to have more educational autonomy,why not for everybody? And if the reason is that it may lead to sub-optimal regulation and possibly harm students,then why deny minorities such prudence? Either way,the square does not circle.

Having perused the data within the Sachar Committee report,I am surprised that Anand sees only institutionalised discrimination in its findings. The worker population ratio for Muslim women was just 25.2 per cent compared to 46.1 per cent for Hindu women and 47.2 per cent for other minorities. Is this the fault of others? A community reluctant to see women as financially independent will fall behind. Socio-religious conservatism is as responsible as any “institutionalised discrimination” here,and instead of creating a sense of victimhood,its intellectual leaders need to take on those interpretations of faith that are at the root of this.

In any case,a large percentage of the Muslim population is already classified as OBC and has quota benefits. That Muslims are disproportionately unsuccessful even in computer-checked,multiple-choice examinations undermines the argument that even more affirmative action is needed to correct for societal bias. Rather it calls for,at the policy level,the supply-side liberalisation of primary and secondary education,a cause that the present government has grievously harmed with the Right to Education Act’s persecution of private schools and kowtowing to teacher unions.

Yes,the same argument is (correctly) made to oppose caste-based quotas. But there are three points to consider. In the case of SC/ST and to a lesser extent OBC quotas,there is a historical context of discrimination,which is simply not there for Muslims. As veteran journalist M.J. Akbar said recently “Only Dalits should be considered a minority” and Muslims should leave the “politics of fear” and adopt the “politics of development.” Second,while one cannot change one’s caste,one can change religion — whereby such quotas could incentivise conversions,and to expect Hindu taxpayers to silently subsidise this would be unrealistic. Third,saying that because caste quotas exist,religious quotas must also be introduced smacks of an illiberal relativism and lack of conviction. Why not fight identity entrenchment,rather than give in?

Of course,there are various interpretations of all these loaded “-isms”,but the Indian right,unlike the right elsewhere,is potentially more at home with liberalism-secularism than the left could be. India’s Hindu majority has no theological mandate against blasphemy,apostasy,homosexuality or abortion,and yet the country was always spiritual enough to never fall for the materialist philosophy of communism,“the god that failed”. Indian leftists,self-declared moderates and so-called progressives must realise that their intellectual monopoly will be increasingly challenged by an aspirational,young and yes,largely fair,India.

The writer is a Singapore-based investment advisor and the co-founder of Gyanada Foundation

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