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Politics of Identity and Intolerance
06/09/2008
By Ram Puniyani

On fifth of June (2008) a group of followers of Shiv Sangram Sanghtan (SSS), led by a former MLC of Nationalist Congress party, attacked the house of editor of Loksatta, a prominent Marathi daily, Kumar Ketkar and tried to break open the house. They broke the glass panes, did other possible damage and smeared the house with coal tar, before leaving. They, as per their leader, were expressing their spontaneous anger against Ketkar, who according to them had insulted Shivaji in his editorial. This editorial was a sarcastic criticism of the Maharashtra Government's move to build statue of Shivaji, which will be taller than the one of statue of Liberty, and it will be located in the Arabian Sea, on an island, which will have to be built and an approach to the island will have to be made. This will involve expenses, which will be in astronomical figures. Ketkar, one of the leading journalist and conscience raiser of society, questioned the wisdom of the Government in planning for such a monument when the state is riddled with so many problems, like farmers suicide, children's malnutrition, unemployment and the like. Ketkar had not once questioned the respect for Shivaji which a large section of Mahrashtrians have.

What was surprising was that apart from the attack, some of those posing to be respecting Shivaji, claimed that such an 'inspiring' monument will solve the problems of the state! What is surprising is that in a state known for its liberal, progressive traditions, the tactics adopted by the likes of SSS have not been the only ones of this type. Earlier we witnessed an attack on Bhandarkar Institute, Pune by similar characters when James Laine's book subtly hinted at the real parentage of Shivaji. Since Laine did his research at this institute. Similarly earlier Shiv Sena had created ruckus when secular activist Teesta Setalvad had prepared a handbook for a school which mentioned that Shivaji was a Shudra. While this is true, currently the word Shudra is perceived in a derogatory sense so Shiv Sena's ire!

As such Shivaji has been invoked to build a particular type of identity. In current times Bal Thackeray in his anti non-Mahrashtrian stance built it up for political gains. The same identity was used to give anti Muslim message, contrary to the fact that Shivaji was not against Muslims, he had innumerable Muslims in his administration, army, Navy and what have you. He also had immense respect for Hazarat Baba Bahutthorwale a Sufi saint. Contrary to the truth and facts Shiv Sena succeeded in undertaking anti Muslim pogrom and anti Muslim politics to polarize the Hindus, in the name of Shivaji. By and by Mahrashtraian identity has come to be fixed around Shivaji alone, bypassing the glorious heritage of Saints like Tukaram and Chokha Mela, bypassing the doyens of social change like Jotiba Phule and Ambedkar. This bypasses innumerable freedom fighters from Maharashtra and the large groups of rational thinkers also.

Shivaji's identity was deliberately picked up by communal forces as there are few instances which if seen selectively, may sound against Muslims and others. This selective projection has been employed for motivated and crooked political calculations. They have most of the times reaped political harvest by abusing the identity of Shivaji for their political goals.

Last few years with the growing neglect of social issues the identity politics is being given exalted importance and so other political formations have also been resorting to the use of this identity politics around Shivaji. With the growth of this comes the intolerance where any criticism, real or perceived against the icons is met with attacks aimed to muzzle the voice of those protesting against some or other policy. The degree of intolerance is so intense that the attackers are not bothered even about the real social issues, they many a times, even don't read what has been written and merely on the ground of make believe; take the law in their hands to pursue their politics. In Mahrashtra Bal Thackeray did it to a great effect and now other political elements are also doing the same. This type of politics essentially wants to preserve the status quo and distract the attention from basic social issues. Ketkar essentially was urging upon the government to take the basic issues and not to resort to the politics of tokenism.

In current times, especially from last two decades the identity politics has been imposed upon the society. It all began with RSS combine (RC) (RSS and its progeny, BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Vanvasi kalian Ashram etc) throwing up the issue of Ram temple which was to distract the attention from real issues related to caste, gender and workers-Adivasi rights. With Lord Ram being brought forward as symbol of Indian identity the problems of poor were pushed to the back seat and today what we see that now Ram Sethu issue is being presented as the major problem. Emotive, identity related issues have the potential to create social hysteria and so have the power to undermine the real social problems. Now the housing for poor gets substituted by temple for Lord Ram and that's how the agenda of this identity politics can be understood.

One recalls attacks on journalists in the aftermath of Babri demolition. One is witnessing today the attacks on those speaking against the goals of divisive identity politics. While those undertaking such attacks must be punished, the identity politics itself needs to be defeated and the issues related to the people of society need to be put on the forefront of the social agenda. The decade of 1980s saw the transition when the issue based politics was undermined by diverse social processes and vested interests to project their social interests in the name of religion and in the wake of Meenakishipuram conversions of Dalts to Islam, Shah Bano judgement and opening of the locks of Babri mosque heralded the opening of floodgates of identity related issues and politics.

It is not that identity is always counter productive. For the oppressed groups identity around their icons may give them necessary strength to demand for their rights. But that is only in the beginning. Over a period of time, the positive signals get converted into ritualism and the inner meaning is gradually dwarfed. This is what happened with the statues of Dr. Ambedkar. While the dalit politics was struggling to invent new language to ensure their rights, the proliferation of statues of Dr. Ambedkar was accompanied by infinite divisions in the dalit movement. Those who were deeply opposed to the rising dalit assertion and power took this opportunity and came in the field to erect bigger statues while replacing his language of Learn, Organize and Struggle with Social Harmony, Samajik Samarasta. These statues of Dr. Ambedkar were also deliberately desecrated to create trouble in Dalit areas. Currently large number of temples and statues of Shabri and Hanuman are being installed by RSS affiliate Vanvasi Kalyan Ahsram in Adivais areas to give the subtle message that Adivaisi are to upper caste what Hanuman and Shabri were to lord Ram.

While a lot needs to be understood about Mayawati's politics, from her transition from Bahujan to Sarvajan, from her original dalit stance to collaboration with BJP for some time, her defense of Gujarat carnage and her electoral interventions which may mostly be benefiting the BJP politics, what is undoubted is that while initially she gave a sort of strength to dalits quest for assertion, currently she is more busy with erecting her own statues. At the same time her stance of sitting on a level higher than her supporters; also indicate the shift from Ambedkar's values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The complexity of social phenomenon is immense. While those talking in the language of Rights are being marginalized the one's projecting identity and emotive issues are making hay. Attack on Ketkar on this ground has more to say than just freedom of expression, it also reminds us that the type of opinions which could be expressed freely some time ago is a no-no in contemporary times.

The best example of this is probably celebrated and currently hounded painter M.F. Hussein. While he drew Goddess Sarswati and many other such paintings in previous decades, the attacks came in last two decades alone. The same paintings were 'discovered' in 90s and he became the target of attacks and forced to leave India.  Case of Taslima also comes fairly close. While not commenting on her understanding of Koran and Islam, one can say that she also had to suffer much more from late nineties till now.

The writers, painters and opinion makers are consciously being intimidated and frightened to ensure that merchants of identity politics are able to undermine the issues related to bread, butter, shelter, employment and human rights. And that's what is the agenda of those who unleash the politics of Rath yatras, Gujarat Carnage, beat up Taslima or attack Ketkar. At surface they may sound to be divided along religious lines, but they have a deeper unity, abolish democracy-bring in identity based nation sate.