In an extremely ugly assertion of collective identity, a group of white supremacists undertook a march on August 12 in Charlottesville in the US to protest the planned removal of a statue of a Confederate icon. In the clashes that ensued between the white supremacists and counter-protesters, one person was killed and several injured as a car reportedly driven by a Nazi sympathiser crashed into the crowd rallying against racism and fascism.
Cut to India, where the same majoritarian impulses have been asserting themselves in a vicious form, usually involving the violent humiliation of religious minorities and the so-called lower castes, especially Muslims and Dalits. From mob lynchings on the suspicion of consuming or keeping beef or smuggling cattle, to demands to sing Vande Mataram, purportedly as a test of loyalty to the country, minorities in India are in the grip of a slowly tightening majoritarian choke-hold.
The deepest roots of majoritarianism lie in the long histories of inequalities that have shaped most societies. In the case of India and the US, they also stem from the tragic cleavages that mark the founding moment of each nation as a modern state. If the history of modern America is inseparable from slavery and the exclusion of the non-white inhabitant, India continues to be haunted by the brutal violence of Partition that split it the country in two.
In India, starting from the 1980s, the Hindutva Right has steadily moved centre-stage and is arguably more powerful now than it has ever been in its history, with the Bharatiya Janata Party forming the Union government. And in the US, while social relations have always been subject to abiding racial tensions, the last year seems to have undone the progress of decades, with numerous incidences of open hostility against minorities.
Assertions of majoritarian identity, in general, seem to be ascendant across the globe, though this trend may reverse itself.
There is, additionally, a strand of Left-liberal political practice and thinking that has been co-opted by the Right in both India and the US, which has also contributed to the resurgence of assertions of majoritarian will. This often happens in a threatening form, through the use of the vocabulary and strategies of identity politics.
In a superb, prescient essay titled “Refiguring Social Space,” written as far back as 1995, Cindy Patton noted that the American Right had adopted the strategies of civil rights movements, particularly those of the struggle for gay rights. Patton argues that “beginning in the late 1980s, the New Right systematically poached progressive political discourse...The partially secularised New Right of the 1980s entered politics through adoption of an identity, modeled, ironically enough, on the last entrant into civil rights claims: the most articulately voiced identity of the 1980s – ‘gay’ identity.”
Since the ’80s, the American Right has also become increasingly adept at using a discourse and rhetoric – originating in the academy but now part of everyday conversation – of diversity and inclusion, oppression and marginalisation, irreducible difference and symbolic violence, and, now, micro-aggressions and triggering.
In India, the ascendancy of identity politics has followed two routes. At the level of popular politics, the breakdown of an overarching, hegemonic ideology of secularism, identified largely if not exclusively with the Congress, has given rise to a wide array of regional, caste, and religion-based political parties that have entered into all kinds of alliances with each other, more out of expediency than commitment to any ideology.
NGO- and activist-speak in India, which continues to be dominated by the elite, has simply borrowed the American vocabulary described above, to articulate the political claims of caste, religious and sexual minorities. This has been combined, often awkwardly, with the distinctively Indian invocations of communalism and secularism.
In both contexts, the faultline of the logic of identity politics has been the conflation of two distinct claims, which is precisely what has enabled the identity politics paradigm to be effectively utilised by the Right.
The first of these, the critique of universalism, is urgent and necessary. The idea behind the critique is straightforward: universalist discourses, like those of rights and citizenship, implictly privilege one category of humans as the assumed norm. Thus, the ideal, normative inhabitant in American society has been tacitly assumed to be the White male and in India, the Hindu upper-caste male. This critique, immensely valuable, does not entail jettisoning the very idea of universality itself.
The second claim, more troubling, is the idea that the history and experience of specific minority groups is theirs alone and that they alone possess the authority to speak for it. In other words, non-Native Americans do not get to impose Western historiographic models on Native American ideas of history and non-Dalits cannot write critically of Ambedkar.
This claim is, ironically, profoundly essentialist in that it proposes that to be Native American or Dalit automatically bestows one with not just moral and political authority but epistemological authority as well. In this scheme of things, any Native American or Dalit will know their history better than any non-Native Americans or non-Dalits ever can.
As a result, you find in the US a movement of whites using the same reasoning to claim that their history and heritage have been misrepresented, suppressed, and destroyed. They also argue that minorities and those sympathetic to them are incapable of understanding white history.
These claims exactly mirror those of black activists about their heritage. In India, aggrieved Hindus argue that if the Taj Mahal can be designated as part of India’s Muslim heritage, India’s Hindu heritage, defined as all that is unsullied by Islam, should also be recognised as such.
In both societies, majorities have also campaigned against what they see as special rights for minorities, such as Affirmative Action and caste-based reservations for marginalised groups, or personal laws for Muslims.
Accusations of special rights, combined with the speeches of demagogues and a sense of disenfrachisement among sections of the majority, are an incendiary mix, as we know from history. Throw in WhatsApp messages with virulent anti-minority diatribes, fears of minority invasions, and rumors about minorities committing blasphemy against assorted holy cows and you get a perfect recipe for violence, as we have seen in recent weeks and months.
A talk among NRI Hindu circles that proposes the absurd claim that Hindus are a vanishing community is a good example of the affective power of majority identity politics in the global Hindu population.
US President Donald Trump’s association with Right-wing media baron Steve Bannon, his descriptions of Mexican immigrants, and his so-called Muslim ban – travel restrictions on people coming in from select Muslim-majority countries – are classic American exemplars of the phenomenon.
Human rights, as the South African judge Albie Sachs is supposed to have said, are about the right to be same and the right to be different. Without being apologetic for their difference, this is a time for all those concerned about majority identity politics to assert their universalism – and to fight for justice, rights, and equality on the basis of universal citizenship. For identity cannot be taken away, but rights, equality, and citizenship surely can.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. He runs the Twitter account @IndiaExplained and is the founder of india-explained.com