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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

Dimensions of Progressive Politics: The Indian Context

Saturday 27 December 2014

by T.K. Oommen

What is reckoned as ‘progressive’ depends on the benchmark from which we start and the combination of factors which we take into account. The 20th century witnessed three models: (1) Capitalism, multi-party democracy and nation-state. (2) Socialism, one-party system and multi-national state. (3) Regulated or limited capitalism drawn from the second model and multi-party democracy from the first model and national state usually referred to as the third way adopted by India. Responding to the second model with regard to the economic/material dimension, the first model introduced welfare states wherein accumulation of wealth/capital was regulated and the material needs of the poor were attended to. In the third, that is, the Indian model distributive justice was a concern in the beginning but by 1990s India embraced the Structural Adjustment Programme popularly referred to as globalisation. By the time the second model, that is, the socialist one-party system withered away, one started hearing about the ‘end of ideology’ wherein the state became weak, market became the hegemonic and civil society, the space between state and market, came to be recognised as an important dimension which is often a lubricant to handle tensions in society. The citizen attached to the state, the consumer the creature of market and the communitarian the agent of civil society started co-existing. Progressive politics is all about the balance between these three.

There are certain elements of progressive politics which we must list here. Perhaps the most important dimension is equality of opportunity. Even traditional politics endorsed equality, but the unit was individual. But progressive politics should pursue equality between groups also because the traditionally privileged groups monopolised all opportunities. In turn this means creating conditions of equality so that all, irrespective of their status at birth, should get equality of opportunity: Protective discrimination, policy of reservation and proportionate representation to all groups, linguistic, religious, caste, and tribal groups. This is called consociational democracy by some European scholars but in India it is often dubbed as communal politics.

In spite of the near-universal endorsement of equality of opportunity economic development has sharply increased economic disparity everywhere. But there are variations. According to the latest Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in the United Kingdom, which always belonged to the first model, the top one per cent population had merely 23.3 per cent of the national wealth. In contrast in Russia, which belonged to the second model, the top one per cent owns two-thirds of the total wealth and the top 10 per cent own 84.8 per cent. As for India, which pursued the ‘Third Way’ the top 10 per cent own 74 per cent of the wealth, a shade better than post-socialist Russia. But according to a recent World Bank report, of the 1000 children born in India’s bottom fifth, 82 will die within 12 months and 117 within five years. This structural violence is an index of inequality and injustice to the innocent children. That is, inequality and injustice go together and progressive politics should address increasing economic disparity, on a war-footing.

This brings me to the second element of progressive politics, namely, identity. Curiously identity politics is stigmatised by many and yet class and gender politics are endorsed by all as these identities are acceptable. Here we must underline that the context in which identity politics is stigmatised in nation-states, wherein political and cultural boundaries are taken to be co-terminus. In multinational socialist states only class identity was legitimate although nationality identities were not stigmatised. With the breakdown of the multinational states most of them also became nation-states. But the social transformation that occurred because of the turbulence of migration rendered many states multi-cultural. Thus the USA, Australia, Canada etc., came to endorse multi-cultural citizenship. In contrast, in nation-states, be it Germany, Italy or Japan identities based on religion and language were the bases of conferring citizenship. For example, a Turk may live in Germany for decades or a Korean may live in Japan for many years but citizenship is not granted. But if a German or Japanese return to their ancestral homelands even after generations, they are warmly welcomed and citizenship smoothly conferred. The same orientation seems to be in existence in India but the relevant identity is not language but religion. Think of our attitude to the Hindu migrants from Nepal in contrast to the Muslim migrants from Bangladesh.

I have suggested earlier that group identity be understood and recognised. Similarly, identity—be it based on religion, race or language—should not be an obstacle to confer citizenship. It is necessary to recognise here that the basic features of societies could be three: stratification, heterogeneity and hierarchy. All societies are stratified based on gender, age, class and rural-urban differences. Identity as such is not an issue in those societies which are only stratified. But in societies which are heterogeneous, that is, multi-racial and multi-cultural, the issue of identity invariably surfaces. In India for long we believed that there is no race discrimination although white pigmentation was preferred and privileged as compared to dark or black. But now with the surfacing of discrimination against the people of the North-East it has become evident that racial discrimination is rampant in India. Racism is a universal phenomenon, it exists everywhere. Although legislations preventing racial discri-minations exist, everyday racism prevails and it cannot be prevented through legislations alone. This is a matter of developing a positive attitude to people who look different. That is, progressive politics should go beyond legislations and address social attitudes and values. Herein lies a capital role for the civil society. Which can conscientise citizens about the dictum: to be different does not mean superior or inferior.

Race and culture (that is, primarily religion and language) are the bases of discrimination in multi-cultural polities. Most countries in the world have one recognised religion/denomi-nation and an official language. Admittedly the religion of the minorities and languages of the linguistic minorities are undervalued and even stigmatised. This is the moment for identity politics to emerge. The ethos of nation-states is the root cause for identity politics. Even in multinational socialist states, Great Nation Chauvinism prevailed leading to their break-ups. The way out is to bifurcate citizenship and nationality. That is, the banner of progressive politics should abandon nationality as the basis of conferring citizenship.

Fortunately the Indian Constitution is in line with this idea. We do not have an official religion and have 22 official languages. This makes India a National State in contrast to a nation-state. But this idea of India is under threat from those who advocate the ideology of one nation, one culture and one people. India’s mind-boggling heterogeneity or diversity based on religion, language and race is inimical to the West European notion of nation-state which is based on the dictum: surrender group identity to avail of individual citizenship entitlements. In this regard India is far ahead of Europe but the current retrograde tendencies in India should be checked by those who believe in and work for progressive politics.

I should conclude my remarks on identity with one caution. There are two types of identities: hegemonic and emancipatory. We should reject perpetuation of hegemonic identities and endorse and nurture emancipatory identities. Because hegemonic identity perpetuates domi-nance based on religion, language or race but emancipatory identity bestows dignity on the stigmatised. I will revert to this later but before that it is necessary to refer to the third dimension of Indian society, in addition to stratification and heterogeneity, which is hierarchy. Most people, including social scientists, confuse between stratification and hierarchy. I have alerted you that stratification is universal, we do not know of a society which is not stratified, although the bases of stratification may have differing importance. But hierarchy is peculiar to South Asia, particularly India and Nepal, mainly populated by the Hindus. Why?

Any social phenomenon gets rigid and resists transformation when its origin is sanctioned by religion. I am aware that there are many who take the position that the caste system has nothing to do with Hinduism. But caste system cannot be sustained independent of Hinduism. Let me remind you of the Hindu Doctrine of Creation, which upholds that ‘chaturvarna system’ or the four-fold division of humans, emerged through divine design and the fifth, the “untouchables”, are not even part of it and hence congenitally condemned to do menial work for others. Now we know that many ex-untouchables have experienced upward mobility. There has been a President of India, a Supreme Court Chief Justice, not to speak of Governors, Ministers, academics, and other professionals from among their ranks. This was possible because of the legislative provisions provided for in India’s Constitution. But do we have “untouchable” priests in temples worshipped by caste-Hindus? Why not?

To understand this we must recognise the bidimensional nature of Indian society: secular and ritual. Mobility, upward and downward, is possible and is happening in the case of castes with regard to the secular status system and not in the ritual hierarchy. The ritual status of Brahmins do not deplete even if they are in squalor. But the ritual status of neither Dr B.R Ambedkar nor Babu Jagjivan Ram, two eminent Indian citizens, did not go up. And we read in the media the discriminations against lower castes persist even today. The point is, it is not enough to think of mobility of the ex-untouchables in the secular context but also in the ritual context. This is possible only through the annihilation of caste as Dr Ambedkar taught us because the beliefs and rituals associated with castes are sanctioned and sanctified by Hinduism. This is the most enduring challenge to be faced by the advocates of progressive politics in India.

I have referred to the secular dimension in the context of the status system in India. And as you all know Indian politics is juxtaposed between secularism and communalism, a division which perpetuates confusion. Therefore I prefer to refer to pluralism and not secularism as a dimension of progressive politics. But let me note in passing that there are three senses in which the term secularism is used in the West: (1) separating man and society from the transcendental and divine; (2) institutionalising rationality through a process of displacing religiosity, and (3) relegating religion to the private realm of human activity. In Indian politics the term secularism is not used in any of these senses and the juxtaposition is between cultural monists and cultural pluralists. Cultural monists conceive of a homogenised nation-state and cultural pluralists attest the idea of a multi-cultural polity and uphold the ideas of unity-in-diversity, cultural synthesis etc. Cultural diversity exists in most countries in the world today; it is an acknowledged fact. But cultural pluralism is an attitude, a value orientation, to that fact. Shorn of establishments it means according recognition to the specific identity of religious and linguistic groups. Thus viewed, pluralism and identity are two sides of the same coin. Pluralism is a necessary condition for the harmonious co-existence of the multitude of elements in a national state. As the transfor-mation from nation-state to national state is occurring pluralism is a necessary accompani-ment of progressive politics.

The idea behind pluralism is that the groups in a polity are different but equal; equal not in terms of their material conditions but in terms of their social standing, that is, dignity. Conferring dignities on fellow citizens implies mutual respect between the haves and have-nots; men, women and napumsaks; people of different sexual orientations; the urban and rural dwellers; the educated and the illiterate; the majority and minorities. The Constitution of India refers to fraternity among the co-citizens which can be realised only if we confer dignity on all. Dignity cannot be conferred through legislations although discriminations can be identified and punished. That is bestowing dignity to fellow humans is not a legal matter but something which we have to imbibe and impart. Progressive politics must plumb for dignity of fellow human beings ensuring human rights to all.

While equality is accepted by all, (although inequality is steeply increasing as noted above), identity remains contentious, and pluralism and dignity remain vague/nebulous, security is rarely discussed even among those who uphold progressive politics. By security I am referring to an important pre-requisite of everyday life both of individuals and groups, be it women, minorities—religious, racial and linguistic—Adivasis (tribals) or Dalits (low castes). The media are replete with reports of incidents of insecurity to which citizens in almost all countries of the world are subjected to. And yet, insecurity has not yet found a place in the discourses of even progressive politics. In India, women feel insecure and are subjected to harassment irrespective of class, caste, race, religion and the like. But if a woman is of Dalit, Muslim or of North-East background her insecurity increases. Thus intersectionality results in cumulative insecurity. For example, rural women of Muslim Dalit background are much more insecure as compared with urban upper-caste Hindu women. Thus certain social categories, both as individuals and groups, are subjected to insecurity. Material equality and consequent upward mobility can mitigate the situation partly but low social standing based on identity, be it religion, race or caste, can deepen insecurity. This should be an urgent and important item on the agenda of progressive politics because even if one has all the good things but feels insecure life is not worth living.

Apart from this, in the contemporary world, particularly national states, there are two sources of insecurity: genocide and culturocide. Genocide is the act of killing the people of other religions, language groups, races, ideological groups, political parties etc. This can and does happen in all polities but its possibility is more in national states because of its cultural and racial heterogeneity. Culturocide is the process through which smaller and weaker cultural groups are denied their identities or their cultures are stigmatised. In contrast, ecocide is common to all polities and is the process through which the eco-systems are endangered either in the context of inter-state wars or in the name of development by the rash application of high technology. Development resulting in displacement of people and decimation of environment are examples of ecocide. To ensure security the three cides—genocide, culturocide and ecocide—should be eliminated. As of now this is an unrecognised agenda of progressive politics.

Finally, solidarity which is closely related to fraternity and I will be short on this as solidarity is frequently discussed. Solidarity is the weapon of the weak in the struggle for social justice. It is also the foundation to foster a sense of community that characterises a good society. That is, solidarity has two dimensions: Co-operation of the vulnerable sections to fight against the hegemony of the dominant ones for social justice and prevention of discrimination against any section of society on any basis so that the well-being of all is realised. Solidarity can be fairly easily fostered when citizens belong to the same religious faith, speak the same language, or are of the same racial strain, that is, they are inhabitants of nation-states. But the citizens of a national state such as India are a multitude drawn from different religions, races and numerous languages; the only common chord which links them being citizenship. In India, citizenship is the only visible and verifiable identity shared by the entirety of the population because in a national state (such as India), there are several nationalities but a single citizenship. Progressive politics then should strengthen the cruciality of citizenship, indeed a formidable task.

What I am suggesting is that there are at least six interrelated values which we need to uphold and put on the agenda of progressive politics. They are: Equality, Identity, Pluralism, Dignity, Security and Solidarity.

[This is an edited version of the keynote address that Prof (Dr) T.K Oommen delivered to a seminar on ‘Progressive Politics: A Citizen’s Perspective’, organised by the Association for Democratic Socialism (ADS) and sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Schumacher Centre, at New Delhi on November 9, 2014.]

An eminent sociologist, Prof T.K Oommen is a Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the President of the Association for Democratic Socialism (ADS), New Delhi, besides being the Chairman of the Schumacher Centre.

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