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Exploring the Depths of Identity

Exploring the Depths of Identity

L-R: Kumar Ketkar, Chief Editor, Dainik Divya Marathi, Dr. Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Harvard University, and Dr. Dipankar Gupta, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University

MUMBAI, November 20, 2013- To understand the functioning of societies and polities, it is important to understand the contexts in which identity politics gain salience. As multiple identities cross-cut, what leads individuals to identify themselves with one group versus another, and why do certain identities co-exist while others clash? Across the world- including the ongoing election campaigns in India- the nature of identity in politics has come into question. In light of the changes brought about by increasing globalization, the need to analyze the political dynamics of identity remains more important than ever.

To explore this issue further, Asia Society presented a discussion on “The Foundations and Future of Identity Politics.” The topical discussion featured Dr. Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Harvard University, and Dr. Dipankar Gupta, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, and was moderated by Kumar Ketkar, Chief Editor, Dainik Divya Marathi.

Kumar Ketkar began the discussion reflecting on the roots of contemporary identity politics, tracing them back to the fall of the Berlin Wall, while simultaneously reflecting on the fragile concept of identity that he had been familiar with in Mumbai during his early years.“As far as I remember as a journalist the identity question in Indian politics and Indian society became very prominent since the late 80's or early 90’s, and ever since it has dominated politics and the entire discourse, even the cultural discourse. During my entire schooling days, I did not remember that I was a Hindu, that I was a Brahmin, because you know my school there were all kinds of people, all kinds of boys and girls, and we really did not encounter either my caste, or religion or for that matter even language (…) we were brought up in Mumbai cosmopolitanism, and well...cosmpolitanism is not an identity.”

Dr. Gupta began by advocating for a contextualized view of identity, as he said “the future of identity politics I think to a large extent depends on the past, not the remote past, but the near past.” He then went on to reflect on the tension between democracy and nationalism in modern conceptions of identity; “The nation-state is all about blood, soil, territory, history, sacrifice. Democracy is about citizenship. The nation-state is all about memory, who we are, who we were (...) and what did democracy do, what did citizenship do? It gave history a long good-bye. Forget it, we don't want you anymore, and it invented things of itself, it didn't need anything from the past.”

Dr. Asani encouraged an educated and critical perspective towards religious identity, what he calls “religious literacy.”
“While on the surface [it may seem like religion] if you actually go and look at instances, very often the conflict is not about religious doctrine. There are fundamental economic, social, political forces that are at play behind everything that appears to be a religious conflict. It's never just about religion, because religion is embedded in all these contexts. So I think it is a mistake to look at conflicts that use religious symbols and say, this is about religion (…)and so we have to be, when we start talking about what seems to be a religious conflict, we have to be more analytical, and say that the symbols and motifs may be religious but the underlying reasons and motifs are not really embedded in theology."

Reported by Uditinder Singh Thakur, Programme Assistant, Asia Society India Centre.

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November 21, 2013
by Radha Venkatraman