10-16 June 2016 #812

What about whataboutery?

Identity politics is a divisive ideology that has outlived its usefulness
Bineeta Gurung

The most significant and lasting impact of the Maoist war in Nepal is the politicisation of ethnicity. If you are a Madhesi you are automatically expected to align with Madhesi leaders whether you agree with them or not. As a Janajati woman, I am frequently criticised for resisting identity politics.

Any discussion on the politics of identity must address its underlying assumptions. There is a tendency to generalise that Nepal’s ethnic groups are a unified, coherent mass with similar problems, needs and goals.

Such essentialism assumes an ahistorical, universal unity among members based on a generalised notion of their subordination.

The Madhesi identity, for instance, is projected as homogenous, and any attempt to highlight existing differences within the community is met with accusations of whataboutery.

Ethnicity is assigned as the singular identity of Madhesi individuals over and above anything else, completely bypassing social class. In reality, Madhesis are themselves a socio-economically diverse community.

It is only by understanding the diversity within various structures of inequality that effective political action can be devised. But identity politics thrives on a dichotomous and binary definition of power: either you have it or you don’t.

This creates stereotypes. Khas Pahades are oppressors, Madhesis are the oppressed. Even the meaning of the word ‘elite’ is distorted to exclusively and reductively apply to the Khas Pahade community. Are all Khas Pahades better off than Madhesis? Are all Madhesis removed from positions of power in Nepal?

Class hierarchy has now been subsumed by ethnicity, increasing the risk of class exclusion. It is not just the working class from the ‘oppressed’ Madhesi community but also from the ‘oppressor’ Khas Pahade community that are excluded in the process. This kind of exclusion, rather than building the basis for equality, only serves to reproduce existing relations of inequality. Who is more vulnerable: a middle-class person from an ethnic community or a Khas Pahade from the working class?

What started as the politics of inclusion has now been reduced to building an exclusionary culture. The fragmenting tendency of identity politics is both socially and politically disruptive — be it in virtual space or in real life. Rivalry and hostility, and racist abuse are the norm.

Proponents of identity politics say state-led discrimination against ethnic minorities makes it necessary to form a broad coalition based on ethnicity. There is no question that ethnic minorities and Dalits were disadvantaged by the imposition of Hindu nation-state ideology during the Panchayat era.

Post-1990, the state’s identity-blind approach failed to accommodate the concerns of the socially marginalised. Additionally, the disproportionate representation of Bahuns and Chhetris in top positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary and polity was a direct result of the state’s neglect of marginalised communities. The state operated on the assumption that all citizens — irrespective of their social location — had equal access to state resources. Despite introducing progressive laws, enforcement was seriously lacking and there were plenty of loopholes, allowing continued marginalisation.

After a prolonged political stalemate, the new constitution of Nepal has emerged as a progressive document that institutionalises republicanism and federalism while arranging fundamental rights for those left out. It has its flaws. The citizenship law is a disgraceful blot but even here it can be amended, with persistent pressure, to have equal gender rights.

There are now two important questions. When identity is used as a political claim, what is the change desired? Is it the ‘condition’ of ethnic groups we want to improve or the ‘structural barriers’ stacked against them that we want overthrown? This can be addressed either by inclusive or transformative strategies, though they may not be mutually exclusive.

An inclusive strategy would aim to improve the ‘condition’ of ethnic communities by bringing them into existing structures of governance. Nepal’s new constitution is categorically for inclusion of the marginalised. It would, however, be smug to think that inclusive policies alone are sufficient to advance equality – these need structural changes for egalitarianism.

Transformative strategies are needed to remove the structural barriers arising from social norms, cultural stereotypes, and power and privilege in state structures that foster inequality. Redistributive policies in education, health, and employment are necessary to dismantle structural inequality. Interaction between class, ethnicity and gender in determining individuals’ lives should remain central to our understanding of the kind of change we want.

But it is meaningless to latch on to a divisive ideology that has outlived its usefulness. Instead of being handmaidens to communal politicians for whom the national interest is secondary, Nepali intellectuals should gather the courage to condemn the politicisation of ethnicity. If we desire a truly just society, emphasis on ethnic identity alone is likely to be ineffective unless it is accompanied by economic change.

Read also:

The politics of everything, Editorial

Identity crisis, Editorial

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