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Representing Identities, Interests and Ideas

to neglect altogether the influence of any Representing Identities, sense of identity with others on our political priorities and behaviour. The author is also alert to the possibility that the Interests and Ideas Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions by Niraja Gopal Jayal; Palgrave MacMillan and UNRISD, UK, 2006; pp 239,

as “identity disregard”, i e, the propensity to neglect altogether the influence of any

Representing Identities,

sense of identity with others on our political priorities and behaviour. The author is also alert to the possibility that the

Interests and Ideas

Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions

by Niraja Gopal Jayal; Palgrave MacMillan and UNRISD, UK, 2006; pp 239, £ 50 (hardcover).


hese days the “identity of India” is often sought to be delineated, thanks to the modern Hindutva movement, in terms of a coercively homogenised Hindu identity, disrespecting the country’s enormous cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversities. At the other end of the spectrum, excesses of identity advocacy and the resultant ethno-religious fragmentation come in the way of forging an “idea of India”, based on the concept of universal, albeit “multicultural”, citizenship. At a time when the idea and practice of politics in India are fraught with such opposing forces, it is indeed rewarding to be both challenged and aided by Niraja Gopal Jayal in her important new book to examine the complexities and implications of “representing” India.

India sustains six major religions, more than 1,600 language groups, an internally differentiated (albeit hierarchical) caste structure within the fold of Hindu religion, and the third largest Muslim community in the world. In such a multiverse of cultures, languages and ethnicities, it is hard to imagine any person as belonging to any one collectivity or group only. In other words, group affiliations are neither “singular” nor necessarily overlapping; rather they criss-cross, rendering it “difficult to mobilise most Indians on a single cleavage”. Thus, not all Hindus are “hindians” (non-Hindi speaking Hindus), not all Christians are outside the pale of caste prejudices (dalit Christians), and not all Muslims in India constitute a monolithic, homogeneous category (the gujjar nomads of Jammu and the Kashmir valley for example, have a distinctly tribal status). However, amidst such crisscrossing and at times shifting identities based on language, religion, caste and tribe, no one could fail to find from the engaging and thought-provoking analysis in the book, the “destructive synergy” of social disadvantage and material deprivation that betokens the lived experiences of certain communities. It is the recognition of such multiple misfortunes of particular social groups in our country and of the need for adequate representation of their interests, claims, and concerns in institutions of governance as well as through policy action that forms the subject of this stimulating book.

Political representation of group demands, of course, entails a prior recognition of group difference and of distinctive group rights. The identity-centred “politics of recognition”, indeed, puts forth a demand for recognition and respect for oneself (and one’s community) as different. That the distinctive identity claims of the previously excluded groups need institutional representation and protection, and that it is important to make them secure in the enjoyment of their cultural rights is a key element of our constitutional consciousness. As the author discerningly observes, “The constitutional attempt to balance the demands of universalist citizenship with the special needs of communities [has taken] the form…of a recognition that, along with equal civil and political rights for all citizens, it is important to secure and guarantee the rights of religious minorities…through guarantees for the freedom of religion…as well as through providing for separate personal laws for members of minority communities…” (p 4).

Jayal is certainly mindful of the fact that “identity is subject to construction”, that state policies “have contributed to fixing and reifying some identities, [while] overwrite[ing] and dissolve[ing] others”, and that identity advocacy could be used as a strategy of political mobilisation so as to manipulate the “electoral arithmetic”. Yet, she cautions us against “adopting a purely constructivist position and so dismissing…. [identity claims] as a pure political artefact.” Simply put, she is careful not to fall into the trap of a kind of reductionism that Amartya Sen describes political recognition of community rights may lead to ethnic polarisation and communal violence. However, she is not particularly interested in the question of whether Indian democracy can accommodate ethnic fragmentation and conflict. Rather, the central argument of the book is that the task of representing a vision of India based on diversity and cultural pluralism must be approached via a concurrent recognition of both differences and disadvantages of the historically marginalised groups.

With the support of solid evidence, Jayal underlines the importance of acknowledging the overlap between “social marginalisation and material disadvantage in terms of economic levels as well as human development indicators”. In her persuasive words, “…debates on multiculturalism [have] tended to exclude from scholarly vision the mutually compounding nature of cultural with material inequality, for instance, low caste status with low economic status. This book seeks to restore to the debate on ethnic inequality the centrality of the issue of material disadvantage, to suggest that a policy or political solution couched exclusively in the language of ethnicity and cultural identity is inadequate to the task of crafting a more equal society in which all groups – regardless of ethnic origin – enjoy rights of citizenship in the fullest sense” (p xviii).

In short, as the book forcefully suggests, the promise of equality and distributive justice, in tandem with the recognition of community rights, constitutes the other crucial element of protecting, nurturing and managing India’s diversity. Such promise was “given greater content through constitutional provisions for affirmative action” for historically disadvantaged communities in public employment, educational institutions and in the central and state legislatures. Understandably, the book takes up, as its central objective, the task of critically evaluating the usefulness of guaranteed political and administrative representation as a strategy for offsetting the ill-effects of social and economic inequalities. The book distinguishes itself from other notable analyses on the subject of India’s cultural diversity and its representation in the political system, when it

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

asserts that “the politics of recognition have often tended to eclipse the politics of redistribution”.

Institutional Design

Our Constitution has devised several concrete mechanisms and institutional arrangements to guarantee the presence of underprivileged communities in various decision-making bodies so that they can speak for themselves. These include, reservation benefits for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) in educational institutions and public employment, their quota-based representation in legislative bodies, quotas for OBCs in public institutions since early 1990s. The protective institutions such as the National Commission for SCs and STs (NCSCST), the National Minorities Commission and the National Commission for Backward Classes, are formed to monitor the implementation of various social, economic, educational and political provisions provided in the Constitution for members of underprivileged groups.

The book provides a detailed account and analysis of such formal safeguards, stepping down from the level of generality to furnish crucial details that are often missing from standard discussions on reservations and quotas. For example, the author skilfully delineates the complexities and ambivalences inherent in the reservation policy for members of the SC. “The Constitution provides reservation to Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist SCs. This leaves the so-called SCs within the two biggest minority religions – Islam and Christianity – outside the purview of reservation policy”. “If a Scheduled Caste converts to Christianity or Islam, s/he is automatically deprived of that status. However, if the convert happens to be a Scheduled Tribe person, s/he continues to be eligible for the benefits of reservation, because this is based on ethnicity rather than religion” (p 30). Intriguingly, however, dalit Christians keep demanding inclusion in the list of SCs. Similarly, The All-India Muslim OBC Organisation presses for the SC status for dalit Muslims.

Whether and to what extent the constitutional and institutional safeguards translate into an effective group representation so as to achieve the empowerment of disadvantaged groups, through better policy outcomes, constitutes the analytical core of the book. It presents new and revealing primary data on the patterns and trends of representation in terms of castes, tribes and religious groups in three institutions in particular, namely, the national legislature, the union cabinet and the central bureaucracy. More elaborately, it furnishes copious details on the socio-ethnic composition of the lower house of Parliament over the last five terms. This has involved “the profiling of approximately 540 members of Parliament in each of the last four Lok Sabhas”. Since their ethnic backgrounds are not officially documented, to outline their socio-biographical sketches, the author had to rely “upon interviews with expert informants from the various states of India” – a mammoth exercise in itself. New primary data are also provided on the social background of ministers in the cabinet since 1990 and of senior officials in the 10 important ministries of the union government, drawing upon a huge sample of data between 1975 and 1995. This wealth of information forms the basis for the author to both map the representational outcomes in the major institutions of governance and assess the larger policy and political outcomes, arguably produced by these more or less representative institutions.

“Actual representational outcomes”, the author persuasively argues, “defy any presumption that institutional design, party political processes and electoral systems collectively contribute to making the institutions and structures of governance more representative” (p 114). In all the five Lok Sabhas between 1991 and 2004 (from the 10th to the 14th), there has been a clear domination of the “forwards” over the “backwards”. “…the upper castes or forward classes…continue to constitute approximately 50 per cent of the Lok Sabha, even through the high period of lower caste political mobilisation in the 1990s” (p 135). In Southern India, however, there is a clear sign of the decline of upper caste dominance, recording an average of 35 per cent of backward caste MPs in all four Lok Sabhas under study. In striking contrast, eastern India consistently registers a high percentage of forward caste MPs, much above the national average in this respect. The proportion of SCs and STs in Parliament is more or less in tune with the level of the reservation; only a handful of candidates from the SCs have been elected on general seats. Interestingly, the data show that the STs have managed to win seats in excess of their quotas in all regions of India in all the four Lok Sabhas under consideration. This is due, the author helpfully suggests, “…to the concentrated character of the ST population in the states in which they are present in larger numbers” (p 128). (STs constitute more than 20 per cent in 11 states, whereas for SCs the corresponding number of states is four).

“It is Muslim representation that continues to be abysmally low, almost stationary in the region of 5 per cent throughout the period under study, though their percentage in the population is 12.12 per cent” (p 136) – explained partly, the author claims, by the “demographic distribution of the Muslim population” (only in J and K they are a majority, and in Assam and West Bengal they have a high concentration). If their political representation is inadequate, their presence in top civil services is minimal, in the order of 2-3 per cent. Muslims, of course, do not enjoy any reservations in public employment, unlike the members of the SCs and STs. There is a strong presence of Hindus among those who make it to the authority positions in the central bureaucracy. However, SCs and STs – the so-called “lesser” Hindus

– are primarily absorbed in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy, so much so that 87 per cent of employees in the category of sweepers belong to SC groups.

An insightful finding springing out of the analysis, however, is that the Indian Parliament has witnessed a broadening of the social base. More than any other public institution, the character of the Lok Sabha has clearly changed with the entry of “nonelite groups”, attributable in turn to the emergence in the 1990s of several regional/ state-based, backward caste and dalit, political parties (e g, the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), in Uttar Pradesh, and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar), articulating the aspirations of particular “social constituencies”. Interestingly, the first-past-the-post system – the electoral system usually considered inappropriate for a culturally diverse society – “…actually encouraged and accommodated representational aspirations in a way that was responsive to, and reflected with a fair degree of accuracy, the processes of “social churning” that were at work” (p 91).

Surely, caste-based political assertion and reservation politics in general have had their own share of unsavoury fallouts such as quota clashes, conflict and polarisation along caste and communal lines, a fight for “inclusion into statist categories”, the formation of new elite groups within the traditionally subordinate groups on the one

Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007 hand, and that of new disprivileged categories such as most backward castes (MBCs) on the other, “the over-inflation of the OBC category” and so on. Yet, it is the political process that seems to have encouraged ethnic mobilisation and effected a widening of social base. It may be well to point out here that in relative terms, southern India has performed better on the scale of both representation and redistribution. And it is in this part of India that the reservation regime has been in place since long, thanks to the Justice Movement in 1915-16 in the Madras presidency, and the reservation policy of the state of Mysore in 1921. It could be the case, at least partly, that the fruits have surfaced with a time lag and that part of the inspiration for public mobilisation through regional parties has come from the new generation of benefit recipients. The current caste-based politics in the north seems to be mimicking this genre of politics, but with an important difference. In its case, the politics of redistribution is yet to happen. And one really hopes that the main political programme to capture state power that motivates the new political alliances in the contemporary north does not end up being just a pursuit of “pure politics”, at the cost of neglecting the outstanding distributional concerns.

However, representational successes in articulating ambitions of new political alliances need to be juxtaposed with the new limits to formal representation presented by the neoliberal model of development, growing in importance in the country’s policy agenda. Indeed, the connection between representation and policy outcomes may likely get entangled with the larger neo-conservative economic environment, to produce further distortions in both policy aims and actions. There are some passing references in the book to such contingencies, which deserve fuller articulation. For example, despite the official ban on the sale of tribal land, there are a number of instances of takeover of their land ostensibly for public purposes, i e, for development projects such as the construction of dams and power projects, or mineral extraction, displacing a large number of tribals. The 28th and 29th Reports of the NCSCST, the author tells us, were critical of government policy “…including the issue of displacement of tribals in the Narmada Valley and the impact of forest laws on the relationship of tribals to the forest” (p 74). Representation, therefore, may not mean much “if the public interest is drowned by corporate power”.

In the end, therefore, we face the first-order question: Which ideas do we represent?

Politics of Ideas

Anne Phillips distinguishes the politics of presence from the politics of ideas. The latter refers to ideas and values that we uphold either as distinctive social groups, for example, as men or women, dalits or brahmins, or in common irrespective of whether we are men or women. In short, ideas need not necessarily have a fixed provenance. Put differently, who is speaking need not fully determine what is being said. In the discourse on political representation, the emphasis is usually on particular collectivities speaking for themselves, precluding the possibility for them to speak for others or for everybody. Cannot the minority speak for the majority and vice versa and thus articulate preferences for a “social choice” that transcends specific group demands?

Certainly, wider representation in principle could enable disprivileged groups to articulate their own demands; but it could achieve much more. Greater representation can “draw upon richness of experience associated with diversity”, and can engage more human talents in a society, to produce arguments and ideas that shape public understanding and benefit many, if not all. For example, the social, cultural and economic practices of the tribals, and their worldview in general, are highly worth representing so as to construct a public vision of environmentally sustainable development. Similarly, if the BSP eventually seeks to represent the Sarva Jana Samaj, that could be more than just an electoral strategy for broad-basing their appeal. There could be a seed herein of a political vision to represent a broader coalition of the disadvantaged and the empathisers of the disadvantaged. Thus, representation for redistribution – a political objective that the book rightfully foregrounds – need not be the urge of the poor alone; it could be a common struggle against poverty and inequality. This is a stimulating book that encourages us to ponder over these vexing questions.



Economic and Political Weekly August 18, 2007

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