Politics of Identity : Kaleidoscope of Subterfuge (Part – I)

21st January, Monday, will see a silent march taken out in Pune by Christian leaders belonging to different denominations to condemn the attacks on Christian institutions & community in Orissa & Gujrat. The organizers say that 14 churches, 4 convents, 3 homes for priests & eight hostels were fully or partially burnt in Baliguda sub division of Kandhamal district of Orissa. NDTV had covered this story in its coverage of 26th December 2007, which they described as ‘Black Christmas’ in this tribal dominated district. The report portrays the scene as a clash between Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) & Christian organizations. The words ‘VHP’ & ‘Tribal’ put together are enough for the imagination of most of us to run amok in etching & preserving long cherished stereotypes. ‘Liberals’ will view it as an attack by reactionary Hindutva forces on peaceful missionaries engaged in community service among depressed & neglected people, may be side by side engaged in proselytizing amidst willing audience. ‘Nationalists’ would see it as a Christian conspiracy to convert ignorant & gullible people wholesale with alluring but false inducements to finish the core faith & culture of the country. Both ‘Liberals’ (or “pseudo secularists”) and ‘Nationalists’ (or “communalists”) would draw much satisfaction that the report endorses their entrenched positions & would then gloat over the fact to their respective constituencies – “I told you so….”.

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(Orissa State. Kandhamal District in green)

NDTV report only mentions in passing the word “Kui”, whereas “Pana” is conspicuous by its absence. What do these words stand for & what is their import in the context of reported clashes. District Kandhamal gets its name from Kui (or “Kandh” in Oriya) tribal who live there, & Kui organizations claim they are the original inhabitants of the place. According to tribal legend, Pana community migrated to Kandhamal from Ghumusar area when the king there punished them for criminal activity. Pana is a dalit community that is economically less deprived than Kui tribal. Tension arose between the two in September 2007 when an NGO – Phulbani Kui Jankalyan Sangh (PKJS) – filed a petition in Orissa High court demanding that Pana community be officially considered as Kui since they follow same Kui language, rituals & culture. Kui leaders assert that the NGO PKJS is an organization of Pana community using Kui in its name as a stratagem.

Why Pana want to be identified as Kui? There in lies the whole rub of “Competitive entitlements’. Kui are classified as Scheduled Tribe (ST) with attendant legal benefits of reservations in education, jobs & of other entitlements. The secretary of the coordination committee of three Kui organizations of the district, Lambodar Kanhar, claims that Orissa Minister Padmanabh Behera is behind PKJS’s ploy to have Pana classified as Kui tribal. Kui see it as a grave threat because they fear better off Pana may corner all the benefits rightfully due to them as scheduled tribe. Through October 2007 Kui have been organizing and agitating against this move of Pana community and even met Chief Minster Navin Patnaik, who assured them that “no-tribal” will be classified as tribal.

Clearly this is a “Resource clash” between two depressed communities where one side has the advantage of constitutional entitlements that the other covets. Almost identical situation has emerged in Rajasthan, where Gurjjars are demanding ST status on par with Meena, who have industriously utilized this advantage Constitution had offered them. It was a high visibility agitation because of its proximity to Delhi & their effective blockade of arterial NH8 connecting Mumbai to Delhi. Mostly the clashes between depressed sections (or for that matter even well heeled) of society are over deprivation & access to resources – natural & manmade. Resolution of such basic economic & resource sharing issues is not possible through artifice or sloganeering. Moreover, these issues expose starkly the failure of the state in ensuring growth & development with distributive justice. Political class has no recourse to quick fix remedies here. Ever since well meaning reservations for socially deprived classes were incorporated by makers in our constitution as a purely short term – 20 years to be precise – & fast track measure, self serving politicians have turned it into an expedient ploy to metamorphose core issues into more emotive & thus far less problematic for them & easily manageable contradictions. Economic issues are reengineered into politics of identity.

Through out September to November 2007, one does not find any mention of religion in the context of Kui- Pana clash. It was then described as communal tension or clashes. Only in December was it turned into a religious clash when political class fathomed that Kui are Hindus & Pana are Christians. Hindu, secular & Christian organizations jumped into the fray soon after to build their constituencies & to bank the votes for electoral battle ahead. Similar purchase could not be obtained in BJP ruled Rajasthan, where both Gurjjars & Meena come from the Hindu fold. Had it been otherwise, eager contenders would have rushed in to make a kill. When a conflict over resources is redefined into say a conflict in terms of

  1. Caste,
  2. Tribe,
  3. Language,
  4. Autochthon,
  5. Religion, etc.,

then obtrusive identities can be & are deliberately brushed & brought to the fore and mundane battles get imbued with highly heady & charged contents. Added headache is that media too has become a willing participant in this ‘great game’ rather than doing its job of investigating & reporting facts.

Original focus is lost. Real issues are buried deep down. Identity claims center stage. Politics carries the day. People loose out.

Note : One question may nag alert readers. If Pana are dalits, then why do they hanker after ST status when Schedule Caste (SC) benefits will be rightfully theirs? Have they lost their constitutional entitlement since conversion to Christianity? I do not know. But, if true, I wonder what the justification for it is. After all reservations hold out possibility of economic upgradation, while they do nothing for social upgradation. If some community considers worth its while to abandon a religion, which has branded it inferior, and thereby feels it can upgrade itself socially, then so be it. Why should it therefore loose its right to upgrade economically. Any answers?

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