Vice President calls for accommodation of plurality of social identities

Instead of a narrow concept of a singular identity implied by the classical concept of citizenship, there is a need to recognise and accommodate the existence of a plurality of social identities, Vice President Hamid Ansari said on Friday while warning against assimilationist and homogenising tendencies in India.

Noting that in every society identities existed at the levels of the individual, the group, the regional, and the national and even the international, the Vice President said the challenge was to “accommodate these layered identities in a framework that is harmonious and optimally conducive to social purpose.”

Delivering a lecture on ‘Identity and Citizenship: an Indian Perspective’ at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Mr. Ansari said conceptually and legally, the citizenship of a modern state encapsulated the totality of rights and duties emanating from the membership of the citizen body, inclusive of the right of representation and the right to hold office under the state.

By the same logic, he said, a certain tension was built into the relationship, even if the society happened to be relatively homogenous, which was in itself a rarity in modern times. Thus, there was a need to accommodate the different identities.

Underscoring the importance of Identity as a concept, he said it captured the notion of authenticity, the demand for recognition, the idea of difference and the principle of equal dignity. A distinctive feature of Indian society was its heterogeneity with a culture that was synthetic in character.

India’s constitution-makers, he said, had to address three dimensions of the question relating to status, rights, and identity, to determine who was to be a citizen, what rights were to be bestowed on the citizen, and the manner in which the multiplicity of claimed identities was to be accommodated. “This involved addressing three aspects of the question: legal, political and psychological. The outcome was the notion of national-civic rather than national-ethnic, emphasizing that the individual was the basic unit of citizenship whose inclusion in polity was on terms of equality with every other citizen.”

At the same time and taking societal realities into account, the concept of group-differentiated citizenship was grafted to assure the minorities and other identity-based groups that the polity would be truly inclusive in its embrace. The objective of securing civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights as essential ingredients of citizenship was clearly delineated in the Indian Constitution, he said.

In a segmented society and unequal economy, he said, the quest for substantive equality and justice remained a work in progress. “Nevertheless, the slowing down of the egalitarian social revolution that was envisaged by the Constitution-makers and the implicit social contract inherent in it, does give rise to wider concerns about its implications,” he added.

Identity assertion in any society, the Vice President argued, had three sets of impulses: civic equality, liberty and opportunity. “Identity groups are a by-product of the right of freedom of association. They can be cultural, voluntary, ascriptive and religious. They are neither good nor bad in themselves but do present challenges to democratic justice.”

The functioning of democratic institutions and the deepening of the democratic process along with the efforts to implement constitutional mandates for affirmative action induced higher levels of political mobilisation. These manifested themselves, most visibly, in demand groups each with its own identity. A multiplication of identities seeking social status and economic well-being through the route of politics thus emerged as a logical consequence.

Political actors were thus induced to develop narrower foci on their electoral management methodologies. “These have been reinforced by the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the ability of a high percentage of candidates to win on a plurality rather than the majority of votes cast in an election,” he observed.

According to Mr. Ansari, the question of minority rights as a marker of identity, and their accommodation within the ambit of citizenship rights, remains a live one. “It is not so much on the principle of minority rights, which is unambiguously recognised in the Constitution, as to the extent of their realisation in actual practice.”

Impulses tilting towards ‘assimilationist’ and homogenising approaches do exist, suggestive of imagined otherness and seeking uniformity at the expense of diversity, he warned. There was thus the persisting need of reinforcing and improving present practices and the principles underlying them, Mr. Ansari said in conclusion.

Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, warned against the perversion of identity politics that caused divisions among people, and underscored the fact that each individual had multiple identities.