Identity and Identification in India: Defining the Disadvantaged

Identity and Identification in India: Defining the Disadvantaged

Identity and Identification in India: Defining the Disadvantaged

Identity and Identification in India: Defining the Disadvantaged


Bridging theories, which emphasize the fluidity of identities and those which highlight the utility of group-based mobilizations and policies, this book exposes didactic enforcement of categorizations, while recognizing the social and political gains facilitated by group-based strategies.


Where am I to be classified? Or, if you prefer, tucked away?

(Frantz Fanon from Black Skin, White Masks 1967:113)

I had two surprises in store for me on 27 November 1996, as I stopped in central New Delhi to attend a political rally. The first was the unexpected opportunity to hear hundreds of men, women and children joining in a heartfelt rendition of "We Shall Overcome," sung in Hindi. The second, even more puzzling, was the protesters' demand to be classified as a low caste group, despite the fact that none among them was Hindu. Why would a group of people protest for a low caste status? A female student, while jotting the song lyrics into my notebook, told me that the song, familiar to me as an anthem of the United States civil rights movement, was also associated with rights activism in India. This rally over the "right" to be recognized as a low caste can tell us much about state classifications and group identities.

Many current battles over rights and recognition are disputes over the state's identification of groups in society. Reservation policies in India are a system of quotas for disadvantaged groups in government employment, higher education and legislative bodies. Like affirmative action policies in other countries, reservations aim to increase opportunities for under-represented groups. Such policies are targeted at particular groups identified by the government, but the official classifications used often fail to reflect the complex interactions of caste, race, class, religion, gender and other aspects of social identity. The protesters I saw were Christians who wanted the government to recognize that caste discrimination persists in their religious community and to include them in the lower caste category eligible for reservations. Other groups I studied argued for reservations on the basis of religion, gender or class.

Can a state empower its citizens by classifying them? Reservations are based on the premise that recognizing group distinctions in society is necessary to subvert those distinctions. At the same time, the official identification of citizens, on the basis of caste, for example, has unintended

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