Identity Politics, Globalisation, and Social Conflict: Social Discourses and Cultural Texts

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Identity Politics, Globalisation, and Social Conflict: Social Discourses and Cultural Texts

(Delhi Workshop: March 26-28, 2002)
Held at

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

Teen Murti House

New Delhi - 110011

This three-day workshop forms part of an international project on that theme, and focuses particularly on the Indian context. Similar workshops would be organized in Lagos, Nigeria and London, U.K. in the coming two years, and in each of these scholars from the country where the workshop is scheduled as well as from outside that country would be invited to participate. It is expected that the contributions and discussions in each workshop would lead to the publication of an edited volume. The project as a whole is being supported by the British Academy and the Open University U.K. The workshop in Delhi is sponsored by The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Scope of the workshop:
Identity politics could be examined in terms of religious community, caste, gender, regional and/or linguistic groups, and economic class. The intersection of these is of particular interest in this project. Contributions may cover both the historical background of these identity divides (primarily post-independence), and more importantly the manifestation of these in a post-eighties context.

The analysis of the phenomenon of globalisation could include the following: market liberalization in the post-eighties and consequent international economic and political exchanges and transmissions (conducted with other political states, through the corporate sector, with international political and economic alignments and regulatory bodies); participating in and contributing to media and information technologies which have a global scope; cultural imports and the development of features which are culturally consonant with the so-called developed world following from the above (a process of westernization?).

To examine the manner in which the issues of identity politics and globalisation may intersect the following questions may be considered:
(1) How does a particular identity-based political formation that hopes to play a significant role in national politics negotiate with the forces of globalisation? To what extent does identity politics tend to be exclusive in its agenda, and to what extent does it compromise with international economic and political expediencies?
(2) To what extent does the so-called phenomenon of globalisation contribute to the exacerbation of divisive identity politics? For example, is it possible that the increase of manifest outside commodities and influences encourages a reactive regrouping of local and traditional interest groups? In other words, does globalisation by its own dynamic paradoxically encourage identity politics of different sorts? In addition, does the capitalist initiative of globalisation deliberately play up to local and traditional alignments in a bid to serve its own interests?
(3) How do identity-based political alignments use or hope to use the technologies and facilities associated with globalisation? For example, by what means do different identity-based political alignments give themselves a persuasive or acceptable face to outside groups, both locally and internationally?
(4) What sorts of groups are marginalized within and excluded from the phenomenon of globalisation, how do they respond to such marginalization, and is there any pattern underlying such exclusions?
The kinds of social conflict that may be relevant in this context are those between:
(1) Different identity-based political alignments (dominant and marginal) which may have existed traditionally, but which are increasingly exposed to international media attention and the influences of a global economic environment
(2) Local and global forces, for example, between small-scale/village industries, national corporations, and multinational corporations.
As far as this project is concerned the point is not to explore questions and issues such as those above in terms of economic and sociological models, methods, or empirical studies, but with a particular attention to 'cultural texts and social discourses.' This means that all contributions should: (a) focus arguments in terms of such pertinent empirical research or evidence as specific kinds of texts (literary, performative, audio-visual, propagandist, advertising, journalistic etc), or specific kinds of socio-linguistic practice (imported lexis and evolving jargons, hybrid language usage, 'text-messaging' syntax and condensations, official/specialist/utility-oriented discourses etc), that may be regarded as being revealing of a prevailing cultural ethos; and (b) provide a broad-based survey of and draw theoretical observations from existing research of the above description.

Contributions by researchers from abroad could provide theoretical reflections based on observations from outside contexts that may be pertinent to India, or could attempt a straightforward comparative study of some issue (as above) that is relevant to both India and the outside context in question, and respond to the above contributions from their particular research backgrounds and experiences.

Abstracts of contributions:

The following are the abstracts of the presentations made in the Delhi Workshop. The discussions following these have been recorded. The full presentations and selections from the discussions would be published by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and would appear in December 2002.


Information Technology Provision and Development in Indian Academic Institutions
Suman Gupta

Literature Department

The Open University U.K.
Since this project draws largely upon academic resources, there are necessarily some academic presumptions that have gone into its planning and initiation. In this context therefore a discussion of the prerogatives and limitations of academic enterprise as situated now is apt. The speaker attempts to do this by focusing on a specific issue that has generated debate amongst those who are concerned with academic work in some capacity: information technology provision and development for research, higher education, and intellectual exchange. Observations in this area are confined primarily to the Indian context and to the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. The manner in which the institutional space of academic activity is negotiated between academic institutions, the political state and the private sector with regard to information technology provision is pondered; and the implications of this for academic activity in the long-term is considered. The government’s higher education policy, the prevailing expectations of information technology development, and the conceptual nuances of academic institutional autonomy (or lack thereof) are also examined. The scope of this topic is obviously large: observations here do not attempt to embrace a comprehensive view of the matter, but to raise pertinent questions.


Economic globalisation, cultural identity and social conflict
Jayati Ghosh

Centre for Economic Studies and Planning

Jawaharlal Nehru Museum
This paper considers some of the processes of global economic integration, in terms of their effects not only on material conditions, but also on social, political and cultural processes. To begin with, some of the more significant features of economic globalisation over the past decade are identified. These include the direct processes themselves, such as the lowering of various barriers on cross border movements of goods, services and capital; the emergence of a relatively new and slightly different architecture for the international financial and trading system; and the technological changes which have dramatically reduced the time and increased the spread of communications. They also include some of the effects of these processes, in terms of greater income and asset inequality both spatially and within regions and countries, the lower rates of employment generation despite greater economic dynamism, and so on. The fact that the relative exclusion of a great majority of countries and the majority of the world’ population from many of the apparent benefits of higher growth and other changes is not because they have been marginalised from the process but rather been integrated at disadvantageous terms, is highlighted.

With this background, the paper seeks to identify some of the proximate economic causes of the greater evidence of emphasis on particularistic identities across the world. The counteraction of dynamic but economically centralising and inequalising forces, with those of local reaction is considered. In particular, there is an attempt to consider systematically the nature of various responses, not merely those which are clearly revanchist and backward looking, but also those which seek to posit genuinely democratic alternatives in terms of economy as well as polity and society.


Developmentalism, Equivalence and Individuation

School of Social Sciences

M.G. University, Kerala
Historical context: Discourse on development became a public affair in Kerala at the turn of nineteenth century, especially in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. The central point of the discourse was wealth-centred progress which was to be spurred by the ‘hands of the industrious’. Amassing of wealth began to be conceived as the means to salvation and equality. This consciousnesses and belief in the efficacy of wealth/economy-centred progress is still ruling the identification of self-hood in the State. Individual identity is judged in terms of the capacity of the individual in creating value or managing to create wealth. Such a belief in the wealth-centred truth regime entered into the region under the condition of paramouncy of the British colonial power. The enlightenment rationality was imported along with the export of commodities from the Native States. Salvation and freedom got identified with economic well being of the producing subjects or homo-economicus. Economic independence became synonymous with individual freedom and self-identity. Such identification began to spread since the arrival of the Portuguese monopoly mercantilism, but it got internalised since the Ecumenical/British presence in India.

The paper concentrates on the normalisation/internalisation of the notion of ‘development’ and growth.

The arguments:

1. Development as an end in itself has been internalised to the extent that people have become the bearers and objects of developmental project. (Since the turn of the nineteenth century)

2. Individuation has taken place in such a way that individual identity and subjectivity began to be experienced in terms of labour and consumption (two necessities imposed on the human beings).

3. With the coming of high modernity (roughly since mid twentieth century) Keralites have began to say farewell to labour.

4. Self-conception of individuality has been overwhelmed by the metaphysical and value loaded notion of equivalence in consumption.

5. Along with the ‘social development’ of the Kerala State, individuated subjects of developmentalism lost the feeling of the field of the social; to the people/individuals of Kerala there are only individuated obsessions and social relations are perceived only in terms of what they can bring for the improvement of their individual consumption. (Post-seventies phenomena)

6. The new-social movements that capacitate the agents/subjects say farewell to labour and succumb to maximise consumption. (post-eighties)
The conceptual grid: Concepts/figures of speech from contemporary social theory and poststructuralism are drawn to embellish the arguments.


Lethal Documents: An Anatomy of the Bhopal Crisis
Suroopa Mukherjee

Hindu College

University of Delhi
On 3rd December 1984 in the city of Bhopal, a devastating gas leak from the pesticide plant Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), an Indian subsidiary of the American Multinational, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) left an unspecified number of people dead and injured. The deadly gas, methyl-isocyanate or MIC, commonly used to manufacture the agricultural pesticides, Sevin and Temik (one of its components went into making the infamous war gas used in Nazi camps) travelled over a distance of 15 km radius through one of the most thickly populated slum areas in Bhopal. Even as it dissipated near the lake area, beyond which lies the residential colonies of government officials and ministers, the effect of the gas was felt by over five lakh citizens, which is two third the total population of Bhopal. Fifteen years later victims continue to languish with permanent damage to lungs, eyes and brains; women still give birth to children with congenital deformity and cases of cancer are reported. Bhopal can never quite be declared a safe city.

Needless to say a disaster of such proportion attracted a great deal of media attention. Both popular magazines, serious and academic journals wrote extensively about the event (a full length Bollywood film has been made on the subject and more recently Dominic La Peirre has written a best seller that is making waves in France) drawing attention to the degree of human suffering and the various ramifications of an industrial disaster and its impact on the environment. Yet, interestingly enough when the Bhopal tragedy came up for hearing in the Supreme Court one of the charges brought against the Plaintiff, in this case the Union of India, was that there was insufficient documentation to support the case for the victims’ getting compensation. In a fascinating fall out the Indian Union pleaded inability to press substantial charges of liability based on facts and figures against a Multinational, and therefore agreed to an out of court settlement for a pitiable sum paid as one time compensation. As a result the guilty could not be booked as guilty.

This paper looks at the nature of the medico – legal documentation that goes into Disaster Management, a vital aspect of industrial crisis. This brings into focus interesting aspects of how social discourses construct a ‘victim’, in this case belonging to a particular economic class - and since many of the effected areas were predominantly Muslim areas - from a minority community. Women were effected in large numbers so the classifications show glaring instances of gender bias. These discourses are steeped in popular government jargon about economic policy and globalization and particularly the need to tread softly on the toes of multinationals. It gives us a telling insight into the political platform from which the party then in power spoke and why a change, in both the central and state government, brought little respite to the victims. The two key terms that are examined are “compensation” and “liability”, terms that dictated the nature of the conflict and left the victim doubly victimized. In the, final analysis, it was the written word (original papers taken from medical files brought by government agencies and the legal documents used in court are analysed) that proved more lethal than the gas itself.


Fractured Polity, Ethnic Identity: The North East of India
Sanjoy Hazarika

Centre for North-Eastern Studies and Policy Research

The battle for Kohima, fought on the tennis courts of the Deputy Commissioner, between the Allied Forces and the Japanese Imperial Army was a turning point in the history of the Asian theatre of the Second World War. But it signalled more than a British victory and a Japanese defeat; it brought the power and interest of the world sweeping into the isolated North East of India.

That was one of the first exposures to the world for this land-locked region, but not the first. The North East opened up to the British colonial interests at the beginning of the 19th century. Tea was the crop that attracted young Britons to this backward province. Many made their fortunes here. The Singphyo chief who showed the tea leaf to the British botanist and adventurer who trekked to his village is virtually forgotten. But he opened the gates of globalisation to the region as British companies exploited the resources of the area, shipped in tens of thousands of laborers from central India under appalling conditions (many of them died of diarrhea) and set up establishments which would keep them and future generations relatively prosperous.

These days, controversy surrounds the tea industry in Assam. It is seen as one of the sectors that has contributed to the overall growth of the region but also as an industry that has refined the art of “protection money” by placating insurgent groups with large payments. In the process, this pan-Indian commercial complex has continued to the growth of identity politics and conflict.

Thus, the tea garden workers, who are a mix of Central Indian tribes such as the Santhals and Oraons, are an important part of the electoral politics of the state of Assam. They are traditionally seen as voters for the centrist Congress Party but their management have, since the 1980s, been forced to support movements which are anti-India and outright secessionist, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The relationships between ULFA, the NDFB and other ethnic insurgencies are a set of dynamic factors which shed light on the fractured polity of the region and the importance of ethnicity and land as critical to identity formation. The ULFA, for example, as well as the NDFB have strong connections to the Naga insurgent groups. Their main supporter among the Nagas is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang group); but this group has recently (last May) signed a ceasefire with the Government of India where it had agreed to abjure connections with other militant factions.

The Khaplang group is dominated by members of the Konyak tribe; its principal foe is the formidable NSCN (Issak-Muivah), which is better armed and more powerful but is supported by members of the Tangkhul tribe, which is located in Manipur, not in the state of Nagaland. The Khaplang faction comprises largely of the Konyaks, the most populous but also among the poorest of the Naga tribes. Khaplang who wants a settlement of the Naga campaign from independence is a Naga from Myanmar! The I-M faction has signed a peace accord with India in 1997 and has managed to get its extension to other parts of the North East, an issue that has been greeted with outrage among non-Nagas and applause by the Nagas.

Thus, ethnic identities and oral histories have mattered more than facts and figures and span international borders with ease.

Land too is at the core of one issue which threatens to plunge the North East afresh into turmoil, just after ceasefire accords were signed with the most powerful of the insurgent groups. The Meiteis, or people of the Manipur Valley, angered by what they considered as a Indian Government sellout to Naga demands -- the reference here is to the June 14, 2001 ceasefire between New Delhi and the NSCN (I-M) -- which extended the ceasefire to one without “territorial limits.”

The Meiteis fear this will result in the end of their ancient kingdom, which was absorbed into India in 1949, and that their state will lose its boundaries.

As a result, peace with one ethnic group has led to resistance to this very peace from other ethnic groups. The global economic environment could not be further away. Few are even aware of the proposed Trans Asian Highway that could transform the region and the impression that is gaining ground is that, unless attitudes and policies at the ground level change, the North East and its squabbling identities would remain on the sidelines of the Highway, applauding the cars speeding by without driving those vehicles themselves.


Diamonds and Rust: Negotiating Gender Identities in Diasporic Indian Cinema
Brinda Bose

Hindu College

University of Delhi
In this paper, I explore the role of memory/nostalgia in the construction of diasporic Indian identity in the age of globalisation, using film texts. According to Stuart Hall, ‘the diaspora experience… is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of “identity” which lives with and through, and not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference… It is because this New World is constituted for us as place, a narrative of displacement, that it gives rise so profoundly to a certain imaginary plenitude, recreating the endless desire to return to “lost origins”… And yet, this “return to the beginning” is like the imaginary in Lacan – it can neither be fulfilled nor requited, and hence is the beginning of the symbolic, of representation, the infinitely renewable source of desire, memory, myth, search, discovery – in short, the reservoir of our cinematic narratives.’1 Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, (ed) Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 235-6.

1 Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, (ed) Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 235-6.

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