The Conundrum of Identity

From “Identity Politics in Jammu & Kashmir,” ed., Rekha Chowdhary, Vitasta Pub., Delhi,2010;

pUchtE haen voh ke “GaLib kaoN hae”?
kOI batLAO ke ham batLAen kya.

“Ghalib, what are you just who?”
They ask of me today;
Pray help and tell me, after all,
Whatever shall I say. (1)

From “Identity Politics in Jammu & Kashmir,” ed., Rekha Chowdhary, Vitasta Pub., Delhi,2010;

pUchtE haen voh ke “GaLib kaoN hae”?
kOI batLAO ke ham batLAen kya.

“Ghalib, what are you just who?”
They ask of me today;
Pray help and tell me, after all,
Whatever shall I say. (1)

What better than that bewildered poser from the poet to suggest something of the intractable, if not altogether inscrutable, nature of human identities. As the most intrepid researchers have often found, even among communities that seem readily amenable to homogenized formulation, the smallest hamlet can offer befuddling challenges to the systematizing project.

To the extent (often a very large extent indeed), nonetheless, that the accretion and distribution of social, and all concomitant, forms of power impinge on competing claims or authorized definitions of individual and group identity—in any variety of State and polity, one might add—perspectives and procedures available at any given point of time must continue to receive informed scrutiny. Not that ‘informed scrutiny’ can ever remain above and beyond historical controversy and contestation, being embedded, like all other constructs, in the concrete interests of plurality. More than some ready-at-hand instrumentality, ‘informed scrutiny’ may functionally be understood as that high point of objectivity which the larger enterprise of humanist advance makes accessible to the honestly hard-working subject. Nor may such scrutiny always expect to enjoy long life, since the Hiesenberg principle operates as much within the dynamics of human push and shove as in our study of particles.

There seem broadly two contrasting discourses that tend to be employed in reflections upon identity—an essentialist (in the Hegelian sense of the term) and an existentialist one. Having said that, I may at once stipulate that these, as well as other, approaches to a cognition of identity make sense only in relation to the particular social order within which individuals and communities strive for meanings. Let it also be said that, before we know, the essentialist can congeal into the existentialist, and the existentialist find avenues of mobility that hadn’t been contemplated.

Be that as it may, let me stay for a moment with the stipulation about particular social orders. It seems plausible to generalise that individuals and groups tend to be minimally self-conscious about identity within social orders that are by and large open and dynamic, and wherein the institutions of State and Society have learnt to internalize a culture of humanist and lawful equity. It is when that culture begins to become suspect that identities acquire an urgency of assertion which, yet again, can be pressed either to subvert the social contract or enrich it beyond its staid wisdoms.

If I may quickly amplify: those sections of the polity in India who today vociferously resist and decry affirmative action programmes miss the point that the need to address group identities arises precisely because the grounding principles of republicanism over which they have presided for decades have suffered breaches which they have failed to attend to in consonance with the claims of humanism and equity. Those at the receiving end of those breaches clearly can meet that failure in one of two ways—a direct armed challenge to the State whose legitimating bases have been compromised, or through mass actions along a diversity of axes. Inevitably, in a situation wherein class identities remain enfeebled and vitiated, such mass actions cannot but take recourse to alternate forms of social cohesion. And, where a debilitated State will seek to draw sectarian opportunity from such cohesions, a more enlightened one may well incorporate them in creative ways to enrich the participatory skein of democracy.

In the meanwhile, privileged sections whose concrete interests enjoin resistance to amplifications of the democratic ideal deploy strategies, besides a straightforward use of State Apparatus, which contradict the history of their own becoming. Consider that many students and teachers of history among the anti-reservationists approve of the critique that Edward Said offers of ‘orientalist’ stereo-typing of identities engaged in by erstwhile western colonial metropolitans inorder to prepare the ideololgical grounds for the colonizing enterprise. Having once fixed the Arabs and the Asiatics into existential identities (lustful, irrational, violent, wily), the ‘civilizing mission’ could be sold as a benediction. Remember that Churchill thought Indians (mainly Brahmins at the time, since the lower varnas were hardly in any reckoning then) incapable of self-rule..(2)

Yet, how trenchant the irony that the progeny of those metropolitan Indians who then contested the Churchillian thesis find it uncritically convenient today to replicate the ‘orientalist’ argument as they seek to construct some two-thirds of the polity into ‘non-meritorious’ segments who may not be trusted to deliver in institutions of higher proficiency. Out on the streets, broom in hand they claim to refuse casteist identity by first making an ugly show of their own casteist subjectivities. As suggested at the outset, how else can these identity contests be understood except within the ongoing formation of power-relations? If I may venture in passing: in foregrounding the type of the ‘argumentative indian’ as exemplifying long traditions of democratic culture in pre-colonial India, Amaratya Sen may, in fact, be somewhat guilty of a similar ‘orientalist’ overreach. The ‘argumentative Indian’ of yesteryears, after all, was, for the most part, male of the species and upper caste to boot. It must remain a question whether his democratic/dissenting predilections ever stretched to interrogating the confinement of those predilections to an elite that seemed always reluctant to extend the principles of concrete emancipation and equality to the majority of Indians. (3)


It is demonstrably the case that group identities even at their most cohesive consolidation are never monoliths of opinion or preference, but always riven with internal debate and dissent. Beleaguered as they might be much of the time, Indian muslims never express their electoral choice en masse, nor do Kashmiri muslims have just a single perspective either on the future of the valley or of its relation with India and Pakistan. Driven to existential despair, not all diasporic Pandits favour a sequestered ‘homeland.’ Nor do all Yadav’s ever vote just for Lalu Prasad, or Dalits for Mayawati. Furthermore, the self-perceptions of groups that in existential moments close around uni-dimensional identities suffer as much diachronic ravage, either in anticipation of or in response to the shifting contexts of the totality within which they live out their destinies, as much as any single historical subject.

And, as Amaratya Sen has, less controversially this time, recently underlined, individual subjects are always a conglomerate of identities—facets which are either subdued or foregrounded in diverse contexts of inter-subjective or collective transaction. It is the project of authoritarian politics to reduce the multiple features of identity to one single feature, chiefly either a religious reference or a nationalist one. (4)


Let me without apology illustrate this by alluding to what I understand of my own subjectivity. Composed as it is of discrete involvements/commitments, either in success or failure (teacher of English, literary critic, freelance journalist, lover of Urdu and translator of Ghalib, political Leftist, social activist, erstwhile Ranji Trophy cricketer and corporate executive, accomplished bathroom singer, animal lover, metropolitan citizen but in kurta and pajama, increasingly more comfortable in spoken Hindustani than urbane English,) let me skirt all these and examine that one other feature that at the present time seems more of interest to the project of this book than any other, namely, religious affiliation.

Am I conscious of consequences that flow from having been born into a Hindu household? Yes I am. But having said that, I am also deeply aware that I internalize a Kashmiri Hinduism which is as often revolted by Gangetic forms and practices of the faith as by the most brainless Christian Evangelism or Wahabi political Islam, feeling far closer to a composite Kashmiri spiritualism than to anything else. Have I lived with an awareness that I am a ‘minority’ subject in relation to the valley? The answer ought to be an emphatic ‘yes’ especially during the present times. But it is not. As I examine my upbringing with every objectivity at my command, I am unable to refuse to myself the truth that even through these years of ostensibly religious travail it is in the valley that I feel at ‘home’ rather than either in heartland India or in a preponderantly Hindu majority Jammu province.

Crucially, this abiding sense of ‘home’ does not derive merely from my Kashmiri linguistic identity or from accreted food habits, although these remain of defining importance. What I wish to emphasise is that it has equally to do with far greater comfort levels with forms of lived culture and of worship shared with Kashmiri Muslims than with any other cultural formations available to me in India. Despite, therefore, my Hindu birth, these are features that set me apart not just from mainland Hindu assertions but also from those Kashmiri Pandits whose newer reconstructions of local history have increasingly taken on exclusivist emphases, and just as equally from those Kashmiri Muslims whose political need meets those reconstructions from matching extremes. And even as I am able to see that these complementing extremes—which I can sanguinely denote falsifications, although falsifications not without cause or consequence—are as much responses to a short history of conflict as an insistence on other forms of identity in the heartland, I can already decry a renewed urgency on behalf of many Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims to recuperate what that short history has put under cloud. (5)
And, simultaneously, much more than many Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, other facets of my diachronised subjectivity involve me in sub-continental and international concerns along diverse axes of interest—interests that help me operate outside the valley without suffering terminal angst about my identity, or the identity of the community into which I happen to be born. And, as to the history of Kashmiris—Pandits included—I derive significations at my points of choosing, points that seem to me redolent with ideals of community and humanism that I endorse everywhere as being consistent with the best reason within a world of relative options.


Look where you will, and the dialectic of identity formation reveals itself
inseparable from concrete material interests as those interests suffer mutation through the exigencies of changing histories. One recalls that in the middle twenties of the last century, circumstances caused a sentient Kashmiri Pandit leadership to give the call ‘Kashmir for Kashmiris.’ Put simply, this bold enunciation was a response to the induction by the then Maharaja of a Punjabi ethnic bureaucracy into the State, directly undermining the specific space that Pandits occupied. The interesting inference to be drawn here is that Pandit interests were then foregrounded as Kashmiri interests, and that a nascent Kashmiri muslim leadership did not feel impelled to contradict that formulation with any animus. Not until several decades after Independence when a sizeable educated muslim middle class emerged as a result of the phenomenal spread of college education among Muslims were those kinds of tensions to become visible—and with the same sort of justification that informs the current consensus about the need for reservations.

Yet, events thereafter—especially since the 1980s—have conspired to displace ethnic awareness among Pandits into an aggressive communal one. Mention ‘Kashmiriyat’ to a refugee Pandit today and you incur a verbal assault. All the while, paradoxically, the experience and preference of some 8000 or so Pandits who have never left the valley remain disjuncted from the social and political reformulations of those in the ‘diaspora.’ Indeed, during my visit to the valley in 2003, the Secretary of the Kashmiri Pandit Association there (a young person called Mr.Kaul) confided to me, among other things, the sad truth that if ever they now travel outside the valley they seek to skirt Jammu inorder to escape the opprobrium that they are traitors to the cause. Understandably, their continued presence in the valley belies the two principle contentions of communalized vanguards outside the valley—that Pandits are unsafe in the valley, more so than Muslims, and that they require a discrete ‘homeland.’(6) In the meanwhile, one of the ways in which the accusers keep memories of ‘home’ alive in the ‘diaspora’ is, ironically, not just by aggressively sharing mainland Hindu practices in Delhi and elsewhere, but by constructing replicas of Hari Parbat, Kheer Bhawani and such other (in Faridabad, for instance). Thus Hindu yes, but still Kashmiri Hindu!

The trajectory that has defined the reconstitution of Pandit attitudes to the totality, Kashmir, and one might add, India, finds inevitable parallels—with, nonetheless, very material differences—in the cogitations and praxis among Kashmiri Muslims.

On his return from Aligarh University in 1930, Sheikh Abdullah established the Muslim Conference in 1932, in the wake of the brutal police action of July,1931. Given the history of the Kashmiri Muslims during a century-long Dogra rule, Abdullah had perhaps greater justification at that stage to view it as essentially anti-Muslim than the Pandits had in the mid-twenties when they opposed the Maharajas’ induction of Punjabi bureaucracy.

And, yet, within just seven years, he came to reconstitute the Muslim Conference into the National Conference. When on 10th May, 1944, Jinnah stipulated in his speech at Pratap Park
Muslims have one platform, one Kalma and one God. . .
I am a Muslim and all my sympathies are for the Muslim cause
Abdullah’s retort was sharp and certain; he decalred:

The ills of this land can only be remedied by carrying
Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs together.(7)

It needs to be recalled that when Abdullah launched the Quit Kashmir
in 1946 (after the Maharajas’ refusal to grant him audience), he
condemned Dogra rule ‘as an alien rule comparable to that of the Sikhs,
Pathans and the Mughals.’(8)

Peeved (again in 1944) by Jinnah’s characterization of the National
Conference as a ‘band of gangsters,’ Abdullah, on June 20, lashed out:
‘If Jinnah does not give up the habit of interfering in our politics, it will
be difficult for him to go back in an honourable manner.’ Then on June
24, he, in a written statement, made the following momentous reflection
on the change over time in the self-perception of the movement (its
identity) that he was now leading:

As for the National Conference we certainly owe no
apologies to Mr.Jinnah for our existence. Starting the
Muslim Conference as a sectional organization in 1932,
we passed on to a higher stage of political evolution in
1939.Thus we passed Mr.Jinnah’s milestone of today
over five years ago. (9)

The subsequent history between Abdullah’s arrest in 1953 and now is
too well known to need belabouring. What should interest us is that
as Kashmiri Muslim ‘evolution’ from a sectional force to the National
Conference had defined an identity shift as a historic response to
contending options then, the subsequent travails of identity and poli-
tical choice (s) have no less been impelled by sub-continental realities.

For a year or two (1989-1991) it might have seemed that these options were all going one way; yet within a decade most Muslim leaderships and bulk of the mass opinion within the valley seem to have already rejected what they might have willingly or unwillingly embraced then. Who, then, in our day, may be said to represent the ‘real’ Kashmiri Muslim—the espouser of jehad aiming to amalgamate the valley with Pakistan, the ‘nationalist’ seeking to cement union with India, or the protagonist of internal autonomy? And who may be regarded the authentic representer of what is ‘real.’? Nor is this spectrum among Kashmiri Pandits any the less varied: who represents their identity best—the ‘homeland’ espouser, the autonomy endorser, the Pandits who never left the valley,or the new generation that has been born outside the valley, and for whom ‘home’ is merely a narrated inheritance? Were there not Pandits as well who fervently argued for Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan (Prem Nath Bajaj readily comes to mind).

And then, what of the quality of identification (or lack of) between Muslims in the valley and in the rest of India? Is it not food for great thought that whether it was Bhagalpur in the eightees or Gujarat in 2002, these events should have seemed distant and epiphenomenal in Kashmir? And that, paradoxically if you will, Kashmiri Muslims agonise even now in far more felt ways about their Pandit brethren than they do about the bulk of co-religionists in the mainland. Or think of the routine woes of Indian Muslim women as you ponder the following stipulation in the New Kashmir Constitution of 1944, stipulations that, having been largely implemented, can alone explain the educated modernity and wide professional accomplishments of Kashmiri Muslim women in the towns in contrast to the fate of the preponderant majority of Muslim women in India’s major moffusils or big city ghettos:

Women citizens shall be accorded equal rights with men in
all fields of national life: economic, cultural, political, and
in the state services. These rights shall be realized by
affording women the right to work in every employment
upon equal terms and for equal wages with men. Women
shall be ensured, rest, social insurance and educational
equality with men. The law shall give special protection to
the interests of mother and child. (Clause 12)

Enough, you might say, to spoil the day for any Deobandi or even a Barelvi, not to speak of the Wahabi. And, then again, if Kashmiri Muslim women today are also found earning their widowed bread from prostitution, or making money courtesy upmarket sex rackets, all that cannot but cause serious obstacles to the project of a Dukhtaran -e –Milat leadership that seeks to propagate a static and abstract representation of who the ‘real’ Kashmiri Muslim woman is (or ought to be). Another proof of how closed and authoritarian systems of thought seek hegemony by affecting shrinkages of identity into uni-linear universalities. Needless to say, life always defeats impositions of this kind. Realities and identities just do not simply exist in some limbo beyond history: they are made in the rough and tumble of concrete contentions.

If identity considerations still loom so large in the public and political concerns of our part of the world, there is no better way, I think, of conceptualizing this than by pondering the failure of the emergent post-colonial States to deliver ‘citizenship’ of a consistency that is insured by the operation of law and institutional practice, and by the States’ demonstrated prowess in delivering equity across the board.

In our own case, till such time as the present bewildering plethora of social practices and organizations exist in cauldrons of exploitative irrationality—advanced, comprador, crony, mercantile capitalist/powerful remnants of feudalism/cussed forms of patriarchy/communalisms happily hand-in-glove with either imperialism or religious revanchism/systems of education from the primary to the highest levels, calculated and calibrated to reinforce inequality/same as abrasive and greedy strategies of ‘development’ and so on—it is hardly to be thought that the construction of identities whether in the pursuit of collective self-esteem or material group advantage will cease. This is as true of the supposedly metropolitan segments as of denigrated peripheries. Intimately related to the stages of advance in the project of democracy, mere moralizing from some self-assumed high ground will not do.

Identities, then, are not just the givens at our birth; they are processes and unfoldings, dependent on how the dialectic between what we inherit and acquire shapes as our subjectivities answer, or fail to answer, to homilies at home, guidance at school, the work we engage in, the books we read, now the media we watch, the company we keep, the communication we enter into with respect to events and turmoils from which we cannot escape, either as historical agents or victims, or both. A Qazi Tauqeer before and after his breakthrough in the metropolis cannot be the same item of identity; nor may the young Muslim lady from Rajouri who led the passing out parade at the IMA a year ago be accessible to easy encapsulation. Collectively, Kashmiri Muslim enrolment in the Indian army before and after 2001 must offer further difficulties in the way in which we habitually stereo-type both the army and the young Kashmiri Muslim. Identities, both individual and collective, are what we make of them through the vicissitudes of stimulus and response. For example, a Tendulkar century, or a Sania achievement invite us all to become ‘proud Indians’or, for that matter, successes on the battle front ; but a corresponding failure raises questions that quickly translate into warring ‘identity’ contentions. On a more deeply ironic note, the beleaguered Palestinians of today see the Israelis as the Nazis of the day, and themselves as the erstwhile Jews!

Internationally, farcical confabulations of the identity of world leaders and whole nation-states are directly attributable to the parochial needs and operations of both subaltern warlords and powerful hegemons. Thus, an Osama can in one circumstance be constituted into an anti-communist freedom fighter, and at another a dangerous and evil ‘terrorist’, or a Saddam be called upon to save secular life in the region by invading a Mullah-led Iran (never mind its massive popular legitimacy), and then be invaded in turn for being too non-compliant with the requirements of imperialism. Democracy can be trumpeted, but only when friendly governments are slated to win elections, not if a Hamas comes to legitimate power. Dictators can be derided unless, like the one across the border, or those that used to exist in Latin America and East Asia, willing to play second-fiddle to the ones who claim the divine right to lay down definitions and constitute identities, until the ‘general will’ yet again reverses all that and transforms the landscape of identities in unconscionable ways and dimensions.(10)

I would like to conclude with a word of caution, although the statement I am about to make should properly be the subject of a more considered and separate disquisition (despite the hints which exist everywhere in my text already).

In any consideration of identity/identities, it is best that we should avoid being trapped into these considerations becoming our teleological object of study. Those of us who still think it worthwhile to mount unified opposition to the ravaging operations of international Capitalism (which is secure in its ‘totality’ and suffers no postmodernist angst about fracture and localism) must remain cautious to the consequences for the success of such opposition of what are called “culture studies” (of which identity/identities are an inseparable part).

Even as it is indisputable that the intimate attention that caste, race, gender, linguistic formation, religious contentions and hierarchies have drawn over the last four decades have vastly enriched our understanding of cultural formations as instruments of either oppression or assertion, we would ignore at our peril the meta-narrative ( and I use the term with wicked relish) that all “cultural” contentions are, after all, rooted in the fundamental material divides of the world. Any critique of “discourse” that ignores that meta-narrative must in the end only abet the exertions of those who are happy enough to see the academy embroiled in the study of fracture, difference, localism, and uncertainty; this for the reason that such embroilment on our part (in uncertainty) only prettily aids the operations, now globalised, of its own certainty, cannily aware as it is that deconstructions of cultural hegemonic histories, however subversive, can be trusted to defer, perhaps forever, any unified challenge. And the ‘globaliser’ would be right in thinking so, because unless we are able to see, as I have said earlier, that contentions that inform the study of culture are simultaneously aspects of the contention between those that extract surplus labour and those that resist such extraction we would be playing the enemy’s game.

1.My translation; see Raina’s Ghalib, Writers Workshop, Calcutta. 1984, p.51

2.Edward W. Said. Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978; Peregrine
1985. passim

3.The Argumentative Indian, Penguin India, 2005.

4.Identity and Violence:The Illusiion of Destiny (Issues of our Time), W.W.
Norton, USA, 2006.

5.See my Valley of Love, Frontline, August 1, 2003, p.84

6.My interview with Mr. Kaul was an eye-opener in many ways; among
the many details he provided of community interactions, organized Muslim support to Pandit activities and so on, he also gave me a list of some 69 destitute and abandoned Kashmiri Pandits who are now wholly in the care of Muslim families in the valley. My own experience had been overwhelming (note 5), and I could not resist contrasting the situation in Gujarat where not only are Muslims icons, shrines, landmarks systematically erased, but Muslims are routinely asked to ‘go to Pakistan.’

7.M.J.Akbar, Kashmir: Behind the Vale, Roli Books, 2002, p.85

8. Balraj Puri, Jammu and Kashmir: Triiumph and Tragedy of Indian
Federalism, Sterling Publishers, 1981, p.43.

8.Akbar, 85-86.

10. See my Grand Narrative of Terrorism, Economic and Political Weekly,
Dec.27-2003-Jan.2,2004; Vol. XXXVIII, Nos 51-52, pp.5327-29.