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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 22 May 2024

An identity crisis

Privilege may make one indifferent to assertions of identity & communal relationship, but marginality and fear of oppression are likelier to make one withhold or even hide such assertions

Saikat Majumdar Published 24.04.24, 07:40 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph

Last year, when my daughter entered Class Nine in school, I had to fill out her ICSE registration form. She and I went to the office where the designated school administrator was collecting the papers. The administrator pointed out to me that one question had remained unanswered: the religion of the student. I’d left it blank deliberately — it had felt outrageously irrelevant. But the administrator was doing her duty; it was her job to ensure that all sections were duly filled up. There seemed to be only one way to deal with this. I turned to my daughter and asked her: “What is your religion?” Without batting an eyelid, she said, “Not applicable.” I turned to the administrator, shrugged, and said, “Not applicable” — and wrote N/A on that space. The lady looked at us, gave us a hesitant smile, and took the form, much to my relief that she had accepted a 13-year-old girl’s noncommittal response to what seemed like an essential question on the form.

What would I have done if I had to fill out a form where I had to answer that question for myself? I realise I would have been annoyed by the question, but I would have probably written ‘Hindu’. As a non-believing admirer of the aesthetic and philosophical traditions of several religions, I have come to feel that it is okay to call oneself a Hindu even if one never goes to a temple or engages in prayer. Perhaps my identification also dreams of a fluid and capacious vision of Hinduism that we seem to have lost but which I feel we should go on asserting.

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But the real question that has continued to trouble me particularly since this ‘N/A’ moment is this: what does it take to reveal, suppress, assert, or refuse the declaration of a one’s social identity today? Privilege? Fear? Anger? Pride? Identities most urgently touched by this question are those of religion and caste. In India today, these are unsettling realities, and the path to their revelation can be strewn with ethical and political landmines of all stripes.

In the seventeen years I spent in North America as student and academic, I found Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action declarations always to be voluntary. They focused on race and ethnicity, gender (and occasionally sexuality), disability and military veteran status. I never saw religion on these forms (though it appeared elsewhere on a few occasions). It is now known that a few American universities have included caste in their affirmative action programmes, thanks to longstanding patterns of regressive social behaviour by upper-caste Hindus in the diaspora.

Students at the private liberal arts university in the Delhi-NCR where I now teach recently staged several weeks of protest demanding a caste census of students and staff. The colourful and rather hyperbolic slogan of the protesting student group claimed, not without an unpalatable serving of truth, that the university “is made on the land acquired by some baniya founders, given to Bengali brahmin professors, where non-Bengali brahmin professors constitute a ‘minority’ along with some white & remaining savarna faculty." Make of that what you will, but one of the reasons behind the institutional reluctance to conduct a caste survey was the hesitation about asking identity-driven questions that its members, students or employees, may consider private. The university has since then agreed to a socio-economic survey of the institution and the establishment of an Equal Opportunity Cell, and the students have stopped their protests. But the disturbing question remains: what if there are people who are not comfortable disclosing their caste identity — and what if some of the reluctance comes from oppressed-caste people? Is it ethical, then, for surveys requiring self-declaration along lines of identity, to be mandatory and binding on individuals?

Privilege may make one indifferent to assertions of identity and communal relationship, but marginality and fear of oppression are far likelier to make one withhold or even hide such assertions. Such concealment may even show a grotesque sense of humour. The Wikipedia entry on the Bihar caste survey narrates the incident that about 40 women in a red-light district in Arwal district identified a “Roopchand” as their husband and the father of their children. Later inquiries revealed that ‘Roopchand’ was no man or even a human being, but simply the name for money in this community. The demand to name kin in some places only reveals the inequities of kinship structures for a society that models questionnaires on established norms.

In the suburb of Delhi where we live, it has now become increasingly common for Muslim women seeking employment as domestic help to use names which do not sound Islamic. They would much rather go by Polly and Tanu, and while I have not yet personally met anyone who has been hiding their Muslim identity, they are not keen to talk about it either. It so happens that both of our household helpers now are Bengali Muslims, and one of them openly declared disbelief: “You employ Muslim workers?” Such has been the difficulty and prejudice she has faced in this educated and affluent community with a massive need for domestic help — for many of whom, Bengali Muslim identity of any kind inevitably evokes illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

It so happens that the police verification form for domestic employees that we are asked to submit lists caste and nationality, but not religion. Is the declaration of caste an easy way of identifying religion? The direct declaration of religion, meanwhile, looks poised to take a long leap from the box on the ICSE registration form. If and when the National Register of Citizens is prepared following the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the baring of one’s religious identity will become a curiously indirect but inevitably sequenced process. Data on identity are often a necessity to address historic inequities, as the various caste censuses have revealed. But the preservation of the personal right to reveal such identities is also one of the many reasons why citizenship can never be structured around religion. I know that while my 13 year old felt already empowered in calling the declaration of religion “Not Applicable”, there are millions in our country for whom the need to make this information irrelevant is shrouded in fear. Sometimes, of losing a job. Sometimes, of losing a country.

Saikat Majumdar is a novelist and critic

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