The Politics of Political Correctness in India: Identity Politics and Snares of Capitalism
Political correctness is a term as beleaguered as currency in today’s day and age. The phrase began as an in-joke among leftists to satirize people whose rigid adherence to principle exceeded their compassion. In contemporary India, political correctness has been endorsed and attacked by people of different political orientations and affiliations and is deployed variously to validate different standpoints. The right, the left, and the liberal viewpoints have been inconsistent about what it means to be politically correct and about the validity of a politically correct approach, thus fashioning diverse employments of the same.
Image Credits: Eureka Street
A politically correct articulation notes how authentic knowledge can only be provided by the experiencing subject who speaks for herself; one might be a sympathetic outsider, but lived experience provides greater weight to the understanding of a specific situation. Accordingly, in a multicultural society, disadvantaged groups are supposed to have proprietary rights over their representation. The political right in India has often critiqued this ‘liberal’ mandate by noting that policies of apparent multiculturalism have been discriminatory towards the majority community. Demands for inclusivity and pro-underprivileged and pro-minority regimes have met with unequivocal opposition from representatives of the rightist perspective. When a demand for an inquiry into the suicide of Rohith Vemula was made with insistence on including Dalit and Bahujan representatives and judges in the proceedings, Smriti Irani, the erstwhile Human Resource Development minister, thundered in the Parliament, “I looked at the case as the death of a child and not as a death of a Dalit. My name is Smriti Irani. I challenge you to identify my caste.”
A speech like this obfuscates the reality of caste while deceptively making the case for a larger humanity to be considered without identity markers. However, the same government has often been declamatory in bringing in legislation for protection of disadvantaged groups. While Irani has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights, Meenakshi Lekhi, the BJP Member of Parliament from New Delhi, waxed eloquent about the protection of Muslim women while defending the Triple Talaq Bill . While in the previous stance, identity was supposed to be a non-considerable referent, in the latter, identity became the basis of law itself. In fact, the ruling party often turns the idea of social justice on its head, by identifying the majority community as unfavourably placed and engages in a pro-majority mobilisation of identity. The political right in India, thus, has had a contradictory brush with political correctness and acknowledgement of discrimination.
However, contradictions continue to run amok across the political spectrum. On the left, while there has been a fervent insistence on identities, there has also been a move away from identity politics to forge solidarities. Prakash Karat, member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), noted how identity politics negates the idea of a working class and rules out any common goals of emancipation. Accordingly, in a 2012 CPI(M) draft document, identity politics was rejected in favour of class struggle being the dominant principle for political endeavour.
Image Credits: The Times of India
Ruptures within left discourse and political alliances have also occurred along similar lines, as evident in the Ambedkar Students’ Association’s (ASA) often articulated divergence from a “savarna leftist” Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the University of Hyderabad. The two parties, however, came together as part of a grand alliance that swept the university elections in 2016. Thus, the political left has also had a contentious and inconsistent relationship with identity politics.
While these two oppositional strands seem to operate within the field of when and how to privilege identity while tussling in what can be called a liberal democratic context, the non-affiliated provide another variant of how identitarianism and political correctness can be articulated. Social media, which has enabled people to participate in the making of politico-cultural consciousness in direct ways, has ushered in a flood of opinions and proclamations by individuals and a significant chunk of the same is populated by ‘woke’ articulations. The woke social media individual usually promotes social justice and awareness, speaking of sensitively using language, engaging in debates with people who differ, and circulating counter-discourses to propagandist narratives. The liberal-woke politically correct individual, interestingly, might vocally point out problems in the narratives of the political left as well as the political right and situate their divergences from doctrine. The complication, however, lies in wokeness as a cultural phenomenon rooted in a capitalist ethos and its shape-shifting detachment from embodied experience and its tautological, self-validating nature.
Public Self Consciousness #WOKE/Image Credits: Medium
Wokeness, no matter, how well-intentioned has a political economy of its own. The woke mandate apparent on Instagram is often marred by concerns of popularity and approval. Resources are used to create visually appealing posts on difficult issues, including politics over identity, and the same is poised to garner big quantities of endorsements through likes, comments, and shares. On one hand, this derives from a privileged detachment from immediate experience of a certain situation. On the other hand, politically correct content that enjoys substantial presence on social media might have less to do with relevance and more with crafting and promotion. It is noteworthy how when The Wire and LiveWire.In posts were widely shared on Instagram by the liberal populace, a media portal like TheTatvaIndia presented its reportage in a similar format and fashion and enjoyed similar popularity. While the two sources in question vary vastly in terms of posturing and presentation of authenticity, the appearance itself pitted them as parallels. TheTatvaIndia, often noted for its right-leaning, right-of-center journalism has a substantial liberal base and had over 295,000 followers on Instagram in April 2021. With a spin on politics around identity, the portal covers stories on racism, homophobia, and misogyny alongside some other contested majoritarian terms. The notably older portals, The Wire and its publication for the youth, LiveWire.In, noted for a liberal-left orientation, had 882,000 and 201,000 followers respectively.
To conclude, it can safely be said that ‘political correctness’ as an absolute does not exist and has become a diversely weaponised concept in the armouries of people with varied affiliations and intentions. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek famously criticised the term itself—for assuming that problems like racism have been overcome, when the best ‘correctness’ can offer us is a disguised, controlled, and significantly, in the Indian context, a modified version of the problem where the tools of social justice can be cannibalised by the privileged. Where do we go from a culture of political correctness, then? Political sensitivity? That will arguably make for several ‘incorrect’ debates.
By Abhinav Bhardwaj
Abhinav Bhardwaj is a postgraduate student of English Literature at University of Delhi. A published poet and independent researcher, he has been a longlist awardee of the Wingword Poetry Prize and his works have been published by journals such as English Studies in Latin America, Contemporary Literature Review India and media portals like Feminism in India. His areas of interest include world literatures, gender and sexuality studies, modernisms and media and culture studies.