In recent days, large-scale riots broke out in two of the world’s largest democracies. India, known as the biggest democratic nation, saw caste riots continue to escalate in the northern Haryana region of the capital, New Delhi. Despite the local government’s deployment of massive military strength and approval of the use of deadly force, the rebellion continues to escalate, and has even begun to affect the capital’s water supply. The region’s main ethnic group, the higher-caste Jat people, were unsuccessful in their push for civil service job placement quotas similar to those given to members of lower castes, resulting in several hundred casualties since the riots began.
In America, the “lighthouse” of democracy, thousands of Chinese community members from throughout greater New York gathered in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza to protest the guilty jury verdict in the case of Peter Liang. Liang, an ethnically-Chinese NYPD police officer, was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years after mistakenly killing a black man while on duty. After the announcement, the Chinese communities in over 40 cities and districts throughout the United States and Canada spoke out in solidarity, protesting judicial injustice and the discrimination of ethnic Chinese. A succession of police shootings of black youth by white officers have heightened tensions between the public and the police; as a result, the Chinese community believes that Peter Liang became a scapegoat in this political atmosphere.
These two events are similar in the way they came about and reflect increasingly significant issues with democracy — specifically that race, religion, social class, and specific value systems are unifying factors that can lead to the political mobilization of groups. The representative nature of democracy is set up so as to ensure that each societal interest is represented; through elections, representatives confer to reach compromises and to approach rational methods of distributing benefits. However, identity politics do not possess “normal” democratic representation; xenophobic tendencies are intensified in these situations, therefore serving to widen the divide between different interest groups.
The current relationship between the people and the police in the United States is extremely frail, especially since the shootings of young black men by white police officers have become a common occurrence. In 2015, the total number of black young adults killed in police shootings reached 1,134, an all-time high; the officers involved in many of these cases were never convicted. As such, Peter Liang’s case gave rise to outrage within the Chinese community in America. Regardless of the specifics of the case, the Chinese community’s response is indicative of highlighting identity politics; groups first take, and stand firm behind, a position before analyzing right and wrong. Peter Liang was convicted and became a symbol for the suffering of the Chinese community. As such, the community is rallying around the xenophobic persecution by the masses in order to protect its own identity.
In a similar way, the Jat people’s riot stemmed from feelings that their collective identity had been victimized. The Indian caste system is deeply rooted, and discrimination and persecution of lower castes are well-documented in the history books. After gaining independence from Britain, on the surface, the Indian government enacted laws abolishing the caste system, but the undercurrent of discrimination still permeates daily life. In order to help the lower castes improve their social status, the Indian government adopted quotas in universities and civil service positions to ensure education and job opportunities. However, this has given rise to discontent from members of higher castes, as they consider themselves to be the victims of reverse discrimination. The Jat riots have stemmed from this.
It’s easy to see that, both in the United States and India, identity politics have poisoned the local public culture of both societies. Accepted identity-politics groups are not convinced of social justice; they don’t believe that judicial or public power is impartial and is capable of guaranteeing their own benefits. Over time, the community continues to tear apart, making it increasingly difficult to achieve the mutual understanding required for basic democratic political compromise. The low efficiency of the U.S. Congress, calling into question the basic Hindu values of the Modi government — these are both negative consequences of identity politics. The result is a shortcoming of mutual trust; different communities become suspicious of one another, making it harder to collaborate and cooperate in settling problems, ultimately harming the public’s trust in the democratic system.
In this political environment, people no longer believe that they can rely on their own ability and efforts to achieve the returns that they deserve. This encourages people to resort to identifying with smaller groups, which are hostile to outsiders; in this way, a vicious cycle is created, causing democracy to lose legitimacy. If the ills of identity politics are inevitable in major democratic powers such as the United States and India, smaller, multi-ethnic, multireligious nations, such as Singapore, must be on alert. Whatever the context, holding up the common value system is the way to fight off identity politics. However, the many frailties are not easy to ignore, and the slightest mistake can cause a society to fall into the trap of identity politics. Strengthening common values systems and treating all citizens without discrimination are founding principles that need to be pushed.