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Identity politics isn’t good or bad, it’s just a natural part of our progression

To stop the people who manipulate identity politics for power - the religious extremists, the British racists, the Donald Trump fans - we need to better understand this war of values

columns Updated: Aug 06, 2016 20:14 IST
Brexit,Trump,Identity Politics
A Syrian refugee girl sits in a classroom at a Lebanese public school (AP)

You can leave India, but India never leaves you. You could be born in Britain like me, lived there most of your life and consider yourself British, but Indian parents rarely let you forget your heritage and history. Sometimes you can’t leave it behind even if you want to, because others are eager to remind you.

Years ago, I used to run a website for British desis called Barfi Culture. Fairly regularly we would get white racists visit the site and post messages for us. “A dog born in a stable doesn’t make it a horse” - they were fond of telling us. In other words: You may be born in Great Britain but you will never truly be one of us. You will never be British.

Some would take such racism as proof they were not wanted. But why let extremists define you and give them control over your identity? I was British whether they liked it or not.

The white racists who wanted the Indians out are no longer as powerful as they used to be, but Britain is still facing a crisis about its identity. What kind of a nation does it want to be? How can it bring its people together? Where does it stand in the world? Britain isn’t alone in this: A similar clash of identities explains many problems across the world today. It goes to the heart of the crisis in the European Union (EU) and the terrifying rise of Donald Trump in America. It remains at the heart of many of the troubles in India - a country I have never stopped reading about.

Read: Brexit vote: All you need to know about Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU

Britain’s vote to leave the EU was a perfect manifestation of that. The establishment has told itself that people voted to leave because their livelihoods were hurt by immigration and outsourcing. But the reality is more complicated. Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the University of London showed afterwards that Brexit voters were more motivated “by identity, not economics”. Other polling showed the same: Those who wanted to remain in the EU were more comfortable with people of different cultures and races. The other side didn’t like where their country was heading to and they ‘wanted it back’.

Read: White male grievance is shaping the US presidential election this time

This tells us a few important things. First, there’s still a large portion of British voters who are uncomfortable with Britain being a modern country open to people from different countries and backgrounds. Second, those who campaigned for Britain to remain didn’t realise it was a clash of identities and focused instead on appealing to people’s wallets. Brexit shocked the establishment because it was confident its story would work. But it wasn’t the story the public was listening to.

Across Europe a similar clash is taking place. In France, as one example, the government ignored its immigrants for decades, thinking they would automatically fit in. Except, it didn’t deal with the widespread racism they faced, and many ended up feeling rejected and developed a hatred towards their adopted country. France is Europe’s worst offender but it isn’t alone. For years Europe was happy to ignore these problems, but the refugee crisis has finally pushed the issue over the edge.

Since 2014 over 2 million refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere have arrived in Europe, desperate to escape civil war. This has forced European countries to ask questions they would rather have avoided. Questions like: How can we help people overcome cultural and religious differences? How can we help them find jobs, settle down and learn to love their new country? So far only Germany and Greece are taking these issues seriously, the rest still want to ignore them.

The same conflict also now defines America, where Donald Trump’s bid for president isn’t about policies but convincing white Americans that non-whites are to blame for all their problems.

Read: Stop worrying and get to know the real Donald Trump

So is our world doomed to explode in a clash of identities? Not necessarily. Identity politics isn’t good or bad, it’s just a natural part of our progression. Neither is it new. In Britain, conflict between the upper class and everyone else has lasted for centuries. European countries fought each other over religion for longer. In that sense the conflicts in India over caste, religion and secularism are no different to other parts of the world.

But to stop the people who manipulate identity politics for power - the religious extremists, the British racists, the Donald Trump fans - we need to better understand this war of values. That is partly the aim of this column, my first for the Hindustan Times. More importantly, we (the secularists, the liberals) need to get better at telling people stories that ordinary people can connect to. Otherwise, like the Brexit vote, we won’t realise our mistake until it’s too late. To stop your house from burning down, you need to know if what you’re throwing on the flames is petrol or water.

Sunny Hundal is a writer on news and current affairs, and a lecturer on digital journalism, from London. He also writes frequently on Twitter @sunny_hundal and Facebook @sunnyhundalorg

First Published: Aug 06, 2016 20:14 IST