Information and the politics of identity

Sanjoy Chakravorty | Updated on July 16, 2019

The formation and struggle for social identity in India is based on how information was created and channelled

In a recently published book, The Truth About Us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi,I offer a narrative of how India’s social “truths” were made up over the last two centuries, an explanation for why the narrative has taken the shape it has, and its political and social consequences. I outline the key to the explanation — the politics of information.

The initial proposition is that the “truth” about any society is created with building blocks of “information.” The accumulation and organisation of information becomes “the truth.” The crucial questions are: What is information? How is it generated? What is accepted as correct information, by whom, and why?

These weighty questions form the core of the politics of information, which involve the choices made by people with power on what is considered information (and what is not), categorisation of that information into groups, counting to fill categories, and communication to those who have been categorised.

India’s present distribution of religions, castes, and tribes is the outcome of a series of choices made at different points in time by people with the power to choose. Much of what passes for social truth in India is not objective at all, but subjective; it was created to simplify complexity and serve the interests of those who made up the truths.

Three fundamental variables shape the politics of information: power, technology, and simplification.

The centrality of power

First: Power is the key. Who has it, how much does he have, how effectively can he establish his choice as reality, what does he already know and believe when he makes a choice, what does he want to achieve with his choice, what is his interest? True power is the ability to decide what information is and to categorise and name it.

Every label — from race to nationality, from criminality to mental ability — is an outcome of choices made by people with power for control and domination over those they have labelled.

For example, to categorise India’s “tribal” population as Hindu is a choice — not made by the “tribals” themselves, but by others with the power to create categories.

Consider how problematic this is. If caste is an omnipresent and central feature of Hindu society, how did Adivasis become Hindu? When India’s “tribes” were placed inside the category “Hindu” in the late 19th and early 20th century, there were no Brahmans or Kshatriyas among them, nor “outcastes.” Sanskrit, supposedly the link language of Hinduism, had no presence in their societies. They worshipped different entities, had different relations between genders, and ate different things. What, then, made them Hindu?

What, for that matter, does “tribal” mean anyway? Or “caste?” Or “outcaste?” Or “sub-caste?” Who created these categories? Who made these choices and decisions? When did it happen and why? How did these choices become acceptable? How did they begin to apply all over India? Were the categorised people ever asked whether they agreed with the labels that had been stuck on them? What are the consequences of accepting these choices and labels? How does one dispute them? These are among the crucial questions on power, information, and categorisation that motivate my investigations.

Role of information tech

Second: The level of information technology is crucial to the creation, management, and politics of information. Every information choice takes place within a specific technological realm that allows some things to happen and not others. New information technologies expand both the quantity of information and the number of people who can access it. They tend to dilute concentrated power (even as they create new social formations and new social problems).

In India, when information existed only in scrolls, some convenient scrolls and their interpreters became central to the process of constructing information. This, I argue, is how “Hinduism” was made up.

But information technology itself has undergone at least two revolutions after the time of the scrolls. First came the printing press, which enabled many more people and groups to create and access information. After the mid-19th century, the printing press became the key to the formation and growth of Indian thought and political organisation; it directly led to both major forces in contention: anti-colonial nationalism (of Tilak, Rai, Gandhi, Bose, and Nehru) and Hindu consolidation (of Savarkar, Golwalkar, and Upadhyaya).

More recently, in the last quarter century, India and the world have been going through a new information revolution driven by digital and mobile technologies. In this period of abundant information and misinformation, the technology itself — from smart phones to tweets — is key to what people know and believe.

Third: The creation and management of information is guided by what I call the principle of simple information. It is based on the axiom that all people — humans, Indians, everyone, everywhere — prefer simple information over complicated knowledge. The preference for simple information arises from our very human brains, which tend toward “confirmation bias,” “cognitive ease,” “selective recall,” “belief perseverance,” and so on.

The simplest forms of information are binary (food or poison, friend or foe, for me or against me) and are based on categories and stories. Data or facts are of secondary importance to categories and stories. The preference for simple information is both individual (we all do it) and institutional (the government does it too). It is a permanent condition. There is no conscious moment in which we do not use simple information.

The simplification of the natural world is biologically advantageous because it is a speedy and efficient way to deal with the unending volumes of information that constantly inundate the brain. It may even be the key to human cognition and species evolution. But it is not possible to make the same argument for the simplification of the social world into ideologies, stereotypes, and prejudices on religion, caste, race, ethnicity, gender, and age.

These simplifications lead to everyday discriminations and inequalities, of course, and can become the justification for large-scale violence like war and genocide. These simple stereotypes and biases become the staples of everyday behaviour. They become, in many practical ways, the truths about us.

The principle of simple information is crucial to understanding how India’s current social structure was imagined into existence by the British colonisers. It is also crucial to understanding how the core contest between truth claims in India — between Hindu homogenisation and pluralism — is being waged in the present moment.

Both situations demand simple information, but for opposite reasons. Under colonialism, great one-sided power combined with low information technology and minimal information (in scrolls) to an extreme simplification of Indian society. In the present condition, advanced information technology creates an abundance of information, which dilutes power but also creates new demands for simplification.

The principle of simple information is the idea that connects the counterbalancing forces of power (which always seeks to simplify complex information) and information technology (which generally tends to increase the volume and complexity of information). It is this balance between complexity and simplification that is at the heart of the struggles over social identity in India. This is how it has been for over 200 years.

The writer is Professor of Geography and Urban Studies and Global Studies at Temple University and a CASI Non-Resident Visiting Scholar. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on July 16, 2019

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