Identity and Democracy, by Nurun Nisa from Indonesia 

August 12, 2015

Both groups of Identity and Democracy had their presentations on Wednesday (12/08). The Identity group (Shreeradha, Haffiz, Busi, and Eva) particularly focused on the link between identity and consumerism. At the beginning, they invited all the classmates to declare what their single most important identity is. Some  referred to one of the following five identity markers:  social status, religion, country, gender or family. Others however didn’t pick one of these five. 

It turned out that a choice for one main identity marker is not simple; people have plural identities. A few participants chose another identity marker when they were given a chance to change their answer. Determining one’s identity is a complicated issue. Bikhu Parekh suggests that there are three components of identity: personal, social, and a human being. Some people can deal with the differences between these three and negotiate them very well, but for others it can be complicated.

How is identity shown? One of the ways to express identity is through a preference of economic products. What people consume shows their identities to the public. When somebody decides to use high-branded products, it seems that s/he want to show her/his identity as a rich and economically excellent person. There are other ways to show identity in the form of displaying our mind and thoughts, which may be for some the best way to express their identity. Many within the summer school group said: “I would not have a friendship with people who pay too much attention to brands”.

The group of Democracy (Ameya, Ayu, Anjali, and me) started with a performance theater adapted from the Theater of Oppressed, which was initiated by Augusta Boal, the Brazilian theater practitioner. Our  theater sent messages about the difficult fight of some tribes for their survival. When the elections came, many politicians went to the tribal leaders and promised something for them, but after they got elected these promises were never fulfilled. In another occasion, when the tribes went to court to defend their land from mining companies, the judge never seriously considered their case. The judge preferred to listen  to the companies which proclaimed that poverty was important to be tackled, thus allowing such companies to exploit the land rather than protect the cultural heritage of the people by preserving their land. The theater nicely portrayed how democracy works. Forms of (liberal) democracy, as stated by Chatterjee, do not provide access to the poor to exercise their power.

The difficulties in exercising access to power by the poor was well described in the cases of the mining projects of Niyamgiri (India) and Samin (Indonesia). These were examples of struggles by indigenous people and their indigenous beliefs who want to preserve their land. The land was so important since their life and their beliefs depend on it. Using many ways to fight the mining companies, in both cases, the poor were challenged to find alternative roads of democracy.

Samin went to court after the local government of Pati, in Central Java, decided to change the plan of the villages around Mountain Kendeng from an area for agriculture and tourism to become an area of mining and industry. The villagers sued against the mining license of PT Semen Indonesia in an Administrative Court. This was not the only option they had,  they had another ways to show their discontent, e.g., through protesting via cultural movements, social media movements and women movements.

The Niyamgiri people were given the right to self-determination after the Supreme Court in India released an edict on a referendum which had to be conducted among the people. Many activists accompanied the people to undertake campaigns to preserve their land from bauxite mining by a company called Vedanta.

These cases explained two statements we discussed earlier in class. First, a statement by Chatterjee who said

that politics is a negotiation between the government and the governed. Second, social media campaigns can be part of a counter-hegemonic movement against the power of the mass media which are owned by capitalists. CSOs can fight for the rights of people as part of a media war. Via social media one can gain a lot of followers who can be ambassadors.

In the evening, everybody joined the cooking session in a special tent which was provided by the hotel. At about 7 pm, all the participant and staff enjoyed the meals and beverages from Netherlands, Kenya, South Africa, India, and Indonesia. The vegetarians and non-vegetarians were welcomed. This session told them that pluralism is so close: on their own dining table. Good food with good friends, and finally, followed with a good movie by Anna. I felt so lucky to join them on such a lovely day.


Nurun Nisa is part of IAS (Institute of Advanced Studies) of UIN (State Islamic Jakarta) of Jakarta. IAS conducts research on Islamic Studies, and publishes a journal called  Jurnal Indo-Islamika each semester. It also organizes public lectures & international conferences. Nisa’s research for her MA degree was about Indonesian policies on places of worship. She has a keen interest in topics of religion as a social science.