Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Amartya Sen and Identity

The renowned economist Amartya Sen published an interesting article in the New Statesman a few weeks ago about identity. It asks why it appears to be so easy for formenters of hate to to reduce people from "multidimensional human beings to one-dimensional creatures".

My first exposure to murder occurred when I was 11. This was in 1944, in the communal riots that characterised the last years of the British Raj, which ended in 1947. I saw a profusely bleeding unknown person suddenly stumbling through the gate to our garden, asking for help and a little water. I shouted for my parents, while fetching some water for him. My father rushed him to the hospital, but he died there of his injuries. His name was Kader Mia.

The Hindu-Muslim riots that preceded independence also led the way to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The carnage erupted with dramatic suddenness, and it did not spare normally peaceful Bengal. Kader Mia was killed in Dhaka, then the second city (after Calcutta) of undivided Bengal, and which would become, after the partition, the capital of East Pakistan. My father taught at Dhaka University, and we lived in an area called Wari in old Dhaka, not far from the university, in what happened to be a largely Hindu area. Kader Mia was a Muslim, and no other identity was relevant for the vicious Hindu thugs who pounced on him. In that day of rioting, hundreds of Muslims and Hindus were killed by each other, and this would continue to happen day after day.


Over 60 years after Kader Mia's death, as I try to recollect the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s, it is hard to convince myself that those terrible things did actually happen. But even though the communal riots in Bengal were entirely transitory and ephemeral (and the few cases in which riots have been fostered later on in other parts of India do not compare in size and reach with the events of the 1940s), they left in their wake thousands upon thousands of dead Hindus and Muslims. The political instigators who urged the killing (on behalf of what they called "our people") managed to persuade many otherwise peaceable people of both communities to turn into dedicated thugs. They were made to think of themselves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on "the other community") and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.

Even though the vast majority of both communities did not think in those narrowly frenzied terms, too many were suddenly trapped into that vicious mode of thinking, and the more savage among them - often at the troubled ends of each community - were induced to kill "the enemies who kill us" (as they were respectively defined). Many-sided persons were seen, through the hazy lenses of sectarian singularity as having exactly one identity each, linked with religion or, more exactly, religious ethnicity (since being a non-practitioner of one's inherited religion would not give a person any immunity whatever from being attacked).



Sectarian violence across the world today is no less crude, nor less reductionist, than it was 60 years ago. Underlying the coarse brutality, there is also a big conceptual confusion about people's identities, which turns multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures.

Hating people is not easy. Ogden Nash's poem "Plea for Less Malice Toward None" got this just right: "Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,/But hating, my boy, is an art." How does this "art" work? The illusion of singular identity is skilfully cultivated and fomented by the commanders of persecution and carnage. It is not remarkable that generating this illusion would appeal to those who are in the business of fomenting violence. But there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful. To see a person exclusively in terms of only one of his or her many identities is a deeply crude intellectual move, and yet, judging from its effectiveness, it is evidently easy to champion and promote.

The martial art of fostering violence draws on some basic instincts and uses them to crowd out the freedom to think and the possibility of composed reasoning. But it also draws on a kind of logic - a fragmentary logic. The specific identity that is separated out for special action is, in most cases, a genuine identity of the person to be recruited: a Hutu is indeed a Hutu, a "Tamil tiger" is clearly a Tamil, a Serb is not an Albanian, and a Gentile German with a mind poisoned by Nazi philosophy is certainly a Gentile German. What is done to turn that sense of self-understanding into a murderous instrument is (1) to ignore the relevance of all other affil iations and associations, and (2) to redefine the demands of the "sole" identity in a particularly belligerent form. This is where the nastiness as well as the conceptual confusions are made to creep in.


Forcing people into boxes of singular identity is a feature also of many of the high theories of cultures and civilisations that are quite influential right now. These theories do not advocate or condone violence - far from it. However, they try to understand human beings not as persons with diverse identities but predominantly as members of one particular social group or community.

For example, civilisational classifiers have often pigeonholed India as a "Hindu civilisation" - a description that, among other things, pays little attention to India's more than 145 million Muslims (not to mention Indian Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsees and others), and also ignores the extensive interconnections among the people of the country that do not work through religion at all, but through political, social, economic, commercial, artistic, musical or other cultural activities. In a less straightforward way, the powerful school of communitarian thinking also hallows exactly one identity per human being, based on community membership, and in effect downplays all other affiliations that make human beings the complex and intricate social creatures that we are.

Sometimes Sen's analysis of this reductionism reads like a civilised older man unable to come to terms with the barbarity surrounding him but the description of the problem is rewarding enough.


Anonymous said...

Since we discussed this another good article on a similar theme has appeared over here - by Gary Younge in the Guardian of 21 August: 'To fight these reactionaries we must tackle the crisis that they feed off'.

Nonjatta said...

Just read it. Interesting.

Nonjatta said...

Of course, nobody ever said you can't exploit these issues to make a cheap buck on television