India Nest, 06.08.2006
The most attractive feature of this latest work by Sen – as with his other writings – is its extremely accessibility and lucidity. Written concisely, Sen illustrates his thesis remarkably well in this book which seeks to argue that sectarian violence often occurs with both sides being led by an illusion of what constitutes the ‘other’s’ identity. In other words, the “dreadful conflicts” that have taken place in our world, be it in Rwanda or Sudan or the Indian subcontinent, are often successors to “periods of terrible confusion” in the minds of the perpetrators of the brutalities against humanity.
Sen offers a primary explanation of such confusions. He argues that the essence of our existence as human beings is essentially shared by various aspects of humanity itself. To put it simply, we may have several identities which compete for our attention. However, the very nature of the ‘othering’ process involves the construction of “a singular and overarching system” of classifying groups of individuals in order to effectively present a target for the wrath that erupts as violence.
Sen offers two methods which are adopted– deliberately or unconsciously– to achieve this “miniaturisation” of human beings. The first he terms “identity disregard”. This has been used classically in theories concerning the economic man, and more recently in various game theories where an assumed motivation (e.g., rational self–interest) overshadows all other identities that an individual may adhere to.
Following on from this, his second classification is called “singular affiliation”, whereby only one facet of an individual’s overall identity is privileged to caricaturize his entire self. Such reductionism is most commonly found in instances of communal violence, whereby a person may just be a Hindu or a Muslim, but not an Indian, a middle class professional, or a father.
A recent example of a blatantly reductionist theory is espoused in Samuel Huntington’s now–famous The Clash of Civilizations, a work that is subjected to seething criticism by Sen in his book. In this, he carries on from where he left of in his The Argumentative Indian. The biggest problem with Huntington’s thesis is the complete ignoring of the often–marked diversities in these various civilisational blocs.
In the “Hindu civilization” ala India, there exist minorities who are either numerically substantial or culturally influential in shaping the history of the subcontinent, such as the Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, among others. There has been a lot of intercultural influences between these communities which deny Hinduism any singular identity which can be associated with today’s India. Added to that are the striking diversities within Hinduism itself. Such intra–cultural diversities can also be found in the Middle East, where the Shia–Sunni divide comes instantaneously to mind. Indeed, given the mutual suspicion that existed between the Arab world and Iran as recently as the 1980s, along with the various intra–Arab disputes, it is doubtful how far a monolithic Islamic civilization is a reality.
Sen also notes the tendency to create an arbitrary–often historically inaccurate– identity of the ‘self’ in order to differentiate it from the ‘other’. Here he criticizes the notion of the “Western mind” whereby certain ideas (e.g., democracy) are claimed to be the sole property of the Occident. Citing examples of Buddhist councils during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (3rd Century BC) and tracts on religious freedom during that of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (16th Century AD), Sen attempts to illustrate how such an identity can be readily disputed.
Neither does Western multiculturalism escape Sen’s criticism. While attempting to accommodate various interests in increasingly diverse societies, these theories invariably associate the interests of the minority individuals and/or communities based on their religion, castigating all other forms of identities to the background. Even scholars who attempt reconciliation between the West and Islam (supposing that such homogenized monoliths do in fact exist) often search for a ‘moderate Muslim’, thus giving disproportionate importance to religion in determining the ‘other’s’ identity.
Sen points out that one’s perception of their own identity may change over time. He points out that East Pakistan was formed in 1947 primarily because of a religious motivation. Yet, in 1971 this motivation was grossly inadequate in keeping it together with West Pakistan, as Bengalis asserted their language and culture as their primary form of identity vis–à–vis their religion, which they still shared with the West Pakistanis. However, Sen also notes that the primary cause for violence despite changing identities is the incapability of the victims to convince the aggressors of this shift. Perceived identity, therefore, proves stronger than actual identity.
Here post–modernism can pose a perplexing question for Sen. From the works of Michel Foucault in philosophy to some recent work in psychology, we know that perceptions can often be formed subconsciously or even unconsciously, determined by the various pressures of societal environment and the dominating discourse. How does Sen then assert that the ‘actual identity’ of an individual is any more real than the ‘perceived identity’, when the choice made by individuals itself may be automated by other, often–invisible forces? If Edward Said were alive, he would surely have a word or two to say about the ways in which Orientalism often forces ‘other’ people to assume certain identities.
On one occasion Sen himself has failed to remain neutral towards identities. On page 171 of the book he narrates the harrowing tale of a certain Kader Mia being stabbed to death by “vicious Hindu thugs” during the 1947 partition riots. Subsequently he also criticizes Muslim gangs for similar deeds. But if Kader Mia was incorrectly taken to be just a Muslim, should his murderers be represented as just Hindus, and not as criminals, revenge–seeking individuals, or misguided youth? Sen could have escaped with his description, had he clarified that the description “Hindu gangs” would probably have been used during the time to narrate the incident.
Sen spends a lot of time emphasizing the role of “choice and reasoning” behind an individual giving primacy to one among the various competing identities within him. While stating that individuals often stumble upon their identities– or “discover” them– Sen readily concedes that often individuals make conscious decisions about their identities– “Life is not mere destiny”. However, individuals can only choose from the available options in the social decision making function, which may not be optimal under practical circumstances.
To be fair to Sen, perhaps he is merely arguing for chosen identity to be given preference over given identity. But there may be less difference between the two than he has accounted for.