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August 09, 2006

Confused About Identity

3 out of 5 stars

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.

December 04, 2005

Is Indian Secularism Unique?

3 out of 5 stars

India Nest, 04.12.2005

In the first paperback edition of this book (originally written in 2003), the author undertakes a substantial academic challenge – to compare and contrast Indian secularism with that of the United States and Israel in their constitutional context. This “comparative trio” has developed three distinct avatars of secularism defined as assimilative, visionary and ameliorative, attributed to the US, Israel and India respectively. His essential aim is to gauge wither a defence of religious liberty can be reconciled with constitutional secularism.

When Gregory Johnson was burning the American flag in 1989, he breached the “wall of separation” that is enshrined in US polity between the Church and the State. Such delineation is impossible, as the author argues, in Israel, where the Star of David epitomizes the Zionist inspiration behind the birth of the nation itself. As such, the republican flag does not represent anything other than the “American way of life”.

In a country where “religion permeates everyday life and informs national identity” (although by no means a single religion) like India, the flag is also a symbol of its constitutional mindset. While some commentators have made the grave error of associating the saffron on the Indian tricolor with the Hindus, the green with the Muslims, and the white with the desire for peace between these communities, the author cites Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Constitutional Assembly, arguing that the colors stood for revolution, industry, agriculture and commerce instead.

Rock Edict 12 of Emperor Ashoka (273 BC to 232 BC) states that the “essentials of dharma” necessitate “restraint in regard to speech”- that “it should be moderate” and “the other sects should be duly honored”. The chakra of Ashoka – the wheel of law – has spokes of equal length suggesting just this. The author traces this influence not only to the tricolor, but also to the Representation of the People Act (1951) enshrined in Indian jurisprudence.

The author focuses on the “Hindutva cases” of the mid-1990s in the Indian Supreme Court after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. The central government’s usage of Article 356 to dismiss 3 state governments was being challenged in the apex court. The court upheld the decisions of the government in Delhi based on its condemnation of the “corrupt practices” of cultural nationalism. Since this is a significant departure from the strict neutrality in such cases (for example, in defining cultural nationalism as corrupt practices rather than simply focusing on the resultant violence), it gives the judiciary’s power a different contour in India vis-à-vis the US and Israel.

Article IV, Section 4 of the Guarantee Clause in the US was evoked to deter the federal government from acting against the southern states’ insistence on continuing slavery. This can be attributed to the liberal insistence on absolute neutrality. Similarly, a long standing demand of the Hindutva supporters in India has been to establish a universal civic code, deterred thus far by India’s ameliorative conception of secularism. It is nearly 36 years since Amartya Sen built on the 1950 paradox outlined by Kenneth Arrow to suggest that welfare and liberty doomed to an irreconcilable conflict in a society with multiple choices. The dilemma over secularism in India continues to vindicate this paradox.

The author criticizes some of the Hindutva ideologues of advocating a “slavish emulation” of the Israeli polity in India. However, as jurisprudence in each country is directly impacted by both the constitutional context and “ethnography”, no one size can fit all. Contrast this with the complicated juxtaposition of innumerable religions and castes in India, and a singular vision like that of Israel becomes impossible to conceptualize.

The assimilative model of secularism in the US is also questioned by the author, when he suggests that political assimilation is increasingly being coupled with social assimilation, implying standardization. Invoking Employment Division v Smith (1990), the author argues that US jurisprudence has much to learn from the ameliorative model of India, which he considers to be apt for application in this case.

Certain arguments in the book can be readily questioned. First, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed that religion was a “restraining influence on changes in civil society”. Alexis de Tocqueville, on the other hand, was favorable to a “peaceful dominion of religion”. But do religion and civil society need to be problematically intertwined? Romila Thapar has argued- and the author agrees- that the wheel of dharma was essentially secular in its implication. However, the problem lies in the static visualization of religion, which is not the case in India, as the “ever-changing” definition of Sanatana put forth by Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan so vividly portrays.

Second, Jacobsohn quotes Seymour Martin Lipset and agrees that “nations can be understood only in comparative perspective”. Although it can be readily conceded that analyzing differences between polities can indeed yield fruitful answers, often to understand the essence of a nation, we need to refer to the famous phrase of the 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke – Wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it essentially was).

Third, in what is supposedly a holistic analysis of the Indian constitutional field, a marked absence is that of a critique of the extremist Maoist and Islamist movements that have sprung up and gathered momentum in the 1990s, establishing “peoples’ courts” and those following the shari’a, bypassing the laws enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The “crisis of secularism” can hardly be understood adequately with just one dimension in the author’s analysis- the Hindutva movement. While it is perhaps unorthodox to classify the far left movements under the same umbrella as a religious movement, it too threatens the constitutional balance in Indian jurisprudence by attempting to forcibly include provisions alienating the so-called upper caste communities in many far flung rural areas.

Ultimately, Jacobsohn’s analysis concludes at a rather persuasive argument. While impartial on the surface, American social and political life is impacted significantly by the role of the Church on issues of public concern such as abortion and education, the latter also being hotly debated in India. However, in India, there has been no attempt to artificially water down this impact by assimilation (which could lead to homogenization). On the contrary, the Sarva dharma sambhava principle is essentially impartial, although it involves including all religions in the jurisprudence, making matters more complicated, albeit more reflective of how society really is, but perhaps being more sensitive to the religious liberties of the individuals and communities concerned.

November 11, 2005

The Evolution of Hinduism

4 out of 5 stars

Asia Times, 11.11.2005

William Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian who died in 1833, once spoke of the "dark and bloody superstitions" that embody the creed that came to be termed Hinduism.

Prior to that, the mind-boggling diversity in sub-continental religious practices existed without a common definition to bind them together, and this "crystallization of the concept" is what Brian K Pennington traces in his book Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians and the Colonial Construction of Religion.

Between 1789 and 1832, the Orientalist fascination for the "cloud of fables" – according to William Jones, the 18th century Indian historian – embodied in Vedic literature was replaced by the East India Company-backed intelligentsia who were preoccupied with utilitarian criticisms of the "sinister principles" of the same, depicted nowhere more vividly than in the works of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay.

Pennington argues that the modern avatar of the somewhat homogenized ancient religion that can be loosely termed Hinduism is a direct reaction to such seething and degrading criticism from the colonial academics, some of it indeed valid (such as vilifying the sati tradition – the traditional Hindu practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre).

He argues that the elites within Hindu society entered a "dialectical space" with colonialism, thereby producing a defensive self-determined version of their faith. While celebrating colonial promotion of certain scriptures, they vehemently opposed stereotyping, as can be seen in the outcry among the Bengali educated middle classes over the label of the effeminate babu. This similar dialectic process was behind the rise of Hindu nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as behind the progress made by the Hindutva movement of the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, Pennington refuses to present the colonial state with the credit of transforming "fragmented, disparate, localized, particularistic and ever-changing mini traditions" into a world religion. Whereas "Indophoebia" and the "racist science" of the 19th century did indeed contribute substantially toward the development of a defensive definition of Hinduism, crediting the state with the invention of Hinduism as we know it is ignoring the "mess of encounters" that can better explain this development.

Whereas literary critic Edward Said accused the West of essentializing the East, the opposite argument is also true. Pennington makes a distinction between various classes of Hinduism’s "other", and argues that class, nationality, outlook and background of the actors on the ground made the encounters between, say, a missionary and a peasant much different from that between a colonial academic and a local historian.

What follows from the importance of the nature of the "other" is the fundamental significance of religious values in this discourse, discarded by many schools of historians preferring to focus solely on socio-economic trends. Pennington associates himself with Partha Chatterjee who wrote in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies about the various ways in which the downtrodden communities often express themselves in the form of their religion. This is also seen in the works of David Hardiman on Adivasis or indigenous people in western India, as well as that of Saurabh Dube on the Satnamis of central India.

Pennington uses a relatively small number of first-hand sources, but adheres closely to them. The archives of the Church Missionary Society reveal the attitudes of missionaries toward evangelizing the natives, an attitude advocated by many including Charles Grant, the Scottish politician, and Wilberforce. On the other hand, the transformation in colonial attitudes can be seen in the archives of the Asiatick Researches, which gradually gets taken over by colonial influences, sidelining the Orientalists. He also dwells on the religious newspaper Samacar Chandrika published by Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyaya, which took on the task to refute much of the essentialism dished out by colonial literature. However, all of this does strengthen the author's point about the importance of religion, explicit or implicit, in colonial policy-making.

Two questions beg to be answered by Pennington. First, he says nothing about the crude distinction made by the colonial state between "martial" and "non-martial" races in the subcontinent, and the various categories of castes it defined. Such essentialization went a long way toward complicating the already juxtaposed threads of Hinduism, and much of that legacy exists to this day.

Moreover, whereas the colonial state may not have explicitly defined Hinduism, its criticisms of the same nevertheless led to Hindu nationalism adopting a very homogenous and essentially narrow view of Hinduism. As Amartya Sen has argued in his recent work The Argumentative Indian, Hinduism is simply too diverse to speak of in one single breath. Therefore, the prevalent definition of Hinduism (as in the stereotype used in the public domain today) may well have been invented during the high noon of colonialism.

Second, Pennington argues that there is increasingly a "need of structuring the relationship of religion and the nation state". This contemporary universal "need" can be readily questioned if one looks at secular Europe and India. Debates about race relations in Britain and France, and that of minority reservations in India are more to do with social exclusion and opportunities rather than any concerns about delineating the contours of state and religion. A more relevant discussion is the Middle East, where Islam and the nation state remain problematically juxtaposed.

However, Pennington is in need of recognizing the "essence" of Hindu philosophical writings during times much before his book covers, but which can indeed be a useful apparatus to determine the role of the state vis-a-vis religion. The image of the Brahmin holding the sveta-chattra (white umbrella) over the king was never involved in the analytical modus operandi of the colonial state while defining Hinduism.

On the larger question of whether contemporary Hinduism was invented, Pennington seems to adopt a persuasive argument. Whether there exists an alternative and distinct definition is a question that he leaves unexplored.

Aruni Mukherjee is based at the University of Warwick, England.

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