Jan 14 2012

Amartya Sen on identity

From Identity and Violence:

My disturbing memories of Hindu-Muslim riots in India in the 1940s…include seeing – with the bewildered eyes of a child – the massive identity shifts that followed divisive politics. A great many persons’ identities as Indians, as subcontinentals, as Asians, or as members of the human race, seemed to give way – quite suddenly – to sectarian identification with Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh communities. The carnage that followed had much to do with elementary herd behavior by which people were made to “discover” their newly detected belligerent identities, without subjecting the process to critical examination. The same people were suddenly different.

So were their identities really “Hindu” or “Muslim” or were they not? If Sen is right, their religious identities suddenly expanded in size and overpowered all their other identities, which means that they were mutable as opposed to fixed. Identities that can swell can also deflate. This is worth remembering.


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  1. 1
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Ho, yes. Watch a nominal Christian who regularly breaks most commandments suddenly become a hellfire preacher when he or his perceived social group are presented with something that he feels is a challenge – like someone who states she is an atheist. Jack that up a few orders of magnitude and you have things like pogroms and wars.

    I remember when (U.S.) ethnic Croats and Serbs I knew would say things like, “Serbs, Croats – we’re all the same. What’s the difference?” Then I watched this state of affairs change in a big hurry for a lot of them. Blew some families apart.

    Of course, some groups are deeply at odds with each other, but the conflict only erupts when the points of difference are in focus. Which also tells me that humans can completely ignore fundamental differences most of the time when things are otherwise going relatively well.

  2. 2
    Ian MacDougall

    “Of course, some groups are deeply at odds with each other, but the conflict only erupts when the points of difference are in focus. Which also tells me that humans can completely ignore fundamental differences most of the time when things are otherwise going relatively well.”

    In general I suggest that family loyalty trumps tribal loyalty, which in turn trumps national loyalty, which in turn trumps affection for the human species, which in turn trumps solidarity with fellow members of the Animal Kingdom.

    “Jew”, “Muslim” etc are super-tribal identities. Understandably religions can split asunder along tribal lines. Nations can likewise split along religious lines. At the time of the Hindu-Muslim communal riots on the Indian subcontinent after 1947, India was merely an idea that nationalists were trying to make real. Likewise, for Australia, up to the 20th C. This also helps explain why national borders drawn by colonialists through tribal territories create problems.

  3. 3

    F (#1),

    Of course, some groups are deeply at odds with each other, but the conflict only erupts when the points of difference are in focus.

    Exactly. Sort of like the fault lines in the earth’s crust – the transitions between different degrees of homogeneity; seems to be generally where the greatest movement, and maybe the greatest damage, occurs when things are shaken up once the stress reaches a sufficiently high level.

  4. 4
    Eric MacDonald

    That identities can expand and diminish is worth remembering, but I wonder to what extent that is true of India in 1947? Does Sen forget that there is, within Islam, a tendency to totalitarianism — that is, a tendency to see non-Muslims as less worthy of respect, and, as such, as legitimate objects of conversion, marginalisation, exploitation and even death? Recall that, in the history of India, as in any other place where Muslims have become dominant, the vanquished population was exploited, enslaved, ridiculed, their religious beliefs denigrated and holy places destroyed or desecrated on an enormous scale. Much Hindu-Muslim violence in India was the outcome of centuries of religious repression and marginalisation of Hindus by Muslims. When Muslims demanded partition, to form what was to be inevitably the failed state of Pakistan, and millions were displaced as a result, it is not so much that Hindu and Muslim identity expanded, as that it became once again relevant to political realities. Of course, the tensions which fired up into widespread massacre in 1947 are still there, for historical memory is very long, especially when religion is at the heart of it. I don’t think the shift to belligerent identities was quite as sudden as Sen believes, although, certainly, when there is such a sudden shift to opposing identities, religion provides a ready means for making it.

    Gandhi’s role in all of this should not be forgotten, for, though he was — on the surface at least — religiously tolerant, he put religion right at the heart of the demand for independence. Had Nehru and Jinnah, as completely secular men, been at the forefront, instead of the Hindu (and more generally, religious) fundamentalism of Gandhi, perhaps the outcome would have been different, for Gandhi, it should be remembered, was anti-Western and anti-modern, something that is still represented on the Indian flag, with Gandhi’s spinning wheel at the centre.

  5. 5

    We all have multiple (socially constructed) identities, so it is not surprising that which ones are most important in a given context vary. I’m (for example) a native Minnesotan, current New Yorker (upstate, not Gomorrah on the Hudson), atheist, white, middle-aged, heterosexual, married, male, college professor, etc. Each of these identities includes roles and interests I have been socialized into having. Since I teach courses in political science, including on ethnic politics, I’m perhaps a bit more aware of my own identities and the expectations that go along with them. :)

    What Sen described is a very common pattern. Our political identities routinely shift like that, sometimes quite rapidly, and at times identities get destroyed (they are constructed, after all). The breakup of Yugoslavia started with massive shifts in self-identification among the Serb population in the late 1980s, driven by politicians taking advantage of what they saw as a wedge issue and the potential it offered for them to enhance their personal power. Basically the same thing as happened in the Indian subcontinent with decolonization. As we see with the identity of “Yugoslav”, a political change can cause an identity to no longer exist, with national identities like Croat, Serb, etc. rising in response to political changes.

  6. 6

    Let us not forget the change in identity when it comes to state communism and state fascism. We could call them state religions but that’s not completely true, but the process is the same.

  7. 7
    Ian MacDougall

    Re Eric @ #4:

    ‘Egyptian Muslim cleric: “After a while, Europe will become a single Islamic state, which will know nothing but ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger.’”‘


  8. 8
    Tim Harris

    Alan Massie, I think, had a perceptive article in the Telegraph (they seem to run perceptive ones occasionally) on the looming possibility of Scottish independence, which, despite being part Scottish and loving such poets as Somhairle MacGill-eain and Hugh McDiarmid, I fear will not be a very happy affair; he remarked on how a sort of bureaucratic momentum can drive towards a result that rather few people genuinely want, creating warring ‘identities’ no doubt along the way. Identities are far more malleable than most people suppose, and that includes national and cultural and sexual as well as religious (and it often becomes difficult to separate the national from the religious: Ireland’s remaining ‘priest-ridden’ for so long had a lot do with antipathy towards the English and their Protestant allies, just as the power of Catholicism in Poland had a lot to do with Polish nationalism and standing up to the Communist myths and of course the Russians who were promulgating them).

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