Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny — By Amartya Sen — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 21, 2008

My alma mater –  FMS Delhi – boasts the presence of some venerated educational institutions like Delhi School of Economics (DSE) and St.Stephens in its neighbourhood. It was natural that students of these institutions also came to FMS to pursue a business degree and this resulted in an informal network of friends in these places. DSE and Stephens had a great culture of guest lectures and interested parties from FMS gate crashed these lectures. One such lecture into which some of us gate crashed was Prof. Amartya Sen’s lecture on aspects of Game Theory. The problem that Prof. Sen was tackling that day was: What happens to a rational donkey equidistant from two haystacks? He then went onto resolve the “assinine” problem through techniques of Game Theory. It is a different matter that I did not understand the lecture beyond the initial proposition.  He was not yet a Nobel Laureate then but carried a whispered respect of being next in line for Nobel in Economics. This was in 1994 and we had to wait for another four years to see the Nobel prize being awarded to Prof. Sen. Personally, I felt a surge of pride for all the obvious reasons when I got to hear that Prof. Sen won a Nobel in economics. Barring an article here and there and his penetrating essay “Tagore and his India” — I did not venture to read anything of Prof. Sen, although I managed to collect a few books of his. Then came “Argumentative Indian” (and a superb introduction to it by Sunil Khilnani (..of The Idea of India fame) in The Hindu) and this was followed by “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny“. I managed to read this book over the weekend and should say that it is one of those rare books that is perspective changing.

9/11 is part of our collective lexicon now. Among the many other drastic negatives that it wrought on the world, the most important has been sharpening and thrusting the role of identities of individuals and communities to the centerstage in a much more forceful way than it is necessary and warranted. What this seems to have done is to provide a toehold or platform from where violence, discrimination and stereotyping based on selective identities has started to get legitimised. The progress of this legitimisation has been at the expense of suppressing the natural tendencies for people and communities to have multiple simultaneous identities. It is the role of these identities and the need for understanding and vigorously getting them into the mainstream as a remedial measure for a lot of world’s ills, the subject matter of Amartya Sen’s book “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny

The first three chapters viz. Violence of Illusions: Identity based thinking, Making sense of Identity: Pluraltiy of Identity, Civilizational Confinement set a firm context for the book and the subsequent chapters elaborate and discuss the themes in detail. Prof. Sen makes it clear from the word go that an individual can have multiple identities simultaneously and none of them be mutually exclusive. However, in dealing with plural identities people have adopted 2 extreme approaches. The first extreme of pendulum being Identity Disregard — where all identities get relegated to non existence. This is very evident in the fundamental assumptions and generalisations one gets to see in the area of a majority of social science theories especially in economics around rational agent or economic man. The other extreme of the pendulum being Singular Affiliation where only one identity gets a continued emphasis despite the context alteration. Both lead to problems i.e. of vapid generalisations or straightjacketing of people in society. Even while acknowledging the importance of plural identities, Prof. Sen goes out of his way to emphasise that a specific identity need not have a durable importance and will have to change along with the changing social context. And that in almost a majority of situations people do have freedom in choosing the relative importance of a specific identity. Having said that Prof. Sen quickly acknowledges that there are specific situations where the freedom of choosing ones identity in the eyes of others gets very limited leeway e.g. the perception of a landless labourer in the eyes of his armed landlord in Bihar.  Prof. Sen goes onto emphasise that choices can also be made from encumbered positions that one happens to occupy and that one needs to be aware of the ability to exercise choice.

In the lively essay Civilizational Confinement, Prof. Sen goes onto discourage in no uncertain terms the approach to limiting identities to civilizations as was popularised by Samuel Huntington in his now famous book viz. “The Clash of Civilizations“. There are multiple bases that Prof. Sen points out to debunk this approach of which the most important being that there has been a continuous exchange between civilizations and so no one can and should claim exclusive ownership for what have come to be ideas that are now believed to have originated from their civilizations. For example there is an impression that Tolerance, Democracy, Science are typical values having origins in so called Western Civilizations. Prof. Sen debunks this as a myth and emphasises that many of these values have also been practiced in civilizations that thrived in Asia (India, China), Iran and Africa. On specific conflicts that one gets to see today e.g. Tamil vs. Sinhalese, Prof. Sen goes onto say that it has become a sort of fashion to abstract  what should be limited to contemporary political processes and machinations into higher historical paradigms — ascribing weight and intellectual soundness which they do not deserve in the first place. Cultivated theory, Prof Sen, feels can bolster uncomplicated bigotry. His words on the mistake of seeing India as a Hindu Civilization and thereby denying the syncretic nature of various influences are an eye opener. In a very gentlemanly manner Prof. Sen disagrees with both the approaches of theorists who believe in inevitable clash of civilizations and proponents of civilizational amity — for both in his view have accepted and given into identities that can be firmly tied to civilizations

With this as a background Prof. Sen turns his eye on the topic of Religious Affiliations and Muslim History — where he provides the reader with any number of examples from the past where Muslim rulers despite being Muslims have subscribed to the right of people to have multiple identites and thereby gently draws the reader to the point of futility of a religion centered analysis of people as a helpful way of understanding humanity. He also castigates the American approach to fight Islamic radicalism especially while undermining of the role of civil society all over the world. Also he specifically  deplores the role of western Goverments in not going beyond the Shia and Sunni differences in the muslim world when actually the diversity, outlook and temperament of the Muslim world is vastly wide.

In the chapter called West and Anti West, Prof.  Sen focuses on the role of colonialism in defining identities. The natural fallout in the colonised mind is to have both disaffection and admiration for the colonising power and thereby developing a reactive self perception. This perception has a tendency to gravitate towards rejection of democracy and personal liberty, distorted reading of intellectual and scientific history of the world, support for growth of religious fundamentalism and even international terrorism. In a nice example he dwells on the behaviour of leading lights of the earlier stages of independence movement of India in limiting the intellectual identity to the spiritual dimension leaving out the material dimension. This has been so because in a sense they have accepted the superiority of the colonising power in the area of material. The fall out of this being the neglect or rejection of critical areas related to education, science and development. Elsewhere in Asia this reactive self perception has led to the articulation of so called “Asian Values” of discipline, obedience and order as distinct from the western values of personal liberty and freedom. Prof. Sen argues that this kind articulation does not have any firm basis. He also cautions the western nations that they have immense responsibility for their past deeds as colonial powers in Africa and the need to help Africa build institutional mechanisms to enable root taking of democracy and freedom

In the chapter, Culture and Captivity, Prof. Sen debunks the myth of cultural determinism which in his opinion has been engendered by hazy perceptions of cultures combined with fatalism about the dominating power of culture. This led to ( in Prof. Sens words) the creation of imaginary slaves of illusory forces. The identities that got created on account of this cultural determinism have unleashed tremendous amount of cruelty all over the world.  Prof. Sen points out 2 classic examples of imagined truths and real policies. Firstly, the behaviour of Britain during the Irish Potato Famine, driven by the impression that women in Ireland cannot cook anything beyond potatoes and hence their over dependence on potato as the main ingredient in a Irish meal leading to shortages coupled with the perception of laziness of Irish people. Or that of the tendency of Indians to multiply in uncontrolled numbers leading to famine situations in Bengal. However the reality as we know today lies elsewhere. While acknowledging the role of the potency of culture, Prof. Sen also explains that culture needs to be placed in a broad framework and that culture is a) not uniquely significant factor in determining identities but that it is one among the many factors b)  is not homegeneous and hence a need to have a caution in broad brushing c)  is not still d) interacts with other social determinants. Given these Prof. Sen cautions that it is important to be able to clearly decide before swaying between either extremes of complete cultural liberty and cultural conservatism

In another chapter called Globalisation and Voice, Prof. Sen talks about the progress of globalisation and various voices against and for it. I have kind of understood that Prof. Sen talks about compassionate globalisation which should be combined with judicious policy making. However, I could not understand the linkages between globalisation and identities despite reading this topic twice over.

The penultimate chapter deals with the experience of various western countries with multi culturalism. Prof. Sen deplores the idea of practice of plural monoculturalism as a virtue when the need of the hour is true multiculturalism. While praising Britains’ experimentation with multiculturalism, Prof. Sen also deplores the British Govt’s attitude to encourage faith based schools for people and also putting the religious leaders of different faiths as spokepersons for the respective practitioners leading to automatic association of identities with religion. In an inspiring section in this chapter, Prof. Sen also elaborates the insistence of Gandhiji on the need for plural identities and equal representation to all involved in his negotiations with the British rulers. It is my conjecture that India’s predicament of the past and present with respect to managing multiculturalism can also become a pressing predicament for Britain (if it is already not) or for that matter any other western country with signifcant migrant populations

The last chapter ends with a caution around the penalities of solitarist identity illusion and also a very hopeful message of creating a harmonious world

The only aspect of the book that disappointed me was the lack of reference or citation to specific public policy instruments that have been successfully employed in combating the deleterious effects of identity politics.

All in all “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny” is a illuminating and sensitive book and Prof. Sen comes out as a great mind, a great academecian and humanitarian. It is a tragedy that such humanising views never get the wide attention they deserve in public discourse, forums or media.

An afterthought: I wonder what would the reaction of right wing politicians be when they read this book

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One Response to “Identity and Violence : Illusions of Destiny — By Amartya Sen — A review”

  1. Rishi said

    Another book that explores the subject of multiple identities and their implications on our actions is “Us and Them”, by David Barreby. The author points out how the aspect of identity is coded into our beings and how even supposedly rational groups like Scientists are not immune to its effects.

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