Review of Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence”


‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’
Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, 2006, 215 pg.

‘Arab-looking Sri Lankan journalist’ said the caption of the photo in the Sunday edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. That was me, a bearded Indian working for a Sri Lankan video production house, whose mug had been captured by the local media while arguing with a Filipino policeman who wanted to take me into custody.

The times were quite extraordinary of course. I had landed in the Philippines on 10 September 2001 to do a television feature on Rusty Delizo, a young Filipino peace activist, as part of a series on socially engaged youth in Asia. The next day the infamous terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York happened. This incident above occurred just five days later when Rusty and his friends decided to do an anti-war demonstration outside the US embassy in Manila.

Though the place was swarming with journalists, both local and foreign, the Filipino police made a beeline for me. With my dark beard and skin color and given the paranoid situation everywhere after the WTC attacks I must have looked nothing less than Bin Laden’s brother to them.

For the local media too, despite my explaining I was a harmless Indian journalist, the temptation to call me ‘Arab looking’ was too much to pass by. By that count there are perhaps a billion ‘Arab looking’ characters in India alone not speaking of the millions more in the rest of South Asia. To provoke some more balanced thinking I was compelled to ask one radio program host in Manila what the Filipino police would have done if Jesus Christ, undoubtedly the world’s greatest Arab-Palestinian with a long beard, had turned up on the streets of this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

I was lucky of course to get away without more serious trouble on that day but ever since September 11 for thousands of ‘Arab looking’ people the going has been pretty rough indeed. With governments around the globe looking out for Arabs/Muslims as a potential threat to security one’s physical identity itself has become a deadly liability- that can result in arrest, torture and even murder for simply appearing the way one does.

It is precisely this link between popular perceptions of who represents what and violence of different kinds that forms the subject of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s latest book ‘Identity and Violence’. The book is essentially a collection of a series of lectures delivered by Sen on the subject at various venues around the world since 2000.

I have deliberately chosen not to identify Amartya Sen, as an ‘Indian’ economist – for Sen’s central thesis in his book is that “the same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a feminist, a heterosexual….”

In other words everyone on this planet has multiple identities and prioritizing one identity eg., ‘Indian or Pakistani or Muslim or Christian’ over the others can result in a very simplistic understanding of the person and what he/she really represents. Sen argues that reductionist, one-dimensional  notions of X or Y religion being a promoter of ‘terrorism’, certain communities being made up of ‘ usurious money lenders’ or yet again people from certain countries being ‘ rabid communists’ often lie at the heart of sectarian violence and even genocide.

Sen touchingly tells the story of how as a child he was witness to the mindless killings that accompanied the Hindu-Muslim riots in the run up to the Partition of India.  One incident in particular, the murder of Kader Mia a day labourer just outside his home in pre-Partition Dhaka made a deep and lasting impact on Sen, who was just eleven years old then.

In fact what is interesting throughout the book is the identity that Sen himself adopts – not that of a ‘ Nobel Prize winning economist’ but as a very ordinary concerned citizen making a fervent appeal for moderation, tolerance and above all human imagination.

Sen passionately rails against what he calls the ‘solitarist’ approach, under which people are neatly but very wrongly partitioned into Western or Eastern, Muslim or Christian or Hutu and Tutsi and even as being Pro-Globalization and Anti-Globalization- with no space for the assumption and exercise of other identities. “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one singe hardened line of impenetrable division” he writes.

At the level of popular discourse there is no doubt at all that Sen’s plea for the recognition of multiple identities and diversity of differences as a way of increasing tolerance between people is very appealing.

This especially at a time when George Bush Jr., the leader of the world’s only superpower constantly talks in the dumb rhetoric of ‘ good versus evil’ or ‘ if you are not with us you are against us’ with obviously horrific consequences. Just in the past couple of years or so the US war on Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians whose multiple identities were first unfairly conflated into the category ‘terrorist’ and then their persona blown to pieces by the blind rage of some so called smart bomb.

But is it really possible to pin the blame for all sectarian, communal and nationalist violence the globe witnesses today on the inability of people to perceive the multiple identities of others? Would that not be as simplistic and reductionist an approach to take towards the phenomenon of violence as the perpetrators of violence take towards identity? How are identities really formed and very crucially how are they linked to more tangible, real-life processes that go on in the world? Again, while it is true that everyone has multiple identities what else, apart from sheer mental laziness, compels one person to prioritize one of these many identities over all others?

Unfortunately for the reader Sen refuses to engage his brilliant mind to these important questions, leaving a feeling that the subject has been dealt with much passion but insufficient depth.

For the Indian reader in particular a glaring omission in the book is the lack of analysis of the country’s caste system- arguably the world’s most horrendous example of how identity and socially engineered labels are linked to violence. The caste system by associating certain identities- upper caste denominations like Brahmin and Kshatriya with power and privilege while disempowering others – ‘untouchables’ and ‘shudras’- has in fact institutionalized violence on a daily basis in Indian society.

But to blame the caste system on ‘perceptions’ of individuals alone or promote the recognition of ‘multiple identities’ as a solution would be highly misleading too.

For while it is easy to argue, as Sen proposes in his book,  that a Dalit is also a human being, a father, a neighbour and a wonderful singer the fact is that to accept him as equal in society has implications in terms of sharing of wealth and power. After all at the root of this reified hierarchy of identities in the Indian caste system is really the quest for hegemony over resources in the real world.

The upper castes of India possess not just abstract ‘prestige’ but also very tangible assets, wealth, weapons and control over political power – all of this won over the centuries with a mix of raw violence, religious and culturally sophistry. Identity in this case is the culmination of a long process of violent struggle, even before it acquires a power of its own and becomes the cause of new bouts of violence.

The brutal wars and conflicts that mark the birth or partition of nation states is another example of how identities are byproducts in the more fundamental battles over geographical and other strategic assets. It is not a coincidence at all that in many struggles for national independence even today natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, water and forests play such a crucial role in the very construction of identity.

All this leads to the intriguing possibility that identity and the way it is used in the real world may in many cases be merely an expression of property and power relations in any society- an idea that somebody of Sen’s caliber could have easily elaborated to great effect.

For example while the popular media is agog everywhere with stories of  the Clash between Civilisations- interpereted purely in religious terms- the real ongoing war in the world may be in terms of lifestyles and use (or misuse) of resources. In a world of limited resources the drive for consumption by some can very well be the death knell of others who happen to be merely sitting on top of valuable resources. A prime example of this is the US war on Iraq prompted to a large extent by the unquenchable thirst for oil of the American public.

In one of the chapters of ‘Identity and Violence’ Sen – taking on for once the mantle of an economist – dwells at length on the issue of how the labels of globalization and anti-globalization are fraught with gross simplifications of positions and perceptions. Some aspects of globalization he argues can actually result in benefits for the underdog and need not be imperialist while the anti-globalization movement is in fact fighting for a better ‘global’ order and can thus be seen as a part of globalization itself.

Without commenting on the merits or demerits of Sen’s position on globalization I would like to point out that the way he approaches the discussion – merely analyzing the semantics of the term ‘globalization’ – is not in keeping with the rest of the book’s focus on identity and violence. What would have been far more fruitful for example is the exploration of violence engendered by seemingly innocuous economic identities such as ‘developed’ and ‘under developed’ or ‘market-friendly’ and ‘pro-reform’ in the perpetuation of certain kinds of violence in the world.

In fact it can easily be argued that the greatest violence in modern history – as evidenced by all of Western colonialism- has been perpetrated by the so called ‘civilised’ preying upon the resources of the ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ using the latter terms as excuses for such looting.

Identities such as ‘developed’, ‘developing’, ‘progressive’ and ‘backward’ have played a key role in the shaping of economic and social policies in country after country with all the negative consequences of such policies being brushed aside as a ‘trade off’ for achieving ‘prosperity’.

For example most middle class urban dwellers in much of India cannot understand why the ‘backward’ and ‘under developed’ populations of the Narmada valley in central India or the jungles of Orissa do not want to make way for large dam and mining projects that will result in ‘national development’. Here of course, using the apartheid logic of the caste system,  most of them identify the interests of the ‘nation’ with their own ‘development’.

The alleged ‘backwardness’ of the Dalits and Adivasis on the other hand becomes a justification for the use of force by the state machinery to oust them from their traditional lands on which they have lived for centuries but do not possess ‘identity’ (read ‘ownership) papers for. Here it is not the absence of multiple identities but the absence of any identity at all that facilitate the most barbaric acts of violence against people ‘invisible’ to the eye of elites with overgrown identities.

To sum up, Sen’s book is certainly a welcome addition to discussion on the politics of identity and violence – a subject of immense relevance to the world we live in today. But precisely because of the importance of the subject one is a bit disappointed that the publishers do not seem to have got Sen to go deeper into the subject and explore it in all its dimensions.

The net result is a book that seems to be hastily put together, is patchy and repetitive in parts and superficial in its treatment of the issues on hand. It is surely a body of work that one cannot fully identify with somebody of Sen’s stature.

Satya Sagar is a writer, journalist and video maker living in New Delhi. He can be reached at sagarnama@yahoo.com

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