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31 July 2006

Finding our common ground

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen was once famously described as the "conscience of his

By Amartya Sen

My first exposure to murder occurred when I was 11. This was in 1944, in the communal riots that characterised the last years of the British Raj, which ended in 1947. I saw a profusely bleeding unknown person suddenly stumbling through the gate to our garden, asking for help and a little water. I shouted for my parents, while fetching some water for him. My father rushed him to the hospital, but he died there of his injuries. His name was Kader Mia.

The Hindu-Muslim riots that preceded independence also led the way to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The carnage erupted with dramatic suddenness, and it did not spare normally peaceful Bengal. Kader Mia was killed in Dhaka, then the second city (after Calcutta) of undivided Bengal, and which would become, after the partition, the capital of East Pakistan. My father taught at Dhaka University, and we lived in an area called Wari in old Dhaka, not far from the university, in what happened to be a largely Hindu area. Kader Mia was a Muslim, and no other identity was relevant for the vicious Hindu thugs who pounced on him. In that day of rioting, hundreds of Muslims and Hindus were killed by each other, and this would continue to happen day after day.

The carnage seemed to come from nowhere, but it was of course carefully orchestrated by sectarian prompting, linked in different ways to the fervent political demands for the partition of the country. The murderous riots would not last long; they would soon evaporate from both sides of post- partition Bengal. The vehemence of Hindu-Muslim violence would rapidly dissipate, bringing into prominence other features of human identity. Indeed, my city of Dhaka would, within a few years, burst into Bengali patriotism, with an intense celebration of Bengali language, literature, music and culture – common to both the Muslims and the Hindus of Bengal. The resurgence of an intense pride in the richness of a shared Bengali culture had importance on its own, since it had been eclipsed so severely during the bewildering fury of Hindu-Muslim violence. But it had strong political correlates as well, linked particularly with the resentment in East Pakistan (that is, the Bengali half of Pakistan) of the severe inequality of political power, linguistic status and economic opportunities between the two halves of the imperfectly integrated Islamic state.

The alienation of Bengalis within Pakistan would even tually lead, by December 1971, to the partition of Pakistan, and the formation of the new state of secular and democratic Bangladesh, with Dhaka as its new capital. In the carnage that occurred in Dhaka in March 1971, during the painful process of separation, with the Pakistani army’s frenzied attempt to suppress the Bengali rebellion, the identity divisions were along the lines of language and politics, not religion, with Muslim soldiers from West Pakistan brutalising – and killing – mainly Muslim dissenters (or suspected dissenters) in East Pakistan. From then the newly formed Mukti Bahini (“freedom brigade”) fought for outright independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The identity division that fed the “struggle for liberation” was firmly linked to language and culture (and, of course, to politics), rather than to any religious difference.

Over 60 years after Kader Mia’s death, as I try to recollect the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s, it is hard to convince myself that those terrible things did actually happen. But even though the communal riots in Bengal were entirely transitory and ephemeral (and the few cases in which riots have been fostered later on in other parts of India do not compare in size and reach with the events of the 1940s), they left in their wake thousands upon thousands of dead Hindus and Muslims. The political instigators who urged the killing (on behalf of what they called “our people”) managed to persuade many otherwise peaceable people of both communities to turn into dedicated thugs. They were made to think of themselves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.

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Even though the vast majority of both communities did not think in those narrowly frenzied terms, too many were suddenly trapped into that vicious mode of thinking, and the more savage among them – often at the troubled ends of each community – were induced to kill “the enemies who kill us” (as they were respectively defined). Many-sided persons were seen, through the hazy lenses of sectarian singularity as having exactly one identity each, linked with religion or, more exactly, religious ethnicity (since being a non-practitioner of one’s inherited religion would not give a person any immunity whatever from being attacked).

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Kader Mia, a Muslim day labourer, was knifed when he was on his way to a neighbouring house, for work at a tiny wage. He was knifed on the street by some people who did not even know him and most likely had never set eyes on him before. For an 11-year-old child, the event, aside from being a ver itable nightmare, was profoundly perplexing. Why should someone suddenly be killed? And why by people who did not even know the victim, who could not have done any harm to the killers? That Kader Mia would be seen as having only one identity – that of being a member of the “enemy” community who “should” be assaulted and if possible killed – seemed altogether incredible. For a bewildered child, the violence of identity was extraordinarily hard to grasp. It is not particularly easy even for a still bewildered elderly adult.

While he was being rushed to the hospital in our car, Kader Mia told my father that his wife had asked him not to go into a hostile area during the riot. But he had to go out in search of work, for a little income, because his family had nothing to eat. The penalty of that necessity, caused by economic dep rivation, turned out to be death. The terrible connection between economic poverty and comprehensive unfreedom (even the lack of freedom to live) was a profoundly shocking realisation that hit my young mind with overpowering force.

Kader Mia died as a victimised Muslim, but he also died as a poor, unemployed labourer looking desperately for a bit of work and a small amount of money for his family to survive in very difficult times. The poorest members of any community are the easiest to kill in these riots, because they have to go out utterly unprotected in search of daily subsistence and their rickety shelters can easily be penetrated and ravaged by gangs. In the Hindu-Muslim riots, Hindu thugs killed poor Muslim underdogs with ease, while Muslim thugs assassinated impoverished Hindu victims with abandon. Even though the community identities of the two groups of brutalised prey were quite different, their class identities (as poor labourers with little economic means) were much the same. But no identity other than religious ethnicity was allowed to count. The illusion of a uniquely confrontational reality had thoroughly reduced human beings and eclipsed the protagonists’ freedom to think.

The cultivation of violence

Sectarian violence across the world today is no less crude, nor less reductionist, than it was 60 years ago. Underlying the coarse brutality, there is also a big conceptual confusion about people’s identities, which turns multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures.

Hating people is not easy. Ogden Nash’s poem “Plea for Less Malice Toward None” got this just right: “Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,/But hating, my boy, is an art.” How does this “art” work? The illusion of singular identity is skilfully cultivated and fomented by the commanders of persecution and carnage. It is not remarkable that generating this illusion would appeal to those who are in the business of fomenting violence. But there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful. To see a person exclusively in terms of only one of his or her many identities is a deeply crude intellectual move, and yet, judging from its effectiveness, it is evidently easy to champion and promote.

The martial art of fostering violence draws on some basic instincts and uses them to crowd out the freedom to think and the possibility of composed reasoning. But it also draws on a kind of logic – a fragmentary logic. The specific identity that is separated out for special action is, in most cases, a genuine identity of the person to be recruited: a Hutu is indeed a Hutu, a “Tamil tiger” is clearly a Tamil, a Serb is not an Albanian, and a Gentile German with a mind poisoned by Nazi philosophy is certainly a Gentile German. What is done to turn that sense of self-understanding into a murderous instrument is (1) to ignore the relevance of all other affil iations and associations, and (2) to redefine the demands of the “sole” identity in a particularly belligerent form. This is where the nastiness as well as the conceptual confusions are made to creep in.

The low edge of high theory

Forcing people into boxes of singular identity is a feature also of many of the high theories of cultures and civilisations that are quite influential right now. These theories do not advocate or condone violence – far from it. However, they try to understand human beings not as persons with diverse identities but predominantly as members of one particular social group or community.

For example, civilisational classifiers have often pigeonholed India as a “Hindu civilisation” – a description that, among other things, pays little attention to India’s more than 145 million Muslims (not to mention Indian Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsees and others), and also ignores the extensive interconnections among the people of the country that do not work through religion at all, but through political, social, economic, commercial, artistic, musical or other cultural activities. In a less straightforward way, the powerful school of communitarian thinking also hallows exactly one identity per human being, based on community membership, and in effect downplays all other affiliations that make human beings the complex and intricate social creatures that we are.

It is, in this context, interesting to recollect that communitarian thinking began, at least partly, as a constructive approach to identity, by trying to appreciate a person in his or her “social context”. But what began as an entirely estimable theoretical attempt at seeing human beings more “fully” and more “socially” has ended up with a highly restricted understanding of a person mainly as a member of exactly one group.

The artificial diminution of human beings into singular identities can have divisive effects, making the world potentially much more incendiary. For example, the reductionist characterisation of India as a “Hindu civilisation” referred to earlier has drawn much applause from sectarian activists of the so-called Hindutva movement. Similarly, theories of Islamic exclusiveness, combined with ignoring the relevance of all the other identities Muslims have (in addition to their religious affiliations), can be utilised to provide the conceptual basis for a violent version of jihad (a pliable term that can be invoked for fierce incitement as well as for peaceful endeavour). This can be seen plentifully in the recent history of what is misleadingly called Islamic terrorism. The historical richness of different identities of Muslims, as scholars, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, historians, architects, painters, musicians, or writers, can be overwhelmed by the advocacy of a belligerently religious identity – with devastating effects.

There is no reason why the discontented Muslim activists today have to concentrate only on the religious achievements of Islam in deciding what they can do to change the contemporary world, which they associate with systematic humiliation and inequality. Similarly, on the other side, in resisting and fighting terrorism of this kind, there is good reason to invoke the richness of the many identities of human beings, not just their religious identity. Sometimes the singularity is even narrower than what the general category of being Islamic would allow. The distinction between Shias and Sunnis, for example, has been powerfully utilised for the purpose of sectarian violence between these two Muslim groups, from Pakistan to Iraq.

The integrity of Iraq is, of course, hampered by many historical factors, including the arbitrariness of its boundaries, determined by western colonialists, and the inescapable divisiveness caused by an arbitrary and ill-informed military intervention. But in addition, the sect-based political approach of the occupation leaders (not altogether different from the British official approach to colonial India about which Gandhi complained so much) has added much fuel to the fire.

Since the US-led political initiative has tended to see Iraq as a collectivity of religious communities, rather than one of citizens, the negotiations have almost all been focused on the decisions and utterances of leaders of religious communities. This was certainly the easy way to proceed, given the tensions that already existed in the country and, of course, the new ones the occupation itself had created. But the easiest route in the short run is not always the best.

Gandhi referred to the fostering and prioritisation of such community-based unique identification as the “vivisection” of a nation, and there are good reasons for political concern about such sectionalisation. It is also critically important to take note of the plurality of Iraqi identities, including gender and class as well as religion. One recollects Gandhi’s reminder to the British prime minister, running the Raj in 1931, that women “happen to be one-half of the population of India” – a line of thinking of relevance to contemporary Iraq as well.

The solitarist illusion has implications also for the way global identities are seen and invoked. If a person can have only one identity, then the choice between the national and the global becomes an “all or nothing” contest. But to see the problem in these stark and exclusive terms reflects a misunderstanding. A number of economic, social and poli tical problems have global dimensions, and the policy issues that relate to them have urgently to be addressed. There is a strong case for institutional reforms that would make glo balisation a fairer arrangement. The adversities faced by the vulnerable and the insecure have to be addressed on different fronts, by national policies, international initiatives and institutional reforms.

There is also an issue of intellectual fairness in dealing with global history, which is important both for a fuller understanding of humanity’s past and for overcoming the false sense of comprehensive superiority of the west. For example, while there has been some discussion recently about the need for people of immigrant backgrounds in Europe or America to learn more about western civilisation, there is still extra ordinarily little recognition of the importance of the need for the “old Brits”, “old Germans”, “old Americans” and others to learn about the intellectual history of the world.

A possible world

It is often claimed that it is impossible to have, in the foreseeable future, a democratic global state. This is indeed so, and yet if democracy is seen in terms of public reasoning, we need not put the possibility of global democracy in indefinite cold storage. It is not an “all or nothing” choice. Many institutions can be invoked in this exercise of global identity, including the United Nations, but there is also the possibility of committed work, which has already begun, by citizens’ organisations, many non-government institutions, and independent parts of the news media.

There is an important role for the global justice movement. Washington and London may be irritated by the widely dispersed criticism of their strategy in Iraq, just as Chicago or Paris or Tokyo may be appalled by so-called anti-globalisation protests. The protesters are not invariably correct, but many of them do ask relevant questions. There is a compelling need in the contemporary world to ask questions not only about the economics and politics of globalisation, but also about the values, ethics and sense of belonging that shape our conception of the global world. But global identity can begin to receive its due without eliminating our other loyalties.

In a very different context, dealing with his integrated understanding of the Caribbean (despite its immense varieties of races, cultures, preoccupations and historical backgrounds), Derek Walcott wrote:

I have never found that moment
when the mind was halved by a horizon
for the goldsmith from Benares,
the stonecutter from Canton,
as a fishline sinks, the horizon
sinks in the memory.

In resisting the miniaturisation of human beings, we can also open up the possibility of a world that can overcome the memory of its troubled past and subdue the insecurities of its present. As an 11-year-old boy I could not do much for Kader Mia as he lay bleeding with his head on my lap. But I imagined another universe, not beyond our reach, in which he and I can jointly affirm our many common identities. We have to make sure, above all, that our mind is not halved by a horizon.

“Identity and Violence” is published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press (£16.99)