Monday, May 15, 2006

Sen's crisis of identity (May 15, 2006)

Book Review by Swapan Dasgupta

Identity And Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, London, 2006) 215 pages. Rs 295

If, as the stand-up comic used to say, all Chinese look the same, it surely follows that billions of people must think and react the same. An absurd proposition, you may say, as absurd as the question we often get asked during travels overseas: “Do you speak Indian?”

Yet, for thousands of years, the most intelligent minds have devoted themselves to the daunting project of reducing the behavioural patterns of communities and nations to convenient shorthand. It began with intrepid travellers like Al-Beruni suggesting—with some prescience—that Hindus have no sense of history. In the age of Empire, it evolved into ethnography as adventurers and civil servants tried to stereotype unfamiliar peoples into the good, the bad and the ugly. Thus was born the image of the noble savage, the criminal tribe, the sinister Chinaman and the wily Brahmin.

In the absence of familiarity with too many individuals, the tendency to generalise was compelling. “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe”, proclaimed Lord Cornwallis, the second Governor-General of the East India Company’s possessions in India, “is corrupt.” A hundred years later, Lord Curzon triggered a fierce controversy by telling the Calcutta University convocation that “truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute.”

In terms of profundity, these insights into what constitutes the national character and identity are about as revealing as the Hungarian George Mikes’ belief that the English prefer hot water bottles to sex or Bill Bryson’s suggestion that the best way to start an argument in an English pub is to ask for directions.

Amartya Sen is repelled by the suggestion that the very complex issue of both personal and collective identity can, through a process of “extraordinary descriptive crudeness and historical innocence”, be seriously distorted. To him, there is nothing more offensive than the “solitarist” approach—the suggestion that identity is one-dimensional. “In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups—we belong to all of them… Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when the manifold divisions in the world are unified into one allegedly dominant system of classification—in terms of religion, or community, or culture, or nation, or civilisation. The uniquely partitioned world is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse categories that shape the world in which we live.”

Translated into English and in the context of liberal academia’s post-9/11 disorientation, Sen is suggesting that terms like Islamic terrorism and “clash of civilisations” be declared haram and banished to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Sen’s anguish is understandable. When mad men get it into their heads to assault civilisation, aesthetes tend to fall back on decency. In 1941, as Hitler was trying to bomb England into submission, George Orwell penned a memorable essay on identity and patriotism. In “England your England”, he argued that “We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official…”

Just as Sen probably found George W. Bush’s over-bearing cowboy patriotism abhorrent, Orwell was perhaps put off by the loquacious bulldog patriotism of Winston Churchill, not to mention the sanctimonious Stalinism of Leftist intellectuals. He posited a more variegated Englishness than what the trumpeters of King and Country allowed for. In a similar vein, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—a film Churchill wanted to ban—tried to gently suggest that all Germans aren’t evil Nazis.

There will be few takers for the suggestion that Osama bin Laden is the personification of the entire Muslim ummah. For all the Islamophobia that has allegedly crept into the West after 9/11 and 7/7, ordinary Muslims haven’t experienced a vicious wave of retribution. On the contrary, “moderate” Muslims have been presented with more avenues for self-improvement than is strictly warranted by their strategic clout. In a frenzied bid to ensure that Samuel Huntingdon’s “clash of civilisations” doesn’t end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Muslims are being told by the likes of Sen that any Islamic identity can’t be exclusive and has to be tempered by other overlapping identities.

The prospect of millions of Muslims suddenly realising that they have an equal identity as amateur gardeners, philatelists and culinary advisers to Bangladeshi restaurants in Britain is attractive. However, it is about as relevant as the suggestion that Hitler should have been advised there was greater percentage in embracing Mahatma Gandhi on the common plank of vegetarianism.

The important thing is not that people have different identities and different facets to their personality. What Sen’s eminently readable monograph skirts is why and under what circumstances one identity subsumes the rest. It is crass, we all know, to look at the world in black and white. But what do we do when millions decide that the religious community is all important? Educating them that preceding generations of co-religionists were devoted to mathematics and gardening is unlikely to help matters.

And talking of math, how does Sen claim that Akbar completed “his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all”? “Minority rights” for 90 per cent of the population!

(Published in Businessworld, May 15, 2006)

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