The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Indians must be encouraged to live out their multiple identities

Amartya Sen writes in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, “a Bangladeshi Muslim is not only a Muslim but also a Bengali and a Bangladeshi, typically quite proud of the Bengali language, literature and music, not to mention the other identities he or she may have connected with class, gender, occupation, politics, aesthetic taste, and so on”. Each of us has many identities that together mark us for who we are. When multiple identities give way to a single identity, the result is violence and discord.

One reason for the fracturing of Indian society in recent years may be the greater splintering of what was a composite identity in which all the different markers merged. Like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal with their dominant Hindu identities, for some Muslims, the religious identity overpowers the others. My own many identities include middle class, Indian, south Indian, Hindu, Brahmin, Madhwa, Vaishnavite, a particular gotra, from Bombay and Delhi universities, a student of commerce and economics, a manager, a marketing specialist, a research administrator, worked in companies and the National Council for Applied Economic Research, former central electricity regulator, at home in Kannada (as mother tongue) and in Tamil, Hindi and Marathi.

Each of these gives me a unique identity and a means to differentiate myself from others. My Vaishnavite identity can come to the fore in a Ranganatha temple, but is irrelevant and even harmful in an office. My Karnataka origin must not affect my impartiality as a national electricity regulator. It is important that we accept our multiple identities, without a single one becoming dominant except in specific contexts. Are Muslims in India now defining their identity only through religion and not by other markers of ethnic identity like language, place, and so on' Is this a sign of even greater alienation among Muslims than most of us realize'

An identity as a Muslim is perfectly valid in the mosque and in religious practices.There are detrimental consequences when that identity is opposed to other religious identities. It is worse when the religious identity is the predominant one and stretches to cover all the other identities possessed by an individual. This has happened in many countries where Saudi money, poverty, poor education and unemployment, and fundamentalist Muslim ideas confront other people’s identities. The result has been violence and discord, with rising intolerance on both sides.

A sense of even greater alienation among Muslims than I realized arises from a comparison of my first visit to Bangalore in 1956 and today. My driver then told me, in fluent Kannada, that he could also speak Urdu, although it was liberally sprinkled with Kannada. He was a Muslim, and Kannada was his mother tongue. Today, even if somebody is from Bangalore or Madras or Pune, more of the Muslims I meet do not claim to speak Kannada, Tamil or Marathi as the case may be. They say they are Muslims. Their religious identity dominates their linguistic identity.

Assertion of Muslim identity seems to be increasing in urban India. In the five years that I have lived in a mixed neighbourhood in Bangalore made up of Muslims, Christians and Hindus, there are far more full burqua-wearing Muslim women in the streets, and many of them young women. Whether it is because of community or peer pressure is unclear and hard to fathom. It is certainly distinguishable. A burqua-clad woman can only be a Muslim.

Nevertheless, a quiet ghettoization of Muslims appears to be taking place. Nor is this primarily a lower class phenomenon. Obviously, there is security from being together in numbers. This may have begun (and has since been proceeding quietly) after the Gujarat riots, and among the educated, after the gruesome murder of a former Congress Muslim member of parliament in Ahmedabad.

A community preferring to live together is not a new phenomenon. Hindu property-owners refuse non-Hindu renters; vegetarians do not want meat-eating neighbours; people prefer those who speak the same language, (except in Delhi where Punjabi property-owners prefer non-Punjabis and preferably south Indians), look for a common sub-caste or are in similar professions. These are undesirable signs of discrimination because of identity. Legislation will not stop such discrimination. It will be one more unenforceable law. What is more important is that there be no economic or social discrimination and that everyone has opportunities for education, a decent and safe life.

Think of some young Muslims of Pakistani ancestry in Britain, apparently no different from other Englishmen, who become terrorists or suicide bombers. Living away from their home country, born and educated in their new nation, they are searching for identities. Their adopted countries do not give them a secure identity. Religion has become their defining identity.

We are in danger of aggravating a dominant Muslim identity by profiling all Muslims as prospective terrorists as the West is doing. Scores of Muslims interrogated and placed in custody in Mumbai after the train bombings may only strengthen that identity over others. We are creating a situation in which our 140 million Muslims could be alienated from the country and from government. It has not happened generally yet, but could, unless we take corrective steps.

A Muslim identity for many today dominates other unique markers such as nationality, university, subject specialization and workplace. That is why some Muslim from Bangalore or Madras who knows Kannada prefers identifying himself as a Muslim, not a Kannadiga. This puts Islam as an identity above other identities in all contexts. Fortunately, there are very many who do not subscribe to this overwhelmingly Muslim identity. Rural India remains much more homogenous, with Muslims and others living together in harmony. It is in urban India that the explosive mixture of Saudi Arabian money and Wahabi fundamentalism is creating a major divide.

Hindu fundamentalists have exacerbated the situation. They do not understand Hinduism. Gandhiji said, “my regard for Hinduism and its beauties…did not, however, prejudice me against other religions”. The Hindu fundamentalists do not know that theirs is not a Hindu precept. We need to re-examine for ourselves whether correcting what many Hindus regard as misplaced in a secular India (like triple talaq, lack of a uniform national civil code, resisting compulsion in singing Vande Mataram) are as important and urgent as the need to regain mutual trust and confidence between communities. Using brute legislative majorities to change these by law will only aggravate the tensions and reinforce a purely religious identity among many.

Other social inequalities for Muslims like low higher education, and poor representation in civil services and management may have causes like poor leadership, sending children to purely religious schools, inadequate exposure to the English language, and so on. They are sometimes also manifestations of discrimination. Government action is essential to prevent discrimination in education, health services, nutrition programmes, selections for jobs, etc. and to improve access to these. However, government actions have been hesitant and ineffective. Inaction further ensures the dominance of a single identity.

We must recognize that unitary or single identities are dangerous to peace. We must encourage people in their multiple identities. This can come through active participation in elections, resident welfare associations, panchayats, sports groups, local inter-faith associations that meet regularly and not just at times of crises and the like. Amartya Sen quite rightly connected identity to violence. We must act to prevent the possibility of violence.

Email This Page