IDENTITY AND VIOLENCE: THE ILLUSION OF DESTINY by Amartya Sen. Norton, March 2006. Hardcover, 197 pages. $24.95.
I am Rajeshkumar C. Oza. At least that is what my passport documents. This passport allows me to pass between portals guarded by immigration officers. On my journey to Self-i-sthan (“sthan” means “land” in Hindi; thus, “Self-i-sthan” is land of self-awareness), passports are helpful reminders that I live in a world shared with over six billion other humans, who have a right to their own Self-i-sthans. The challenge we all face is to see each other for who we are, or aspire to be, as whole human beings, not just as citizens bounded by nation states, religions, or even by particular civilizations. In Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen effectively argues that “the main hope of harmony in the contemporary world may well lie in an appropriate recognition of the plurality of our identities and in the use of reasoning and choice as inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates incarcerated in little containers.”
In my traditional Rajasthani village of Bisalpur, I was known. My identity was fixed in my last name and my middle name: I was an Oza, a Shrimali Brahmin; I was Chhaganlal’s son, receiving my father’s given name as my middle name. Identity and Violence effectively makes the case for the pluralism within each one of us. This case helps the reader resist overly simple stereotypes of people as “those Indians” or “those Hindus” or “those Bisalpuriyas” or “those Brahmins.” Sen passionately asks the reader to think of themselves and others as complex beings comprised of many identities.
The global village is replete with identities: imposed identities, assumed identities, evolving identities, hidden identities, and mistaken identities. Sen suggests several factors that affect identity: “citizenship, residence, geographic origin, gender, class, politics, profession, employment, food habits, sports interests, taste in music, social commitments, etc.” While modernity’s passport allows me to move freely within most parts of the global village, it shatters my traditional mirror into billions of pieces, rendering even my fellow Bisalpuri villagers’ perception of me as undependable. In a world edged with shards of reflecting glass, Sen challenges the reader to make choices. He helpfully suggests that “two different, though interrelated, exercises are involved here: “(1) deciding on what our relevant identities are, and (2) weighing the relative importance of these different identities. Both tasks demand reasoning and choice.”
In a time when a Danish newspaper’s inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad can seemingly put so much of the world up in flames, it is necessary to pay attention to reasoned voices that push back against the faulty, but influential, “clash of civilizations” thesis first put forth by Samuel Huntington and subsequently echoed by many others who believe in the singularity of identity and the inevitability of conflict based on that singularity. Sen’s voice is both reasonable and hopeful in its articulation of plurality not just in the world but also in each individual person. Insisting that we are not “imprisoned in our installed locations and affiliations,” Sen ends his book on an upbeat note:
In resisting the miniaturization 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 difficult present … I imagine another universe, not beyond our reach, in which [we] jointly affirm our many common identities.
—Rajesh C. Oza