Monday, August 24, 2009
Identity: Choice & Inheritance
The Idea of Justice, a new book by Prof Amartya Sen, economist and prolific writer, has recently been published.
Read the review of the book in The Economist.
I had attended the Netaji Oration by Prof Amartya Sen in Calcutta, on 27 December 2007, where he spoke on "Is Nationalism a Curse or a Boon?". The full-text version of the lecture is available in The Oracle, journal of the Netaji Research Bureau, Calcutta. (See pages 16-25 of the pdf version of the journal here).
I remember I had written a response to Prof Sen's lecture. That is reproduced below.
Dear Prof Sen
I am writing to you after hearing your talk at Netaji Bhavan, Calcutta, yesterday on "Nationalism".
As a student and teacher of economics from Calcutta, it was a privilege to hear you speak.
I have been working among squatters and slum-dwellers in Calcutta since 1984. In 1996, while working as a consultant on a govt of West Bengal planning project, I came upon infant mortality figures from Howrah Municipal Corporation. This showed a significant infant mortality rate differential between Hindus and Muslims. Eventually that led to my working in Priya Manna Basti, a century-old jute workers slum in the Shibpur area of Howrah. This is today home to over 40,000 people, mainly Urdu-speakin Muslims.
That work continues, in an attempt to build grassroots youth capabilities and leadership for slum community development. The work has been akin to a live laboratory, on poverty in the metropolitan Calcutta Muslim slum context. Through the work it was possible to understand that the Hindu-Muslim infant mortality rate differential was a kind of proxy indicator of slum - non-slum differentials in environmental health risks, besides indicating the existence of deep-rooted institutional barriers to securing adequate municipal services in Muslim slums. It is by looking at the disaggregated health statistics of cities that one begins to understand the nature of inequalities and inequities characterising the city, and their impact on the poor. And it is by trying to unearth the causes of differentials that one comes face to face with the meaning, forms and manifestations of prejudice.
Working with the poorest section in the slum, it was also possible to discern the crippling large-scale and long-term impact of the Urdu-medium education system in metropolitan Calcutta. One consequence of this is the phenomenon of "reverse discrimination" in schooling, where boys drop out of school after a meagre amount of schooling and begin working, while girls continue in and often finish school.
I mention all this by way of context, to touch upon the idea that nationalism can also gloss over real differences in power among different religious communities, which persist and make nationalism something devoid of any substantive meaning or even emotive power. With acute segregation of communities and the lack of substantive intercourse between them, the conditions in which the have-nots live is not part of "mainstream" consciousness. And in such a context, raising the issue of these real and persistent differences is seen as "anti-national" or even "communal", depraved and sick, especially in today's "emergent India" situation.
In your talk you spoke about chosen identity in contrast to inherited identity. That struck a very personal chord, since I have long been troubled by the inappropriateness of upholding something that happens to coincide with an identity inherited merely by chance. Professing something which is based on conscious choice always seemed stronger to me. Nationalism cannot be at the cost of anything else, it must be without prejudice to any other identification. For otherwise, it would be devoid of meaning for one possessing that identity. If one had inherited that identity by chance, then such a nationalism would have been something alien.
You must be aware of the work on "Allophilia" by your Harvard colleague Prof Todd Pittinsky. He looks at warm, exuberant feelings towards other people -national, religious, racial or social. That is something coming out of conscious choice, rather than inherited identity. One can think of the feelings towards India, the land of the Buddha, among Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet, Japan etc. The feeling about Sri Lanka, the land of the Buddhist canon, among followers of Buddha's teachings. The feelings towards India and West Bengal among a section of people in Bangladesh. The feelings towards the people of Vietnam among people in Calcutta and West Bengal during the Vietnam war.
Perhaps this issue of "Choice & Inheritance" could be the subject of your forthcoming thinking and writing!
Here it would be germane to mention the mystic tradition. In India we have many examples like Kabir, whose own identity (religious) was ambiguous, he was non-denominational as well as multi-denominational. Rather than hold on to one identity inherited by chance, mystics talk of finding one's true identity, unobscured by the veil of illusion cast by the false notion of "self". One must choose one's true inheritance, as a human.
As someone close in so many ways to Rabindranath Tagore, you would be familiar with the name of Evelyn Underhill (with whom Tagore translated Kabir's poems), and her classic work Mysticism. In this 800th anniversary year of the great Persian mystic and poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, I look forward to reading your thinking drawing upon the mystic tradition, and bringing this to the fold of the issues and subjects of your concern.
With my best wishes and respectful regards,