Who are we? How do we define ourselves? Do we make our own definitions or are we told to follow the definitions of others? We are not just human beings – there’s a lot more to who we are: our nationality, our gender, our religion, our sexuality, our caste, our language, our culture, our food, the list could go on. Our identity is thus not one, but many. And at different moments we play one identity ahead of another. While representing our country, our nationality takes precedence over other identities; to visit the temple, mosque or church our religious identity gets foregrounded; while ordering food in the restaurant, being a vegan becomes more important than our gender identity. It’s this plurality of identities that actually define who we are and not any singular idea of nationality or religion. What makes identities more interesting is that every person around us is a combination of a range of identities that ultimately makes for a colourful, vibrant and diverse society.
Diversity is thus at the core of how we define ourselves. But if it is so obvious that diversity is a part of life, why do we have conflicts over identities? Conflicts that result in millions dying and leave entire civilisations scarred for life – from what happened during the Nazi holocaust, to apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, the Gujarat pogrom, to Darfur and the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. These and many more are cruel fallouts of conflicts of identity. These conflicts forcefully attempted to wipe out diversity and establish the supremacy of one singular identity over others.
The reason for conflicts because of identities is then connected to the understanding that there exists in our minds a hierarchy of most legitimate to least legitimate identities, where we naturally feel respect towards some identities and deride, and even hate, others. This does not necessarily happen at a global level only – this contempt towards other identities is something that we experience in our everyday lives as well. Take the case of cricket matches between India and Pakistan. Those who accuse Indian Muslims of rooting for Pakistan, do so because they see only the religious identity and nothing else. If you’re Muslim, you must be on the side of a Muslim State goes this reasoning, which puts religious identity before any other. The campaign mounted by some political parties to keep people from other states out of Maharashtra is based on emphasising regional identity, while the attack on women in a pub in Mangalore was directed against women in a particular cultural context.
This hierarchy of identities is formed also because we attach stereotypes to identities, and believe that each identity must have certain immutable characteristics and those even with little resemblance to the stereotype must be labelled with that identity. Conversely, if people with the stereotypical characteristics attached to an identity do not conform to the behaviour expected of them, we castigate them. The way we dress says a lot about our identity. Certain kinds of clothing reflect our class identity – like the way we dress can allow us unquestioned access to a pub, or a shopping mall. A woman in a burqa will undoubtedly be considered Muslim. Or for a married woman to wear the sindoor and mangalsutra makes her Hindu. It is expected that women would conform to these ways of dressing and if they don’t it will be regarded as not following religious customs or traditions. But what happens when a Muslim woman chooses to marry a Hindu man, or the other way round? Does her religious identity change along with her husband’s? Why can’t she retain her original religious identity? If religious identity changes along with a woman’s marriage, why do her other identities, such as gender, nationality or sexuality, not change? There are no straightforward answers to these questions. But they do point to the complexity of identities and how society identifies with a singular identity, when we might identify ourselves with multiple ones.
The hierarchy of identities is formed when people try and break out of what is considered the stereotypical characteristics of that identity. When in spite of being a woman, she chooses to dress in men’s clothes, or as a heterosexual one supports gay rights, or one chooses to marry someone from outside one’s caste. Those identities on top of the hierarchy are referred to as the majority and the ones down the hierarchy are minorities. Clearly, there’s a strong difference in the kind of societal power and standing that majoritarian identities have – like upper-caste Hindus in India, despite it being a secular country, or blacks in pre-independent South Africa where they were minorities in spite of being the numerical majority.
Since hierarchy of identities breeds contempt for those below and results in conflict, there are two ways to challenge the hierarchy. First is to embrace diversity and learn to live with differences. It is necessary that we accept that the more identities people have, the more vibrant our society will be; new and diverse ideas will be fostered, and ultimately we will learn more about differences than we could imagine. This embrace must be accompanied by a challenge to any idea of a singular majoritarian identity which cannot tolerate the existence of plurality and always attempts to thrust itself on minority identities. At the same time, celebrating diversity cannot be used to overlook the violence that is inherent in some identities. We cannot allow caste to flourish in the name of diversity because it is founded on the concept of exclusion, just as denying equal rights to women cannot be justified on the basis of upholding religious identity. Nor can violent assertions of religious identity be allowed to exist on the grounds of diversity. Therefore, we need to be careful to distinguish between identities that empower and the ones that disadvantage.
Conflicts over identities exist because we tend to understand identities as static and unchanging. Through time and across diverse locations meanings of what makes you a Hindu, Muslim, Indian or Mumbaikar changes manifold. For instance, the kind of religious orthodoxy that a third-generation Indian immigrant in the USA might show might sound strange to a young professional in India. A large number of young Americans of Indian origin join religious groups during their college days to feel a sense of community. This might sound completely absurd to college-goers in India who are busy joining AISEC, organising inter-college festivals or preparing for future careers. Clearly, the connections that we generally tend to make between the West and being liberal might not be as causal as we think.
‘Traditional’ and ‘modern’ identities have been forged as the world has become more homogenous with globalisation. The powerful influence of liberal western culture, that tends to dominate in a globalised world, has created divisions within newly globalised societies, pitting traditional against modern, as also sharpening the differences between those who can partake of the new prosperity and those who cannot. It is also not a given that as societies modernise and develop, they become more liberal.
Take the case of Gujarat, supposed to be one of India’s most economically developed states and also the one where Muslims live in constant fear in dingy ghettoes. While modernity offers the promise of ironing out differences between conflicting identities, it can also entrench it because people want to keep the hierarchy intact. India saw the worst communal conflicts after it liberalised the economy in 1991, with the Babri Masjid demolition followed by the Mumbai riots in 1993.
Events like this raise the bigger question of national identity. In a society where people can be segregated, discriminated against, or killed because of their religious, caste, regional or class identity, Arundhati Roy’s questions should lead us to introspect on the idea of India and being an Indian: “Is there such a thing as an Indian identity? Do we really need one? Who is an authentic Indian and who isn’t? Is India Indian? Does it matter? Whether or not there has ever been a single civilisation that could call itself ‘Indian Civilisation’, whether or not India was, is, or ever will become a cohesive cultural entity, depends on whether you dwell on the differences or the similarities in the cultures of the people who have inhabited the subcontinent for centuries.”
Given this quandary of how to resolve identity conflicts to usher in diversity – we must not only celebrate diversity but also strongly resist the imposition of identities that discriminate. While we need to think of a rainbow planet when it comes to colour, religion and sexuality, we need to as powerfully challenge caste and abolish it. Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence illustrates how we can make diversity flourish in a world marred by identity-based conflicts. He says: “The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician”. He continues “Being able to choose one’s identity without losing the respect of others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life. People want to practise their religion openly, to speak their language, to celebrate their ethnic or religious heritage without fear of ridicule or punishment or diminished opportunity. People want the freedom to participate in society without having to slip off their chosen cultural moorings. It is a simple idea, but profoundly unsettling.”
A singular identity is not our destiny and categorising civilisations and cultures as good, evil, backward and progressive does not capture the messiness of the world. Our world is made more unsafe to live in because of definitions of human identity that are constantly at war to prove their supremacy over another, rather than embrace the many different facets that make us human and enable us to live happily with our differences with others.