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'Like every human being, I have many identities'
Arthur J Pais

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August 18, 2006
My first exposure to murder occurred when I was eleven,' Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen reminisces in his latest book Identity and Violence, where he recalls how he found an unknown person stumbling through the gate of his house in Dhaka and begging for help, for a little water.

His father rushed the man to hospital, only for him to succumb to his injuries. 'His name was Kader Mia,' Sen writes.

The character makes a brief but unforgettable appearance in the book where Sen, currently a professor at Harvard University, writes how the man had stepped into a Hindu area during the riots accompanying Partition. 'Kader Mia was a Muslim, and no other identity was relevant for the vicious Hindu thugs who had pounced on him,' Sen writes.

Mass violence, whether it is in South Asia or Rwanda or any other country, is often the result of assailants focusing only on one identity of the victim that separates them and overlooking the common identities that unite them, Sen argues.

Hate is not easy, says Sen -- and draws, of all things, on the wisdom of Ogden Nash to underline his point:

'Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,
But hating, my boy, is an art

Early on in his continuously provocative book, Sen writes about how 'many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity.'

Sen draws on examples from across the centuries, and even from recent times in places as disparate as Kosovo, Bosnia, Timor, Israel, Palestine, Sudan and India, to show how this selective choice of identity is used to instill hate. He also faults those in India who are convinced that Indian civilization is in fact a Hindu civilization.

The latest book by the 1998 Nobel Prize [Images] winner in Economics, who was previously Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, England [Images], comes endorsed by the likes of Nadine Gordimer, Ted Turner, Christiane Amanpour and even political economist Francis Fukuyama, who till recently had little time for liberal thinkers.

Billionaire George Soros, ever committed to liberal and leftist causes, calls Sen 'a great humanitarian', and says his 'courageous voice comes through loud and clear in this thought-provoking book.'

Arthur J Pais interviewed the Nobel Laureate over e-mail and telephone from New York.

What role did identity play in the murder of Kader Mia and the people like him?

One way to describe Kader Mia is to see him as a poor day labourer, living in ramshackle accommodation, chronically hungry, and with a family that was constantly deprived. He could also be described as a Muslim person, which he was. He was put to death just outside our house because of this last identity, which was regarded by the Hindu rioters to be the only one that was relevant, and it was that identity that led to the violence in the form of eliminating a member of the so-called 'enemy community'.

But this was not the only way of seeing him, since he was also an Indian in undivided India at that time; also a Bengali; also a resident of Dhaka; also a labourer; also a very poor person. He had many identities his assailants shared. But the focus on the allegedly singular identity of the person as a Muslim man led to his murder by the Hindu rioters, overlooking all the common affiliations that Hindus and Muslims shared.

Indeed, the victims on both sides had the class identity of being poor and leading a precarious life, that made it necessary for them to go out of their house even at the time of riots and also led them to be potential victims of murder by the 'opponent' communities.

My thesis is group violence in the world is aided by and sometimes actively promoted by the miniaturization of human beings into just one identity, and this effort obliterates everything else in what is seen in that person. Instead of seeing Kader Mia as a human being, as a Bengali, as a Dhaka resident, as an Asian, as a labourer, the Hindu thugs in those days of rioting barbarity saw him merely in terms of his religious community.

While on multiple identities, how many identities would you, for instance, have?

Like every human being, I have many identities too. I have many affiliations and many associations; all can have importance depending on the context. My identity can be seen in terms of my nationality and citizenship as exclusively Indian. It could be described in terms of my residence in the United States and the United Kingdom. It could be described in terms of my being an academic. It could also be seen in terms of my having non-conservative politics. It can also be seen as being a Bengali and the fact that the poetry I love is Bengali poetry, in addition to, of course, my involvement with English and Sanskrit poetry.

I can also be seen as a person of no strong religious belief, indeed as someone inclined towards atheism. I can also be seen as a man (chuckles) and happy to be so. And I can be seen as a feminist in supporting the need to pay attention to the perspective of women in social understanding and in public decisions, and I have been one for a very long time, having watched the exploitation of women and female deprivation. Feminism is an important intellectual cause, and I am glad to have been a co-founder of the now flourishing journal 'Feminist Economics.'

And some at least of these many identities can make you a hate object...

Of course it can. Indeed, even my loyalty to the cause of an equitable society, and my belief in the need for equal treatment, could make me an object of hate for those who think that approach to be dangerous, or misleading, or just silly.

During the riots that killed Kader Mia, I sometimes walked home from school through mainly Muslim areas. Now, some Muslim thugs could have knifed me, seizing on just one of my many identities -- that I was a Hindu boy. A few years ago, when I was vocally upset at the Hindutva political movement's attempt at subversion of Indian secularism and also by the barbarity of the Gujarat riots, I could have become an object of hate of the Hindu rightists.

When I was a student in Kolkata, I was involved in left wing causes and agitations. That too could have made me an object of hate, since the police probably did identify me as a troublemaker. There are situations in which any of us could be an object of hate.

When we see a riot victim of violent disaffection, we can easily say, 'There, but for the grace of good luck, go I!'

You have spoken of your left wing days. There was some hope that under Communism certain identities, mainly ethnic and religious, would go away, and the world would become a better place as a result...

There were certain natural expectations when Communism came to power. In theory, Marxism is non-sectarian, trying to divide the world between the deprived and the rich. And many people and intellectuals worldwide, including Rabindranath Tagore and George Bernard Shaw, found many things to admire in the Soviet Union.

After Tagore visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he wrote a Bengali book called Russiar Chithi (Letters from Russia [Images]), the English translation of which was promptly banned by the British government (it was ultimately published only after Independence). He argued that educational expansion in the Soviet Union was much more even-handed than in the British Empire.

While the Soviet Union put the white Russians and Soviet Asians on a fairly equal footing in terms of schooling, in the British Empire India had been neglected. Britain was striving to have complete literacy for itself, but not doing anything substantial about education in India. But the positive aspects of the Soviet experiment were undermined by further political developments, particularly by the lack of democracy.

I regard all other failures in the Soviet Union to be subsidiary... If people had multiparty elections and were allowed to criticise the policies of the government, the deficiencies of its social, economic and educational policies could have been criticised with political effectiveness. But there was little freedom of speech, no free media, no independent opposition parties, nor a combative Parliament. And when discrimination began and people -- including Jews -- were singled out for discrimination (not as badly as in Germany [Images] of course, but under suspicion nevertheless), there was little political resistance that could have been generated by public discussion.

In the early years of Communism there was an effort to give even-handed treatment to all the different groups in the Soviet Union, and Tagore in particular admired Soviet Union for justifiable reasons. But things did change. The neglect of democracy in left wing movements was important for me personally as well. It seemed to me to undermine the whole egalitarian approach, since political equality cannot but be central to egalitarianism.

It certainly prevented me from going further left and endorsing the Communist position. Some of my fellow activists, who disagreed about the importance of multiparty democracy, did go on to join the party. In the case of China, there were other influences in addition to the philosophy of Marxism, and some of the problems arose from there, especially in Tibet [Images].

Much of it had to do with China's imperial past. In my 1995 book on India (written jointly with Jean Dreze), when we put together all the Indian states and Chinese provinces, we found a strange contrast. By and large, the Chinese provinces were far ahead of the Indian states in education, but the best performance in school education for the states and provinces put together was that of Kerala [Images]. And the worst of the states and provinces put together was Tibet in literacy and school education. That discrimination linked, I think, with the history of China and Tibet rather than with Communism.

Part II: 'Cricket is not a good way of testing a person's national loyalty'

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