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Communal Violence and Assertion of Identity - Indian Social Institute

Communal Violence and Assertion of Identity - Indian Social Institute


COMMUNAL VIOLENCE AND ASSERTION OF IDENTITY 23 Constitution, are all symbols of identity building as a nation. Each cultural group has a distinct identity and each group interacts with others at certain intersecting points or meeting points. Yet each maintains distinct identities. Today, unfortunately, there is a tendency to establish closed and rigid identities, where meeting points are points of disagreement or clash with the other. The building of self-identity implies distinctiveness from the other. This is the in-built dichotomy for the existence of identity – I-You; We- They; In group-Out group. Difference from “other” is the basis of identity. Thus while on the one hand identity formation has a positive role to play in building up self/community/nation, on the negative side, the stress on identity could lead to distancing oneself from the “other”. In India, the basis of such differences are immense – religion, region, language, caste, ethnicity. To overcome such tendencies, stress can be laid on the shared or common points of identities of different communities. In the context of a modernized, pluralistic society, construction of identity is in the context of multiple others, where boundaries often overlap over several criteria. Multi-culturalism or pluralism is nothing new to India. It has existed from India’s ancient period. In sociological terms, identity is something constructed, fluid, multiple and changing. In traditional, homogenous societies, identity was static, integral, unified and even given. In modern societies identities need to get constructed and re-constructed on an on-going basis. Threat to or loss of a traditional identity often results in a cultural vacuum, leading to a reassertion of origins or traditional identity (Ahmad,2003:429ff; D’Souza,2003:422-428). In this context, the demand for identity often takes on a political hue, where only one aspect of a pluralistic identity is emphasized and becomes the rallying basis for members, to the denial/ subordination of the other parts of multiple identities. Thus Muslims, Hindus, Gujjars, Assamese, Sikhs, Maharashtrians become the sole identity-rallying points. Such a singular emphasis in a pluralistic identity may not involve the entire community, but often a vociferous minority becomes more expressive and active, who seek to assert their right to the identity of the entire community. The community may quietly support them, because of the alleged benefits that will accrue to the entire community. Persons respond to such an emphasis because of a perceived threat/feeling of economic insecurity/social insecurity of a minority community or other felt need.

24 SOCIAL ACTION VOL. 60 JANUARY – MARCH 2010 This pattern of creating hatred towards the other and an emphasis on only one aspect of a multiple identity, which is more often done for political gain, can be overcome by providing economic benefits, so that economic insecurity does not facilitate the communal forces. As Prof. Ahmad has pointed out, the focus needs to be on sharing of overlapping identities to maintain communal harmony. Mobility of identity must be recognized and that existing configurations can be re-drawn (Ahmad,op.cit.). We need to remind ourselves that we have several identities and not allow ourselves to be boxed into a single identity. Identity is formed not in isolation but in the context of a culture, of shared memories, a shared history. The cultural background into which one is born is internalized and forms both the basic collective identity of a people and the basic individual identity of a person. Today, this can and does change progressively as external circumstances change. What is relevant today in the context of multi-cultural societies, is not the creation of an identity but the recycling of an identity in order to accommodate “the other”. In the Indian context, while “differences” need to be allowed, even encouraged, since this is the basic reality of India, the “other” needs to be consciously included into the “self image” and a new inclusive self image created that tolerates the other. As Richardson has commented, globalisation need not result in a “sameness”, but in a willingness to accept the “differences” of the other (Richardson,2001:172). Progressive identity can only be achieved through cultural receptiveness and reciprocity by both the “us” and the “they” components. The “other” must also seek to be accepted, so that sharp differences can be tapered off. Ways and means need to be found to express one’s own identity, without in any way impinging on or diminishing that of the “other”. Rationalising violence? Violence seems to be the increasing norm adopted by communities who feel their demands are not being met. When there is a perception of threat to the identity of a community and the community gets organized to protect its rights/interests, once organized, it may turn to violence as a means to meet its demands. But why violent? What are the reasons these cultural differences form to a point of extreme intolerance of the “other”, leading even to violence? Political manipulation of a single identity for the sake of garnering votes is a prime cause of communal

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