Nobody can doubt the power the notion of identity commands. It has been the cause of so much civil unrests and even wars the world over. India is no strange to this, and the Northeast is a cauldron of identity frictions. Identity is also a shifting target, therefore difficult to pin. Its awareness begins with the fundamental question “who am I?” indicating a perception of distinctiveness of the asker from others.
Marooned on an island for years, Robinson Crusoe did not even need his name, until one day he came across footprints on the beach which he knew were not his. His self-awareness transformed. He chose to make friends with Man Friday, the footprint maker, and was reciprocated, but it could have been otherwise. Identity is a matter of choice. Judith Butler in Precarious Life: Power of Mourning and Violence suggests a way of taming the potential for violence in the question “who am I?” This is to rephrase it as “what would I be without you?” All the others from which the “I” perceived itself as distinct, are now given a new importance, for they are seen as having contributed to making the “I” that that the asker values so much. Even adversaries would have had a part in the shaping of every “I”.
Identity is a matter of choice indeed, and this could not have been said better than Amartya Sen did in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny where he argues everybody has multiple identities and peace and conflict will depend on which of these a community chooses to give the primacy to. Once upon a time, India acknowledged its immense diversity and placed this primacy on a constitutional identity moulded consensually. Today there is an obvious drive to change this and the results are new anxieties over imposition of single national language dictum and hierarchical stratification of religious identities etc.
The reality is, much of these values that command people’s passion, identity and religion included, are fictional creations. So many scholars have said this, not with any intent to disparage, but as a statement of fact. Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation for instance calls religion, tribe, nation etc. fictions created by humans. Likewise, Benedict Anderson calls the nation an imagined community in his book Imagined Community: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. However, arguably it is Yuva Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind who articulates this idea most interestingly.
Beside linguistic ability, the one quality which lifted Homo Sapiens to an altogether different orbit on the evolutionary ladder is acquisition of the power of imagination, and with it the ability to create fictions and organize themselves around these creations on scales never known before reached. It is not certain how this came to be, but it does seem to have happened by an extraordinary mutation in neurological circuitry of the human brain. Harari says this provided the vital spark that ignited what he calls the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago.
The Cognitive Revolution in essence gave humans the power of fiction, and to build bondages and communities of very large scales around these fictive creations, giving them an unprecedented advantage in their fight for survival over the rest of the animal kingdom.
Take the case of religion. Once upon a time, before the Cognitive Revolution, when Sapiens were no different from other primates, there would have been no religion, just as the common rhesus monkeys or the hoolock gibbons obviously have none even today. Humans, quite unlike them, have created several religions as it suits them in imagining how they and the world they live in came about and what might be their ultimate fate. They can even believe in a life beyond life and evolve sets of norms that would promote their chance of a better life in the next life. But try explaining this to a dog or cat, that if they misbehave they would be miserable in the next life, to realise how exclusive this power is to the domain of humans.
The fictions they thus create have in fact become a rich part of their reality, determining the shape of their lives and politics. Indeed, fuelled and motivated by their fictions such as religion, ethnicity, nationhood, they have achieved scientific wonders as well as brought about nightmares of wars upon themselves.
No other animals can do this. Wolves hunt in packs, elephants roam in herds, but these bondages are determined by instinct and only in circles within sensory perceptions. It can never be in any sense enter the space of abstract realities that only exist in the realm imagination and fictions of humans. There can never be for instance, a mass movement by wolves for the rights of wolfhood, or dogs for doghood.
Nobody can dismiss identity, ethnicity or national affiliations as nothing more than fictions though, for though they are indeed fictions, they are now much more than fiction. In their own ways, they are as real as any reality can be, capable of awakening strong passions of love and hate as anything real can.
The positive note is, though they command real passion, since they no doubt are fictional creations of humans, they should be amenable to changes and evolution too, and without our knowing it, they indeed have been changing. Inherent characters of nations, religions, ethnicity etc., have all always been in a constant flux, and these changes often happen during a lifetime and in full scrutiny of everybody. In time’s eternal progress, enemies have turned friends and friends have turned enemies too in never ending cycles. Ethnicities and identities have transformed, and quite inevitably too. This being so, it should not be impossible for any society, more specifically those afflicted by internal conflicts, to seek to eliminate frictions within pertaining to ethnic and religious affiliations, by broadening the very definition and understanding of these notions as situations demand.
This article was first published in The New Indian Express under different heading and the original can be read HERE
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author