Saturday, February 06, 2010

Multiple Identities

The following was written a couple of months back when Sachin Tendulkar came under attack for prioritising his national identity over his parochial one. Now Sha Rukh Khan is facing fire for viewing sport aside from national animosity.

Sachin Tendulkar recently made what prima facie appeared to be an innocuous statement. He told a television channel, "I am a Maharashtrian. I am extremely proud of that. But I am an Indian first." He also proclaimed "Mumbai belongs to India." The Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray was touched to the quick and he responded vitriolically advising the sportsman to stay away from politics. He fumed: "You are free to hit fours and sixers on the cricket field, but keep off the political pitch. With that one statement, you became 'run out' in the pitch of Marathi minds".

What is the reason for this acerbic reaction of Bal Thackeray? Why did he lash out at the cricketing maestro who is perhaps the most popular contemporary Maharashtrian? The Shiv Sena leader evidently overlooked the fact that each one of us has multiple identities and very often there is no conflict among these identities. (A recent tragic case of conflictual identities is discussed later in this article.) There is no denying the fact that a Maharashtrian ipso facto is an Indian too. How a person prioritises one's identities is best left to oneself. In developmental psychology, a person becomes more mature as one begins to appreciate the coexistence of a plurality of identities within oneself. An integrated personality is the wholesome result when these identities coalesce in a seamless manner.

An identity crisis is caused when a person struggles in the face of seeming contradictions among one's various identities. In every mythology there are descriptions of many such crises which are immensely educative. In Indian mythology, for example, a classic case of identity crisis is provided by Arjuna in the battle field at Kurukshetra. He was a warrior and therefore he must have been unfazed by the logistics and consequences of the battle. But he also had an identity as a loyal student of teachers like Drona and Bheeshma. He was also a cousin of the Kauravas. His warrior-identity propelled him to fight whereas his student / relative - identity tempted him to flee from the battle. Lord Krishna had to sermonise him with metaphysical teachings in order to resolve his identity crisis.

Many of us suffer from a misconception that there is an inherent and unavoidable conflict among atleast some of our identities. On deeper analysis, we will understand that it is not the identities which are in conflict but it is our perception about these identities which engenders friction and sometimes mental aberrations. The recent macabre incident involving an American Army major is an eye-opening example. According to some preliminary reports, Nidal Malik Hasan prioritised his identity as a Muslim over his identity as an American. This by itself would not have caused a crisis. When he was about to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, what provoked him to go berserk, shoot and kill his own colleagues was his misperception that soldiers who fought against people belonging to his religion were his enemies. Obtaining exemption from deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq for reasons of conscience would have been a saner solution to his identity crisis. A different person in similar circumstances might even have rationalised his military involvement as a call of duty to one's motherland. Either way, the tragedy in America's largest military base could have been avoided.

No single identity will define a person completely. One's personality is a combination of a large number of identities. One is liked or disliked by others depending on which particular identity gains the attention of others. Some identities strengthen each other. For instance, an economist who is also a mathematician will find that he becomes a better economist because of his ability to quantify. Some people have apparently antithetical identities which call for sustained balancing efforts from them so that cognitive dissonance is avoided.

Power of identity has been ably demonstrated by Amartya Sen who argues convincingly in his book 'Identity and Violence' as follows: "The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorisation of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence". Let us not reduce any person to a single identity.

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