Nobody can doubt the power that the notion of identity commands. It has been the cause of so much civil unrest and even wars the world over. India is no stranger to this, and the North-east is a cauldron of identity frictions. Identity is also a shifting target and is therefore difficult to pin down. 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 tried to be friendly 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 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 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, where he argues that everybody has multiple identities and that peace and conflict will depend on which of these a community chooses to give primacy to. Once upon a time, India acknowledged its immense diversity and placed this primacy on a constitutional identity. Today there is an obvious drive to change this and the results are new anxieties over imposition of a single national language, hierarchical stratification of religious identities, etc.
The reality is that many 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 them, 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. However, arguably it is Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens who articulates this idea most interestingly.
Beside linguistic ability, the one quality that 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 organise themselves around these creations on scales never known and reached earlier. It is not certain how this came to be, but it does seem to have happened by an extraordinary mutation in the 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. The ability to build bonds and communities of very large scales around these fictive creations gave 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 Homo sapiens were no different from other primates, there would have been no religion. 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 death. But try explaining this to a dog or cat: that if they misbehave, they would be miserable in the next life. This would help us realise how exclusive this power is to 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 and nationhood, they have achieved scientific wonders as well as brought about nightmares of wars upon themselves.
No other animal can do this. Wolves hunt in packs and elephants roam in herds, but these bonds are determined by instinct and only in circles within sensory perception. It can never, in any sense, enter the space of abstract realities that only exist in our realm of imagination. There can never be, for instance, a mass movement by wolves for the rights of wolfhood, or dogs for doghood.
Yet, nobody can dismiss identity, ethnicity or national affiliations as nothing more than fictions. Though they are indeed fictions, they are now much more. 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, ethnicities, etc., have 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 vice versa too in never-ending cycles. Ethnicities and identities have transformed, and quite inevitably too. So it should not be impossible for any society—more specifically those afflicted by internal conflicts—to seek to eliminate frictions pertaining to ethnic and religious affiliations, by broadening the very definition and understanding of these notions as situations demand.
Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics