Identity politics and the idea of peace

As a young boy, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen witnessed how identity politics can change human beings and lead to terrible violence when Hindu-Muslim sectarian riots erupted in the mid-1940s in pre-independent India.

Sen, an economist and considered one of the great modern thinkers, said “the broad human beings of summer were suddenly transformed through ruthless cultivation of segregation into brutal Hindus and fierce Muslims of the winter bent on killing each other.”

“Hundreds of thousands perished.”

Just a couple of years before, he had experienced a very different scenario. The Bengal famine of 1943 killed between two and three million people and yet there was little violence, “a situation of artificial quietness and peaceful resignation.”

The lack of violence does not necessarily mean there is peace, he told a room full of diplomats, United Nations staff and media in Bangkok two weeks ago. Sen was delivering a wide-ranging lecture titled Peace, Violence and Development in Modern Societies.

“The state of destitution can be so debilitating that it might prevent any kind of immediate eruption of violence and agitation by making people too weak and too fearful for them to do anything, particularly violence,” he said.

After differentiating between peace and the lack of violence, Sen went on to deliver a lecture based on one of his acclaimed books, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

While violence and conflicts are on the rise, he believes it is integral to take an integrated approach to tackle it because most of the time, there is no single answer or cause.

In particular, he took issue with the ‘Clash of Civilisation’ argument put forward by Samuel Huntingdon, calling it “crude.”

“The term ‘civilisation’ is deceptive because if you look at the classification, it’s based on religion, not language, literature, music,” he said, adding it is “one-dimensional” and “a huge oversimplification” to understand humanity and see different persons just in terms of their religion.

“In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups,” Sen said.

“The same person can be, without any contradictions, a Singapore citizen with Chinese ancestry, a Muslim, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a jazz enthusiast and one who believes that the most important problem in the world today is to talk to aliens in civilisations other than ours, preferably in Chinese.”

By segregating people into their religious beliefs or tribal norms lead to thinking “we are not just Rwandans or Gregorians or Africans but specifically we are Hutus who must see Tutsis as enemies,” he said.

He also said much of the world’s response to rising terrorism and conflicts had focused on military action. Unless well-informed, well-executed and complemented by civilian initiatives, such action can generate immensely counterproductive consequences, he said.

“No matter how necessary military action might be, civil path to peace have always been and still remains ultimately the basic way of successfully confronting organised violence and terrorism,” said Sen.

His 2007 report to the Commonwealth Commission on tackling conflict, violence and extremism is called Civil Path to Peace and he has argued since to resolve conflicts through human rights, gender equality, democracy and addressing deprivations, humiliations and grievances.

A few of us had the opportunity to speak to Sen later in a smaller group. There, you can still see the sparkle in the 76-year-old’s eyes. He calls himself a feminist and because his first name ends with ‘a’, told us that he had been mistaken for a woman many a time.

One of his favourite moments, he recalled, was when he received a letter saying, “Dear Ms. Sen, they will never understand us.” He said it made his day.

But more interestingly, he said a feminist perspective and the struggle for gender equality has a great deal to offer to address global development, inequality and injustice.

“In dealing with the analysis of gender inequality you’re dealing with entrenched violence that has gone on for a long time,” he said, where people commonly think women are treated pretty well when they are not.

Similarly, there is a general perception that every country is benefiting from globalisation and as such, globalisation in its current form is fine. While in favour of globalisation, Sen said economic growth often features widening disparities in countries.

To him, it is important to approach inequality with a feminist question along the lines of whether men and women are being treated equal and the benefits and chores shared equally.

“It’s the same question to ask on globalisation. Are the benefits of globalisation being equitably shared?”


  1. “No matter how necessary military action might be, civil path to peace have always been and still remains ultimately the basic way of successfully confronting organised violence and terrorism,”

    Really? Is he talking about reality here or is it how he would wish things worked? Apart from Gandhi’s example I fail to come up with other successful examples of confronting violence with a ‘civil path’ of human rights, gender equality, democracy and addressing deprivations, humiliations and grievances. Considering India’s caste system you might even argue that he was only partially successful.
    I personally agree that non-violence is a morally superior choice at times of conflict. I also agree that those particular traits that he puts forward are significant of successful societies. Certainly of any society where I would want to live.
    I don’t, however, agree that international affairs are governed by those moral precepts or indeed any specific set of moral precepts. And I do therefore not agree that his ‘civil path’ will be an effective way of addressing violent international conflict.
    If the aggressor does not recognize the values touted as reason for stepping down then the whole maneuver will amount to nothing more than caving in.

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