A Study of Communalism and Identity

A Study of Communalism and Identity

(First published in May 2008)


Identities Preferences and Behaviour

Where does the self come from? Identity and our definitions of our ‘self’ are a result of what we’ve been taught from the beginning of our lives.

It starts with one’s name. When a baby is repeatedly called a certain name and it learns to respond, it is because it understands that it is being called, as a separate being from others. When it is shown its reflection in the mirror, which moves the same way it does, it begins to understand its body as different and separate from other things. Every concept it is taught builds the network from which other thoughts and concepts can be understood. When a child builds this network and is given opportunities to apply it for him/herself, that is the birth of an individual’s mind.

In this network, there will also be incorporated certain likes and dislikes based on upbringing and perhaps heredity. For example, many people feel immediately at home when they hear their mother tongue. Some smells that remind them of their dad’s clothes or places in their house will influence later tastes.

This tendency is even shown in how restricted a person’s sexual behaviour is; if one’s parents have never expressed their love to each other physically in one’s presence, one will grow up more inhibited towards public displays of affection and even getting physical in the first place, whereas, if ones parents were very open about it, or if they were single and in the habit of exploring different partners freely, this too will become a norm of the child when he/she grows up.

Just like an individuals habits, likes and dislikes are determined so significantly by upbringing, so is an individual’s beliefs. Religion and nationality are constructed identities due to social conditioning.


Separation From Origin

In many religions, one can observe the shift from worshipping forces of nature to worshipping a god who looks like a human. This shift is parallel to a community’s separation from nature. From worshipping nature, they try to become masters of it. All the traditions that would inherently protect key stone species and preserve biodiversity, turn into mere superstition and are discarded. The hunter-gatherers and tribes who were in-tune with nature become shifting agriculturalists and then settled agriculturalists. They get to know other communities and begin trade with surplus of resources and soon there is division of labour and hierarchy. Then industrialization happens where nature is not merely domesticated but exploited.

This separation from the original causes conflict of interests- a disruption of harmony.

The same type of separation can be traced in a child from the previous section- when a child uses his/her own mind, there is separation from the parents especially the mother who it was once physically part of.

The first fights between parents and children happen at the time of this separation.

Separation and classification is natural to the human mind as it helps us understand things better. The child’s mind is trained to differentiate one from another in the early years of education where small rings are sorted from big, and things of the same colours are placed together.

These two tendencies i.e. to separate from ones origin and to see differences, combined with the archaic hierarchical mindset, (not to see a difference as merely a difference but to term it better or worse compared to a norm that the majority has inherited from their predecessors) is the cause for most of the chaos in the world today.


Individual vs. Collective Identity

It seems as though belonging to a community is hardwired into the human brain. And from what V.S. Ramachandran says in his book ‘Phantoms in the Brain’, maybe even belief in god is (specifically in the temporal lobes). Or maybe they are connected; maybe god is hardwired into the human brain so that groups stay together under one culture. This could be an evolutionary adaptation because it isn’t god per se that keeps wolf packs together.

But interestingly, one observes that in every pack there is an alpha and an omega. The omega is the scapegoat from any danger. It also gets to feed last and has to submit whenever demanded to, to re-emphasize the authority of the alpha. It has a hard life but it is safer for it to take this treatment than to live without the pack.

Humans are social animals. They like belonging to some or other identity, naming themselves something to feel accepted in a group. This even manifests in similar clothes, and mannerisms. And any hierarchy formed in the community, is accepted (at least initially); be it in the form of a government trying out democracy or the caste system.

People form communities and territories at every level. Why, even as an individual one has territory. But it is referred to as personal space. The space differs from culture to culture. But as groups, a family has the house as its territory; a tribe or neighbourhood (especially apartments) has a part of the forest or a gated space as its territory and nation has land within the national borders as its territory.

Though we have understood that the nation is an ‘imagined’ identity and in the case of India is far less of a cohesive unit, I make this statement about collective identity as it applies to clubs, scouts and other distinct associations as well. I would also argue that identity isn’t ‘imagined’ only at the national level, it is so at every level.

The territory and the general cultures, customs and preferences of the people of this community contribute to the sense of belonging and identity that they hold so dearly in their minds. This can be termed collective identity. And for the sake of survival, many times the collective identity is given more importance, than the variations there are within the community. In certain communities, an individual’s identity is not even respected, let alone acknowledged.


Possible Causes of Violence

Violence can be traced down as symptoms of fear. Fear causes aggression (initially for survival from predators but now for survival of identity or ideology), which leads to violence. This violence is still violence whether it translates into murder or stays as an unspoken cruel thought in the mind. This fear can be caused by what is perceived as a threat to ones territory or identity.

This is evident in the contrasting reactions of the adults and the main characters’ children to the communal violence in the movie Bombay. While the adults shout out the propaganda, the children ask questions like, ‘what is Hindu? What is Muslim? What am I? If both lead to god, why do they fight?’

The children, because of their parents’ inter-religion marriage and because of their age, don’t have any distinct identity that they will fight or die to protect, whereas the adults do (or at least have been taught to believe so).

One can also observe that the violence occurs mainly in groups. An individual can be sensible with another from a different community but if the two meet in mobs of their own, they will forget all past friendship and sanity and kill instead. This is referred to as ‘mob frenzy’ and has been observed in mankind all over the world from centuries ago.

This happens because, as shown in ‘Ram ke Naam’, people seem to get into a trance with the slogans- A trance of being right and capable of anything, simply because one hears so many people saying the same thing with them. This sense of collective identity overpowers any remnant of the individual mind and leads to unpredictable and dangerous behaviour.

Violence also comes from the threat that some people feel about this collective identity (like religion in this case). People fear change in the image of their identity, which could occur by intermingling of ideas, customs and beliefs. They want it to be watertight even in a mixed population like that of today.

(Though many claim that so many wars have been fought for ideas, I think that when there is violence, reason and ideas don’t matter. People forget why it is happening. The meaning of the disagreement is lost along with any possible creativity that could’ve resulted from the sharing)

The politicians who want power use this fear to start violence. They don’t know or care about the philosophy that goes with the religion. Opposition parties especially, are always happy to have many riots that the ruling government can’t control so that during the next elections, they will be able to point out the other’s inefficiency.

And those who are frustrated with life in the city either because of the pollution or because of their poverty join the violence with identity as a mere excuse. This is clear in the unreasonable violence that occurred on Dr. Rajkumar’s death; And in the documentary, in the fact that the Hindu villagers don’t seem to join in the violence as much as the city people do. Could it be that the lack of space and greenery causes people to be more prone to violence in the city?

Violence, like sport or intense intellectual work, is a way of reinforcing the existence of the self. The mind wants to exist and to feel alive. And violence does that because for hatred to exist, there has to be at least two specific and defined parties. This definition leads to naming and reinforces the identity- a construction of the mind.


Comment on Babri Masjid related Violence

It is pretty obvious from the documentary that the whole thing was political. The outsiders, (those who came on the Rath), caused violence and tensions in otherwise peaceful areas. The politicians who talked so much about protecting Hinduism didn’t pray in the temple or donate any of the money that they got, to it.

Before the whole campaign about Ram Janmabhoomi and the Rath started, the people of the two religions would happily go eat in each other’s weddings (this is depicted even in the movie Bombay). ‘Now we fear each other’ says a Muslim man sadly.

How do the Hindu’s even know that there really was a temple there before the Babri Masjid? The first time it was said was by the British, perhaps to divide the otherwise peacefully coexisting religions. Well, hasn’t their clever plan worked. And the government is doing a great job of continuing the policy of divide and rule.


A Matter of Caste?

It just so happens that most of the ‘lower caste’ people don’t care about the Ram Temple. They sensibly say why can’t they build it somewhere else?’ and ‘Once it exists it is wrong to destroy.’ Some even point out the stupidity of the whole issue when they talk about the far more pressing problems that the country is facing and emphasize that the obsession with one temple doesn’t serve any purpose.

But even the ‘low caste’ people in the city are there for the processions. In fact the elite don’t seem involved either. It’s only the middle strata of Hindus who seem bothered.

Also in the titles, not many ‘low caste’ or Muslim names appeared.


The self, and the various identities it gives itself, and its upbringing, make the mind. The birth of the mind is the end of unity and root of conflict. It feels threatened by any changes to its various images of itself and its community. This, in the scale of collective identity, in those who don’t have enough sensitivity, results in violence. And violence is exchanged in return: A never-ending cycle.

Why can’t we be like children? Why can’t we ask questions? Why can’t we think for ourselves; live our cultures for the diversity and beauty they have, but enjoy other cultures as well? In that sharing, tolerance is born. In that sharing, we stop making fools of ourselves at the cost of so many lives and to the advantage of the least spiritual people, who stand against everything any religion’s values preach.

Ideally it would be great to give up separation and identity. But neither is that easy nor is it natural. I say, learn more about each other and take the best from everything. Keep the individual’s sense, love and sensitivity for the world alive. And make your own path.

See also