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On 15th December, 1952, Potti Sreeramulu a Gandhian, died after 84 days of hunger strike demanding the creation of Andhra Pradesh from the erstwhile Madras Presidency. The death immediately prompted the creation of a new state of Andhra Pradesh in the preceding year and set the trend of creating more states in the Union of India. What is it about collective identity that makes people like Potti take such a drastic step, a cause for which they are willing to trade their lives? 

The concept of identity in psychological as well as a sociological sense seeks to link the inner world of the individual with the outer world. It serves as a bridge between the individual self, the society and the community. Any individual as a natural process undergoes self-conception, to understand oneself in relation to others and the outcome of which is maturity in an individual. All individuals derive identities from multiple sources. The source of identities could be from broad collective categories such as race, religion or nation; and from narrow forms of identity such as family, hobby or even from a genre of music that an individual listens to. Collective identities tend to focus on the understanding that a shared community shares the same ideal and the same destiny, even though the truth could be on the contrary. The greater question is why we view all individuals, in neat, distinct collective binaries, such as a Hindu or a Muslim, an Angami or a Sumi, or a Telugu or a Tamil. Could it be that we are inherently hard-wired to think in binaries? Or is it that we, for convenience sake, place individuals in neat brackets?


It is this ascribing of an individual to only one set of identity which renowned economist Amartya Sen notes as “solitary identity”. It is the reduction of an individual to just one identity very often their collective sense of identity, such as religion or ethnicity or nationality trumping all other individual identities. Therefore there is no space for individualism. This very often becomes the vehicle of stereotyping and prejudices in society, in creating the differences where they don’t exist. Henceforth it becomes an issue of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. Violent ethnic clashes in the Northeast like the Bodo-Muslim conflict of 2014 or the Naga-Kuki conflict of 1993 is a grim reminder. These conflicts are very often the manifestation of a virulent form of nationalism made possible by creating “solitary identity”, as very often the individuals in the other community is inherently projected as uniformly different without any variance. 

On the contrary individuals are more like Matryoshka dolls with each layer of different identity with collective identity being one of the many identities that an individual could poses. Thus the differences effectively create a wedge trumping all overwhelming similarities that individuals from both communities could share. Furthermore, similarities such as the same occupation, eating habits, class could very conveniently be placed in the backburner in the rhetoric of ethnic tensions which tries to scalp out any minor differences. 

The brutal lynching of Syed Farid, a 35 year old businessman from Assam, in Dimapur drew condemnation from wide quarters, with a lot of people going online to condemn the act. However, the narrative of the condemnation was restricted to berating the entire Naga community, treating it as if it were single entity with uniformity in opinion, giving a misimpression that it was widely encouraged by the “Nagas”. Additionally, the act itself was widely condemned within the state itself, however, paradoxically, it is these very same collective identities which form a bulwark against oppression, as communities when coming together for a specific goal tend to be more effective in creating a sense of solidarity. 


The inherent tension between collective forms identity and the individual forms of identity has further spilled over to a relatively new domain; the Internet. One of the most ubiquitous presences of globalisation is the Internet and its offspring; social media. Before Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web in 1989, as we know today, the world didn’t really have a common platform for the dissemination of information and opinions. But now, these technologies are contouring our opinions and values in the short run and our identities ultimately. We are no longer caged by the parochial limitations of our geography. The Internet transcends it. Our idea of what is fair, just, right, wrong, morality is and just about everything is being overhauled through a process of attrition. The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) movement was relegated in the backburner just a few decades ago, but it has completely undergone an overhaul with the advent of the Internet; (although a lot more needs to be done). Today, those supporting LGBT rights are seen as being “progressive” and “forward looking” and a large part of the success lies in how social media and internet has allowed us to create an ecosystem where we are allowed to decide what suits us best. In choosing our values, we add another layer of identity, an identity of one’s own choosing. So therefore I could be a pious Christian yet support homosexuality, be a theist yet respect the opinion of atheists. This would not be a contradiction but on the contrary it demonstrates as to how ultimately, individuals are the architects of their own identities in a globally dynamic ecosystem of inter-connectivity challenging territorial limitations of individual identity. It is an a la carte of choosing in an ecosystem with an invariably limitless range of opinions and information. The problem of overabundance may also very often provide only an ephemeral identity at best. 


In 1897, an eminent French sociologist, Emile Durkheim popularised the concept of “anomie”. Anomie refers to the concept relating to the breakdown of ties with community, creating a sense of loss of social identity and as a result of which exacerbating a sense of alienation. This is extremely true for Northeast India where very often the dynamic process of change in a short span of time could completely overwhelm traditional tribal society which forms the very basis of political and social existence. The danger of atomistic individualism could lead to the disintegration of the society as is marked in several Western countries where the effects of alienation is manifested through higher incidences of homicide rates, drug abuse and suicide rates. 


There is a therefore a need to temper the balance between individual identities and community identities. In doing so we recalibrate to what it means to be truly free. The attempt to paint identities in the shades of black and white often stifles individual freedom and distorts community identity, as the real identity of individuals very often lie in the subtle shade of grey where every individual carves an unique identity for themselves. To paraphrase Rousseau, “Man is born free, but is in chains everywhere”.
Phurpa Tsering is a Project Coordinator at Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI).

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