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Monday, June 18, 2012

Identity, Self-Determination & Nationality

I've been having a debate with a friend, based on a quote of Dr. Jiddu Krishnamurthy's, to the effect that all identity is a cleavage from universal humanity, hence an act of violence.

Here is the quote in full: (emphasis added)
"Violence is not merely killing another. It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person, when we obey because there is fear. So violence isn't merely organized butchery in the name of God, in the name of society or country. Violence is much more subtle, much deeper, and we are inquiring into the very depths of violence.
When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind."
From Freedom From The Known, 1969.

My point is that this cleavage is essential for sanity for all but the most evolved souls (& probably even for them on a daily basis. Forgive the flippancy, but I just brushed my teeth, not all humanity's!) - what brings in violence is judgment(s) of value associated with identity. If we can use the value-neutral term "different" for those of other groups, without implying thereby "better" or "worse", there is no violence inherent in associating ourselves with these groups or others with those.

Of course, group identities DO involve value judgments. Even at a sociobiological level, safety instincts teach me to trust the in-group more than the out-group (more fool I. For instance, only about 8% of rape is by strangers). The most neutral formulation I could adopt is to overlay categories of "Liked", "Indifferent" & "Disliked" over those of in-group & out-group. So, perhaps, Dr. JK is right when he says the very act of asserting an identity is violent - but again, for anyone less than a sage, it is also inevitable. I cannot, for instance, assert an equal love for all humanity - there are segments of it to whom I am more disposed. (At risk of flippancy again: there are segments of humanity towards whom I am more, even romantically, attracted. So far, at least, all of them are female. This may be inherent to me biologically, but how far removed from this are my sociobiological instincts?) The question would be whether this is inherently violent - and I believe that at any practical level the answer is no.

This is a useful frame to enquiring into questions of Liberty vs. Self-Determination & Universalism vs. Nationalism. I draw your attention to an inherent assumption here - that these concepts must be assessed at the level of the single individual. Logic, no doubt, demands that this be done - we must start from an elementary building block & make consistent rules to build a coherent structure. Practice, however, makes no such demands; indeed a lot of our logic here is derivation based on the philosophy of "as above, so below" - a philosophy that, while both empirically strong & elegant, exposes us to a significant artefact in our inquiries. As both historians & apologists know, "those who seek shall find" - Confirmation Bias can affect any observation/investigation.

In practice, then, the unit of analysis is frequently the group - the family, the tribe, the village, the community, that nation. "Individual" self-determination - as with any absolute view of "individual" liberty - is a sterile concept, meaningless unless that individual can survive & sustain in isolation (& that's still mostly science fiction. And I mean Waterworld, not great SF. If you think that's advisable, well, Darwin award for removing yourself from the gene pool. We'll even get Kevin Costner to give it to you in person, along with a glass of water distilled from his own... you know.) Yes, belonging to a group is a process of adjustment & compromise. Yes, we maintain multiple identities according to the groups to which we wish to belong. Should we cast those adjustments of interest & identity as "Self-Determination"? Only at the risk of being vainglorious!

It is individual benefit only as corollary to group survival & advancement that is the true calculus of self-determination. The question then becomes less about whether one maintains multiple identities as the extent to which they are incompatible. Here, I do believe Nitin Pai's theory about evolving sovereignty (I've heard different approaches to this before, e.g. David Malone takes it up at the level of international relations) holds true: we're coming to realise which elements of social/political/economic order are essential to the concept of a State, & which merely to those of a nation.

Territory, economy & military (much as we may rue this last - and as a navy brat & martial artist, it's hard for me to see it with too jaundiced an eye) are essential to the State. I can belong to - indeed, declare sovereignty for - a million nations, and so long as I do not affect the temporal power of the State in these realms (which ensure it's security & survival) I doubt it will provoke much response. So even holding myself a nation unto myself is no cause for concern as long as, while on Indian soil, I obey Indian laws & pay Indian taxes.

DIGRESSION: The charming case of His Imperial Majesty Joshua Edward Norton, self-proclaimed "Emperor Norton I of These United States & Defender of Mexico", late (1820-1880) of the San Francisco Hand Cart Sub-Pioneers, comes to mind. They even let him collect taxes (50p a head) from "his subjects"! He was, at one time, arrested for lunacy, and released without trial. The logic of the magistrate who set him at liberty was simple - Mr. Norton has shed no blood, robbed no man, and despoiled no country, which is far more than can be said of most fellows in the 'king' line <of work>. He is Emperor of The United States, and he is content to be so.
(Norton was a favourite of Mark Twain, also of the Hand Cart Sub-pioneers; Twain based the character of the King in Huckleberry Finn on him. There's also a fantastic graphic adaptation of his life in Neil Gaiman's Sandman - Fables & Reflections, called Three Septembers & A January.)

What this means is that values having no impact on the survival of States (or, if you will, Nation-States - in which number I doubt India can be considered) can be freely shared, professed, even made the basis of organisation of new nations. The Islamic Ummah, The Jewish/Hasidic Bet - nobody has an issue with these, as long as they claim no higher allegiance from a citizen than s/he owes to the State; universalism, especially Universal Humanitarianism, falls mostly in this category. You are welcome to propound & live by a concept of vasudeva kutumbakam as long as you also follow lex loci - and, at need, can take up arms & kill some of that family to protect others of the family who also happen to prefer lex loci

This also means that we could have an utterly fragmented India. Administratively, of course, it would be chaos, but conceptually there's no reason why, instead of 24 or 28 or 36 states we could not see an India of 10,000 city-states, town-states & village-states. Heck, we could have house-states, factory-states, hotel-states! (Yes, administratively, utter nightmare. Federal relations are complicated enough as it is - but as long as you don't question your ultimate allegiance to India, pay your taxes, do not claim Indian territory etc. India might not very much care how atomistic you want to be.)

So, as to Telangana: You want your own State? Make a practical plan, and take it. (Don't come crying to me tomorrow when the richest parts of your state in turn split off into some other sub-rashtriya entity, leaving you with a few thousand of dust & a handful of engineering colleges!) You're still a contributing part of India, so really, knock yourselves out. Or to pieces. Whatever. What's funny is that *this* is somehow a legitimate political aspiration, but I'll be laughed at for wanting to establish a "Xavierite" state in South Mumbai, with Gokul (shady bar, legendary post-college hangout) as our capital. (No, I don't want to, but) Why? From the point of view of the Indian state, what is the difference?

This is also what distinguishes Telangana (or Xavieristan) from (a putative independent/ceded) Kashmir, ULFA, Khalistan, the Eelam movement in Sri Lanka, Basque nationalism, Uighurs in China, the Mon in Myanmar, the Kurdistan Workers Party - every secessionist movement. As part of a State, you have as much right to self-determination as does not harm that State. The moment you pick, as a nation, an identity that DOES threaten the territory/economy/strategic security of the State, you make yourself a visceral enemy of the State. So, as an Indian, you can freely self-determine anything that India is willing to let you determine. We do not recognise any democratic right to secession, and we extinguished any sovereign right to secession at accession. (It could be worse. At least we're not scared of democracy. American Idol ended up banned in China, not because it promoted Western music or corrupting cultural influences etc., but because it used a voting mechanism.)

There are meant to be checks & balances here. There is meant to be a quid pro quo. I do not *agree* to be part of India because of blind patriotism, I agree because India follows a system that I find amenable, and the freedoms which it does not give me do not pinch in their absence. I agree because India works hard to provide for me, to retain my loyalty. In that sense, a "legitimate" separatist movement can arise where this inter-relation falls apart. As a State, though, India must introspect deeply on how to resolve these situations once created - which outcome maximises utility to our territory, economy & security combined. As an individual, I must only consider if my interests are best served by maintaining this loyalty, or whether I gain by switching it - e.g. by emigrating to Scandinavia, where my fundamental right to grow a bushy beard is not infringed by elderly female relatives.

I'm sorry, I ramble. Good morning. I'm off to go brush my, I mean, all humanity's teeth.


  1. Debate kinda died. Friend said she agreed with me. Oh well :]

  2. Shivani Bhasin19/04/2013, 13:31

    Very valid argument. But then it was always left to thinkers like Krishnamurti to be unflinchingly idealistic whilst us common folk scramble to make some practical sense of said ideals.

    Also, Gokul is very shady business these days. Might I suggest you shift the administration of the realm to Sunlight? (Although equally shady, unlike its good name)