Who am I? This is a question that has baffled philosophers from times immemorial. It is highly unlikely that I would contribute anything meaningful to this eternal quest through my little post. What I want to focus on instead is our identity, not as an individual, but as a member of a group.
The ability to organize into effectively functioning groups has been one of mankind’s strengths. The overall effect is beneficial when individuals organize themselves into groups, groups into bigger groups and finally at the highest level, the whole of mankind acts together as a group of groups working in unison. But that is the ideal scenario. In practice, groups can become counterproductive when they work at cross purposes and struggle to gain supremacy over each other. For some individuals, groups can become an anathema when they are called upon to subordinate their individual interests for the larger interest of the group. Even when an individual is willing to sacrifice his own interests, there still can be a challenge as most individual are part of multiple groups and often one is called upon to make a choice of which group’s interests he chooses to uphold at the cost of which other groups.
When there is a hierarchical relationship between groups, theoretically at least one is supposed to keep the interest of the group highest in the hierarchy foremost. As they say for the good of a family, an individual can be sacrificed. For the good of a village, a family can be sacrificed. For the good of a nation, a village can be sacrificed. For the good of mankind, a nation can be sacrificed. It sounds good, but what is an individual to do when his and his family’s interests are sacrificed for the good of the village, but the village refuses to sacrifice its interests for the good of the nation? In that case, does it make sense for the individual to go against the interests of the village for the good of the nation? Most people will agree to this at least in principle. All of us are quick to condemn people taking about regional identifies and ask people to think as an Indian. But if the argument was extended and one was asked - what if an individual has to sacrifice the interest of his country for the greater good of humanity? If I show you convincing proof that India is a threat to the world, how many of you would honestly say that you would betray India for the greater good of mankind? Wouldn’t you rather like to say you would stick by the nation and fight the entire world for the sake of your motherland?
While there are challenges even when there is a clear hierarchy between groups, complexity would increase manifold if there is no hierarchical relationship between the different groups an individual owes allegiance to. I belong to a religion, a country, an ideology, a profession and to a corporate entity. I chose to belong to some of these entities while some were chosen for me. Is there a natural superiority of one of these identities over the others? It apparently seems so. One is expected to hold one’s national identity supreme, even though the country to which one belongs is a mere accident of birth and something very difficult to change. I am hailed as a patriot if I put my country on the highest pedestal. On the other hand if I chose to give priority to an ideology or religion, which I have accepted by choice, I will be reviled as a fundamentalist. Is that really fair?
This might seem like a theoretical discussion but the practical impact of this has serious implications on our day to day life. What if I tell you that group identity is the root cause of many of the ills plaguing the world – terrorism, war, racism, protectionism, corruption and reservations to name a few. The list is endless. Let me illustrate the point by taking the example of the Indian political system. A simple minded person would believe democracy brings to power the most competent person who can bring the greatest welfare for everyone. But the sad reality is that democracy brings to power the one who can cobble together a winning majority of groups by promising to elevate them at the cost of the others. So if one group is well organized and controls 20-30% of the people, they can easily promote their interest at the cost of remaining 70-80% of the people who are splintered into smaller groups.
Maybe a middle class educated professional has developed indifference to the bigger issues of national politics and feels it is out of his locus of influence. In that case let me give an example closer home to show how the group identities still continues to influence your day to day life. Say you are working for a multinational company. With whom would you relate more – your foreign colleague from the same company or your Indian counterparts in client, vendor or rival companies? Or say as a blogger, would I relate more to a fellow blogger in the same niche from USA or to a landlord in some remote village in India?
Let me conclude by posing an interesting question where confusion in the definition of a group and the members to be included in the group carried to its logical end can lead to a tricky solution. Recently there was news that Hindus in Pakistan are requesting Indian citizenship. Many people have supported the idea but let us see what it implies. India is a secular country. This means Hindus and Muslims have equal rights. So if Hindus of Pakistan are allowed to become Indian citizens, shouldn’t logically the same rights be extended to Muslims of Pakistan as well? Which in effect means all citizens of Pakistan can get Indian citizenship on request? And Pakistan is India’s arch enemy? If citizens of our arch enemy can be given citizenship on request, why not the citizens from the rest of the countries in the world too? So does that mean India should be an open land where anyone who choses can come and settle at will?