Development matters, but so does identity -Rajeev Bhargava

-The Hindu

Disturbing a federal system that protects the complexity of human identities could pave the way for conflict

It is sometimes claimed that once ordinary people benefit from economic development, they automatically set aside issues related to their identity. Such a view was found not only in materialist theories that gave explanatory primacy in human life to economic factors but also among leaders of social and political movements. Nehru, for instance, is believed to have assumed that as India makes economic progress, religious identity would matter less and communal conflict would disappear. It seems that the government’s claim on Jammu and Kashmir shares the same premise. Give Kashmiris an economic package, prospects of more jobs, better healthcare, high-quality consumption goods and they will forget their specific identity and assimilate peacefully with the rest of India. ‘Development’ shall trump identity.

Cultural and ethical framework

Identity is much misused and abused. We misunderstand it, misconstrue its significance, maliciously politicise it but it refuses to go away. Why? Undeniably, we are biological creatures with basic material needs. But we are also expressive creatures, image-builders, story-makers, concept-inventors, and so live in a world saturated with images, representations, myths, stories, and philosophies. Over thousands of years, multiple imaginary worlds have been fashioned, each of which is the collective possession of different societies. These imagined narratives shape our material needs, making them complex, elaborate and distinct. All humans do not have the same food and sartorial preferences. They design their dwellings differently. They even use their bodies and tongues differently to communicate with one another. In short, our material needs, suffused with imagination and saturated with concepts, are filled with intricacy and nuance.

Moreover, we have developed non-biological needs and dispositions. We reflect on the world and on ourselves. We develop a sense of who we are. We have implicit or explicit answers to the question: who am I? This is partly answered by our culturally mediated material needs: we are, for example, what we eat and do not eat. But equally important for this answer is an ethic that distinguishes the good from the bad, right from wrong, what is worth striving for and what is not. With the help of this, we get a sense of where we stand in this world and what stand we take on it. In short, we are also defined by our specific stand on what happens to us after we die, and, say, on our position on the place of women in society.

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The Hindu, 10 September, 2019,

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