Gambling with Identity by Ranjit Sondhi CBE
19 September 2019
This essay was written for discussion at Nottingham Arts Mela festival 2019.
Our identity is at an interesting moment. We seem to be in a crisis of some sorts. As much as there is fluidity about an expansive digital self, for example, there is also a narrowing of ideology and an increasingly right wing environment, as political leaders divide society in very binary, and at times, unsophisticated ways.
Ranjit Sondhi, a nuclear-physicist, cultural leader, mentor to many and community relations pioneer, has an incredible ability to deconstruct the psycho-social, geo-political and economic determinants that contribute to defining who we are. His fascination for healthy collaborative communities with a progressive ever-adjusting outlook is an admiring quality, one that has given much wisdom to those that share his company, be that in a board room, advice centre, a bar-cafe or in his home environment which is full of intricate family illustrations he has produced himself and objects and books from across world cultures. In this thought paper Ranjit illustrates and grapples with ideas about identity in the 21st century, reflecting on what has shaped us so specifically in the UK as immigrant settlers. As much as there is a focus on the South Asian story from a Punjabi-Indian perspective settling in Handsworth, it is one that resonates across wider society, especially immigrants who settle in foreign (western) lands.
Our theme for Nottingham Arts Mela is Illusions in Transit, where we grapple with ideas and artistic interventions, about who we are in an ever-changing world of (mis)information. How do we then negotiate a truth to realise transcendence for utopian ideals.
CEO New Art Exchange
Co-Artistic Director NAM19
Gambling with Identity
Ranjit Sondhi CBE
The Handsworth story
Four older men huddle around the advice desk in a neighbourhood resource centre that serves migrant settlers in
Handsworth, Birmingham. The neighbourhood, once notorious for its extreme deprivation, has been transformed since the arrival of men, women, and young people from newly independent nations that once formed the colonial hinterlands of the British Empire. Handsworth is now home to migrants from the countries of the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, and Eastern Europe. This cosmopolitanism is a relatively novel experience both for the existing population and the new settlers.
The men in the advice centre are all from India and hold Indian passports. But that is where the similarity ends. There is no other obvious connection among them. Individually, they are from the Punjab, Gujarat, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. They do not speak a common language, and while they might live in the same streets, hardly ever drink or dine together. Their children, however, barely speak their parents' language, but converse fluently across these regional groups in Brummie, Geordie, Cockney, or Glaswegian English.
A mile down the road is another centre set up by the Indian Workers' Association that led the struggle against discrimination and for workers' rights in the foundries and factories of the Black Country. The centre is set up in the memory of Udham Singh who assassinated Michael O'Dwyer, former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, in 1940. The shooting was in retaliation for the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh in in 1919. While in prison, Udham Singh used the name Ram Mohammed Singh Azad to emphasise the unity of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh freedom fighters.
This was not the first assassination of a colonial figure. In 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, one of many of Indian revolutionaries living in London at the turn of the last century, shot and killed Sir Curzon Wylie, after having failed to kill Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. The granting of independence for India was not an act of benevolence, it was fought for since the first war of independence in 1857, referred in English history books as the 'Indian mutiny'.
Not all the Indians who migrated in the post-War era came to work as bus drivers, hospital porters, and factory workers. On the other side of town from Handsworth, in the leafy suburbs of Edgbaston, live the professional Indians – accountants, lawyers, and doctors. They keep their distance from working class neighbourhoods, send their children to private schools, and seek recognition within the British elite. Only the most stubbornly radical among them would have much sympathy with the revolutionary outlook of the Indian Workers' Association.
Back at the advice centre, it is not just a preserve for Indians. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis frequent the centre too, with their own histories and cultures. Their identities are equally complex. Take the example of a man who was born as a Subject of the UK and Colonies, who then became a Pakistani after the Partition in 1947 and then a Bangladeshi after the wars of independence in 1971 before finally taking on British citizenship – all in the space of a single life-time. Pinning his identity to a single nationality is like trying to divide a globe of mercury into two equal parts.
This is the first time Indians from the sub-continent have been exposed to such multiculturality. They now rub shoulders with strangers from different nationalities, religions, life styles and political affiliations. Their own identities now have to be constantly defined, and re-defined against a whole range of other identities.
There is also another layer of finer identity options arising out of the spread of diasporas. Indians have migrated both from their homeland, and from East African countries. There are perceptible differences between the Ramgarhia Sikh from Kenya and the Jat Sikh from the Punjab – such differences that call for a deeper understanding of inherent diversity within groups. And it is in the nature of 'internal' differences within cultural groups that they are more keenly felt than the 'external' difference between them.
The advice centre is not alone in serving its community. Elsewhere in Handsworth, there are, or have recently been, a vast range of other projects that use ethnic or religious identities as a basis for radical grouping. There is the Kashmiri Welfare Association, the Sikh Youth Service, the Vietnamese Ockenden Venture, an Asylum Seekers' Project, Asian Women's Association, Sudanese education clubs, African-Caribbean Self Help Organisation, Harambee, Single Housing Action Group, All Faiths for One Race, and a host of black churches, gurudwaras, mosques and temples.
These communities and their organisations are in a state of restless transition. Club Polski has become the Khalsa Club, pubs that traditionally served English ales now have authentic Indian curries on the menu, And so 'desi pubs' are born. Whole new forms of cultural expression in food, clothing, music and language are emerging. Perhaps the most striking shift is the growth of intimate relationships across cultural boundaries, and the emergence of a whole new generations of people with dual a, even multiple heritages.
21st Century Britain
What the Handsworth story illustrates is that in twenty-first century Britain identities are fluid and dynamic. Any attempt to fix them in time and space by (mis)using anthropology, geography, history, mythology or religion freezes identity and turns it into a caricature of itself. But this does not imply that identity is entirely fictional, without substance or meaning. The impossible paradox is that without reference to its markers, no discourse about identity and 'community' is possible. There has to be a boundary, if only for the moment, across which debate can take place. Without boundaries, there will be no closure, no cut and thrust of argument. There has to be a full stop at the end of a sentence for it to mean something. But that boundary is not forever, not cast in stone, not immovable, not absolute. Identities are arte-facts, not nature-facts. In essence, they are primarily constructions of the mind, and can therefore be de-constructed.
Particularly at a time of the rise of aggressive nationalism across countries of the West and East, it is essential to reiterate that identities are not solely fixed by political boundaries of a nation state or even its regions. Nationalism is a precursor to the narrowing of categories of who belongs. In its extreme form, it leads to forced expulsions and genocide.
In more peaceful, and less oppressive, times, the identity discourse is largely conducted through cultural and artistic activity. This lends a valuable aesthetic dimension that both defines and enriches formations and reformations of identity. For example, Handsworth, and Birmingham generally, have become home to an ethnic arts and cultural world of breath-taking vitality and imagination.New dance forms and music genres are taking their place alongside older more established traditions. Take for instance, hybrid forms, like Bhangra-Rap, Flamenco-Kathak, and Afro-Asian beats and rhythms. Witness how increasingly contemporary Visual Arts now cross and re-cross cultural boundaries, with artists like Hetain Patel or Hardeep Pandhal presenting alternative realities that broaden the range of our moral sympathies and imagination.
Finally, there is a growing recognition that Handsworth exists in a globalised world. No longer is the Punjabi confined to the Punjab, or to India, or even to the UK, but is now a global player. Paradoxically, however, globalisation is a two-way
street – it pushes up individuals into a universal citizenship, while in the same instant, pulling them back into their cultural moorings. Such is the contestable nature of identity as it moves imperceptibly between tradition and modernity, between preservation and experimentation.
Identity options are born out of the tension between fundamental pairs of concepts that pull in opposite directions. They are tantalisingly located on a spectrum, between the yearning for self-determination and the struggle for equal participation, between the need for both risk and guarantee, between predictability and surprise, tradition and modernity, fact and fiction, between reason and belief.
Identities are both internally generated and externally determined. They are formed at the intersection between two different types of discourse – an inner, inter-subjective dialogue that takes place between individuals and groups, and the outer, structural dialogue between such individuals/groups and the wider society.
It is worth examining the components of both these dialogues. The first begins with the consciousness of a shared crisis of alienation. This crisis is then resolved through the declaration of a commitment to the group that is sharing the crisis. The members use symbols to establish themselves as a large closely-knit group sustained by a common memory.
The second dialogue is shaped by the nature of the crisis, its context and timing, the resources of the potential group, the arithmetic of its social relations with wider society, and finally, the policy and style of its leadership.
It is axiomatic that this gives rise to a range of identity options available to individuals. They result from different combinations of structures, cultures and biographies. And because these determinants are not fixed, identities are therefore contingent, fluid and dynamic, and capable of infinite variation. They are not primordial or essentialist.
This is typically exemplified by the range of identity options in modern multi-cultural Britain. There are now undeniably many different ways of being Black or Asian or White, of being a Christian, Muslim or Sikh, of being a Punjabi, Gujarati or Bengali. The extent to which an individual feels the need to emphasise a particular aspect of identity to the exclusion of all else is not because they possess a unique essence, but because they, consciously or unconsciously, adjusted to suit their political, economic, and cultural positioning at any point in time.
We must therefore freely admit of the possibility of switching between identities. Nobody identifies with the same group or in opposition to the same set of others all the time. Everybody has more than one answer to the question 'Who am I?' Individuals have a more or less extensive repertoire of identity options that they call upon or engage with in different contexts and for different purposes. These identities are stored within the individual, and not always visible to the observer, and it is likely that the individual will not always be conscious of shifting from one identity to another.
The binary opposition between labour and capital, between the ruling and working classes, have incorporated within it a multiplicity of oppositions based as compellingly along the lives of ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability and life styles as along the traditional determinants of class, race and gender. Each of these determinations are now claiming recognition in the public sphere with increasing force and conviction. Like a player holding a pack of cards, each individual can choose which identity to reveal depending on what other players have chosen to play, at times perhaps even gambling with choices and allegiances.
This does not mean that our primary identities are not keenly felt. We live in an age where we insist on public displays of our particular history, our culture or our religion. Indeed, in extremes, people will defend their national and religious identities with guns and barbed wire. Wherever there is exploitation or subjugation there will be resistance, often expressed through a strong and overt assertion of identities in opposition. But the new constructions have lost their hegemonising force, and are more concerned with nurturing their identity than with destroying other identities.
When conceived and constructed in this way, our identity is transformed into something that is not doomed to survive forever, as, for example, as Englishness has been, by marginalising, dispossessing, displacing, and forgetting other ethnicities. It becomes an identity that has essentially lost its recruiting power and is made attractive because of it. Such a construction invites a multitude of opportunities and inventions, allowing for a morphing of fluid interactions beyond the older, more fixed cultural associations – as demonstrated in the rich hybrid vibrant creative expressions that are to be found in abundance in Handsworth and Birmingham.
But I don't want to give the impression that this new concept of identity as a powerless and perfect system. Like all other forms of identification, there will still be dimensions of power within it. But it isn't quite so framed by the extremities of power and aggression, violence and mobilisation as its earlier forms have been. And this leads us into a whole new world of social relations marked by tolerance (at least) and respect (at best) for all benign identities that have an equal right to exist.
As Skinder Hundal, at Nottingham's New Art Exchange, with characteristic perspicacity, points out; the interpolation of digital technology has significantly altered the communicative means by which identities are constructed. With the end of spectrum scarcity and the development of wireless transmission, electronic media is now as expansive as print media. Anyone can broadcast to anyone at any time and place. Our 'selves' are both mediated through, and modified, by social media with an immediacy and impact that earlier forms of electronic media does not possess.
At one level, social media, in all its audio, visual and textual, symbolised forms, is a decentring and democratising force, distributing the power to be heard more evenly and fairly across particularly among the unheard and disenfranchised. In that sense, it is a powerful educational, conscientising and mobilising force. But at another level, it can have precisely the opposite effect. In so far as it has the inherent potential to carry content that is fake, misleading, trivial, inciting and vulgar.
The question is, how will our fluid, fragile, evanescent identities be shaped by these opposing tendencies? Does a 'digital echo chamber' raise awareness or reinforce prejudice? Do 'virtual' communities provide as much support as 'real' ones? How is a balance struck between a libertarian and communitarian way of being? Do structures, cultures and biographies become disconnected through the isolated way in which social media is consumed? Will individuals be able to resist the hegemonising forces of dominant political and state ideologies?
There are no easy answers. But the advent of social media has further sharpened the enigma of identity as one of the central preoccupations of liberal thought across the world. We ignore the (r)evolution of identity at our peril.