Amartya Sen had a parallel experience, when as a child he witnessed an unknown man stumbling into the garden of his parent’s house, bleeding heavily and asking for water. Sen shouted for his parents, and his father took the man to a hospital, where he died of his injuries. The victim was a Muslim day-labourer who had been stabbed by Hindus during the riots that occurred in Bengal in the last years of the British Raj. Sen continues to be not only horrified but also baffled by the communal violence he witnessed at that time. As he puts it in Identity and Violence: “Aside from being a veritable nightmare, the event was profoundly perplexing.” Why should people who have lived together peaceably suddenly turn on one another in years of violence that cost hundreds of thousands of lives? How could the poor day-labourer be seen as having only one identity – as a Muslim who belonged to an “enemy” community – when he belonged to many other communities as well? “For a bewildered child,” Sen writes, “the violence of identity was extraordinarily hard to grasp. It is not particularly easy for a still bewildered elderly adult.”
Identity and Violence is his attempt to overcome that bewilderment.