24 Mar How Similar? How Different?
Vir Sanghvi, an editor at the Hindustan Times, has written an article (The same people? Surely not) in which he has expressed annoyance at the claims “often advanced by well-meaning but wooly-headed liberals to the effect that when it comes to Indian and Pakistan, ‘We’re all the same people, yaar.’”
Sanghvi says that “This may have been true once upon a time. Before 1947, Pakistan was part of undivided India and you could claim that Punjabis from West Punjab (what is now Pakistan) were as Indian as, say, Tamils from Madras. But time has a way of moving on [and] the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense.”
This was brought home to Sanghvi by two major events over the last few weeks. “The first of these was the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on the streets of Lahore… The second contrasting event was one that took place in Los Angeles but which was perhaps celebrated more in India than in any other country in the world. Three Indians won Oscars: A.R. Rahman, Resul Pookutty and Gulzar [and] not one of them is a Hindu.”
So, here’s the contrast: “On the one hand, you have Pakistan imposing sharia law, doing deals with the Taliban, teaching hatred in madrasas, declaring jihad on the world and trying to kill innocent Sri Lankan cricketers. On the other, you have the triumph of Indian secularism.”
Leading to the conclusion: “The same people? Don’t make me laugh.”
If this were an exercise in critical analysis for college students, how would we go about our task?
I guess it would add to Vir Sanghvi’s annoyance that we are writing on a blog called The South Asian Idea. Here we don’t see ourselves as Indians or Pakistanis (or as belonging to the other nation-states of the region) but as South Asians.
But Sanghvi’s annoyance would be well justified because right there lies the answer (that he does not want to hear) to his question. No matter what Vir Sanghvi says or does, he cannot take our South Asian identity away from us. We cannot even take it away from ourselves, not that we have not tried.
There is a serious point here, one that was much discussed many years ago under the rubric of uneven development. Parts of any whole develop unevenly, some even regress for a while – this does not stop them from remaining parts of the whole. Take Brazil for instance: There are its most European parts on the beaches of Rio and there are its stone-age tribes in the Amazon. They are nevertheless all Brazilians, and all Latin Americans.
So, granted some parts of South Asia have regressed but have they fallen behind the most underdeveloped parts of India? Would Vir Sanghvi laugh at the rural backlands of Orissa because they are not as cosmopolitan as the downtown of Mumbai?
We condemn what Vir Sanghvi deplores and we delight in what Vir Sanghvi celebrates and that is indeed where we wish the other parts of South Asia to be. But sixty years is not a long time in the life of countries. Why should we assume a linear trajectory from now on? Who knows what things might be like sixty years from now?
It was not very long ago that the British had assumed control of India and declared all Indians to be primitive, backward, benighted and in need of being civilized. Indians had asserted their equality and today that assertion has become a fact. Who is laughing now?
Vir Sanghvi’s facts are right but his generalizations are not. You may not like some people, you may wish to stay away from them, but you cannot help stay related to them. It happens within families, within neighborhoods, within communities and within nations.
The question is what do you do when you live in the same neighborhood and some start falling behind? No one can stop you laughing if that’s what you are inclined to do but does that constitute an intelligent response?
Of course, there is another much larger perspective on this issue going beyond South Asia, one that we had articulated on this blog some time back – Are We Similar or Are We Different?
(This post has been updated based on comments received from readers. See Similar or Different and Does it Matter?)