27 Mar Similar or Different and Does it Matter?
My understanding of this issue has changed since I wrote a response (How Similar? How Different?) to Vir Sanghvi’s article (The same people? Surely not). Thanks to very thoughtful and deeply felt comments by readers (Kabir, Vikram and Vinod), a number of new perspectives suggest themselves and provoke further thinking. It is gratifying that this also bears out the premise of this blog – that while we may start with relatively unclear thoughts, we can help each other reason our way, most of the time, to arrive at a better understanding.
I feel now that Sanghvi’s somewhat muddled beginning threw me off track. Let me repeat it in full here for continuity:
Few things annoy me as much as the claims often advanced by well-meaning but wooly-headed (and usually Punjabi) liberals to the effect that when it comes to Indian and Pakistan, “We’re all the same people, yaar.”
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 while the gap between our Punjabis (from the east Punjab which is now the only Punjab left in India) and our Tamils may actually have narrowed, thanks to improved communications, shared popular culture and greater physical mobility, the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense.
Two aspects are jumbled up here: First, Sanghvi begins with Punjabis (east and west), then introduces Tamils from Madras, and finally concludes with a generalization about Indians and Pakistanis.
Second, he starts with sameness being characterized by nationality (east and west Punjabis were both Indians before 1947), then brings in the dimension of shared popular culture, and finally ends with a ‘gap’ between Indians and Pakistanis that has widened to the extent that they are no longer the same people in any significant sense.
What people is Sanghvi really talking about and what does he allude to when he says that they are no longer the same in any significant sense?
Let us simplify the proposition and limit our focus to Punjabis. Now Punjabis, wherever they reside in the world are ethnically similar (DNA tests should confirm the genetic similarity), and they also have a very strongly shared culture, much stronger than the cultural bond between east Punjabis and Tamils from Madras (who have many other things in common). Readers only need to visit the website of the Academy of the Punjab in North America to see that this is a fair statement.
Second, the fact that Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Punjabis were all Indians before 1947 does not necessarily imply that they did not have some significant differences. The fact that it was in 1947 that they committed the most indescribable atrocities against each other could imply that they were already different in some significant (political) sense.
Sanghvi has unnecessarily confused the argument by introducing into it Tamils from Madras and shared culture. This immediately provokes the obvious reaction that Punjabis of different religions and countries need not like each other but that does not mean that they are not ethnically similar or have a shared culture. (The religious distinction is necessary to remind ourselves that Hindu and Sikh Punjabis in India also quarreled bitterly much after 1947 despite sharing a common nationality.)
What Sanghvi really seems to be saying is that after 1947, India and Pakistan have followed markedly different ideologies as a result of which the ‘values’ of their citizens (even of west and east Punjabis) are no longer the same.
There is a lot of truth in that statement although Sanghvi generalizes too broadly when he concludes that: “We are defined by our nationality. They choose to define themselves by their religion.” India and Pakistan are large and diverse countries: there are many in India who wish to define themselves by their religion; and there are still some in Pakistan who wish to define themselves by their culture. One can say that there is an ongoing battle for the souls of both nations and while the scales are tilted differently in the two countries at the moment, the battles are far from over.
The best historical parallel to help grasp what Sanghvi is saying (with which we concur disregarding the generalization for the moment) is the emergence of West and East Germany after the Second World War. The citizens of the two states were ethnically German, they had a deeply shared culture, but the political systems were so completely divergent that the citizens of one state could legitimately say to the others after a few decades that you are now very different from us in some ‘significant’ sense, i.e., we don’t subscribe to the same values any more.
[The added bonus of this parallel is that it just so happens that there is only one Germany today and the differences that were so ‘significant’ are fading away. Time indeed moves on, sometimes in surprising ways.]
With this unraveling of Sanghvi’s real intention, we can acknowledge our own knee-jerk reaction and the varied perspectives of our commentators. Both Kabir and Vinod are right to point to the fact that the shared culture has not disappeared. This bond emerges much stronger in the diaspora where the value of shared links is multiplied many times. An Indian would appreciate the mystery of Imran Khan’s reverse swing much better than an Irani; a Pakistani would swap a lot more for a DVD of Madhubala than an Indonesian.
And Vikram is equally right in saying the when we are back in the subcontinent, it is not enough to say that we are the same because in that domain the values assume greater importance. Punjabis in India don’t need Punjabis in Pakistan (and vice versa) to feel at home – those needs are adequately satisfied. But Punjabis from Pakistan vowing to crush India or Varun Gandhi breathing fire against Muslims turn any claims of other similarities into meaningless statements.
So, yes – we are similar and we are different. And sometimes the similarities carry more weight and sometimes it is the differences that become critical.
The point that seems important in this discussion is that whether we are similar or different, we inhabit the same neighborhood. And it should seem a matter of common sense that if one corner of the neighborhood is burning that is not a development that can work to the benefit of any other part of the neighborhood.
It would be good if we like each other but even if we don’t our self-interests should motivate us to adopt a cooperative attitude. My own feeling is that there are enough people in both countries who feel that way and are sufficiently committed to continue working together even when things appear so bleak that they frustrate and annoy otherwise rational people like Vir Sanghvi. It is for these like-minded individuals to stand up and make their presence known.
In this perspective, I cannot agree more with Vikram that all the talk of similarities and differences carries less weight than open borders and increased trade. And his example of China and Taiwan is a very appropriate one in this connection.