Culture, Nationality and Religion – 1

By Anjum Altaf

I am going to present a provocative thesis in this post: Economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake.

On the face of it this is indeed a provocative claim and it is not one that I necessarily subscribe to in its entirety. I take it on in the spirit of a challenge faced by a participant in an extempore debate or by a lawyer arguing the best case for his client. In that spirit, I would be more than happy to argue the exact opposite case after a good night’s sleep.

The drive for upward mobility in British India dealt a mortal blow to many aspects of our culture. Gone are our modes of dress, our ways of eating, and our postures for relieving ourselves. Gone is our familiarity with Persian/Sanskrit and Urdu/Hindi themselves are reduced to a medium for transacting goods and services with those unfamiliar with English. For a long period the Punjabi elite banished their language from their homes and the Kashmiri diaspora forgot its language altogether.

What is it that remains of our culture? The need for Arab benevolence put paid to everything that pre-dated Mohammad bin Qasim in Pakistan and the need to maintain a distance from India took care of the Taj Mahal, Tansen and Wajid Ali Shah. Gone is the dancing girl of Mohenjodaro and gone is our classical music with the pride of our artists surviving by singing pop tunes.

Suffice it to say that if my promotion depends on doffing my fez, it is a good bet the fez will be gone. Note that since women were not part of the job market in British India, they have retained their native dress – an exception that proves the point.

As for nationality, the queues outside the US, British, Canadian and Australian embassies more than tell the story. A telling remark by Bapsi Sidhwa, a leading South Asian writer in English, comes to mind. Asked when she became an American, she told a story of how she was awarded a literary prize which could not be conferred on her because it transpired she was not an American at that time. That was enough motivation for her to change citizenship.

More power to Bapsi Sidhwa. The point is that nationality is an accident of birth and most people are quite happy to switch if that enlarges their set of economic opportunities. In fact, people are more than willing to pay substantial amounts of money to dispense with less advantageous nationalities. Often just the prospect of better education and careers for their children or the convenience of visa-free travel is sufficient motivation.

This brings us to religion, the most emotive of our possessions. Here again the facts speak for themselves. Muslims in South Asia seem to feel a need to claim that they are descendants of migrants from Arabia when it really cannot be denied that the vast majority is descended from locals who converted from Hinduism. These conversions liberated the bulk of the converts from the economic and social deprivations that came from being at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. They were no doubt wrenching but rational decisions.

A more recent example in Pakistan pertains to the compulsory imposition of the zakat deduction from bank accounts of Muslims from which depositors who belong to the Shia sect were exempted. While no official statistics are available, many insiders have remarked privately on the disproportionate surge in the number of account holders who filed zakat exemption certificates.

I am told that during the rise of the Sikh religion in the Punjab, many Hindu households raised one of their sons as a Sikh in order to hedge their bets. This is quite akin to a lot of political families today that have a representative in every major party that is likely to be in the seat of power. In fact, one may quite easily add ideology to culture, nationality and religion as an attribute expendable in the pursuit of economic gain.

Nevertheless, people are not easily convinced of the nature of the tenuous links to religion. I can think of a hypothetical experiment that might encourage some soul-searching in this regard. Suppose, just suppose, the Canadian government were to announce today that anyone who became an Episcopalian would be entitled to an immediate grant of citizenship for his family, a benefit transfer of $10,000, and school tuition for children. Readers can speculate on what proportion of households below and above the poverty line in the different areas of South Asia would accept such an offer. Personally, I would be surprised if there are very few takers.

The point I wish to make is that people are often overly emotional about culture, nationality and religion. If they were to look more closely and more objectively they would find that we have already given up and exchanged many aspects of these for the sake of economic well-being. And there is really no need to look at these exchanges in an exclusively negative perspective.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared first in the Daily News, Lahore, in July 2004. It is reproduced with permission of the author.



  • Cultural_Liberal
    Posted at 20:04h, 05 July Reply

    While I agree completely with your hypothesis that economic upliftment is the major factor for all decisions we make in life, I wonder whether you have any reading material for your claim that “The need for Arab benevolence put paid to everything that pre-dated Mohammad bin Qasim in Pakistan”. I feel that this distortion has more to do with the emotive issue of Pakistan being created in the name of a homeland for Muslims, the idea that Muslims are different from Hindus, and thus the need to dissociate culturally from India and Hinduism. I personally think this would be no different if the Arabs weren’t sitting on mountains of liquid gold.

    On your hypothetical case study of the Canadian government offer, you will definitely see people flocking to Canada in droves and mass conversions to Episcopalianism. The first generation converts might still be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh etc in their hearts while maintaining an outward face of Episcopalianism, but 2 or 3 generations down the line, their progeny will be staunch Episcopalians.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 00:18h, 06 July Reply

    Cultural_Liberal: The distinct and sharp break in the historical narrative of Pakistan occurs not in 1947 but in 1977. Before 1977, the history taught in schools was the same as in India – starting from the Indus Valley civilization and moving chronologically to modern times – perhaps with some nuanced variations. After 1977, history was replaced by Pakistan Studies, the starting point was moved up to Bin Qasim and the genesis of Pakistan moved back to coincide with that date. Good documentation can be found in the report titled The Subtle Subversion.

    This was also the period of the first Afghan War when significant amounts of Saudi money flowed to Pakistan for its ideological conversion – almost all the expansion in the madrassas was funded by the Saudis. Money matters – if only Islam had been at issue, Pakistan could well have stayed with the Islam it had and deepened its institutions. Indeed, a non-Saudi Islamic trajectory seemed a lot more likely in the 1960s.

    Of course there are non-economic reasons as well and some are the subject of interesting work by Professor Ralph Russell that has been posted on this blog – Which Islam?

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:26h, 06 July Reply

    I think economic motivations are determinatively important to those whose basic economic needs are an everyday toil and struggle. But beyond a certain point of satisfaction, identity, the fountain of motivation, is shaped more by non-economic factors such as religion, ethnicity, language, caste etc. Even the extent to which economic motivations come into play depend to an extent on the inter-subjective evaluations that happen in a group/community. If the group as a whole is economically unconcerned i.e. they do not give much weight to economic considerations in evaluating the value of an individual then individuals of that group would not be motivated by economic considerations determinatively. To put it simply, identity is partly shaped by the nature of the inter-subjective narrative of a community.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of motivations comes to mind.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:58h, 07 July

      Vinod: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful construct. One can interpret it to say that economic considerations become progressively less important as one moves up the hierarchy. However, in my view, this does not rule out the possibility that at any horizontal level there can be tradeoffs between economic and non-economic considerations. One example given in the post was of nationality which is mostly traded by people who are not at the bottom of the hierarchy. Religious conversions for economic or security reasons conform more to your argument.

      The post was not addressing the issue of what shapes human identity. Rather, the proposition for discussion was that economic considerations, more often than not, dominate loyalty to non-economic attributes like culture, nationality and religion. People are skeptical of such a claim till they examine in more depth the evidence that is all around them.

      As to groups, you have to provide an example of a group that as a whole is economically unconcerned. At one time this could have been said of rishis but even that has now become a business.

    • Cultural_Liberal
      Posted at 06:29h, 07 July

      Could it be that people who are not at the bottom of the hierarchy are affected by a relative economic necessity? That is, they feel the need to move up the economic ladder because those who are lower than them are moving up the ladder as well and coming closer to them?

      Case in study would be the large number of students coming to the US to do a Masters degree (India has been breaking records every year in this regard). None of them are poor, in fact many of them are upper middle class kids who have obtained degrees in ordinary institutions and gotten average jobs. Since people of lower status are also getting the same jobs, these kids decide to head out to developed countries in order to remain in a higher hierarchy. Just my 2 paise though…

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:04h, 07 July Reply

    Cultural_Liberal: I think that is the point being made in the post – that the economic motivation exists at every step of the ladder; it might be weaker or stronger but it does not disappear.

    One variant of the phenomenon you are mentioning is known as “Keeping up with the Joneses” and has been well documented. In general, people want to improve their economic situations and their aspirations are shaped by those immediately above them in the social hierarchy. I feel that even if there were no pressure from below people would want to improve their economic prospects – with globalization, Indian professionals aspire to the lifestyle of their Western counterparts.

  • Hasan
    Posted at 22:06h, 16 May Reply

    This article reminded me of your lecture during the course covering history of South Asian Music and how you recounted that many Hindu’s converted to Islam who were from lower castes since the Brahmins would benefit all the time.

    The lower caste Hindus were drawn towards Islam as it preached equality while it also provided them an opportunity to be move up the social mobility ladder in order to pursue better (economic) opportunities for themselves.

    Perhaps for someone moving up from the lowest social strata, economic opportunity would have greater significance than someone moving up from a higher class?

    That can, in turn, influences the non-economic factors a lot more within individuals who are lower in the social hierarchy as well?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:06h, 17 May

      Hasan: The kind of news in the attached story calls for a sociological explanation:

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:02h, 23 May

      Hasan: This doesn’t need a sociological explanation. It is much more transparent – here is what you risk and here is what you might get. What would you do in a situation like this? Should the state intervene?:

      Kumar belongs to the Nat caste, which is listed as a scheduled caste in Uttar Pradesh. While one section of this caste follows Hinduism, another practises Islam. All new converts belonged to the Nat community. “As I myself belong to this caste, I could easily explain to Muslim members of the community about the risk of continuing to follow Islam,” Kumar said, “and the benefits they might get by becoming Hindus.”

      The real question is why in today’s world should anyone face risks in following any particular religion or no religion at all for that matter?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 19:31h, 23 May

      Hasan, in proportional terms, conversion from Hinduism to Islam was minimal in India. As late as the 1871 census (after Muslims had been present in India for more than 1000 years), only 19% of the subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was Muslim. Sindh became Muslim majority in the 16th century (see: Interpreting the Sindhi World), Punjab and Bengal in the 18th century. All other regions in the subcontinent, most significantly the densely populated Gangetic plains remained overwhelmingly Hindu.

      I would compare conversion from Hinduism to Islam/Christianity to the pursuit of an English medium education today. The environment that made Islamic an attractive option was definitely linked to its political power, and the chance it offered to more easily engage with the wider Islamic/Persianate world. Note that early on, the acquisition of English education in India was also associated with conversion to Christianity.

      Over time, as it became easier for Hindus to learn Persian and access resources from the Islamic world, the drive to convert lessened. I think the idea of conversion to Islam being the same as conversion away from Hinduism is a modern one. It arose as Hindu and Muslim groups tried to differentiate from each other to bolster their arguments in front of colonial authorities. Similarly, as non-convent options for English medium education are becoming available, Indians are again moving to non-Christian affiliated schools.

      I doubt a stratified social structure had much to do with religious conversions. Most medieval Muslim intellectuals/aristocrats in India accepted social hierarchy, and I havent been able to locate a single critique of any caste system from such figures.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:18h, 25 May

      Hasan: You were interested in Aurangzeb and also in the perils of writing history:

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:21h, 25 May Reply

    Hasan: This excerpt from an essay on Nietzsche is important (the full essay is of less interest to us) and points to a quality that has made his name stand the test of time. I have highlighted the key points that I found worth thinking about for us in South Asia:

    “Along with a few friends, Nietzsche formed a club called Germania, an intellectual discussion circle, where they would take turns presenting essays, poetry and music.

    One of the most interesting elements in Blue’s story is its charting of Nietzsche’s loss of faith, beginning in his middle teenage years. In his contributions to Germania, we don’t see outright atheism, but we do see a cautious movement to a more sceptical perspective. In one of his essays from this period, Nietzsche reflects on how difficult it can be to distance oneself from the tradition in which one has grown up, and to reflect on it in a critical way. This gives a nice hint of what, in the face of this difficulty, will become one of his most striking philosophical accomplishments: specifically his ability to step, insofar as possible, outside the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition and look at it as an anthropologist might, explaining how it gained traction and why it continues to retain it. Nietzsche pressed this still further, going beyond the role of anthropologist to that of philosophical “legislator”, concerned with the task of “revaluing” these hitherto revered values.”


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