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?)

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  • kabir
    Posted at 01:53h, 25 March Reply

    I think one of the major problems with Sanghvi’s argument is his choice of incidents to represent Pakistan and India. He decided to choose a terrorist attack to represent Pakistan and the Oscar win of minorities to represent India. I think this choice is problematic. Why does this terror attack best represent Pakistan? Any number of other events, of which some are positive, could have been chosen instead.

    Sanghvi is right that the two countries have taken very different paths over the last 60 years, but I do not think this necessarily overpowers the larger cultural similarities due to our shared history. Punjabis in Pakistan and India speak the same language, wear the same clothing, eat the same foods, listen to the same music. Bollywood is extremely popular in both countries. Additionally, when we are in the diaspora, away from the daily India-Pakistan politics, many Indians and Pakistanis get along extremely well together and feel more affinity towards each other than many Pakistanis do towards other co-religionists such as Arabs or Turks. If we did not share many cultural similarities, we would presumably not have this much affinity towards each other.
    Thus, I think Sanghvi’s argument is incomplete and reductive.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 02:38h, 25 March Reply

    It might be hard to get Indians to think of themselves as South Asians. Think of a mostly unified Europe (the current EU) versus Italy and Poland. But for the sake of the stability and future prosperity of South Asia, it has to be done. I am not sure of the best way, but simply declaring ‘We are the same people’ will not work.

    It was interesting to read Swati’s comment on that blog post, I too get very upset when India is identified as a ‘Hindu’ country in Western media and by people I meet in the US.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:58h, 25 March Reply

    I was once accompanying a traditionally dressed Pakistani Punjabi muslim. He even had the turban on (the turban is part of muslim orthodoxy – you must have seen Osama bin Laden weat it). Approaching us from the opposite side was a traditionally dressed Sikh. They did not know each other. But that did not stop them from greeting each other and exchanging pleasantries.

    I’m a dark skinned Tamilian south Indian and non-muslim. My house mates are Pakistani muslims. We have so many things in common that there are numerous occassions every day where we talk about India and Pakistan and have a good laugh. I can relate to what happens on the streets in Pakistan and they can relate to what happens on the streets in India. There are also occassions where they do not. For eg – there are no women in Pakistan that ride two wheelers, a fairly common sight in India. There are also many colloquialisms of Urdu that are not used in India and colloquilisms of Hindi that are not used in Pakistan, though both languages have a lot of similarities.

    We play cricket together. Our passion for cricket seems very primeval and supercedes our passion for all other sports. They are karachi-ites and do not relate well with Pathans and the rural Punjabis. There are many communities in Pakistan that they differentiate themselves from. I got to know of the diversity in Pakistan. To think of India and Pakistan as monolithic societies is a very coloured and unreal outlook.

    There are religious differences between us and we make sure that these differences are respected. These differences have never been a source of hostilities. Basic respect is not something that is difficult for anybody, whether they be Indians or Pakistanis.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:11h, 25 March Reply

    Kabir, I feel the arguments you used to support your position have the same problem that Sanghvi’s arguments do. Lets see, you do acknowledge that the two countries have taken different paths in the last 60 years, but then you say that this has not overpowered cultural similarities. You cite wearing same clothes, eating same foods and speaking same language as evidence.

    There is a very fundamental flaw in this argument. A lot of educated Indians will follow either civic or what I call ‘Bollywood’ nationalism. Lets set aside ‘Bollywood’ nationalists for the moment and consider the civic nationalists. A civic nationalist will never consider dress, food or language as the principal marker of national identity. In fact the nationalist Indian often emphasizes Indianness of Indians wearing different dresses, eating vastly different foods and speaking languages that belong to different families. In an absurd twist, many Indians will claim that it is precisely the oneness despite these differences that makes one Indian. So difference and diversity are part of the Indian identity. Our national motto is Unity in Diversity.

    It is for this very reason that many Indians think they are not like Pakistanis, it comes across as a nation based on oneness, a oneness of religion. In many ways, diversity is rated so highly by many Indians that they feel scared of homogenity (real or imagined).

    As for your other points, Bollywood is in fact, losing its popularity in India,

    I think the first step towards a South Asian identity will be starting trade, precisely because economic links seem to be independent of cultural and national identities, case in point China and Taiwan.

  • kabir
    Posted at 04:53h, 25 March Reply

    Vikram, I do take your point about nationalism being not only about cultural markers but also about identifying with the same set of values. For example, American nationalism is based partly if not largely on ascribing to the “American Dream” and liberty, and justice for all. However, I don’t think it’s fair to minimize the importance of cultural similarities in bringing people together. And there are a lot of cultural similarities between “desi” people, some of which Vinod points to above. The way I see it, we have a choice between highlighting our differences or our similarities, and I choose to highlight our similarities.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I’m intrigued that Bollywood is losing popularity in India. I would have thought it would be around forever:)

  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:26h, 25 March Reply

    I think we would see ourselves as different or the same depending on whether we can wear our localized identities, be secure in them and at the same time find no threat in alternate identies that exist.

    When it comes to Pakistan, it is often a victim of bad press. Pakistan is often displayed as a society of religious bigots. But if the religious garb is patiently examined it is not difficult to see that there are underlying non-religious identities that are a cause for tension in that society. Pakistan should not be viewed as a unified and homogenous country simply because they are more than 90% muslim. I think many Indians do that to Pakistan simply because it supports their prejudices. While religion is no doubt very significant in Pakistan, its role in the social fabric is a lot more complex than what Indians make it out to be. However, it is my subjective impression that the religious forces of India in politics do not have as much appeal as they do in Pakistan.

    Unlike India, I’m yet to see or hear about the localized art and dance of the various states in Pakistan. I have got to hear and taste the various cuisines from each of the sub-cultures of Pakistan, including that of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Whereas Indian states each have their unique forms of art and dance, I’m unaware of the same in Pakistan.

    Another area of common culture is the interaction between the sexes in urban areas and the way in which marital relations are established. Arranged marriages hold the sway in both countries with love marriages fast “stealing the thunder”. In that respect, there is virtually no difference at all. In the rural areas, I’m not so sure. I do not know much about the rural areas in Pakistan.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:17h, 25 March Reply

    Interestingly, the differences come to the fore only when we take a narrow perspective of where we are in the world. Let me illustrate with an example –

    My house mate, a Pakistani works in a multinational corporation in Singapore. Besides himself, the team he works in has 12 Indians, and an equal number of Chinese, Philipino and Thais. During one of their offsites the programme was a cultural diversity presentation and each culture had to sing a song that represented them. Although there were 12 Indians there, the rest of them saw the Pakistani guy along with the Indians and the Indians or my housemate could not oppose them and claim a separate identity. At the end, it was my housemate who represented “Indian Culture”. I wonder what people like Vir Sanghvi will make of this.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:50h, 25 March Reply

    Kabir, I am not highlighting differences. Only pointing out that highlighting similarities will not remove differences, they are not mutually exclusive. To make a South Asian identity attractive, we have to come up with ways to associate positive traits with being South Asian. Saying that we have to think of ourselves as South Asian to simply to help those that have fallen behind will mostly fall on deaf ears.

  • kabir
    Posted at 22:45h, 26 March Reply

    Vikram, I didn’t mean that you were highlighting differences, only that we have a choice as to which we want to emphasize. I agree with your larger point though that we have to make a South Asian identity attractive if we want others to subscribe to it. Personally, I subscribe to a South Asian identity because I don’t want to be associated with what being “Pakistani” implies to a lot of people. I also identify culturally with India in a lot of ways. But I can see how for Indians, an alternate identity is perhaps not needed, because being “Indian” is associated with positive attributes in the public’s mind.

    The reason why I feel strongly about the larger identity though is that only by transcending narrow national identites like “Pakistani” or “Indian” can we tackle the complex regional issues that we are all faced with. It’s like the European Union, people can still feel “French” or “German” but they also feel “European” and respond to some issues as Europeans. I suppose it’ll just take time for us in South Asia to get to that stage.

  • Satjit
    Posted at 08:05h, 28 March Reply

    I would direct Vir Sanghavi to Zhou An Lai’s (Chinese Premier and its face to the world during Mao’s time) comment when asked whether the French revolution was a good thing. His response: “it’s too early to tell”. This was 200 years after the event!

    I agree with the author of this blog who points out the same thing about Indo-Pakistani (notice I refer to people, not countries) that it has only been 60 years. so there are a lot of growing pains still to come.

    My concern about Pakistanis is that more and more of them define themselves in terms of their Muslim rather that pakistani identity; a shame really because the Father of the Nation, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, in his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of pakistani, stressed that he saw it the other way around i.e. Pakistanis first, religion later. If there is one are where India has scored (I only use this because I cannot think of a more appropriate expression early on Saturday morning) is that it has adopted secularism – not perfect by any yardstick, but given the mess we call India, it’s pretty good.

    If interested, please read my blog “Journey to becoming British” on

  • kavita
    Posted at 19:57h, 29 March Reply

    Vir Sanghvi will be delighted with the discussion as his self importance will only increase with the idea that you are taking him so seriously. It is obvious that each country highlights the other’s troublesome behaviour through such ill informed journalists. Its the same as neighbourly gossip about each other’s progeny being black sheep. People delight in salacious stories about the other, while projecting their own progeny as the grand success story. That is so Asian isn’t it? Or is it global? Do we need further proof of sameness as human beings?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:17h, 29 March

      Kavita, Vir Sanghvi type articles pose a dilemma. In the normal course, I would have ignored it as I personally found it uninteresting. However, because I was writing (for the blog) a series on analysis for college students I decided to use it as an example. The aim was to try and show how to engage with an argument like that without just posing counter-examples and getting into a shouting match.

      Looking at the feedback on the blog made me realize the dilemma more acutely. Do we ignore things we find uninteresting even though they have a major impact on shaping opinion and is that a wise thing to do? Do we need to engage with Vir Sanghvi or do we feel that doing so would boost his ego?

      We need a strategy to deal with the big issues that constitute the content of such articles to obviate the need to deal with each article. In other words, we need a modality to be an effective part of the big debates even if they are not very profound ones.

      How would you propose we deal with the barrage of ill-informed writing that nonetheless moulds public opinion?

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