On Cooperation and Competition – 3

I find it hard to believe that I forgot the reason for initiating this series on the possible origins of cooperative and competitive behavior using Malaysia and North India as the case studies.

I had wanted to revisit the partition of India.

This is an event in history that I visit again and again trying to understand how a tragedy of such magnitude could have occurred under the very noses of so many eminent personalities. And the one counterpoint I keep going back to is the situation in Malaysia which, from an ethnic perspective, was even more complex than India but was resolved in a much more satisfactory fashion.

What accounted for the difference? One can attribute it to pure chance but I will concede that only if I fail to find any other plausible or semi-plausible explanation. Of course, I am quite prepared to discard the explanation if it doesn’t hold up to a critique by readers.

I must confess I was at a loss till this hypothesis of socialized behavior floated back into my mind. If rice-growing cultures are indeed more socialized into cooperative behavior than wheat-growing ones, we have a plausible starting point.

Note that all the key personalities in the run-up to the partition of the subcontinent belonged to areas in which deep-water rice was not a major crop. Quite incredibly, three of them – Gandhi, Patel and Jinnah – were from Gujarat; Nehru was from Kashmir. The Sikh representatives were by definition from the Punjab.

What amazes me in reading the accounts of the period is that not a single individual in this group (with the partial and inconsistent exception of Gandhi) was ever willing to make the slightest compromise in the negotiations. Everyone wanted a settlement on their terms. And everyone came across as wanting to raise their demands or double-cross the others on the slightest signs of weakness. There was not the least amount of trust between the parties that could provide the basis for an honest give and take.

This is quite compatible with the competitive behavior socialized by crop cultures or activities where people are not required to work together; everyone is on their own and can survive, for better or for worse, on their own endowments.

In Malaysia by contrast, if our hypothesis is right, rice-growing socialized the Malays into relations of trust and into understanding the magnitude of the loss that would occur if no accord were reached. Since the Malays were numerically the dominant group at the time of the British departure, the temptation to go for the entire pie must have been very great. At the same time, there would have been the ingrained sense that the survival of the entire country would have been jeopardized without an agreement. The extent of the compromises that were made by all three parties to the conflict was quite amazing from an Indian perspective. And the intelligence demonstrated in crafting a constitutional arrangement that would accommodate all the interests was also reflective of communities that found it natural to work together towards a larger goal.

This makes me wonder. What if the majority of leaders of the contending groups in the subcontinent had been from the rice-growing parts of India? Would our fates have been markedly different?

And, a related question: Why were the leaders from the rice-growing areas not in the forefront in the political arena? Was there a self-selection at work? Were individuals socialized into cooperative behavior averse to getting involved in the kind of hardscrabble world of competitive politics introduced in India by the British?

Continued: On Cooperation and Individualism – 4


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:29h, 14 June Reply

    This sounds like a project for an anthropology student. I’m afraid I’ve got little to add to this. All that I can say for now is that Malaysians are a lot more soft-spoken and gentle bunch than the people in the Indian subcontinent.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:00h, 14 June

      I was hoping that this discussion would be at a level where most readers would be able to participate. If it appeals only to students of anthropology it would suggest that some rethinking is needed. Let us see if we get some more feedback.

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