Similar and Different: Bengal Revisited

What have we learnt from this extended discourse on similarities and differences? It is time for a recap and a summary.

We started with Vir Sanghvi’s angry pronouncement that Pakistanis and Indians were no longer similar; they may have been 60 years ago but by now ‘they’ were fundamentalist and ‘we’ were secular.

There were immediate rejoinders to this burst of annoyance with hurt pronouncements of sharing the same music and the same sports.

It became immediately obvious that there were two flaws with the framing of this discussion. First, human beings were not one thing or another; rather, they were better characterized as bundles of attributes. And it was quite possible for individuals to share some attributes and differ along others. To take a very simple example, Punjabis could share a language but differ in religion.

Second, and because of that perspective, it became clear that one could not generalize so broadly as to contrast all Indians and Pakistanis. Within each country, individuals could well have quite different attributes. Again, to take a simple example, fundamentalists and secularists could be found in both countries.

The insight that emerged from this richer framework was that comparisons across individuals are not neutral; indeed they are very context dependent. Thus, the specific attributes that get highlighted in emphasizing similarities or differences are very much dependent on what is at issue at that time.

And the follow-up to that insight was that this highlighting is rarely left to the individuals themselves. More often than not there are external agents who manipulate these attributes for other ends that only indirectly involve the individuals whose attributes are being highlighted.

We can now see that all these factors came into play during the partition of the subcontinent. But we can illustrate the point even more dramatically by thinking about the relationship between the people of West and East Pakistan.

During the run up to the Partition, the only attribute that was given prominence was that of a shared religion. It was taken for granted that Bengali and Punjabi Muslims shared a common destiny and were meant to share a common homeland.

But within a few years other attributes were raised to the fore: their language was different; their staple food was different; even their culture was different because Bengalis sang and danced; and so on. And the highlighting of these differences for political ends led to another unforgivable human tragedy of massive scale ending with Punjabis being described as the ‘butchers’ of Bengal.

The lesson from this discussion is that political differences (which will always exist in society) have to be resolved in political ways. They should never be reduced to the level of individuals and attributed to their individual differences. Whenever we find ourselves thinking in terms of blue-eyed people being devils, or dark-skinned people being dangerous, we should become wary. We can be sure that we are being manipulated for ulterior ends, that we are being used as pawns in somebody else’s game.

And thus we reach our conclusion: it is really quite irrelevant whether we are similar or different. The important thing to realize is that all citizens of a country need to co-exist as equals within their respective countries. And citizens of different countries in the same neighborhood (as in South Asia) need to exist in cooperation with each other.

All of us have to work together and strengthen those who believe in these aims and resist those who hope to discriminate or disturb the neighborhood. Vir Sanghvi is perfectly justified in being annoyed but his analysis is wrong and his prescription will create more problems than it would resolve.


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