Similar and Different: Common and Problematic

Two books have come out within a year pointing to a serious problem common to India and Pakistan.

Before describing the books let us note that we are now talking about what is common between India and Pakistan. This makes a lot more sense than debating whether Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Indians and Pakistanis have so many differences within their own communities that it is futile to try and reduce them to a single dimension that can then be compared. To take a very simple illustration: there are secular Indians and communal Indians just as there are secular Pakistanis and communal Pakistanis. There is no one type of Indian or Pakistani. 

But one can argue that the proportion of the population that is communal today in Pakistan is greater than in India. We are now in different territory – we are talking about a difference between Pakistan and India. Specifically, we are asking what has made Pakistan more communal than India in its outlook?

This is a plausible but hypothetical question. We really do not have evidence to make any such claim with confidence. As we have mentioned in a previous post, we tend to generalize from the small community that dominates the media. We do not have a good sense of how the majorities that are still rural in both countries feel about these issues. All we can say is that on this count there this not much to choose between the newsmakers in the two countries. So, let us leave this as an open empirical question for the moment and return to the books we mentioned at the outset.

The book on Pakistan is Islamisation of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks by Yvette Claire Rosser (2009). In his review of the book Yoginder Sikand summarizes the key finding:

Although Rosser does not say it in so many words, the current turbulent political scenario in Pakistan, in particular the rise of radical Islamist forces in the country, cannot be seen as inseparable from the narrow political agenda that the Pakistani state, ever since its formation, has consistently sought to pursue as is reflected in the social science textbooks that it has commissioned, and through which it has sought to impose its own ideology on its people.

And this is his conclusion:

Rosser’s findings are of critical importance, particularly in the context of present developments in Pakistan, which is witnessing the alarming growth of radical Islamist groups, impelled by a version of Islam very similar to the one these texts uphold. Obviously, explanations of the growing threat of radical Islamism in Pakistan cannot ignore the crucial role of these texts, which are compulsory reading for all Pakistani students, thus playing a central role in moulding their minds and worldviews. The texts are also a reflection of, as well as a cause for, the pathetic state of social science research and discourse in present-day Pakistan.

The book on India is RSS, School Texts And The Murder Of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project by Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukerjee and Sucheta Mahajan (2008). Khushwant Singh refers to it here and observes:

I wasn’t aware that the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had set up many schools across the country, known as Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and Vidya Bharati Schools. The number of teachers employed runs into thousands; the number of students into hundreds of thousands. They also have a publishing house to print their own textbooks. I was happy to learn this as our country needs more schools — the more the better — as well as more textbooks. However, when I discovered what they teach in these schools, I was sorely disappointed. It is make-believe historical fiction to boost our morale and foster suspicion and hatred against Indian-born minorities who don’t share the same kind of pride in our past, notably Muslims and Christians….

Before you accuse me of anti-RSS and BJP bias, take a look at a booklet — RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi (Sage). It is compiled by three distinguished professors of history at JNU. The source of every quotation is given to prove its authenticity. The basic text is barely 80 pages.

Finally, ask yourself, is this kind of brain-washing of young minds and filling them with hate good for the country? It will turn our sweet dreams of a hate-free Hindustan into a nightmare of vicious civil strife.

The question prompted by these two books is the following: Why do we have this common phenomenon in Pakistan and India?

In Pakistan, analysts are used to attributing it to one person (Zia ul Haq) or to a special juncture in history that aligned the interests of American intelligence, Saudi money, and the Pakistan army in this unholy enterprise. But what explains the emergence of something quite similar in India that had no connection with the Afghan war?

We are forced to concede, at least as a hypothesis, that there are more systemic forces at work that are giving rise to fairly common responses in the two countries.

What could these systemic forces be? We will come back to this question in subsequent posts.

Suggestions from readers are welcome.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:33h, 06 April Reply

    I find it very difficult to answer that question. Both my parents are unapologetic hindu bigots, when it comes to muslims, although they have no such feelings against Christians. The same goes for most of my relatives. They have a visceral despise of muslims. I don’t know why that is the case. I used to have the same feelings till the age of 18. It came from the rather unkept and academically poor muslim classmates I had. Also, the circle of friends I grew up in referred to muslims with nasty epithets – bloody Turks and so on and so forth. All kinds of jokes were cracked about the circumcision. Why did all this happen? I wish I had an answer.

    Similar kind of stuff goes on among muslims. They mock Hindu male virility for being largely vegetatrians. Ironically, they mock Hindu hygiene practices. They mock their worship and their cremation practice. All of it is unfounded on both sides. It’s just plain prejudice being bandied around. And all this starts from a very young age in both communities. Atleast it did for me.

    Even today, when I talk to my hindu friends who happen to blurt out a typical anti-muslim prejudice, I challenge them. I mention many of the hygienic practices from Islam that muslims follow and demonstrate how that is lacking among Hindus. I do the same with muslims. I challenge them when they mock Hindu worship as blind idol worship. But my little effort seems miniscule in this vast ocean of bigotry and prejudice.

    Where does it all come from? I really need answers to this disease in our society.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:55h, 07 April

      Vinod, Many thanks for your very candid comments that raise important, even if painful, issues. I don’t have an answer to your question but it is one that we have to engage with. The topic is too complex to address in a comment so I have tried to begin an argument in a separate post – Similar and Different: Good and Evil.

      A part of the answer is in a post where I have used the analysis by Professor Ralph Russell to explain one source of communal tension – Governance in Pakistan – 5: An Example of a Good Analysis.

      Another part is in the post Democracy in India – 1. Together, these various arguments might point us in the direction of an explanation. Let us keep talking on this.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:19h, 06 April Reply

    I also believe that part of the problem lies in Islamic rhetoric that is pervasive in muslim community among the masses – when the word ‘kafir’ is used as a label for Hindus. I don’t think that problem can be remedied in anyway other than the muslim community taking a serious look at this themselves.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:12h, 06 April Reply

    One more thing – I was prejudiced against muslims before all those Hindu Mahasabha schools were set up. Perhaps there is a bigotry that is perpetrated by the commuity as a whole regardless of the education system in place. In fact, my education was very very secular. Partition was conveniently skipped over. Aurangzeb’s rule hardly got a passing mention etc. Parents say things about other communities that gets into the subconsciousness of the growing child – eg – “Only muslims and dogs eat from the same plate”, “Wear a bindi else you will look like a disgusting muslim woman”, “dark green and gaudy colours are muslim colours” etc.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:55h, 06 April Reply

    This link on a slightly different form of bigotry has an indirect connection to this post.

  • Naila
    Posted at 18:32h, 06 April Reply

    India and Pakistan were born in 1947 in a burst of communal hatred that consumed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Hindus before subsiding but never really dying out. The subsequent political culture of Pakistan was weaved by a series of military dictatorships whose survival was dependent on keeping Indian enmity alive in the collective consciousness. Pakistan army even today remains focused on Indian borders, ignoring the loud marching drums of radical Islamists.

    Pakistanis in their daily lives have no interaction with Hindu communities. It is much easier to disseminate fear and hatred of a distant enemy across an abyss of ignorance and non-comprehension.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:43h, 06 April Reply

    I think one needs to put secularism in context before trying to analyse it. I think secularism means different things in different societies and countries. In the case of Pakistan, since the country is 95 % Muslim with minorities concentrated mostly in urban areas, secularism would be more about the mass attitudes towards other religions rather than towards other citizens practising different religions.

    In India, most states are between 75-85 % Hindu and there is a multi-religious society across the space of the country. So secularism takes on a more practical significance, because in reality it determines how Indians of religion X interact with Indians of religion Y. This becomes challenging when elements of religion X or Y engage in nefarious activities in the name of religion.

    I think there are some topics scholars often ignore while studying secularism in modern India:

    1) Why is it that the state of Gujarat, where Muslims are in some sense most similar to Hindus (speak the exact same language, dress, culture) and which has always been a relatively prosperous state, never been a target of terror attacks until recently, has become the most right-wing state in all of India ?

    2) Why did the appeal of Hindu nationalism fade among the masses in North India, specifically in UP and Bihar, where in many ways Hindus and Muslims are very distinct ?

    3) Has the arrival of an English-language media with an alleged anti-BJP bias affected the attitudes of young Indians in metros ? One clue to this question might come through the results of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in urban areas.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:46h, 06 April

      Vikram, If a word begins to mean different things in different societies and countries there would be a lot of confusion. Nonetheless, you are right that it is safer to define such a term at the outset in order to avoid confusion because the term is indeed used loosely.

      Secular in our context simply means the position that religious belief should not influence public decisions. In this perspective, it seems that the proportion of people who hold this belief is smaller in Pakistan than in India.

      What you are referring to (the interaction of individuals subscribing to different faiths and their attitudes towards each other) has less to do with secular belief and more to do with tolerance and mutual respect. The same should hold for people espousing different positions (say on abortion or free speech or affirmative action) within the same religion. We would expect such individuals to interact with each other on the basis of respect but this would have nothing to do with secularism as commonly understood.

      As an example, consider a hypothetical situation in the US where Blacks and Whites can both subscribe equally to a secular position (separation of Church and State) and yet be completely intolerant of each other. In this sense, you are asking why there is more tolerance of religious differences in some parts of India compared with others. My guess is that the ultimate causes would lie in the political economy that is shaping the attitudes that appear as the proximate causes of conflict (or the lack of it). Different political economies would generate different attitides in the same people.

      While we are clarifying the concepts we should also deal with the term ‘communal’. Communal has a number of different meanings but in the subcontinent its use signifies the position of individuals who look at the world from the narrow perspective of their community (however determined) rather than from some broader and more inclusive perspective (like the country or the region or the world).

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 08:44h, 07 April Reply

    Vinod/Vikram, This story is also relevant to our discussion – it ties together a number of threads and brings up some new loose ends. What an amazing world we belong to.

    The following article by Latika Gupta (I am Hindu, You are Muslim) is also of great relevance indicating the importance of education, both as a problem and as a solution.

    A longer version of this research was published in the Economics and Political Weekly but it requires a subscription to access online:

    Growing Up Hindu and Muslim: How Early Does It Happen?

    This study, based on interactions with children in a school in Daryaganj, Delhi, reveals that children very early on show explicit identification and communicated prejudices towards the “other” religion practised in their neighbourhood. This has important implications for educational policy, curricular choices, pedagogy and teacher training. While the present curricular material does not acknowledge cultural identity in childhood, the new National Curriculum Framework suggests that schools engage with children’s socialisation at home and in the neighbourhood.

    Issue : VOL 43 No. 06 February 09 – February 15, 2008

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:27h, 19 April Reply

    Vinod/Vikram: In response to Vinod’s comments about prejudice, I received an email from a reader about a possible explanation. For some reason, the reader did not wish to personally add the suggestion to the discussion on the blog. However, because it does open up a new line of thinking, I am doing so here:

    I thought that the Hindu attitude towards Muslims was rooted in the fact that most of the Hindus who converted to Islam in India were untouchables who wanted to escape their misery. Hindus therefore were never sure whether a Muslim is an untouchable or not.

    Do you feel this carries any weight?

    One other reason I thought of this was because whenever Vikram refers to historical antagonisms, resentments or schisms between Hindus and Muslims, I get the sense that his image of Muslims is of some alien race that has suddenly arrived from elsewhere and taken over the country. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in India were converts from Hinduism. Those who arrived to settle from outside India were not only few in number but almost exclusively urbanites associated with the royal courts in the major cities. The village Muslims must have been all indigenous residents. Which is also why there were so many syncretic religious and cultural practices amongst the rural population. (We can refer back to post Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu here.)

    I was reminded of this on reading Fareed Zakaria’s book (The Future of Freedom, 2003) where he describes (p. 143) rural Muslim dwellers as being immersed in “a kind of village Islam that had adapted itself to local cultures and to normal human desires”, an Islam that is pluralistic and tolerant, allowing the worshipping of saints, the singing of religious hymns, or the cherishing of art, all activities formally disallowed in Islam.

    What makes urban religion (both Islam and Hinduism) different is another topic that we can take on later.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 02:24h, 20 April Reply

    I am not contesting the fact that most of the Muslims in India are converts. That fact does not have much to do with the fact that a large part of India was under the political control of people who happened to be Muslims. And in particular it is the legacy of one of those controllers, Aurangzeb that Hindus, esp. in the North and Maharashtra get upset about.

    In any case, I am just offering one more perspective on the seeds of the Hindu/Muslim conflict seen in India today. There are definitely other, perhaps more important reasons.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:42h, 20 April Reply

    yes, there is a caste view of muslims. They are beyond the dalits and untouchables as well. My mother once refused to drink from the same vessel in which a muslim had drunk coconut water. She explicitly said that it was because he was muslim.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:47h, 20 April Reply

    Vikram, This is a conceptual issue we have been circling around without really getting to a good enough understanding. I want to avoid the danger of interpreting the past in the light of today’s frameworks of understanding (a phenomenon known as ‘presentism’).

    I am aware that Aurangzeb is used today to justify any number of positions and as an excuse for venegeful action. The interesting question is how did people of that time see Aurangzeb? In any dynasty there are bound to be good and bad rulers. Were bad rulers seen as just bad rulers or as representatives of their religion or caste?

    My argument (for which I used Sunil Khilnani and others as support) is that monolithic communal identities did not exist at that time. These only emerged after the introduction of the census by the British. Even up to 1857 all the groups that rose against the British (regardless of their religious identity) wanted the Mughal emperor to assume their leadership. We did not see Hindus aligning with the British to get rid of the hated descendants of Aurangzeb.

    This tends to confirm that the framework in which we see communal relations today was not the one that was operative at that time. Dalrymple’s book, The last Mughal, which is based on documents of that time supports this interpretation.

    There is no denying that there is strong communal antagonism today and there is general agreement that Aurangzeb was a poor ruler. Still, we need to be clear whether the latter was the cause of the former. If we make a mistake in understanding the root cause of the problem we would not have a hope of resolving it.

    There are many who would like to root the problem in an interpretation of history that nobody can change (i.e., Muslims oppressed Hindus and should now pay for it). That would set up India for endless conflict.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:16h, 22 April

      Vikram, I came across a different perspective on this issue in an op-ed I read today:

      The creation of Pakistan itself is an example of how religious ideology is employed to redress the longstanding grievances of common Muslims. Notwithstanding the geopolitical games of that time, Pakistan’s creation was a mechanism by which the oppressed Muslims gained their share of the pie in their areas. Most of them were from the lowest castes before converting to Islam. However, the foreign ruling Muslim elites despised them and always put them down. The Muslim elites preferred to forge alliances with the Hindu elites rather than uplifting the downtrodden Muslim converts.

      So, this is a class perspective on the issue instead of a religious or communal one. And, if one considers that well-off Hindus today don’t particularly care much about the miseries of marginalized ones, it is possible to argue that the earlier time might have had similarities on the Muslim side. Elite alliances more often than not seem to get forged along class lines.

      If the argument of the op-ed has weight, it would mean that indigenous Indian Muslims have been many-sided losers. They did not gain anything from the rulers, got stuck with a suspected loyalty via the Partition, were left leaderless, and now are resented because of irrelevant links with rulers who really did not do much for them.

      I wonder what your thoughts are on this way of looking at the historical narrative.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:20h, 22 April Reply

    I would have partly agreed with this perspective a few weeks ago, remember I did write that the Pakistan movement was a mass movement. However, you had said that it was a movement predominantly based on the interests of the Muslim elite in India. In fact, I dont think I have seen much evidence of class based argument in favour of Pakistan. It has always been religion based.

    I dont know why you think that the elite in Pakistan or the Muslim elite in India care more about the miseries of their marginalized ones, in fact judging by the history of Pakistan it would seem that Pakistani elites care even less about the masses than Indian elites.

    I dont think Indian Muslims, as bad as they have it are much worse off than the Muslims of the NWFP, Swat and even Sindhi Muslims, but that is entirely different matter.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:32h, 22 April Reply

    I would like to clarify that I am not personally endorsing the use of irrelevant historical links to justify the resentment of Muslims in India today. I am merely pointing out one of the arguments commonly used to create that resentment. The argument is not completely fantastical, Sikh Gurus were executed on the orders of Mughal Emperors, Mughal Emperors did raze temples and massacre Hindus, these are facts. The question is how do we put these facts in the correct perspective for both the Hindus and Muslims of India. This involves:

    1) Hindus understanding that the actions of Muslim Emperors were not endorsed by the Muslim population.
    2) Muslims acknowledging that Mughal rule was often repressive and intolerant.
    3) Both sides understanding that whatever the past they are not going to be able to move up in life without asserting and protecting each other’s rights as Indian citizens.

    Again one can refer to Dr. Ambedkars perspective on this issue.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:35h, 22 April Reply

    In particular I quote Dr. Ambedkar,

    “In this view, neither the Hindu nor the Muslim can be expected to recognize that humanity is an essential quality present in them both, and that they are not many but one, and that the differences between them are no more than accidents. For them Divinity is divided, and with the division of Divinity their humanity is divided, and with the division of humanity they must remain divided. There is nothing to bring them in one bosom. “

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:58h, 25 April

      Vikram, There are a number of interesting points to pursue in your comments and one misunderstanding to clear.

      Let me get the misunderstanding out of the way. I am not sure how you got the impression that I believed “the elite in Pakistan or the Muslim elite in India care more about the miseries of their marginalized ones.” The point I have been trying to make is completely the opposite one. I don’t think religion and politics mix in that way now or ever did in the past. It was in that context that I siad that the Muslim peasant in some far-flung village gained nothing from the fact that the rulers in Delhi were Muslims.

      The op-ed that I referred to was not to say that the movement for Pakistan was a mass movement (I still don’t agree with that perspective for the reasons I had mentioned earlier) but to see what your perception might be of the author’s claim that the nature of governance was based on the rule of elites over non-elites and the elites contained members of all religions. This is a different perspective from the one that is now common that Muslims ruled over Hindus. And it does make a difference in the way we see the past.

      So, given that clarification, I would not be making a claim that Muslims in Sindh or Swat are better off. All over South Asia, those who are marginalized, irrespective of their religions and ethnicities, are living lives that human beings should not have to live in the 21st century.

      I think we are clear about each other’s positions: you are not endorsing the use of irrelevant historical links to justify the resentment of Muslims in India today; and I am not interested in defending what Muslim rulers might or might not have done in India. The question of interest for us is how to interpret the past because the past will look different if we use today’s categories to understand it rather than the categories of the people who lived through those times.

      The facts are not in dispute. To take one of your examples, a Mughal emperor did have a Sikh Guru executed. This might be an academic question but it still remains a valid historical one: Was this execution motivated by the hatred of one religion for another?

      When I read history, it occurs to me that absolute monarchies represented a type of governance that is difficult for us to imagine today. It was zero-sun game with the incumbent either destroying a challenger or being destroyed. And the monarchs were not answerable to anyone. So the level of arbitrary use and abuse of power was much higher in those times. What the rulers did to their own siblings and fathers was equally brutal and would be inconceivable today. This kind of behavior was not rooted in religious purity but in the imperatives of survival – real or perceived opponents had to be eliminated whatever their religion. This was not peculiar to India. If one reads the history of English monarchs who ruled by Divine Right one would find many parallels. Of course, one can go into nuances – the fact that there was no agreed upon system of orderly succession under the Mughals made intrigues and conflict a much greater element under that dynasty.

      And here we would come back to the point about the rule of the elites. Any reading of history would dispel the notion that there was solid block of Muslims arrayed against a solid block of Hindus. There were many Hindus associated with the Mughal rulers in very key positions both military and non-military. (It is just a coincidence that as I was writing this I came across an article that makes the same point about Muslims and Christians in the context of today’s so-called Clash of Civilizations.)

      Your excerpt from Dr. Ambedkar (of whom I am an admirer) refers to the relationship between Hindus and Muslims during the years 1920-1940. Of course, by that time the communal lines had been drawn. My interest is in trying to understand what the relationship was like till about 1870 because I do believe that the first census in 1871 and the introduction of voting with separate electorates was a pivotal turning point in communal relations.

      Dr. Ambedkar is referring to a very particular period of time and not making a universal statement in my view. Otherwise one would not have seen the syncretic faiths and practices that were common in India and that are documented in many contemporary accounts and scholarly books.

      Towards the end of the excerpt you have referenced, Dr. Ambedkar takes a very pessimistic view of unity in India and almost seems to be subscribing to a culturally deterministic position:

      For this failure the genius of the Indians alone is responsible. There is among Indians no passion for unity, no desire for fusion. There is no desire to have a common dress. There is no desire to have a common language. There is no will to give up what is local and particular for something which is common and national. A Gujarati takes pride in being a Gujarati, a Maharashtrian in being a Maharashtrian, a Punjabi in being a Punjabi, a Madrasi in being a Madrasi and a Bengali in being a Bengali. Such is the mentality of Hindus, who accuse the Musalman of want of national feeling when he says “I am a Musalman first and Indian afterwards.” Can any one suggest that there exists anywhere in India even among the Hindus an instinct or a passion that would put any semblance of emotion behind their declaration “Civis Indianus sum,” or the smallest consciousness of a moral and social unity, which desires to give expression by sacrificing whatever is particular and local in favour of what is common and unifying? There is no such consciousness and no such desire. Without such consciousness and no such desire, to depend upon Government to bring about unification is to deceive oneself.

      The problem with this argument seems to be the implication that unity can only be achieved by the sacrifice of local identity. But this need not be the case. India is rightly seeking Unity in Diversity. And that notion of unity has to be all-inclusive to be either meaningful or successful. It is such a model that offers hope for India.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 05:18h, 10 May Reply

    The quarter of humanity question is how can Pakistanis and Indians (mostly North) come to understand each other’s views on Mughal rule and how can a critical analysis of that era and the Mughal emperors be presented to the people of Northern South Asia. And this exchange was a step in that direction for me.

    I would also like to know how the contemporary elite of Pakistan view Aurangzeb.

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