Similar or Different and Does it Matter?

My understanding of this issue has changed since I wrote a response (How Similar? How Different?) to Vir Sanghvi’s article (The same people? Surely not).  Thanks to very thoughtful and deeply felt comments by readers (Kabir, Vikram and Vinod), a number of new perspectives suggest themselves and provoke further thinking. It is gratifying that this also bears out the premise of this blog – that while we may start with relatively unclear thoughts, we can help each other reason our way, most of the time, to arrive at a better understanding.

I feel now that Sanghvi’s somewhat muddled beginning threw me off track. Let me repeat it in full here for continuity:

Few things annoy me as much as the claims often advanced by well-meaning but wooly-headed (and usually Punjabi) liberals to the effect that when it comes to Indian and Pakistan, “We’re all the same people, yaar.”

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 while the gap between our Punjabis (from the east Punjab which is now the only Punjab left in India) and our Tamils may actually have narrowed, thanks to improved communications, shared popular culture and greater physical mobility, the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense.

Two aspects are jumbled up here: First, Sanghvi begins with Punjabis (east and west), then introduces Tamils from Madras, and finally concludes with a generalization about Indians and Pakistanis.

Second, he starts with sameness being characterized by nationality (east and west Punjabis were both Indians before 1947), then brings in the dimension of shared popular culture, and finally ends with a ‘gap’ between Indians and Pakistanis that has widened to the extent that they are no longer the same people in any significant sense.

What people is Sanghvi really talking about and what does he allude to when he says that they are no longer the same in any significant sense?

Let us simplify the proposition and limit our focus to Punjabis. Now Punjabis, wherever they reside in the world are ethnically similar (DNA tests should confirm the genetic similarity), and they also have a very strongly shared culture, much stronger than the cultural bond between east Punjabis and Tamils from Madras (who have many other things in common). Readers only need to visit the website of the Academy of the Punjab in North America to see that this is a fair statement.

Second, the fact that Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Punjabis were all Indians before 1947 does not necessarily imply that they did not have some significant differences. The fact that it was in 1947 that they committed the most indescribable atrocities against each other could imply that they were already different in some significant (political) sense.

Sanghvi has unnecessarily confused the argument by introducing into it Tamils from Madras and shared culture. This immediately provokes the obvious reaction that Punjabis of different religions and countries need not like each other but that does not mean that they are not ethnically similar or have a shared culture. (The religious distinction is necessary to remind ourselves that Hindu and Sikh Punjabis in India also quarreled bitterly much after 1947 despite sharing a common nationality.)

What Sanghvi really seems to be saying is that after 1947, India and Pakistan have followed markedly different ideologies as a result of which the ‘values’ of their citizens (even of west and east Punjabis) are no longer the same.

There is a lot of truth in that statement although Sanghvi generalizes too broadly when he concludes that: “We are defined by our nationality. They choose to define themselves by their religion.” India and Pakistan are large and diverse countries: there are many in India who wish to define themselves by their religion; and there are still some in Pakistan who wish to define themselves by their culture. One can say that there is an ongoing battle for the souls of both nations and while the scales are tilted differently in the two countries at the moment, the battles are far from over.

The best historical parallel to help grasp what Sanghvi is saying (with which we concur disregarding the generalization for the moment) is the emergence of West and East Germany after the Second World War. The citizens of the two states were ethnically German, they had a deeply shared culture, but the political systems were so completely divergent that the citizens of one state could legitimately say to the others after a few decades that you are now very different from us in some ‘significant’ sense, i.e., we don’t subscribe to the same values any more.

[The added bonus of this parallel is that it just so happens that there is only one Germany today and the differences that were so ‘significant’ are fading away. Time indeed moves on, sometimes in surprising ways.]

With this unraveling of Sanghvi’s real intention, we can acknowledge our own knee-jerk reaction and the varied perspectives of our commentators. Both Kabir and Vinod are right to point to the fact that the shared culture has not disappeared. This bond emerges much stronger in the diaspora where the value of shared links is multiplied many times. An Indian would appreciate the mystery of Imran Khan’s reverse swing much better than an Irani; a Pakistani would swap a lot more for a DVD of Madhubala than an Indonesian.

And Vikram is equally right in saying the when we are back in the subcontinent, it is not enough to say that we are the same because in that domain the values assume greater importance. Punjabis in India don’t need Punjabis in Pakistan (and vice versa) to feel at home – those needs are adequately satisfied. But Punjabis from Pakistan vowing to crush India or Varun Gandhi breathing fire against Muslims turn any claims of other similarities into meaningless statements.

So, yes – we are similar and we are different. And sometimes the similarities carry more weight and sometimes it is the differences that become critical.

The point that seems important in this discussion is that whether we are similar or different, we inhabit the same neighborhood. And it should seem a matter of common sense that if one corner of the neighborhood is burning that is not a development that can work to the benefit of any other part of the neighborhood.

It would be good if we like each other but even if we don’t our self-interests should motivate us to adopt a cooperative attitude. My own feeling is that there are enough people in both countries who feel that way and are sufficiently committed to continue working together even when things appear so bleak that they frustrate and annoy otherwise rational people like Vir Sanghvi. It is for these like-minded individuals to stand up and make their presence known.

In this perspective, I cannot agree more with Vikram that all the talk of similarities and differences carries less weight than open borders and increased trade. And his example of China and Taiwan is a very appropriate one in this connection.

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  • Hamza
    Posted at 15:57h, 27 March Reply

    Certainly a very well constructed argument.

  • kabir
    Posted at 19:05h, 27 March Reply

    I agree with you that cultural similarities matter much more in the diaspora than they do at home. I also thought that the analogy of the two Germanies was very appropriate.

  • Vivek Raghavan
    Posted at 21:59h, 27 March Reply

    I liked this reconsideration which demonstrates not only the importance of discussion of an issue that can lead to improved perspectives but also a point I would like to make a little abstractly. The argument above says that we are similar and we are different. This is true indeed of *any* pair of things because similarity and difference are always *relative* to some attribute which may often be left implicit or a little vague in an argument. (A shirt is similar to a shoe with respect to the fact that both are items we wear but they are also different in the particular parts of the body they cover.) Politicians often try to sway crowds by making salient one set of attributes (e.g. that a crowd is, say, primarily Hindu or Muslim) and suppress a different set of attributes (e.g. that they may share more with their economic class) in order to make them vote in one way rather than another. Or women may be persuaded to think only in terms of their roles as wives rather than as human beings. We all have multiple identities (i.e. attributes) and which ones we choose to live by in different situations and circumstances will determine how we act from situation to situation. Learning to see the world of things, events, people, and ideas in terms of both similarity and difference is a very powerful tool for constructing arguments as well as deciding how to act in the world.

    Charles Dickens opened one of his novels with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” He was not saying something illogical or contradictory but was assessing the times with respect to different *attributes* – some attributes made it the best of times, others the worst, and so on.

  • kabir
    Posted at 02:23h, 28 March Reply

    Hi Vivek,

    I totally agree with you that it is the identities we choose to live by that determine how we act in the world. Also as an English Literature major, I love the fact that you threw in a reference to A Tale of Two Cities 🙂

  • Soumyaranjan Dash
    Posted at 10:44h, 29 March Reply

    nice post!

  • Nina
    Posted at 17:26h, 01 June Reply

    I think the point Sanghvi was trying to make is that apart from Punjabis no one else in India has much in common with Pakistanis. And even many Punjabis of the younger generation no longer identify strongly with pakistani punjabis. This doesn’t mean there are no similarities just that there aren’t enough to make everyone consider themselves as one people or even as South Asians!! I am indian, i certainly don’t think of myself as south Asian and although I have many Pakistani friends, i do not think of them as my countrymen. Most of India infact has nothing in common with the people from Pakistan. Bangladesh or anywhere else in South Asia. Much as this forum seems to like to promote the idea of a shared identity there really isn’t one.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:33h, 01 June

      Nina, Thanks. This is very useful to clarify what we have in mind. You are right that we cannot promote a shared identity where there is none. The objective of the forum is not to claim that we are one people or that we have a lot of personality traits or social interests in common.

      Our rationale is that we live in the same neighborhood which is South Asia. This is similar to Latvians and Belgians having very little in common but still being Europeans. There is the realization that the health of Europe affects both and therefore there are many Europe-wide initiatives to promote the neighborhood as a whole.

      There is a similar realization in South Asia which is why SAARC exists. However, citizens of countries in South Asia know very little about each other which is why SAARC is ineffective. The fact that we are not the same people or have little in common does not mean that we need be ignorant of each other. To carry the European analogy further, European countries have fought bitterly and only then realized the value of a peaceful neigborhood.

      So this forum is to facilitate the interaction of people who share the same neighborhood. We hope to build a peaceful neighborhood on the basis of a sympathetic understanding of each other.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:29h, 02 June Reply

    Nina, I had conceded your point (see above) but just hours later I received the following in an email and I have started to think again. Of course, it doesn’t make us fellow countrymen but frankly the overlap is frightening:


    We are like this only so true, so very true….

    1. Everything you eat is savored in garlic, onion and tomatoes.
    2. You try and reuse gift wrappers, gift boxes, and, of course, aluminum foil.
    3. You are always standing next to the two largest size suitcases at the Airport.
    4. You arrive one or two hours late to a party – and think it’s normal.
    5. You peel the stamps off letters that the Postal Service missed to stamp.
    6. You recycle Wedding Gifts, Birthday Gifts and Anniversary Gifts.
    7. You name your children in rhythms (example, Sita & Gita, Ram & Shyam, Kamini & Shamini…)
    8. All your children have pet names, which sound nowhere, close to their real names.
    9. You take Indian snacks anywhere it says ‘No Food Allowed.’
    10. You talk for an hour at the front door when leaving someone’s house.
    11. You load up the family car with as many people as possible.
    12. HIGH PRIORITY *****You use plastic to cover anything new in your house
    whether it’s the remote control, VCR, carpet or new couch*****
    13. Your parents tell you not to care what your friends think, but they won’t let you do certain things because of what the other ‘Uncles and Aunties’ will think.
    14. You buy and display crockery, which is never used, as it is for special occasions, which never happen.
    15. You have a vinyl tablecloth on your kitchen table.
    16. You use grocery bags to hold garbage.
    17. You keep leftover food in your fridge in as many numbers of bowls as possible.
    18. Your kitchen shelf is full of jars, varieties of bowls and plastic utensils (got free with purchase of other stuff)
    19. You carry a stash of your own food whenever you travel (and travel means any car ride longer than 15 minutes).
    20. You own a rice cooker or a pressure cooker.
    21. You fight over who pays the dinner bill.
    22. You live with your parents and you are 40 years old. (And they prefer it that way).
    23. You don’t use measuring cups when cooking.
    24. You never learnt how to stand in a queue.
    25. You can only travel if there are 5 persons at least to see you off or receive you whether you are traveling by bus, train or plane.
    26. If she is NOT your daughter, you always take interest in knowing whose daughter has run with whose son and feel proud to spread it at the velocity of more than the speed of light.
    27. You only make long distance calls after 11pm.
    28. If you don’t live at home, when your parents call, they ask if you’ve eaten, even if it’s midnight.
    29. You call an older person you never met before Uncle or Aunty.
    30. When your parents meet strangers and talk for a few minutes, you discover you’re talking to a distant cousin.
    31. Your parents don’t realize phone connections to foreign countries have improved in the last two decades, and still scream at the top of their lungs when making foreign calls.
    32. You have bed sheets on your sofas so as to keep them from getting dirty.
    33. It’s embarrassing if you’re wedding has less than 600 people.
    34. All your Tupperware is stained with food color.
    35. You have drinking glasses made of steel.
    36. You have mastered the art of bargaining in shopping.
    37. You have really enjoyed reading this mail – forward it to as many Indians as possible.


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