Posts Tagged ‘Vir Sanghvi’

Similar and Different: Bengal Revisited

April 17, 2009

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. (more…)

Similar and Different: What Else?

March 28, 2009

With Vivek Raghavan’s input we make a quantum jump in our understanding of this issue. It drives home three lessons: how much we are helped by conceptual clarity; how we get to conceptual clarity; and how we learn.

We started this discussion with our conceptualization of the issue defined by Vir Sanghvi: we were thinking in terms of ‘things as a whole’ that were either similar or different (or were similar at one time but were different now). We were thinking in terms of binaries and polar opposites. One could say we were conceptually in an ‘either/or’ world, where you were either like me or unlike me (or you were either ‘for us’ or ‘against us’ – the famous Bush formulation analogous to the Sanghvi formulation).

From the outset we were uncomfortable with this binary view of the world and were groping our way towards a more nuanced perspective. And because humans argue from experience we illustrated the similarity of east and west Punjabis by referring to their lived experiences in the diaspora. But we were still trapped in Sanghvi’s paradigm – we wanted to prove Sanghvi wrong by making the counter-case that east and west Punjabis were similar, not different.

The conceptualization suggested by Vivek changes the entire perspective. Now we do not see things as things in their entirety but as bundles of attributes. And as soon as you do that it becomes obvious that there can be some attributes that would be similar and others that would be different. When Vivek explains it, we see what we feel we should have seen all along – that even a shirt and a shoe possess attributes some of which are similar and others that are different.

To go back to the east and west Punjabis and two take only two attributes, we can see that they would have language in common and could differ in religion. Once we get to this point, we can also see how different attributes could disproportionately influence our attitudes in different situations. In a foreign country, language might have salience; at home religion might be the key determinant.

From here, we can project other factors that influence our behaviors. In a foreign country, when two Punjabis run into each other they negotiate their relationship largely on their own. At home, there are many third parties (politicians, editors, talk show hosts) intervening in this relationship to advance particular agendas. So which attributes are highlighted is a social issue but can also be a political one. And as we know (but do not fully understand why) human beings react much more emotionally to some attributes than to others. We all have hot buttons and others know we have hot buttons. From there on it is a familiar story…

Now let me address the issue of how we get to this kind of conceptual clarity that we are talking about – there is a long way and a short way. We can begin from a Sanghvi-like simple understanding and grope our way towards a more nuanced one – this is what we were doing in the course of this discussion on the blog. Or we could have been introduced to A Tale of Two Cities in high school, which would have made the nuanced understanding our starting point. And we would have immediately smiled at Sanghvi for his crude formulation and for his attempt to push our hot buttons.

Of course, I am not saying that the conceptual understanding could have come only from A Tale of Two Cities. Any one of many texts from our local literary traditions could have achieved the same result. The point is that this kind of understanding of the world comes indirectly from an exposure to the humanities and it is being progressively neglected in our education because it (seemingly) does not add to our prospects in the job market.

This is one premise on which this blog was founded – that without an exposure to the humanities we would move further and further along the path of intolerance that Sanghvi inadvertently represents.  At least we are trying but contrast our groping attempts in this discussion to the elegant simplicity of the one sentence by a master like Dickens in which an entire worldview is laid bare before us. Add a good teacher and the payoff is invaluable. It is this tremendous wisdom locked up in the masterpieces of our literary traditions that we are failing to benefit from. Thus it is no surprise when Stanley Fish says that undergraduates can be introduced to all the big questions of life just from a course in Milton. (Incidentally that column was the inspiration for the Ghalib Project on this blog.)

So, what do we do now that most of us have been deprived of such an education that nurtures the conceptual understanding of our world? One recourse is to become participants in structured and respectful conversations and hope that there would be people like Kabir and Vikram and Vinod to pose intelligent questions and people like Vivek to add new dimensions to our thinking. Add Satjit’s perspective on taking a longer view and things begin to appear even more different.

Together we can learn from each other and get to the point where we would have very problems separating good arguments from bad. Meanwhile, examine your attributes, watch your hot buttons, and read a book.

PS: We can now respond easily to Bush – we are with you on some things and against you on others; please formulate your proposition with more care.

PS: On Vinod’s recommendation I am reading Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – it is a provocative book that I would heartily recommend in turn.

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Similar or Different and Does it Matter?

March 27, 2009

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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How Similar? How Different?

March 24, 2009

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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