Feisal Naqvi

Founding stories

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 6:45 am

One million people died in Partition. Logically speaking, that has nothing to do with the merits of the two-nation theory. But we are not creatures of logic.

Let me start with the first point.

The two-nation theory is the argument that Muslims and Hindus are two intrinsically, inherently different peoples; each a nation entitled to its own sovereign territory.

There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a nation. Formulations in international law tend to be circular: a nation is thus a collection of people sufficiently large and sufficiently different from other people, as to be entitled to self-determination. Self-determination, on the other hand, is what nations are entitled to.

The result of this circularity is that we are left with only an eyeball test; if it looks like a nation, talks like a nation, quacks like a nation, then by golly, it is a nation. In this frustrating sense, nationhood is much like pornography, the best definition of which remains Justice Potter Stewart’s statement, “I know it when I see it.”

To return to my point, Partition does not prove that the Hindus and the Muslims of the subcontinent are two different nations. All it proves is that people are capable of doing horrible things to each other.

Before I wind up in hot water, let me clarify for the benefit of the excessively patriotic that I am not, repeat NOT, saying that the two nation theory is wrong. I’m just saying that the fact that a million people died because of the pursuit and political realisation of that theory is logically irrelevant to the truth of the two-nation theory.

At the same time, what is important to note is that logic is not the key factor here. As Kathryn Schulz explains in her fascinating book, Being Wrong, (Ecco; June, 2010) people are born storytellers. We make up stories every day. In fact, we make up stories every minute.

To clarify, the point that Schultz makes is not that people spend all day, every day telling yarns to each other. Instead, her point is that we take the incomplete information received by our senses and join the dots to get a complete picture of the world. Most times we get the picture right. Sometimes we get the picture completely wrong, so wrong that we just make things up out of thin air to explain otherwise inexplicable stuff, a behaviour called ‘confabulation’.

Schulz illustrates this behaviour by using examples from people who had been treated for epilepsy through a procedure in which the tissue connecting the left and the right halves of the brain was cut. Because this tissue had been cut, information processed by one half of the brain (such as what the person saw) was not available to the other half of the brain responsible for speech. For example, a patient who was shown nude pictures kept on giggling out of embarrassment. However, when she was asked why she was giggling, the part of her brain responsible for speech could not access the information that she had been shown embarrassing pictures. The result was that she ‘confabulated’ and responded by saying that she was laughing because the doctor had asked such funny questions.

A different insight that comes to us from economics is that people are ‘loss averse’. In simple language, what that means is that people don’t like losing something they have a lot more than gaining something they don’t have.

To illustrate this point, consider a game which involves flipping a coin. If the coin comes up heads, you get paid Rs. 100. If it comes up tails, you have to pay Rs. 100.

In purely logical terms, the two choices are equal. Most people, however, don’t see things that way. Instead, as shown by Kahneman and Tversky (and they got a Nobel Prize for this insight), people normally only want to play this game if the payoff for calling the coin toss correctly is double the penalty for getting it wrong. In other words, people will play the game only if you give them Rs. 200 for getting the coin toss right, and make them pay Rs. 100 for getting it wrong.

For what it’s worth, this behaviour is not restricted to humans. A study carried out by Yale University scientists in 2005 found that capuchin monkeys behave in the exact same way. Loss aversion, in other words, has very deep evolutionary roots.

If we put the two points together, what we get is this: a million people died in the pursuit of the two- nation theory, a terrible loss by any standard. As human beings, we have a tremendously deep need to make sense of our world, and particularly of things that hurt us. At least in my view, the consequence is that, irrespective of the historical facts, there will always be a ready market for the argument that Pakistan should be a fundamentalist Islamic state.

If Pakistan was intended to be liberal and secular, then it means one million people died because the Muslim elite of the subcontinent didn’t trust the Hindus, not because there is any thing different between the two peoples. Historians may think that is an accurate way of describing what happened. But in terms of inspiring people, it certainly lacks the clarity and passion of the mullah’s vision.

Does this mean that liberals in Pakistan are doomed to falter before the devotees of a militant religious identity?

To some extent, yes. People who want a liberal, secular Pakistan will always have trouble grappling with the tragedy of Partition. At the same time, traumas diminish with every generation. My father was told by his father to shoot the women and children first if the walls of their house were breached, an episode which he has obviously never forgotten. I was told that story by my father and while I am unlikely to forget it, it is also normally not something I think about. My son, too, has heard the story but what happened to his Dada six decades ago belongs in some distant prehistory when dinosaurs also roamed the earth.

They say time heals all wounds. Let’s see what it does in the case of Partition.

A version of this column was published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2012.  

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