Cultural Continuum — the Cause of Conflicts

By Kollengode S Venkataraman


After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s and later decades, victorious France and England recklessly sliced and diced the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent to serve their interests, unconcerned about the regions’ histories and traditions. Remember, these large areas — Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent — are standing on a cultural and civilizational continuum going back at least 5000 to 6000 years. After WW I, the US joined the Big Boys, eventually becoming the Biggest Boy. The problems festering in these regions today can be traced back to this recklessness.

The West may gloss over what they did to these people as de facto rulers’ even putting a positive spin on the goodies they brought to the regions. But people in the areas have a very different collective memory of their histories. And these people, as people everywhere, live in a cultural continuum identifying with their long histories. This should surprise no one. Consider these:

The Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series in over 100 years. If the Cubs won today, their fans would go berserk. We would understand this as perfectly normal, and even rejoice in their victory. But in those 100 years the owners of the Cubs have changed, and so also their logo, uniforms, fan base and players. Only the Roman letters CUBS and their vocalization have remained constant. Yet, Chicagoans and baseball buffs see continuity through these 100 years of changes and passionately identify themselves with the Cubs’ successes and failures. Whole cultures — not to speak of profitable businesses — are built around such illusional identities.

Jews scattered all over the world today feel that on the basis of their scriptures and their version of history, they have claims on the land in the Palestine their ancestors left four millennia ago. See here: Remember, each millennia is roughly 40 generations. In the last 100-plus years, Western powers and global power brokers have supported Jews’ claims, a privilege given to no other ethnic group in the world.

Ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia –the Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, and Slovenians –– recall the internecine wars that ravaged on their lands several centuries ago as if they occurred only yesterday and display their ethnic hatred to each other even now.

In Islam, during Muharram, Shias all over the world passionately remember and lament the murder of Hussein Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed over 1400 years (50 generations) ago by opponents on the contentious issue of who should succeed the Prophet.

And of course, Christendom has its Good Friday on which the faithful somberly remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of their God, over 2000 years ago. The followers of Jesus at that time collectively accused all Jews living there of the crucifixion of Jesus, himself a Jew. This was one reason for the anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Christian Europe. Only after almost 2000 years, during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI repudiated the belief in the collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Similar stories in India are too many given its long history and social complexities with subtexts based on differences in languages, religions, sects, and social stratification and compartmentalization. It is worth recalling the words of Wali Khan, the Pashtun leader of Pakistan and the grandson of the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan: “I’ve been a Pashtun for 4000 years, a Muslim for 1400 years, and a Pakistani for 40 years.”

Group identity has many virtues, even as it gives exclusiveness, vanity or  victimhood to  its members. One feature common to all types of group identities is that  people belonging to any one group look at everybody else as “the Other.”  When these identities are branded on large ethnic groups, it leads to dislike, aversion, hostility; and when tolerated by the ruling system, to discrimination, persecution, and xenophobia.

Let us see how it operates in the Indian subcontinent: No matter what they teach in the sanitized school history books in India, its history subjectively internalized by India’s Hindus and Muslims is so divergent. Pakistan’s history books are not even sanitized. By their own account, they are full of distortions and lies, and anti-India and anti-Hindu. Read the multi-part essay What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks? in Dawn (, and  the 300-plus comments at the end of the article. On YouTube several video clips by veterans in Pakistan are available on this very subject.

One reason for the communal tensions in India is Indian intellectuals’ inability to come up with an unvarnished and matter-of-fact narrative of its pre-Mughal, Mughal, and post-Mughal history — warts and all — without glossing over the unpleasant elements that are part of all histories. Without such a common narrative, mutual distrust runs just below the surface among Hindus and Muslims. Even a small trigger — such as miscreants throwing a piece of beef into a temple, or driving a pig into a  mosque is enough to ignite a communal conflagration.

In this context, the US, compared to England, France, Spain, and Portugal, has done a far better job in coming to terms with its racial history. That is why the US has moved forward on racial matters — always a work in progress — far ahead of the European colonizers of Africa. This is a good lesson for India to learn and implement in the Indian context.

Living in this continuum, people pass on their collective and skewed  memories of pride, honor, victimization/humiliation, from one generation to the next. And our behavior is driven by the visceral and often prejudiced beliefs internalized from what we hear in family gatherings, social groups, and places of worship. Anthropologists call it meme.

Now, with social media to stay here and become even stronger, no one organization or group of organizations, however powerful they may be, can control the flow of information, or thinking and behavior of peoples.

In this environment, groups of ethnically, religiously, linguistically, and/or racially distinct people traversing in their own orbits, out of necessity, as they have been all along, overlap and intersect with others’ orbits. So, how can the interactions among these groups be made such that they are respectful of each other and can live in relative peace?

Can political and religious leaders help us? With very few exceptions, the track record of political and religious leaders over the last 2500 years is not reassuring. Religious leaders, steeped in their own dogma, are unable or unwilling to unlearn the arbitrary axioms on which they have built their edifices. These axioms are in mutual conflict with each other, and are, to begin with, the root cause for many conflicts. Political leaders have their own compulsions, particularly in a democracy.

Can today’s social thinkers address the problem? Given the lack of mass appeal of cerebral minds in general, this is not likely to happen.

What is likely to happen? Conflicting ideas have always existed, and will always exist, and so are the urges by nation-states to annex strategic land masses and waterways. Resolving these conflicting ideas and pursuits will not be always peaceful. The League of Nations and the UN in the last 100 years could not prevent WW-II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and in the larger Middle East.

Most likely, the world will move episodically from one convulsion to the next, some really big, many small. All we can do is to learn to manage the conflicts without too much bloodshed, and lengthen the gap between the episodes. This conclusion is more realistic, though not reassuring. We cannot hope for more. If we can accomplish this, that in itself is a great achievement. ∎ — END


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