India and Pakistan’s rivalry isn’t territorial or ideological – it’s psychological

Sibling rivalry. danielo via Shutterstock

Ever since their birth as two separate countries in 1947, India and Pakistan have been psychologically obsessed with their assorted mutual conflicts. They have fought four conventional wars, and regularly display their nuclear capability to outpace and undermine each other. From the outside, it resembles nothing so much as a family feud – and psychologically speaking, it’s a very apt analogy.

Across the subcontinent, family and lineage are the most influential institutions in people’s lives, and people tend to transpose the psychological moral structure of their kinship relations into every other institution in the outside world. Respecting your seniors and expecting care and nurture is the norm, and it holds sway in various forms across every sphere of life.

As one famous South Indian proverb puts it, after living together for six months, “they” become “we” and “we” become “they”; neighbours should be treated like family members. It is the violation of this norm that underpins the modern India-Pakistan (or Hindu-Muslim) rivalry.

By the time of partition, the two sides had lived together in one society for more than a millennium. South Asian Hindus and Muslims shared not just a cultural gene pool and biological ties, but common kinship institutions: the extended family group joined by marriage, which is called Khandan in Pakistan and Pariwar in India, or the lineage group with common descendants, known as Biradari in Pakistan and Jati in India.

The rupture between the two can be traced to what happened within India’s predominantly Hindu Congress party, which represented both communities against the British Raj in the years before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. As partition neared, the reservations of Muslims were not properly considered, and their demands were thus not met. The Muslim minority was excluded from most decisions, which created in them a fear of “not mattering at all”. The Muslims, suddenly the “junior” family members, felt neglected – and as younger siblings oftentimes do, they became extra-competitive.

Them and us

Viewed this way, the India-Pakistan conflict owes more to historical and psychological “nearness” than to mere competition for resources or territory. And that much is clear in the language they use to talk about each other.

In many parts of India and Pakistan, especially in both Punjabs, the word used for the 1947 Partition of India is “batwara”, which literally means “the distribution of ancestral land” between brothers or patrilineal cousins. The word comes with resonances that the English word “partition” simply doesn’t carry: harmonious family, painful division, cousin rivalry, love-hate competition.

Before batwara: Pakistan’s M. A. Jinnah and India’s Mohandas Gandhi in 1944. Wikimedia Commons

These are the psychological dynamics that play out in the dispute over Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as if it were their ancestral property, and people on both sides feel a deep emotional attachment to it. In the subcontinent, to give up a claim to one’s ancestral property brings “dishonour” to one’s family and group, and is considered a weakness.

For Pakistanis, the rivalry against Indians is driven by a deep sense of being “wronged” at the time of partition, the corollary being a “desire” to compete with and trump Indians at any cost. It’s this bitterly competitive urge that drives Pakistan’s leaders, army officers and populace to defy India’s obvious demographic, economic and military supremacy, and to do so with such intensity.

As William Blake said, “it is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend”. Whoever we are, it seems we can all feel a special kind of enmity for the enemies we most resemble – whether a sibling or a neighbour, we simply cannot accept “them” as “us” despite our obvious similarities.

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