The danger of counterfactuals

In democracies, citizens have a right to know why, where and how the government spends public money. Each year we, therefore, await the Prime Minister’s response to the President’s address in the Budget session of Parliament. This year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech was less about the financial implications of the intended policies of his government, and more about blaming the Congress for the disasters that track Indians since 1947. In the process, he neatly sidestepped the basic obligation he owes us: accountability. Equally troubling is his rather rash allegation that the Congress was responsible for the partition of the country, and for the division of Jammu and Kashmir. We know that representations of history tend to wander far away from actual events, and even construct them. But Mr. Modi’s explanation of the Partition has little to do with one of the most catastrophic divisions of territory and people in the subcontinent. It has more to do with a personal obsession.


The claim that if Sardar Patel had been the head of the government, Kashmir would have remained united belongs to what is called counterfactual history. In a somewhat random comment, the famous French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wondered whether the history of the world would have been different if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter. Interestingly, the observation inspired René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, authors of the delightful comic book series Astérix. Throughout the story of a group of gutsy Gauls fighting the Romans, Getafix the venerable druid, extols Cleopatra and her perfect nose and yearns to rub noses with her. We envy Cleopatra her nose, but we simply do not know whether a shorter version would have given us a different history. We can only speculate. But speculation is hardly history, an endeavour that is deeply contested. The Partition, which led to one of the biggest mass migrations in world history, and to the death of an estimated one million people or more on both sides of the border, is one of the most debated issues among historians. The puzzle can hardly be under-estimated. Till the middle of the 1940s, Partition was just one of the political alternatives before the country. Historians tell us that Jinnah preferred a federation because the Muslim population was spread across India, and Nehru wanted a centralised and unified state. How did these differences spill over into the calamity of the Great Partition? The complex answers historians give to the question, ‘why Partition’, are based on meticulous research of documentary, literary and biographical sources. Most scholars agree that the causes can be traced to the turn of the 19th century. The colonial project, intent on intellectually colonising Indians, proceeded to shape a loose, plural and de-centred tradition known as Hinduism, cast it in the mould of Semitic religions, and create a ‘unified’ faith. A homogeneous version of Hinduism, and later Islam, politicised religious identities and harnessed them to competitive nation-making projects. Colonial policies gave an added fillip to this politicisation through group representation. By the early 20th century, the politicisation of religious identities led to communal violence. Another group of historians focusses on the role of elites in the making of independent nation states. Elites proceeded to tap religious identities, forge a constituency, and mobilise struggles for independence and for a separate state. In recent times, attention has shifted from the causes of the Partition to its consequences: murder, rapes, mutilation, displacement, and generalised suffering. People were mercilessly removed from their homes and hearths in a land that had suddenly become another country. And yet another strain of writing on Partition focalises the making of new nation states through the creation of boundaries, passports, recovery of abducted women, and consolidation of territory. We can hardly discern one reason for the Partition. To ascribe the tragic event to the machinations of the Congress party distorts the multiple, complex and often contradictory developments that led to the separation of Pakistan from India. More significantly, the Prime Minister ignores the role of his own constitutive community, and its ideology of Hindutva, in the making of the Partition.

Cause for unease

History has taught us a bitter lesson. If a political movement is successful in tapping deep structures of sentiment in a society, these sentiments must already be there, lurking under the skin of a shallow modernity expected to usher in a secular age. After all, religion cannot be harnessed to the cause of communal mobilisation until it has some grip on people’s minds and psyches. Yet, this neat formulation — customised prejudice translates into murderous assaults on the ‘other’ community — gives us cause for unease. People may or may not be inclined towards religiosity, and yet might hesitate to dine or socialise with members of another community. But this does not mean that they ritually inflict harm on the bodies of other people. We can believe that others have their own reasons for thinking and doing what they think and do, and we have different reasons for thinking and doing what we wish to do. For many reasons, people construct symbolic and spatial barriers between themselves and others. Note, however, that the bracketing-off of identities is a social phenomenon. Despite these social barriers, forms of cooperation can and do arise in the workplace, in social and political organisations, in and through movements, and through associational life. When these identities are transformed into political weapons in pursuit of symbolic or material gains, a sociological phenomenon translates into a political movement that lays exclusive claims upon the body politic. The politicisation of identities leads to open and ruthless competition for all sorts of power, invariably at the cost of human lives. What is important is that the transition from, often, hidden animosities to violence involves a trigger. The trigger is provided by organisations that belong to the religious right and/or entrepreneurs and merchants of hate who excel in excavating unarticulated sentiments of resentment against other communities, and in playing up incidents that otherwise can be easily passed off as minor. The trigger stokes and evokes hellfires of hatred, devastating violence, and eternal damnation. When politicised religious identities compete for the same spatial and material resources, communities are motivated to inscribe in-erasable injuries on others, and on the polity.

Each new morn

The Partition teaches us that the eruption of insane political violence under the banner of ‘this’ or ‘that’ religion, the suspension of civil ties between erstwhile neighbours, and the merciless brutality inflicted upon the bodies of children, men and women leaves ineradicable scars on collective memories, and destroys civilisations. We should have learnt that religious identities, once evoked, cannot be controlled. The history of religious strife in the subcontinent establishes that the trajectories of identity politics are unexpected, and that they take unforeseen and shocking routes. These routes inevitably lead to devastation. “Each new morn,” says Macduff of war in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven in the face, that it resounds.” Yet, till today, communal organisations continue to trigger the brutalisation of social and political identities, creation of divides, exacerbation of hitherto muted schisms, and the creation of new ones. We have, it appears, not paid heed to these warnings. If we had, India would not re-enact the horrors of the Partition.


1) Accountability

Meaning: The fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.

Example: “lack of accountability has corroded public respect for business and political leaders”

Synonyms: Responsibility, Liability

Antonyms: Unaccountability

2) Wander

Meaning: Move slowly away from a fixed point or place.

Example: “please don’t wander off again”

Synonyms: Stray, Depart

3) Catastrophic

Meaning: Extremely unfortunate or unsuccessful.

Example: “catastrophic mismanagement of the economy”

Synonyms: Disastrous, Ruinous

Antonyms: Fortunate, Beneficial

4) Obsession

Meaning: An idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.

Example: “he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist”

Synonyms: Fixation, Passion

5) Gutsy

Meaning: Having or showing courage, determination, and spirit.

Example: “her gutsy 80-year-old grandmother”

Synonyms: Courageous, Brave

Antonyms: Gutless

6) Druid

Meaning: A priest, magician, or soothsayer in the ancient Celtic religion.

Example: Religious people.

7) Extols

Meaning: Praise enthusiastically.

Example: “he extolled the virtues of the Russian peoples”

Synonyms: Eulogize, Acclaim

Antonyms: Criticize

8) Speculate

Meaning: Form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence.

Example: “my colleagues speculate about my private life”

Synonyms: Conjecture, Theorize

9) Contested

Meaning: Engage in competition to attain (a position of power).

Example: “she declared her intention to contest the presidency”

Synonyms: Engage, Enter

10) Spill over

Meaning: If an activity or situation spills over, it begins to affect another situation or group of people, especially in an unpleasant or unwanted way.

Example: I try not to let my work spill over into my life outside the office.

Synonyms: Affecting, Influencing

11) Calamity

Meaning: A serious accident or bad event causing damage or suffering.

Example: A series of calamities ruined them – floods, a failed harvest, and the death of a son.

Synonyms: Accident, Disaster

12) Meticulous

Meaning: Showing great attention to detail; very careful and precise.

Example: “the designs are hand-glazed with meticulous care”

Synonyms: Careful, Diligent

Antonyms: Careless, Sloppy

13) Colonial

Meaning: Relating to or characteristic of a colony or colonies.

Example: “British colonial rule”

14) Harnessed

Meaning: Control and make use of (natural resources), especially to produce energy.

Example: “attempts to harness solar energy”

Synonyms: Control, Exploit

Antonyms: Underuse

15) Fillip

Meaning: Something which acts as a stimulus or boost to an activity.

Example: “the halving of car tax would provide a fillip to sales”

Synonyms: Stimulus, Stimulation

Antonyms: Curb

16) Tap

Meaning: To hit something gently, and often repeatedly, especially making short, sharp noises.

Example: The branches tapped against the window.

Synonyms: Hit, Touch

17) Forge

Meaning: Create (something) strong, enduring, or successful.

Example: “the two women forged a close bond”

Synonyms: Build, Create

18) Hearths

Meaning: A home, especially when seen as a place of comfort and love.

Example: They were reluctant to leave hearth and home.

19) Focalises

Meaning: Focus (something), in particular.

20) Discern

Meaning: Distinguish (someone or something) with difficulty by sight or with the other senses.

Example: “she could faintly discern the shape of a skull”

Synonyms: Perceive, Detect

Antonyms: Overlook, Miss

21) Ascribe

Meaning: Regard something as being due to (a cause).

Example: “he ascribed Jane’s short temper to her upset stomach”

Synonyms: Attribute, Assign

22) Distorts

Meaning: Give a misleading or false account or impression of.

Example: “many factors can distort the results”

Synonyms: Pervert, Misreport

Antonyms: Accurate

23) Lurking

Meaning: Be or remain hidden so as to wait in ambush for someone or something.

Example: “a ruthless killer still lurked in the darkness”

Synonyms: Loiter, Hide

24) Usher

Meaning: To show someone where they should go, or to make someone go where you want them to go.

Example: She ushered us into her office and offered us coffee.

25) Psyches

Meaning: Mentally prepare (someone) for a testing task or occasion.

26) Murderous

Meaning: Capable of or intending to murder; dangerously violent.

Example: “a brutal and murderous despot”

Synonyms: Brutal, Violent

27) Religiosity

Meaning: Strong religious feeling or belief.

Example: “a resurgence of religiosity among younger voters”

28) Dine

Meaning: To eat the main meal of the day, usually in the evening.

Example: I hate dining alone.

29) Spatial

Meaning: Relating to space.

Example: “the spatial distribution of population”

30) Animosities

Meaning: Strong hostility.

Example: “he no longer felt any animosity towards her”

Synonyms: Antipathy, Hostility

Antonyms: Goodwill, Friendship

31) Excel

Meaning: Be exceptionally good at or proficient in an activity or subject.

Example: “she excelled at landscape painting”

Synonyms: Shine, Surpass

32) Unarticulated

Meaning: Not mentioned or coherently expressed.

Example: “previously unarticulated anger”

33) Resentment

Meaning: Bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.

Example: “his resentment at being demoted”

Synonyms: Bitterness, Irritation

Antonyms: Contentment, Happiness

34) Damnation

Meaning: Condemnation to eternal punishment in hell.

Example: “sins that risk eternal damnation”

Synonyms: Perdition, Doom

35) Insane

Meaning: Extremely annoyed.

Example: “a fly whose buzzing had been driving me insane”

Synonyms: Irritated, Annoyed

Antonyms: Calm

36) Erstwhile

Meaning: Former.

Example: “the erstwhile president of the company”

Synonyms: Former, Old

Antonyms: Present, Future

37) Brutality

Meaning: Savage physical violence; great cruelty.

Example: “brutality against civilians”

Synonyms: Savagery, Cruelty

Antonyms: Gentleness, Kindness

38) Exacerbation

Meaning: To make something that is already bad even worse.

Example: This attack will exacerbate the already tense relations between the two communities.

Synonyms: Deteriorating, Making worse

39) Hitherto

Meaning: Until now or until the point in time under discussion.

Example: “hitherto part of French West Africa, Benin achieved independence in 1960”

Synonyms: Previously, Formerly

40) Schisms

Meaning: A split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.

Example: “the widening schism between Church leaders and politicians”

Synonyms: Division, Split

Check the previous edition of THE HINDU Editorial to learn more words and to ace the English section in the forthcoming exams.



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