Numberalism: Numbers as symbolism?

Illustration: Mir Suhail
In this essay Muhammad Tahir evokes Roland Barthes famous definition of myth to describe the symbolic appeal of numbers – and the power they hold – in the nationalistic and counter-nationalistic projects all over the world, including in Kashmiri struggle.

Everything can be myth,” says Roland Barthes, “provided it is conveyed by a discourse “or “depoliticised speech.” For Barthes, myth empties reality of its history, appropriates language and materials, and distorts meanings to convey a particular message.

If you listen to the Independence Day speech of Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, on 15 August 2016, you will observe that he repeated the phrase “Savva sau karod desh waasi”(125 crore Indians)  28 times in his speech. This 125 crore statistics might be factually not wrong, but was he merely quoting some dry numbers for general information? Certainly not. If we analyze Modi’s “125 crore Indians” phrase through the Barthesian lens, it is a myth. It is a myth not how Oxford dictionary describes it — as “A widely held but false belief or idea” — but as a ‘type of speech’ or a message.

It is this message behind numbers which I am interested in and which I will try to explain in remaining part of this essay.

Numbers as Symbolism

The nation-states, political movements, and communities have a repertoire of flags, songs, folklores, heroes, events and memories as symbolic of their existence and collective experience, and in certain cases they also have certain numerical figures as part of their repertoire of symbols. Such numbers typically symbolize a defining historical event or a great national tragedy. We may call such politically used and emotionally invested numbers as Numberalism: symbolic use or representation of a numerical figure.

As you will shortly see, perhaps no other symbolic figure or representation of a collectivity generates as much controversy as this numberalism.

Some Controversies over Numberalism

When, in 1974, a British right-wing politician Richard Verrall published a pamphlet Did Six Million Really Die?, he had to use a pseudonym because contesting the widely accepted death toll — 6 million Jews (during Second World War) — would have been regarded as blasphemy, tantamount to denying the Holocaust. Verrall’s contention was that 6 million was a strategic exaggeration to justify use of atomic bombs over Japan, the Nuremberg Trails, and the creation of the state of Israel. As it turned out, the publisher of his pamphlet Ernst Zundel faced trails in Canada in 1980’s on charges of spreading ‘false news’. Zundel hired Fred Leuchter, an expert of execution instruments, in his defence who, after researching concentration camp sites, came up with a report in 1988 called as Leuchter Report, which was, however, declared invalid by the jury.

A similar controversy erupted in Turkey in 2005, when the Turkish state under Article 301 prosecuted its most well-known contemporary novelist Orhan Pamuk for insulting ‘Turkishness’. His crime, in contrast to Zundel, was acknowledging certain numbers in public. He had said in an interview: “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Under pressure from the European Union, Turkey later dropped the charges, but there were still lesser known writers and publishers prosecuted for the same ‘crime’.

So, acknowledging the Armenian and Kurdish numbers (of those killed) was criminalised (under Article 301) in Turkey, similarly as denying Holocaust numbers was criminalised in Austria (National Socialism Prohibition Law), Belgium (Negationism Law) or France (Gayssot Act). Through such laws these countries apparently wanted to contain (read cover) their own historical shame. Because many European countries that enforce these laws were once complicit in the mass murders of their minorities.

A more recent controversy over numberalism occurred in Bangladesh. On 2 December 2014, a Bangladeshi court convicted British journalist David Bergman for disputing the official figures of ‘3 million’ deaths in the nine-month civil war of 1971. The petition against Bergman stated: “No one has the right to question the three million death toll in the 1971 independence war. It is a settled issue.” But, Bergman was not the first one to question these nationally accepted and deeply ingrained numbers. A 2008 British Medical Journal study had estimated 269,000 deaths in 1971 war. Also, in a letter written to The Guardian (24 May, 2011), Bangladeshi journalist Serajur Rahman had recounted his meeting with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when the latter was set free from a Pakistani jail. According to Serajur, he was the first Bangladeshi to meet Sheikh Mujibur in London where he had informed him that estimated ‘3 lakh’ (South Asian numeric for three hundred thousand) people had died in the conflict, but Mujibur had apparently misheard, and as Serajur recounts in the Guardian letter: “To my surprise and horror he [Mujibur] told [journalist] David Frost later that ‘three millions of my people’ were killed by the Pakistanis. Whether he mistranslated ‘lakh’ as ‘million’ or his confused state of mind was responsible I don't know, but many Bangladeshis still believe a figure of three million is unrealistic and incredible.”

Uncontested for a long time, this number was emotionally invested with and came to define the independent Bangladesh for nationalists. And in the present context, this numberalism of ‘3 million deaths’, then, can be said to have played its role in shaping the public opinion in Bangladesh in favour of execution of Jamati-e-Islami leaders who were held responsible for ‘facilitating’ the massacres in 1971.

Whatever the real figures, the above cited cases make one point clear: numberalism does evoke very strong emotions and is politically explosive. From an objective viewpoint, a researcher or a journalist would treat any death toll as a statistical figure to be empirically evidenced through a transparent and robust methodological process, but political communities, especially ones with strong ethno-national character tend to invest enormous emotional capital into them and in the process render concrete and sacrosanct what is otherwise an abstract figure for detached outsiders. Thus we can say, for some political communities certain numerical figures cannot be questioned or tampered with while for others they cannot and should not be acknowledged, at least not publicly. That is why it is always difficult to conduct any dispassionate discussion over the issue of numbers. For many nations and nationalist movements, the numbers (exaggerated or real) play out their own political capital through which they seek greater legitimacy, rally nationalistic passions; and yet for some others, shrinking the numbers is a way to absolve or diminish the culpability of their past (and not so past) crimes. For example, Japanese officials still deny Nanking Massacre (referring it as the Nanking Event) or dispute the death toll of 300,000. However, in China the narrative over the Nanking Massacre has shaped its national identity, and allowed the Communist Party to project itself as the vanguard of Chinese nation against the imperial foreign forces. In a way, numberalism has been instrumental in nation-building project in China.

Numberalism as Assertion of Sacrifice, Struggle, and Victimhood

Numberalism also features prominently in the narratives of the resistance movements. For example, when pro-freedom Kashmiris say “Hamare ek laakh shuhada” (our hundred thousand martyrs; expressed in Kashmiri as Lacchi Ba’ed Gai Shaheed), it can also be taken as an assertion of immense sacrifice in the struggle. Although exact numbers are not known (The official figures estimate 43000 deaths, while independent sources put the figure at 70,000) but thousands of people have died in the Kashmir conflict, especially since 1989.Yet the vernacular phrase “Lacchi Ba’ed Gai Shaheed” (hundred thousands have been martyred) has assumed general acceptance and a symbolic concreteness in the narrative of the Kashmiri political movement. Since this phrase is cultural-specific symbolism, it lends the pro-independence narrative a moral substance and legitimacy. Engrained in the popular psyche, this numberalism symbolizes, for Kashmiri nationalists: the suffering, the struggle, the long Indian oppression, the magnitude, and the human cost of the Kashmir conflict.

To undercut, discursively, the Kashmiri self-determination movement, the migrant Kashmiri Hindus, especially right-wingers, have constructed their own numberalism. In their narrative, “millions of Kashmiri Pandits” were “thrown out” of Kashmir in the 1990s and “thousands of Kashmiri Pandits” were killed. Their quoted figures are countered by Kashmiri nationalists, by referring to the independent sources, which estimate that Kashmiri Hindu population ranged between 160,000 to 170,000 in the 1990s and therefore the talk of “millions thrown out” is simply a politically motivated exaggeration. The Kashmiri nationalists also quote government figures, which puts the death toll of slain Kashmiri Hindus at 219 since 1989, and argue that the claim of “thousands of Kashmiri Pandits killed” is an exaggeration too. While these exaggerated numbers may be politically motivated, but as discussed above in the case of Kashmiri nationalists, “millions exiled” and “thousands killed” in the narrative of Kashmiri Hindus can also be taken as an assertion of victimhood via culture-specific numerical exaggeration.

Numberalism as Populism and Propaganda

Numberalism also seized Japanese imagination during the war time in 1930’s as the expression of “100 million people” became quite popular at that time. For war propaganda this numberalism was instrumental in capturing the Japanese nationalistic spirit — it carried within it the ideology of Japan as one nation under the leadership of the emperor Hirohito, who was the political and spiritual embodiment of this hundred million people. If emperor was the symbol of the Japanese nation, then this unified “100 million people’” symbolized the loyal subjects of the emperor who were ready to die for him. Perhaps, it was such powerful nationalistic symbols, so vivid and psychologically captivating, that inspired Kamikazes for their lethal daredevilry.

However, while this numberalism of “100 million people” highlighted one selective aspect of the reality, it also concealed the other: there were numerous dissidents who spoke against unnecessary militarism and in the process were exiled, incarcerated or killed by the imperialistic regime.

So, while numberalism acts as rallying point or a cohesive bond to fashion a community, it is also used to gloss over differences and fault lines. For example, in the ideological battle between rival states of India and Pakistan, the Indian nationalists often employ numberalism of “Bees Karod Musalmaan” (200 million Muslims in India) to showcase the secular credentials of the India nation-state and, by extension, also to undercut the Pakistani claim over the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir on the basis of the two-nation theory. From the discourse analysis perspective, the “200 million Muslims” numberalism is the counter-framing to the framing of India as a Hindu majoritarian state.

But, as with the Japanese case, this numberalism actually obscures difficult socio-economic realities — as highlighted in 2006 Sachar Committee Report —of Indian Muslims, including majoritarian extremism, frequent riots, demolition of Babri Mosque, and a growing sense of siege among them in the recent times. The numberalism of “200 million Muslims” also conceals the brutal suppression of 7 million Kashmiris who are included in it. And, when we bring the marginalized Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, Nagas and Kashmiris on the radar Modi’s myth of “Sava sau karod desh waasi”, they emerge not as a unified collectivity with same existence, same realities, and same aspirations, but as disparate collectivities living in diverging and conflicting relations.

Numberalism as Political Message

It won’t be wrong to assume that Barthesian logic worked behind the naming of 300 — the 2007 Hollywood film fantasizing epic Battle of Thermopylae between Spartans and Persians. The movie evoked strong reactions from Iranian public and officials alike, who denounced it for historical inaccuracies, racist depiction of ancient Iranians (‘monstrous human herd’), and assault on their civilization.

What is the political message of 300 for us, if not to see in reverential awe at heroic defence of a handful of Spartans withholding an overwhelming army of 300,000 Persians?  This numerical asymmetry in the inter-civilization war betrays appropriating moral high ground of David and Goliath: Good vs evil.

If enormities of death tolls in Armenian and Kurdish mass killings, Holocaust, Bangladesh 1971 Civil War or the Kashmir conflict lend them their moral substance (and make them integral to their national identity narratives and discourses), the event like Battle of Thermopylae derive its moral superiority on the perseverance and determination of a ‘virtuous’ small group fighting a ‘wicked’ large army. In that way, 300 is thus a classic case of numberalism.

In Islamic historical narratives we can also find numberalism in terms of recounting the moral theatre of asymmetrical war in the event of Karbala where Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW), representing virtue and justness faces up to — with just handful of his loyal companions — the big army of the Umayyad caliph Yazid, who represents oppression. It is the classic David vs Goliath moral tale in Islamic history apart from the Battle of Badr.  The battle of Badr is, in fact, mentioned in the holy Quran at few occasions, like in verse Al-Imran 3:13:

You have already had a sign in the two hosts that met in battle, one host fighting in God's cause and the other denying Him; with their own eyes [the former] saw the others as twice their own number: but God strengthens with His succour whom He wills. In this, behold, there is indeed a lesson for all who have eyes to see.” [Trans. Muhammad Asad]

For armed insurgencies initiated by Muslims in the modern period, the narratives around these defining historical events are instrumental in inspiring cadres and rallying support. Karbala and Badr is not only symbolic of unity, belief, and moral virtue but also invoke numberalism within the Islamic historical narratives. The moral superiority does not only emanate from the values they defended but also from the fact of numerically inferior groups facing up to the larger armies. This Islamic numberalism in the militant constituencies of the Muslim world was reinforced after the Soviet defeat in 1980’s and the recent American failures in Afghanistan.

In summary, numberalism may act as a cohesive force, forging national consciousness or be regarded as controversial symbolism, it, essentially, has to be understood as a discursive tool which is laden with political message. It is a force to reckon with.

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