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Tit for tat behind Hindu Muslim conflict

By Hritic Gautam


The recent communal riots that occurred In Delhi were a major shock for Indians. Man is at each other’s throat and hatred is all around. It is evident that all this started with the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) but if you think that everything was very hunky-dory prior to that, think again. The following is the timeline of some major post-independence communal violence:


1983: Nellie massacre

More than 2000 Muslims were called foreigners and killed in Assam.


Kashmiri Pandit Exodus:

The Hindus of the Kashmir Valley were forced to flee their homes as a result of being targeted by JKLF and Islamist insurgents in late 1989 and early 1990. Of the approximately 300,000 to 600,000 Hindus living in the Kashmir Valley in 1990, only 2,000–3,000 remained in 2016. This mass exodus was accompanied by violent crimes like rape, murder and torture.


1992-1993: Babri Masjid demolition / Bombay riots

Hindu mobs attacked and demolished the historical Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The mosque was built in the 16th-century by Mughal Emperor Babur. Following this incident, wide-scale communal riots took place in Mumbai, India’s glitzy commercial capital. The riots began on December 6 and raged on for a month. Some 900 people were killed and more than 2,000 people injured.


2002: Gujarat riots

Nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the western state of Gujarat in riots which started on February 28. Roughly, 150,000 people were displaced. The two-months long violence started after Muslims were blamed for allegedly burning a train which left 59 Hindu people dead. Mr. Narendra Modi, then the CM of Gujarat had faced immense backlash for being unable to control the riots occurring under his rule.


Though these events show that communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is not a recent phenomenon, they do not provide any answers as to why the two parties are seemingly always at odds with each other. Surprisingly, game theory might have a possible explanation.


*Note: The game used in this article is purely a theoretical construct through which the author wants to explain a possible reason behind the occurrence of communal riots.


First, let’s understand the game. Consider a strategic situation in which fanatics of both sects have two actions, either they can play nice and cooperate or they can resort to violence and try to dominate each other. For our analysis, we are assuming that fanatics of each religious group prefer to dominate the other. i.e. the most preferred action for them is violence when the other is cooperating.

In this game, we have two players, Hindu fanatics and Muslim fanatics, who we assume are the ones that cause violence, and each have a choice to play any one of the two above-mentioned actions.


Going by our assumption, Hindu groups’ ordering of the action profiles, from best to worst would be (violence, cooperate) > (cooperate, cooperate) > (violence, violence) > (cooperate, violence). Muslims’ ordering of action profiles would then be (cooperate, violence) > (cooperate, cooperate) > (violence, violence) > (violence, cooperate)

*Note that the first action in the action profile refers to the action of the Hindu groups i.e., (violence, cooperate) means that Hindu fanatics are violent while Muslim groups choose to cooperate.


Given these assumptions and preferences, we can represent this game compactly in the form of a table. But first, we will have to choose payoff functions that represent the preferences. For Hindu groups, we define a function u1(where u1 is the utility/satisfaction derived by player 1, i.e., Hindu) for which:

u1(violence, cooperate) > u1 (cooperate, cooperate) > u1(violence, violence) > u1 (cooperate, violence)


We now assign numbers to each action profile to reflect their ranking. Note that the payoffs mentioned below are ordinal, with payoffs simply ranked from best to worst, with 3 being the best and 0 worst. They do not reflect the actual satisfaction derived from an action in units.


A simple specification is u1 (Violence, Cooperate) = 3, u1(Cooperate, Cooperate) =2, u1(Violence, Violence) =1 and u1( Cooperate, Violence) = 0. The same exercise can be performed to find the payoffs for Muslims as u2 (Cooperate, Violence) = 3, u2(Cooperate, Cooperate) =2, u2 (Violence, Violence) =1, and u2 (Violence, Cooperate) = 0. Using these representations, the game is illustrated in the following table.

In the given table the two rows correspond to the two possible actions of Hindus while the two columns correspond to the two actions of Muslims, and the numbers in each box are the players’ payoffs to the action profile to which the box corresponds, with Hindus’ payoff listed first.


This turns out to be a simple Prisoners’ dilemma game. The most efficient condition is when both of them cooperate and nobody resorts to any kind of violence. There are gains from cooperation but then given that the other player is cooperating, a player has an incentive to inflict violence and dominate the other. These incentives bring us to our Nash equilibrium where both of them resort to violence. Nash equilibrium refers to a situation in which both players choose the best strategy, given what others have chosen and nobody has any incentive to deviate.


We can understand this through an example. Let’s assume Hindu groups don’t know what Muslim groups are going to do. If Muslims are going to cooperate, the best thing that Hindus can do is to resort to violence and dominate them, which will fetch them the highest payoff as represented by the number 3 in the table. Even if Muslims are committing violence, the best response for Hindus remains violence, as this will keep them from being dominated and give them a payoff of 1 rather than 0. Therefore, regardless of what Muslim fanatics decide to do, Hindu fanatics are better off committing violent acts. Thus, violence is a dominant strategy for Hindus. The same argument can be constructed to prove that violence is the dominant strategy for Muslims. As Hindus and Muslims are skeptical of each other, both of them choose violence as their dominant strategy, instead of cooperating. (Violence, Violence), the box on the lower right corner in the table, becomes our Nash Equilibrium as no party can do better given what the other is doing.


A lot of research has been done on prisoners’ dilemma and many strategies have also been devised to get players to cooperate. To find the best strategy, Robert Axelrod organized a tournament in which people participated in computer programs designed to play repeated games of prisoners’ dilemma. Each program then played the game against all other programs. The strategy which got the highest payoff turned out to be a simple strategy called ‘Tit-for-Tat’. According to this strategy, a player should start by cooperating and then do whatever the previous opponent did in the last game. A tit- for- tat player cooperates until the other player defects, then he defects until the other player starts cooperating again. This strategy starts with a friendly environment and penalizes unfriendly players, forgiving their actions later. It is essentially the biblical strategy of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth”.


It seems that Hindus and Muslims are also employing the tit for tat strategy against each other. This argument has been exemplified by numerous statements of ‘advocates’ on both sides. The famous “patthar ka jawab patthar se, talwar ka jawab talwar se” cannot be ignored. So each religion basically warns the other, “if you defect, I will also defect. Thus, it is better for both of us to cooperate.” If we follow Axelrod’s conclusion, this must be the best strategy they can use to threaten each other to cooperate and consequently, the frequency of violence should be very low. But unfortunately, it does not seem so. The conclusions of the tit-for-tat strategy are often not applicable in real life because here the game is played between humans, not computer programs, and unlike computer programs, humans commit mistakes.

Imagine a hypothetical state where all Hindus and Muslims come to an agreement that they will cooperate and not resort to any kind of violence. Also, both decide that they will punish the defector using tit- for- tat. Now they begin a fresh game by cooperating. If after sometime any religion resorts to violence, the other will also indulge in violence. Recognizing that violence has made them worse, both will start cooperating again and there will be no violence.


Assume that some random violence is mistaken as communal by one group. For the sake of a hypothetical example, say Hindu groups mistakenly interpret that some random and unconnected violent acts committed by Muslim groups was done in order to dominate them. Moving along the lines of tit- for- tat, they resort to violence. Now that Muslims have not started the violence, they will still be cooperating when Hindus defect and inflict violence upon them. Then Muslim groups also follow the same rules of tit- for- tat and defect in the next round. Hindu groups think that Muslims showed cooperation this time, so they forgive them and cooperate in the next round. After this, Muslims indulge in violence and Hindus cooperate. After this round, Muslims will cooperate and Hindus will start violence and so on. This will continue forever until there is another mistake that brings both sides to cooperate and coexist amiably.


This is the reason behind the never-ending conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The recent riots were neither a beginning, nor an end, but a part of an ongoing repeated game.


References:

1. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/timeline-of-major-communal-riots-in-india/1745756

2. An Introduction to Game Theory by Martin J. Osborne p. 15

3. Principles of Microeconomics, Mankiw, p. 359

4. The Art of Strategy, Avinash K. Dixit and Barry Nalebuff

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