India and Pakistan: Hair-Triggers and the Question of Reconciliation

Kurt Jacobsen and Sayeed Hasan Khan



haking off a colonial power is never easy and rarely results in anything one might call a clean break. With the waning of Western domination, stretching from the 18th century exploits of the East India Company, with buccaneering Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, through the somewhat more civilized heights of the post-Mutiny British Raj, the local peoples and elites by the end of the Second World War finally were set to impose their own vision, or, rather, visions. Despite, or perhaps because of the colonialists’ deftness at dividing and conquering, the British were leaving behind a secularly oriented centralized administration, infrastructural improvements, and a solid military force. If they got little thanks, it was because they had done so largely for their own economic and governing aims, and already had taken a heaping helping of the region’s riches.

The post-war British Labour government, acceding to inevitable departure, preferred one India, with semi-autonomy arrangements, if necessary. Yet in August 1947 India became an independent nation and, perhaps avoidably, so did Pakistan in what had become a hastily organized, ghastly split of the subcontinent along religious lines. Could not the Muslim Leaguers and the Indian National Congress have put their collective wits together to devise a reassuring non-sectarian agreement to run just one new nation in some acceptable federal fashion? The debate over how to allocate blame for partition goes on and hardly will be settled here. Ultimately, for various reasons and with whatever degree of justification, Muslim Leaguers were unhappy with the conduct of a Congress leadership whom they saw as either intent upon, or easy prey for, Hindu predominance. Sunil Khilnani puts the predicament as concisely as anyone:

The Muslims of British India did not form a single ‘communal’ identity or interest any more than Hindus did. Class and region divided as much as religion might unite, and beliefs about community and interest varied between provinces where Muslims were in the majority and those where they were not. ….Muslim politics had significant secular voices, most notably Jinnah’s own. It is perfectly plausible to construe Jinnah’s political project as intended not to bifurcate India and create two territorial nation states, but to safeguard the interests of Muslims in provinces where they formed minorities . . . (p162)

It was not to be. So in what the British aptly called ‘Plan Balkan,’ the Punjab and Bengal (the troublesome latter province already up for partition in 1905) accordingly were divided by Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s wobbly pen. Muslim-Hindu communal suspicions and enmities, though obviously the major problem, were hardly the only issue in play. Sikhs wanted their own state too and the 584 princely states (with 90 million inhabitants) were inclined to side with the old Empire. Were these groups preternaturally disposed to sectarian ‘ancient hatreds’ or was sectarian violence something ‘manufactured’ or at least, strategically goaded Soon, Hindus and Muslims, about 6 million each, streamed both ways – inflicting as many as a million casualties on one another – over the new brittle borders of West and East Pakistan - two ultimately untenable entitles, as it turned out, separated by a thousand miles. Sixty million Muslins remained in India and 10 million Hindus in West and mostly East Pakistan. West Pakistan became the governing and military center of what was intended to be a secular Muslim State but the majority of the population lived far away in East Pakistan.

Both independence movements (or a Muslim movement within the wider Indian movement) were fired by near-utopian nationalist zeal as well as haunted by mutual fears of betrayal. Fear, as elsewhere, proved a reliable mobilizing tactic by which cynical elites swayed people into their camps and to back their agendas. India and Pakistan also swarmed with idealists striving, ironically, to make their cherished schemes for nonsectarian societies work across a religiously defined divide, side by side rather than together. Neither Jinnah nor Gandhi nor Nehru nor Mountbatten had any truck with theocratic urges. But disputed borders after 1947 make for friction, and the bleeding sore of breathtakingly beautiful Kashmir provided tinder for several subsequent Indo/Pak wars and a myriad of ‘low-intensity ‘clashes. Alliance formation pulled the states further apart as they (voluntarily, to be sure) were worked into the larger game board of the superpowers’ schemes.

Any state, like Pakistan, that borders India, Iran, China and Afghanistan is not slated for an easy existence. Domestically, Pakistan
can be said to have had brief bouts with democratic parliamentary politics in between long military dictatorships of varying character. India, a resilient democracy but for Indira Gandhi’s ‘emergency’period in the mid-1970s, finds itself unpleasantly surrounded by non-democracies. Both India and Pakistan, bristling with allegedly defensive arms, suffer from enormous poverty. Pakistan, a quarter the size of its neighbor, must pony up a far greater portion of its easily evaded taxes for weaponry, and so does next to nothing for its needy populace. Pakistan spends 3.5% of its budget on education and health resources versus 38% on the military. As for India, a critic points out that ‘One Agni [nuclear medium range] missile would finance the operation of thirteen thousand health centers,’ and the ‘annual budget for [nuclear weaponry] would pay for primary education in India for two years.’

The ‘great game,’ invoked romantically in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, is still afoot in updated forms. One domestic byproduct is the threat of fundamentalism in both nations, stirred by the spillover of the Soviet-Afghan war into initially tiny zealot circles in Pakistan and, until the 2004 election dumped the BJP, by an alarming hindutva upsurge in India. The Gujurat ‘riots ‘of 2002 were perhaps the apex of this trend. Geopolitically, the USA blanched from the beginning at India’s nonalignment policy and essentially pushed them into Soviet arms supply networks. India’s shocking 1962 war with China made the latter a new Pakistan ally, along, incongruously, with the USA. (So it goes in international relations.) The arrogant and myopic treatment of East Pakistan people by West Pakistan elites resulted in negating the 1970 election result (which should have put the East Pakistan Awami League in overall power) and in March 1971 a shameful and brutal civil war broke out.

Bangladesh was born of India’s decisive military intervention. General Zia-ul-Haq installed his shambolic ‘Islamic” dictatorship in 1977, cheerfully served as a US conduit of aid to the mujahideen, and died in a 1988 plane crash, clearing the way for a temporary restoration of democracy. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif switched premierships until Musharaff in the wake of another bloody misadventure at Kargil in Kashmir in 1999, took power over a doubtless corrupt system and a growing “Kalashnikov culture.’ Although the Soviets left Afghanistan in February 1989 the war itself continued with debilitating spillovers for Pakistan, which always sought to reshape Afghanistan into a secure and friendly regime on its Western border. The notorious 1998 nuclear blasts incurred suspension of US assistance but, expediently, good relations were restored after 9/11 when Musharaff wisely acceded to American demands. Not even the recent scandal over Pakistani trafficking in nuclear materials and delivery systems to North Korea, Libya and Iran have dented the new relationship. As always, the uppermost foreign policy concern for India and Pakistan is each other.

Logos assembles a quintet of essays examining the current state of play in Indo/Pak strife - doing so from historical perspectives and, usually, with a personal touch. The contributions by Dawn editor Zubeida Mustafa and critical essayist Sayeed Hasan Khan relate the sharp-eyed views of Mohajirs (Indian Muslim emigrants who settled in Pakistan), reflecting on the perhaps inevitable shortfalls between youthful hopes and the grubbier reality of Pakistan, turning what Yeats would call a cold eye on the shortfall from higher aspirations that the new State evinced. Gerald Meyerle, a journalist and now a PHD candidate, covers the Kashmir crisis up to the present. Manju Parikh, a politics professor, examines the prospects for peace from the Indian side of the border. Journalist Tavleen Singh adds a vivid ‘on the ground’ essay on Indian views of Kashmir. These essays explore both “high” (elite diplomacy) and ‘low ‘ (popular and informal) politics, and their interaction, in appraising prospects for ending this dangerous and unnecessary stand-off. The essays, we hope, provide illuminating accounts especially for non-South Asianist readers in appraising chances for reconciliation in what Arundhati Roy justifiably said in 1998 (when both states conducted provocative nuclear tests) and again in 2002 (when they faced off with hundreds of thousands of troops along the frontier) was an utterly insane stand-off by two nuclear-wielding powers that cannot look properly after their own populations. Of course, this reprehensible plight is becoming the case with the largest wielder of nuclear weapons in the world, but that is another story, to be told elsewhere.