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Indien & Pakistan - Historiske begrænsninger:

The past in the present: India, Pakistan and history

Maruf Khwaja, 14. august 2002

The perpetual conflict between India and Pakistan is rooted in the circumstances of their creation. The “two-nation” theory, which justified partition, is dead but its consequences of centralist politics and falsified history remain.

The facts are not in dispute. The chronology of events that nearly led to the world’s first full-scale nuclear conflict is well known. Of course, Gurharpal Singh is right to say that the American ice packs, tenaciously applied, have brought the temperature down. The fever of war has abated. But the lethal virus that caused it remains in the body politic of the South Asian entity. Everyone knows viruses cannot be killed by ice packs, or indeed by any other form of external intervention. The patient has to develop sufficient antibodies of his own which alone can do the job.

In the case of India and Pakistan this requires a number of preliminary measures. The first of these is the application of will, an exercise in true self-assessment, and an utterly honest introspective analysis of options that might indicate the way to a solution.

There is a problem here. Neither country has ever displayed the capacity or the inclination to conduct such a painful exercise – at least, not in public. Contrary to popular perception, the recalcitrant parties have not always been the governments of the two countries. The societies they represent, which seem congenitally incapable of coming to terms with reality, must take part of the blame. This, of course, eventually devolves on the manner of their governance (or, to be more exact, misgovernance) and the length of time this has been going on – some would say since eternity.

Misruled polities invariably release uncontrollable genies. In India–Pakistan, certain mass social and political attitudes have become deeply entrenched. To illiteracy and poverty – traditional moulds of public behaviour and perceptions – can now be added rampant corruption, not just of governments but also of society as a whole.

Indians and Pakistanis, save for small pockets of the enlightened elite, are now more corrupt or more susceptible to corruption, and therefore intellectually more dishonest and less tolerant than they were thirty years ago. Tax evasion takes place en masse. Mismanaged, ill-planned ramshackle towns and cities with their potholed roads and overflowing gutters are a testimony to institutional ineptitude and neglect as much as they are to lack of resources or their callous waste. Periodic ethnic riots point to societies wracked by bigotry and social, ethnic and religious intolerance compounded by miseducation and propaganda.

Roots of conflict

It wasn’t always so. In the case of Pakistan, the slide can be traced to the Fall of Dhaka and the creation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan’s eastern province. From the debris of the original Pakistan came a blast of fresh air bearing a painful but true message; the two-nation theory, the basis for the creation of Pakistan, was dead.

Map of India in 1971
India in 1971
This theory – developed, among others, by Jinnah, the leader of the Pakistan Movement – held that there lived in the Indian subcontinent two nations, Hindus and Muslims, and that their distinct identities entitled each of them to separate statehood. To support this claim the protagonists pointed out that there were vast areas of India (whether princely states or provinces) in which the Muslims were in the majority, in some overwhelmingly so. The fact that at least five of these – Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, the North West Frontier and Kashmir (a princely state) – were geographically contiguous made the idea of Pakistan not only plausible but compelling. The sixth, Bengal, in eastern India was, they admitted, separated by Hindu majority territory but it too could be included in Pakistan because, after all, this was the modern world in which there ought to be civilised coexistence between states – and surely Hindu India could give the two wings of Pakistan air and land access.

This was, prima facie, the case for Pakistan. But at the back of the argument was a real fear that once the British went, the Hindus would start taking revenge on Muslims for their thousand year rule, not all of it benign and benevolent. (What they didn’t realise was that revenge would be taken with or without Pakistan.)

There were two types of Hindu nationalists: modern progressives such as Gandhi and Nehru whose Western education had imbued them with democratic and secular ideals; and traditionalist upholders (now in power) of the Mahabharata ideal that all of the subcontinent from Kabul to Colombo belonged to the Hindu nation (Akhand Bharat) and the ‘foreigners’ could go back to where they came from.

The (mainly Hindu) Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi and Nehru, was outraged at the notion of the movement for independence from the British being hijacked by Muslim separatist demands. They could see, as could others including a substantial number of Muslims who were not with Jinnah, a number of flaws in the case for Pakistan.

Firstly, they said, nationhood in the modern world was not defined by religion. There were numerous other factors that contributed to nationhood which were not present in the Pakistan argument.

Secondly, even if religion were to be admitted as a rational basis for nationhood, there were in the subcontinent not two but at least eight or ten distinct religious communities which could make an equally justifiable demand for statehood, among them Sikhs, Jains and a growing population of Christians (in the latter case, thanks to some well financed and aggressive proselytising by a host of Western missionary organizations).

Thirdly, the Congress held that, having lived together for centuries, all these nationalities or ethnic groups were almost inextricably intertwined in large parts of India and it would be impossible to extricate without unacceptable bloodshed, waste and material destruction.

The first morn of creation…

It is generally accepted that what happened in East Pakistan (subsequently Bangladesh) was inevitable. The message was that the two-nation theory didn’t work. It was impossible to build or maintain a nation on the basis of religious values (only 50% of them truly shared). Other bits of Pakistan would fall off in due course because the glue that was meant to hold it together wouldn’t be strong enough (hence the desperate determination of the religious parties to prove that wrong).

‘The first morn of creation wrote what the last dawn of reckoning shall read’ (Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald). Pakistan, truncated and deformed as it was at birth, was always an unlikely candidate for the nationhood it claimed. Its founders probably knew deep down that it wouldn’t work.

The ugly geographical difficulty was there for all to see (except the purblind British partitioners) as one major reason; the other reason was an impracticable religious ideology rent by factional fighting and belligerent sectarianism. Historically, religions have been more divisive than unifying. They are not, as most fundamentalist beliefs hold, a substitute for culture. They do not and cannot bridge cultural divides. And this was proven in Pakistan.

full train
Full train.
The implausibility of the original Pakistan should also have been evident in the very first year of its existence, with the widespread language riots of East Pakistan where virtually the entire populace rose in protest at the imposition of Urdu as the sole national language of Pakistan. The sop – the inclusion of Bengali as the co-national language – was ineffective. Nobody in the Western half bothered to learn Bengali, which the Punjabis condemned as a Hindu language.

Inherited centralisation

The message about the demise of the two-nation theory was filed away unread in dusty mental archives where the two countries traditionally bury unpalatable truths. There was a simple reason for that burial. If the two-nation theory was dead, then what was the alternative? Go back to being one nation? Or admit that the region, in fact, consisted of many nations each with a distinct linguistic and cultural identity?

bleeding punjab
Bleeding Punjab
The latter option would have entailed at the very minimum the grant of full autonomy to each of the twenty-odd entities in the subcontinent so that they could aspire to the fulfilment of the national aspirations that colonial rule had long frustrated. But nearly 200 years of British rule had firmly established the concept of centralisation of governmental power that became stronger with every fissiparous sign among princely or other states. It established a tradition that was incorporated in the nominal federal systems, which the two governments inherited at independence.

This centralism has been zealously maintained, the zeal most evident in the way governments in both countries have crushed or contained what they saw as secessionist ethno-nationalist movements in far-flung provinces and regions. India crushed its Nagaland, Khalistan, Tamil Elam, Naxalite-Bengal movements – and of course there is the ongoing rebellion in Kashmir, which is not so much a problem as a Pandora’s box. Open it and half of India flies off. Pakistan more or less cut off its nose in East Pakistan to spite its face, while troops have regularly been sent to Baluchistan and Sindh to put down not entirely home-grown independence movements.

A federal alternative

All this could have been avoided with early devolution. The provinces or ethno-national entities would scarcely have been left adrift in the way that the British treated the countries it created with partition. There was a constitutional structure in place. All that was needed to devolve power to those units that sought it was to institute suitable changes in the federal structure. But the people who ruled India and Pakistan were always, despite the international acclaim some received, small men not up to considering such a promising option.

Long after he had retired from government but not too long after the crushing of the Sikh Independence movement by Indira Gandhi and her sons, her erstwhile foreign minister, Swaran Singh, passed through a foreign airport where he was cornered by a posse of prowling journalists. Until then, Swaran had managed to conceal any public display of his anguish at the way successive Indian governments, including those he had served, had treated Sikh aspirations.

This time he opened up a little, revealing his perception that, under a courageous, far-sighted leadership, the future of the subcontinent as a whole could have been a confederal one. Eventually, the national aspirations of the individual ethnic groups that make up the population would have to be recognised, he believed. This would not need to result in the disintegration of either India or Pakistan. But power would have to be devolved. The confederal units would need to be empowered. If this happened in both countries, the borders and divisions between them would become irrelevant.

Singh also dwelt at length on the mechanics of devolution itself. Indian (and Pakistani) provinces are too big and unwieldy, this being one reason why they are so difficult to rule. They would need to be subdivided into smaller entities. As he saw it, the result would be a more effective democracy.

Members of Parliament (MPs) who now represent constituencies of over a million would represent a tenth or less of that population. Since all levels of governments would come down several notches, the rulers (or representatives) would be more accessible to their constituents. No unit would want to break away because the centre would have only the barest minimum of subjects – echoes of Mujibur Rahman’s Six Points Programme, which the then ruler of Pakistan and almost all the major politicians of the Western Wing refused. The raising of revenues would be the domain of the federating units, and since no unit’s residual powers would be encroached none would feel threatened or insecure.

Devolution: against the political grain

Harappa Seal
Who knows if Swaran Singh had lived or had propagated his new beliefs with the tenacity with which he had served centre-focused Prime Ministers, some practical politicians might have relayed the baton to a victorious finish. But Singh’s pipe dream, as far as can be ascertained, died with him. There is no one of stature in either country to take it forward.

The difficulty with selling such an idea to the current generation of myopic, self-serving and utterly unscrupulous politicians is that, apart from their obvious shortcomings, they are too cowardly and unimaginative to take a radical approach. They are prisoners of the genies they themselves released. The media is either too timid, too hidebound or too much under the control of regimes, or those with a vested interest in so-called strong governments, to take up the challenge.

General Musharraf, with more or less absolute power, might be better placed to take the first tentative steps to true devolution in Pakistan but he is too raw a hand to have the political skills to outmanoeuvre Pakistan’s usual run of revanchist, reactionary politicians. But he could catalyse a change of public attitude, hard though it may be, by opening a public debate on the subject, emphasising perhaps that devolution might even contain a germ of a solution of the Kashmir problem and with it the problem of coexisting with India.

It is a formidable challenge. An Indian or Pakistani is as likely to change attitude as to change his religion. The problem is that ordinary people are denied knowledge of their own history. Genuine and objective historical research is a near impossibility in Pakistan. Young people graduate in bigotry and ignorance. So deeply entrenched is the public’s perception of what passes for the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ that any idea suggesting another framework is considered heresy. The bureaucratic controllers of data banks and research bases reinforce resistance to truth and block the way to it. Falsification of history comes easily in the region, perhaps more easily to Pakistanis than Indians.

The past is ours. This harks back to the tradition of doctoring accounts written in the name or at the behest of rulers dating back to Mughal times. Most Pakistani history aims to reconfirm existing prejudices and notions. Large portions of it have the status of icons to be worshipped – accounts passed on by actors in certain historical events, such as those that led to independence, the views of the founders of the movement, even their character, cannot be rewritten in the light of new discoveries. This ‘self-censorship’ applies equally to events in early Islamic history. Everything on record must confirm known facts.

Indians did not stay objective for long either. In their accounts of events leading to the partition of India, Muslims are, by and large, cast in non-heroic, if not downright villainous roles. More alarmingly, ancient Indian history is being rewritten to support the prevailing climate of ultra-right-wing chauvinism. We are constantly rediscovering things we have known differently, such as the latest realisation that there was no such thing as the Aryan conquest and subjugation of ancient races such as the Dravidians and pre-Dravidians.

Nor is this rewriting of Indian history confined to India but it can be found in some of the leading campuses of the Western world. Cooked-up history can thus be seen to be a major obstacle in the way of changing attitudes, reopening closed minds, reversing the militant tendency in Indian and Pakistani politics and bringing their ancient confrontation to an end.

The price of exile

Punjab puppets
At a personal level, memories of those traumatic days, when two countries were born in a baptism of blood and gore, release a mixed bag of emotions. I was eight at the time, too young to appreciate the implications or even the meaning of independence. But I understood partition – and everything it entailed – very quickly. It divided our family – the better-educated half favouring India (until they too were driven out), the rest opting for Pakistan.

Forced or voluntary, the migration destroyed families and impoverished, perhaps forever, those who survived its rigours. Young and old in our extended family were introduced to the thing they now call genocide,
delivering and receiving it. The ordeal mauled our bodies, rent our souls and made us bitter and cynical.

It is only now, in the evening of our lives, that the bitterness and cynicism has given way to a sad, wistful wisdom. This has served well those of us who proved incapable of digesting all that Pakistan threw up in a half-century of crisis-hopping, and who had to migrate, re-migrate and then migrate again for our livelihood until we arrived where we can call no country or people or culture our own.

It is no consolation that an even larger number of Indians went through the same process. I heard someone on Radio 4 the other day call it the Indian diaspora. Too fanciful, too Jewish, I’m afraid. As they did a few hundred years ago, it is the Brits who have found a word that unites their enemies: Pakis!

This article is published by Maruf Khwaja, and appeared originally on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.


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Opdateret d. 29.8.2005