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Review Corner

Book Review – The Longest August – The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan.

Revisiting the traumatic partition of India and Pakistan in August 1947 author, journalist and expert on South Asian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Affairs Dilip Hiro evaluates afresh the intractable relationship between the two nuclear neighbours. 

Tensions between the majority Hindus and minority Muslims caused the split in the Indian subcontinent. There were 250 million Hindus and 90 million Muslims in the subcontinent on the eve of partition. 

Hiro chronicles the historically fraught Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir. His narrative is insightful describing the wars, assassinations, human rights violations coupled with the shared mania for cricket and films.

 Coincidentally there were two lawyers from Gujarat — Father of the nation Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Gujarati speaking Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah — who rose to become titanic public figures in the country’s landscape. Kashmir remains the world’s longest running and most intractable conflict. 

Hiro and his family hailed from the Larkana in Sindh like the Bhuttos. They were refugees from West Pakistan and travelled by ship from Karachi to Okha in Gujarat. He pursued higher education and became an engineer before going on to become a self taught professional writer in London. 

The protracted Kashmir tangle has its roots in the tensions between India and Pakistan dating back eight centuries. The subjugation of the Indian subcontinent by Britain in 1807 gave rise to Indian nationalism within a century. 

Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India in 1915 from South Africa sowed the seed in national politics that would grow into a tree covering much political space. His rivalry with Jinnah would come to dominate subcontinental politics for three decades. 

Gandhi made an alliance with the Muslim leaders of the Khilafat movement which was committed to the caliphate based in Istanbul that had come under threat after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the Allied Powers in 1918. Jinnah returned from London to take up the leadership of the Muslim League and his articulation of the two nation theory. 

Though the league performed poorly in the 1937 elections, the policies of the Congress ministries, composed almost wholly of Hindus, gave a preview of the insensitivity of Congress officials towards the beliefs and mores of Muslims. In the 1945-46 elections, the League won 73 per cent of the Muslim votes, a giant leap from the previous five per cent. 

Britain’s decision to quit India after World War II intensified the rivalry between the Congress and the League: the former wished to inherit a united India from the British, and the latter resolved to establish a homeland for Muslims by partitioning the subcontinent. 

On August 14-15, 1947 the communal bloodbath which engulfed India and Pakistan subsided after a few months. The dispute over Kashmir broke soon thereafter and has continued to vitiate relations between the two neighbours. Indeed the subsequent chronology has been peppered with so many challenges, crises, proxy wars, ongoing attempts to covertly exploit ethnic and other fault lines in their respective societies, hot wars and threats of nuclear strikes that as a historian Hiro encapsulates Indo-Pak relations as “the longest August”. 

Democracy based on multi-party system and universal suffrage took hold in India. By contrast political life deteriorated in Pakistan to the extent that General Mohammad Ayub Khan imposed military rule in 1958. His efforts to seek a satisfactory solution to the Kashmir problem in consultation with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru got nowhere. As China had occupied a part of Jammu and Kashmir, Nehru had to deal with the Chinese government which independently disputed the border delineating northeastern India from the Tibet region of China. 

When Nehru tried to assert India’s claim by making military moves, war broke out between India and China in October 1962. It ended a month later with China having proved its military superiority declaring a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawing its forces to prewar positions. 

Overall Nehru’s inflexible stance on Kashmir for 17 years stoked frustration among Pakistani leaders. When they failed they tried to change the status quo through force. Given India’s military superiority these attempts failed. The setbacks in Kashmir changed Pakistan’s history radically. 

Nehru was suffused with self-righteousness. This attitude had its merits in sticking to progressive concepts as secularism and democracy in India. But it was ill suited to diplomacy where give and take is the universally accepted currency. This became apparent in his dealings with Pakistan on Kashmir and then with China on the border issue. 

The war that Pakistan had started in Jammu and Kashmir (Indian held Kashmir as Hiro says) in September 1965 failed to deliver what the neighbour had hoped: destruction of the status quo in Kashmir. Its failure in the war led to the toppling of Ayub Khan and then to the secession of East Pakistan. 

The week long Bangladesh war in 1971 led to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi slewing the two nation theory of Jinnah. 

This showed that ethnicity overrides religion which was also a setback for Muslim separatists in J and K. 

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto salvaged West Pakistan. Even though he held weak cards in his negotiations with Gandhi in Shimla in June 1972, he managed to deprive her in bringing the Kashmir issue to an official closure. 

Following the rigged elections in Pakistan in March 1977, Bhutto faced huge protests. Islamist Army chief Muhammad Zia ul Haq overthrew the government and returned Pakistan to military administration. It lasted till August 1988 when Zia Islamised the state moving Pakistan away from a secular India. The Soviet Union’s military involvement in Afghanistan turned Pakistan into a frontline state in the cold war helping Zia ul Haq accelerate the nuclear weapons programme in which China provided Pakistan with vital assistance. In 1984 it tested an atom bomb assembled in Pakistan. 

Rajiv Gandhi’s succession following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her bodyguards in October 1984 was smooth. He found a congenial political partner in Benazir Bhutto, a daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, after her election as Prime Minister of Pakistan in December 1988. 

The bonhomie dissipated as separatist insurgency in Kashmir intensified from 1989 onwards. During the Prime Ministership of P V Narasima Rao after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, the international scene changed radically. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991 signalled the victory of the United States in the Cold War. 

New Delhi strengthened its links with Washington. Rao accelerated India’s nuclear arms programme but his plan to test three nuclear devices in late 1995 was thwarted by U S President Bill Clinton. 

In a bid to consolidate his thin majority in Parliament, Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu Nationalist BJP, ordered the testing of nuclear bombs in May 1999. Two weeks later Pakistan followed suit. With that Pakistan acquired parity with India in its power of military deterrence thus offsetting its military inferiority in the conventional sphere. 

A reassured Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed Vajpayee in Lahore in February 1999. Three months later Pakistan army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf tried to capture Kargil region of J and K by stealth. He failed. But his surreptitious unveiling of nuclear tipped missiles was detected by Clinton who then intervened. 

With Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assuming office in 2004, he and Musharraf set up backchannel parleys to reach an accord on Kashmir. Their personal envoys forged a plan which Musharraf unveiled in 2006. 

Musharraf had to step down as President in 2008 to avoid being impeached by Parliament. As though the Kashmir deadlock was not enough, the rivalry between Pakistan and India for dominant influence in Afghanistan intensified as the US led Nato forces prepared to leave that country by December 2014. 

The book is a must read to understand the predilections of the Hindu leaders in India and their Muslim counterparts in Pakistan which has deepened the trust deficit leading to a deadens. Or has it!!! 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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