Bury the Hatchet of Partition

Gulf News, June 8, 2005

The underlying message of statements made during his recent trip to Pakistan by Hindu nationalist leader, L.K. Advani, seems to be that India and Pakistan must get over the bitterness of the partition of the subcontinent. They need to accept each other as neighbours and address the issues that face their peoples.

Different views of partition have been the principal driver in Indian-Pakistani relations since British India’s Muslim majority provinces emerged as the independent state of Pakistan in 1947. Indians have persistently lamented the tearing apart of their homeland along religious lines, looking upon the creation of Pakistan as a tragedy.

Pakistanis, on the other hand, have evolved a state ideology to justify their founders’ decision to create a separate state, denying the common history of the two states in the process.

It is time for Pakistanis and Indians to treat partition as a distant historic event rather than the basis of ongoing conflict.

Advani’s relatively positive remarks about the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and about Pakistan being a reality that cannot be undone should reassure Pakistanis who, since their country’s inception, have argued that in their heart of hearts Indians seek the restoration of undivided India (Akhand Bharat). The Hindutva ideology, which Advani’s BJP champions in the political arena, is widely perceived in Pakistan as the main driving force behind the idea of undoing partition.

The birth of Pakistan was neither easy, nor according to the original design of its founders. The Pakistan that was created was communally more homogenous but economically and administratively a backyard. Communal riots involving Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs resulted in massive migrations from Pakistan to India and vice-versa, although no such shifts of population had been envisaged by Pakistan’s founders.

To complicate matters further, when Pakistan was finally born, it faced an environment of insecurity and hostility, with many Indian leaders predicting the early demise of the new country. The dominant Indian narrative of independence demonises Jinnah and speaks of Pakistan’s creation as a misfortune. Magnanimity towards Pakistan was seldom contemplated, lest it encourage further partitions of India.

On the other hand, the communal basis of partition and the religious frenzy generated by it, made religion more central to the new state of Pakistan than Jinnah may have originally envisaged.

The campaign for Pakistan had, in its final stages, become a religious movement even though its leaders initiated it as a formula for resolving post-independence constitutional problems. This created confusion about Pakistan’s raison d’etre, which Pakistan’s leadership has attempted to resolve through a State ideology.

Major issue

The commitment or otherwise of the ordinary Pakistani citizen to Islam has hardly been the major issue in Pakistan’s evolution. A large number of otherwise practising Muslims have demonstrated in elections time and again their desire to embrace pragmatic political and economic ideas.

Most Pakistanis would probably be quite content with a state that caters to their social needs, respects and protects their right to observe religion and does not invoke Islam as its sole source of legitimacy. But the military’s desire to dominate the political system and define Pakistan’s national security priorities has been the most significant though by no means the only factor in encouraging an ideological paradigm for Pakistan.

Pakistani insecurity has consistently been reinforced whenever Indians or other foreigners allude to the futility of Pakistan’s creation. But in addressing their insecurities through militarism, Pakistanis have only compounded their country’s internal problems.

India and Pakistan could remain trapped in the arguments over the 1947 partition or decide to move beyond that moment in history. Pakistan has “secured” its existence with the acquisition of nuclear weapons and there is widespread recognition among Pakistanis of their domestic weaknesses. India, on the other hand, is developing rapidly and is recognised by the world as an emerging power. Pakistanis, too, must now recognise that fact.

Advani’s statement that Pakistan is a reality and that Akhand Bharat is no longer a realistic prospect probably reflects a widely held Indian view that needs to be reciprocated with Pakistani gestures of respect for the common history of the two countries.

That does not mean, however, that Indians will not continue to view partition as tragic and Pakistanis should not expect the acceptance by Indians of the Pakistani narrative of history. Indians, on the other hand, should be prepared for Pakistanis making a strong argument about their nationhood. But Pakistan should set aside an ideology based on worrying about its unravelling. India needs to be generous towards Pakistan, while Pakistan must give up the rhetoric about completing the unfinished business of partition.

We will know we’re in a new phase of India-Pakistan relations when we can walk on a Jinnah Road in New Delhi and visit the Gandhi Gardens in Islamabad. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.