Partition is History

Indian Express, June 9, 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 their partition 58 years ago. They need to accept each other as neighbours and address the issues that face their people.

Different views of Partition have been the principal drivers 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. Neither India nor Pakistan is about to be wiped off the face of the earth, unless both of them commit the folly of using nuclear weapons each has developed to secure its statehood. 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, Mohammed 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. In their dealings with India, however, successive Pakistani governments have made little distinction between the Indian nationalism of the Indian National Congress and the Hindu nationalism of the Sangh Parivar (family), of which the BJP is a part.

In some ways, India-Pakistan relations have been a continuation of the bitter pre-Partition feud between the Muslim League led by Jinnah and the Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To mobilise Muslims in favour of its political agenda, the Muslim League had to demonise the Congress as anti-Muslim and to argue that the Hindus sought to deprive Muslims of their religious and cultural identity. The Congress built its argument on the basis of India’s historic unity and its Muslim leaders rebutted the Muslim League’s claim of separateness based on religion. During the independence struggle, the Hindutva movement’s emphasis on India’s Hindu identity helped the Muslim League make its case for Pakistan to South Asia’s Muslims. But the birth of Pakistan was neither easy, nor according to the original design of its founders.

The dominant Indian narrative of independence demonises Jinnah and speaks of Pakistan’s creation as a misfortune. In the years immediately after Partition, Indian intellectuals and officials routinely predicted that India and Pakistan would become one nation again. 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.

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 practicing 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.

Persistent questioning of the wisdom of their nationhood bred insecurity among Pakistanis about the viability of their new State. The fears of dilution of Muslim identity that had defined the demand for carving Pakistan out of India became the new nation-State’s identity, reinforced over time through the educational system and constant propaganda. A military-dominated Pakistan has responded to these fears with the notion of an ideological State in eternal competition with ‘‘Hindu India’’.

While much thought might not have gone into plans for an independent Pakistan, considerable effort has been expended since independence on defining, justifying and protecting it. Disputes, including the one over Jammu and Kashmir, have been integrated into Pakistan’s ideological agenda. Pakistani insecurity has consistently been reinforced whenever Indians or other foreigners allude to the futility of Pakistan’s creation. Pakistanis were concerned about the prospect of India ‘‘undoing’’ the Partition and the attitude of India’s post-independence elite, which continued to speak in terms of the inevitability of ‘‘re-unification’’, did not help in allaying Pakistani fears; Nor did the breaking away of Pakistan’s eastern wing to become Bangladesh. 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 unraveling. 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.