The dead weight of history

August 16,2017

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There is a lot that one can’t talk about until half a century later. The subject of Partition, despite many years of vivid reflections and contemplation by generations of scholars, politicians, retired generals, celebrities and ordinary folk on both sides of the border, remains as contentious as it probably was 70 years ago.

From an ideological standpoint, some historians attribute the inevitability of the event to the context of a volatile post-war world order where identities (whether religious, social or economic) required a strong territorial footing to survive and assert themselves politically under the ambit of the nation-state. A more utopic view, however, vehemently advocated for and believed in the possibility of a united India whose ‘unity in diversity’ had stood the test of time before the British came and drew divisions along communal lines. It contends that the tragedy of Partition could have been avoided and that it was, over and above all else, a gigantic leadership failure both on the part of Congress and the Muslim League in negotiating a constitutional arrangement representative of Indian diversity.

One way or another, what may have appeared to be no more than an arbitrary territorial fracture at the time has now cemented into an entrenched, state protected, institutionalised division thoroughly internalised by the people of the two countries and indeed accepted by the rest of the world. There is no turning back the clock now. The dynamics of decolonisation, marred by a perpetual state of conflict over Kashmir, seem to have totally consumed the imagination of policymakers on both sides of the border who for the last three quarters of a century have done nothing but add to the bundle of problems inherited after Partition.

Any conversation involving India and Pakistan on any forum anywhere in the world, be it political, academic or an informal exchange on social media , quickly degenerates into an uninspired, mudslinging exercise, busting all hope and expectation of a meaningful dialogue. A recent debate aired on Aljazeera featuring a prominent Indian member of parliament, Shashi Tharoor and former Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar was quite illustrative of that mechanical state-sponsored narrative that typifies the mode of engagement between the two nations. Not only does it seem to lack imagination and foresight but, more worryingly, it begs authenticity – which perhaps is one of the root causes of why the impasse in relations has persisted for so long. To put it bluntly, both sides lack the courage to come clean and admit what is otherwise so clear to the whole world.

For the Pakistani state, of course, the challenge is to convince the international community of its wholeheartedness in combating all forms of terrorism, especially after the mystery surrounding the death of OBL severely dented the credibility of its military operations across the country. On the other side of the border, however, the hysteria that forms the belligerent outlook of the ruling party should tone down the whole war-mongering rhetoric that has been its hallmark in dealing with Pakistan. It must realise that for Pakistan to build focus and employ its absolute force in eliminating terror from its soil (which is apparently what India demands on paper), frequent distractions in the form of ceasefire violations on its eastern front are only going to frustrate such efforts. But again, here’s the problem: how can a neutral observer, a mediator if you will, be sure of the real side of the story because any claim made by one party is unequivocally refuted by the other. For instance, Indian media feeds a totally opposite perspective on the ceasefire violations by laying blame firmly at the door of Pakistan which, a reasonable mind would argue, has already too much on its plate to mess with India unless provoked . In the same fashion, Pakistan has always denied involvement in acts of terror that have taken place in India post-26/11.

As far as the stalled relationship between two contentious neighbours is concerned, the diagnostics of the deadlock appear to be structural in terms of what constitutes political power, where it has been traditionally concentrated and how it is exercised in forming foreign policy. The stakeholders who run the ‘business’ of the state are always a privileged minority. Their calculations are based on hardcore game-theoretic ‘strategic logic’ that has no space for the euphoric musings of a common man. As long as a given line of action (or inaction for that matter) sustains that authoritative privilege, there is no incentive to switch to an alternative policy. An endogenous solution to the problem seems rather far-fetched at the moment given the governing dynamics of the model.

Given their volatile trajectory and a gaping trust deficit, the conclusion always poses a predictable, rather tedious question: will Indo-Pak relations ever retain any semblance of normality? Or will the angry ghost of Partition forever haunt the collective consciousness of the future generations by condemning them to a life of ignorance, squalor and spiteful jingoism. Our seventy years of history offers little optimism in response to that question. But surely, history cannot be an eternal constraint on one’s thought and actions; for if that was the case, ‘history’ as we know it would not be possible anywhere in the world.

At the end of the day, if Einstein’s short and crisp definition of insanity fails to inspire any reflection on the part of two nations and their respective leaders, op-eds such as these will only add to the noise that has been made for the last seventy years.

The writer is a postgrad student of economics at the University of Bonn.



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