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August 12, 2017



Will India and Pakistan ever grow up?

Will India and Pakistan ever grow up?

India and Pakistan have been celebrating their independence from the British and separation from each other for 70 years. Farewells are never easy. The stronger and older the bonds, the more violent and painful is the separation.

Not surprisingly, the partition of the Subcontinent 70 years ago had been so overwhelming in its nature and impact that it took generations on both sides to recover from it. In many ways, the two nations are still recovering from it. Toxic bitterness and acrimony still lingers on in their engagement and the daily skirmishes along the border and perpetual war of words.

A great deal has been written to make sense of the chaos, trauma and suffering on both sides. From Khushwant Singh’s classic Train to Pakistan and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Qurratulain Haider’s Aag Ka Darya and Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, a whole new genre came into existence to capture the searing experience of history’s greatest migration. The unprecedented carnage and stories of betrayal and human depravity as well as heroism also gave birth to some of the finest and most powerful poetry in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.

The inimitable Faiz wrote in Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Freedom):

Yeh daagh daagh ujaala, yeh shab gazeeda seher/Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin

(This stained, pitted first-light, this day-break, battered by night/This dawn that we all ached for, this is not that one)

But all said and done, no words can perhaps ever capture the true pain and loss of those who not only had to flee their homes and the land of their ancestors overnight but also had to lose their loved ones along the way.

According to most conservative estimates, the communal violence on both sides claimed at least two million lives, not to mention the multitudes who lost their homes and everything they had before moving to the other side.

Millions of families were torn apart, mirroring the great divide between the two nations and communities. Doubtless, the greatest casualty of Partition had been the historical relations between the Hindus and Muslims. Close friends became strangers and bloodthirsty enemies overnight.

The schism survives and festers to this day. The perpetual bickering between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and other assorted issues and the recent rise of the extremists on both sides have been only adding fuel to the fire.

All this could have perhaps been avoided if the British had not been so incredibly inept and clumsy in their final transfer of power and the division of the Subcontinent into two dominions. The whole thing had been handled so haphazardly and crudely that it prompted many to wonder if there had been a deliberate method in the madness.

British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had been assigned the unenviable task of redrawing the map, had never been to the Subcontinent, let alone understand its historical and geopolitical complexities. He had exactly five weeks to do his job. No wonder he just drew a line across the map – literally – imperiously condemned millions to a fate they had little say in choosing.

British American poet W H Auden captured Radcliffe’s predicament well in his 1966 poem, Partition:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,/Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,/With their different diets and incompatible gods.

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate/Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,/But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,/And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,/A continent for better or worse divided.

For better or worse, indeed. Interestingly, both Indians and Pakistanis to this day accuse the departing empire of being biased in favour of the other side. While in India, the Raj is seen as the sole architect of Partition and thus the creator of Pakistan – especially by the Hindu right– most Pakistanis view the British as having been soft on India, especially in view of Pandit Nehru’s proximity to Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina Mountbatten.

In their unseemly haste to cut and run, the British messed up the whole rites of passage big time, plunging the Subcontinent into chaos that was never witnessed before, forcing many to question the whole logic and wisdom behind the division.

Ruing the staggering loss of life on both sides, Pakistani columnist Mahir Ali wonders if the leaders who sat down with the last viceroy on June 3, 1947 to agree on the accelerated split would have proceeded with their compromise had they any inkling of the holocaust that would ensue:

“Nehru and Jinnah were very different personalities, yet they also had much in common – and neither of them was an enthusiast for genocide. Foreknowledge of the bloodbath that lay ahead would have concentrated their minds, possibly persuading them to revisit the options that had been available just a year earlier”.

Indeed, the catastrophe might have been averted if the two sides had demonstrated greater foresight and forbearance with each other. But then history is full of such ‘ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’. On the other hand, given the decisive right turn India has taken and the shenanigans of Hindutva extremists over the past few years, many in Pakistan have been thanking their founder for earning them a separate homeland – albeit at a huge cost.

Whatever the historical causes and whoever may have been responsible for it, Partition is a reality today and the sooner India and Pakistan accepted and came to terms with it, the better for everyone.

What is perhaps even more tragic than the tragedy itself is the path of perpetual confrontation and conflict that the two countries have followed since their split.

Imagine the difference India and Pakistan could make in their people’s lives by bringing down political temperatures and living less dangerously. The billions of precious dollars that are being currently spent on expensive, outlandish arms and plotting against each other could transform hundreds of millions of lives in a region that is compared to Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of poverty and backwardness.

The only people to benefit from their constant hostilities – apart from the manufacturers of arms in the West – are the militaries and militants on both sides.

Even as they remain handcuffed to history, in Rushdie’s memorable words, the neighbours have refused to draw any lessons from the past. Defying the strong bonds of culture, food, sports, language and much else that bind them, they remain the prisoners of their past.

Across the world, countries that share far less and have fought the bloodiest of wars have benefited by reconciling with their past and looking to the future. Look at Europe, the battlefield of history’s most catastrophic wars, which has emerged as a great economic power in no time by doing away with borders and walls.

Look at Southeast Asia or the miracle of Asean, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have emerged as powerful economies by accepting each other and working together. India and Pakistan – and other countries in the region for that matter – can achieve even more, given their rich pool of human resources. The question is: are they willing to? Will India and Pakistan ever let go of the past? Will they ever grow up?

Email: [email protected]

The writer is an award-winning journalist. 




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