Why we are not our neighbour (02 December 2017)

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 02 2017)

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One of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s chief habits, upon hearing something he did not like, was to shake his head in disapproval, point a bony finger at whoever had made the grave mistake of disagreeing with him and, having fixed his gaze through a monocle, serve the binding comment: “My dear fellow, you do not understand.” In a tragic reflection on the country he founded 70 years ago, events unfolding now in Pakistan are such that perhaps this time, it would be poor Jinnah who might not understand. Religious extremists took to the streets in Islamabad after a minister blasphemed by not demonstrating sufficient commitment to the finality of the Prophet as the messenger of god—people have died and the government has, predictably, capitulated. Blending religion with politics was always, of course, an invitation to disaster, but one does wonder how these protesters might have treated the exalted father of their Islamic republic himself, given his views on certain touchy matters—after all, it was Jinnah who, in contravention of everything the Prophet said, once declared his fondness for “the best Scotch I can find, a vintage wine, (and) my cigarettes.”

While there is never a dull moment where India and Pakistan are concerned, given the unrest of our times, reading former high commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door makes for a tremendously rewarding exercise. With anecdotes richly woven through the “hard facts” of the case, one discovers much to think about in the book, not only in terms of Pakistan’s tribulations, but also certain slippery slopes that we in India seem bent on unnecessarily negotiating these days. After their defeat on the battlefield in 1965, for example, our neighbours decided to nurse wounded pride by unleashing hyper-nationalism of a kind that saw the banning of Bollywood films and the raising of hysterical rhetoric. As the poet Fahmida Riaz regretted, Urdu literature, for instance, “suffered a patriotism so imbecile, so sloppy and so infantile” that intellectual merit drowned in a pool of nationalistic mediocrity. Whether it was able to recover and rise beyond the expediencies of politics is not known, but what is known is that even without a bruising military misadventure, there are plenty in our parts today who prefer for all pursuits to first and foremost pledge themselves to the cause of Mother India. It does not matter that we might be copying a blunder our neighbours made decades before and have regretted ever since—so long as it is done in the spirit of national pride, we can err with self-righteous confidence.

One of the particularly interesting sections in Raghavan’s book reveals how, from the earliest phase of India-Pakistan relations, both countries had to deliberately steer clear of rabble-rousers in the press. Those across the border, for instance, objected when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser described their government as “murderous”, while New Delhi was most upset when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was styled the “Greatest Primitive” by Pakistan’s iconic newspaper, Dawn. Efforts were made to persuade editors to temper their vengeful pronouncements so that serious bilateral business might not be handicapped by hyperbole in print. One “communalist” rag, Raghavan records, refused to brook advisories from the government, and asked the authorities “to mind your own business”. In another case, India asked Pakistan to be less thin-skinned. The Organiser, it chuckled, was after all only “a minor weekly of a political party having hardly any influence in the country”, and need scarcely be taken seriously. Little, perhaps, did Nehru expect that a few decades later, the party in question would ride an unprecedented wave to power in the Capital. Or that in place of assorted newspapers spewing venom, we would confront an epidemic on television, featuring men and women in dignified costumes making singularly undignified remarks.

Raghavan’s book, between instructive pages on the diplomacy behind the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 or the context of the wars India and Pakistan have fought, also recounts fascinating stories that may have receded from public memory. We meet, for instance, the famous Choudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the word “Pakistan” but went on to become such a thorn in the new state’s side that he was expelled from that country—he died years later, sneering bitterly that the Quaid-i-Azam was actually the Quisling-i-Azam. Then there is Z.A. Bhutto, who in 1964 was convinced that Nehru’s death meant the end of India. “How long,” he asked, “will the memory of a dead Nehru inspire his country and keep alive a…vast land of mysterious and mighty contradictions, darned together with the finest threads?” The “key to Indian unity and greatness,” he argued, “has been burned away with Nehru’s dead body.” In the flopped military effort that followed, a pilot was shot down by the Pakistanis. Field Marshal Ayub Khan wrote to the man’s father, the legendary General K.M. Cariappa, that the captive would be treated well, only to receive a curt reply that all prisoners of war were the general’s sons and that no “special treatment” need be arranged for the pilot—a touching story that this columnist was able to confirm with the prisoner in question, the future Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa.

Raghavan’s is a book that is enjoyable in its style, reliable in its facts, and informed in its tone and substance. But beyond offering a terrific account of the evolution of India-Pakistan relations, the book, almost subconsciously, serves as a reminder of some of the elements that have made India different from Pakistan. The history of the relationship between our two countries is also, after all, a sequence of warning signs—a reminder that if we were to confront our worst nightmare, we need only look at the chaos next door. By now, it should be easy to recognize where Pakistan went wrong and draw lessons in wisdom. But the irony is that some Indians are tempted to go out of their way to land us in the very same traps, with stirring slogans and a sense of conviction to boot. As the late lamented Jinnah might perhaps have asked, do they really not understand?

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