Pakistan’s present in India’s future


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PAKISTAN is the ‘name of a place in India where cut-throat razors are manufactured,’ exclaimed an inmate in the mental asylum depicted in Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’.1 This may have been an apt description of the technology of violence available at the time of partition. Today, Pakistan is palpably not a place in India, but a troubled and troublesome neighbour where Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and suicide bombings have routinized violence to such an extent that the state no longer blinks at its abject failure to protect the lives and property of ordinary citizens.

Pakistan has lived close to the brink ever since its tumultuous birth in 1947. Carved out of the two main Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal that were divided along religious lines, the creation of a predominantly Muslim country in the northwestern and northeastern extremities of the subcontinent is for the most part portrayed as anathema in the official lexicons of Indian nationalism. Of late, there has been increasing recognition among sections of the scholarly community in India that Pakistan was the price that had to be paid to enable the Indian National Congress to inherit British India’s unitary centre and integrate the princely states. If Pakistan continues to rankle many protagonists of Indian nationalism, it is more as a testament to the failure of the nation to preserve the unity of its frontiers than as a haunting symbol of the human and cultural loss that attended the brutal parting of the ways.

History has a way of laying bare what is hidden or suppressed by individual and collective memory – an intrinsic unity in division that no amount of mechanical cartography can efface. Sixty-one years after the partition of India and more than three dozen years since the separation of Pakistan’s eastern wing and the establishment of Bangladesh, the long history that bound the subcontinent’s diverse cultures and peoples into a whole has not receded into oblivion. It is, if anything, more present than ever, a veritable summons for those with daring to penetrate the veils that have been used to deny interconnections, whether in the name of region, religion, or nation.


In comments whose implications ought to have been taken more seriously at the time, the Governor of the Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins told Britain’s last viceroy that there was a ‘complete absence of enthusiasm for the partition plan – nobody seems pleased and nobody seems to want to get on with the job.’ The supporters of the All-India Muslim League considered the 3 June 1947 plan to divide Punjab and Bengal as ‘a master stroke by [Mohammed Ali] Jinnah,’ who they felt would ‘in the end get them all they want.’ This was in sharp contrast to the opinion of Congressmen who thought the partition plan was ‘a master stroke’ by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who, ‘having pushed the Muslims into a corner (or into two corners), will be able to destroy them before very long.’ For their part, the Sikhs distrusted all and sundry and ‘refused to go very far with partition’ until they knew ‘where the boundary will run.’2


In the event, the boundary lines threaded through nooks and crannies no one had imagined, ripping apart the fragile lives and livelihoods of millions. The wrath of humanity forcibly split asunder at the stroke of the pen found expression in blood curdling displays of bestiality from which the subcontinental psyche has never fully recovered. Instead of striking a sympathetic chord at their mutual suffering, it proved easier for the victims of partition violence and dislocation to cling to the mental lines of division against the rebarbative ‘others’ that threatened the survival of the nation.

Patel might have wanted to test the resolve of the Pakistanis to defy the logic of geography to cement the bonds of their national citizenship. Yet, even after the presumed machinations of Congress’s iron man had died with him in December 1950, the nation sanctified in words began unravelling in deeds. The separation of its western and eastern wings by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory proved an untenable basis for Pakistani nationhood. The much-touted bond of religion could not prevent the slaughter of Muslim by Muslim. It was almost a mirror image of 1947. In the eyes of Indian nationalists, this was a just dessert for the Muslim League’s insistence on religion as the basis of nationality.

The implications of Pakistan’s chequered history for the trajectory of India’s development can be seen to have unfolded broadly within three temporal phases: 1947-1971; 1971-1998 and 1998-2008. In 1947, Mountbatten had underscored the difference between India and Pakistan, commenting that ‘administratively it [wa]s the difference between putting up a permanent building, a nissen hut or a tent. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.’3 Mountbatten had fully expected this makeshift tent to collapse. In that sense, Pakistan has belied the wicked prophecy of the last viceroy and the expectations of many in India. Instead of the tent being replaced with a permanent building, Pakistan transformed itself into a sprawling military barrack.


However, it was precisely this fact of military dominance that contributed to the undermining of religion as the only basis of a common nationality by 1971. Having cut Pakistan down to size, India proceeded between 1971 and 1998 to try and consolidate its position as the regional hegemon. The nuclear test by Indira Gandhi in 1974 was a step in that direction. While Pakistan responded by accelerating its own nuclear programme and offering covert support to Kashmiri rebels in the 1990s, a striking feature of this era was the absence of outright war between the two countries.

India’s gift of nuclear parity to Pakistan in 1998 changed the subcontinental equation once more. It opened the way for the Kargil misadventure on Pakistan’s part and complicated the pursuit of India’s ambition to play a role on the global stage. During the past decade, India has in some ways succeeded in its efforts not to be bracketed with Pakistan in its dealings with the United States of America, the sole military superpower since the end of the cold war. Yet, in the post-9/11 world, India’s destiny has become more inextricably linked than ever before with that of Pakistan.


The idea of the two arch rivals sharing an interconnected future might surprise those accustomed to viewing the past and the present through the refracting prism of ideology rather than history. Despite the contrasting national self-projections of secular India and Islamic Pakistan, political dynamics in the subcontinent have consistently defied the constraining logic of national boundaries, much like the natural disasters to which the region is so famously and fatally prone. That the national is neither very natural nor particularly distinctive can be seen by the way in which regardless of the very real differences in state structures, politics in democratic India have converged with those in military authoritarian Pakistan.

Among the most glaring examples of this have been movements of regional dissidence and religious assertion, some of which have spilled across the arbitrarily defined national frontiers of India with Pakistan as well as Bangladesh. The recent history of the subcontinent makes plain that cooperating with, not subverting, neighbours can be far more helpful to nation states seeking to re-establish control and authority over rebellious regional satraps.

The understanding between Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto in the late eighties that contributed to ending the Sikh uprising in Indian Punjab, which had earlier been aided and abetted by the Pakistan ISI, is a case in point. In sharp contrast is the unresolved problem in Kashmir, which New Delhi attributes to Pakistan’s backing for the popular insurgency in the valley and support for what it calls ‘cross-border terrorism’.

In a tit-for-tat characteristic of Indo-Pakistan relations, Islamabad has accused India of deliberate acts of sabotage and, more recently, of fomenting a tribal insurgency in Baluchistan. The air of mutual distrust that envelops the capitals of India and Pakistan has ensured that the fate of Kashmir continues to hang fire. This has been detrimental not only for the people of Kashmir but also for Indo-Pakistan trade relations that are widely recognized to hold tremendous mutual benefits for both countries at a time of crisis in a globalized world economy.

Well before the current turmoil, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee acknowledged as much when in 2004 at the meeting of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation in Islamabad he talked about economic integration and a common currency as a desirable objective for India and Pakistan. Full economic cooperation between the two countries will remain a distant goal in the absence of a diplomatic and political breakthrough on Kashmir. The momentum for peace generated by subtle Anglo-American diplomacy following the military standoff in late 2001 and early 2002 ran out of steam soon after Vajpayee’s expulsion from office. Statements of good intentions by the Congress premier, Manmohan Singh, have not succeeded in extricating New Delhi’s Pakistan policy from the complex web of domestic politics.


Snags in the stretch for peace are hardly unusual for Indo-Pakistan relations. However, what cannot await a change of heart in the top echelons of power in New Delhi and Islamabad is the pressing need for an immediate end to the debilitating rivalry between the two countries over Afghanistan. During the heyday of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation, India backed the Tajik-led Northern Alliance while Pakistan placed its hopes on an assortment of wayward Pakhtun warlords. Loath to defend its borders on both the west and the east, the Pakistan Army and its intelligence operatives calculated that Pakhtuns, who were in the majority, would dominate a post-Soviet Afghanistan. When this was called into question with the outbreak of internecine conflict between the Afghan warlords in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal and the American loss of interest in this remote corner of the world, the ISI assisted its Taliban protégés to seize power in 1996.

It was around the same time that Osama bin Laden relocated Al Qaeda from Sudan to Afghanistan. He was warmly welcomed by the Taliban while the ever watchful American Central Intelligence Agency looked the other way. It was not until 1998 when Al Qaeda attacked US embassies in East Africa that the Americans began objecting to the Taliban government’s generous hospitality to the militant network.


By then Osama bin Laden had gained access to influential sections of Pakistan’s political configuration and, understandably, had set his sights on the nuclear armed country’s most cherished assets. He was smiling. Pakistan was fast emulating the Taliban regime in the splendour of international isolation. The Kargil debacle coming hot on the heels of Islamabad matching New Delhi’s nuclear tests was followed by a military putsch led by General Pervez Musharraf, leaving Pakistan reeling on the margins of the international system as a veritable pariah.

No one, least of all New Delhi, could have anticipated the sudden reversal of fortunes for Pakistan in the aftermath of the attacks on American soil. Long before the fires were put out amidst the debris of the twin towers in New York, Pakistan had been catapulted to centre-stage of America’s global policing enterprise for a second time in just over two decades. There was, however, a crucial difference. In December 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned Pakistan overnight into a frontline state in a cause its citizens perceived to be on the right side of the moral divide, providing a reprieve to a hated and discredited military ruler. Pervez Musharraf’s decision to join the ill-phrased ‘war on terror’ may have been on the right side of history, but to many of his own people it seemed self-serving and immoral, particularly once America started carpet bombing the hapless Afghans.


Instead of welcoming its estranged neighbour’s decision to turn over a new leaf, India made no bones about actively resenting Pakistan’s elevation to the position of Washington’s key strategic partner. If this did not set the alarm bell ringing in army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the routing of the Taliban regime and the installation of a government headed by the Pakhtun leader Hamid Karzai, but dominated by India’s old allies in the Northern Alliance, was reason to sound the red alert.

It is at conjunctures such as these that a balanced understanding of subcontinental history, devoid of narrowly construed national strategic interests, might have started a fresh chapter in relations between the two regional rivals. With Indo-Afghan trade dependent on movement through Pakistani territory, there were powerful economic reasons for New Delhi to give out a categorical reassurance that it had no wish to aggravate Islamabad’s security dilemmas by banding together with Afghanistan in a pincer movement.

In its eagerness to capitalize on Pakistan’s discomfiture over its failed policy vis-à-vis the Taliban, especially the ISI’s complicity in promoting terrorism in Afghanistan, India missed a unique opportunity to redefine the old and tired paradigm of Indo-Pakistani security perceptions. The temptation to substitute the relatively more distant Afghanistan for the all too near and present dangers in Kashmir as the primary terrain for power struggles with Pakistan was too much for Indian policy-makers to resist. After all, Pakistan had blundered into nurturing the Taliban in an elusive quest for strategic depth against India.


The India factor has provided the Pakistani military establishment with the pretext for not formally abandoning the Afghan Taliban. Even as President George Bush ritualistically lauded Pervez Musharraf for Pakistan’s exemplary role in the ‘war on terror’, the ISI was relocating the Taliban in parts of Baluchistan and the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) of the northwest.4 Once the Americans attacked Iraq and lowered their perception of the threat emanating from Afghanistan, the Pakistani spy agency had no difficulty persuading Musharraf and the military high command that the country’s self-interest demanded keeping lines open with the mainly Pakhtun Taliban. Contacts were also revived with some of the ISI’s former allies among the Afghan warlords. When accused of duplicity by the Americans, the Pakistani military leadership simply pointed to the heightened activities of their Indian counterparts in Afghanistan.


The myopia on both sides may be consistent with the past tenor of Indo-Pakistan relations. It has ushered in a new phase in subcontinental history in which the lines separating Indian and Pakistani political, strategic, and economic interests have become impossibly fuzzy. Seven years after the American-led coalition of NATO and Afghan forces had appeared to bomb the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies to dust and ashes, a menacing insurgency has surfaced on both sides of the Pakistan and Afghanistan border.

Consisting of Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda as well as Pakistan’s own Pakhtun tribesmen and radicalized Punjabi militants, not to mention foreign elements from Central Asia, China, the Arab world and Europe, the insurgents are remarkably well-equipped and have been attacking American and NATO forces in Afghanistan with determination of audacious proportions. Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have been paralleled by an unprecedented escalation in militant activity within Pakistan. The turning point for what was already an explosive situation in FATA came with the Pakistan Army’s crackdown on the Lal Masjid complex in Islamabad, a veritable haven for militants en route to join the fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir with the help of the ISI.

With the newly energized electronic media providing a blow-by-blow coverage of the operation, popular opinion was badly split on the use of coercive methods to flush out the militants housed in Lal Masjid. A surge in deadly suicide attacks, ostensibly targeting military installations and personnel but also killing many innocents, took a heavy toll on public morale in Pakistan. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 was by far the most psychologically devastating of the suicide bombings, which has been blamed by Pakistani officialdom and America on Beitullah Masud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

The death of Benazir Bhutto removed the one politician from the scene who was openly committed to fighting militancy as part of Pakistan’s own war rather than one being carried out at the insistence of the Americans. Confronted with the spectre of greater destabilization in the region, the United States has intensified pressure on Pakistan to ‘do more’, a refrain that significantly became much more strident after the removal of Pervez Musharraf as president and the formation of an elected government in Islamabad.


The American response to Taliban successes in undermining the Karzai regime has been to send unmanned drones to bomb suspected militant strongholds in FATA. The attacks have elicited outrage among political circles in Pakistan and pushed anti-American sentiments several decibels higher. Conspiracy theories are the flavour of the season with many Pakistanis convinced that America, in conjunction with India and Israel, is plotting to redraw the map of their country as part of the policy to denuclearize a predominantly Muslim state.

A political culture of all-round suspicion and distrust augers poorly both for the recently reshuffled military high command and the central government led by the Pakistan People’s Party. Operations by Pakistani paramilitary forces against insurgent redoubts in FATA and settled areas in the northwest have resulted in civilian casualties and displaced several hundreds of thousands.


The situation in FATA is grim enough to merit urgent attention from all the capitals in the region. New Delhi in particular needs to adjust its policy to account for the new and emergent realities in Pakistan. The implications of a collapsed state in their northwestern neighbourhood may not be completely evident to Indian officialdom, accustomed to interpreting awkward realities in statist idioms. One thing, however, is patently clear. If non-state actors do succeed in Pakistan, it will be impossible to point an accusing finger at Islamabad and its notorious spymasters as has been New Delhi’s wont after most terrorist attacks on Indian soil.

With the situation in FATA showing no immediate signs of improving, and the growing frequency of terrorist strikes in their own cities, opinion makers in India’s characteristically vibrant civil society need to ask whether the high price paid in 1947 justifies allowing Pakistan to be overrun by unruly tribesmen with an agenda for not just temporary mayhem but sustained anarchy.

At such a critical juncture it is worth remembering the words of the poetic visionary, Muhammad Iqbal, who had anticipated the potential dangers from a restive tribal belt bordering Afghanistan when he rejected criticisms that his proposal for a Muslim state in the northwest would leave India with an indefensible frontier. In fact, it would ‘eventually solve the problem of India as well as of Asia’ since ‘a series of contented and well-organized Muslim provinces on the North-West Frontier of India would be the bulwark of India... against the hungry generation of the Asiatic mainlands.’5



1. Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ in Khalid Hasan (ed.), Kingdom’s End and Other Stories, Verso, London, 1987, p. 11.

2. Fortnightly report from Sir Evan Jenkins to Lord Mountbatten, 15 June 1947, in The Partition of the Punjab: A Compilation of Official Documents, I (second edition), Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, 1993, pp. 41-42.

Allan Campbell Johnson, Mission With Mountbatten, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1953, p. 87.

4. See Ahmed Rashid, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Viking Adult, New York, 2008, especially chapter 13.

5. Muhammad Iqbal cited in Ayesha Jalal, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850, Routledge, London/New York, 2000, pp. 328, 332.