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Chronicle of a relationship foretold

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Chronicle of a  relationship foretold

TCA Raghavan has come out with a narrative that isolates oddities, incongruities, and counterfactuals from over seven decades of roller-coaster engagement, forcing you to not lose hope in the familiar terrain of India-Pakistan relationship

India-Pakistan relationship has often been regarded as a pessimist’s paradise. It is a relationship signifying deep pathological mistrust at one level and irresistible attraction at another. A few hours after Foreign Ministers of the two countries meet in the Indian Capital promising to take a stalled dialogue process forward, terrorists strike the financial capital of India in the most horrendous manner. An Indian Prime Minister tears into Pakistan’s policy of using terror as an instrument of its foreign policy, only to pit-stop hours later at Lahore, while overflying Pakistan, to wish his counterpart happy birthday. Pakistan returns the gesture through a terror attack in Pathankot a week later. Instances like this abound. They show the relationship as spoiler-driven and terribly accident-prone.

Nevertheless, there is so much in common between the two countries. As a country partitioned out of British India, Pakistan has found it impossible to erase such commonalities to carve out an exclusive national identity, entirely different from that of India. At the popular level, there are so many tales of empathy for one another. Yet, the two countries continue to remain ‘distant neighbours’. The attendant pathology, demonstrably intensifying by the day, as can be seen from the barbs and banters being traded at the ongoing sessions in the United Nations, is likely to keep them apart, while they are condemned by history and geography to remain fused as neighbours along the Radcliffe line.

It is certainly a curious case. Is it a case of sibling rivalry? Or an incurable pathology?  Where will it lead to? Is there any hope of overcoming the past? There are so many accounts of this curious relationship. Academics, diplomats, soldiers, politicians, journalists, poets, and litterateurs have dealt with it ever since the idea of Partition came up for discussion. They often enrich your understanding, yet leave you confused.

Here is another book, on the same old theme, by Ambassador TCA Raghavan, which is refreshingly different. A career diplomat, who has served more than 10 years at the foreign office dealing with Pakistan in different capacities — as director and joint secretary Pakistan desk, as deputy and high commissioner in Islamabad — Ambassador Raghavan has come out with a roving-eye narrative that isolates the oddities, the incongruities, and the counterfactuals from over seven decades of roller-coaster engagement, forcing you not to lose hope, even when the pessimists are on the prowl in this familiar terrain of India-Pakistan relationship.

As one turns through the pages, one is pleasantly waylaid into the author’s atypical reconstruction of India-Pakistan relationship, based on his uncynical appraisals of personalities, events and anecdotal recollections from memoirs. The emphasis is on people rather than Government(s) in the neighbourhood.

Starting from the irrepressible KL Gauba, diplomats like Kewal Singh, Jagat Mehta, YN Gundevia, Iqbal Akhund, Abdul Sattar, and a whole lot of others diplomats, to Zafar Ali Ujjan, the Sindhi dissident in self-exile in India with his poetess wife Fahmida Riaz, in the early 1980s, the author has rummaged through every possible individual account he could lay his hands on, and dexterously woven their accounts, at times similar, at times different, into a beautiful tapestry. His efficient use of the foreign office archives enlivens the discussion and lends the reader a partial view of how diplomats pursued their profession in the most unemotional manner possible, deeply affected by the events of their times. All through, the chronology is maintained with absolute care to provide the reader an unbiased perspective on the trajectory of the complex relationship.

The author begins with a confession that his is “an Indian perspective on a divisive and deeply contested” terrain. He has adopted a welcome approach to start with a discussion on “setting of the mould”, wherein he dwells on the scars of Partition — the widespread riots, the “swift and surgical” population displacements, the Pakistani objections to award of Gurdaspur to India, the disputes over accession of princely States of Junagadh, Hyderabad, and Kashmir, the differences over division

of assets, the protracted battle over Kashmir, both on ground and in the United Nations, the stoppage of water by East Punjab, etc.

It is quite well-known that these issues shaped the approaches of both countries towards each other at the initial stage of their journey as sovereign states.

While these issues rankled, the author takes care to identify contrarian examples to argue that in the midst of communal polarisation, there were accounts that defied the dominant trend of the time.

The case of Pakistani state rejecting the dreamy and thoroughly communal ideas of Rahmat Ali, who coined the term ‘Pakistan’ and came back to live there, and later banishing him within a year, is one such example. There were other cases where Muslims from various areas which constituted Pakistan opted for India and served India will pride, ie, Azim Hussain, son of Punjab Unionist Party leader Sir Fazl-i-Hussain, who served as a distinguished diplomat; Muhammad Yunus, a Yusufzai Pathan from the frontier province, who also served as a diplomat and was very close to the top Congress leadership; and KL Gauba, the “genuine sensationalist”, son of a noted Hindu businessman in Lahore who wrote Uncle Sham as a rejoinder to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, married a Muslim and later converted to Islam, chose to migrate to India and wrote fearlessly in defence of Muslims of India. This makes interesting reading. While one might have been familiar with such instances, putting them together as a contrarian trend serves the reader well. It dispels the myths about wholesale polarisation of the subcontinent during the difficult days of Partition.

The author rightly devotes two subsequent chapters to interactions between India and Pakistan as sovereign states in the initial days which established a pattern of bilateral engagement that has more or less persisted to this day. There were bursts of animated dialogues at the very top levels — Nehru-Liaqat (1950-51), Nehru-Bogra (1953-54), Nehru-Ghulam Muhammad (1955) and Nehru-Ayub (1960) — which were followed by phases characterised by blissful unconcern and deliberate lassitude.

As the author mentions, the “backchannel” to repair bilateral relationship through personalised interaction was introduced very early in the day, when Ghulam Muhammad deputed an intermediary named Mulraj to discuss issues away from media glare. It is also interesting to note that Mulraj misinterpreted the message from Nehru to Pakistan’s advantage with alacrity, very much like his successor, Niaz Naik, would do about four decades later when he said that India had okayed major concessions on Kashmir. This is also another set pattern which indicates an absolute sense of desperation about Kashmir in Pakistan, leading Pakistani interlocutors to “delusional conclusions” every time India shows marginal interest in the Kashmir issue. 

The book contains many other interesting facts like the case of an Indian dacoit Bhupat who crossed over to Pakistan to avoid arrest. He was lionised in Pakistan and recruited as a useful intelligence asset, very much like Dawood is being done today. It is also important to note that in a different geopolitical setting, the US was seen to be egging Pakistan to use Bhupat against Indian interests. This anticipates the US policy to use subversion as an instrument in the Afghan theatre in the 1980s. The steps taken by the two countries during the 1950s and 1960s to tame their respective media and stop propaganda against each other makes for useful reading.

The author makes a useful analysis of the Nehru-Liaqat agreement of 1951, which revised the 1948 agreement on refugees. He gives a detailed background of the communal riots that took place in East Pakistan during January-March 1951 and the resultant migration of Hindus into India. The scale of this exodus and resultant reaction from India (to the extent that Nehru threatened to use all options, including war) is often not captured well in discussions on communal riots after Partition.

Another important fact, often forgotten, pertaining to “demarcation” of the Radcliffe line dividing Punjab, through Swaran Singh-Khalid Sheikh negotiations in the early 1960s, finds due mention in the book.

The approach of India towards Pakistan was born out of the recurrent struggle between the so-called hawks and doves, as it was also the case in Pakistan, the author would have the reader believe, by serving various anecdotes throughout the book. The case of diplomats, Rajesh Dayal and Kewal Singh, eager to convey friendly signals to Pakistan and their efforts being stymied by either the foreign office or some leader or other in the Nehru Cabinet is brought out well in the discussions. On the Pakistani side, the antipathy towards India ran deeper, the author seems to project, by collating the events surrounding the 1965 war — the visceral hatred of India displayed by Bhutto and Aziz Ahmed, the show of unwarranted animosity as in the case of auctioning of a saree gifted by Kewal Singh to a friend’s daughter, for raising Pakistan’s defence expenditure, etc. The efforts by the Janata Government, especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as its Foreign Minister, to build bridges with Pakistan in 1978-79 are discussed well.

The book culls out important information pertaining to Zia years (1977-1988) and his policy towards India, the swings in relationship in the wake of Operation Brasstacks by India and Zarb-e-Momin by Pakistan, the 1987 revelations by Abdul Qader Khan about Pakistani possession of nuclear bomb, and debates on Jinnah House in Mumbai, which Pakistani leadership was very emotional about.

It analyses efforts by IK Gujral — both as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister in the early and mid-1990s, which led to the evolution of the composite dialogue format — by situating him in the political environment of his time and hints at the bureaucratic distaste for Gujral’s claims, and argues that despite this, the policy was adopted by Indian foreign office, which later formed the basis for Vajpayee-Nawaz Sharif talks in Lahore (February 1999) and Vajpayee-Musharraf Islamabad Declaration of 2004.

The author collapses the discussion on India-Pakistan relations during the years he served in Pakistan rather abruptly in a few pages, and one would have liked him to furnish the readers with his appreciations of the personalities and processes that characterise the current trends in bilateral relations. The India-Pakistan negotiations, at the foreign office level, leading to the evolution of the framework for composite dialogue in 1997 deserved detailed discussion.

All in all, the author makes a great effort to stitch the facts, some of which not so well-known, together to retell the stories of missed opportunities that continue to haunt India-Pakistan relations. Unlike many of his tribe, as a conscientious diplomat, he has resisted the temptation to either arrive at or lead the readers to any conclusive opinion about any historical fact. He has laid all the facts on the table with different facets of the reality, leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. It is not an easy job to do, especially in an area where emotions fly high and everybody starting from the vendor on the street to persons in high offices seem to have his or her strong views about. The real strength of the book lies in quietly persuading the reader to develop an unbiased account of a highly complex relationship.

Maybe the author is reserving that right to write a memoir in first person someday, which will be eagerly awaited by readers interested in the field. This book will certainly tickle the readers in that direction.

The writer is Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi. (The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan by TCA Raghavan has been published by HarperCollins, Rs 699)




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