When much of the democratic world was pleading with Zia-ul-Haq to spare Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s life, the Indian government, of which Atal Bihari Vajpayee was foreign minister, remained studiously aloof. India refused to intervene with Islamabad on the issue, not on humanitarian grounds, not even symbolically. It was payback time when Zia nominated Vajpayee’s prime minister Morarji Desai for Pakistan’s highest civilian award. No Bal Thackeray protested.

Remember, that it was Indira Gandhi, as Opposition leader, who spoke up for Bhutto. She had signed the Shimla Agreement with the vanquished Bhutto in 1972 and now, being of Nehruvian pedigree, she was worried for Bhutto’s family even if he had not been particularly nice about India. She wrote and spoke to Nusrat Bhutto, sympathising with her trauma and her children’s. When Zia visited Delhi in 1983 to attend the non-aligned summit under her leadership, Gandhi gave him short shrift.

After her death, the narrative in the more reactionary mosques and madrassas was that three people responsible for the creation of Bangladesh – Bhutto, Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman – had met with a violent end by God’s will. The narrative waned when its probable patron himself perished in an as yet unexplained air crash, apparently caused by a crate of exploding mangoes.

We can’t forget easily how almost every student on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU to the world, had shared the outrage over Bhutto’s pre-dawn execution. His religio-fascist tormentor didn’t kill just the popular leader, he snuffed out in the process the secular, albeit controversial, idealism of Pakistan’s founder. In doing so, the military dictator created the grounds to breed home-grown terrorists who would go on to massacre schoolchildren in Pakistan or shoot or blow-up innocent people in Indian cities.

Mourning in Delhi

The day Bhutto was laid low, many JNU students didn’t eat. There was more palpable sorrow than at the passing away of China’s Mao Zedong a year or two earlier, although on that occasion too some students wore the black armband. No one was jailed or attacked for mourning a Pakistani leader or celebrating a Chinese one. Bhutto, in particular, had sworn to eat grass if that is what it took to make a nuclear bomb, and it was to have India in the cross hairs. He didn’t live long enough to realise the folly.

There was never one India where Pakistan was concerned, and there was never one Pakistan where India was concerned. There were always mixed opinions about each other and a range of interlocutors on either side. There were Indians who felt close to Zia’s worldview. They included Vajpayee’s Hindutva followers as well as the more obscurant of India’s Muslim clergy.

There were Indians who felt compassion for Bhutto, not the least because he was the hero, rightly or wrongly, of Pakistan’s liberal Left. Zia sought to crush Bhutto’s followers, but he ended up inviting a rush of camaraderie with the hunted intellectuals from millions of Indian idealists.

Gandhi came back to power in 1980 and she opened the doors to many fugitives from Zia’s tyranny. One of them was a woman of great intellectual grit, the poet Fahmida Riaz. She was to later lament how India under the political sadhus had tragically acquired likeness with Zia’s Pakistan. The other Pakistani fugitive I remember was a fine journalist, Salamat Ali. Both were popular guests in Delhi homes. There were no police raids or lawyers tailing them.

In expressing solidarity with India, Fahmida Riaz was carrying on a tradition that was set in motion in 1947. Pakistan fell on dark times soon under Ayub Khan’s military rule. His objective and Hindutva’s perennial thrust in India were identical. They were both avowedly anti-communist. Indian poets and writers led a chorus of protests against Ayub Khan’s regime. Majrooh Sultanpuri’s famous ghazal – Jala ke mishal e jaa’n hum junoo’n sifaat chaley (Lighting the torch of our souls, in a frenzy we go) – was composed in solidarity with his comrades in Pakistan.

The Left-Right polarisation in India à la Pakistan has taken its own time to evolve. Communist bashing is just about beginning, but its roots are old. Divisions within the Indian Left led to one side backing the potential Right, which was to become their undoing.

In the 1970s, important visitors to JNU would meet the students in L3, a spacious hexagonal room wedged between the library and the vice-chancellor’s office on the old campus. When Vajpayee became India’s foreign minister in 1977, he was warmly received in L3 by JNU’s leftists and communists. The campus had played a useful role in the defeat of Gandhi in the post-Emergency polls, and Vajpayee was JNU’s ally in the endeavour.

Playing with fire

And though the Leftist campus welcomed him as one of its own, it had to suspend its awareness that the guest belonged to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stable, which is where he was destined to return, and he did. “You were opposed to our bomb, so we dropped it,” Vajpayee told the students. Indian leftists, before they became nationalists, had opposed the bomb. Pokhran II was 20 years away.

The Hindu newspaper recently carried an unusually sharp critique of India’s Left Front, which it said had been bullied into buying the nationalist discourse of the ruling right-wing alliance. Student clusters were unhappy that though communist leaders protested the Hindutva attack on JNU, they ad-libbed the spurious chorus against alleged anti-nationalist sloganeering.

If India’s communists feel their embracing of the nationalist worldview would fetch them victory in West Bengal or Kerala in the coming polls they may or may not be proved right. What is certain though is that it won’t stop a Hindutva state from hunting down the comrades as the Pakistani state across the border did years ago.

JNU must dig in its heels for the long battle ahead, with or without an ideological vanguard.

This article was originally published on Dawn.com.