As India and Pakistan pass through another cyclical phase of war threats, the leaders of North Korea and South Korea met for a three-day summit in North Korea last week. The turnaround on the Korean peninsula has been remarkable. Only a year ago, North Korea was firing missiles over Japan, and with Donald Trump and his Twitter account in the White House, the spectre of nuclear war was all too real. Then came the Winter Olympics in February and with it, sports diplomacy. North Korea and South Korea decided to march under one flag at the opening ceremony and also competed as one team in one event. The situation has only improved since then.
In the context of India and Pakistan too, there were a few encouraging signs: the felicitations of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan, and Khan’s subsequent offer of a high-level meeting to his Indian counterpoint. A meeting between the foreign ministers was scheduled on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month, even as the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams locked horns in the Asia Cup. The optimism, however, was short-lived as the meeting in New York was cancelled a day after it was announced.
The peaceniks, who have for years pressed for better diplomatic and people-to-people contact between the two countries and are often viewed with suspicion by their states, looked enviously towards the Koreas. If these two countries surrounded by powerful foreign interests can put aside these influences and work towards peace, then why can’t India and Pakistan? In a similar vein, the example of East Germany and West Germany is also often cited.
But these examples are quite ill-suited in the India-Pakistan context. There are fundamental differences between the borders or partitions drawn by the Cold War and the boundaries created by the British colonial state. The former was a forced acceptance of status quo for lack of better options. In many of these instances, the boundary almost became an artificial division of two countries that did not necessarily want to be apart. Thus, behind the iron curtain or the authoritative state policies and all pervading propaganda, there remained a strong yearning for reunion. The broader context of sharing one country remained part of people’s framework.
The Partition of South Asia, on the other hand, was a completely different story. In many ways, it was the product of a systematic hatred between two religious communities that was institutionalised by the colonial state throughout its 200-year presence. This hatred was spread primarily through the education system, but also through regular census, mass media and state employment policies. The British inherited an inclusive society, syncretic in its essence, and transformed it into two competing civilisations at each other’s throats.
Through this education system, an imaginary past of India was crafted, of a highly “cultured and peaceful” society ruptured by the “barbarian” invasions of the Muslims. The Muslims then, through the power of their sword, managed to keep vast swathes of the population under their “tyrannical” control. Enter the British, a “benevolent” invading force, whose agenda it was to emancipate the “indigenous” population of India from the “foreign” rule of the Muslims. But the British were not willing to abandon their Muslim subjects either, assuring them of “protection” from the majority Hindu population who was looking to “avenge” the disgrace of the past thousand years. It was, therefore, imperative for them that a precarious situation like this existed, for there was no other way they could act as “moderators” between competing interests.
This narrative of history, of two antagonistic forces fighting for power in historical India, was imbibed by nationalists on both sides of the divide. It is, therefore, no surprise that the first signs of communalism in British India emerged in the educated urban centres. In fact, in many ways, these centres continue to be the guardians of these imaginary historical national identities.
A deeper Partition
The Partition of British India in this context is not an anomaly of history as it is sometimes presented but rather a product of institutionalised hatred. The situation did not change drastically even after the creation of two new countries with both states inheriting the narrative bequeathed to them by the colonial state.
For Muslim nationalists, Pakistan is a victory, the ultimate realisation of a dream whose seeds were sown by our mythological heroes who landed on the shores of Sindh. For Hindu nationalists, Partition is the perfect example of Muslim betrayal that has constituted Hindu-Muslim relations since inception. While there is a longing for the land, the rivers and the sacred places lost, there is not much compassion for the people who occupy that land. If there has to be a reunification of the “motherland”, it better be without its current occupants. For the Muslim nationalists, though, any yearning for the land on the other side of the divide is a betrayal of that sacred dream.
It is, thus, rather simplistic to make these comparisons between countries divided by the Cold War and those divided by the systematic organisation of the colonial state. While the former partitions remained only on the surface, the latter seeped into the roots of national and cultural identities. It is, in fact, much more institutionalised now and it is this baggage that both India and Pakistan will bring to the table any time they decide to sit down together.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, has been published by Penguin Random House