Pallavi Raghavan’s Animosity at Bay: An Alternative History of the India-Pakistan Relationship, 1947-1952, approaches the early years of India-Pakistan relations through a lens different from the one usually deployed.
Rather than focusing on the many conflicts, Raghavan’s book goes over efforts like the Nehru-Liaquat pact – in which the two countries mutually reaffirmed a commitment to care for their own minorities – and the correspondence about a potential No-War pact. The book demonstrates how much the two young nations actually collaborated, in part with the aim of asserting themselves as separate nation-states.
I spoke to Raghavan about the “strange intimacy” of India-Pakistan ties, what it felt like to wade into the very crowded space of Partition and post-Partition scholarship, and what people forget when they study these two nations.
Can you give a little bit of context for the reader – what are you attempting to do with Animosity at Bay?
The book itself originally started with a PhD dissertation, which I began in 2008 at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of a historian, Joya Chatterji. And the PhD dissertation was basically about analysing the impact of the Partition, and the ways in which state institutions in India and Pakistan were affected and how they’re a product of the Partition. They behave in the way that they do because of the influence of the Partition.
This is the starting point for the PhD. And as I got further into the PhD process, it struck me that a particularly good example of all of this was the trajectories of the two foreign ministries of India and Pakistan. And exactly how is it that their shaping, their behaviour, their decision-making process and their approach to policy-making in the region is quite deeply influenced by the process of Partition.
So I was trying to look at how the Ministry of External Affairs in India and the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan dealt with the process of Partition. And through this, I realised that there was a really interesting story to be told about the early bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. In particular, the first five years, where a lot of the nuts and bolts, the issues thrown up by the Partition, like refugee movement or minority rights or evacuee property – they’re mediated in a very critical way by the two ministries.
Was Partition something you had been looking at even before you started work on the PhD? Is it something that you wanted to focus on or just ended up looking at?
A bit of both.
Partition is present with us all the time, particularly in places like Delhi and Kolkata, Karachi and Lahore. The legacy of Partition is still very much part and parcel of our daily life, from how the streets are named to the neighbourhoods – these are all very Partition-influenced cities.
The factor of Partition is still very deeply important and central to the lives of many of the people, in particularly urban but also rural settings in South Asia. And the thing I was trying to kind of work out was: Just how do we reckon with the process of Partition?
One of the things that became clear to me in the files I was looking at was how the ministries [of both countries in the early years] were trying to disentangle... to reconcile with the process of Partition, to acknowledge and implement it, and finalise its processes.
Is there a personal element to this? Lots of families were directly affected by Partition.
It’s inescapable in Delhi in particular. I, for example, live in Chittaranjan Park, which used to be called the East Pakistan Displaced Persons Association, and was set up to house the refugees from East Pakistan.
So it’s part and parcel of your daily life. But more than that, what the book also was trying to bring out are stories about how refugees navigated the process of Partition and started to live and made their way in a different setting. In these stories it’s also important to look at the way in which they influence – and also the limits of that influence – on the the state-making processes in South Asia. And it’s important to look at the extent to which the refugee lobby and migrant lobbies influenced policy-making in India-Pakistan relations.
It must have been daunting to start off on something about Partition because of the sheer amount of literature that there already is. To step into that world and say, I’m going to try and find something new.
Enormously. It was daunting. There are bookshelves and bookshelves on Partition and the bilateral relationship. But at the same time what I found, when I was looking at files – archival records in both India and Pakistan and incidentally in London as well as in the United States – it did strike me that much of the literature around India-Pakistan relations characterises it as a zero-sum game.
The kind of story that was destined to have a bad outcome because of a short-sighted approach to partition itself. And that inbuilt into the whole process was a hostility between the two sides.
And this assumption was contradicted by the files that I looked at which showed that, contrary to all this, there was, in fact a great deal of attempted cooperation and attempted engagement and [an effort] to put the whole experience of Partition behind them in trying to come to these settlements. This approach was very deeply woven through the approach of the two foreign ministries.
Is it difficult to set yourself up to write an ‘alternative history’? Are you going against the grain of the extant literature?
You know, you do title books according to what your publisher says. But at the same time this was a sort of alternative history because so much of the writing on India-Pakistan relations focuses so intensively on Kashmir, which undoubtedly is an important facet of the relationship.
But because of that, other equally significant and equally politically volatile parts of the relationship, which were resolved to a better extent, were overlooked. And I thought it was important to draw those out as an equally integral part of the history of relationship.
I went into the book expecting that the tale of collaboration in the early years may have had to do with the fact that those people had grown up together or been in the Indian Civil Service (under the British) together. But the book suggests it isn’t just cultural affinity.
There’s no question that in these particular years, these particular people had a closer degree of proximity to each other by the sheer fact of history. They knew each other much more closely than the people who are working in the current ministries of India and Pakistan. Many of them shared a broader worldview that was very deeply influenced by the Indian Civil Service.
But at the same time what I was trying to say in the book was that even with these connections, which can’t be denied, the reason that the relationship seemed to be better at the time was that these particular actors were advocating a degree of faith in the creation of Westphalian states and the process of forcing two self-contained, completely defined, mutually exclusive Westphalian states into being.
That’s the reason that the conversations were more productive. The thing that brought a lot of these negotiations to an outcome was that, in order to be fully finalised Westphalian states in the model that the ICS tried to replicate from interwar European politics, that kind of state-making process was given much more emphasis and was a more central actor in the politics.
How would you summarise these processes? Or give us an example of one?
One of the things I started out with in the book is this deputy High Commissioner of India in Lahore, called [MK] Kripalani, who in 1948 says that “my job is more difficult than anybody could possibly understand. It involves a huge variety of different kinds of considerations. Nowhere else in the world would anybody be doing it. No one else’s foreign officers in the world would be doing the kinds of things that I do.”
And the kind of things that he did was deal with the real minutiae of the daily lives of people, including who married whom, where they got the degrees from, where the bank accounts were, where they owned the property. Day-to-day aspects of people’s life.
The reason he ended up doing all this is that the Deputy High Commissioner of India in Pakistan was involved in putting in place rules regarding these aspects of the relationship, because they were trying to disentangle a very dense set of networks and contacts and ties that held people together in South Asia, which includes all kinds of things from religion to community, from culture to language, from ethnicity to family.
There was no other way of trying to understand exactly what it is that the states of India and Pakistan stood for. Because these other markers of nationality – like ethnicity or language or religion – didn’t necessarily exist in the context of India and Pakistan, the state-making processes of trying to distinguish between what constituted the Indian state and the Pakistani one, it had to get into these kinds of minutiae.
When you’re trying to create the face of the Indian or the Pakistani state, it was impossible to take decisions about this unilaterally. Processes such as who exactly is an Indian citizen? Or who is a Pakistani citizen? Or what is it that makes them Indian or Pakistani citizens? Or when you are an Indian citizen or a Pakistani citizen, where can you own property or whom can you marry?
This stuff had to be bilaterally decided. Because there was this faith that both governments placed on this end goal of trying to create completely Westphalian states at the end of the process, because both sides were invested in that common goal, these are the reasons that negotiation between India and Pakistan on these questions were much more productive.
There was this mutual agreement to separate. But then the question is, what is the basis on which the separation is done? So I looked at a whole whole lot of examples of this kind of dynamic in the early years of the relationship, including migrants, abducted women, the boundary force and also the division of the waters.
What that negotiation seems to show is that a great deal of this was done with a very strange kind of intimacy and incredibly dense set of exchanges that went into the decision-making process on each of these questions.
And so if you look at the question of abducted women, for example, or if you look at the question of migrants, it’s really interesting because you would think that to governments on the verge of war, with every single reason to disagree about Kashmir and Hyderabad, many other reasons for disagreement, they’re, in fact, in quite productive and quite constructive approaches to dialogue-making on these issues.
It’s because they were trying to agree on the rules of separation.
And the best example of all of this is the Nehru-Liaquat pact, which was an issue that arose in Bengal, about the citizenship of millions of refugees who streamed across the newly drawn boundary line. The reason that [the migrants] were doing this is because they didn’t necessarily understand the significance of this new boundary line. They did it because they thought that migratory patterns and seasonal movement was the norm in the Bengal delta.
And so it was important for the Indian and Pakistan sides to sit and work out in this context what it was that the self-defined, self-contained Westphalian state would do. And it’s those considerations that led to the Nehru-Liaquat pact.
I actually find the concerns of the Punjab Boundary Force – with battalions from both India and Pakistan – which was eventually disbanded is an interesting example of how they realised at the time that the two new countries need to emphasise their difference.
It seems to become quite clear to the migrants that in the context of Partition, the fact of somebody’s religion in the boundary force is immediately more relevant than it would have been before. And so you know, it’s not simply this entity, which can impartially and universally apply all across the boundary line.
You had a whole lot of the officers who are either Hindu or Muslim who had to also think about where their subsequent careers were going to be and where they were going to work in the long term. And for that kind of police force to be able to universally and impartially operate across the entire jurisdiction of the Punjab seemed to become impossible.
So, you had a lot of officers, including a young Ayub Khan [who would go on to take over the Pakistan presidency], writing in to their superiors, saying that in these nightmarish, chaotic conditions, it seems that the easiest thing that you can do is to simply look after your own people and have two sets of forces.
This set of calculations kicked in quite soon after the Partition process. The Boundary Force was disbanded within less than a year of Partition. And what you had instead was the awareness that the well-being of refugees could only be better guaranteed if you had two separate forces.
Do you think they were cognisant at the time that what they were doing – across all these issues – was trying to emphasise the separate nature of the two states? Or is that something we see clearly in hindsight?
It’s probably both. For example, one of the people I kind of talked about in the first chapter is a guy named HM Patel, who subsequently become a finance minister and an important member of the Swatantra Party and had a very illustrious career in the decades that followed. He was at the time the representative of India in the Partition Council, which was to divide up the assets between India and Pakistan.
And he’s got this quote in his book, which says that, given the context in which we were working in, the fact that everybody understood the fact of the Partition, of the war in Kashmir, of the violent rioting in Punjab, the fact that you had a lot of these personnel in the administration trying to figure out whether their long term interests lay in India and Pakistan, the fact that this was a very politicised context, given that kind of fact, if you look at the decision-making processes of the Partition Council, it’s surprisingly matter of fact and constructive. And many of the issues that they came up against, they resolved. His quote said ‘look, if we hadn’t managed to get it done, then god knows how much it would have got mired in the trickiness of India-Pakistan relations today.’
It is not because they were unaware of what the dynamics of hostility between India and Pakistan would look like subsequently, but it’s because they thought that the best way of resolving these issues was to have stable, bilateral negotiations. And it was in the interest of both sides to have a constructive approach to decision-making on the issues that arose out of the Partition.
So, to take the point that the need to establish themselves as separate states was a reason to collaborate, one conclusion one could draw from the book is that as the states both got a little more self-defined, a little more stable, a little less insecure about their very existence as separate entities, the incentives for collaboration went down.
What happened was that the incentives to not have dialogue did go up. And what happened was that you had increasingly strong lobbies in both countries that also defined the nature of India as something that was in opposition to Pakistan and vice versa.
But at the same time, what the book is also trying to point to is the fact that some of this process was already there in 1948 or ’49. It’s not like there wasn’t any violence or rioting or bitterness on either side. Yet, even in that kind of context, the reasons that the two states ought to have a better relationship were quite carefully considered.
The reasons for doing that were quite foundational in the logic of the state-making process of both India and Pakistan. What happened in the subsequent decades is that you do have a clear kind of reading of just why is it that you shouldn’t have a better relationship.
But the reasons you should have a better relationship, those reasons were also quite clearly understood in the immediate aftermath of the Partition and occasionally also make themselves felt in the course of the relationship.
Some of the efforts you detail, like the sharing of the waters or the Nehru-Liaquat pact, end successfully. Others, like the No-War pact, fail. But your argument is that the nature of discussion leading up to all of these reflected closer collaboration than people realise.
What the book tries to set up is that in contrast to a lot of the literature on the India-Pakistan relationship, decisions about war or peace between India and Pakistan were not made in a knee-jerk way, trying to perpetuate hostility with each other.
If you look at the kind of correspondence on the No-War Pact, one of the things that does come out is that nobody rejected it outright. They thought it through and then rejected it. There was this understanding that somewhat foundational to the way in which India and Pakistan are defined is a necessity for them to have a stable coexistence. That’s the reason they thought it through and then they rejected it.
The No-War correspondence was playing out simultaneously with the refugee crisis in Bengal, a very rapid deterioration of the India-Pakistan relationship. Personalities were calling on Nehru and putting his government in danger for not being able to take a strong enough stance against Liaquat Ali Khan.
So, the reasoning for trying to take up this correspondence about the No-War pact was also a way for Nehru’s government to survive. And it was also a way in which Nehru and Liaquat Ali thought that they could assert control on the making of the narrative on Pakistan.
They were trying to make themselves felt, they were trying to make their authority felt, in the whole India-Pakistan landscape. And so yes, the correspondence failed. But there are very deep-rooted and instrumental reasons that the correspondence was initiated in the first place. And those reasons, I think, continue to have validity in the India-Pakistan landscape.
In your conclusion, you don’t draw out too much of the impact on affairs today. But it’s almost impossible to not look at the way the BJP is trying to redefine the Indian state by using the very premise of Partition, or the question of minorities, to legitimise its understanding of the nation.
The book doesn’t really engage with with the dynamics of the India-Pakistan relationship today. And there is a good reason for that. I’m a historian and in the book I looked at issues in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and I didn’t claim to make an assessment about the dynamics today.
But at the same time, what I was trying to also bring out in the conclusion was that the imperative taken on the India-Pakistan relationship in the 1950s was the primacy of the nation-state.It was the idea of the primacy of the Westphalian nation state, something that was self-contained and clearly defined.
Whereas if you want to take away from that, or move away from that and instead you say that no, it’s not the state, but it’s the religion, or it’s the civilisation, or it’s the law, or it’s another marker of identity that should have primacy as far as decision-making on India-Pakistan relationships are concerned, then I think that also leads you to differing outcomes.
It’s not coincidental that we are still, despite some of these early successes, discussing minorities in neighbouring nations, and still talking about the division of waters – which the book says are the successes of the India-Pakita relationship in those years. Is this reflective of a failure of that early collaboration? Or is it that the legacy of Partition is too strong?
After you’ve had a partition, these sorts of questions about who is a citizen, who is not a citizen, and what happens to property, are always going to be part and parcel of a post-partition state.
The post-Partition states are perpetually engaged in debates about this.
There are always going to be outstanding issues from Partition in a post-Partition context. The question is, how is it that you go about dealing with it and what kind of choices do you make when you go about dealing with it?
Because the nation-state in South Asia is so incomplete in any way, or is so jagged and isn’t conclusively answered, both India and Pakistan are always grappling with questions that throw up challenges to the fixity or how firmly institutions of statehood are imposed.
And when they’re dealing with these questions, decision-makers in the early 1950s found that the best way to do this was in collaboration.
That’s interesting and also rather dour to think that we’ll still be negotiating these things 70 years from now.
You can’t escape it. What you can do is to identify solutions that work. You can find solutions that are more compassionate as opposed to identifying solutions that are less so, but you can’t escape it.
What is one thing that you think everyone – media, fellow scholars, analysts – gets wrong or is frequently misconceived where the India-Pakistan relationship is concerned?
Given the fact that the field is as crowded as it is, there are all kinds of different approaches to it. I mean, for me as a historian, the piece I would start with is the thing that everybody gets wrong, which is the idea that the nation-state over here in India and Pakistan is primary and before you do anything else you identify yourself as an Indian or Pakistani first.
Whereas the way I would go about breaking this down is to say that particularly in South Asia, a better set of questions might be that look, are you Bengali, are you Sindhi or Punjabi? Your provincial or your linguistic or your ethnic identities also may have primacy. And so rather than packaging any instance of the relationship as one that’s defined by the two states, a better way of trying to think about the relationship might be to break down what constitutes the nation states and to work with your provincial linguistic or ethnic definition.
And again, they’re not necessarily antagonistic or mutually hostile or mutually competitive. If you said that look I’m Bengali first or I’m Punjabi first, you might find that those two identities give you more ways of having commonalities across the border than if you said look at Indian person and a Pakistani one.
Was there anything you were surprised to find during the research?
I remember going to my supervisor and saying how do I do a PhD dissertation about India-Pakistan without talking about Kashmir? What else is there to do? When I looked at those files, it struck me that regardless of whether or not they agreed or disagreed, the sheer fact of the density, the extent of the personal contacts across the boundary lines within governments and not just the prime minister, but also the deputy prime minister, the chief minister, the deputy secretary, right down to every single branch of government, the fact that that kind of relationship existed.
Maybe not to the same extent, but those sorts of exchanges continue today. The first thing that comes to mind is that this was not an impersonal, zero-sum game, not some aliens or two strangers who are dealing with each other. That’s not what comes across from the sheer density of exchanges. Although there are many differences, and there were many reasons for animosity, what I found surprising was this strange intimacy in the shaping of India-Pakistan relations.
The people who were dealing across the negotiating table had the exact sense of the challenges that they were up against. And that dynamic had to be factored in more in the analysis of the relationship.
The other thing that that I did find surprising was that these bureaucrats and these politicians in the 1950s, given the fact that they were so invested in definitions of the nation-state and the non-negotiable outcomes that they desired, there were all kinds of flexibilities and adjustments they were prepared to make within that frame work.
The Nehru-Liaquat pact is one such example. It’s quite a remarkable text in itself. Because if you take a step back and just consider it for a moment, in 1950, you’ve got the governments of India and Pakistan signing a statement in which they say that look, obviously even for people who are inside our boundaries, who are our citizens, the other government has a right to highlight their grievances against us. And that willingness to dilute the meaning of sovereignty and jurisdiction was quite a new way of thinking about how to fashion a nation-state. That kind of willingness to allow for that in South Asia, I found that surprising.
So since you entered this extremely crowded subject and managed to find something new, what other research would like to see? Do you think there is scope for more research on the Partition?
There’s definitely more scope. My book prudently stops in 1952, but the kind of story I’m telling, there’s going to be more instances to be found that bolsters the arguments also in the decades that follow.
I think there’s also a greater need to emphasise the importance of history as a discipline in the understanding of South Asia’s international relations, the understanding of South Asia’s foreign policy-making.
It’s not necessarily that the things that the book talks about are not known and it’s not necessarily that they’re new, it just feels new because what is also new is a historicised approach in trying to navigate the dynamics of the relationship.
What is important in the agenda of India’s International Relations is to have very historically grounded research on the decision-making processes of South Asian states. And taking that approach would lead you to many new insights that can tend to get missed, if you’re not necessarily working with a historicised view.
Echoing the idea that we still don’t think of post-Partition India as ‘history’.
What we tend to do is to look at post-partition realities of India and Pakistan, now they’re created, that’s the end of the story. What the files and archives and interviews with first-generation bureaucrats who were engaged in this process make clear is that India and Pakistan – these categories weren’t necessarily just formed or just established clearly.
First, there are all kinds of different challenges to these big superimposing categories on the basis of ethnicity and identity, language and religion. So, there’s the question of trying to understand whether those identities die out or don’t die out after India and Pakistan are created.
And secondly, when these two states were created, precisely because of the nature of these other identity-based challenges that the governments were up against, when you’re going to fashion the categories of India and Pakistan, it becomes important to do this in collaboration with one another precisely because other identities in South Asia have, you know, much longer lineages, much older histories.
What recommendations, books, articles or podcasts, would you suggest people go on to after this interview or the book?
- The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World, Manu Bhagavan
- Partition’s Legacies, Joya Chatterji
- Liberal, Liminal and Lost: India’s First Diplomats and the Narrative of Foreign Policy, Vineet Thakur, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
- Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910–1962, Bérénice Guyot-Réchard