Dissecting an age-old rivalry

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Dilip Hiro writes for about 70 hours a week, about 10 hours a day with no breaks even on Sunday. He has penned more than 30 books over the past 40 years or so. Photo: The Hindu Archives

"The personalities of Gandhi and Jinnah were poles apart. Gandhi widened the base of the Congress party by opening up its membership to a wide section of society. Jinnah was against getting 'riff-raff' involved in politics. He wanted politics to be the province of the educated and the enlightened." Photo: The Hindu Archives

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The author Dilip Hiro speaks about his latest book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan.

Speaking to Dilip Hiro can initially be a challenging exercise. He speaks so softly that every now and then one wishes he would be a bit more audible. He speaks so slowly that in a moment of imprudent impatience one feels like completing his sentence. Add to that some guffaws, a little wave of the hand, and one realises that Hiro is a consummate author who brooks no impatience when talking of his books. He uses his pauses to gather his thoughts, he cross-questions to make sure that every word of his registers with the interviewer. To say he is prolific would to be to state the obvious—after all, he writes for about 70 hours a week, about 10 hours a day with no breaks even on Sunday. And he has penned more than 30 books over the past 40 years or so.

Settled in the United Kingdom, he comes to India every year with a new book added to his ever-growing list. I asked him once, almost casually, how does he manage to have a new book on the stalls almost every year? “Only the first book or so is difficult. When you research for the first book, you take on so much because you don’t know how much you would need. Then you can use it later. I feel drained out after finishing every book. Completing a book from the conception stage to the final manuscript is almost like a pregnancy. I feel relieved but also all drained.” Once this exhausting exercise is over, Hiro is a relieved man, happily signing his name in Urdu for readers. This fascination for Urdu is a throwback to his roots in Sind in Pakistan, from where his family shifted to India at the time of Partition.

Really, an hour or two of conversation with him means one comes back better informed about the oil politics of West Asia, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and, of course, the emerging reality of the Indian subcontinent.

He was in New Delhi recently to talk about his latest book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan. Following a couple of discussions in the city, he answered a few questions exclusively for Frontline. Excerpts:

“The Longest August” has not been away from the limelight since its launch. How did the recent discussions of the latest book in Delhi go?

For discussants of my volume, the organisers of the events invariably chose Indian diplomats who have served in Islamabad. An inherent flaw in this choice is overlooked. It is hard for an officer of the Indian Foreign Service, who has spent all his working life to uphold the interests of the nation, to step out of that role even briefly and take an objective view of Pakistan, a country locked into perpetual rivalry with India since its inception.

At one event, having listened to comments by three discussants, lasting 55 minutes, I turned to the illuminated screen behind our seats which read, “The Longest August”, and said: “The subtitle is ‘The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan’.” Listening to the remarks by the earlier speakers had provided me with glaring evidence that it really is an unflinching rivalry. A bizarre comment came from a discussant who alleged that I did not know “Pakistani society”.

Dissecting Pakistani society is not part of my book. What intrigued and amused me was that this remark came from someone who was a member of an RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh]-sponsored think tank. The good news was that all the commentators had gone through my book. In contrast, at another event, the chair, a former High Commissioner to Pakistan, told me with a bare-face smile that he had not read The Longest August.

As for my presentation, I listed the qualities of a good historian—a non-partisan stance, a forensic-detective talent to fish out new facts, and a sharp legal mind which lines up evidence before reaching a conclusion. I then illustrated these points by giving examples from my book.

Early in the book, you establish that Mahatma Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah had a common hero, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, in the early days of their involvement with the freedom struggle. How did their paths become so divergent in subsequent years?

It was Gopal Krishna Gokhale [1866-1915] who, during his visit to South Africa in 1912, urged Mahatma Gandhi to return to India to further the cause of home rule there. He and Jinnah were the leading members of the group formed to welcome Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba, on their arrival in Bombay in January 1915.

Unfortunately, Gokhale died suddenly the next month. This grieved Jinnah, who had been described by Gokhale as “an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.

The personalities of Gandhi and Jinnah were poles apart. During his years in South Africa, Gandhi had devised non-violent, extraconstitutional means to fight unjust laws. Jinnah was a strict constitutionalist, a lawyer to his fingertips. Gandhi widened the base of the Congress party by opening up its membership to a wide section of society. Jinnah was against getting “riff-raff” involved in politics. He wanted politics to be the province of the educated and the enlightened. Gandhi constantly reinvented himself. Look at the way he dressed. He arrived in South Africa in suit and tie and changed to a long shirt, dhoti and a turban. Back in India, he bared down to a loincloth and a shawl. Jinnah stuck firmly to business suits and silk ties. It was only in 1940, the year when the Muslim League demanded Pakistan, that he switched to tight or loose trousers and a sherwani.

Y ou talk of Jinnah’s early secularism, his saying no to separate electorates and his constant efforts at Hindu-Muslim and later Congress-Muslim League unity. You also mention Mahatma Gandhi’s tendency to play to the gallery. For instance, his request to Jinnah to speak in Gujarati rather than English at a public function. Did these little things add up to make Jinnah what he became?

Jinnah’s big break with the Congress came in 1928. Alluding to the historical oppression of minorities by majorities in his talk with the Congress leaders, he argued for legal safeguards for the Muslim minority, including giving it one-third of power at the Centre. The overwhelmingly Hindu leadership of the Congress agreed to concede only 27 per cent. This was the first of the three landmark events that eventually led to the partition of the subcontinent.

Did Jinnah’s early death after the creation of Pakistan usher in instability from which Pakistan is yet to recover? On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru’s long stint as Prime Minister ensured that independent India guarded its constitutional responsibilities relentlessly.

There are fundamental differences here. Congress leaders inherited an independent India as an ongoing political-administrative entity that until August 1947 had been British India. In stark contrast, leaders of the Muslim League had to build Pakistan from the ground up. When its Finance Minister arrived in his office in Karachi on August 14, 1947, he saw one table and one chair. To take an overarching, non-partisan view, it was a political miracle to get Pakistan going.

Within two months of its birth, the Kashmir issue flared up; and that gave the military a prime position. This remains a salient feature of Pakistan to this day. In India, since the mid-1930s, the Congress party had prepared blueprints for an independent India. Therefore, the Indian Prime Minister had a pre-prepared draft to work on. Given Nehru’s secularism, his long premiership has left a strong imprint, which the likes of the BJP and the RSS are trying to erase.

Peace between India and Pakistan seems a mirage. In the light of events leading to the creation of Pakistan to the most recent Pathankot attacks, where does a peacenik find hope?

The respective titles of Chapters Five and Six, “Born in Blood” and “The Infant Twins at War”, say it all.Overall, I take a realistic view. The Kashmir dispute remains an insurmountable barrier to friendly relations between the leading South Asian neighbours.

For any civilian or military leader in Pakistan to declare that the Kashmir issue is resolved, that is, we accept the Line of Control as the international border, would be tantamount to committing hara-kiri. Equally, no Indian politician dare mention the possibility of secession of Kashmir.

But the absence of diplomatic amity does not preclude growing economic ties and cultural relations. Right now, Om Puri is acting in a Pakistani movie. As members of the South Asian Free Trade Area, India and Pakistan are required to end tariffs on mutual trade by the end of this year. I must add that the presentation of these positive elements in India-Pakistan relations in my talks washed over the heads of my audience obsessed with Kashmir, and cross-border terrorism.

Finally, going by your research, would you say that the Muslims who stayed in India, and their descendants, are better off today despite the present debates about Hindu Rashtra, intolerance and Hindu nationalism?

The term “better off” needs to be defined. The literacy rate in [95 per cent Muslim] Pakistan is 58 per cent, whereas that in India is 74 per cent. Their respective per capita GDPs are $1,427 and $1,942. In socio-economic terms, Muslims in India are worse off than Dalits and better off than Adivasis. The key point is full participation in the political process, which is democratic and revolves around elections.

In the electoral system there is the vagary of the first-past-the-post win. So we have the BJP with 31 per cent of the popular vote bagging a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. When it comes to confronting majoritarian nationalism and intolerance, Muslims need to join ranks with all those Hindus, Sikhs and Christians who are wedded to the principles of secularism and tolerance.

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