A fraught relationship

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Conflict Unending, India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947 by Sumit Ganguly; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002; pages 187, Rs.395.

EXTREMISTS on both sides have blazoned their manifestos with the notion that conflict between India and Pakistan is unavoidable in the context of the sharply polarised civilisational values of the two countries. In recent times, more sober analysts from the Indian side have purported to see the unremitting hostility from across the border as a consequence of Pakistan's commitment to a faith-based version of nationalism, which simply cannot be reconciled with the sense of civic nationalism that is the cement for India's secular unity. It is this basic contradiction in the founding ethos of the two countries that is in turn responsible for all the bitter contestation over the sovereignty of Jammu and Kashmir.


Ganguly takes up these themes, which in themselves are far from novel, and adds his own analysis of the contingent or "opportunistic" factors that have in four distinct contexts converted this ideological rivalry into outright hostilities. In 1948, it was the prolonged indecision that possessed the ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir over the future disposition of his territory that provided Pakistan with the opportunity to try and seize it by force. In 1965, it was Pakistan's rather wishful reading of the disenchantment of the people of Kashmir at the rapid dilution of their special status within the Indian Union that provoked an adventurist military strategy. Similarly, in 1971 and 1999, specific, contingent factors, operating against the backdrop of the deep ideological divisions between India and Pakistan led to armed conflicts that seriously taxed both adversaries.

To be sure, Ganguly concedes that India's commitment to secularism has tended to wane in recent times. In response to the pressures of political contestation in the 1980s, he notes, the dominant Congress party itself showed a marked proclivity to utilise religious appeals to consolidate its electoral fortunes. He contrasts the record of political manipulations in the 1980s with the preceding decade, when the opportunities for "Pakistani mischief-making in Kashmir" were "significantly limited". This was because in the 1970s the Indian government "finally moved to grant the Kashmiris a fair political dispensation" and a "new generation of young, politically conscious Kashmiris came to believe that they were finally being treated as full citizens of India with the right of democratic dissent".

It is curious that despite endorsing India's secular and democratic credentials with little reserve, Ganguly does not question why the window of true democratic participation in Kashmir opened briefly only as late as the 1970s. Perhaps the answer lies in the reality that the Indian democratic ethos, as the political scientist Paul Brass has pointed out, was always interleaved with a strong aversion and fear of political disorder. Democracy would flourish as long as the political impulses it engendered could be accommodated with the capacious ambience of the Congress party. But the moment it burst the banks and threatened Congress hegemony - as with Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir in 1953 (not to mention the Communist government in Kerala in 1957) - it would be throttled.

THE fear of disorder also underwrote the Congress leadership's initial resistance to the movement for the linguistic reorganisation of States. But once the principle was conceded in the mid-1950s, it led to a complete transformation of the political geography of India, with unquestioned positive implications for stability and unity. The reorganisation of States created coherent and closely-bonded linguistic elites, which could control politics in their territories while meaningfully participating in the politics of the federal Centre. In most analysts' view, a stable democracy would have been inconceivable without this concession to the autonomy of regional linguistic units.

The State of Jammu and Kashmir, because of the baneful memories of partition, was the only exception to this norm of autonomy for linguistic communities. Linguistic affiliations in the State ran dangerously parallel to religious loyalties. Any reorganisation of the State would have meant resurrecting the spectre of religious separatism that had seemingly been laid to rest with Partition.

A more subtle understanding of the ideological challenge that Pakistan has posed in Kashmir might have been the outcome of taking on board these complexities of India's democratic evolution. But these concerns remain peripheral or worse to Ganguly's study. He also tends to over-simplify when identifying secularism as the dominant strain in Indian nationalism since its inception. Though undoubtedly true of the mainstream of the Congress, there were powerful elements within, represented by the line of succession from Lokmanya Tilak and Lajpat Rai to B.S. Moonje, M.R. Jayakar, and others that had an explicitly religious (or cultural) vision of India's national identity. In fact, Muslim separatism can be understood only in terms of the dialectical contest between these two strains of religious nationalism, which even the mass appeal of Gandhi and the democratic commitments of Nehru could not neutralise.

If India and Pakistan are, as Ganguly rightly says, unable to break free of their mutually destructive embrace because of their own self-images and selective readings of the historical record, then a way forward could emerge only by correcting these wilful biases. Unfortunately, while providing a synopsis of key events in the tense and ideologically fraught relationship between India and Pakistan since their simultaneous births, the book fails to probe the deeper issues involved. The state of the relationship today, as also the internal health of the two adversaries, makes this evasion a rather unaffordable luxury.

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