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Exploring the ‘Curious History’ of the India-Pakistan Relationship

T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door is written with deep personal knowledge and a genuine investment in the India-Pakistan relationship.

Pakistani rangers (wearing black uniforms) and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officers lower their national flags during a daily parade at the Pakistan-India joint check-post at Wagah border, near Lahore November 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza/Files

Pakistani rangers (wearing black uniforms) and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officers lower their national flags during a daily parade at the Pakistan-India joint check-post at Wagah border, near Lahore November 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza/Files

Harper Collins has done well by the people of South Asia to have published T.C.A. Raghavan’s masterly history of its trajectory as we celebrate the 70th year of India’s birth as a nation. Whilst we understandably savour the fruits of our many achievements, since that date we are not whole without recounting what Raghavan describes in its subtitle as “The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan”. Born, as it were, from the same womb, the relationship between the two countries as described by Raghavan never ceases to fascinate.

There have been other recent accounts of this relationship, notably forming an important part of Shivshankar Menon’s Choices-Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy. Menon, who, like Raghavan, has also, in the course of an equally distinguished career in the foreign service, served as high commissioner to Islamabad, come to the conclusion that our Pakistan policy has been a conspicuous failure, and what’s more, given its nature, it is futile to place hope in the future.

Writing in the period of transition from the Manmohan Singh government to that of Narendra Modi, with the inaugural ceremony of the latter pregnant with possibilities, Raghavan has left the question of the future open. Nevertheless his perceptive description of the turbulent flow of this relationship with, make no mistake, its many highs, supplanted by its more frequent lows, will surely help the professional to chart a constructive course for that future. As Raghavan concludes in his Epilogue:

Neither the extent of goodwill nor the extent of hostility in each country for the other can be underestimated.

Raghavan’s is no simple account of a troubled relationship. It is a living history arrayed with a host of real characters, painted with a historian’s brush, with details of personality, motivation in embarking on courses of historic consequence and, most alluring, the opposite conclusions to which the parties came to on the basis of a common experience in dialogue, the same shared event.

T.C.A. Raghavan
The People Next Door
Harper Collins, 2017

In recounting the meeting of Prime Minister Nehru with President Ayub Khan on the prime minister’s visit to Pakistan in 1960 of which then Ambassador Rajeshwar Dayal had high expectations. Raghavan quotes Ayub Khan as saying that Nehru looked upon him “with contempt”. Dayal quotes Ayub as having told him, “Mr Nehru seemed to think that the Congo was more important to India than Pakistan.” Nehru himself however noted that “The talk was friendly and at no time was there any heat or excitement to it.” So the visit, which Dayal had expected would transform relations, despite the signing of the enduring Indus Waters Treaty, produced no other lasting result.

This work helps even a reader like myself, married to a former Pakistani and with family in both countries, to better understand personalities and events that I thought I knew in the course of service both in the PMO, when many of the events described evolved, and in the field in my assigned state Jammu and Kashmir, described as one amongst three principal impediments to a normal relationship. Raghavan’s work, albeit seeking to be fair is finally the work of an Indian pen that has studied and recorded its account with such astute alacrity that, as the future unfolds, is sure to be the definitive Indian history of the subject of the period covered.

Raghavan himself sums up his work in his Epilogue as this sketchy and subjective history’. There will be those who will point to events not covered, of personalities ignored or conclusions unjustified. Indeed while describing persons from each side who chose to stay on in the country of their choice notwithstanding their religion or the choice of others in the family, Raghavan has mentioned only Muslims and those with an association with the foreign service including Ambassador Azim Hussain, son of former chief minister of the Punjab Mian Fazl Hussain, Mohammed Yunus, nephew of Badshah Khan and the lawyer K.L. Gauba, born a Hindu in Lahore who became Muslim; all chose India. There is no mention of equivalent cases of people from the military or of other faiths. For instance Raghavan has mentioned Nirmal Mukherjee (from the last of the ICS cadre) in another context but not his brother-in-law Air Commodore Balwant Das from the Das family of Lucknow who chose to stay in Pakistan, where his daughter, Anita, was to be the sultry toast of Karachi of the 1960s. Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN and a pillar of that country’s foreign service, again mentioned in other contexts, also similarly chose to stay in Pakistan. Yet the book covers every important feature of the relationship that Raghavan has sought to address in an eminently readable form from which any attempt to delve into further detail would surely detract.


Watch: ‘Wide Angle’, Episode 3: The Curious History of India-Pakistan Relations


Raghavan dissects the drama that went into Partition in considerable detail to illustrate the similarity faced by both nations in the aftermath of Partition and the stunning fact that both nations in their infancy, engaged in war in Jammu and Kashmir, and both recoiled from the idea of either a Hindu or indeed a Muslim state. Nehru’s views on this are well known. Rahmat Ali, who coined the name Pakistan, which he perceived as a Muslim State, came to live in Pakistan in April 1948 but was forced to leave, embittered, by October of that very year never to return, “told to go back to England failing which he would be arrested”. Raghavan surmises that the Pakistan government was too hard pressed at the time to accommodate “a potentially disruptive dreamer”.

T.C.A. Raghavan.

The Indian reader will know of the processes that went into the final accession of Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh to India. Raghavan’s narrative describes the differences and the diplomatic posturing that accompanied these processes. Raghavan has also given an informed account of the drama that accompanied the accession of Kalat, constituting a large part of Baluchistan to Pakistan, precipitated, ironically by a misinformed report on All India Radio. There was talk of the North West Frontier Province becoming part of Afghanistan or an independent Pakhtunistan-we know that Badshah Khan agitated for Pakhtunistan in the Pashtun territories of what is today the province of Khyber Pakhtunwa. The Muslim nawab of Dujana near Delhi migrated to Pakistan and offered to accede. He was turned down.

The highlight of Raghavan’s work however must be the rendering into sequence of the growth and political trajectory of the relationship between the two countries. Here we find a view of the Indian leadership by those who interacted with them personally and the motivation of the Pakistani leadership in dealing with India. Abdul Sattar, a member of the Pakistani delegation in Simla in 1972 is quoted in what is a concise description of Indira Gandhi, which summarises how I, who worked with her, saw her:

‘Indira Gandhi was intensely nationalistic….’ She was ‘petite and seemingly frail’ but ‘robust in mind’ and though ‘deceptive in her inarticulate speech’ no one could ‘miss the thrust of her remarks’.

Raghavan knowledgeably discusses vital elements contributing to major events in the relationship, the wars of 1965 and the Tashkent agreement, and 1971, the signing of the Simla agreement – were these agreements a capitulation by either side, a gain or the best that was possible – the outbreak of violence in the Punjab and Kashmir, which will give the reader an informed view of perspectives with which he might or might not agree. Clearly, the political leadership from Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif, favoured better relations with India, whereas the military leadership, even when it came close to agreement as it did under Parvez Musharraf, appears always to have nurtured an animus. Also clear is that although Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was widely admired in Pakistan, she was also suspect. It is A.B. Vajpayee who stands tallest in seeking to establish a lasting relationship, first as minister for external affairs in the Janata government 1977-80 and then as prime minister, despite provocations, most notably Kargil. In this Manmohan Singh was a worthy successor.

Written with both deep personal knowledge and a genuine investment in the India-Pakistan relationship, Raghavan’s book is likely to become a classic on this ‘curious history.’

Wajahat Habibullah was commissioned as a J&K cadre IAS officer and served as Chief Information Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.

  • ashok759

    If, after seventy years of unremitting hostility and all the pain that it has engendered, the extent of goodwill in both countries for the neighbour cannot be underestimated, that is a hopeful portent for the future. Not just Congo, one would say Pakistan is more important to us than all of Africa.