Lost Chance to Make the Subcontinent’s History More Nuanced

a1a60b7c8fdf090a7e0558d7b543f1c6Simon Schama frequently chastises academic historians for “working really hard to make history boring”. The foremost job of a historian in his view is to make sure the subject appeals outside the cloistered walls of academia. Dilip Hiro’s The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan is certainly a highly readable account of the history of the India-Pakistan rivalry, and that is welcome given the relative dearth of well researched, accessible or popular literature in this area.

Except, sadly, these expectations are not wholly fulfilled. The book covers the important milestones in the relationship, including all the personalities and major events. But its fundamental problem is to reinforce, rather than add to, the prevailing wisdom about the state of India-Pakistan relations. It reproduces a series of well-known snapshots about the history of the two countries. We thus whizz past the constitutional deliberations around the transfer of power from the British, the Cripps Mission and the Cabinet Mission plan. It describes the conversations between Gandhi, Jinnah and the British in well-established stereotypes. Gandhi is seen here as wily, prone to fasting, occasionally condescending but above all, ethical; Jinnah, comes across as wealthy, brilliant and liberal, whose advances were disastrously spurned by the Congress High Command, and was therefore driven to voicing the demand for Pakistan. Finally, we have the war-weary British and an occasionally naïve Nehru. We halt at the devastating violence of the partition riots, and then settle down into India’s and Pakistan’s manoeuvrings in early Cold War politics.

Here too, the story line follows the well-trodden path. The two countries embark on widely divergent foreign policy trajectories, with Pakistan increasingly becoming an ally of the United States against the Soviets, and India staying non-aligned—which ‘irritates’ Washington. The analysis is frequently personality-driven. At one point, Nehru ‘stares out of the window and shuts up like a clam’ because of his disdain for the inferior intellectual credentials of the person sitting across—Ayub Khan—and his unwillingness to broach the subject under discussion—Kashmir. In another episode, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi face off in Simla ‘…both were strong headed, and monopolised power once they reached the apex. Both felt offended at the merest slight…’ Hiro’s account then takes us through the three limited wars between India, and we meet briefly with the hundreds of individuals who have passed through the annals of this relationship, some of whose efforts were more rewarded than others.

But the trouble with this telling is that it is too familiar—too easy. The reader is left with no sense of the deeper factors that hold the state of India-Pakistan relations ‘almost-but-not-quite-at-war’ in place. To be truly provocative, rather than merely conventional, the book ought to have given a convincing explanation about the motivations or compulsions on the part of individual actors, or analysed which sets of societal, economic and political pressures push the bilateral relationship in a given direction. This is where it is lacking, settling instead, for caricaturizing the many well-known instances of breakdown and conflict in the long history of this relationship.

Archival photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan signing their 1950 pact for the protection of minorities.

Archival photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan signing their 1950 pact for the protection of minorities.

In the first section of the book, for instance, the specific sets of political compulsions that pushed Nehru, or Liaquat Ali Khan to advocate policies for an overall deterioration in bilateral relations, are mostly left unclear. Liaquat supposedly sanctioned the tribal invasion of Poonch sector while leaving Jinnah in the dark about this. While this may (or might not) be true, a richer explanation about why this decision might have been adopted is mostly missing. Was this decision taken because of pressures from the army, or was it because of a sense of breach of trust over the accession dispute? Were the decisions likely to sour India-Pakistan relations forever in the future, or were they taken, at the time, as an interim measure?

But this is where the book has another problem: we are offered no explanations as to just why there should have been a sense of permanent enmity between the two countries from the beginning. In Hiro’s reading, the causes for the partition were generally the same as the ones that upheld a tense bilateral relationship: namely, a long and festering history of animosity between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent, culminating in the cataclysmic thunderclap of partition. The root of the problem, then, would go back to nothing less than 800 years of acrimony and conflict, beginning with Muhammad Ghori’s invasion of 1192 (p.xiii). But a more rewarding book on India-Pakistan relations would also attempt an explanation of how matters might have changed since then, and which sets of domestic and external concerns propel the two modern nation states to adopt a given bilateral tone. These concerns also frequently change, and dictate the fluctuating climate of the relationship. It is these structural pressures in the first decades of independence — for instance, from the rehabilitation and refugee lobbies in both countries, or the need to assert a permanent separation to an international audience, or even the economic gains to be acquired from an improved relationship — that do not make themselves adequately felt in Hiro’s account.

The prevailing stereotypes through which the India-Pakistan relationship is framed hinder our ability to explore the complex—even if often self-serving or opportunistic—calculations of men who were highly experienced, shrewd, and with an unparalleled ability to judge when a change in the state of relations would offer the most rewards. Their ability to judge the swings in fortunes of the different lobbies involved in the making of the relationship — the bureaucrats, the military, minority communities on both sides asking for greater leniency with regard to travel, or other domestic political rivals—often dictated their choices with regard to bilateral relations.

Given Dilip Hiro’s many well received books on the Middle East and Central and South Asia, The Longest August is a lost opportunity to make the history of the subcontinent both readable and nuanced.

The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan by Dilip Hiro (Penguin, 2015) is available from Penguin India.

(Pallavi Raghavan has a PhD from the University of Cambridge on the history of India- Pakistan relations. She is currently a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.)