The longest August: Leaping through faith
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Aakar Patel
Published on: May 17, 2015 | Updated on: Invalid date
Dilip Hiro has written a book a year for the last three decades with a focus on West Asia. He specialises in a sort of narrative history that is based on secondary sources. Himself of Indian origin (born in the Sindhi village of Larkana that is the Bhutto family’s stronghold), Hiro lives in the West and has taken, I think, a neutral view of a relationship in a way that few of us can.
The Longest August is subtitled "The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan" and locates the problems between the two countries in religion. Hinduism is polytheistic while Islam is not, Hiro tells us:
"Social intercourse between the two communities was minimal, with intermarriage non-existent. At the popular level the communal points of friction centres around Hindus’ reverence of cows and Muslims’ religiously sanctified loathing of pigs and their flesh. In Hindu kingdoms killing a cow was deemed a capital offence since the fourth century. To retaliate against Muslims’ slaughtering of cows, die-hard Hindus resorted to desecrating a mosque by a stealth depositing of a pig’s head or carcass at its entrance, or by playing music or musical instruments outside a mosque during prayers."
This paragraph comes in the introduction. It tells the reader that the two religions are socially separate and for Western readers it may set the tone for the book. The fact is that caste is as big a divider as religion in our parts. What social intercourse, what intermarriage is there between Brahmin and Dalit? The violence between the peasant (shudra) and the dalit in middle India has cost many more lives than Hindu-Muslim conflict. And yet, Hiro appears to make more of this divide than what reality informs us.
The conversion of castes wholesale, for example butchers and carpenters and weavers, means that Muslims were always part of the socio-economic structure of the Indian village, not some secluded community. And so it is with a sense of unease that one swallows Hiro’s premise, with which he leaps into the history of the "unflinching" rivalry between India and Pakistan.
One-fifth of the work is devoted to the history of India’s Partition. Here the turning point — "Gandhi’s original sin", in Hiro’s words — is shown as the Khilafat movement. Turkey lost World War I and most of its empire to the British. Following this, India’s Muslims unwisely jumped into an internal Turkish power struggle, between the modernising Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the conservative caliph. The Indians interpreted the conflict as being between Turks and the British empire and sided with the caliphate. They were led in this by Mahatma Gandhi who calculated, correctly, that Muslims would rally behind him if he chose to take up this issue of a universal caliph. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for whom Ataturk was a hero (his biography Grey Wolf by H.C. Armstrong was one of Jinnah’s favourite books), saw this as a mistake and warned Gandhi against politicising religion.
Gandhi went ahead but Ataturk prevailed and abolished the caliphate, deflating the movement in India. However, religious tensions spiked in that period, the 1920s, with the Shuddhi movement and episodic clashes between Hindus and Muslims. From here, with the religious rift made concrete, Hiro takes us briskly and entertainingly through to 1947. He tells us it was Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and not Jinnah who sanctioned the first "jihad" in Kashmir, which led to the state’s hastily executed accession which in turn has soured relations for seven decades.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s refusal to compromise on Kashmir frustrated Pakistan and Hiro’s cold description of the early 1960s will make Indian readers squirm. The first major war was 1965, which came after an unhinged and ambitious Zulfikar Ali Bhutto coerced Pakistan President General Ayub Khan into sending a totally unprepared group of soldiers into Kashmir with the expectation that the Muslims there would rebel. India’s inability to overwhelm Pakistan’s Army in that war produced a strategic deadlock that was made concrete by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mistake at Pokhran, forcing Pakistan to weaponise its covert program.
The next major clash came with Bangladesh and Hiro brings alive that period with some nicely chosen nuggets like this recently declassified one from 1972:
Kissinger: They are the most aggressive goddamm people around there.
Nixon: The Indians?
The Simla Agreement did not really solve anything other than returning the Army of East Pakistan which had surrendered. The second half of the book is concerned with more recent events and the Zia-ul-Haq years, leading to democracy in Pakistan, the uprising in Kashmir which continues today, and the Musharraf period. There is not much new to be said here, particularly since Hiro’s sources are secondary. This section is the weak link in the book and it would need motivation to trudge through it page by page. This is especially so because not much happens between the two nations and the focus is turned also to other places like Afghanistan.
The book is updated enough to include the Modi government’s attitude to relations with Pakistan — a mix of hugging and sulking — and comprehensive enough to act as a single volume reference for India-Pakistan relations on the hostility front. It is not comprehensive, nor is it meant to be, as a work on overall relations between the two nations.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist