Partition ghosts haunt old rivals

India-Pakistan in War and Peace

May 23, 2003

Few rivalries in international relations have been more misunderstood than the one between India and Pakistan. In May last year these two "distant neighbours", who have fought three conventional wars and a border skirmish in 1999, came close to a nuclear exchange. Ostensibly, these conflicts had their casus belli in Kashmir, East Pakistan and cross-border terrorism. In reality, it is the ghosts of partition of the Indian subcontinent 50 years ago that have loomed large in the mindset of the political elites in the two states.

J. N. Dixit's efforts to cash in on the global anxieties of a nuclear South Asia is pitched as the "authoritative" account of a former Indian foreign secretary with intimate understanding of Pakistan, where he served as ambassador. But, despite the obliging reviews in the Indian press reproduced on the dust-jacket, the work is mired in the familiar genre of ex-Indian bureaucracts portraying Pakistan as focused, aggressive and mendacious in seeking to undermine India as a regional superpower, and India as unprepared, morally restrained and continuously outwitted by Pakistani diplomatic manoeuvring.

If this were not enough, large sections of the volume are written in monotonous note form with endless repetition of what looks like hastily cobbled together journalistic articles.

Yet if one has the patience to endure Dixit's wooden and repetitive prose, there are some interesting asides. He suggests, for example, growing Indian concern at strategic cooperation between America and China, which might marginalise India and keep it under pressure; resentment in the Indian camp at the global community's continuing to "ignore" India; the idea that the roots of the Indo-Pakistan rivalry may lie in a primordial hatred that continues to generate "suspicion, mistrust and antagonisms" while simultaneously providing the bedrock of state-centric nationalisms with opposed views of national imagination.

He also discusses the failure of the Indian conception of nationhood to win the hearts and minds of Indian Muslims, so that for many of them Pakistan remains a source of defensive appeal; the fact that a resolution to the Kashmir problem could lie in recognising "ground realities" while making the border more porous for common Kashmiris; and the possibility that Indo-Pakistan rivalry is unlikely to diminish even if a successful agreement on Kashmir were to be realised. These "realities", for Dixit, make Pakistan a permanent thorn in India's side, the militarised Islamic "other" of India's secular, multi-ethnic and successful liberal democracy.

Dixit's hard-nosed realism, on which he has cut his reputation, occasionally rubs uncomfortably with his mellower musings. He is, despite a proclivity to primordialism, prepared to concede that perhaps the peoples of India and Pakistan "have no antagonisms towards each other".

Globalisation and the information revolution are also seen as possible long-term agents for corroding entrenched diehard positions. And a mutual failure of statesmanship is hinted at in the coded criticism of both governments in both states who have "become the prisoners of policy stances and attitudes they have created in public opinions, and, therefore, cannot be bold and innovative beyond a certain point".

One wishes Dixit had allowed himself to be unleashed from his minders. Had he done so, I feel a more serious reflection on imaginative alternatives for South Asia would have forced him to ponder the disastrous consequences of his - and his Pakistani counterpart's - realism. But then this volume and the analysis it presents are as much a commentary on the author as on Indo-Pakistan rivalry.

Gurharpal Singh is professor of inter-religious relations, University of Birmingham.

India-Pakistan in War and Peace

Author - J. N. Dixit
ISBN - 0-415-30472-5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £16.99
Pages - 501

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