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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015

Dilip Hiro’s Longest August: Perils of Action-Reaction Analysis

Saturday 15 August 2015


Yogendra Kumar

The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan by Dilip Hiro; 2015; Nation Books, New York; pages: 520; price: Rs 799 (distributed by Penguin India).

The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan (New York: Nation Books, 2015) is the latest book from the prolific pen of Dilip Hiro, the London-based journalist-author with 34 books already to his credit. With extensive writings on the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, this is his sixth book with a South Asian theme. He is also an expert commentator at various prestigious electronic and print media platforms on these regional affairs, including jihadism.

This book is remarkable in its sweep of history as it covers the narrative from the origin of Hindu-Muslim differences in the British era, to their morphing into the deep-seated adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan after 1947 and bringing it right upto the cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks in September 2014. Juxtaposition of the highly volatile situation—“the globe’s most dangerous place”—on the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LOC) in J&K with the victory of the Afghan ruler, Muhammad Ghauri, in the 12th century, creates for him the setting for charting the course of the modern history of the Indian subcontinent which, to him, is characterised by a never-ending chain of tragic events and of missed opportunities for which he puts the blame, in more than equal measure, on Indian leaders going right back to Mahatma Gandhi. Starting his narrative with the early disastrous—according to him—encounters between Gandhi and Jinnah, he feels that they cost the region dearly not only in terms of the communal tension before partition but in the ‘unflinching rivalry’ since; this is due to the Mahatma’s ‘Original Sin’ of injecting religion into politics which complicated a ‘secular’ Jinnah’s overtures to him and the Congress party for cooperation even though the latter based his entire politics on the communal electorate system of the British.

The author discusses the bitterness of partition and suggests that certain powerful leaders, such as Sardar Patel, tried their best to smother Pakistan at birth; he also feels that Jinnah was not aware of the Pakistan Government’s plans—the idea was Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s—to mount the armed operations to undo J&K’s accession to India. He also thinks that Jawaharlal Nehru, actually, went back on his word to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan’s leaders who tried for a compromise on the issue. The same unreasonable attitude, on Nehru’spart, was evident in his approach to the settlement of the India-China boundary and the Chinese attack on the Indian armed forces was a direct outcome of his foolhardy dealings with Chinese leaders, especially Zhou Enlai.

He gives dramatic description of the 1965 conflict and Prime Minister Shastri’s death in Tashkent; stating that India won that round by not losing, he traces Bhutto’s machinations against Ayub Khan and the pro-independence movement in East Pakistan to these events. His narrative of the events leading to the 1971 war and its aftermath sees these more in terms of India’s manipulations and of interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs; he also credits Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with saving West Pakistan.

The nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, under Bhutto and Zia, is seen by the author as an action-reaction process with India being the initiator; changing international environment, with dangerous ratcheting up of the US-USSR Cold War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US-China détente let India and Pakistan to undertake aggressive policy towards each other by stoking their respective domestic insur-gencies with a nexus of KHAD-RAW-KGB (the intelligence agencies, respectively, of Afghanistan, India and the USSR) carrying out, according to him, a “low-level but steady campaign of bombings in Karachi, Lahore and Multan”. (page 256) He describes the period of Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto as one when the ISI-inspired extremist activity in Punjab and Kashmir burgeoned and describes as “abominable” India’s human rights record in J and K, a description which he does not apply to his narrative of Pakistan’s official agencies fomenting Jehadist terrorism there.

India’s nuclear tests, and Pakistan’s following them, saw these countries “gate-crash(ing)” into the nuclear club, followed by a deceptive thaw even as Kargil was being planned at the same time; against the background of nuclear brinkmanship by Pakistan, India’s military achievement seems to have been made possible due to the US, angry over its non-cooperation over Afghanistan, leaning on Pakistan. The US tilt towards India appeared short-lived due to Pakistan’s newly found value, post-9/11, which, with heavy US involvement in Afghanistan, could still pursue its own agenda towards its neighbours on its east and on its west.

It was in these circumstances that both the Parliament attack (December 2001) and following India-Pakistan nuclear stand-off are examined; whilst the US played a delicate balancing act on Pakistani terrorism, the author concluded that Indian leaders were bent upon “crushing terrorism through brute force”. He also concludes that this nuclear stand-off showed the weakness of the nuclear deterrence mechanism—a situation for which he apportions equal blame on both countries.

Although committed to state-sponsored terrorism in both its neighbours’ territories under the nuclear overhang, Musharraf’s revival of the dialogue process, including finding a way around the Kashmir conundrum, was motivated by the deepening economic crisis in Pakistan. These efforts made some progress, including in the back-channel confabulations, but serious jolts were delivered to it by the Pakistan-backed-based terror groups—autonomously—reviving their activities in different parts of India culminating in the Mumbai terror attacks (November, 2008); in his narrative of the last named episode, the ISI makes appearance only once in the figure of “Major Iqbal”. The changing circumstances in Afghanistan are described by the author again in terms of the ‘unflinching’ rivalry between the two countries despite the aggressive stance of Pakistan as manifest in the use of proxies against the US, Afghanistan and India there.

In the penultimate chapter, the author, talking about the cultural similarities and economic complementarities, exhorts both India and Pakistan to replicate the success of India-China relations whereby “thriving commerce” can bring an end to the Longest August by putting the Kashmir issue on the backburner.

This chronological summary, as narrated by the author, serves a useful purpose. By sequencing the events in this manner, their flow becomes clearer and key book-marks can be easily noted. The facts presented are well-rounded, backed as they are by considerable background information. The portrayal of the key historical figures has been quite vividly done. It delineates the changing international context of evolving India-Pakistan relations and the drawing in of global powers with each major shift, thereby investing their bilateral developments with profound global balance-of-power ramifications.

However, the historical breadth of the author’s narrative, spanning more than a century of transformative events for the subcontinent, constrains him to skim the surface lending it a simplistic aspect. Presenting events in a binary, action-reaction sense leads to an approach of ‘moral equivalence’—of “quintessential non-align(ment)” as the blurb on title page proclaims—in the description of the historical role of the key actors. In the absence of an analysis of the deeper institutional and structural factors impacting on the decisions, facile conclusions get drawn.

To lump all subsequent events, over such a long historical period, to Mahatma Gandhi’s “Original Sin” of injecting religion into politics and to his approach towards a “secular” Jinnah, who was, nevertheless, leveraging the Raj’s separate communalelectoral system for his political advancement, is to misrepresent the nature of historical, institutional forces at work; the paradox of a ‘secular” India, harmoniously enveloping its cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, founded by the ‘Original Sin(ner)’ and of the dominant religion-based country founded by a ‘secular’ leader does not get explained by such treatment of profound historical forces at work. It also does not provide insight as to why the respective leaders of India and Pakistan have taken decisions, whether willfully or under constraints of circumstances, leading to India emerging as a leading international power with resilient institutions and a thriving, modernising economy, and to Pakistan presenting the nightmarish prospect of state collapse with profound implications for global security and stability.

If we are to take a long view of this sweep of history and to draw lessons from it for our, 21st century, world, it would be this: modern Indian historians consider the Gandhian bequest of stable, resilient state institutions as being rooted in the fashioning of the Congress party into a profoundly democratic political force with its empowered grassroots’ membership which, in a non-disruptive institutional sense, stepped into the shoes of the departing British power. Relevant for our own transformational times is the experience of the “Frontier Gandhi”, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s ‘Khudai Khidmatgar’ Movement achieving a peaceful political transformation in the Pushtoon tribal areas which are today witnessing so much mayhem. In short, Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom struggle is an object lesson, today, as to how a political transformation is generated and as to how that transformation is steered in the non-disruptive manner.

The book makes sweeping statements about key events without citation or backs them up with citations of secondary sources, including from his own previous writings. For example, his lengthy discussion of the Indian role in support of Northern Alliance (page 372) is factually incorrect; this reviewer was the Indian Ambassador in Tajikistan during the period referred in the relevant passages. Mere quoting of the words of interested parties cannot be construed as validated facts: for example, he makes a statement, (page 378), “overall, it is fair to say that even without the subversive activities of RAW, Islamabad would have encountered security problems in its tribal belt and Baluchistan...” without an evidentiary assessment of exactly what RAW’s activities there have been. The descriptions of encounters between the Indian and Pakistani leaders—and, for that matter, between the Indian and Chinese leaders—are rather cryptic and facile without analysis of the respective positions of each side. Such deficient historical contextualisation leads him to make the following statement: “In the final analysis the 2008 Mumbai carnage was linked to the unresolved Indo-Pakistani dispute about Kashmir which was grounded in the partition of the subcontinent.” (page 362)

This facile treatment of events, which have been driven by strong historical forces, have yielded, from the author, a rather aspirational advice to both India and Pakistan to put the Kashmir dispute on the backburner and to concentrate on trade much like the management of India-China relations in recent decades. Such analysis misses out on the glaring fact of the South Asian reality today: an unstable, fragile state in Pakistan can only radiate instability and extremism in all directions because of which no ‘grand bargain’ with it is possible and leaving no option but to, somehow, manage a difficult relationship whilst preparing oneself for countering the fallout of its own domestic institutional degradation. As these lines are being written with the sound of terrorist shootings in Gurdaspur still ringing in our ears, a lot of readers of this book in India and Afghanistan would find such “quintessential non-aligned” analysis difficult to digest.

A former IFS officer (now retired), the reviewer was the Indian Ambassador to several countries including the Philippines, Tajikistan, and High Commissioner to Namibia. He has also been the Indian Consul General for Central Asia with residence in Taskent. As New Delhi’s envoy to Dushanbe, he handled India’s relations with Afghanistan. He has served in Indian missions in Moscow, London, Islamabad and Brussels. 

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