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My best fiend

India and Pakistan have much in common. No, they don't. Another book that tries to figure ‘them’ out without explaining the growing chasm, writes Inder Malhotra.

books Updated: Jul 24, 2009 22:00 IST

The Great Divide
Edited by Ira Pande
# Rs 495 # pp 380

It was Natwar Singh who, as this country’s ambassador to Pakistan in the early 1980s, described India-Pakistan relations as “devilishly complex”. Since then both the complexity and devilishness have increased manifold. Ira Pande, editor of this useful and readable book, confirms this in an indirect way. Her commendable resolve to give equal space to voices from both sides, she says, “was not to be”. It became victim of the last-minute withdrawal from their commitments to write by authors from Pakistan. And then 26/11 intervened.

The Great Divide also tries to balance ‘hard’ topics such as geo-strategic, political, economic and religious, and ‘soft’ ones like music, crafts, films, literature, and, of course, cricket. This makes sense. But unfortunately it diffuses the discussion at a juncture when attention should be focused on the fundamental factors behind the great the great and growing chasm between the two neighbours. Yet, through a number of fine essays coherence and consensus do emerge.

For instance, in the opening piece, Ashutosh Varshney lays his finger on the heart of the matter. “Since its birth,” he says, “Islam and anti-Indianism have been the two master narratives of Pakistan polity”. The power of both cultural and religious Islam to “unite Pakistan’s disparate communities” being inadequate, anti-Indianism prevails. This may be read together with Arvind Sharma’s view that political developments in the relationship between India and Pakistan “are still following the trajectory set during British times … (but) it is not necessary that this should set the framework” for the future, too.

Swapan Dasgupta is more explicit: “Amity between a democratic India and a democratic Pakistan has proved an elusive ideal. Democratic Pakistan has lacked the resilience to take on an over-ambitious military and counter the attractions of global jehad which has devastated the Islamic world”. This, especially the all-powerful Army’s unchanging mindset that

India is the only existential threat to Pakistan, is the bane of the great divide we are talking of.

Stating that while other states have armies, “the Pakistan army has a state”, George Verghese suggests that India should lead an international campaign for the demilitarisation of Pakistan’s bloated military establishment. He wants an end to the “on-going and prospective military aid to this so-called frontline state”, as also to the “economic aid flows” until Islamabad “walks its talk in disbanding the jehadi apparatus” and terminates “cross-border terrorism or proxy wars”.

In a very thoughtful contribution, ‘Towards Theocracy?’ eminent Pakistani academic Pervez Hoodbhoy makes three pertinent points that makers of policy and opinion in this country would do well to ponder. First, that the Pakistani Islamic extremists want “nothing less than to seize power and convert Pakistan into their version of the ideal Islamic state”, establishing a caliphate and eliminating “all Western and modern influences” except “the AK-47 and the internet”.

Secondly, for three decades “deep tectonic forces have been tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula”; and thirdly, Pakistan’s “self-inflicted suffering comes from an education system that, like Saudi Arabia's, provides an ideological foundation for violence and future jehadists”.

At the same time, Hoodbhoy wants India “not to exacerbate the situation … Brutal as it sounds, India may have to absorb more Mumbais without going to war”. As against this, the take of Ajai Sahni, a leading Indian expert on terrorism, is: “Pious exhortations and good intentions appear to exhaust the current Indian policy spectrum, even as the country finds itself responding continuously and inadequately to repeated Pakistan-backed terrorism and subversion”.

Mukul Kesvan has rendered service by underscoring the idiocy of those well-meaning Indians who go on asking their Pakistani interlocutors whether Pakistan “was a good idea, implying that it was not”. He cites the withering answer to this question, given by Mohammed Hanif, author of the wonderful A case of Exploding Mangoes. “Debating the virtues of Pakistan’s founding idea is less important than coming to terms with the fact that Pakistan was a real country, that it existed, and that it had to be reckoned with”. Other Pakistanis might have responded less politely.

Inder Malhotra is a columnist based in Delhi