Wednesday, 14 December 2011

India the Afterthought

Synopsis: The nation-states of India and Pakistan came out of the same civilisational melting pot that has been stewing and bubbling in South Asia for over two millennia. But while modern India has embraced its inclusive and pluralistic heritage through its secular democracy where majority and minority groups enjoy equal privileges, Pakistan has been unwilling to do likewise. Pakistan's need to justify its separate existence from the mother country, India, have caused it to deny its own civilisational heritage of harmonious diversity and embark on a quest for a defining and unifying ideological purity that would be distinct from the Indian character. This quest has taken Pakistan towards more and more extreme and intolerant versions of Islam.

No superficial political analysis of recent decades, however even-handed, can provide the insight that it is in fact Pakistan's civilisational self-loathing that has spawned a cancer of violence that threatens itself, its neighbours and the wider world.

US-Pakistan relations have never been so bad, and the mutual recriminations are mounting. An article doing the rounds now is Bill Keller's "The Pakistanis have a Point", in which he tries to explain the Pakistani point of view to an American audience.

It's a fairly slick narrative, but unfortunately for him in this era of the Internet, there are enough others who know their history and can spot a spin job when they see one. [The comments section of the New York Times, where the article appeared, does an effective job of debunking the whitewash attempt.]

The Pakistanis have a point? I think what the Pakistanis have is an apologist. Or stated in the passive voice, Bill Keller's been had by the Pakistanis. Either that, or he's complicit. There's a lot of history that he provides, but he gives the game away to the cognoscenti by the history that he doesn't provide. Some glaring (and convenient) omissions from the Keller narrative that would be hard for the Pakistani establishment to explain away: The Bengal genocide of 1971, the Kunduz airlift of 2001 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

Let's give him the benefit of doubt, though. Even with the presumption of honesty, his analysis fails a basic test. While his effort to provide "couples therapy" to the US-Pakistan relationship by trying to understand the other point of view is commendable, he falls victim to the very mistake that he blames US policy for.

The policy mistake that he identifies is what he calls "Pakistan the afterthought". His point is that Pakistan is by far the more important country when comparing Afghanistan and Pakistan, so Pakistan should be the focus of the US administration in the Af-Pak region. The article ends with a quote that compares a nation of 30 million people (Afghanistan) against a nation of 200 million that also has nuclear weapons (Pakistan), and rhetorically asks which would be more important to the US in the year 2020.

I have a similar question for the author. Which is more important, a nation of 200 million (180 million today) or a nation of 1.2 billion? In the entire article that purports to provide a historical perspective and a policy prescription, India is, well, just an afterthought.

I would submit that the Indian perspective matters.

It's not just that India is a large and important country and its views should be taken into account for that reason.

It's not just that it's Indians who can understand Pakistanis best (the cynical would use the words "see through").

It's not just that the Western world is coming around to understanding what India has been saying for decades, a fact that Tony Blair admitted recently.

It's that in order to understand Pakistan, one must not take the word of the Pakistanis themselves, however honest and well-intentioned they may be as individuals, because very bluntly, the Pakistanis are a people in civilisational denial.

And it's that Indians understand far better both the civilisation and the denial, and the consequent motive for everything that Pakistan does.

Fundamentally, if one wants to understand what is happening in the Af-Pak region, it is not enough to go back a few decades in the history of the various nation-states involved, even if India is included in the analysis. For this is not about nation-states but about civilisations, and how various peoples choose to define themselves. Those definitions, whether authentic or spurious, then drive the behaviour of those peoples, shape national policies, and create and destroy nations.

Let's start from the opposite end for an example. Pakistanis in their various discourses will invariably refer to India as "Hindu". That is a civilisational lens they choose to wear, and we will come to that point later. The interesting thing is that this is not how Indians would describe their country at all! Indians look at India as a secular state. And while the cynics in Pakistan might scoff, "secular" is not just a word on a piece of paper (the Indian constitution). This is something Indians accept in their bones. This is the first lesson in civilisational thinking - India is not secular because the 1950 constitution says so. The constitution says so because Indian civilisation has always been pluralistic and inclusive. Every language is spoken, every religion is followed, every conqueror is absorbed and made Indian. That is India's DNA, making it a melting pot like no other civilisation in history (except one other which I will talk about towards the end). The constitution of the Indian nation-state fits the civilisation, and therefore the modern Indian identity is authentic.

For the opposite example of where a nation-state and its underlying civilisation are at war, one need look no further than over the Himalayas to China. The communist ideology of the Chinese nation-state is often hostile to the traditions of Chinese civilisation, and the worst excesses occurred during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao's communists tried to erase all traces of Chinese civilisation and replace it with an imported Marxist ideology. The Chinese national identity is therefore ersatz.

Self-loathing is a pitiable trait, whether in individuals or in nations. And in both, there are strong indications that self-loathing can lead to cancer.

To any outsider, it would be obvious that Indians and Pakistanis are fundamentally the same people. But such a suggestion is anathema to Pakistanis. (The suggestion is abhorrent to an increasing number of Indians too, for a very different reason. Especially after the unequivocal statement that was the Mumbai attack of 2008, Indians feel no reason to nurture a sentiment of unreciprocated brotherhood.)

The fervent wish of a large segment of Pakistanis is to have their civilisation based on the Arab rather than the Indian substrate. As any advertising professional will tell you, India the nation-state already "owns" the Indian civilisation in a "positioning" sense. Not only would Pakistan feel like an also-ran if it acknowledged its identical heritage, it could also dilute the separate identity that it must sustain in order to justify its very raison d'ĂȘtre.

The justification for the creation of Pakistan was that Hindus and Muslims could never live together. This argument is called the "Two-Nation Theory" (TNT), and has proven to be as explosive as the acronym. All of Pakistan's subsequent actions, not least its treatment of minorities, have clearly supported that argument. India's argument against partition and the creation of Pakistan was that not just Hindus and Muslims, but every minority group, could live as equals in the country. This is the secularist ideal that grew out of India's historical pluralism and found expression in the modern Indian constitution. The presence of a growing and increasingly prosperous Muslim minority in India supports India's secularist argument.

Incidentally, this is the fundamental reason for the Kashmir dispute, which Pakistan claims is the core issue with India, but which is actually more symptom than cause. Pakistan believes that Kashmir belongs to it for the simple reason that parts of it are majority Muslim (Kashmir's Jammu region is majority Hindu, and its Ladakh region is majority Buddhist, so not all parts of Kashmir are covered by this argument). For a Pakistani, the Muslim-majority argument makes their country's case for Kashmir open-and-shut. The argument is often couched in terms of "self-determination for the Kashmiri people", but the fig leaf fools no one.

To an Indian immersed in the secularist ideal, this argument is not just patent nonsense, it's also dangerously sectarian and parochial. Being Muslim is no reason not to be Indian. And although a distant possibility, Kashmir could hypothetically be cited as an example by some future religion-based secessionist movement. India fears fissures in its harmonious diversity as much as Pakistan seems to fear diversity itself.

This is why I believe the Kashmir dispute can never be resolved. It is not a mere territorial dispute, but a clash of two irreconcilable ideologies. Hindus and Muslims can either live together in peace, or they cannot. The two cannot be true at the same time. Therefore, either India is right and Pakistan is wrong, or vice-versa.

It's easy to see that India can only win this argument through a demonstration of lasting peace and stability. Pakistan can only win this argument through a demonstration of strife - within secular, pluralist India. There is a compelling reason why Pakistan must support terrorism and insurgency in India, Kashmir or no Kashmir. Insecurity about their identity dictates that they prove the Two-Nation Theory correct, and if it means hell for India's Muslims, so be it.

The alternative is to admit to an identity that is essentially Indian, which implies pluralism. In other words, Pakistan would be a country that is secular like India, but which happens to have a Muslim majority just like India happens to have a Hindu majority. Clearly, this makes the Two Nation Theory look silly and calls into question the partition of undivided India. Therefore an Indian identity cannot be admitted to.

But if Pakistani civilisation cannot be Indian, what can it be?

There are two answers, both preposterous.

One is the transplantation of an Arab civilisational identity, which is patently false and easily disproved. Only those who fervently want to can believe this. If Pakistan was miraculously transplanted to the middle east and found itself surrounded by Arab countries, I suspect the Pakistanis would very quickly rediscover their South Asian identity (It would be too much to expect them to accept their Indian identity even with this shock!) So much for an Arab civilisational identity for Pakistan.

The other is the substitution of the term "Pakistan" for Muslim-ruled India in the treatment of history, as evidenced by Pakistani textbooks, taught not just in madrassas but in mainstream English-medium schools. ("Previously, India was part of Pakistan [...] By the 13th century, Pakistan had spread to include the whole of Northern India and Bengal…Under the Khiljis Pakistan moved further Southward to include a greater part of Central India and the Deccan".) This line of argument conflates a few centuries of Muslim rule in India with an Islamic identity for the civilisation as a whole, which is then called Pakistan. That which remains Hindu is called India. It is a comforting lie to the faithful, but a lie nevertheless.

India largely accepts its period of Mughal rule as part of its chequered history (with the exception of the Hindu right, who play into the hands of the Islamists by seeing this period as a national humiliation; their sense of shame from historical fact implicitly endorses the Two-Nation Theory.) The secureness of the majority of Indians in their pluralist identity manifests itself in their unqualified pride in the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. This would not be the case if they (i.e., Hindu Indians) saw it as a symbol of their past subjugation by Muslim rulers. Most Indians, regardless of religion, would unhesitatingly name the Mughal emperor Akbar as one of the greatest rulers in Indian history, alongside Hindu kings such as Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka and Harsha. Indians take pride in all of Indian history, with its various twists and turns. This richness of cultural interplay is denied to more staid monocultures. Contrast this attitude with the insecurity of Islamists like the Taliban, who felt compelled to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Cultural insecurity is a trait common to all Islamists, but in Pakistan it acquires a special flavour, because a purist Islamic identity is an essential ideological bulwark, not against an external enemy, but against the fundamental pluralism of its own original civilisation that must be denied at all costs. This pluralistic ethos must be erased if the idea of Pakistan is to be preserved. As evidence, while any nation would celebrate its Nobel laureates, Pakistan is silent about the only one it has ever produced. That is because Dr. Abdus Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Islam, and Pakistanis refuse to accept Ahmadis as Muslim. Such is their fear of difference.

The psyche that bedevils Pakistan with respect to India is a superiority/inferiority complex. It cannot be explained away by the simple "smaller country defeated by larger neighbour" syndrome. After all, India was defeated by China in 1962, and although Indians are wary of China, the predominant attitudes of India towards China are grudging respect and a desire to emulate China's progress. There seems to be no respect for India in Pakistan (whether grudging or not), no desire to emulate, only a sense of dismay.

This is the dismay arising from the sentiment that goes, "We regal Muslims ruled over these weak, cowardly Hindus for centuries, and now they're bigger, stronger and progressing faster ?!"

Forget the fact that India is not Hindu but secular. That is the lens through which Pakistan sees India, because that is the lens through which Pakistan wants to see itself. If Pakistan must be different, the difference must be between Muslim and Hindu. Secularism is confusing and perhaps even incredible.

Everything that Pakistan has done since its creation has arisen from this primal fear of India as the mirror of truth that will expose their invented identity. Bill Keller can seek the truth all he wants within Pakistan, from "the gated enclaves of Islamabad to the manicured lawns of the military garrison in Peshawar, from the luxury fortress of the Serena Hotel to the exclusive apartments of the parliamentary housing blocks", but he will not find it there.

India is where the truth lies, and India is the reason for Pakistan's perplexing and ultimately self-destructive behaviour. Cancer often springs from self-loathing. The internecine violence consuming Pakistan today can be traced back to the loathing of the image that Pakistan sees in the mirror that is India. India is everything that Pakistan could have been, but could never let itself be, because then there would be no reason for a separate existence. The truth is in this dilemma.

Ironically, the Pakistanis are right to fear India. But it is not the military might of the Indian nation-state that they need to fear, or even its growing economic muscle. The danger that Pakistan faces is the long-term threat to their national identity. In a hundred years, while the lumbering Indian civilisation will continue on like a juggernaut, Pakistani culture will have been swamped and their separate identity erased. Their people hum Bollywood songs today. Their descendants will call themselves Indian in a hundred years. Every invader since Alexander the Great has been absorbed, and this puny challenger will fare no better. That's what a civilisation can do to an ersatz nation-state. The phony sand castle built up in history textbooks cannot stand up to the relentless waves of an authentic civilisational identity that keep crashing upon it in an incessant reminder.

What can be done about Pakistan? This is not a prescription for US policy, for the US is a stranger to these civilisational battles. Indeed, the US is a newcomer in civilisational terms. They are only now building a civilisational identity for themselves that is distinct from the European one that they originated from, a new pluralistic identity that is powerful and authentic, but the exact contours of the American civilisation will only be recognisable a few centuries from now. It is simply not relevant in the South Asian region at this point in time.

For now, the Pakistanis must be encouraged, as gently as possible and as bluntly as necessary, to accept their insignificance before the Indian nation-state. That would be the first step towards realism. Pakistan is not a country that is half the size of India, or even a fourth. It is almost one-eighth the size of India by population and even smaller in economic terms. In hostility, Pakistan can pretend (at great cost) to a semblance of parity. In peace, they will be exposed for the pygmies they are. The attractions of continued hostility are therefore obvious. But this is no good for peace in the region and the wider world. That's why the illusion has to be broken.

In facing up to this bitter truth, and in accepting their long-term fate to be submerged once again within a pan-Indian civilisational identity (regardless of the contours of the nation-states that may make up South Asian geography), lies their salvation. They have nothing to lose but a fake identity, and everything to gain. But they need to take that step, if not by themselves, then from prodding by an increasingly impatient world. Long-term peace in the region can only then follow.