Mired in immaturity

21 ဧပြီလ 2007
Indian National Congress MP Rahul Gandhi has seemingly set the cat among the pigeons by boastfully claiming that “I belong to [a] family which has… never gone back on its words… [When] my family decides to do anything, it does it—be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan, or taking India to the 21st century.” This remark about his grandmother Indira Gandhi having been single-handedly responsible for the “achievement” of breaking up Pakistan in 1971 has triggered a vigorous debate in India, Pakistan, and to a certain extent, Bangladesh. Its reverberations certainly go well beyond Uttar Pradesh, in the context of whose legislature elections, currently under way, Gandhi’s claim was made. One crucial assumption underlying the debate is mistaken. But the issue nevertheless offers a good opportunity to reflect critically on what precipitated the fateful events that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The assumption is that Rahul Gandhi is a mature, astute, although not very experienced, political leader whose views reflect those of his party, or the coalition government it currently leads, and more generally, of the Indian Establishment. None of this is true. Gandhi is a political greenhorn, whose public pronouncements were until recently confined to subjects like education and youth aspirations. It’s only when he made his debut in serious election campaigning a few weeks ago outside his own constituency that he addressed a wider agenda, such as contrasting “development” to “caste” while saying “I’m a Hindustani and for me every Indian is a Hindustani. Development, not caste, is my concern.” This betrays extraordinary naiveté. In UP, caste no longer only connotes hierarchy based on ritual purity. It has become an instrument of self-assertion of various subaltern, underprivileged and disadvantaged social groups too. Gandhi unconvincingly claims that had the Nehru-Gandhi family been in power in 1992, the Babri mosque wouldn’t have been razed. But this sits ill with his grandmother’s and father’s record since the early 1980s—of making compromises with communalists of different hues, and the Congress’s infamous “soft-Hindutva” line, which led to the opening of the gates of the Babri mosque complex. The same hubris is evident in Gandhi’s remark about Pakistan’s break-up. No responsible Indian leader has made such a claim about an individual’s or family’s single-handed role in the events of 1971. Nor has Indian foreign policy been based on it. Or else, the Shimla agreement wouldn’t have been possible, nor the peace process of the past three years. The sole plausible basis for taking Rahul Gandhi seriously seems to be that he’s Sonia Gandhi’s son and heir-apparent! But that irrationally assumes that he speaks for her. So it’s truly astounding that a bitter debate has broken out not just in India, but in Pakistan too, over Gandhi’s remarks. The Indian debate can be explained by the robust political contestation under way in UP, with the Congress exaggerating its achievements, and its opponents trashing them. A typical but laughable reaction comes from BJP vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu, who said his party won’t object to Gandhi’s claim about 1971 “if he, his family and his party accept responsibility for the tragic partition of [1947] as well”! However, one must take more serious note when Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam says Gandhi’s remark “validates” the truth that “India has always been trying to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs and to destabilise Pakistan.” Aslam later offered a milder version: “Maybe there were some circumstances. India took advantage of those circumstances to dismember Pakistan. And … the scion of the Nehru family has … accepted the real Indian motive for the intervention.” Following Aslam’s remarks, Pakistani ministers and other political leaders too have commented on the issue. Pakistan Muslim League secretary-general Mushahid Hussain Sayed says Gandhi’s remarks show that “the Indian strategy was clear from day one, namely, to partition its neighbour through sponsorship of state terrorism.” The extremist Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen has urged Pakistan to stop the confidence-building process with India: “Rahul Gandhi is an important member of the Nehru family and one of the think-tanks of the Indian government. His statement clearly reflects the thinking of the Indian government.” These commentators must know better—certainly Mushahid Hussain should. Great historical events like the birth of Bangladesh are products of complex, multi-dimensional processes, not individual wills alone. Pakistan wouldn’t have broken up in the absence of the failure of the West Pakistan elite to accommodate the aspirations of the East Bengali people, with genuine respect for linguistic and cultural autonomy. The Pakistan army’s genocidal operations, unleashed after the Bengali people’s representatives won a democratic election, further aggravated matters. India basically played midwife to Bangladesh’s birth. The history of inequality between West and East Pakistan and of the West’s discrimination against the East is well known. The West’s rulers allowed resentment rooted in such gross disparities to grow to explosive proportions. Their ruthless military operations created the rupture point. India’s role was secondary or supplementary, not central. What rankled the East Pakistanis most is the savage repression unleashed by the Pakistan army, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and rapes. The army’s criminal conduct under an irresponsible leadership was documented and criticised by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, appointed by the Pakistan government, whose report is now declassified. It just won’t do for Pakistanis to blame India or Indian-sponsored groups as the prime cause of their country’s break-up. Nor should any sensible observer play down the importance of language and culture, which eventually trumped religion as a unifying factor of national identity in Bangladesh. It would be dangerous for any of us in South Asia to pretend that we have already resolved the problems of our ethnic-religious minorities’ rights, or created a reasonably accommodative, plural culture based on equity and justice for all. Indeed, as the resurgence of Baloch and Pathan nationalist self-assertion shows, and as persistent problems in Indian Kashmir and the Northeast—or for that matter, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh—show, we are nowhere resolving these thorny issues. Pakistan must not be in denial of its war of aggression of near-genocidal proportions on Bangladesh. The two peoples and states must seek closer, more equal, and mutually respectful relations with each other. Equally, Indians must admit that their government did not act selflessly during the Bangladesh crisis. True, it did not trigger or aggravate it. It had a quasi-defensive and uncertain attitude to it until the East Bengal refugees’ number swelled to 10 million and the prospect of civil war loomed large. But thereafter, it tried to influence events through the Mukti Bahini and by manipulating other key players. As analytical journalist Lawrence Liftschultz has argued, an alternative approach on India’s part could have resulted in less destruction and in greater mutual trust between the concerned peoples and governments. But it is hard to argue that the Indian Establishment, government or military wanted or plotted to break up Pakistan. It’s only later, in the 1990s, that such thinking gained ground in India. Yet, India’s conduct towards its neighbours has been heavy-handed and arrogant. India even annexed Sikkim. All of us Indians would do well to reflect on the yawning gap between their government’s professions and conduct.