COVER: The great divide: Dilip Hiro's The Longest August

Published November 22, 2015
Pakistani and Indian border security personnel shake hands during the daily parade at the Wagah border. 	— Reuters
Pakistani and Indian border security personnel shake hands during the daily parade at the Wagah border. — Reuters
The Longest August

By Dilip Hiro
The Longest August By Dilip Hiro

IT is always telling when the sole supportive blurb on the cover of a book fails to actually praise, or indeed mention, the content of the book in question. Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, tells us that, “Hiro is the quintessential non-aligned journalist… [a] master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles”. Given my lack of familiarity with Dilip Hiro’s oeuvre, which includes dozens of books about the Middle East interspersed with the occasional tome on Britain and South Asia, I am not in a position to question Scahill’s assessment of Hiro’s broader body of work. However, based on a reading of The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, it would be fair to say that this particular book does little to burnish Hiro’s reputation.

The task Hiro sets out for himself is an ambitious one; starting with Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in 1915 and ending with Nawaz Sharif’s attendance at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014, The Longest August covers a century of the subcontinent’s history in its attempt to analyse and explain the enduring antagonism between India and Pakistan. The first third of the book is devoted to examining the final three decades of the Raj and the processes that gave rise to Partition, while the remainder of the book documents different chapters in Indo-Pak relations from 1947 to the present day. The book follows a straightforward chronological structure, and provides an exhaustive overview of events, often embellished with obscure anecdotes, that serve to highlight the multiple points of contention and, indeed, rapprochement that have characterised ties between the two nuclear armed neighbours.

This is all well and good, except for the fact that very little of what is said and argued in The Longest August is new or original. The conflict between India and Pakistan, the shared origins and divergent trajectories of the two countries, the effects of Cold War politics and continuing Great Power involvement in the region, and the prospects for peace in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, are all areas that have been researched and written about extensively, and the best exemplars of work in these areas illuminate and explain far more than The Longest August. The problem is compounded by how the book does not offer much in the way of analysis to begin with, reading instead like a breathless recounting of events presented without a broader framework linking them together or emphasising how different structural continuities, institutions, behavioural patterns, or other variables might be responsible for the intractable hostility between India and Pakistan.

Indeed, The Longest August could be quoted as an example of a type of historical writing that the sociologist Jack Goldstone has called ‘Seussian’ (after the rhymes and stories of children’s author Dr Seuss) in which, “it just happened that this happened first, then this, then that, and is not likely to happen that way again”. In a similar context, the economist Paul David referred to this kind of approach as being one in which, “one damn thing follows another”. Why things happened the way they did, and why they continue to happen in a particular way, are questions that The Longest August does not pursue in substantive fashion.

To be fair to Hiro, the section of the book dealing with the Indian and Pakistani independence movements is analytically stronger than what follows, with the author paying careful attention to the way in which the conflicting personalities of Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru played a fundamental role in shaping the outcome that emerged following the end of British rule in the subcontinent. The narrative that Hiro presents is one in which attempts to forge a common Hindu-Muslim platform against British imperialism were stymied by Gandhi’s religiosity and Nehru’s duplicity, both of which led to a situation in which Jinnah and the Muslim League were forced to campaign for independence and Partition on a purely communal platform. The personal animosity and distance between the three leaders plays no small part in the account presented here of the dying days of the Raj, and while Hiro does not absolve Jinnah of any responsibility for this state of affairs, the blame, such as it is, for Partition is laid squarely on the shoulders of the intransigence and shortsightedness of the Congress Party.

This is a story that might resonate with many Pakistani readers of The Longest August, given how it essentially corroborates the official nationalist history that is taught in schools across the country (albeit with a less sympathetic portrayal of Jinnah). However, as historians including Ayesha Jalal, Faisal Devji, Ian Talbot, and Venkat Dhulipala (as well as many others) have comprehensively pointed out over the years, the demand for Pakistan was more complicated than being a simple, knee-jerk reaction to alleged Hindu chauvinism on the part of the Congress Party and its leadership.

Religion did play a role in framing the League’s political demands, and in fomenting support for Partition, but it was far from the primary factor giving rise to the birth of India and Pakistan as two distinct nations; broader questions of representation, federalism, economic inequality, insecurity, and constitutionality played a significant role in the process, as did political calculation, opportunism, and unforeseeable but significant events at the local and international level. While it would be correct to claim that religion has played a disproportionate role in shaping the national narratives of Pakistan and, more recently, India, and has been fundamental to creating and sustaining the hostility between the two states, it would be stretching the truth to suggest that it was (and is) the primary bone of contention between the people of the subcontinent.

Unfortunately, the very first pages of The Longest August seem to suggest that the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims lie at the heart of South Asia’s troubles, with accounts of discrete cultural practices, segregation, and distrust stretching back centuries being used as a basis upon which to interpret and understand contemporary events. Just as the alleged Hindu nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru serves to explain the events that led to Partition, the inability of Muslims and Hindus to coexist is deployed to make sense of the conflict that erupted in Kashmir immediately after Partition, as well as the existence of animosity between India and Pakistan in the years following independence.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it contradicts yet more scholarship that has highlighted the syncretism and coexistence that characterised relations between Hindus and Muslims for over a thousand years prior to 1947. Following from this, it gives short shrift to the very real and cynical way in which communal sentiment was, and is, manipulated for political gain on both sides of the border. Indeed, if the differences between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent were so intractable and inimical that they could remain undiluted for hundreds of years, weathering tremendous economic, social, political, and military upheavals, governments in both India and Pakistan would probably have not had to expend so much time, energy, and money on demonising each other. If these identities were so fixed and uniform, and capable of binding millions of people together as a single, undifferentiated mass, it would be impossible to explain why and how ethnic identity and conflict often trump religion in both India and Pakistan. The dynamism and complexity inherent to both these societies is often obscured by narratives that focus on religion to the exclusion of all other forms of identity and politics. One way in which to address this apparent contradiction would be to focus on the divergent political outcomes in India and Pakistan, with the former being a democratic state on the road to prosperity and the latter scarred by decades of authoritarian rule and anaemic economic development. Within this framework, religious jingoism and ethnic conflict could be attributed to the machinations and mistakes of Pakistan’s military establishment, while both the fractiousness and success of India’s politics could be ascribed to its sometimes dysfunctional democracy. This is an approach that Hiro invokes indirectly, particularly when discussing Pakistan’s role in creating and fostering enmity with India after 1947; however, the analysis presented here also lacks substance.

Little explanation is offered for the different trajectories taken by the two countries, and history is again reduced to being little more than a tale that can be entirely understood by examining the interactions of individuals like Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Ziaul Haq. To the extent that larger processes and factors are made a part of the narrative, it is mostly with reference to the way in which the United States, the Soviet Union, and China played a part in shaping and fuelling the antagonism between India and Pakistan during the Cold War (and, indeed, afterwards).

While much of the material in The Longest August is already part of public record, there are numerous points at which the reader might question the veracity of the claims being made. This is par-ticularly true for the chapter that details events after 1971. For example, while Hiro presents an often gripping account of the clandestine activities of RAW and the ISI in the subcontinent, there is often little evidence to back up his assertions. The same could be said for speculation in The Longest August that Pakistan detonated a nuclear device as early as 1984. In this regard, some of the claims made in the book are more plausible than others, which is why it is doubly frustrating to find a lack of attention to providing references or evidence that would strengthen the points being made.

The Longest August concludes on a relatively pessimistic note, providing one of the few commentaries currently published on the growing rivalry between India and Pakistan in Kabul. Given the at-tention Hiro pays to Pakistan’s history of nurturing Islamist militants as proxies to be used in both Kashmir and Afghanistan, and the way in which this policy continues to shape the country’s security and foreign policy outlook even as it gives rise to domestic blowback in the form of terrorism and increasing religious extremism, the account presented in The Longest August provides real insight into the divergent approaches taken by India and Pakistan in nurturing a relationship with Afghanistan; while the latter has continued to rely on proxies and militants to manipulate the balance of power in Kabul, the former has focused more on investment and trade.

The Longest August was published too soon after the launch of Operation Zarb-i-Azb for Hiro to have anything meaningful to say about the Pakistani military’s avowed U-turn with regards to using and maintaining militant proxies, but the picture he paints of Pakistan’s security establishment is ultimately a bleak one. In the final analysis, Hiro points towards trade as a possible solution to the im-passe Pakistan and India confront; the increased prosperity brought about by cross-border trade could potentially help to bridge the distrust between the two countries. Again, however, the exact mechanics of how this might happen is ignored.

Ultimately, this is a frustrating book. That it inevitably falls short of its ambitions should not be surprising given that it seeks to distil over a century of animosity and rivalry into just over 400 pages. Its problems are compounded by its lack of fresh ideas, its regurgitation of well-known facts, its rehashing of established nationalist tropes, its exclusion of deeper explanations, and its distracting tangents into the realm of speculation. Hiro writes with skill, and The Longest August is an accessible read, but its failings make it difficult to recommend this as anything more than yet another generic account of the Indo-Pak relationship.

The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan


By Dilip Hiro

Nation Books, US

ISBN 978-1568585154




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