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NON-FICTION: ODDS TOWARDS ENDS

February 17, 2019

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The relationship between Pakistan and India has seen many ups and downs — probably more downs than it should have. Several books have been written to explore the intricacies of this sensitive relationship as both sides try to present arguments from their own perspective in an effort to legitimise their policies and actions. India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds is one such endeavour undertaken by Avtar Singh Bhasin, a researcher and former Indian diplomat.

Before writing this book, Bhasin had compiled a 10-volume magnum opus titled India-Pakistan Relations 1947-2007: A Documentary Study comprising original political and diplomatic documents from the archives of the government of India pertaining to Pakistan-India relations. In a way, his new book is a distilled form of the earlier, encyclopaedic work.

India and Pakistan: Neighbours at Odds consists of 34 chapters dedicated to important events in the region’s history in chronological order. The book starts from the woes of Partition and continues up to the mistrust each country holds for the other even today. Looking back over centuries of recorded history of the Indian subcontinent, Bhasin rightly points out that “at no time in the medieval history of India was there a single ruler ruling the entire country from [the] east to the west and north to south. There were many rulers.” Thus, he gives credence to the claim that the Indo-Pak subcontinent has not been a political unity for a long period of time.

A good source for understanding the Indian perspective and narrative on important Indo-Pak issues, a research book falls short in its analysis

Starting proper from the fateful years of the post-Partition era, Bhasin admits that “certain actions of the Indian leaders at the very start of the journey, even if they were rational from the Indian standpoint, such as withholding Pakistan’s share of Sterling balances, the stoppage of canal waters, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir, did not add to building trust between the two countries, and Pakistan cried foul.” However, he is not able to explain how these actions were rational from the Indian standpoint. The same has been admitted by another former Indian diplomat, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, in his book War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, that “the Indian control over the irrigation headworks in Mangla could lead to the ruin of Pakistan’s agricultural economy.”

Bhasin presents the case of the generations of mistrust in a way that implies that the British favoured the Muslim League over Congress during the last days of their Raj, and favoured Pakistan over India during the early days of its independence. However, recent scholarship discredits the author’s claims. In a story published by the BBC in August 2007 titled ‘Partitioning India Over Lunch’, it was revealed that the memoirs of Christopher Beaumont, who was secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission, had been discovered by his son. Beaumont wrote in his memoirs that “the viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame — though not the sole blame — for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million men, women and children perished.” Beaumont categorically stated that Mountbatten favoured the Indian side in the matter of the Radcliffe Boundary Award. This effectively negates Bhasin’s implications that the British favoured Pakistan over India.

When the locals of Kashmir revolted against Indian occupation forces in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the words of Bhasin, “unable to opt for the military option, went to the UN considering it the better option. It was a panic decision.” However, the author feels that the platform of the United Nations — that had been created for the peaceful resolution of international disputes — was not the right platform for the Kashmir dispute to be taken to by India’s then prime minister. With hindsight, he believes that Nehru should have opted for the military solution instead.

When the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions in 1948 that asked India to let the people of Kashmir exercise their democratic right of self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite held under the auspices of the UN itself, Bhasin writes that “India had the option of rejecting the resolution since it had gone beyond its reference.” Here, any student of international law can underscore the fact that the UN Security Council has been authorised by the UN Charter to ensure peace and security in the world and its resolutions cannot be rejected by any state on the flimsy ground of “having gone beyond” the reference submitted by that state.

Nehru reneged on his promise to hold a free and fair plebiscite in Kashmir on the flimsy grounds that ground realities had changed after Pakistan made military pacts with the United States during the mid-1950s. Bhasin does not clarify how the signing of these military pacts by Pakistan could disbar the Kashmiri people from exercising their democratic right of self-determination.

Commenting on the nuclearisation of South Asia, Bhasin admits that after a nuclear test was conducted by India in 1974 (Pokhran I), Pakistan proposed in a statement issued in 1980 to declare South Asia a nuclear weapon-free zone. However, Bhasin states that “India was keen on a universal nuclear disarmament, something which was beyond the realm of possibility.” And when India again conducted a nuclear test in 1998 (Pokhran II), forcing Pakistan to conduct a nuclear test as well, Bhasin comments on the nuclearisation of South Asia by writing “both Vajpayee and then Nawaz Sharif did the most unexpected” without putting the blame where it primarily belongs — the side that introduced the nuclear arms race in South Asia.

Reading and understanding the history of Pakistan-India relations has never been more important. The geostrategic situation of the region demands that both the neighbours at odds with each other need to bridge the trust deficit somehow and find some way to move forward. While this book is a good source for understanding the Indian perspective and narrative on important issues, and it is rich in quoting primary source material, it falls somewhat short in the logical analysis of those references. Still, it can prove a good read for students of history and policymakers.

The reviewer is a civil servant and freelance writer

India and Pakistan:
Neighbours at Odds
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9386826206
538pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 17th, 2019