x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

South Asian countries are still defining their identities

On the anniversary of India and Pakistan's independence, Tom Hussain looks back on the progress of countries that are home to one in five of the world's population.

 Pakistani troops march during a ceremony marking Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi on Thursday. Rehan Khan / EPA
 Pakistani troops march during a ceremony marking Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi on Thursday. Rehan Khan / EPA

August 14 and 15 are dates unique in modern history in that they represent the 67th anniversary of independence from colonial rule of three of the world’s most populous nations: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the latter initially being part of Pakistan until it split away in 1971.

Between them, they account for roughly 20 per cent of humanity.Because of that, and their participation in Asia’s increasingly competitive strategic environment, they will invariably have a great bearing on world affairs as the 21st century progresses.

The nature of that impact, however, remains unclear, because all three countries continue to struggle to define their respective national identities and, therefore, cannot state with any certainty what they do or don’t represent.

By far the most powerful of three countries, India, is torn between two conflicting schools of thought: the politics of non-violent resistance championed by the Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi, who won the country’s independence from British colonial rule, and the resentment-driven Hindutva ­ideology of its incumbent hard-line ­nationalist government.

Pakistan, too, is still unsure what it stands for. Unlike India, its creation was a consequence of politics of persuasion, rather than resistance, championed by its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a staunch believer in secular constitutional government. That was subsequently trashed by military dictators, whose denial of political rights and promotion of violent pseudo-religious proxies caused Pakistan’s eastern wing to break away, becoming Bangladesh, and turned the country into a breeding ground for terrorism.

Bangladesh has struggled to find its feet because its independence was forged in violence. The leaders of its secessionist movement, founding politician Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the leader of the armed resistance, Ziaur Rahman, his successor, were both assassinated as a consequence of the vendetta between those who rebelled against Pakistan and those who did not participate in the secessionist movement. That vendetta dominates the country’s political agenda to this day.

The obvious commonality is the corruption of the vision of the men who sought and attained independence of India and Pakistan from colonial rule. Indeed, it could well be argued that the politics of each country has subsequently been hijacked by the domestic ­opponents of their respective struggles.

That’s certainly been the case with Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah. He was opposed by obscurantist cleric-politicians who, since the 1948 death of the “Quaid-e-Azam”, or great leader, have connived with military juntas to promote intolerance as a means of repressing democratic rights at home and pursuing expansionist agendas in neighbouring states.

Only now, after more than a decade of terrorist violence that has killed at least 50,000 people and bankrupted the country, have Pakistan’s competing power lobbies come to realise that such extremism has brought the country to the verge of collapse and still threatens to dismember the country altogether. Thus a national consensus is now emerging on the absolute necessity of adhering to the model of constitutional governance promoted by Jinnah.

India needs only to look at Pakistan’s history of blunders to understand the potentially disastrous consequences of abandoning the visions of its founders.Proponents of Hindutva are seeking to define modern India in terms of righting the wrongs done to Hindus by foreign, non-Hindu occupiers dating back almost 1,000 years.For some of them, that agenda includes the blood-curdling objective of reconverting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. In that sense, it sounds awfully alike the systematic repression of Pakistani democrats during the 1977-1988 rule of Gen Mohammed Zia ul Haq, who used obscurantist interpretations of ­Islam to justify the theft of basic human rights. It’s also reminiscent of the vendetta politics that has so greatly damaged Bangladesh since it gained independence from Pakistan.

If anything, it comes across as a counter-thesis of Gandhi’s attainment of democratic governance for all Indians, irrespective of caste and creed, and his acceptance of the same rights for those who chose to become citizens of Pakistan – which led to his assassination by a Hindutva proponent.

If India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are ever to attain their potential, they have to come to terms with their common history, particularly its ugly side. Prior to the subcontinent’s occupation by the British and its subsequent partition upon independence in 1947, it had never been unified by domestic forces. Thus the region was easy prey for every foreign power with the wherewithal to invade – a veritable queue dating all the way back to Alexander the Great.

That historical fact is underlined by the inability of India’s pre-partition rulers to assert their power by mounting any sustainable invasions of their own. The systematic division of its society along lines of caste and creed, and the endemic corruption that invariably resulted, simply made that impossible.

Thus the building of South Asia’s nations lies not in seeking to reinvent the past, but in learning from it. Seeing as, despite 67 years of independence, at least half of those people remain abjectly impoverished, it’s obvious that their respective governments have failed to do their job. The future of all three countries will depend on their ability, or otherwise, to define current-day and future goals by increasing the stake of each of their 1.5 billion citizens through engagement and participation in a shared identity and common rights.

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist and political analyst based in Islamabad