Of all the hopes raised by Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister of India one year ago, perhaps the grandest was ending the toxic, decades-long rivalry with Pakistan. Inviting his counterpart Nawaz Sharif to the swearing-in — remarkably, a first since their nations were born out of the British Raj in 1947 — was a bold and welcome gesture. Yet within months of Modi’s inauguration, Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged some of the most intense shelling in years along their de facto border in Kashmir. Incipient peace talks foundered. And in April, a Pakistani court freed on bail Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, operational commander of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT) and the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, infuriating many in India.
Most Indians believe Pakistan’s generals have little interest in peace, and they’re not entirely wrong. For decades now, hyping the threat from across the border has won the army disproportionate resources and influence in Pakistan. It’s also fueled the military’s most dangerous and destabilizing policies — from its covert support of the Taliban and anti-India militants such as LT, to the rapid buildup of its nuclear arsenal. One can understand why Modi might see no point in engaging until presented with a less intractable interlocutor across the border.
But however exaggerated Pakistan’s fears may be now, Indian leaders bear great responsibility for creating them in the first place. Their resistance to the very idea of Pakistan made the 1947 partition of the subcontinent far bitterer than it needed to be. Within hours of independence, huge sectarian massacres had broken out on both sides of the border; anywhere from 200,000 to a million people would ultimately lose their lives in the slaughter. Pakistan reeled under a tidal wave of refugees, its economy and its government paralyzed and half-formed. Out of that crucible emerged a not-unreasonable conviction that larger, more powerful India hoped to strangle the infant Pakistan in its cradle — an anxiety that Pakistan, as the perpetually weaker party, has never entirely been able to shake.
Then as now, Indian leaders swore that they sought only brotherhood and amity between their two nations, and that Muslims in both should live free of fear. They responded to charges of warmongering by invoking their fealty to Mohandas K. Gandhi — the “saint of truth and nonviolence,” in the words of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, Nehru, and Gandhi himself — the sainted “Mahatma,” or “great soul” — helped breed the fears that still haunt Pakistan today.
There’s little question, for instance, that Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to Muslim alienation and the desire for an independent homeland. He introduced religion into a freedom movement that had until then been the province of secular lawyers and intellectuals, couching his appeals to India’s masses in largely Hindu terms. (“His Hindu nationalism spoils everything,” Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote of Gandhi’s early years as a rabble-rouser.) Even as Gandhi’s Indian National Congress party claimed to speak for all citizens, its membership remained more than 90 percent Hindu.
Muslims, who formed a little under a quarter of the 400 million citizens of pre-independence India, could judge from Congress’s electoral victories in the 1930s what life would look like if the party took over from the British: Hindus would control Parliament and the bureaucracy, the courts and the schools; they’d favor their co-religionists with jobs, contracts, and political favors. The louder Gandhi and Nehru derided the idea of creating a separate state for Muslims, the more necessary one seemed.
Ironically, Gandhi may have done the most damage at what is normally considered his moment of triumph — the waning months of British rule. When the first pre-Partition riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out in Calcutta in August 1946, exactly one year before independence, he endorsed the idea that thugs loyal to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, the country’s dominant Muslim party, had deliberately provoked the killings. The truth is hardly so clear-cut: It appears more likely that both sides geared up for violence during scheduled pro-Pakistan demonstrations, and initial clashes quickly spiraled out of control.
Two months later, after lurid reports emerged of a massacre of Hindus in the remote district of Noakhali in far eastern Bengal, Gandhi fueled Hindu hysteria rather than tamping it down. Nearing 80 by then, his political ideas outdated and his instincts dulled by years of adulation, he remained the most influential figure in the country. His evening prayer addresses were quoted and heeded widely. While some Congress figures presented over-hyped casualty counts for the massacre — party chief J.B. Kripalani estimated a death toll in the millions, though the final tally ended up less than 200 — Gandhi focused on wildly exaggerated claims that marauders had raped tens of thousands of Hindu women. Controversially, he advised the latter to “suffocate themselves or … bite their tongues to end their lives” rather than allow themselves to be raped.
Within weeks, local Congress politicians in the nearby state of Bihar were leading ugly rallies calling for Hindus to avenge the women of Noakhali. According to New York Times reporter George Jones, in their foaming outrage “it became rather difficult to differentiate” between the vicious sectarianism of Congress and radical Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose cadres had begun drilling with weapons to prevent the Partition of India. Huge mobs formed in Bihar — where Hindus outnumbered Muslims 7 to 1 — and spread across the monsoon-soaked countryside. In a fortnight of killing, they slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslims. The pogroms virtually eliminated any hope of compromise between Congress and the League.
Equally troubling was the moral cover the Mahatma granted his longtime followers Nehru and “Sardar” Vallabhbhai Patel — a Gujarati strongman much admired by Modi, who also hails from Gujarat and who served as the state’s chief minister for over a decade. Echoing Gandhi’s injunction against pushing anyone into Pakistan against their wishes, Nehru and Patel insisted that the huge provinces of Punjab and Bengal be split into Muslim and non-Muslim halves, with the latter areas remaining with India.
Jinnah rightly argued that such a division would cause chaos. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were inextricably mixed in the Punjab, with the latter in particular spread across both sides of the proposed border. Sikh leaders vowed not to allow their community to be split in half. They helped set off the chain of Partition riots in August 1947 by targeting and trying to drive out Muslims from India’s half of the province, in part to make room for their Sikh brethren relocating from the other side.
Jinnah also correctly predicted that a too-weak Pakistan, stripped of the great port and industrial center of Calcutta, would be deeply insecure. Fixated on building up its own military capabilities and undermining India’s, it would be a source of endless instability in the region. Yet Nehru and Patel wanted it to be even weaker. They contested every last phone and fighter jet in the division of colonial assets and gloated that Jinnah’s rump state would soon beg to reunite with India.
Worse, Congress leaders threatened to derail the handover if they weren’t given power almost immediately. The pressure explains why Britain’s last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, rushed forward the date of the British withdrawal by 10 months, leaving Pakistan little more than 10 weeks to get established. (Excoriated ever since, the British seemed vaguely to believe they might keep governing Pakistan until the state had gotten on its feet.) Nehru and Patel cared little for Jinnah’s difficulties. “No one asked Pakistan to secede,” Patel growled when pressed by Mountbatten to show more flexibility.
Yes, once the Partition riots broke out, Gandhi and Nehru strove valiantly to rein in the killings, physically risking their own lives to chastise angry mobs of Hindus and Sikhs. Yet to many Pakistanis, these individual efforts counted for little. Gandhi and Nehru couldn’t stop underlings from sabotaging consignments of weapons and military stores being transferred to Pakistan. They didn’t prevent Patel from shipping out trainloads of Muslims from Delhi and elsewhere, which raised fears that India meant to overwhelm its neighbor with refugees. They didn’t silence Kripalani and other Congress leaders, who warned Hindus living in Pakistan to emigrate and thus drained Jinnah’s new nation of many of its clerks, bankers, doctors and traders.
Nor did the Indian leaders show much compunction about using force when it suited them. After Pakistan accepted the accession of Junagadh, a tiny kingdom on the Arabian Sea with a Muslim ruler but almost entirely Hindu population, Congress tried to spark a revolt within the territory — led by Samaldas Gandhi, a nephew of the Mahatma’s; eventually, Indian tanks decided the issue. When Pakistan attempted in October 1947 to launch a parallel uprising in Kashmir — a much bigger, richer state with a Hindu king and Muslim-majority population — Indian troops again swooped in to seize control.
The pacifist Gandhi, who had earlier tried to persuade Kashmir’s maharajah to accede to India, heartily approved of the lightning intervention: “Any encroachment on our land should … be defended by violence, if not by nonviolence,” he told Patel. After Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948, Nehru continued to cite the Mahatma’s blessings to reject any suggestion of backing down in Kashmir.
Gandhi’s motivations may have been pure. Yet he and his political heirs never fully appreciated how the massive power imbalance between India and Pakistan lent a darker hue to their actions. To this day, Indian leaders appear more concerned with staking out the moral high ground on Kashmir and responding to every provocation along the border than with addressing Pakistan’s quite-valid strategic insecurities.
This serves no one except radicals on both sides. With rabid 24-hour satellite channels seizing upon every cross-border attack or perceived diplomatic affront, jingoism is on the rise. Indian strategists talk loosely of striking across the border in the event of another Mumbai-style terrorist attack; Pakistani officials speak with disturbing ease of responding with tactical nuclear weapons. From their safe havens in Pakistan meanwhile, the Taliban have launched one of the bloodiest spring offensives in years in Afghanistan, even as U.S. forces prepare to draw down there. If he truly hopes to break the deadlock on the subcontinent, Modi needs to do something even Gandhi could not: give Pakistan, a nation born out of paranoia about Hindu dominance, less to fear.
Photo credit: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images