Kapil Komireddi has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Longest August
The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan

By Dilip Hiro

Nation. 503 pp. $35

‘Every instinct will persuade you that there should not be a Pakistan,” the Los Angeles Times declared in 1943. The paper’s hostility had American roots. As it went on to explain, “Only an old-school Southerner who thinks Appomattox was a shocking bad show could go for Pakistan.” The idea of Pakistan emerged from the anxieties and prejudices of a decaying class of India’s Muslim elites, who claimed that Islam’s purity would be contaminated in a pluralistic society. If Muslims remained a minority in India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, warned in 1940, they would be responsible for the “complete destruction of what is most precious in Islam.”

Jinnah had once been a proponent of interfaith collaboration in India’s struggle against British colonial rule. But when his own political ascent was stymied by the unexpected entry of Mohandas Gandhi on the nationalist stage, Jinnah reinvented himself as the savior of India’s Muslims. Insisting that Muslims and Hindus were two immiscible “nations” inhabiting one land, he demanded the amputation of India along religious lines. The British, exhausted by war and eager to exit, reluctantly surrendered.

"The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan" by Dilip Hiro. (Nation)

In August 1947, Punjab and Bengal were hastily hacked from the subcontinent’s western and eastern flanks to house Jinnah’s geopolitical invention. The immediate consequence, as Dilip Hiro writes in one of the most affecting chapters of “The Longest August,” his chronicle of the rivalry between India and Pakistan, was a “communal holocaust.” More than half a million people were killed as Indians, abruptly uprooted in the name of faith, erupted with irrepressible fury. Millions of Muslims fled to Pakistan; non-Muslims escaped to India. Trainloads of corpses traveled in both directions. It was the largest human exodus in history.

But mutilating India proved easier than building Pakistan. Jinnah had incited partition on the premise that Muslims and Hindus could not coexist in one nation. But millions of Muslims remained in India, whose success in fashioning a nationality out of its staggering diversity immediately debunked Jinnah’s argument. For Pakistan’s creation to be vindicated, India should have become, as Jinnah said it would, a cesspit of “Hindu Raj.” Instead, just three years after partition, India gave itself a secular constitution.

Pakistan, on the other hand, became captive to the sectarian hysteria in which it was forged. It could not relegate religion to the private sphere without belittling the sacrifice of those who had been wrenched from their homes in the name of Islam. Nor could it embrace secularism without dissolving the bond of faith that constituted its two territorial wings, separated by a thousand miles of India, into one nation. So when Jinnah died, just over a year after partition, his paranoid heirs, petrified that they might be subsumed into India, placed Pakistan on an intensive program of Islamization. A whole new past, depicting Pakistan as the worldly manifestation of Islam, was fabricated. Schoolbooks were crammed with fables about the supremacy of Muslims and the treachery of Hindus. Major public projects were given the names of the great Islamic invaders who had ravaged medieval India.

The principal victims of Pakistan’s perversions of history were its own citizens. Having embraced Pakistan in the belief that no Muslim would be harmed there for being Muslim, they quickly found themselves persecuted by state-fostered zealots for not being Muslim enough. Rather than democracy, they got military dictators who sanctified their subjugation of the country by claiming to protect it from “Hindu India.”

By the end of the 1960s, Pakistan had witnessed one major political assassination, two constitutions, two wars, seven prime ministers, one military coup and two martial-law administrators. The one political phenomenon it had not experienced in its nearly quarter-century of existence was a general election. When the first free vote produced a majority for the Bengalis situated in the country’s eastern wing, the military, instead of honoring the winners, staged a genocidal intervention in which 3 million people were slaughtered, 10 million displaced and a half a million women coerced into sexual slavery. Created expressly to safeguard Muslims, Pakistan itself split in 1971 after perpetrating some of the worst atrocities ever committed against a predominantly Muslim population. But in the western rump that continued to call itself Pakistan, even after a majority of Pakistanis had seceded to form Bangladesh, blame for the eastern wing’s defection was ascribed to an “Indo-Zionist plot against Islamic Pakistan.”

The birth of Bangladesh made the acquisition of Kashmir — a Muslim-majority state that joined India in 1947 when Jinnah attempted to annex it through force — indispensable to salvaging Pakistan’s shattered self-conception as the home of the subcontinent’s Muslims. But the agents of terror whom Pakistan mobilized for this purpose, unable to cripple India, eventually turned their gaze homeward. Today, Pakistan’s ability to confront them is severely constrained by the fact that powerful figures within its own military and intelligence services — and substantial numbers of its soldiers — are sympathetic to the objectives of the jihadis. It is this fracture at the highest and lowest levels of the country’s security establishment that accounts for the sanctuary extended, despite an avowed alliance with America, to Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town before his detection and execution by the United States in 2011. Enmity with India is the only bugbear that can still unite a fatally riven nuclear state: It is simultaneously the source of Pakistan’s self-strangulation and the cause of its survival.

Hiro, one of the sharpest observers of the Middle East, barely scratches the surface of this complex story. Although the title of his book implies a rivalry ordained by the original sin of partition, his narrative is oddly disjointed. He strives to portray a symmetrical animosity — but, in the absence of compelling evidence of Indian designs against Pakistan, resorts to amplifying the Pakistani military’s unsubstantiated allegations. His suggestion of an “Indo-Israeli plot” against Islamabad corresponds more with the fantasies of Pakistan’s generals than with reality. His reliance in the chapters on partition on the work of Jaswant Singh, a Hindu nationalist and apologist for Jinnah’s segregationist politics, and his approving citations of Neville Maxwell, an Australian journalist notorious for what the Guardian once described as his “thundering misjudgements in foreign affairs,” only undermine his argument.

Yet for all its shortcomings, the book supplies enough detail to leave the reader in no doubt about the upshot of India’s partition: a nuclear-armed quasi-theocracy imploding under the weight of its own radicalism. This should inspire dread in the most stolid of hearts — not only in India but across the world.