Jokes apart

27 Oct


I HAD meant it as a joke, but India took it seriously. I had written the other day to some Indian friends to wish them on the festival of Dussehra (Rama’s victory over his demon opponent Ravana), commenting flippantly that there would be no marks for guessing who would be Ravana this year.

Whoever in India monitors circumcised carrier pigeons and wingless emails must have intercepted my message, for sure enough a few days ago, in Amritsar’s main Ranjit Avenue, in addition to the traditional effigy of a multi-headed Ravana, was an even larger figure draped in the Pakistani flag with an image of Nawaz Sharif pasted on its head. The actors portraying Rama and Lakshmana were shown aiming their gilded arrows at them.

Mr Modi commemorated his Dussehra/Vijayadhashmi in Goa. There, at the BRICS summit, he took pot shots at an unnamed but identifiable demon, ‘the mother-ship of terrorism’. None of the leaders present needed help to translate that phrase. Modi meant clearly what he did not say. In his lexicon, Pakistan is synonymous with terrorism, just as to him India is a sobriquet for Hinduism.

India’s repeated discomfiture is not always of Pakistan’s making.Such juxtapositions can be slippery. In the 1970s, loyalists once proclaimed that ‘Indira is India; India is Indira’. Her supporters went a step further, venerating her as the multi-armed goddess Durga. Mr Modi, a devout Hindu, knows his Devi Mahatmya, both chapter and verse. He is familiar with Chapter 2, verses 10-33, of the moment when the deities endow the emergent Devi with a distinctive personal weapon with which to combat the buffalo-demon Mahish-asura. Perhaps this precedent tempted Mr Modi to use the BRICS meeting to extract anti-Pakistan endorsements from Russia and China, which he could then use as ammunition against his foe, equally their neighbour.

Surely someone in the MEA must have cautioned him that 1.4 billion Chinese, 207 million Brazilians, 146m Russians, and 55m South Africans may not share his monocular obsession with Pakistan. Apparently no one dared, just as no one advised him on the open-ended provisions (unless all parties agree otherwise) of the Indus Waters Treaty or the sham of the scalpel-less ‘surgical strikes’. Should Mr Nawaz Sharif unpack the turban he received from Mr Modi in Lahore less than a year ago, he might find it has darkened from an optimistic pink to an embarrassed, angry red.

India may well have more than a billion grievances against Pakistan, but India’s repeated discomfiture is not always of Pakistan’s making. Pakistan was not to blame at the 1955 NAM conference in Bandung when Premier Zhou Enlai refused to kowtow to Pandit Nehru’s lofty condescension. The Sino-Indian spat in 1962 was between them; Pakistan abstained by not siding with either party. India’s inability to consummate its shot-gun marriage with Jammu & Kashmir (even after 69 years of arm-twisting coercion) cannot be blamed squarely on Pakistan. Sage, wiser minds understand the truth in W.R. Inge’s maxim: “A man may build a throne of bayonets, but he cannot sit on it.”

In today’s fetid atmosphere, peace between India and Pakistan may appear to be beyond reach, but it is not impossible. The first two clauses of the Shimla Agreement of 1972 provide a crutch: “(i) That the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations shall govern the relations between the two countries. (ii) That the two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them.”

Another is the Lahore Declaration of 1999, which, after reiterating the determination of both countries to implementing the Shimla Agreement in letter and spirit, undertook to “intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kash­mir”. Every rational, educated moderate human being — whichever side of the border happens to be his home — yearns for peace in the region, and none more so than the beleaguered, pellet-pocked Kashmiris.

However, the inescapable realities though are that India cannot isolate Pakistan internationally. Pakistan is too large a country to be hidden under the smock of hegemony. India cannot integrate Pakistan. Mrs Gandhi threw the concept of Akhand Bharat out of the window in December 1971 when she created Bangladesh. Forty-five years on, the last thing Mr Modi needs is 200m more Muslims with a memory of two generations of freedom. India cannot annihilate Pakistan. Puranic demons were destroyed by multi-armed devis, not through Security Council resolutions or BRICS communiqués.

Every true friend of India of whichever nationality or religious persuasion hopes that, before the next Dussehra in September 2017, better sense will prevail between our “two peoples fanatically at odds,/With their different diets and incompatible gods”. These lines from W.H. Auden’s poignant poem Partition remind us of Radcliffe’s inhuman joke that history took seriously.

The writer is an art historian.


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