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18 August, 2017 00:00 00 AM
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Pakistan and India at 70

While the two neighbouring nations share much in common, rivalry has grown more resistant to reconciliation efforts in the decades since independence
Rashmee Roshan Lall
Pakistan and India at 70

India and Pakistan ran into the 70th birthday blues this week, which is to say a milestone that has none of the excitement or life-changing portentous of a 21st, 50th, 75th or a 100th anniversary. In fact, for a 70th birthday to be significant at all, it should have been achieved in the Mark Twain way, “by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else”.

This, both India and Pakistan have done, in fits and starts.

In the early years of its life as a brand new country, Pakistan, more than India, could be said to have lived perilously. It had periods of martial law, hanged its first democratically elected prime minister and lost a part of its territory to the Bangladeshi war of liberation. Until Benzair Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, completed five years as president in 2013, Pakistan never had an elected head of state who served a full term.

As for India, despite one short-lived suspension of the democratic process in the 1970s, the most testing phase of its life as an independent country arguably began in its middle-age. The secular foundations of the Indian state were challenged by the 1992 razing of the medieval Babri Mosque. When riots and communal violence broke out nationwide, it briefly seemed that India would try and complete a constitutional religious affirmation parallel to that of Pakistan.

But it did not. Instead, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party continued to chip away at the secular conventions of Indian democratic statehood. Past the dizzying euphoria of youthful hopes and high expectations, India has grimly gone through its 50th and 60th decades defiantly projecting majoritarianism in thought and deed, but with secularism as the official creed. Its current churning is seen to stem from a hard, unapologetic quest for Hindu cultural dominance and it remains unclear if the culture war will allow the original idea of India to survive.

By that token, 70 could be described as a profoundly significant birthday for both countries. Pakistan appears stable even though it is fighting a dangerous militancy and just managed yet another contortion of democratic process by legally removing an elected prime minister from office. And India continues to extol its vibrant democracy despite the lurch in a direction predicted by Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. An undivided independent India, Jinnah believed, would be a Hindu country, with Muslims as second-class citizens. That hasn't been concretised so far.

But these are not the only metrics that define India and Pakistan at 70. In their first 50 years, they took very different economic paths – India headed down the managed socialist route, while Pakistan did not – and it was anyone’s guess if Delhi or Islamabad would be more successful. The Indian economy is now nearly eight times that of Pakistan. Yet both remain very populous and intensely poor countries. GDP per head is at around 10 per cent of US levels in both India and Pakistan. And the population of both has ballooned since independence - India is three-and-a-half times larger, Pakistan more than five times. Life expectancy has risen in both countries, from 32 years at independence to at least twice as much. Literacy levels have improved enormously too, as has the embrace of higher education. In the past decade, the proportion of student enrollment has nearly tripled in Pakistan and doubled in India. Seventy years and three or four generations later, it is unclear what lessons Partition still holds. While Pakistan and India have evolved along very different paths, the outcomes don’t look particularly different.  The intolerance that fuelled the bloodshed in 1947 is still there, clearly in the DNA of both sides. In New Delhi, a populist Hindu nationalist party has replaced a dynastic party that ruled for decades. Mob attacks and lynchings of minorities and low-caste Indians have become a near-daily outrage.

Pakistan is no less troubled. Politics is infused with the anger and resentment of a growing middle class. Though religious parties lose out in elections to large provincial parties run by elites promising patronage to largely impoverished voters, it hardly matters. Society at large has moved steadily rightwards, particularly as those middle-classes exert greater influence in politics.

A decade of war against jihadist groups that turned on their former patrons in the Pakistani establishment has led to a drastic reduction in the terrorist attacks that took nearly 50,000 civilian lives since 2006. While Pakistan's war on terrorism has vastly reduced -  though probably not ended - the use of such groups as proxies in regional conflicts, this legacy has left an indelible mark on society. Minorities, especially Shia Muslims, who make up a quarter of the population, bear the brunt of attacks that occur less frequently but still regularly.  Parliament has secured crucial advances, such as the empowerment of provincial governments, and the recently-ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has done a decent job of managing the economy. The growing urban middle classes mistrust politicians, regarding them as corrupt and venal, and a vibrant and chaotic national media reflects and amplifies their views. They also largely ignore the needs and desires of the majority of poor Pakistanis. But it is those classes that now feed the increasingly independent judiciary and the military. The youth of Pakistan  — two-thirds of the country's 200 million are under 30 — are the most politically-engaged generation since the early 1970s.  

Rivalry between both countries’ has also grown more stubbornly resistant to reconciliation efforts in the decades since independence. Both spend more on defence than before and both have acquired a nuclear capability. People-to-people contact and bilateral trade suffer the consequences of the entrenched hostility. Formal bilateral trade stood at just US$2.2 billion (Dh8.1 billion) last year, less than half the informal buying and selling between them. Seventy years and three or four generations later, it is unclear what lessons Partition still holds. While Pakistan and India have evolved along very different paths, the outcomes don’t look particularly different.

The intolerance that fuelled the bloodshed in 1947 is still there, clearly in the DNA of both sides. In New Delhi, a populist Hindu nationalist party has replaced a dynastic party that ruled for decades. Mob attacks and lynchings of minorities and low-caste Indians have become a near-daily outrage.

The writer is a specialist on South Asian Affairs

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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