Author: Pallavi Raghavan
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In an interesting academic work which has recently hit the stands, Pallavi Raghavan, assistant professor of international relations at Ashoka University, forcefully argues that bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, especially interactions between their bureaucrats in the period studied (1947-1952) “opened up spaces for resolving problems in the aftermath of Partition” and “seemed to arrest the pace of the slide towards hostility”, which is so evident, unfortunately, in the “bleak” state of ties today.
Based on historical analysis and drawing on a rich wealth of archival material from the National Archives of India, the Ministry of External Affairs’ files and Dominion Office records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, the author delves into the frayed post-Partition environs, focusing on the effort to find an even keel in bilateral relations. The narrative describes the dangerously escalating backdrop of an almost unmanageable flow of Hindu refugees from East Bengal, which did not prevent the signing of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact in April, 1950. The book examines several other vexatious issues governing bilateral ties in those early years of independent statehood.
The premise is that the actions of politicians and bureaucrats were determined by a variety of considerations: one of the critical priorities for both governments in the midst of the chaos and violence of riots, majorly in Punjab and Bengal, was not only to tackle questions of law and order but “preparing more, an architecture” to deal with and promote their own interests as “two separate States”. “What mattered was not the inadequacy of the state apparatus in either country to contain the fallout, but rather that this should be seen to exist within a bilateral framework of action.”
Committees were set up at the highest levels to deal with the division of assets, the infrastructure of the respective foreign policy establishments, the efficacy or otherwise of the soon-to-be-disbanded Punjab Boundary Force and work done on the abducted women’s cell, on both sides. The author contends that though these processes were far from smooth, “at heart, regardless of incessant disagreement about intentions and methods”, it remained a “collaborative” exercise.The Nehru-Liaquat Pact, a joint agreement to extend the jurisdiction of respective high commissions to the welfare of minority citizens across borders, “represented something quite unusual. To states notoriously prickly about their sovereignty, it seemed like “a way of bolstering their claims to separate and viable statehood.”
Both Nehru and Liaquat had to contend with domestic pressures “and formidable opposition” from powerful political figures like Bidhan Roy, then chief minister of West Bengal, and, among others, from Ghulam Muhammad, Pakistan’s minister for minorities. In particular, Nehru had to face a lot of criticism from his own cabinet members, KC Neogy and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. Sardar Patel, India’s deputy PM and home minister, supported Nehru at this juncture. JN Mandal, Pakistan’s only minority representative in the Liaquat cabinet, resigned in October 1950, sending “a brutally worded letter” castigating the Pakistan government’s unsympathetic position on Hindus there. Nevertheless, the author argues that the process was “based on a realisation that the way towards a more amicable relationship… lay in their ability to acknowledge, and then further cement the basis of Partition, and correspondingly, the basis of existence for both states.”
Dealing with Evacuee Property in Chapter 3, the author holds that “South Asia’s partition story is about property — about the sin of breaking the sacrosanct bond with ones’ land.” The Indian Ministry of External Affairs played a crucial role “in shaping the debate” about how rules ought to be fashioned, on the basis of reciprocity. Though this principle remained “the cornerstone that held up the structure of legislation” in both countries, in between, many discordant considerations cropped up in individual instances (as in the fascinating House of Chamba case), where impromptu and preemptive state action on either side seemed to go at variance. Several conferences were held between the two sides, revealing “two parallel processes: partly simply an ugly exercise about land-grabbing and ownership”, but also “an attempt to emulate systems of governance established elsewhere in the world.” The author finds that ultimately, “the rehabilitation of refugees was critical in fashioning the narrative of legitimacy to both nation-states.”
The correspondence between Nehru and Liaquat on the “failed” No War Pact is examined in Chapter 4. It offered an opportunity for India and Pakistan to clarify their positions internationally as mutually exclusive entities — demonstrating that “the business of disentangling” “did not necessarily mandate stances that had to be hostile to one another”. The process also illustrated “the importance of atmospherics” in the conduct of relations. Though some of the relevant issues figured at the United Nations, diplomats of big powers like the USA and UK in India advised their governments not to be unduly alarmed over prospects of imminent war.
Though the book ends in 1952, in Chapter 5, the author dwells on prehistory — on clauses connected to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, which evolved during this period. Raghavan’s seminal effort is a timely reminder that “despite traumas of the very worst kind”, “cooperation and dialogue” can be worked out between two states seeking assertion, if “contentious issues are addressed with a degree of circumspection and prudence”.
(Rana Banerji retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, in 2009)
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