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History has been made, now overcome it

Handshakes are not often termed ‘‘historic’’, but the one between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakista...

Written by Shashi Tharoor |
January 17, 2004

Handshakes are not often termed ‘‘historic’’, but the one between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf last week readily earned the adjective. After three years of bristling hostility verging on war, and less than five years after a bloody clash of arms across the snowy wastes that divide them in Kashmir — not to mention the 56 years of mutual tension that had marked their relationship — the two countries last week seemed genuinely on the verge of a real and lasting peace.

In the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, which offers a striking example of the confluence of Islam and Hinduism on the subcontinent, the talk for days after the handshake was of the possibilities it had opened up. One idea that had seized the Hyderabad public’s imagination was of the city ‘‘twinning’’ with its namesake, the city of Hyderabad in Pakistan.

Until the British partitioned India into two countries in 1947, the two cities had been known as ‘‘Hyderabad, Deccan’’ and ‘‘Hyderabad, Sind’’ to distinguish them from each other. But the drawing of the hard lines of partition on a map had made this unnecessary; it was enough to know which side of the border you were on to know which Hyderabad was referred to. The other was simply out of reach.

The Indian Hyderabad is a good place to look at the subcontinent’s past, and its future. Exquisite Muslim architecture abounds, especially palaces and mosques, including the famous Mecca Masjid where the faithful congregate in the thousands every Friday. But at the foot of the city’s most famous monument, the four-turreted Charminar, sits a Hindu temple to the goddess Mahalakshmi where the priests have been chanting their mantras for centuries under the celebrated Muslim minarets. And beyond the old city gleams the high-tech crucible of ‘‘Cyberabad’’, a pet project of the state’s laptop-toting Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, where Indian software engineers of all faiths click their country’s way into the 21st century. In this city, the past poses no impediment to the future.

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But that has not been quite as true for the subcontinent as a whole, which has for more than five decades seemed a prisoner of the past, handcuffed to a pessimist’s reading of history. In reality, history has not always been as grim as the pessimists believe. Muslims and Hindus (as well as followers of other creeds) have shared the same civilisational space on the subcontinent for more than 1,000 years. Islam came to India as early as the 8th century, to Sind in the north with the Arab armies and to Kerala in the south with traders and travellers across the Arabian Sea.

For the most part, the two big faiths co-existed for centuries; though persecution and violence were not unknown, few saw religion as the primary determinant of their loyalties. In the great revolt of 1857 against the British, Hindus and Muslims rose as one, rallying under the banner of the last Mughal king. But the Hindu-Muslim unity seen in that revolt led the alarmed British to adopt a policy of ‘‘divide and rule’’ that sowed mutual suspicions and hatreds. In Indian eyes, the policy found its culmination, 90 years later, in partition.

The tragic flashpoint of Kashmir, which has twice brought the two countries to war and several times to the brink of it, is described by some in Pakistan as the ‘‘unfinished business of partition’’. When a student at Cambridge, Chaudhury Rehmat Ali, invented the name ‘‘Pakistan’’ (land of the pure) for the country he hoped would be created for his co-religionists, the ‘‘k’’ in his neologism stood for Kashmir, a mountainous, predominantly Muslim state in northern India. But when partition finally took place, the maharajah of Kashmir, who was Hindu and facing an invasion from Pakistan, acceded to India instead. War ensued, leaving both countries with a portion of the state and a dotted line (the Line of Control) across the maps.


Pakistan argues that the Muslim-majority state should have always been part of the Muslim country; India points to Kashmir’s Muslim majority as proof of the pluralism of its secular democracy. So for years the talk has been of war, militancy, terrorism and now the nuclear threat. And yet history entwines the two countries together with bonds of paradox. India derives its name from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan. The partition of 1947 created a state for India’s Muslims, but today there are more Muslims in secular India than in Islamic Pakistan. The two countries share common languages, costumes, customs and cuisines; when their citizens meet abroad, they slip easily into camaraderie. Indian films, music and clothes remain wildly popular across the border, and Pakistani cricketers and musicians are lionised in India.

Strikingly, as part of his peace overture, Vajpayee suggested that the two countries and their sibling, Bangladesh (once East Pakistan), jointly commemorate the 150th anniversary three years from now of the great revolt of 1857. His proposal was received warily; history has so far been a force for division on the subcontinent, not of unity.

But Vajpayee himself, once a leading member of a Hindu nationalist party whose platform called for the undoing of partition and the re-creation of an ‘‘undivided India’’, had proved he could transcend the past by paying tribute at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, a shrine to that country’s founding. And Musharraf, a trained man of war whose own family left India for Pakistan upon partition, has shown signs of his determination to reinvent himself as a man of peace.


So there is hope. ‘‘History has been made,’’ Musharraf told a news conference after his meeting with Vajpayee. The challenge for both countries is now to demonstrate that history has also been overcome.


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First published on: 17-01-2004 at 12:00:00 am

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