On the stroke of midnight, 64 years ago, a bold, unprecedented and brash idea made a momentous tryst with destiny.
It was at this late hour that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru announced to a world that “India will awake to life and freedom”.
Just the previous day, on August 14, 1947 – an Urdu poet’s utopian vision also came to fruition with the creation of Pakistan, a Muslim state carved out of British India.
It marked the beginning of an epic, intense rivalry, one that lasts to this day.
This week, on the 64th anniversary of their births, the two rival nations of the subcontinent present a marvelous study in contrast.
By 1949, both countries had lost their founding fathers– Jinnah succumbed to a long illness, while Gandhi fell to the bullets of a Hindu fanatic.
It is an understatement to say, looking back, that the idea of India had seemed impossible back then. Following a bloody, violent partition, the largest mass migrations in modern history had left eight million refugees to be resettled and provided for.
Hundreds of Independent Princely states that formed British India had to be coaxed or coerced into joining the new dominion, and become part of this impossible nation that defied all reason.
Once this was achieved, there remained the gargantuan task of taking a long colonised nation of hundreds of millions of illiterate, poor, hungry and dogmatic people, and lead them into a new, prosperous future.
The new state of Pakistan seemed to have it a bit easier – with a state that was established and identified by such homogeneity as one dominant religion and one official language, whereas India was a boiling pot of cultures, races, religions, terrain and geography, all tied together with an untested, unknown thread of nationhood.
Even before it could adopt a constitution, the Indian state was already under attack from extremists on both the left and the right – the former rejecting the perceived Western Imperialism backing the new nation, and the latter, Hindu fanatics railing against the secular state announced by Nehru.
Both these forces continue to be active in India today – the Maoists continue to wage war against the Indian state, and the Hindu fanatics continue to demand a Hindu state.
The tribal invasion of Kashmir in 1947 further threatened the stability of the situation, sparking the first war between the two infant republics, and creating the knotty Kashmir tangle that remains unresolved to this day.
Yet, despite the ever present tactics of violence – none of these forces have been successful at destroying the fabric of India’s unity, which has endured marvelously throughout the decades.
The two wings of Pakistan, however, could not survive the pressures of civil war – and culminated in the formation of independent Bangladesh in 1971, with Indian assistance.
Dance of Destiny
It was perhaps destiny that India achieved its freedom in an age that saw towering personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru.
The modernist Nehru left no doubts about his vision for India – an overwhelmingly religious country that would not be bound by any single defined religion or culture or language.
To quote from his landmark midnight speech, “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”
The equally modernist Mohamed Ali Jinah, also outlined his vision for Pakistan in his famous August 11 speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, a day now marked in Pakistan as ‘Minority day’: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
The first constitution of Pakistan declaring it an Islamic republic in 1956 proved to be the first blow to this magnanimous vision of the much-revered Jinnah.
Within two years of its adoption, Pakistan saw its first coup d’etat, and this set the tone for Pakistan’s perpetual lost decades, which would be littered with failed democracies and military coups.
The fate of Pakistan was sealed with rise of the religious fundamentalist General Zia-ul-Haq, whose regime oversaw the tampering of the Pakistan Penal code, and introduction of Hudood ordinances to ‘Islamise’ Pakistan, the outlawing of Ahmadi minorities in direct contravention of the founder’s dreams, and the strengthening of the military’s ability to forever intervene in politics.
The destiny of Pakistan would remain forever mired in the three A’s – Allah, America and the Army.
Pakistan, it would turn out, would not see a single decade of political stability or a single successful democratic government in the years to come.
In stark contrast, India has seen 14 successful general elections, despite a burgeoning billion-plus population – a large portion of which started out largely illiterate, poor and malnourished.
Despite the large, creaky bureaucracy and widespread allegations of corruption, the Indian state continues to function and pull millions out of poverty, achieving self-sufficiency in food production, and making education a fundamental, legally enforceable right.
Where a disproportionately large proportion of Pakistan’s budget is drained annually on its all-powerful armed forces, the Indian military remains firmly under civilian control, and the various state powers remain separate and balanced.
Only recently, the Indian Supreme Court announced that the sky is the limit to its powers, when it comes to upholding the rule of law.
Apart from the brief period of emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi in the mid-70s, the Indian media has remained largely unshackled, free and active critics of government policy. The intellectual scene in India remains vibrant, with Indian artists and writers increasingly commanding global attention.
In the meantime, the Pakistani government’s dangerous experiments with cultivating religious fundamentalists has come back to haunt it. Hardly a week goes by without the news of sectarian violence or an explosion in a mosque; a bomb attack during this week’s Independence Day celebrations killed dozens.
Pakistani links have been established to abhorrent acts like the Mumbai terror attacks, while ‘banned’ militant organizations like Lashkar-e-taiba continue to function openly, under adopted names. Today, the Taliban created by the Pakistani intelligence is killing hundreds of Pakistani soldiers every year.
Pakistani society has radicalised to the point where lawyers and citizens do not hesitate to congregate in public and shower flowers on a murderer, who assassinated a top politician earlier this year for daring to fight for minority rights. The power-crazed Mullah has been empowered to dictate public morality, leading to often violent clashes between traditional social norms, and rising fundamentalist views.
Most damagingly, the Pakistani civilian government and military both suffer from a massive trust deficit in the international arena, compounded further by the recent discovery of Bin Laden hiding in a house, barely a mile from the country’s top military academy.
As it stands today, Pakistan, despite its promising headstart – is being increasingly dismissed by the international community as a failed state. The only continued interest in Pakistan stems from a serious global concern about the country’s nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands – a concern that does not seem to arise for its stable, democratic nuclear-armed neighbor, India.
Over time, India’s tremendous diversity – that had once threatened its very existence – has ended up becoming its greatest strength. Despite its various criticisms, and defying terrible odds, India has become a model of a functioning, pluralistic and inclusive democracy – a nation where 150 million Muslims enjoy greater social freedoms and opportunity towards prosperity than the utopia of Pakistan, that appears to have failed Pakistani Muslims.
In a little over five decades, India has grown from a wild-eyed-dream to become the third largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power – with a booming middle class, and entrepreneurs and researchers and scientists making giant strides in crucial fields like IT and biotechnology.
The poverty and famine stricken India has been replaced by a confident, surefooted nation – one that seeks to assert itself as a global power, seeking a permanent position in the Security Council, while also being lauded globally on the success of its multicultural democracy.
Pakistan’s experiments with military regimes and religious fundamentalism have left it a broken, crushed dream that the staunchest of optimists have written off, while India’s commitment to a liberal democracy has made it a resilient, vibrant power with a success story that will be hailed for generations to come.
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