Soon after Partition, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told the American ambassador, Paul Alling, that he wished for India-Pakistan relations to be “An association similar to that between the US and Canada.” Jinnah had no way of predicting the rise of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex. Nor did he envision that his successors in the Muslim League would join Islamist leaders in basing Pakistan’s nationalism on the idea of perennial conflict with, and permanent threat from, India. Just as the perceived threat from Hindu domination prompted the call for Pakistan’s creation, the new rallying cry for an ethnically diverse populace was the ostensible threat from India to Pakistan.
This required keeping alive the frenzy of Partition and a contrived historic narrative. It also necessitated the glorification of past and present warriors and the building of a militarised state. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru foresaw how a national state of paranoia across the border imperiled India-Pakistan relations. He tried to comfort Pakistan’s leaders that disagreement with the idea of Partition before it took place did not mean India would now use force to undo it.
Nehru chose the Aligarh Muslim University, whose alumni had played an active role in the demand for Pakistan, as the venue for a speech that addressed Pakistani concerns as early as March 1948. He reassured those who accused India of seeking to strangulate Pakistan. “If we had wanted to break up Pakistan, why did we agree to Partition?” he asked. “It was easier to prevent it then than to try to do so now after all that has happened. There is no going back in history. As a matter of fact, it is to India’s advantage that Pakistan should be a secure and prosperous state with which we can develop close and friendly relations.”
“Pakistan has come into being rather unnaturally, I think,” Nehru told his audience. “Nevertheless, it represents the urges of a large number of persons. I believe that this development has been a throwback, but we accepted it in good faith.” According to him, “It is inevitable that India and Pakistan should draw closer to each other, or else they will come into conflict. There is no middle way, for we have known each other too long to be indifferent neighbours.” The first Indian prime minister also laid out a vision for India to “develop a closer union” with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries — a vision that seems to be shared by Narendra Modi. But Nehru made it clear that India had no “desire to strangle or compel Pakistan” because “an attempt to disrupt Pakistan would recoil to India’s disadvantage.”
“If today, by any chance, I were offered the reunion of India and Pakistan, I would decline it for obvious reasons,” Nehru continued. “I do not want to carry the burden of Pakistan’s great problems. I have enough of my own.” Nehru proposed that a “closer association must come out of a normal process and in a friendly way which does not end Pakistan as a state but which makes it an equal part of a larger union in which several countries might be associated” — an early envisioning of Saarc.
Bengali leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy also cautioned against declaring Pakistan an Islamist ideological state and warned that slogans of permanent war with India would only undermine Pakistan. Addressing Pakistan’s constituent assembly on March 6, 1948, Suhrawardy insisted that Pakistan’s future rested on the “the goodwill of the people” of Pakistan and the “mutual relationship between the Dominion of Pakistan and the sister dominion, [the] Indian Union.”
Suhrawardy briefly served as prime minister in 1956 before being barred from politics under martial law. He died in exile a few years later. But his admonition, within a few months of Pakistan’s creation, still rings true. “Now you are raising the cry of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power,” Suhrawardy told Pakistan’s rulers. He warned that “a state which will be founded on sentiments, namely that of Islam in danger or of Pakistan in danger” will face perilous circumstances.
Most of Pakistan’s current problems — the rise of the Taliban, the prevalence of conspiracy theories, religious and sectarian strife, the campaign by extremists to deny Pakistani children the benefit of the polio vaccine, the potential for international isolation, the lack of institutional balance and the dominance of the military — can all be traced to the original sin of Pakistan’s post-independence leaders.
Pakistan’s establishment has disregarded Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s call to keep religion out of the business of the state and ignored Suhrawardy’s proposal for collaborative ties with India. As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sets about trying to normalise relations with India, he would do well to revise the Pakistani notion of “permanent enemy”, which is inculcated at all levels of schooling and through the Pakistani media. Sharif should recall Suhrawardy’s warnings and embrace Jinnah’s vision of India-Pakistan ties. He should start changing Pakistan’s national discourse, without which forward movement might prove difficult.