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Mihir S Sharma: Partition's dusty telegrams

Mihir S Sharma
More Columns by Mihir S Sharma

Perhaps the most tangled of relationships in international relations is that between India, and . America is allied to India on principle - as long as India likes America best. America is allied to Pakistan because it's expedient - and will stay allied even when it isn't. India wants America to never mention Pakistan to it unless India needs help; Pakistan wants America to ignore India completely, and pressure it on Kashmir simultaneously. Got that? Also, there's China.

It would be easy to think of this complexity as a product of the recent geopolitics of the region, or of (what is thankfully no longer called) the (). And, in the absence of decent diplomatic histories of the region, such thinking might continue.

But that big gap in our understanding is beginning to be filled. The most notable new arrival on most people's bookshelves is Gary Bass' Blood Telegram (Random House), a diplomatic history of the 1971 war. But, last week, I also read Husain Haqqani's Magnificent Delusions (PublicAffairs, 2013). True, Magnificent Delusions relies extensively on secondary sources; but the pointed manner in which Mr Haqqani has arranged his quotes helps overturn a couple of cherished assumptions.

Mr Haqqani, an academic and former ambassador, is, of course, both Pakistani and a liberal. We are often comfortable thinking of that charming, endangered hothouse flower, the Pakistani liberal, as particularly threatened by forces set in motion by the most powerful Stephanian ever, Zia-ul-Haq. Islamisation and a confused relationship with America followed, along with a turn to the Arab world as an exemplar and ally - and a persistent ability to turn postcolonial anti-imperialism into a puzzling and self-defeating sympathy for the Islamists in their own society.

The facts and conversations marshalled by Mr Haqqani reveal that, far from being a post-Zia/GWOT phenomenon, the precariousness of the Pakistani liberal and the confusions of the Pakistani state were born in 1947, with the actions of the country's founders, and through the personality of himself - and only gathered strength as time went by. There is much in Mr Haqqani's book that underlines this fact, and I urge you to read it yourself. I'll just mention some facts he records - with a most undiplomatic relish - about Pakistan's initial years.

First, Pakistan's blatant blackmail of America - politely, "geostrategic rents"; impolitely, holding a gun to its own forehead and threatening to shoot unless everyone pays up to avoid the blood splatter - is a policy that originated with that visionary Quaid-i-Azam himself. Jinnah told Margaret Bourke-White of Life as much in 1947; and she wondered whether he "considered his new state only as an armoured buffer between opposing major powers".

Second, even before , when American diplomats asked Jinnah why the tone in the Muslim League's paper, Dawn, was so anti-American, he insisted that Dawn's liberal editors "had to make a living" and so their editorials "reflected" the attitude "most of their readers" had about America.

Third, Jinnah would claim a liberal mantle thus: "Our Islamic ideas have been based on democracy and social justice since the 13th century." Naturally, this claim to liberalism can reassure neither Mr Haqqani nor Jinnah's American contemporaries.

Fourth, even 1948's cash-strapped government in Karachi proudly allocated three-fourths of its budget to the army, in response to an imagined Indian threat.

Fifth, Pakistan's elite confidently expected that this military expenditure would be paid for by the US - and, in fact, thought of it as their right. Mr Haqqani is scathing about how early Pakistanis viewed Americans as mobile wallets, noting that even Muhammad and Fatima Jinnah tried to hawk their Karachi house to the US for use as its embassy.

Sixth, in response to a critical obituary of Jinnah in Time, Dawn published a senior civil servant who blamed it variously on "some wicked malicious Hindu"; "the sex life of American reporters in New Delhi"; "American female editors in the land of sexy 'dates'"; and "Jewish money and influence". Mr Haqqani, forced out of the Washington embassy by similarly personal attacks in the Pakistani media, says with savage pleasure that "Pakistani public opinion was being shaped against the US long before US foreign policy provided Pakistanis a reason for anti-Americanism".

In Mr Bass' Blood Telegram, the story of how the US stood aside as Pakistani Punjabis killed Bengalis is retold; readers are given a full account of the horrors of that near-genocide, and of the cynicism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. It is a remarkable achievement, and deserves to be on every shelf. But, in a way, Mr Bass' book underlines the importance of the scale of the task Mr Haqqani took on, too. Nixon viewed Pakistan as dependent on its army. Yahya Khan viewed America as a manipulable source of support of Pakistani elite's misrule. In these we can detect the original sins, diplomatic and otherwise, Mr Haqqani lays out. Of 1971, Mr Haqqani says, "US support gave Pakistan a sense of false confidence, which encouraged its leaders to march into a blunder." The lessons are obvious. Here's another lesson: we need more diplomatic histories.

Postscript: A few months after Partition, Mr Haqqani reminds us, Pakistan's leaders realised their agrarian country was cut off from its traditional markets across the new border but with customary brilliance decided more military spending was the only answer to this problem, since trade would lead to "Indian dominance". Meanwhile, Nehru reminded the world that he wanted a natural drift towards "closer association" between the two states. Today, Pakistan's civilian leaders might have changed their mind on trade. But in all of New Delhi, the only Nehruvian on this point is Manmohan Singh, so it doesn't matter, does it? A historic opportunity, never once on offer since 1947, will be squandered.

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