At their blood-soaked independence 60 years ago this week, India and Pakistan embarked on unique experiments in nation-building. Pakistan was to be a nation bringing together diverse languages, ethnic groups and cultures, united by a common faith—Islam—even if its eastern and western wings were miles apart, with India, a neighbour it considered hostile, straddled in between.
The Indian dream was to unite an even more diverse body of ethnicities, languages, castes, cultures and religions to mould a country built on ideals of secular, liberal democracy.
The difference between the two visions is so fundamental that the many ties binding the two nations—music, cinema, food, cricket, culture and a shared
history—cannot overcome it.
Pakistan made religion its centrepiece, making people subservient to the state. India, despite its overt religiosity, officially swore by secularism, and its institutions strove to keep its people politically free for most of its post-independence history—with the exception of the emergency of 1975-1977.
There was never a race between the two countries: India is, after all, many times bigger and has far more people—but the world, and Pakistan, saw it as a rivalry. The politics of the Cold War polarized that thinking.
Strangely, it was the tit-for-tat nuclear tests of 1998—and not the original Indian nuclear test of 1974—that helped India sail away from being linked with Pakistan. By making its nuclear programme overt, Pakistan thought it secured parity; instead, it became the subject of international pressure.
India escaped much censure because by then it was already a booming economy; its businesses critical in the globalized world of multinational business and trade; and what India considers its crown jewels—its rule of law, its English-speaking elite, and its dynamic private sector—were being recognized internationally.
To be sure, both had internal strife. India in Punjab, Kashmir, and its NorthEast; Pakistan had skirmishes in its frontier provinces, its business capital Karachi becoming the capital of lawlessness, and its social structure disintegrated after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
One could argue Pakistan had little choice, once it had chosen to be a theocracy. The more Pakistani society modernized, the more its people sought freedom, the more Pakistan would begin to look like India. But being like India was not the point of Partition: The point was to create a home for the subcontinent’s Muslims, who were presumably unsafe in India.
But while India has a shameful record of riots in which many Muslims have died, and many Muslims lead lives of utter destitution (but then so do many Hindus and others, too), it was also electing Muslims as presidents, appointing them to head the air force, to the Supreme Court, and Muslims dominated Bollywood, played cricket for India, and founded multimillion dollar companies. In Pakistan, the record of advances for minorities was poorer.
Today, India connotes images of the hi-tech city of Bangalore and shopping malls of Gurgaon; Pakistan reminds many foreigners of madrasas from where militants emerge. Indeed, that is a caricature, but like all clichés, there is a grain of truth in these images. Clearly everything isn’t sound with India. Maoists control stretches of Indian hinterland; the caste wars have not abated; bomb blasts occur periodically; and there are concerns over perceived rise in inequality. Yet, India has succeeded not only to break free from being compared constantly with Pakistan, it is also being taken reasonably seriously in world affairs. The nuclear agreement between India and the US and the important role India plays in current global trade negotiations are examples of that.
What brought about that change in perceptions?
National choices may provide the key. Pakistan opted for religion and military, two forces that require submission to authority, to bind the nation. The corruption of its military could not be questioned; and its flawed democratic leaders rarely given the opportunity to complete their terms. In India, such choices were left for the people to decide. The military largely remained in the barracks.
But Pakistan shows that an absence of democracy does not mean sustained high growth or a stable order. And India’s old excuse—that being democratic it can’t grow fast—is also wearing thin. It is among the fastest-growing economies in the world today. What keeps nations free and prosperous, then, are those fundamental freedoms—to think, to speak, to trade?
Pakistan has been ruled for nearly half its 60 years by unelected generals and its economy still runs along feudal, monopolistic lines. For its first 45 years, Indians had abundant political freedom, but limited economic freedom. (Wealthy Indians could have any car they wanted, so long as it was a white Ambassador). That has changed, and its people are free, and its businesses are becoming so. That’s the real meaning of freedom and the ultimate lesson of this anniversary, for both nations, and beyond.
Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer and a columnist for Mint’s Saturday Lounge magazine.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org