Commentary / World

Midnight's children

by Giorgio Shani

Contributing Writer

Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed Booker Prize winning novel, “Midnight’s Children,” tells the story of two sons switched at birth who were born at the very midnight hour when India awoke to independence and freedom. Although Rushdie also penned a novel, “Shame,” about Pakistan, it is “Midnight’s Children” that better serves as a metaphor for both India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan became independent states on the stroke of midnight on Aug. 14 (Pakistan) and Aug. 15 (India), 1947. Like South Asia, Kashmir was partitioned at birth. A Muslim majority state ruled by a Hindu maharajah, it had been incorporated by India at independence. However, India’s claim to Kashmir was contested by Pakistan, which invaded Kashmir shortly after partition.

The United Nations was called in to broker a ceasefire and divided Kashmir along a Line of Control but no final border was established. Further attempts were made by Pakistan to redraw the border by force, most notably in 1965 and then in 1999 when nuclear war was barely avoided after Pakistani military incursions in the Kargil region brought a strong rebuke by the international community. However, the Line of Control separating colonial India’s midnight’s children in the Northwest has remained unchanged. What has changed is the nature of the weapons in the possession of the combatants.

The background to the current crisis was the suicide bombing of an Indian Central Reserve Police Force convoy in the town of Pulwama in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14. At least 40 soldiers were killed along with the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmed Dhar, a local Kashmiri militant who belonged to the jihadi terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad , based in Pakistan. Within hours, Indian troops had been deployed to the line of control and threats of war materialized when India subsequently launched a retaliatory strike on a suspected Jaish-e-Mohammad training center across the Line of Control in Pakistan claiming to have killed 350 “terrorists.”

Pakistan responded by shooting down two MiG-21 jets and captured a pilot, in a major escalation of the conflict. The pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was paraded in front of cameras, bloodied and blindfolded, provoking outrage across India. The prospect of war between South Asia’s midnight’s children, born over 70 years previously in an orgy of violence, seemed very real indeed.

In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan released Varthaman but sporadic firing continued over the weekend killing at least four along the Line of Control. Khan appears to have struck a conciliatory chord by seemingly proposing peace talks with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

The prospects of talks are contingent, of course, on a withdrawal of support for terrorist organizations committed to Kashmiri independence, which have been allowed to operate with impunity across the line of control. Khan’s freedom of maneuver is severely curtailed by the military, which played a key role in removing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thus paving the way for his victory. Indeed, Khan’s election as prime minister in July owed more to his military backers than to his exploits with bat and ball as captain of the Pakistan cricket team that won the world cup in 1992.

Modi, however, has no incentive to grasp Khan’s olive branch with imminent elections looming large on the horizon. Recent losses in three key Hindi-speaking states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — have dented his electoral majority and brought into question the ability of the Bharatiya Janat Party to win successive elections. Simply put, Modi needs the crisis to shore up his base among the rank and file of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) if he is to repeat his landslide victory in the 2014 elections when the BJP won an outright majority of seats —282 out of 543 — in the lower house, the Lok Sabha.

Initially suppressed by the state in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi by an ex-member, the RSS has since its inception in 1925 provided the institutional infrastructure for the articulation of a Hindu nationalism. It has done so through the establishment, first, in 1964, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which seeks to mobilize Hindus throughout the world; and, second, in 1980 of the BJP, the political wing of the RSS.

The BJP has in recent years successfully contested elections at state and national level winning power in 1996, 1999 and 2014. Although it moderated its rhetoric once in power, particularly under the late Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee, it campaigned on an explicitly Hindu nationalist ideology.

Central to this ideology is the idea of Hindutva. Hindutva can be seen as a form of cultural nationalism that equates India with its Hindu traditions. It is, as the BJP noted in its manifesto, a “nationalist, and not a religious or theocratic, concept” and was adopted in 1996 “as a unifying principle which alone can preserve the unity and integrity” of India. The form of Hinduism valorized is not the nonviolence championed by Gandhi but a militant, martial tradition with its roots in the epics Ramayana and Mahabartha.

In short, the role of the military in Pakistani politics and the commitment of the BJP to Hindutva make continued confrontation between South Asia’s midnight’s children along the Line of Control almost inevitable. However, a full-scale nuclear war remains unthinkable given that the umbilical cord, while severed at partition, still binds India and Pakistan together.

The only realistic solution to the conflict would be to recognize Kashmir as an autonomous state within a loose, federal regional structure through the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. This arguably is what most Kashmiris, denied a referendum on independence by India, want. The experience of the European Union, however, suggests that the path toward integration is fraught with difficulties and that nation-states are reluctant to cede sovereignty making continued conflict between South Asia’s midnight’s children over Kashmir likely in the short-term.

Giorgio Shani (@GiorgioShani) is chair of the Department of Politics and International Studies and director of the Rotary Peace Center at International Christian University. He was president of the Asia-Pacific region of the International Studies Association from 2014 to 2018.