Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
December 21, 2018 (posted December 26, 2018)
Mr. President: Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. You may not realize
that December 25th is a national holiday in the country you have been feuding with,
Pakistan. It is the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country's founder. Exactly
how Pakistan came into being is an interesting story as it also leads to the question
whether the dismemberment of the Indian subcontinent -- now three countries -- could
have been averted.
Jinnah started out as a voice for Hindu-Muslim unity although wary of majoritarianism
and Hindu domination. A highly successful lawyer with patrician tastes, he was averse
to mob violence and wanted constitutional independence -- the British handing over
to an elected Indian government and a constitution safeguarding the rights of
The first step was to seek Dominion status in which Indians would run their own affairs
although subject to control by the British government. Accordingly a London
conference was convened. The Round Table Conference began in grand style on
November 30, 1930 with a plenary session at the House of Lords; after which the
participants retired to St. James Palace for the talks.
Hindu and Muslim members sought first to agree on a united front. His Highness The
Aga Khan was leading the delegation and also spoke for the Muslims. Sir Chimanlal
Setalvad, a prominent Hindu member, has written that the Aga Khan agreed to the
Hindu demand for joint electorates, instead of separate Hindu and Muslim ones, but
with the reservation of seats for Muslims, and he added magnanimously, "In that
event you lead and we follow." Jaswant Singh describes (p. 178) what transpired in
his excellent book, "Jinnah: India -- Partition, Independence." Unfortunately the
Hindu members receptive to the proposal were intimidated by the others and the
Hindu Mahasaba (p. 179, ibid.), the precursor of the nationalist Hindutva movement.
Prime Minister Modi's Bharataya Janata Party (BJP) has a Hindu nationalist fervor
which has unmasked the BJP that was in power with Jaswant Singh as Foreign
Without a united front, the Round Table Conference was doomed. The seeds of
Pakistan had been sown, and as Jinnah repeatedly confronted majoritarianism devoid
of any assurances for Muslims, his demands for Pakistan became more implacable.
The last chance for one India arrived in 1946 with the Cabinet Mission. Field Marshal
Viscount Archibald Percival Wavell served as Viceroy of India from 1943 to early
1947. Lord Wavell hosted the Mission and served as a link to the parties i.e. Jinnah
of the Muslim League and Nehru of the Congress Party. The somewhat ingenious
plan devised coalesced the provinces into four groups, the western provinces (now
Pakistan), the east, the center and the south. The first two were Muslim majority, the
latter two Hindu. The individual provinces would elect members to a group constituent
assembly which would then select representatives for the central government in
Delhi. Equal Hindu and Muslim groups ensured reasonable parity in Delhi.
The interim government in Delhi that Wavell had in mind would consist of a council of
twelve (p. 207, ibid.): five from the Muslim League, five from Congress, one Sikh and
one Dalit. In accepting the plan and therefore less, Jinnah was putting his demand for
Pakistan at risk. The gesture was unappreciated for with each letter and each
communication with Congress, Wavell's original parity suffered dilution. Moreover,
Nehru even rejected the Cabinet Mission's grouping plan claiming clearly falsely that,
the "entire country is opposed" to it (p. 379, ibid.).
In the end there were fourteen members of the council without parity for Muslims. The
plan was formally rejected by the Muslim League on July 27, 1946 (p. 382, ibid.). The
era of a constitutional path to independence was over. Jinnah and the Muslim
League had tired of Nehru's repeated shifts on positions critical to Muslim interests.
Thus the call for Direct Action. The demonstrations began on August 16, 1946, and
the confrontations led to riots leading to killings. The British government recalled
Wavell in February 1947. Lord Mountbatten of Burma took over, and a precipitate
rush to independence followed. Group enmities resulted in a mania of killing as
Muslims fleeing violence in the new India and Hindus and Sikhs the same in Pakistan
fled towards the borders without protection. Over two million lost their lives before the
cataclysm ended. And occasional spasms still erupt such as the 2002 killings of
Muslims in Gujarat during Modi's rule plus numerous other incidents.
The leftovers include the continuing troubles in Indian Kashmir and the frequent
blinding of the young during demonstrations. The security forces eschew rubber
bullets for pellet loaded shotguns. The decades-long insurgency has cost the lives of
up to 100,000 Kashmiris.
The two countries have fought four wars. In the first, Pakistan wrested control of a
third of Kashmir from India after the Maharaja seceded the state to India against the
wishes of an overwhelming majority of his people. In the third war, India repaid
Pakistan in kind paving the way for East Pakistan to become the new country of
Bangladesh. The other two wars ended in the status quo ante. If there is another
war, the world could face a nuclear winter -- about 300 nuclear weapons in the two
countries are trained on each other.
What a price to pay for majoritarianism! In the meantime, the new Modi government
with its Hindu nationalist agenda and continuing contempt for secularism -- even
centuries-old place names are being changed -- confirms the fears of the Muslim
minority, justifying their course of action during that fateful summer of 1946.