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19 Aug, 2007

Marking 60 years of Freedom, India and Pakistan focus on what binds rather than divides them

Originally Published: 19 Aug 2007

There was plenty of soul-searching in both India and Pakistan as the two nuclear-club South Asian neighbours celebrated the 60th year of independence from British colonialism last week.

Significantly, a key message that emerged from the speeches by their respective leaders was that neither country can afford another war. Both have their own domestic ‘wars’ to be fought first – the wars on illiteracy, poverty and environmental problems, not to mention politicians seeking to stir up social, cultural and ethnic divisions as well as external neocolonial powers still playing their divide-and-rule tricks.

Leaders on both sides reminded their peoples that it was time for the two nations born in the midst of much bloodshed to rise above their petty differences, take pride in their rich historical, cultural and ethnic heritage and marshal the forces of their combined populations (Pakistan 165 million, India 1.13 billion) to create dynamic economies and democratic systems that would make South Asia a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.

In both countries, which have fought three wars since being partitioned following the British exit, there was an outpouring of rich media commentary. Referring to India’s democratic unity in diversity, Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary General for Communications of the United Nations and now a syndicated columnist, wrote:

“Three years ago, India, a country that is 81 percent Hindu, saw a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) make way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh), who was sworn in by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam). By contrast, the world’s oldest democracy, the US, has yet to elect a president who is not white, male, and Christian.”

Leaders on both sides paid tribute to the phenomenal contribution of their respective overseas diasporas to their nations’ progress, a message that would have been well received in Thailand where many followers of the Sikh faith can trace their roots back to hometowns in what is now Pakistan.

Leaders on both sides referred to their countries’ reliance on water as a vital lifeline. Pakistani President Musharraf declared that construction would begin on the mega water reservoir projects in the next five years with one of the major new dams being completed before 2015.

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said: “In the rush of modernization and the race to develop we must not forget the value of conserving our resources. Water is one such scarce resource. I want each and every citizen to pay special attention to water conservation and to how we store and use water.”

Calling upon India’s states “to look upon water as a national asset,” he urged them “to resolve inter-state disputes over water sharing with an attitude of give and take” and find lasting solutions to recurring problems, like floods and drought.

Dr Singh added, “In protecting our environment let us recall Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words that nature has given us enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. The Himalayas are part of our inheritance. Many of our rivers flow from them. We must protect our glaciers; we must keep our rivers clean and must increase our forest cover.

“Every citizen must ensure that our wildlife, especially endangered species like tigers, lions and elephants are preserved for the benefit of future generations. Keeping India green and clean should be a national and an individual obsession.”

President Musharraf noted that Pakistan was home to the only egalitarian ancient (Indus Valley) civilization, and now seeking to convert its strategic geographical location as a bridgehead to promote the historical, cultural and commercial links between the peoples of Central, West and South Asia.

Stressing that internal peace and stability was critical for ensuring economic progress, he cited the emerging challenge of upcoming elections in paving a “sustainable path of progress and prosperity.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former senior executive of the World Bank, said Independence Day was an opportunity “to look seriously at our failures, ponder upon the causes and find solutions for the future.” He noted the recent policies that have helped to usher in a new era of progress and economic prosperity and assured Pakistanis “that we shall continue to further promote the democratic order as well.”

Both countries are at an important stage in their respective histories.

For the first time, India has just elected a woman President of the Hindu faith and a Muslim Vice President, while being led by a Sikh Prime Minister.

But even as the country’s immensely powerful, mind-bending movie factory was releasing motivational films about the come-from-behind victory of an all-girls hockey team, and the Indian cricket team was savouring a real-life bashing of the British in a Test series, at least two incidents showed how much progress has yet to be made in changing national mindsets.

In Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, a group of Muslims disrupted a press conference where the self-exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin was making an appearance to mark the release of a new book.

A few days later, the office of Outlook magazine in Mumbai was damaged by stick-wielding Hindu protesters of the Shiv Sena party after the magazine featured their fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray in a list of “villains” in its Independence Day special issue.

Dr Singh referred to such incidents forcefully in his address when he said: “Those who profess hatred and extremism, those who spread the virus of communalism and those who believe in violence and terrorism have no place in our society. We must all fight these anti-democratic, anti-social and anti-national forces, each in our own way, in our daily lives.”

He added, “We fritter away our time on petty issues and pointless personal differences. I urge all political parties, all political and social leaders to resist the temptation to divide people along narrow, sectarian lines.”

Dealing with that temptation will be the primary challenge for the leaders of both India and Pakistan in future.

Colonialism took hold because the then princes and rulers of South Asia allowed themselves to divided-and-ruled. If the people and politicians of South Asia allow history to repeat itself, they will be back in the hands of the neocolonialists in no time.