The Longest August: the Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan by Dilip Hiro, book review

Can nearly seven decades of conflict and hatred be compressed into a single volume?
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The Independent Culture

Few nation states have experienced the violent afterbirths witnessed in India and Pakistan after their creation in 1947. The two countries have fought wars in 1965 and 1971. They have employed campaigns of subterfuge, terror and violence to control disputed areas in Kashmir and build influence in Afghanistan. While India's economic and political standing in the world has improved, Pakistan has occasionally verged on failed state status.

Dilip Hiro started his career writing about immigration to the UK from the Indian subcontinent. Since 11 September 2001, he has published a number of influential books on Islamism and its associated conflicts. The Longest August returns to the country of the author's birth (he was born to Hindu parents in Larkana, now Pakistan) to shed light on the crucial relationship between the region's only nuclear powers.

The most appealing section of The Longest August is its depiction of the Indian subcontinent's struggle for independence. While Hiro uncovers little that shines a new light on the negotiations and inter-religious violence which forced the British withdrawal from India, he does succeed in animating the era's three major architects. The tensions between a calculating Jawaharlal Nehru, the idealistic Mahatma Gandhi and a taciturn Muhammad Ali Jinnah could illuminate a volume – or a film – of their own. In Hiro's retelling, which takes up a third of the book, the three leaders are alive with all their egos and foibles resplendent.

Yet Hiro's examination of Indo-Pak relations falters around 30 years after the birth of Pakistan, in the years following the execution of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979. Describing this and subsequent events, Hiro offers little insight on why the two countries began to see divergent fortunes. While he offers much evidence to suggest both states have been courted by superpowers like Russia, China and the United States, Hiro's analysis lacks any geopolitical framing.

In subsequent decades, Pakistan and India would experience their own versions of Reaganomics. In both countries, the political sphere would secede to local and foreign business interests. The Russian-Afghan war would also unleash the tide of home grown terrorism which exists to this day in Pakistan, most recently seen in the killing of 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar.

Hiro's chronological narrative of nearly seven decades of distrust and stratagem has two obvious drawbacks. The subject is too vast to cover in 500 pages, and individual epochs warrant more analysis. The author quickly moves from the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 to the corruption scandal which plagued her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. The examination of General Pervez Musharraf's attempt to seize Kargil in Kashmir in 1999 – a battle fought in sub-zero temperatures, which led to hundreds of deaths on both sides – is also in summary.

The Cold War between Russia and America lasted from 1947 to the end of Communism in 1991. The tragedies and near misses which have plagued residents of India and Pakistan, and confounded their political leaders, have dragged on for an additional quarter of a century. The Longest August is a brave first attempt to magnify relations between these two countries – but much is left incomplete.

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