Locked in an embrace of hate

Peter Popham in Delhi examines the 'malignant magic' behind the nuclear rivalry of India and Pakistan
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WITH THE detonation of another nuclear device in Baluchistan yesterday, Pakistan's declared number of tests is now six - one more than India's this year. The demand of my Karachi tax driver a fortnight ago for "six tamashas" (dazzling exhibitions) to outdo India's five was thus fulfilled, and the ferocious sibling rivalry between the world's newest nuclear states was acted out on the biggest and most fearful stage of all.

India and Pakistan are not conventional enemies, militarily or in any other sense. A malignant magic seems to entwine them, tainting and poisoning their endeavours, shackling them to one another, forcing them endlessly into confrontation. Never better than cool, their relationship is more tortured than comparable enmities - North and South Korea, East and West Germany - across borders of the Cold War. One reason for that is the religious divide which led to the creation of Pakistan. The ghosts of the hundreds of thousands who died during the partition that brought the two states into existence half a century ago haunt them still.

After India conducted its nuclear tests, Pakistan followed suit as quickly as possible. That much was predictable: the neighbours have, after all, fought three wars in the past 50 years, all of which Pakistan has lost. But less readily understandable to the outside world was the popular excitement and enthusiasm that the tests generated in both countries. In Islamabad, as in Delhi two weeks ago, people were dancing in the streets, letting off firecrackers and handing round ladoos, traditional sweets.

Foreigners were aghast. How could such horrendous events be greeted with the mad glee of a victory at cricket? I settled on ignorance as the explanation: the common people simply didn't know how vile these weapons were. But even the well-educated manifested the same sort of emotion. The people were deeply glad that India had got in such a low blow. Pakistanis were deeply glad that they had got in a low blow back.

In Korea as in Germany, Cold War realpolitik drew cruel, arbitrary lines through countries, cutting families in pieces, destroying lives and communities. The creation of Pakistan was similarly cruel and arbitrary, but because it derived in part from the will of the inhabitants, not the dictates of superpowers, its aftermath has been infinitely more neurotic and convoluted. At places along the ceasefire line that divides the state of Jammu and Kashmir, only 60 feet divide the Indian and Pakistani troops, who have been eyeball to eyeball for nearly 50 years. Almost every day people get shot and killed by one side or the other.

At Wagah, the border post in Punjab, the lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags each day is accompanied by a frenzy of stamping, goosestepping and glaring by soldiers of the two sides; a vicious ballet of hostility. Of course it could not be so choreographed without their intimate co-operation.

At the same border post each 14 August, on the eve of the anniversary of both countries' independence, a hundred or more Indian peaceniks troop as close to the border as they can get, to sing songs of friendship and conciliation to the other side. The plan is that an equivalent group arrives at the other side at the same time, and together they sing of the hopes of dissolving the barriers that divide them. But it never seems to work out. The Pakistani side fails to show up, or the no-man's-land in between is too wide and the voices do not carry, or the guards break the gathering up. In 50 years, the sane and sensible desire to come together and clasp hands has gained very little momentum.

One persuasive view of the relationship - and it's not the monopoly of Indians - is that Pakistan was just a ghastly mistake. In Lahore last week a senior Pakistani journalist spelled it out to me very clearly. "In my opinion," he said, "the British should never have come to India. But seeing as you did come, you shouldn't have left so quickly. If, instead of rushing off in 1947, you had stayed for another 20 years, things might have been very different." Pakistan, for a start, might never have existed.

Large areas both in the north-west and the east of British India had Muslim majorities. During the decades of struggle for freedom, tensions between Muslim and Hindu leaders within the freedom movement led to demands for a measure of autonomy within free India for these regions. But the demand for a wholly independent state only gathered force as late as 1940. As the negotiations leading to independence unfolded, Lord Mountbatten tried hard to persuade the Muslim side that they should throw in their lot with a united India. But the Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah's position hardened, and with its self-imposed deadline of 15 August 1947, Britain had little room for manoeuvre. Pakistan was composed of all the Muslim majority regions in both the north-west (West Pakistan) and the east (East Pakistan). The borders between the new, bifurcated state and India were drawn up by in furious haste by the British lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

As preparations for the inauguration of the new countries went ahead, it was assumed that their creation would be pacific, the borders themselves porous, and that comings and goings between them would be unhindered. No one expected the baptism of blood that transpired. As the new borders became known, the first great disaster of the postwar era got under way, as hundreds of thousands of people were massacred, and millions more fled their homes to cross the border. Perhaps one million people died, and 12 million were uprooted. It was an ominous beginning.

From the start, Pakistan's identity was troublingly one-dimensional: as the only artificially created Islamic state in history, exaggerated Islamic piety became its hallmark, and Pakistani governments have long been vulnerable to the shrill demands of religious extremists. During the past three weeks it has inevitably been the minority religious parties that have been clamouring most vociferously for nuclear tests.

With its vastly greater size, wealth, and cultural and religious variety, India should have a far more mature and confident political persona than Pakistan. But decades of poor economic performance and internal political strife, and the chronic fear that the state might disintegrate into Pakistan- like chunks, have sapped the self-confidence that India projected under Nehru. The former Indian Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, complained last week that he had sought to steer India away from perennially defining itself in terms of its rivalry with Pakistan, but that the nuclear tests had revived old habits.

Now Hindu nationalists are in power, and their chauvinism and paranoia mirrors that of Pakistan. The two fearsome siblings are on the lip of disaster.