Independence Day in India and Pakistan

Shortly after the movie Gandhi opened in Delhi in 1982, a cartoon appeared in a major Indian newspaper showing a car with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) pulling away from the theater. “They say it’s based on a true story,” she tells a companion.

It was Independence Day in India and Pakistan on Friday. While no one, of course, has forgotten the dramatic events of August 1947, the two countries have strayed about as far from the visions of their founders as we in America have. 

Though he received his legal training in London (where he encountered the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, the book that was to be his Bible), Mohandas Gandhi, with his trademark loincloth and spinning wheel, envisioned an independent India that was deindustrialized and de-Westernized. His grand plan, “the Constructive Program,” called for households and villages to be autonomous, breeding cattle, using bullocks to pull plows, drawing water from wells. People would make their own clothing, pottery, and even their own books -- but not alcohol, which would be banned. Government would wither away. It was necessary only for the top 5% of the population, swindlers, black-marketeers, etc. and the bottom 5%, thieves, murderers, and gangsters. The rest of India would take naturally to the “spiritual socialism” of the Constructive Program. 

Jawaharal Nehru, Gandhi’s disciple and India’s first president, knew perfectly well how unrealistic the Mahatma’s vision was.  It would be impossible to support a population of 400 million with Gandhi’s policies. Nehru may have breathed a sigh of relief when the Mahatma was martyred on January 30, 1948. India’s first president was then able consolidate his control over the Congress Party and launch the nation on a program of massive government spending on prestige socialist projects that his mentor would have scorned.

Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah, educated like Gandhi at the Inns of Court, was his opposite in all respects. He was an Anglophile (English was his first language), a natty dresser -- he owned over 200 tailored suits, and changed clothes four times a day -- a chain smoker, and fond of champagne, oysters, caviar, claret, and single-blended Scotch: a classic MINO, Muslim In Name Only. He married a Parsi woman 24 years his junior (though she nominally converted), and seldom darkened the door of a mosque. When he paraded through the streets of Islamabad on the back of an elephant, he always had the band play “God Save the King.” It was the only song everyone knew, he explained. 

Jinnah despised his rivals. Gandhi was “a Hindu revivalist” and satyagraha, passive resistance, was “for the ignorant and illiterate.” Nehru was “a Peter Pan” who “should have been an English professor.”

Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan was of a modern, secular, democratic nation, honoring the rule of law. He deeply admired what Kemal Mustafa had done in Turkey -- abolishing the Caliphate, banning sharia law, setting up a secular education system, even prohibiting the traditional fez -- though Jinnah wanted to accomplish similar reforms through parliamentary means. It was his deep mistrust of the Congress Party, not any fondness for Islam, that led him to call for an autonomous Muslim state. He was convinced, too, that Muslims made up the more progressive, dynamic, and enlightened segment of the subcontinent’s population, and shouldn’t be shackled to the illiterate, superstitious Hindu peasant masses.

What would they think of their respective nations if they returned?

After a couple of false starts, India began liberalizing its economy in 1991, and experienced an unprecedented boom, GDP growth reaching 9% by 2007. The skylines of Bangalore, India’s IT capital, Mumbai (Bombay), its financial center, Pune, Hyderabad, and other cities transformed by the country’s prosperity, would have astonished both Gandhi and Jinnah.

Karachi, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, is an economic powerhouse as well, the country’s industrial and financial capital, headquarters for multinationals, with a downtown skyline reflecting this.  But it has serious crime problems and low livability ratings.

While democracy flourished in India, Pakistan’s history has been punctuated by coups, military dictatorships, widespread corruption, assassinations, and jihadist attacks. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, though it captured some 9/11 terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has played a double game, sheltering Bin Laden and continuing to support the Taliban. And the Pakistani Army was responsible for one of the great post-World War II genocides, when the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan sought independence in 1971. Estimates of the killings range from 300,000 to 3 million, with 6-8 million refugees. Revealingly, while Muslims represent almost 15% of India’s population, 177 million people, Hindus are less than 1.5% of Pakistan’s.

Not quite the nation of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, any more than India is a network of little, peaceable ashrams, where the spinning wheels hum and the Gita is chanted.

Shortly after the movie Gandhi opened in Delhi in 1982, a cartoon appeared in a major Indian newspaper showing a car with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) pulling away from the theater. “They say it’s based on a true story,” she tells a companion.

It was Independence Day in India and Pakistan on Friday. While no one, of course, has forgotten the dramatic events of August 1947, the two countries have strayed about as far from the visions of their founders as we in America have. 

Though he received his legal training in London (where he encountered the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, the book that was to be his Bible), Mohandas Gandhi, with his trademark loincloth and spinning wheel, envisioned an independent India that was deindustrialized and de-Westernized. His grand plan, “the Constructive Program,” called for households and villages to be autonomous, breeding cattle, using bullocks to pull plows, drawing water from wells. People would make their own clothing, pottery, and even their own books -- but not alcohol, which would be banned. Government would wither away. It was necessary only for the top 5% of the population, swindlers, black-marketeers, etc. and the bottom 5%, thieves, murderers, and gangsters. The rest of India would take naturally to the “spiritual socialism” of the Constructive Program. 

Jawaharal Nehru, Gandhi’s disciple and India’s first president, knew perfectly well how unrealistic the Mahatma’s vision was.  It would be impossible to support a population of 400 million with Gandhi’s policies. Nehru may have breathed a sigh of relief when the Mahatma was martyred on January 30, 1948. India’s first president was then able consolidate his control over the Congress Party and launch the nation on a program of massive government spending on prestige socialist projects that his mentor would have scorned.

Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah, educated like Gandhi at the Inns of Court, was his opposite in all respects. He was an Anglophile (English was his first language), a natty dresser -- he owned over 200 tailored suits, and changed clothes four times a day -- a chain smoker, and fond of champagne, oysters, caviar, claret, and single-blended Scotch: a classic MINO, Muslim In Name Only. He married a Parsi woman 24 years his junior (though she nominally converted), and seldom darkened the door of a mosque. When he paraded through the streets of Islamabad on the back of an elephant, he always had the band play “God Save the King.” It was the only song everyone knew, he explained. 

Jinnah despised his rivals. Gandhi was “a Hindu revivalist” and satyagraha, passive resistance, was “for the ignorant and illiterate.” Nehru was “a Peter Pan” who “should have been an English professor.”

Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan was of a modern, secular, democratic nation, honoring the rule of law. He deeply admired what Kemal Mustafa had done in Turkey -- abolishing the Caliphate, banning sharia law, setting up a secular education system, even prohibiting the traditional fez -- though Jinnah wanted to accomplish similar reforms through parliamentary means. It was his deep mistrust of the Congress Party, not any fondness for Islam, that led him to call for an autonomous Muslim state. He was convinced, too, that Muslims made up the more progressive, dynamic, and enlightened segment of the subcontinent’s population, and shouldn’t be shackled to the illiterate, superstitious Hindu peasant masses.

What would they think of their respective nations if they returned?

After a couple of false starts, India began liberalizing its economy in 1991, and experienced an unprecedented boom, GDP growth reaching 9% by 2007. The skylines of Bangalore, India’s IT capital, Mumbai (Bombay), its financial center, Pune, Hyderabad, and other cities transformed by the country’s prosperity, would have astonished both Gandhi and Jinnah.

Karachi, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, is an economic powerhouse as well, the country’s industrial and financial capital, headquarters for multinationals, with a downtown skyline reflecting this.  But it has serious crime problems and low livability ratings.

While democracy flourished in India, Pakistan’s history has been punctuated by coups, military dictatorships, widespread corruption, assassinations, and jihadist attacks. The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, though it captured some 9/11 terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has played a double game, sheltering Bin Laden and continuing to support the Taliban. And the Pakistani Army was responsible for one of the great post-World War II genocides, when the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan sought independence in 1971. Estimates of the killings range from 300,000 to 3 million, with 6-8 million refugees. Revealingly, while Muslims represent almost 15% of India’s population, 177 million people, Hindus are less than 1.5% of Pakistan’s.

Not quite the nation of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, any more than India is a network of little, peaceable ashrams, where the spinning wheels hum and the Gita is chanted.