Of denial and demons
“If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from.” This would be a one-line summation of eminent journalist
B G Varghese’s posthumous book A State of Denial. At the heart of Pakistan’s dilemma, he argues, it’s lack of a clear identity, absence of a positive ideology and denial of its history. Apart from Israel, Pakistan is the only other nation in the world created in the name of religion. It may be recalled what Zia ul Haq, Pakistan’s ruler had said in 1981, “Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.”
There is a mountain (and growing) of literature about Pakistan and its persistent animus towards India, and given the tangled history of distrust and hatred, broken only by bloody conflicts and acts of terrorism against India, much of the debate on how India should relate to its neighbour is driven by a similar hawkish aggression, especially now that a Hindutva-flashing government is in power at the Centre. This book however is the product of a more optimistic outlook and therefore a welcome change of pace for those interested in the subject.
Verghese belonged to that generation of Indian journalists who were fired by the idealism of the early decades after independence, when the idea of a reconciliation was not entirely abandoned, though it has over time been tempered by a more hard-nosed pragmatism. He briskly outlines some of the events and issues that have come to be identified with Pakistan: the Partition, and the battle for Kashmir, the creation of Bangladesh, the contentious treaty over the sharing of Indus waters, the Siachen and Kargil standoffs, the nuclear tests, and the growing Islamisation of its society, which have further fuelled internal dissent and are straining the fabric of Pakistan society.
He then approaches his theme that these are merely the outer signs of a deeper malaise, which is that it is a nation confused about its identity — rejecting the past but chained to an ideology that prevents it from accepting the inconvenient truth. Verghese argues that a nation flawed at birth, cut off from its past history and culture, has sought to reinvent its geography by medieval concepts of Islamic or “ideological” frontiers.
“Pakistan has created a false identity of itself that is essentially a sorry caricature of what it actually is.”
These are not simply homilies or ideas filtered through rose-tinted romanticism, but argued persuasively and with deep conviction. He has provided “interesting nuances and nuggets in the present narrative that offer a better and deeper insight into the anxieties , hostilities, mistrust, hopes and yearnings that have gone into shaping what has been a tormented relationship….”
Verghese has relied new archival material from official records, through memoirs and other sources, both Indian and foreign, also perhaps to dispel the notion some may have that this is “an Indian rant and pure propaganda.” The heart of the book is the section where he deconstructs Pakistan before outlining the “fugitive hope” of a possible reconciliation with out-of-the-box solutions, including autonomy and restructuring in the entire Jammu and Kashmir, overcoming the wounds of Partition and for Pakistan to “move away from fundamentalism and embrace the syncretic, Sufi-infused Islam it once knew” and fully accept its history. A tall order perhaps, but as Verghese says, “India cannot afford to sneer at or stand aloof… It must assist in change. if the right efforts are made, the issues of Kashmir and waters could be resolved.”
The book is an eloquent and persuasive commentary on the pitfalls of nations that are the creation of false notions, and then fall off the plank of secularism and democracy into a dangerous territory. The example of Pakistan is thus of huge significance, more so for India which too is coming to grips with an ideology that threatens its secular fabric.
Finally, the book is a fitting signing off by one of India’s finest and most respected journalists, editor and author. Verghese died in December 30, 2014. This is a fine final legacy of a fine journalist and humanist.