India and Pakistan's 70 years of Independence: A look back at how destiny set the midnight’s children apart

India and Pakistan mark their 70th year of existence on 14 and 15 August. Seventy years ago, both nations stared at an uncertain future after the tumultuous episode of Partition, which killed more than a million people on either side of the new border.

As Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were addressing their respective Constituent Assemblies, they knew the task ahead was not going to be easy. Both nations lacked the institutions that could sustain the test of time. Democracy was an alien concept in both countries — more so in Pakistan. A model of governance had to be institutionalised through a written Constitution. Moreover, both nation-states had a myriad of socio-political issues to resolve — ethnic and linguistic sub-nationalism, role of religion in state affairs, devolution of power to constituents and implementing land reforms.

While both countries faced similar socio-economic issues, India had the advantage of being the successor state of the British Raj. In 1947, India was home to about a quarter of the world population and ranked among the top five industrialised nations in the world. Pakistan, on the other hand, was nothing more than an amputated piece of land without a coherent industrial base or even a capital city.

In the backdrop of such challenges, Nehru and Jinnah came up with impressive inaugural speeches. While Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech set the tone for India’s future role as a responsible voice of the third world, Jinnah’s “secular State” speech sought to position Pakistan as a country where every citizen, irrespective of his religion will be treated equally.

Although, Jinnah’s speech sounded an antithesis of the very concept of Pakistan – a state for the Muslims of India. However, both leaders would not have had the slightest of idea on how the destinies of their countries would pan out in the next seven decades.

Lord Mountbatten decided on the Partition of the Subcontinent on 3 June 1947. Wikimedia Commons

Lord Louis Mountbatten decided on the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent on 3 June 1947. Wikimedia Commons

The sheer power of personalities

India had Jawaharlal Nehru at the helm of affairs till his death in May 1964, while Jinnah lost his battle against tuberculosis within 13 months of Pakistan’s creation as a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent.

Strong personalities have often shaped the early destinies of countries. Kemal Pasha Ataturk ruled modern-day Turkey from 1923 to 1938, transforming the Islamic Caliphate into a modern secular republic. Similarly, George Washington, the founding father of the United States, led the world's first oldest democracy, first as a military leader and then as its inaugural president, in the process creating an edifice by which the country still stands by – more or less.

Despite all his flaws, Nehru was an institution builder, creating and nurturing several institutions that have endured the test of time. The Election Commission – arguably the best-run State institution — is perhaps the single biggest contribution of Nehru.

Whether every Nehruvian institution was effective is still debatable, but nevertheless, Nehru turned his vision of a socialist, democratic and secular India into reality before he passed away on 27 May 1964.

Nehru’s impact on India’s early history can be gauged by the fact that it was a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had paid the richest tribute to his dear “Panditji“ in the Rajya Sabha:

"A dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has banished into the Unknown. The dream was of a world free of fear and hunger; the song a great epic resonant with the spirit of the Bhagwad Gita and as fragrant as a rose, the flame a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way. Mother India’s beloved prince has gone to sleep.”

Jinnah died too soon to turn his vision of a Turkey-like Pakistan into reality. However, historians still debate whether Pakistan could have become South Asia's Turkey had Jinnah lived long enough to fulfil his dream of emulating his idol Ataturk.

But history is the saga of many ifs and buts.

The reticent Jinnah never developed a second generation of leadership in the Muslim League. When asked who all he thought helped him achieve Pakistan, Jinnah remarked, “I, my secretary and his typewriter”.

Jinnah’s death created a huge void in the national leadership, which could never really be filled. Pakistan struggled with political instability, the Constitution took nine years to take shape, while the idea of democracy failed in the nascent nation-state.

Nehru called institutes of higher education 'temples of modern India'. Twitter @INCIndia

India's first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad predicted the rise of army in Pakistan. Twitter @INCIndia

India’s Damocles Swords

In 1958, General (later field marshal) Ayub Khan took over the reins of the country. Since then, the military has shaped the destiny of Pakistan, either directly or indirectly.

Towards the end of 1960s, Ayub had strengthened the military’s hold over the State machinery and inaugurated a Constitution establishing a presidential form of government, elected by “basic electors” – a concept which was as vague as it sounds.

Meanwhile, India had begun to take baby steps into the world of democracy. Proving critics wrong, India successfully held four general elections. The Centre, aided by several states, also introduced legislations to implement land reforms, albeit with limited success.

Between mid-1950s and 1960s, India witnessed the climax in two major issues: official language and language-based statehood.

Nehru for the record was opposed to idea of creating states based on languages, fearing the rise of sub-nationalism. While Nehru’s fears might have been true to some extent, the move ultimately helped India to enrich the edifice of federalism – an idea which was already enshrined in the Constitution.

The federalism debate was compounded by linguistic zeal in non-Hindi parts of India. While the federalism debate was being settled, the issue of a common language propped up. With none of the languages being spoken by the majority, the question was always expected to be the Damocles Sword for the Centre.

As the Centre’s deadline of 31 January, 1965 — the day Hindi would become the sole official language — approached, Tamil Nadu erupted against the decision. Other non-Hindi speaking states like West Bengal too voiced their dissent. It took days of rioting in Tamil Nadu for the Centre to scrap the idea.

In 1967, the Union government amended the Official Languages Act, 1963 to allow English to continue as a link language until the Parliament passes a resolution to reverse the decision. The Constitution had already accorded the status of official language to 14 (now 22) languages through the VIIIth Schedule of the Constitution.

Thus, India was saved from possible Balkanisation. Although debatable, one can say that India could take such decisions, partly due to its perceived commitment to socialist and pluralistic ideals along with the strong leadership provided by the Congress party.

But the language issue turned out to be the death knell for the “two nation theory” in Pakistan.

Zia ul Haq, a Jalandhar-born Punjabi, visited India in 1987. Twitter @Indianhisotrypics

Muhammad Zia ul Haq, a Jalandhar-born Punjabi, visited India in 1987. Twitter @Indianhistorypics

A farce called ‘two-nation theory’

Pakistan was the product of the “two-nation theory” – a belief that Hindus and Muslims had always been separate nationalities within India. It did not matter whether Indian Muslims came from different cultures and ethnicity. The proponents of the theory believed that religion will be the glue to stick every Indian Muslim.

However, the theory proved to be farcical from 1950s onwards, when ethnic sentiments emerged in East Bengal over the alleged economic and cultural indifference by Pakistan's western wing.

Separated from each other by over a thousand miles, religion was the only common factor between the two wings of the country.

The obsession with the theory meant that ethnic and language issue was never given serious consideration.

Since the establishment of Pakistan, it was amply made clear that Urdu would continue to be the national language of the newly-carved nation-state. This is what Jinnah said in a speech at Dhaka:


“Let me make it clear to you that the State language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead is merely the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries. Therefore, so far as the State language is concerned, Pakistan's language should be Urdu; but, as I have said, it will come in time.”

Nevertheless, Bengali was made an "official language" along with Urdu, but it remained so only on paper. Bengali, as conventional wisdom suggested, was always considered a “Hindu language”, while Urdu came to be signified as the symbol of Islam in the Subcontinent.

Federalism as an idea never took off in Pakistan.

In 1955, four provinces of the western wing – Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – were unified under the One Unit scheme to bring "parity" between the two wings of Pakistan. The plan also nullified the numerical advantage of the Bengalis, ending up alienating the eastern wing. The controversial scheme was ultimately scrapped in 1970.

The Anti-Bengali sentiment transgressed the economic realm too. The eastern wing was discriminated in the allocation of central funds, with western wing receiving 70 percent of the funds between 1950 and 1970.

All these factors forced Awami leader Mujibur Rahman to seek more autonomy in the 1960s. However, Pakistan’s military dictatorship brooked no dissent as Mujibur and fellow leaders were jailed for their demands.


Things reached the nadir, when Bengali nationalists declared independence in March 1971. Nine months later, Bangladesh was born.

After the liberation of Bangladesh, India signed a friendship treaty with the newly carved country. Twitter @INCIndia

After the liberation of Bangladesh, India signed a friendship treaty with the newly independent country. Twitter @INCIndia

‘Bhuttoism’ and ‘Indira’s India’

Nine months before India entered the 13-day war with Pakistan which created Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi comprehensively won the fifth general elections. But Indira’s ascendancy also sowed the seed for her ultimate ouster.

With a mammoth parliamentary majority and control over most of India’s state governments, Indira wielded absolute power. But as John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely." Indira's new found absolute power soon came under Opposition's fire.

The anti-Indira sentiment reached its zenith when the Centre declared Emergency in June 1975. In the next 18 months, Opposition was suppressed, media was silenced, lakhs were forcefully sterilized and a 20-point economic programme was enforced: all this only because she was convicted for electoral malpractice.

While "Indira's India" was flirting with authoritarianism, a truncated Pakistan finally saw the dawn of democracy under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In 1973, Bhutto became Pakistan’s first democratically elected leader after drafting the country’s third Constitution.

For the first time in Pakistan's political history, a government pursued an ideology-based policy. Bhutto embarked on a socialist sojourn, nationalising heavy industries, addressing labour issues, implementing two phases of land reforms – with limited success and improving ties with the Warsaw Pact countries. In the process, Bhutto created a political ideology called "Bhuttoism".

It was probably the only time in subcontinent's history when both countries seemed to be on the same page on the question of economy.

Vajpayee made a historic trip to Pakistan in February 1999, where he and his Pakistani counterpart signed the Lahore Declaration. Reuters

Vajpayee made a historic trip to Pakistan in February 1999, where he and his Pakistani counterpart signed the Lahore Declaration. Reuters

1977: watershed year in the Subcontinent

If 1947 was the year both countries won their Independence, 1977 was the year when the destinies of two countries took completely opposite turns.

After the Emergency was lifted in March 1977, Indira was booted out and the hodgepodge coalition Janata Party led by Morarji Desai came to power. Although the coalition collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, the Janata experiment proved for the first time that the hegemonic Congress could be defeated.

While India applied the break on authoritarianism, Pakistan applied reverse gear to return to dictatorship.

On 5 July, 1977, General Muhammad Zia ul Haq overthrew the democratically elected Bhutto government. The racoon-eyed Zia cruelly put his former boss Bhutto to death in an obscure murder case and went on to rule for 11 years. Lacking a constituency of his own, Zia introduced Sharia law in a bid to gain the approval of Islamists. While reneging on his promise to hold elections till 1985, Zia consolidated the military as part of Operation Cyclone – the covert US plan to back Mujahideens in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

Zia's policies created the mullah-military complex – a byword for rabid Islamisation of the State machinery. The dominant moderate voices were sidelined while Islamism gained ground in Pakistan.

The general was also single-handedly responsible for the rise of Pakistan as the "motherboard of terrorism".

When Zia was planning a non-party election in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi had just won the largest ever mandate in India's history. India’s youngest prime minister brought about many reforms in India's democratic system such as penalising defections to bring long-term political stability, and reducing the voting age from 21 to 18.

Rajiv also gave the initial impetus to empowering India's urban and rural local bodies. In 1992, his idea took form of the 11th and 12th Schedule of the Constitution.

The contrast between Zia and Rajiv administrations could not be starker than this: when Rajiv was overhauling the education system through the 1986 National Education Policy, Zia regime was busy promoting “Jinn sciences” with Saudi Arabia’s backing.

Pervez Musharraf first took power as a military ruler in 1999. He continued in power as president until 2008. Reuters

Pervez Musharraf first took power as a military ruler in 1999. He continued in power as president until 2008. Reuters

Going nuclear amid uncertainty

India and Pakistan were again at the cross-roads of destiny in the mid-90s.

India had three prime ministers – HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and Vajpayee – between 1996 and 1999. Coalition politics seemed to be failing once again after the Janata Party and National Front debacles.

While India was struggling with coalition politics in its 50th year of Independence, Pakistan had elected its most powerful government. In the February 1997 elections, Nawaz Sharif secured his second term as prime minister with a two-third majority.

If 1977 was politically significant in Subcontinent’s history, 1998 will go down in history as the year that changed the strategic balance of the region.

India conducted its first thermonuclear tests — Shakti I and II — on 11 and 13 May while Pakistan followed up with its own tests codenamed Chagai I and II on 28 and 30 May.

While many argued that the threat of nuclear war loomed after 1998, experts like Sumit Ganguly believed that the nuclear power has brought about a deterred both countries from going for an all-out war fearing MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). However, in his book, India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia, Ganguly also added that Pakistan would indulge in more unconventional warfare, emboldened by its nuclear capabilities.

In less than a year, however, the political situation in the nuclear-armed neighbourhood changed; that too in a matter of less than 48 hours in October 1999.

A day before Vajpayee was to take oath as the leader of the first majority-enjoying coalition government in India’s history, General Pervez Musharraf disposed Sharif on the night of 12 October 1999. And the reason for Vajpayee’s ascendency to power and Sharif’s downfall was the same: Kargil War.

Vajpayee went on to become the father of modern coalition politics. The UPA I and II governments that followed NDA I, as well as the current NDA II regime have proved the power of “coalition dharma”.

Narendra Modi is the first prime minister from the Right-wing to enjoy a parliamentary majority. Reuters

Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister from the Right-wing to enjoy a parliamentary majority. Reuters

Time to re-route our destinies in the 21st Century?

In the 21st Century, both India and Pakistan have been victims of Islamist terror. Although, in Pakistan’s case, it was more of its own doing. While the bane of terrorism binds us, Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism sets us apart.

In 2013, Pakistan saw a democratic transition of power for the first time – a significant event in the country’s chequered democracy. However, no Pakistan prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term. The one who was expected to break the jinx – Sharif – was recently dismissed by the Pakistan Supreme Court on corruption charges.

Our neighbour is yet again passing through a phase of political uncertainty. But the army does not seem to be taking over the reins of the country. When Pakistan goes to polls in early 2018, it will be the first time since Independence that two consecutive governments would have completed their full terms. This will be a good sign for democracy in the country.

Meanwhile, India under Narendra Modi – arguably the strongest prime minister after Indira – is witnessing the resurgence of the right-wing, the gradual repudiation of the Nehruvian legacy and the restructuring of India’s governance model.

There is however one question that needs to be asked.

Will there be any period in future when both nations would simultaneously be moving on the path of stability?

Nobody can answer the question right now. Only time will tell whether destiny will keep the two nation-states moving on opposite directions or help bring them closer at some point.


Published Date: Aug 14, 2017 08:57 am | Updated Date: Aug 14, 2017 11:22 am



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