Just three weeks before Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died, India’s ambassador to Moscow, K. P. S. Menon, received a much sought-after invitation to meet him at the Kremlin. The reclusive communist leader rarely granted such an interview. During the previous five years, he had bestowed this honor upon only three other diplomats.
The Soviet foreign office, which called Menon to convey the invite on 17 February 1953, took the license plate number of his car and the name of his driver. It advised the ambassador to report to the gate of the fortified complex in the center of Moscow at 7:45 pm for the 8 o’clock meeting the next day.
The topics they discussed during the interview — India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir, among other issues — still reverberate seven decades later in South Asia and beyond. These vexing issues take on an added dimension now, given the precarious state of affairs in Kashmir as well as highly strained Indo-Pak relations since Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the state’s long-held constitutional autonomy a year ago.
After some small talks, which included a discussion on Indian languages, Stalin and Menon briefly discussed India’s ties with China, Japan and Korea. Menon also briefed the Red Tsar on Delhi’s role in the Korean War and at the United Nations.
How strong is India’s army?
Stalin then asked whether India had a sufficiently large army. When Menon replied that India’s army was to defend itself, not to attack another country, Stalin asked: “But is your army capable of defending India?” Menon said India’s army was well-trained, but its air force and navy were in infancy.
Stalin’s next asked about India’s relations with Pakistan, a topic he had discussed once with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan three years ago when he was India’s ambassador to Moscow. Menon said “Kashmir continued to be a stumbling block in the establishment of friendly relations.”
Stalin made no comment, but asked whether Delhi had considered the possibility of some kind of federation between India and Pakistan. “That would be the ideal solution,” the pope of dialectical materialism observed.
Menon replied that this would take time, given the Hindu-Muslim bitterness generated in the last days of the British Raj. “How primitive it is,” Stalin interjected, “to create a state on the basis of religion!”
How Indian Muslims should feel
Menon referred to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s view of a secular India. By upholding this view, he continued, India had been trying to make the Muslims “feel that they were Indians in every respect.” “Of course they are Indians,” said Stalin, “and your policy is just the right one.”
Both Stalin and Menon are gone, and seven decades have passed since they met. But India and Pakistan are still at loggerheads, Kashmir looks like occupied Bangladesh of 1971, and India’s Muslims are now scared like never before. India today is in the grip of a chauvinistic cult that abhors secularism, promotes ultra-nationalism and dreams of a Hindudom in South Asia.
The federation idea dates back to the British time, but has not gained much traction. Some people see the solution to Kashmir’s nightmare in an economic miracle. One idea was to push for a joint Indo-Pak investment plan that would generate a 9.5 percent growth rate a year, making the Himalayan region as rich as China in 20 years.
Several years ago, some intellectuals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal predicted South Asia would again look like what it was before the partition. They proposed a confederation comprising Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. One of them also suggested that India and Pakistan form an interim administration to run the disputed territory and later find a negotiated permanent settlement.
The picturesque Himalayan region encompasses roughly 135,000 square miles, almost Germany’s size, with about 18 million people. India controls 85,000 square miles, Pakistan 33,000 and China 17,000. Both Pakistan and India claim the entire area as their own.
In 1948, after a Indo-Pak fight, India raised Kashmir in the UN Security Council, which called for a referendum on the territory’s status. It asked Pakistan to withdraw troops and India to cut military presence to a minimum. A ceasefire came into force, but Pakistan refused to pull out. Kashmir has remained partitioned ever since.
Musharraf plan still viable
The most promising formula to resolve the Kashmir crisis — and thus defuse the India-Pakistan conflict — came to naught after President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was pushed out of power in 2008. Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, then prime minister of India, secretly worked out a blueprint that would grant Kashmir full internal autonomy and allow the Kashmiris to move freely across the line dividing the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, pending a final agreement down the road. Musharraf’s sudden downfall sent the plan into cold storage, but it still remains a viable option.
Unfortunately, instead of picking up from where Singh left off, Modi has back-pedalled into the dark alley of ultra-nationalism. His misguided policies have provoked sharp backlashes at home and abroad and riled up all of India’s neighbors, even the friendliest one, Bangladesh. This is the kind of thinking that has cost India its rightful spot on the global stage and held it back from reaching its economic potential.
For the past 70 years, Indian leaders have misread the writing on the wall that India’s nirvana lies neither in crippling Pakistan nor in condemning the Kashmiris to an open-air prison, but in the nation’s emergence as an economic superpower. After China humiliated India in the 1962 war, Nehru recognized it, but his socialist economic formula retarded growth. He shunned foreign capital because he wanted India to walk “with its head held high, not bowing to anyone.” This posture yielded less than desired results.
By giving its people a world-class living standard, Delhi can possibly entice Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Bhutanese to join India if it holds the promise of a better life for them. Mexicans dig tunnels to enter the United States; Africans and Asians risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean for Europe’s greener pasture.
Poor economy India’s real problem
If the Indians were as rich as Americans or Europeans, the Pakistanis would wonder whether they are better off in a poor separate nation or in a wealthy India. Sadly, the land of 1.4 billion Indians ranked 102nd among 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index in 2019, behind Nepal, North Korea and even Pakistan. Sure, man does not live by bread alone and everyone cherishes freedom. But in a world of hunger, freedom sounds hollow. Time and again, nation after nation has shown money is god. It’s high time the Indians start to worship the rupee rather than the cow.
No, Modi’s re-election last year is no proof that Indra (supreme Hindu god) has won. In the grand scheme of things, Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) will prevail. As America has discovered, it’s the economy, stupid! In 2012, only 5 percent of Puerto Ricans voted in a nonbinding referendum to create a free nation, while a whopping 61 percent preferred to be America’s 51st state.
In contrast, economic deprivation galvanized Bengalis to form Bangladesh and the South Sudanese to secede from Khartoum. The Tamils Tigers fought for 26 years against Sri Lanka precisely for the same reason.
Would the Soviet Union have splintered if it were an economic powerhouse? Possibly not. Yugoslavia fell apart only after running into a serious economic hardship and its most advanced region — Slovenia — refused to carry the burden of its poorer siblings. The Sikh separatists felt the same when they waged a violent campaign to create Khalistan.
India has suffered because of its messed-up policies. Unlike many other newly developed nations, such as South Korea, Chile and China, India lacked the resolve to be rich. As Kanwal Rekhi, a highly successful Indian-American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, put it, “India is poor because it is fixated on poverty.” Until and unless a nation charts the right course of action, it will not reach the promised land.
India must look beyond Pakistan
The Indians don’t compare themselves against the Europeans or the Americans; they use the Pakistanis as their measuring stick and naively self-congratulate themselves for their shallow achievements. This perverse thinking has led India to take its eyes off the prize. Since independence, Delhi has been obsessed with Pakistan, a disoriented nation that is just one-fourth of India in land and natural resources and one-seventh in population. As a result, India today finds itself dwarfed by its real rival, China.
In 1960, China and India had the same per capita income of $80. Today an Indian earns only 25 percent of what a Chinese person makes. China’s military budget is four times larger than India’s. China today outguns India in all things defence. India can’t even make enough arms to defend itself, despite having immense human talents and natural resources.
On the international stage, India is nowhere near China. The entire African continent worships the renminbi. In Latin America, China’s trade totals $315 billion, compared with India’s $31 billion. To an average Greek, India is a land where people wear colorful dress, eat spicy food and men dance in movies. So much for the reputation of the nation with a 5,000-year heritage! Even in India’s backyard, Beijing has made spectacular inroads into Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal in recent years.
Because of India’s dismal failure to offer the economic carrot, Kashmir takes matters into its own hands. The fact that India’s smaller siblings have done well encourages the Kashmiris to strike out on their own. Bangladesh’s per capita income has risen sixfold since 2002 to $1,855, compared with India’s fivefold to $2,108, despite Bangladesh being highly resource-poor and most densely populated in the world. If Bangladesh can prosper, why not Kashmir?
Kashmir, unfortunately, is in an inclement climate today, thanks to harsh global geopolitical realities. So its fate will take unpredictable twists and turns. Nonetheless, if India ever faces cataclysmic headwinds, it will not be because of its laxity to brainwash its citizens into super-patriotism, but because of its foul-ups in responding to its people’s dream to live in a prosperous motherland. The history of the Soviet Union is highly instructive.
B.Z. Khasru is author of “Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome.” His new book, “One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus an America,” will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi.
Banner image by the US Central Intelligence Agency and hosted by the University of Texas-Austin Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection; altered to show new jurisdictions by Fowler&fowler, courtesy of Wikipedia.
This article can also be found on The Kashmir Observer.