WHAT if? History students often ask the counterfactual question, which actually can be of interest to anyone of us for a range of excellent and ordinary reasons.
Had the horse not been domesticated what would have become of Genghis Khan’s ambition to conquer the world? Had China not discovered gunpowder, how would Indians celebrate Diwali? And what would Iran and Iraq have used to wreck each other for eight years without a break? Had the gunpowder not been discovered in China, American Democrats and Republicans would have one agenda less to quarrel over — the gun laws.
Ergo, next time someone blames Xi Jinping for exporting a pandemic to their country, they should go back to tackle a far more fateful event that occurred in mediaeval China.
In a similar vein, the discovery of the wheel produced the chariot, which created empires. The building of ocean-friendly ships turned England, hitherto an isolated speck on the western fringes of the happening world, into the most strategic hub between Europe and America. This prowess in turn handed it an empire on which the sun never set.
Had history not played truant that day in Agra, there would be a hoard of money available for healthcare and education for both countries.
There are pivotal moments too in history — “tide in the affairs of men”, Brutus called them in a Shakespeare play — which if lost could lead to untold buffeting and miseries.
Jaswant Singh, India’s former foreign minister, who died on Monday after six years in a coma from a fall at his home, was carrying a history-making sheaf of typed papers in his briefcase on July 16, 2001, in Agra, papers of immeasurable importance to the future history of South Asia.
So powerful were the contents in Jaswant Singh’s draft he had agreed with his Pakistan counterpart that it had the potential to forestall any future war between India and Pakistan. Singh’s far right colleague and home minister L.K. Advani torpedoed the draft pact moments before Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf were to accept it.
The sabotaged Agra summit could have saved India and Pakistan an endless need to procure military hardware at prohibitive costs to their poverty-stricken masses. Had history not played truant that day in Agra, there would be a hoard of money available for healthcare and education for both countries — saved from scandal-tainted Rafale jets in India, for example — which in turn would have enabled both to better fight the coronavirus menace, and perhaps even spare precious resources for the less endowed neighbours.
The French Rafales were meant to deal with the military contingency in Ladakh with China, one might argue. Yes and no. Jaswant Singh’s peace deal carried the power, in fact, to vacate the need for even India and China to think of war or to send hapless men to inhospitable climes for guarding their ill-defined frontiers. There would be perhaps no deaths from frostbite or avalanches in Siachen either. There would be no need to interdict the Karakoram Highway.
There is a humanitarian catastrophe brewing in Jammu and Kashmir. An Agra pact would have made unnecessary the perverse annexation of Jammu and Kashmir last year. True, there were howls of protest from right-wing nationalists when Jaswant Singh proposed in a subsequent TV interview that India could accept the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as a hard border and thus end a core dispute with Pakistan.
The protests had less to do with the logic of peace between nuclear rivals, rather they were needed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its assiduously nurtured hatred for Pakistan. A worried Arun Jaitley, the late partisan of the RSS, told the Americans in as many words, according to WikiLeaks, that good relations with Pakistan were detrimental to Hindutva’s political constituency in northern India. The instructive core of such an argument can imply that the December 2001 terror attack on the Indian parliament or the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai harmed India but helped the BJP. The logic again came into play with the Pulwama attack last year.
To loosely translate an Indian saying, the horse cannot befriend the grass. That’s a likelier reason for the failure of the Agra summit — because peace with Pakistan would destroy the BJP’s plank to win votes. It goes to the credit of Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh that they didn’t see their politics through the prism of perpetual communal hostility.
The hatred flared up on two subsequent occasions against BJP leaders who fell out of line. The RSS first destroyed Advani’s political career for visiting Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi in 2005 where he praised the founder of Pakistan as a secular politician. Jaswant Singh stood by Advani in his moment of isolation. Then in August 2009, Jaswant Singh wrote a book in which he even-handedly apportioned blame for the partition to Jinnah, Nehru and Sardar Patel. He was expelled from the BJP.
Not only that, then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi ensured that the book — Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence — was banned in his state and publicly burnt. Modi lobbied with his party to not allow Patel’s image to be tarred with the taint of Partition. He then denied Singh the ticket to contest the parliamentary elections in May 2014. Singh fought the elections as an independent and was expelled once again. The Congress too issued calls to burn the book, riled that it accused Nehru of insincerity in dealing with Jinnah.
Asked if he had fallen victim to friendly fire, Singh, a former military officer, said: “A friendly fire is an accident. I have been betrayed by my kith and kin.”
He often spoke to me about his undeterred mission to “expand the constituency of peace” between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, saying: “We are of the same womb.” John Lennon wrote his counterfactual song Imagine and showed how ordinary earthlings could be craven worshippers of peace. Jaswant Singh lived by that dream, as so many do in a very factually tense world.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.