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The Man Who Brings Peace to South Asia

Can South Asian leaders learn something about making peace from their common history?

March 23, 2002

Can South Asian leaders learn something about making peace from their common history?

In 1556, when Akbar ascended to the throne of the Mughal dynasty, which then ruled over present-day Northern India, he faced one significant problem. In order to consolidate his power, Akbar had to come up with a way to govern a largely Hindu population even though he was a Muslim emperor.

His shaky position resulted from his grandfather Babar’s successful invasion of northern Hindu India. He had come from Muslim Afghanistan and had founded the Mughal dynasty on Indian soil in 1526.

Akbar’s basic solution for the challenges posed by religious diversity in his realm was religious tolerance — and he practiced what he preached. He himself studied Hinduism. His son’s teacher was a Portuguese Jesuit. And Akbar was seen to encourage religious debate at his court.

In fact, he proved to be so tolerant of other religions that fellow Muslim clerics at one point challenged his rule — and organized an unsuccessful revolt against him in 1579.

Akbar’s empire, based on his brand of religious tolerance and administrative structure, survived for almost 200 years. From the late 18th century onward, however, the British conquered India. A prominent feature of their rule was religious classification. In the attempt to fathom what India’s society was all about, the British looked for familiar structures.

Caste came apparently closest to the 19th century British class system. According to this approach, Indians were either Hindus — with various caste sub-categories —, Muslim or Sikh. After the 1857 mutiny, this classification had a qualifying component as well. It so happened that Muslim and Sikh soldiers tended to support their British masters. From then on, many Hindus were regarded with suspicion by the British.

Over time, this perversion of India’s social classification contributed to the dissolution of religious peace. Indians developed a new religious self-awareness — and consequently a new sense of differences within their society. Western concepts of social structures ultimately helped to destroy Akbar’s achievements.

The end of religious harmony contributed to India’s partition in 1947. Back then, Pakistan broke away under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first governor-general from 1947 to 1948.

Ironically, it was Jinnah who in 1916 had been hailed as ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. He managed to have his league and the predominantly Hindu Indian National Congress agree on a single petition demanding political reforms to be implemented by the British.

Yet, Gandhi’s — and later, Nehru’s — aversion to special Muslim electorates disillusioned Jinnah, who subsequently made it his life’s mission to create a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. A toxic mix of Muslim concerns about being permanently outnumbered by Hindus in an independent India and Hindu lack of sensitivity made otherwise conceivable solutions impossible.

However, partition did not solve any problems, either. Not only have India and Pakistan gone to war several times — but religious strife is ripe within their own borders as well.

Fifty years on, the fact that both nations have acquired nuclear weapons makes it all the more pressing to recapture the spirit of Akbar. No single leader in the subcontinent can be cast as the modern-day Akbar.

For one, the Mughal emperor operated in a single country which he wanted to unify. Today’s leaders — India’s Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf — run two sovereign nations that are highly suspicious of each other. Both must achieve between two states what Akbar achieved in one.

Which of the two heads of government, then, is the more likely candidate in our quest for a 21st century version of Akbar’s spirit? At first glance, India’s Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee appears to be the right choice.

He was elected best parliamentarian in 1994 and is India’s democratically elected Prime Minister. Vajpayee also succeeded in keeping his shaky coalition government together under the leadership of his Bharatiya Janata Party ever since he came to power a second time in 1998.

For India, this four-year long period represents a considerable achievement given that only the Nehru/Gandhi clan managed to so before. Also, Vajpayee has proven to be less inclined to religious intolerance than his party affiliation would make one believe.

Yet, bear in mind that the BJP is part of a larger network of organizations that developed out of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, also called RSS. Hardliners in this group believe that Indian Muslims and Christians are the descendants of Hindus who were forcefully converted to other faiths — and thus have to be re-Hindunized.

It was a former RSS member who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 because he believed India’s independence leader gave away too much to the Muslims in Pakistan.

Even if Vajpayee has made himself a name for his work for social justice long before he became India’s Prime Minister, he is constrained by the very coalition system he so admirably keeps alive.

Moving too close to a reconciliation with Pakistan may quite literally cost him his head. Even within his own cabinet, there are more radical politicians such as India’s home minister L. K. Advani just waiting to replace him.

Now switch focus to Pakistan. No doubt, Pervez Musharraf is a military dictator. He came into power ousting Pakistan’s democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sahrif in 1999.

In the conflict with India, however, the first thing that the world media noticed was that Mr. Musharraf pointedly reached out to Prime Minister Vajpayee — surprising him and all those present with a spontaneous handshake at the January 2002 summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu.

A closer look at Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf reveals even more interesting insights. He grew up in a family that was traditionally open-minded to other cultures. His father was a senior Indian Civil Servant under the British Raj, and later became a career diplomat.

Musharraf partially grew up in Turkey. There, he might have gotten a glimpse of a secular government in a Muslim country. Anecdotal evidence for his openness is also his fondness of dogs, which is highly unusual for Muslims who believe dogs should be avoided.

On a more practical level, Musharraf ordered the Hindu quarters of Karachi to be guarded against any potential Muslim attackers as news of the Gujarat massacre in late February 2002 came through. Meanwhile, the Muslim victims in Gujarat easily outnumbered the Hindu casualties. Also, recently Musharraf announced to end discrimination against women in Pakistan.

All this points to a benevolent patriarch, rather like Akbar himself. For all his openness, Akbar was a feudal lord, in many aspects a form of government not very different from that of a military dictator. There is a slight chance that Pakistan is actually lucky in Musharraf’s assumption of power.

As a dictator he is less accountable for his actions. If he really wants to, he can much more easily impose policies on others than the democratically-elected Vajpayee can. That is a very dangerous gamble, however.

To be fair to Vajpayee, he is as interested in law and order — and a healthy relationship to his neighbor — as Musharraf is. It would be wrong, too, to count him among the BJP hardliners. But given his political constraints and the nature of India’s democracy, it might help — for once — that his Pakistani opposite is a general with Akbar potential.