India @75: Modi Must Revive Efforts to Bring New Delhi, Pak & Bangladesh Closer

Both Vajpayee and Advani wanted to foster an era of peace and cooperation among the three countries.

9 min read

On Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Prime Minister Narendra Modi missed a rare opportunity to foster South-Asian fraternity, with friendly relations between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at its core. He ought to have invited leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and also leaders of other countries in the SAARC region, for a common commemoration. He had done so on the occasion of his swearing-in as Prime Minister in 2014. Leaders of our neighbouring countries had responded positively to his invitation and came to New Delhi. Collectively, they conveyed an optimistic message of South Asian solidarity. Modi should have done the same to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, which, by any reckoning, has a far greater historical significance than the inauguration of his premiership.

Moreover, the dates 14 August and 15 August this year mark the Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav of both India and Pakistan. True, India was partitioned on that day and Pakistan was born as a result of that partition. Pakistan itself was split later in 1971 when East Pakistan liberated itself to become Bangladesh. These two partitions are highly tragic events in the history of our subcontinent. True, they cannot be undone. ‘Akhand Bharat’, a pet project of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is neither feasible nor possible. But can we not undo, must we not undo, their negative effects by making earnest and consistent efforts to bring India, Pakistan and Bangladesh closer in bonds of friendship and cooperation within the larger framework of a South Asian union? We can. We must.


How Vajpayee and Advani Tried to Bring the 3 Nations Closer

In this context, I recall an inspiring proposal Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made when he was the Prime Minister. The place was Islamabad, the venue of the 12th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. The date was 4 January 2004. I accompanied Vajpayee on this historic visit to Pakistan. In his speech at the summit, Vajpayee said:

“Any joint endeavour needs mutual trust and confidence. For many decades, South Asian countries, which have a complex and troubled colonial legacy, have been unable to forge an integrated economic understanding, circumventing political differences. Mutual suspicions and petty rivalries have continued to haunt us. As a result, the peace dividend has bypassed our region. History can remind us, guide us, teach us or warn us; it should not shackle us. We have to look forward now, with a collective approach in mind.”

Vajpayee drew the attention of SAARC leaders to an important signpost in the history of undivided India:

“Not very long ago, I visited the Andaman Islands, where during our colonial days, political prisoners were kept in confinement. On the inscriptions in the Cellular Jail there, I found many names of brave martyrs and freedom fighters from what are today three South Asian countries. Our forefathers fought side by side, transcending religious, regional and linguistic differences against a common colonial oppressor in our first war of Independence in 1857. It reminds us that many of us have a shared history, which pre-dates our more recent divisions.”

Vajpayee then made a significant suggestion. “In two years’ time, we will enter the 150th Anniversary of that stirring uprising. Perhaps India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can together celebrate that anniversary, in remembrance of our joint struggle against a common adversary. We have to learn appropriate lessons from the experience of other countries. After centuries of fratricidal conflicts and wars, Europe is now uniting to emerge as the world’s most powerful economic grouping. Closer home, the ASEAN countries have found it possible not to allow their political problems to come in the way of economic cooperation. Examples of ever-deepening regional cooperation can be seen in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean region where also countries have a long history of bitter hostility towards each other. All these examples remind us that rational economics should triumph over political prejudice in South Asia.”

Advani's Visit to Pak in 2005

LK Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) second-most important leader at the time, repeated Vajpayee’s statesmanlike suggestion when he visited Pakistan in 2005. I was privileged to accompany him, too, on this visit. Advani suggested that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh hold a three-nation commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the anti-British War of Independence in 1857. To a question about whether this meant ‘Akhand Bharat’, he said:

“The Partition cannot be undone, because the creation of India and Pakistan as two separate and sovereign nations is an unalterable reality of history. However, some of the follies of Partition can be undone, and they must be undone.”

Both Vajpayee and Advani were motivated by the idea of opening a new era of peace, friendship and cooperation among India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and making it a catalyst for broader cooperation in South Asia.

Alas, Manmohan Singh, who was India’s Prime Minister in 2007, took no initiative for a joint commemoration of the 150th anniversary of 1857. It is equally sad that Modi, disregarding the spirit of the suggestion made by his own party’s two founding leaders, has frittered away the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of Independence of India and Pakistan.


When Indian and Pakistani Flags Fluttered Together in August 1947

The idea of a joint celebration of independence by India and Pakistan is not as strange and unrealistic as it sounds. The people and politicians of both our countries have now forgotten that Indian and Pakistani flags fluttered together, in Karachi and Calcutta, at the very birth of our two countries, and that, too, in the presence of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi.

Let me first present a flashback to an unbelievable event that took place in Karachi (newly born Pakistan’s first capital) on 15 August 1947. I am saying this on the authority of Indian historian Ajeet Jawed, author of Secular and Nationalist Jinnah.

Just a day after Pakistan’s founding day, Jinnah hosted a reception on India’s first day of independence. Among the guests were many prominent representatives of the Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Parsi communities: Kiran Shankar Roy, the leader of the Congress, which had rechristened itself as the Pakistan National Congress, Bhim Sen Sachar, C Vazirani, Justice Mahajan and MSM. Sharma, among others. On that day, on Jinnah’s order, the flags of Pakistan and India flew together. Fellow Muslim League leader Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, a former Chief Minister of Bengal, who later became Pakistan’s Prime Minister for a brief period, had made this appeal to him.

Significantly, Suhrawardy had joined hands with Mahatma Gandhi to douse the flames of communal riots in Calcutta in August 1947. Suharawardy suggested that every patriotic Indian and every patriotic Pakistani should fly the two flags – Indian and Pakistani – together.

Sharma, Jinnah’s Hindu friend and editor of Karachi-based Daily Gazette, proudly hoisted the two flags at the office of his newspaper. Also, upon Jinnah’s suggestion, the Pakistan Minorities Association was formed with Hemandas Wadhwani, a well-known leader of Sindhi Hindus, as the President and Sharma as one of the Vice-Presidents.

No less significant was the flag that Jinnah approved for Pakistan. Two-thirds of it was green, but the remaining one-third was a white strip, symbolising peace and acceptance of minorities. Jinnah assigned the task of writing Pakistan’s national song to Jagannath Azad, a Hindu poet from Lahore. His song Tarana-e-Pakistan, approved by Jinnah, was broadcast from Radio Lahore immediately after Pakistan's establishment was announced, on the night of 14 August 1947. The song served as Pakistan’s national anthem for a year and a half. After Jinnah's death, a new song was chosen as the national anthem, written by the Urdu poet Hafiz Jallundhari.


Hindu-Muslim Harmony in Calcutta

Mahatma Gandhi’s example of promoting aman (peace) and amity between Hindus and Muslims on the one hand, and between India and Pakistan on the other, was immensely more heroic.

August 1947 was going to be a month of celebration for Indians and Pakistanis, for it would usher in freedom from British rule. But it was also a time of mourning since the Partition had triggered horrific communal violence leading to the killing of lakhs of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, and large-scale migration across the borders. The pain and suffering of people were palpable on both sides.

When freedom came to India, the Father of the Nation was not in Delhi to join the festivities along with our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, other leaders of the independence movement and the joyous masses in the national capital. He had gone to Calcutta to douse the flames of Hindu-Muslim riots.

What his peace mission achieved was nothing short of a miracle. The very same people who were at each other’s throats before his arrival began to hug each other. It is best described in Mahatma Gandhi - The Last Phase, a classic authored by Pyarelal, his trusted secretary.

“It was the Muslim festival of Id. An endless concourse of Muslims began visiting Gandhiji’s residence (Hydari Mansion, a Muslim home now converted into a memorial) from the morning. Muslim friends from Calcutta in large numbers sent gifts of sweets and fruit. As Gandhiji was observing his weekly silence, he wrote out a short message of greeting to wish them a happy Id and distributed fruit to them. There had been some trouble at Barrackpore − 14 miles north of Calcutta – over the taking out of a procession on the previous day. Gandhiji visited Barrackpore in the afternoon, but the trouble had been composed and the whole thing had ended in scenes of fraternisation before he reached the spot. On his arrival, he was welcomed with loud cheers and shouting of jais.”


An Inspiring Tale for the Rest of India

“A Muslim said: ‘Please forgive us all our lapses. We know we have erred grievously in the past. But now we shall live together with Hindus like brothers.’ With that the Hindus and Muslims in the crowd embraced each other. A Hindu representative said: ‘We do not want to hurt the feelings of our Muslim brethren. We shall stop the music before mosques.’ On a slip of paper Gandhiji scribbled: ‘I hope the decision not to have music in the vicinity of mosques at namaz time is acceptable to all and will be regarded as binding by all Hindus, not only those who are present on the spot. The League and the Congress have agreed to solve all differences by peaceful methods and without resort to force.’”

“The Muslim friends told him that their womenfolk were very eager to see him. Surely he would not disappoint them. Gandhiji acceded to their request. As his car passed through the bazar, Muslim women crowded the roofs and balconies on either side. The prayer meeting at the evening was held on the grounds of the Mohammedan Sporting Club and was attended by not less than half a million. It was an inspiring spectacle against the background of communal fratricide in other parts of the country to find Hindus and Muslims of Calcutta standing shoulder to shoulder. They cheered Gandhiji as he stood up with folded hands to acknowledge their greetings and wished them a happy Id.”


When 2 Places Hoisted the 'Wrong' National Flag

Pyarelal writes that over 4 lakh people attended Gandhiji’s evening prayer on 20 August. But a problem arose over the hoisting of national flags. Under the notional division of Bengal province, the Hindu majority districts of Khulna and the Chittagong Hill Tracts had been included in West Bengal and the Muslim majority district of Murshidabad in East Bengal. The Boundary Commissions’ award reversed this.

The independence of Pakistan and India on 14 and 15 August in these areas had been celebrated according to the notional division. On the reversal of notional division two days later, the flags that were being flown in those areas became wrong flags! This had led to some tension.

When the matter was referred to Gandhiji, he said that there should not be the slightest hesitation in replacing the wrong flags with the right ones. Personally, he was of the opinion that as the two states were on friendly terms with one another, there was no reason why they could not display each other’s flags in the two dominions just as England and America could do. He then said: “Even if they in Pakistan don’t, we in the Indian Union should. Let us do the correct thing irrespective of what the other party does.”

Nearly 700,000 people attended the prayer meeting on 21 August held at Park Circus. The Pakistani and the Indian Union flags were flown side by side by the Congress and the League volunteers.


Rekindling South Asian Cooperation

Seventy-five years later, India and Pakistan have moved distressingly away from the vision of Gandhi and Jinnah. Far from celebrating the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav together, the leaders of our two countries are not even keen on having a normal dialogue to maintain good-neighbourly relations. As far as South Asian cooperation is concerned, SAARC remains in a prolonged coma.

Where are the statesmen? Where are the visionaries? Where is the resolve to correct the wrongs of the past and create a bright future for all in this subcontinent of 1.8 billion people? It’s time to ponder – and act.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at

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