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India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation?

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144 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0520266773, HARDBACK

Reviewed by Thomas Lamont

Stanley Wolpert, one of America’s senior and foremost pundits on South Asia and India in particular, has given us a smart, concise, and accessible overview of Indian-Pakistani relations. This short book is primarily an intelligent explanation of the ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan. Yet it is also an impassioned and eloquent call for better relations between these two nuclear-armed states that are both critical to the future of Asia as well as to the US. While Wolpert covers well-trod ground, and many experts will perhaps find little of interest here and even quibble with some of his material, Wolpert’s tone is even-handed and his writing is, as usual, engaging and deft. India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation? is also surprisingly up-to-date and will be extremely useful for several years for students who are studying this important but protracted issue for the first time. One undergraduate told me that he found the book a helpful supplement in his semester-long course on India since independence.

The first part of the book is a brief yet solid overview of the simmering tensions that rose to the surface during the latter years of the Indian independence movement, especially the critical years just prior to 1947. Wolpert succinctly recounts the jawing between Jinnah and Nehru as independence approached and the growing communalism and religious extremism that marked the era. He puts Kashmir front and center in his analysis, and in the first two chapters, he describes how the unresolved status of Kashmir during the run up to, and the immediate aftermath of, Partition and independence sabotaged better relations between India and Pakistan. Wolpert effectively explains the competition between Pakistan and India for control of Kashmir and their efforts to gain allies abroad and at home in this struggle. He gives insightful and sometimes amusing anecdotes that illustrate how Pakistani and Indian leaders allowed petty interests to dominate policy or misjudged each other and miscalculated on a grand scale. The most scathing criticism is directed at Zulfikar Bhutto and Indira Gandhi who come off as largely self-serving egoists. The ineptitude and venality of Indian and Pakistani leaders is a stark contrast to the author’s thoughtful and sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people in South Asia, especially the Kashmiris. Wolpert thoughtfully describes how Kashmiris, the unwitting inhabitants of some of the world’s most hypnotic topography, have borne the brunt of the conflict between India and Pakistan as a result of some unfortunate geography. Although Wolpert is careful to place blame on individuals rather than paint Pakistanis, Indians, and Kashmiris with a broad brush, he also notes how mass movements such as Islamic and Hindu extremism have exacerbated the relationship between Pakistan and India, especially by meddling in Kashmir.

Toward the end of the book, Wolpert gives what seems like a blow-by-blow description of the relevant events of the last two decades. While some teachers might find this synopsis of recent history, including the Mumbai attacks of 2008, somewhat tedious or lacking nuance, students will probably find this section helpful since most of them will likely have at best only a cursory grasp of this material. Wolpert does an especially good job of explaining the role of Afghanistan in Pakistani-Indian relations, something American students might find particularly relevant.

Wolpert concludes India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation? by boldly offering an earnest solution to the problems at the heart of the Pakistani-Indian relationship. His deep desire to see better relations between Pakistan and India is obvious, and his prescriptions are sensible. They will surely provide a starting point for interesting and productive classroom discussion. I hope readers of India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation? will take Wolpert’s advice to heart and help move the conversation forward equipped with a better understanding of this topic.