Challenging Existing Narratives: History-Writing as a CBM in South Asia

Past is prologue

A few months back, Rabia Akhtar and Jayita Sarkar (hereafter Rabs and Jay) bumped into each other online over proposing a panel at a history conference on nuclear nonproliferation and U.S. foreign policy. One thing led to another, and they realized that they had briefly chatted at the Carnegie Nuke Fest in April 2013 – a small world of emerging strategic experts it is. A funny incident took place while they mulled over the paper abstract together for the said history conference, which eventually ignited the core idea behind this joint post.[1]


Jayita Sarkar

Rabs and I quickly discovered that we have very different (almost mutually contradictory) understanding of U.S. nonproliferation policy in South Asia during the Carter administration – the topic of our paper. That the narratives would be so starkly opposite on the two sides of the border, had never struck us until that moment. President Carter was twisting India’s arms over supplying fuel to the two U.S.-supplied Tarapur reactors –the chief bone of contention between New Delhi and Washington at the time, while going soft on its Cold War ally Pakistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, led to Washington’s benign neglect of Islamabad’s nuclear program, fast progressing with Chinese assistance. This is how the national historical narrative goes on my side of the border. A visit to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, GA in late summer this year albeit put some holes in it. The tensions between Islamabad and Washington were evident in the archival documents over military aid, Franco-Pakistani plutonium reprocessing plant, and Swiss assistance to Pakistani nuclear program, amongst others. The moldy documents testified that maneuvers at the negotiating table were severely limited for the Carter administration which had to deal with three different “kinds” of Indian government: an India under Emergency (until March 1977), the first non-Congress government in India’s history (March 1977- December 1979), and a resurgent Indira Gandhi (from January 1980) – a fact mostly unexplored by strategic experts. I also became cognizant of Indo-Soviet strategic proximity in South Asia during this period, and Pakistan’s fears of a joint invasion by New Delhi and Moscow based on Cold War and regional calculations.

The more archival research I have done over the past three years in various countries, the more convinced I have been of this process – this slow-motion meltdown of the held beliefs about my country’s northwestern neighbor. Escaping national narratives is not always easy. While we try our best to sanitize our research from these narratives, in our scholarly quest for intellectual distance, they often peep out subconsciously much to our amazement, and probably embarrassment. Acquiring nuance in comprehending the world around us requires constant effort, and young minds unhardened by dogma are most able to attain this over time.

This is why I believe a young generation of historians from the subcontinent engaging in multi-archival research on South Asia, can do a lot to bring a better understanding between the two countries. More archival documents are available today than they were a decade back. These documents in London, Ottawa, Paris, Vienna, Washington, D.C. and in the various U.S. Presidential Libraries, demonstrate the multiplicity of factors and actors behind the policy-making of yesteryears, unlike the black-and-white narratives that we have been socialized into. The subcontinent needs more historians reassessing the international dimensions of the Cold War as it unfolded in the region, the historical underpinnings of the conflict between the two countries, the motives and strategies of the actors and sub-actors involved, and the voices heard and unheard. History-writing has high potential of becoming an innovative confidence-building measure (CBM) between India and Pakistan. Granted that this can only be a gradual process, and will not engender quick results. But then, when has an adversarial interstate relationship of over six decades been resolved with one stroke?


Rabia Akhtar

If Jay and I actually had to write that joint paper (mentioned above), it would have been extremely challenging. We had competing narratives about Carter administration’s South Asia policy and a closer examination of archival documents revealed that there was no one ‘South Asia’ policy to deal with the region as a whole. There was an India policy and there was a Pakistan policy and the administration had extreme difficulty in maintaining strict bilateral relations with each country without the historical Indo-Pak mistrust clouding their bilateral relationship with the U.S. in return.  Any U.S. tilt towards India was questioned with suspicion by Pakistan and as Jay has mentioned above, it also remained the Indian predicament via-à-vis bilateral Pak-U.S. relations on the concessions granted to Pakistan (which I learned after reading Jay’s abstract).

It was difficult for me to appreciate at first the evidence I was confronted with. It was only after dusting the archives at five presidential libraries that I realized how difficult a task it was for several U.S. administrations to deal with Pakistan while balancing India and likewise, to deal with India while balancing Pakistan. For example, when the Carter administration reached out to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Zia demanded firstly, an amendment of the Pak-U.S. 1959 Bilateral Cooperation Agreement transforming it into a treaty (to the likes of Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971) and secondly, a security commitment by the U.S. against an Indian aggression as a Soviet proxy on Pakistan in addition to the originally agreed upon communist aggression. While the administration pledged sustained engagement with Pakistan, it tried its best to assuage Pakistani fears against any Indo-Soviet nexus. As a result, Pakistan rejected the first aid package of $400m proposed by Carter administration and the administration had to pay a much higher price later for playing the devils advocate. The Carter administration lived by some principles and even though at times it compromised on its non-proliferation goals to gain larger foreign policy objectives in South Asia, it did not compromise on being played against India or by Pakistan despite obvious vulnerabilities at the time.

Some might ask why go back to archives and write history? Jay and I believe that it is very important for generation Y (who ask the most “whys”) to know how U.S. foreign policy in South Asia was conducted during the Cold War. As a Pakistani academic, it is extremely important for me to understand why, how and under what conditions did several U.S. administrations make certain foreign policy choices that changed the face of Pakistan-U.S. bilateral relations during the Cold War. It is easier for me to continue to live with the bitter narrative about India-Pakistan relations or Pakistan-U.S. relations that I have grown up with but I refuse to do so. I want to learn. I want to evolve. I want to understand. Writing my chronicle of history given the evidence before me is the first step towards changing the existing narrative and as Jay has stated, this can be an extremely useful CBM between the two countries even if it is a gradual process. Unfortunately, I do not have access to any archives in my home country that would allow me to explore my own history with India or the U.S. but fortunately, I have access to the U.S. archives and for what it is worth, my learning begins here, far from home.

[1] We eventually did not write this paper abstract, since a participant dropped out leaving us with enough slots for individual papers on the panel.

Posted in , History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nonproliferation, Nuclear, Pakistan, Policy, Research, US

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar is a Research Fellow with the Security Studies Program at MIT's Center for International Studies. Her expertise is in international security, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy analysis, and South Asia. Dr. Sarkar’s writings have been published in peer-reviewed journals like Cold War History, International History Review, and Critique Internationale and policy-relevant outlets like The National Interest and Foreign Policy magazine among others. Sarkar is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and holds a Ph.D. in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland.

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Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore. She holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. Her research focused on U.S. non-proliferation policy towards Pakistan and foreign policy analysis of executive-legislative interactions in U.S. foreign policy making and related issues in congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton. She is a Fulbright Scholar (2010-2015). Her co-authored research monograph on “Nuclear Learning in South Asia” was published in Jan 2015 by the Regional Center of Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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3 thoughts on “Challenging Existing Narratives: History-Writing as a CBM in South Asia

  1. This is an excellent essay, and a good lesson in the importance of research from multiple perspectives.

    And it’s a good argument, it seems to me, for opening up archives. In the absence of access to real evidence on the making of policy, what happens instead is suspicion, mistrust, and conspiratorial thinking, none of which contribute to clear thinking.

  2. Jay and Rabs:

    Thank you for this important joint post.

    As one who served in the Carter administration, I think I can make a good argument that US policy toward the subcontinent has become way more dysfunctional now. (And as you say, it wasn’t good then.)

    Good people can overcome bad organizational charts, but it takes exceptional effort to overcome the bifurcation of US policy toward the region as a result of the post-2001 war in Afghanistan. The State Department has a Bureau focusing on India and a Special Representative focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan. These twain have not met in Obama administration. In addition, the Pentagon has different Commands that are responsible for military links to India and Pakistan.

    The Pentagon and the NSC staff have worked hard to improve cross-links but, in my view, as long as the State Department keeps India and Pakistan in separate bailiwicks, efforts to craft a more integrated approach will fall way short.

    Perhaps this will be remedied somewhat after 2014.


  3. Thanks a lot Michael for this great input.

    A quick update on this post: Rabs and I have just been selected to present our separate papers on Carter’s nonproliferation policy towards Pakistan and India respectively at the said history conference this June. Let us see how our “informed narratives” converge, bifurcate or just run parallel. :-)


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