HONG KONG — Once again, Indo-Pakistani relations are seen to be teetering on the brink of potentially calamitous conflict. Yet too little attention is being paid to the possible solutions that could diminish the sustained Indo-Pakistani cold war with its proven tendency to occasionally become hot.
When Hong Kong’s last Governor Chris Patten, now commissioner for External Affairs for the European Community, traveled to the subcontinent recently, did he pause to compare the first act of British decolonization in Asia with the last?
As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited both Islamabad and Delhi soon afterward, and heard their diametrically opposed perspectives, did he stop to wonder how different things might have been had Britain been less eager to depart in 1947?
Probably not. Partition now seems very distant. All those who participated in ordering or implementing it are either dead or long since retired. Yet just as partition caused today’s vexed problem, so remembering it must be part of any solution.
In the Indian media and Web sites, possibly in Parliament as well, voices have been raised reminding Indians that British imperial policies of divide and rule, and the way they were carried on by the last viceroy and first Governor General Lord Louis Mountbatten are really to blame for the current tensions on the subcontinent.
In Pakistan they make the argument in a different way, but almost certainly the same “Blame the British” theme would have been heard there, too.
These arguments are not necessarily wrong. There is merit in them. The sad fact remains that by externalizing the blame for the past onto the British, a crucial part of the Indo-Pakistani story is not merely omitted, it is also not remembered.
Unlike the people of Hong Kong in 1997, the people of the then-united India were given a choice in 1947. The trouble was that they refused the offer.
It is still a fascinating and tragic tale. At the time many Indians refused to believe it, but from the moment it took office in 1945, the aim of the postwar British Labour government was to hand over power to an all-India government as quickly as possible.
A Cabinet mission was sent out in 1946 to devise a way in which this could be done. The main stumbling block was that two antagonistic political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, dominated preindependence democratic politics in India.
In essence, the Cabinet Mission Plan tried to get around the stumbling block by suggesting a complex form of federalism for India, under which an attempt was made to institute powersharing at the center and in the provinces, so that India itself remained politically united.
But both the Congress and the League wanted all or nothing at all. The leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was particularly wedded to the concept of a separate Muslim homeland, Pakistan.
The British were in a hurry. Their postwar economy was in dire straits. Sustaining British rule would have required not merely a political will but also a sustained military commitment to India.
The British did not have the will, and could not afford the commitment. Regarding the Cabinet Mission Plan, Indian politicians were essentially told to take it or leave it. They left it. So India was divided. Pakistan was born. What would have been internal tensions within a united India became instead international conflict in the never-ending Indo-Pakistani cold war.
Partition did not solve a fundamental problem. It merely postponed any meaningful solution.
The British urge to hurriedly “quit India” was responsible for the tragedy on two counts. A sufficiently elastic system of federalism might have kept India united. But such a solution required time, protracted negotiations and a spirit of compromise. A Britain that was willing to endure might have been able to insist on these. A Britain in a hurry to depart clearly could not.
Worse than that, the excessively hurried way in which partition was then carried through created chaos and fratricide, further embittering Indo-Pakistani relations from the start, and right down until today. Had the British set themselves a more realistic departure timetable — well, Straw might not have had to undertake his recent rushed trip, with the very real threat of an Indo-Pakistani war looming in the background.
But Indians and Pakistanis were also responsible for what happened. They, too, lacked a will to seek compromise. The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League could not agree to stay united within one nation. This disunity created the bitter bloody Hindu-Muslim communal clashes that so marred the attainment of partition and independence.
Ever since, Indians and Pakistanis have been unable to attain long-term agreement on reasonably cooperative relations. Four wars (1947-48, 1965, 1971, 1999) have already been fought as a consequence. This disunity has created the bitter Indo-Pakistani cold war, which now threatens to attain nuclear heat. Amid shelling from both sides, and many civilian casualties, a fifth war is already under way.
It is this inability to get on with each other that is the essential underlying problem for the subcontinent. It is this inability to agree which provides the opportunity — not just for Britain but also, over the last 55 years for other outside powers, notably the United States and China — to continue those hated imperial policies of divide and rule.
But now India and Pakistan are so obsessed with their rivalry, they hardly seem to notice when they are played off against each other, and instead happily collude with the latest forms of dividing and ruling.
Against this embittered background (of the Indo-Pakistani cold war), the most appropriate solution is also the most impossible: that the two nations, perhaps together with Bangladesh, should give themselves the long-term task of reunifying the subcontinent either through federation or confederation.
Such a solution may seem unreal, since it was the failure to create one pan-Indian state that originally helped to embitter relations. Yet, conceivably, the reverse process might have the opposite effect.
A residual sense of oneness still exists in the ruling elites. The middle class in a reunified Indo-Pakistani-Bangladeshi state would number roughly a quarter of its 1.3 billion people, and would have a strong interest in, and capability for, faster economic growth.
Such a nation would be better able to serve the longtime nationalist goal of ending the foreigners’ tendency to divide and rule. While any such negotiation for reunification seems unthinkable, the other possible ways to end the Indo-Pakistani cold war seem equally unachievable.
Most of these are concerned with the possible solution of the Kashmir problem. It is often forgotten that the Kashmir issue is a symptom of Indo-Pakistani discord, but not the original disease.
It became a problem primarily because India was divided in the first place, and because of the hurried way in which partition was carried out. To this day, Kashmir remains a symbol of the incomplete partition process. But it is not the sole cause of discord.
Regarding Kashmir, Pakistan seeks to buttress its raison d’etre as the Muslim homeland in the subcontinent by supporting those who seek to make Muslim-majority Kashmir part of Pakistan.
India resists in the belief that its secular state can accommodate a Muslim-majority province. India is home for almost as many, and maybe more, Indian Muslims than there are citizens of Pakistan.
Pakistan seeks a referendum in which Kashmiris will decide their own future. Since no state was allowed such a referendum in 1947-48, India resists on the grounds that this would reopen the previously settled question of which province belongs to what country.
For now, Pakistan takes an aggressive political posture, as well as supporting insurgents and terrorists. The Indian posture is more defensive. But both nations do broadly agree on the present Line of Control separating their military forces in Kashmir. So, one obvious solution would be to make that LOC into the international border.
It is claimed that this would be an unacceptable loss of face for any Pakistan government. But defeat in a conventional Indo-Pakistani war, or destruction in an Indo-Pakistani nuclear holocaust would, presumably, be an even more unacceptable loss of face, provided the leader of Pakistan was brave enough to explain these stark choices to the people.
It is also said that India set its face against such a solution when its Parliament passed a 1993 resolution claiming Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir to be Indian territory. But parliamentary resolutions can be rescinded provided the Indian Prime Minister is brave enough to explain the real choices to the people and the parliamentarians.
A Kashmir solution of making the agreed LOC into the international border is conceivable — providing it is accompanied by a wider Indo-Pakistani determination to improve relations. Pakistan would have to agree to end all agitation and terrorism in Indian Kashmir. India would have to promise to fully honor and respect Indian Kashmir’s autonomy. In this way, India would end its hapless misrule there, particularly in the last two decades.
After 55 years of conflict in their homeland, it is far from certain that Kashmiris themselves would accept the final partition of their state. Their reluctance might make the demilitarization of both parts of Kashmir a very difficult exercise.
Ironically, the one issue on which there is Indo-Pakistani agreement is their complete rejection of any independence for a united Kashmir. But that rejection might be more acceptable to Kashmiris if the two nations were pledged to try in the long run to become one.
There are other possible solutions. One involves a more complicated carve-up of Kashmir. Another proposal is for Pakistan and India to share sovereignty over Kashmir. A vaguer proposal is for the two nations to first agree on principles governing a peace process, and then on a timetable for carrying them out.
Yet all these solutions lack the potential political impact of Pakistan giving up all claims to Indian-occupied Kashmir, and India giving up claims to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
As successive waves of European, British, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and American high-level leaders try in the next few weeks to urge the Indians and the Pakistanis to step back from the brink, it is essential that a lot of quiet thought be given to possible long-term solutions of the Indo-Pakistani impasse.
For foreign statesmen to merely insist on the short term goal of India and Pakistan avoiding war and starting a dialogue is simply not enough. For foreigners to press too hard for some long-term solutions will not be the answer either. A compromise that is self-generated by both India and Pakistan is more likely to endure.
But unless there is a search for long-term answers, for an end to Indo-Pakistani discord and fratricide, crises like the present one will return again and again.
One day, instead of teetering on the brink, the two South Asian nuclear powers could actually fall over it.
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