LONDON – It was never my plan to tell Pakistanis their country had been a mistake. I was 19 years old at the time, in Pakistan for the summer with 40 other young Canadian university students on a trip to foster international understanding. I had already realized that this was a completely pointless exercise, but it was a free trip and I had never been out of North America before.
I also already knew that sticking up handbills in Lahore announcing a public debate in which the visitors would argue that the creation of Pakistan had been a bad idea would be a very bad idea, but nobody asked my opinion.
So there were rent-a-crowd riots in Lahore, and the military dictator of the time had us all arrested and shipped up to a boys’ school in Abbotabad, empty for the summer, until they could find enough seats on Pakistan International Airlines to expel us all. (The same town was also, much later, the last refuge of Osama bin Laden, but I digress.)
Anyway, this month marks the 70th anniversary of the partition of India and the independence of Pakistan, so maybe it’s time to revisit that aborted debate. Especially since the 18th prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has just been forced out of power by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. In all those 70 years, not one of Pakistan’s prime ministers has ever managed to complete one full term in office.
Pakistan is not exactly a “failed state.” It provides a very comfortable life for around 5 million privileged people, including the immensely rich Sharif family. (Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz will take over as prime minister as soon as he can quit his job as chief minister of Punjab state and get elected to the National Assembly.) Another 30 or 40 million people have a modest but tolerable life, and the other 150 million just scrape along the bottom.
India is not rich either. Per capita income in India is only about 20 percent higher than in Pakistan, and the per capita income of India’s 190 million Muslims — who are the poorest of the country’s major religious communities — is probably slightly lower than the average income in Pakistan. But it’s still worth asking if everybody would have been better off if British-ruled India had not been partitioned in 1947.
First of all, it was the best educated and most prosperous part of India’s Muslim population that moved to Pakistan in 1947. If their 20 million descendants were still in their ancestral homes, average Muslim incomes in the truncated India of today would be a good deal higher.
The proportion of Muslims in the population of an undivided India would have been so high that they could not be ignored politically. If Pakistan (and Bangladesh, which broke away from Pakistan in 1971) were still part of India, Muslims would not be 13 percent of that un-partitioned India’s population. They would be more than 30 percent.
Such an India, assuming it remained democratic, could never have ended up with a sectarian Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi as prime minister. One-third of the electorate would instinctively vote against him. By the same token, Muslims who stood on a religious platform would not succeed — but lots of Muslims would be elected to high office on their merits.
Is this naive? Wouldn’t the evil Hindus just massacre the Muslims? That was, after all, the implicit reasoning behind the demand of a separate state for Muslim Indians.
If the Hindu majority haven’t massacred the 190 million Muslims of today’s India, then how were they going to massacre the 530 million Muslims of an undivided India? An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in Hindu-Muslim communal violence in India since 1950, and three of the victims were Muslims for every Hindu killed — but these numbers hardly compare with the immediate and long-term cost in lives of the partition.
At least a million people were slaughtered in the mutual Muslim-Hindu massacres of 1947, when 10 million people moved from India to Pakistan or vice versa. Another million civilians were killed in the 1971 war that broke Pakistan apart and led to an independent Bangladesh. And although the four India-Pakistan wars only killed about 30,000 soldiers, both countries now have nuclear weapons.
One other thing. No partition would probably have meant no military coups in the subcontinent. India has been the world’s largest democracy for 70 years, whereas Pakistan and Bangladesh have been ruled by generals for almost half of their independent histories.
Could it have happened differently? Both Gandhi, for all his saintly status a profoundly sectarian Hindu leader, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan, were dead within a year after partition. If the British government had not been in such a panic-stricken rush to get out of India, there might have been time for more moderate Hindu and Muslim leaders to negotiate a different outcome.
Or not, as the case may be. This is purely a hypothetical game, because once partition happened it was irreversible. But it would have certainly been an interesting debate.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent Canadian journalist and military historian.