It has been 70 years since India and Pakistan won their independence. Those seven decades have been marked by conflict, however, and a mutual enmity that appears to define each country’s image of itself. Today, they contest a border and fight for regional influence, a struggle that is rendered ever more dangerous by each country’s possession of a substantial nuclear arsenal. Having fought three wars, the situation today is a standoff: Neither side appears ready to compromise in a way that would allow a diplomatic solution to the problems that beset their relationship. That confrontation has also shaped the mindset of the leadership of the two countries, and allows them to avoid critical issues of development.
At midnight on the night of Aug. 14-15, 1947, British authority was withdrawn and the states of India and Pakistan were born. The two new nations had fundamentally different — in fact, oppositional — notions of national identity. Pakistan adopted the “two-nation theory,” a belief that religion should be the organizing social principle in South Asia and two distinct polities were thus required: a Muslim state (Pakistan) and a Hindu one (India). Most Indians adopted a different mindset, one that envisioned a diverse society that embraced all its citizens. By this logic, the exclusivist mentality embraced by Pakistani leaders was a threat to core Indian principles. It should be noted, however, that some Hindu leaders embraced the two-nation theory and used it to justify a Hindu nationalism that has visited atrocities against the Muslim minority (150 million people) in India.
The impact of the failure to reconcile the two visions was evident at partition, when some 1 million people were killed in communal violence and another 15 million displaced. That rancor and mistrust continues to this day, fueled by the bitter dispute over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Muslim-majority provinces that are part of India and claimed by Pakistan.
Local demands for greater autonomy are seen in India as part of a process that will end in self-determination and association with Pakistan. Successive Indian governments have implemented increasingly harsh measures to shut down those protests, moves that invariably create still more anger and disaffection. Pakistan exploits the unrest and supports organizations and groups that employ violence to press independence demands.
This proxy war takes on additional significance given the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. Pakistan’s denials that it supports terrorism mean nothing to India and the recurring attacks on Indian targets risk escalating to full-scale confrontation with potentially horrific consequences.
The human costs of this conflict are especially hard on Pakistan. The country’s political system has become effectively militarized, with the armed forces acting as final arbiter on many vital decisions. It is impossible to quantify the total cost of the pursuit of nuclear parity with India, but national leaders professed a readiness “to eat grass” to support their nuclear ambitions. It is telling that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted that 22 percent of Pakistan’s population was undernourished in the 2016 Global Hunger Index.
India has paid a price as well. Its claim to regional leadership is undercut by repressive measures implemented to sustain its rule in the disputed territories and the chauvinists that preach Hindu nationalism. More dangerous still is the zero-sum logic of relations with Islamabad that has created a diplomatic trap for New Delhi. And beneath it all is the legacy of partition. In addition to the million victims there are the millions of families that were uprooted. They remain divided and angry, and demand retribution.
If the situation were not so tragic, it would be absurd. There is far more that unites the two countries than divides them. There is, despite the religious differences, a great shared cultural heritage — the result of proximity and centuries of intermingling. Even today, the same cultural influences shape both societies, from Bollywood to cricket.
More significant are the threats they both face. South Asia is increasingly overpopulated, with infrastructure stressed not only by economic development but also an ever more hostile natural environment as it is affected by climate change and resource shortages. Few regions of the world are going to be as hard hit by global warming and few governments as unprepared.
A shared sense of purpose is the only way for the region to confront and overcome these challenges, yet again a zero-sum mentality overwhelms attempts to cooperate. That sad reality is another legacy of 70 years of partition.