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Restitching the Subcontinent

How do you solve a problem like Pakistan?

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By AUSTIN BAY
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The post-World War Two partition of British India was a blood-drenched mess. Since partition, India has prospered. Bangladesh, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war’s bastard child, remains wretched. For three decades a low-grade civil war has afflicted Pakistan, pitting urban-based modernizers against Islamist extremists reinforced by militant hill tribes. The Taliban attack on Pakistan’s Karachi naval base in May 2011 reprised the hill versus urban paradigm. Pakistan’s civil war divides its intelligence and security services, which is one reason the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff can argue (with confidence) that an element within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency supported the September 2011 Taliban assault on America’s embassy in Kabul.

Map of India and Pakistan

In retrospect, splitting British India into East and West Pakistan and India may have been one of the 20th century’s greatest geostrategic errors. 

I got a hint of this in the 1970s when I was injured at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and befriended by two Pakistani officers attending an advanced military course. My leg-length cast made walking to the mess hall a pain, so the Pakistani major and lieutenant-colonel took turns chauffeuring me in their car.

One evening, in slow traffic, the major and I passed an Indian Army colonel standing on the sidewalk. The major cracked his window, yelled, and waved. The Indian colonel smiled, raised his left hand, and wiggled his fingers. The major glanced at me and with a soft chuckle said, “That man—he is my enemy.”

Despite their recent war, I knew better. On at least two occasions the Indian colonel had dropped by our bachelor officers’ quarters to watch television with the Pakistanis. I had found a corner chair, propped my cast on a crutch, and learned that on the subcontinent cricket matches are a very serious matter.

The major knew I grasped his irony and added, with a wistful, startling sadness: “You know .  .  . we were once the British Indian Army.”

Yes sir, you were. And you were very, very good. That great Indian Army (“British” being colloquial, not official) fought and defeated first-rate, first-world enemies: Germans in North Africa and Italy; the Imperial Japanese in southeast Asia. Stripped of Commonwealth camouflage, the Indian Army of 1945 was, in its own right, a veteran combat outfit with global experience. 

Today, when the U.N. seeks crack peacekeeping troops, that old army’s components, now split among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, top the wish list. In the eastern Congo’s chaos, Indian Air Force helicopters fly support missions for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. To tacticians this demonstrates the value of British military training methods; to military historians it testifies to the British Indian Army’s tradition of excellence maintained by its fragmented descendants.

The Indian and Pakistanis at Ft. Benning shared more than professional interests—they were friends. If religion and state politics divided them, culture, common sense, and common decency united them. But reuniting India’s fragments? Political fantasy. Blood has spilled, in torrents.

Two remarks made 30 years later by Benazir Bhutto in March 2005 led me to reconsider. Before an interview with four or five writers, someone in conversation mentioned Kashmir. Bhutto said India and Pakistan had too many common interests not to make peace, and that meant resolving Kashmir’s division. “It will happen,” she said. An optimistic nonanswer by a politician? I respected her forceful tone. But how do you resolve it?

Bhutto also mentioned India’s expanding economy and her belief Pakistan would emulate India’s success. I knew forward-thinking sub-continent business leaders favored a robust common market. India liberalized its economy and created wealth; so could Pakistan. English is India’s business language, as it is Pakistan’s. India’s economy could lift Pakistan’s. Their economies might merge—but why pursue the thought, given the spilled blood?

Two years later Bhutto was assassinated, by Pakistani Islamist extremists likely linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

I was dining with an Indian businessman. “My family came from Karachi,” he explained, now Pakistan’s largest city. “We are Hindus. When partition occurred there was violence. My parents fled to India. To what is now India. .  .  . I finally came to the United States. And I got a job working for a broker on Wall Street.”

“Did partition have to happen? In retrospect.”

He thought a moment, shook his head. “In my opinion? No.”

Biographer Stanley Wolpert contends Mahatma Gandhi opposed partition. Wolpert wrote that Gandhi never accepted the partition plan and “realized too late that his closest comrades and disciples were more interested in power than principle.” A Hindu extremist assassinated Gandhi. Spilled blood.

But young Pakistanis are now reconsidering partition—because the bloodletting continues. Oh, those thinking the unthinkable are the well-educated, the next generation of Benazir Bhuttos pursuing college degrees in the United States and Canada, or manning ex-im offices in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and London. Bhutto’s murder and the 2008 Mumbai massacre by Islamist terrorists in league with ISI officers spurred harsh moral reflection and intellectual reappraisal. 

Pakistan as India’s rival? Only in cricket. India has six times Pakistan’s population and about 10 times its GDP. Year by year Pakistan decays amid corruption, Islamic terrorism, and economic rot. India’s economic surge has made it a global power. Bollywood entertains Asia. India’s Hindus and Christians and Sikhs and, yes, despite Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s contrary claim, Muslims, too, have economic opportunities. Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first post-partition governor general, contended Muslims would never prosper if yoked by a Hindu majority. Jinnah was intellectually and politically gifted, a sophisticate with cosmopolitan taste. Sixty years of history have shown he was dead wrong.

And the new reunifiers know it. Their idea is preposterous, a fantasy, but it has on its side a deeper history than the last six decades. They  argue that a reunited India would give Pakistani modernizers strategic depth: economically, demographically, socially, and geographically. The geographic argument has old roots. For millennia the “tribal threat from the mountains” has vexed northern India, from the Indus valley (Pakistan’s heartland) and east beyond Delhi. The reunifiers see the Taliban and other violent factions as tribal raiders attacking the wealthy lowlands, with the goal of seizing urban wealth, imposing tribal rule, then pushing east. Antiquarian? No, insightful. Al Qaeda promotes a 10th-century misogynistic social order; it glorifies beheadings but says little about jobs. A reinvented pre-partition India would have the economic, social, and demographic depth to buffer and absorb the tribes and their turmoil. Pakistan alone does not.

 Two years ago, while discussing the idea of a reunited India with a faculty member at the University of Texas, I pointed out that the reunifiers know they are engaged in a protracted, low-grade civil war, pitting Pakistani modernizers against militant Muslim religious fundamentalists. The modernizers believe a reunited subcontinent would give them instant allies. But consider the obstacles. Indians might balk at absorbing Pakistan’s basket-case economy. (South Koreans fear a generation of paying for North Korea’s poverty post-reunification.)We’ve also had six decades of hateful propaganda spewed by jingoists in Delhi and Islamabad—the heirs of Gandhi’s “comrades” hellbent on personal power. They stoke enmity between Muslims and Hindus for political advantage.

The professor replied that the Pakistani intellectuals he’d met acknowledged re-creation might take a generation—but they raise the possibility and see its value.

Meanwhile, Pakistan risks collapse. Lawrence Solomon, in an article in Canada’s Financial Post, argued that British India requires further “unstitching.” Solomon’s scenario had Pakistan splitting into Pashtun Afghania, Baluchistan, a Sindh state, and an independent Punjab. Solomon asserted that, with the possible exception of current “top dog” Punjab, “the new nations to emerge from a breakup of Pakistan likely would soon become more prosperous as well as more free.”

Likely more prosperous and free? Maybe. A stand-alone Sindh might do well, for a while. In A Quick and Dirty Guide to War (2008), James. F. Dunnigan and I speculated that a Punjab-Sindh state might be more stable than Pakistan. But Pashtun and Baluchi states? I see a squalid future: These suddenly independent confederations slip deeper into misery, plagued by unmitigated clan violence while continuing to provide, with even less intelligence scrutiny, bases for well-financed terrorists. Punjab and Sindh still confront the threat from the hills. Where do they look for help? To India? That’s the argument for restitching, not unstitching.

Abandoning the hills to their despair is a mistake. The tribes deserve peace and development. A dysfunctional Pakistan cannot provide either. A restitched India could, in time.

The Pakistani major at Ft. Benning repeatedly told me the lieutenant-colonel was an unusual man. The day the leg cast came off the lieutenant-colonel and I went to the mess hall. Over dinner he explained the major’s comment: “I come from a hill tribe. We plaster bricks with goat sh— to keep the wind out.”

The lieutenant-colonel assessed my reaction. “You know I attended graduate school in Europe. .  .  . I started life in the 12th century. I’m now in the 20th. That’s what the major means.” Then he flashed a wry smile. “He comes from the cities. I suppose, to him, I am living proof that it can be done.”

Austin Bay is the author, most recently, of Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership from the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire.

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