The Magazine

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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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.”

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