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.
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.