By Senior Campaign Agent William Fawcett
2017 marks 70 years since the foundation of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, having seceded from British imperial rule a mere two years following the Allied victory in the Second World War. Famed for being the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, the transition from colonial rule to independence witnessed one the worst humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century, resulting in the displacement of some 12 million people along religious lines. The borders hastily drawn by the outgoing British Raj became known as the Radcliffe Line, with the aim of dividing the newly-independent territories into a Muslim-majority (West Pakistan, now Pakistan, and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) and a Hindu-majority state (India). The mutual violence that ensued between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs still bears its scars today, and partition remains the primary source of the conflict between the two nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan today.
On the eve of partition, British India numbered just under 400 million people. Today, India is vastly overpopulated with 1.3 billion habitants – the second highest population in the world – whilst Pakistan still boasts a sizeable 193 million. Fraught relations between the two Asian superpowers have led to war on several occasions, either in the form of various high-altitude military stand-offs in the Himalayas to terrorist attacks where each side has apportioned the blame on the other. More pertinently, the conflict between India and Pakistan in the region of Kashmir and Jammu remains ongoing to this day. It cannot be stressed just how damaging the decisions made by the outgoing British Raj – notably the Radcliffe Line - was to the integrity and stability of the region.
Yet whilst the majority of states around the world now live with the wounds generated by foreign domination and/or imperialism, most visibly in Africa and Asia, the after-effects have been particularly strong on the Indian sub-continent. The arbitrary divisions imposed upon the populace are still a major source of conflict today, in Kashmir (claimed by both) and previously in the Junagundh region. In both cases, when the British Raj allowed these princely states – the form of indirect rule used by the British – to decide which new Dominion they wished to join, their decision went against either the desires of the population or the new government.
In fact, two of the three major wars, alongside an undeclared one and several military standoffs, have involved the Jammu and Kashmir region. To further complicate matters, India also has a border dispute with China in the region, adding fuel to the fire between the relations of these three Asian powerhouses. When Independence finally arrived, Jammu and Kashmir was a predominantly Muslim state ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (“Great Ruler”), who ultimately wished to remain neutral with a high level of autonomy. Both India and Pakistan wished to draw this region into their respective territories, and tensions finally culminated in the 1948 Pakistani invasion of Kashmir. A Line of Control (LC) was established, and it remains today, separating the Pakistani occupied zones from those under the authority of the Indians. Further to the West, the Line of Actual Control (C) separates the disputed border between China and India regarding the region of Aksai Chin – a remote, uninhabited salt plain high in the Himalayas.
Aside from conventional warfare, terrorist atrocities have soured relations even further, particularly after the 2001 Indian Parliament attack – which almost brought the two nations to war with each other – and the 2008 Mumbai coordinated shootings. The Indian government blamed both on the Pakistani government’s concealed support of terrorist organisations through their intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The North-Western frontiers of Pakistan – the region that borders Afghanistan – are infamous for the training of terrorists, as is demonstrated by the ongoing drone strikes effected by the United States on the region.
The fact that these two rivals also possess nuclear weapons aggravates the situation much more than at first glance. India became the first nation outside the United Nations Permanent 5 on the Security Council to publicly test a nuclear warhead in 1974, whilst Pakistan came much later with their first public test in 1998. Just a year later, India and Pakistan went to war again over the disputed Kargil region after Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control. It is one of the few examples in the world of a conventional conflict between two states that possessed nuclear weapons at the time. The nearby Siachen conflict, ongoing since 1984, is the highest battleground in the world, with fighting occurring at heights of over 6000 metres. However, a cease-fire was introduced in 2003 that ends the conflict over this high altitude, remote and sparsely populated territory.
As one of the lesser-known major conflicts in the world, tensions between India and Pakistan arguably pose a greater threat than the Western media currently reports concering Iran, North Korea and Syria. The rivalry between these two artificially constructed nations is represented not just through the medium of the battlefield, but in the Hindu nationalism or Islamisation of each state’s politics, and perhaps more trivially, on the cricket pitch. Whilst many post-colonial states suffer from severe political instability, lack of ethnic cohesion and a crippling dependence on foreign aid, India and Pakistan buck the trend by becoming the up and coming superpowers of the Asian continent, superseded only by China, and perhaps Japan, Russia and Indonesia. The danger of two nuclear-possessing nations having such an antipathetic and destructive relationship has not yet reached its potential, and a further terrorist attack or border skirmish could very soon turn our eyes to a region many believe to be rather harmonious. In this corner of the world, it can only take a match to set the whole place alight.
Sources and further reading:
- Are India-Pakistan Relations Doomed?, The Diplomat
- Overview of Kashmir conflict, Wikipedia
- BBC Documentaries on 70 years of Partition, BBC
- Partition of India, The Conversation
- 2001 Terrorist attack on Indian Parliament, BBC
Image: Sergi Hill @Flickr