Seven decades after the split of British India into two nation states, Features Editor Rajan Soni analyses the legacy of conflict that remains to this day
Every afternoon, at the edge of the border between India and Pakistan, visitors are engulfed in a blur of orange and green, as patriotic military men with comic facial hair parade by in a testosterone-fuelled show of pride for their respective nations. Audiences on both sides of the border chant in turn: ‘Hindustan!’ ‘Pakistan!’ ‘Hindustan!’ ‘Pakistan!’ Aggressively, opposing soldiers turn to face each other, nose to nose, flexing the curls of their moustaches as they would their biceps. Crowds cheer, horns wail and drums roll. One almost wonders when the first shot will be fired.
The changing of the guard, or Wagah celebration, is held in the Punjab region on the Indo-Pakistani border every day. In many ways, it is a symbol of the frosty relations that the two neighbouring countries experience to this day – short of outright conflict, yet undoubtedly tense and competitive. Relations are still tainted with the blood spilled over the violent partition of British India in 1947, and have been soaked further yet by the numerous wars and conflicts that have followed.
The last ten years have been no more cordial; terrorist attacks, riots and nuclear threats have all sustained an anxious atmosphere in the region. At the UN General Assembly last month, India’s First Secretary to the United Nations Eenam Gambhir issued a damning statement referring to its neighbour as “Terroristan”, in reference to Pakistan’s historical affiliation with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Likewise, the Pakistani government is consistently critical of both India’s nuclear program and its administration’s treatment of Indian Muslims, particularly in the Kashmir region.
Religious conflict was at the heart of the partition 70 years ago, the legacy of which remains to this day. In 1947, following Indian independence from the British Empire, millions of residents, primarily of the Punjab and Kashmir regions, were forced to leave their homes and migrate across the new border on the basis of their religion.
A refugee crisis ensued. Half million Hindus and Muslims will killed in the riots that followed, and an estimated 12.5 million people displaced from their homes in the chaos – a number that does not stray far from those resulting from the Syrian Civil War. Several independence campaigners, including Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC), were intensely critical of the move, seeing it as nothing more than religious apartheid.
Today, religion continues to fuel tensions across the Indo-Pakistani border. The Kashmir region, located in northernmost India, has been subject to a number of insurgencies by militant Islamic groups, allegedly supported by the Pakistani government. While India holds Pakistan responsible for propagating terrorism through its actions, Pakistan argues that it is merely providing this support in defence of the Muslim majority population in Kashmir, who they claim are denied self-determination by the Indian administration. To this day, the Pakistani government vehemently maintains its support of Muslims’ right to self-determination in the Kashmir, much to the annoyance of the Indian administration.
These are not the only accusations pointed at India concerning the treatment of its Muslim population. The Gujarat riots of 2002, over which current Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided as governor, were sparked following false allegations that the Pakistani government was behind a train attack that occurred in early 2002, killing a number of Hindu pilgrims. The story was reported throughout the local media and used as a pretext to incite hatred and violence against the local Muslim community.
Carnage was what followed. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal Report estimated that almost 2000 people were killed in the violence, the majority of which were Muslim. Gang rapes, Mosque burnings and destructions of homes were common and catastrophic. Internationally, the handling of the riots were decried as a form of ethnic cleansing condoned by the Indian government, with prominent figures such as academic Martha Nussbaum asserting that the violence was propagated by the ‘complicity of state government’. With Narendra Modi now Prime Minister, the tension that was generated by the riots continues to incubate under the surface of diplomacy.
Since the partition, India and Pakistan have been subject to drastically different economic fates. One of the ‘Asian Tigers’, India has been subject to an average economic growth of almost 7% over the past decade – in contrast, Pakistan has slumped and struggled. What is striking, however, is that, until a decade ago, Pakistan boasted a higher income per capita than its now-booming neighbour. Despite this, many economists assert that the fact that India’s institutions were already built following partition gave it a historical advantage from the start; Pakistan, in contrast, was forced to start from scratch. The very nature of Pakistan’s birth has undoubtedly created a sense of discontent, with many in the country feeling as though India has not earned its success.
More dangerously, however, competition has developed in the arms arena. India’s development of nuclear weapons shortly after Partition propelled it ahead of Pakistan in terms of military strength and, on the heels of its first successful nuclear test, was shortly followed by Pakistan’s development of its own nuclear programme. But what is worrying is that neither nation is subject to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Without official international oversight and regulation, it is the concern of the international community that the arms race does not steer off road and out of hand.
As things stand, out-and-out war is not a viable option for either side. But with the headlines dominated by conflicts between the United States and North Korea, Israel and Palestine and the Syrian Civil War, perhaps the world should be conscious of the weight of history that hangs above the Indian subcontinent, and that the flags of orange and green are not, one day, infused with red.