Editor’s note: This is a historical narrative based on the views of the author.
As the cataclysmic civil war of Europe was drawing to a close and the sun was setting on the British Empire, trouble was brewing within its crown jewel India. For 130 years the British dominated India through the skillful use of divide and rule policy while remaining the ultimate arbiter, but in 1946 the post-war ruin and panic forced the exhausted British to seek the quickest possible exit strategy.
Against this rapidly transforming backdrop, the age-old fissures within Indian civilization erupted in full force, threatening to rip the country apart along caste, ethno-linguistic, and religious lines. Especially insurmountable were the profound religious and cultural division between Hindus who formed 70 percent of India’s population and Muslims who accounted for 25 percent. Despite numerous attempts by a frail and aging Mahatma Gandhi, misdirected political forces and irreconcilable personal ambitions of short-sighted leaders in 1947 partitioned the British-Raj’s 435 million subjects into the Islamic state of Pakistan, 85 percent Muslim, and secular India, 80 percent Hindu.
The partition was traumatic for 11 million Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs who had to choose sides and migrate en masse or risk death and destruction. Especially affected were the large ethno-linguistic groups, the Bengalis, Punjabis, and Sindhis, as well as the tiny communities of Parsis (Zoroastrians), Kashmiris, and Marwaris. Bengal and Punjab, though united by language, were divided between India and Pakistan along religious and political lines. In 1947, the first Indo-Pak war over Muslim majority Kashmir ended in a stalemate. Kashmir became a persistent bone of contention between India and Pakistan.
India’s aspiration was to become a modern, secular, prosperous, and inclusive republic that provided equal opportunities for Hindus and Muslims while preserving its ancient culture and heritage. The Pakistani elite fancied themselves heirs to the Turkic Sultanates and Mughal Empire which had dominated India from 1192 A.D. to 1719 A.D. Pakistan’s goal therefore was to become a model Islamic state, prosperous and modern, part of the Islamic world, and an eminence alongside secular Turkey and devout Saudi-Arabia.
Both India and Pakistan had inherited an extensive irrigation system, rail and postal network, a modern legal system, a sophisticated bureaucracy, a trained military, and the English language from the British. British exploitation had left them poor and largely illiterate, all they had to do was invest in economy, infrastructure and family planning to improve the lot of their people. But this would prove to be easier said than done.
Through partition along religious lines, Muslim majority Pakistan in large measure had solved its internal religious contradictions while sharpening and exacerbating contradictions with India. But by doing so it enabled the re-surfacing of centrifugal ethno-linguistic forces within its borders. Throughout its history, Pakistan would rely on Islam, its military, its dictators and the Kashmir conflict with India as the glue to prevent its disintegration into separate nations along ethno-linguistic lines.
During the 1950s, both India and Pakistan restructured their archaic medieval era administrative sub-divisions along ethno-linguistic lines. However, from the beginning, there were deep misalignments between Pakistan’s ethno-linguistic groups and its power structure. West Pakistan was a mosaic of seven ethno–linguistic groups, while East Pakistan was largely homogenous — 99 percent Bengali. Although Bengalis were almost 60 percent of the total population of combined Pakistan, they were significantly underrepresented in the government and military and received only 35 percent of the central budget expenditure. The Pakistan Army was overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun and Punjabi, from Northern West Pakistan, while the bureaucracy was filled heavily with educated and trained Muhajirs — the Urdu speaking migrants from North India who coalesced around West Pakistan’s southern coastal city of Karachi, the capital and financial center of Pakistan.
India reconstructed itself as a mosaic of 12 major ethno-linguistic groups interspersed with dozens of minor ones. Influential social groups such as Brahmins were spread throughout India preventing any regional domination, and although caste problems continued to persist, in time people from all social and ethno-linguistic sections began to be assimilated in the power structure making Indian society more inclusive than at any point in its history. The chief architect of India’s constitution belonged to the lowest strata of the Indian society, the Dalit outcastes. In time many Muslims rose to positions of influence, including the President of India as well as many business and media magnates.
After the British departure, both countries felt the need for a unifying national language to replace English. Pakistani elite sought to make Urdu their national language, which was written in Arabic. Indian elite chose to go with Hindi, understood to varied degrees by most, and native to 40 percent, mostly in North India. Both countries were rocked by protests and backlash throughout the 1950s-60s. In India, non-Hindi minorities, especially ethnic Tamils and Bengalis vociferously opposed the imposition of the Hindi language. Faced with such disintegrating reactions, Indians came to their senses and made Hindi a second official language, along with English. Thus the language crisis was successfully defused.
In Pakistan, the most severe backlash was among Bengalis in East Pakistan. Bengalis who were justifiably proud of their rich literary and cultural heritage rejected Urdu and sought to make Bengali the national language of East-Pakistan. The West Pakistanis, stung by such agitations continued to bitterly bicker with the Bengalis over language and power-sharing issues and with India over the status of Kashmir.
By 1950, the highly strategic region of Kashmir was torn between India, Pakistan, and China and shared proximity with the USSR. The cold war was raging and both the USSR and U.S. sought alliances with India and Pakistan. India was freshly freed from British influence and remained neutral, but Pakistan, aware of Soviet and Indian proximity, chose to ally with the U.S. In 1960, Pakistan moved its capital from southern city of Karachi to newly constructed Islamabad near its northern border, a few miles from the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi and close to Kashmir, China and USSR — where all the cold-war action was. The relocation of the capital caused deep resentment among the Muhajir minority, who rapidly lost influence in Pakistani politics to the majority ethnic Punjabis.
The late 1950s Sino-Soviet split, the 1962 Sino-Indian war at the height of Cuban missile crisis, and the 1969 Sino-Soviet war led to a loose Indo-Soviet alliance aimed at containing China while the U.S., China and Pakistan drew closer so that the world’s two largest democracies drifted further apart. In 1965, a second Indo-Pak war over Kashmir almost bankrupted both countries and again led to a stalemate. In India, this led to a political crisis in which the old guard was purged. In 1966 Indira Gandhi, the youthful scion of the influential Nehru-Gandhi family emerged as the new leader.
Aware of India’s weakness, Indira Gandhi immediately took steps to expand the military, agriculture and industry, as well as nuclear and space programs. 1968 witnessed the birth of India’s premier intelligence agency — the Research and Analysis Wing — to rival Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
1971 was a watershed moment in subcontinent’s history. The East Pakistan Bengalis, tired of being treated as colonial subjects by West Pakistan, rebelled and affirmed full and immediate independence. Any reconciliation became increasingly unlikely. In order to quell the Bengali independence movement, the West Pakistan army was mobilized and unleashed an orgy of mass slaughter, arson and rape. According to Bangladeshi sources, between one and three million Bengalis were exterminated and 200,000 Bengali women were raped. The ruling elite in West Pakistan implicitly impressed upon the Bengalis that since they were incapable of protecting even their women, their demands for self-rule were untenable.
Indira Gandhi led the diplomatic offensive in major European capitals and personally met with President Nixon in the White House to plead the Bengali cause. The enormous unfolding humanitarian crisis with millions of victims pouring into eastern India also became a contest of wills between Gandhi and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who misled President Nixon into aiding Pakistan against the Bengali people. With no support forthcoming, India and Pakistan were at war. A relatively well-prepared India launched a blitzkrieg and within two-weeks crushed the West Pakistan Army and took control of Dhaka. On December 16, 1971 Bangladesh was born from the ashes of East Pakistan, and 93,000 West Pakistani soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. The parliament of India gave Gandhi a magnificent ovation as the incarnate of Durga, the Hindu Goddess of Power. The Bangladeshi parliament responded with similar enthusiasm.
Noam Chomsky cites this war as one of the two examples in modern history in which a larger nation went to war against a smaller country for humanitarian reasons.
The deeply shaken Pakistani elite realized that winning a conventional war against India would be extremely difficult. By 1971, Pakistanis had spent 60 percent of their time under brutal military dictatorships and the heavy-handed bullying had caused deep resentment even among West Pakistan’s minorities. If the Bengalis could be free, why couldn’t they? After 1971, inspired by the Bangladesh movement, the ethnic minority independence movements gained substantial momentum.
The Pashtuns were proud of their heritage, that no one in history except the Turks and the Mongols had subdued them. They were well represented in the Army, filling 40 percent of its ranks despite being only 15 percent of the population. They rigorously adhered to their unique pre-Islamic tribal code, Pashtunwali. Pakistan’s civilian leader at the time was Zulfiqar-Ali Bhutto, an ethnic Sindhi and the founder and leader of Pakistan People’s Party, the largest political party in Pakistan. These political realities and interlocking of power placated the ethnic Pashtuns and Sindhis and their independence movement subsided.
But the urban, Karachi based Muhajirs continued to suffer discrimination and the Balochis, who were mostly poor and rural, faced a brutal Pakistani military crackdown. Balochis were only 3 percent of the population while their province Balochistan formed 45 percent of Pakistan’s land. Balochistan, extremely rich in natural resources, therefore became the object of Pakistan’s colonial appetites. Throughout the 1970s, thousands of Baloch men, women and children were bombed, raped and slaughtered. In the end, Pakistani military’s butchery prevailed and pacified the Baloch freedom struggle. Due to cold-war realities, CIA and Pentagon kept aiding Pakistan and ignored the Balochi genocide. The disaffected Muhajirs started their own political movement in 1978, which later became the Muhajir-Qaumi-Movement.
India faced similar destabilizing movements throughout the 1970s-80s, backed by the ISI and CIA. These movements had less ethnic and more religious element, particularly among the Sikhs and the Kashmiri Muslims who wanted their own homeland. Unlike Balochis, the Sikhs were well represented in Indian politics and business and despite being 3% of the Indian population formed 10% of Indian Army’s soldiery. But some among them felt that since India and Pakistan were Hindu and Muslim majorities, their demands for a Sikh majority homeland, Khalistan, were just.
During 1970s, as Pakistanis were pondering over their country’s future direction, Brigadier SK Malik, an influential figure in Pakistan Army, wrote a tome titled “The Koranic Concept of War” which was published in 1978. Its foreword was written by none other than Pakistan’s future and perhaps most influential dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. A keen student of war, Malik argued that in order to keep Pakistan intact and take revenge against India, Pakistan must immerse itself in the philosophy of jihad against infidel Hindus and Jews. Jihadi terror, in his opinion was not a means to an end, but an end in itself. In Malik’s estimation, jihad would soften and paralyze the Indian giant, leading to its dismemberment by a thousand cuts. To rally Pakistani people in an eternal jihad against infidels thus became the primary doctrine for Pakistani establishment. This momentous turn of events turned the Pakistani government back to a medieval psychology, increasingly diverging from Attaturk’s secular Turkish model.
In 1979 General Zia usurped power by executing the civilian leader of Pakistan, neighboring Iran saw its Islamic revolution, and the USSR invaded Afghanistan and gave Pakistani elite the motivating trigger to apply an extremist interpretation of the Holy Koran. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter Administration’s National Security Advisor, visited Afghanistan and Pakistan and promised weapons and funds through the CIA and Pentagon, while Pakistan recruited jihadi fighters from the Islamic world. Throughout the 1980s, Afghan insurgency raged and Pakistan was increasingly radicalized. In 1988, the badly burned Soviets withdrew, the Pentagon scaled down its assistance, the USSR began dissolving and Afghanistan was liberated.
But a radicalized Pakistan could not reverse its trajectory and had to look for infidels elsewhere. India, the original object of jihadi passions, became the convenient target. Meanwhile in India itself, socialist policies stunted the country’s growth, the Sikh insurgency intensified, and Tamil insurgency in neighboring Sri Lanka spread to the mainland. In 1984, after a long reign since 1966, Indira Gandhi, India’s only female Prime Minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, resulting in political turmoil and anti-Sikh riots, in which 2,000 Sikh civilians perished.
By 1991, both India and Pakistan were on the verge of bankruptcy and Narasimha Rao, an aging but astute political thinker emerged as the new leader of India’s ruling center-left Congress Party. A phenomenal polyglot of almost all major Indian and Islamic languages, he arrested the disintegrating tendencies, successfully managed a political reconciliation with the Sikhs, Tamils, and other disaffected groups, and oversaw a clandestine growth in India’s nuclear and intelligence capabilities. However, he became most-well known for turning India’s trajectory from parasitic socialism to a market oriented economy by slashing tariffs and taxes and simplifying the regulatory code. The almost dysfunctional economy saw an unprecedented expansion, as economic growth rate tripled and poverty was reduced by 35 percent.
Rao’s reign also witnessed an enormous growth in Hindu nationalists’ political power. In 1992, the Hindu nationalists demolished a medieval Islamic mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya. This led to countrywide Hindu-Muslim riots in which thousands perished but gave the Bhartiya-Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), a solid and enduring representation in the national and some state parliaments. From this point on, India became a genuine left-right polity with center-left Congress party and center-right Bhartiya-Janata party gridlocked in power with regional ethno-linguistic political movements.
Meanwhile, as Kashmir continued to burn in flames, Pakistan witnessed another failed tryst with democracy during the 1990s when Benazir Bhutto, an ethnic Sindhi and the scion of the Bhutto family, continued to jockey for power against Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Punjab, the home province of Pakistan’s establishment. In 1998, India’s nationalist Bhartiya-Janata party came to power, and both India and Pakistan engaged in a tit-for-tat nuclear-test showdown. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf usurped power by exiling Prime-Minister Nawaz Sharif to Saudi-Arabia. From 2000-2009, after 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, the India-Pakistan conflict continued to rage and terrorist attacks in India continued to occur with a frightening regularity. In 2008, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at Rawalpindi, in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Today, both India and Pakistan are at a watershed moment. India, with all its faults has largely managed to solve its multi-dimensional problems of caste, religion, and ethno-linguistic groups while admirably functioning as the world’s largest democracy. Though these problems continue to linger and occasionally flare up, rising prosperity will mitigate them, and despite the Kashmir issue and Maoist insurgency, India will expand as a major stabilizing force in Asia in years to come and by 2013 will become the third largest economy behind China and US.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is the 6th largest country and 2nd most populous Islamic State on earth. If Pakistan has to survive as a single country into the next generation, it will have to bring about a total turnaround from jihad toward a secular Turkish model.
Pakistan will also have to stop the genocide and colonial exploitation in Balochistan and give wide autonomy to its minority provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Kashmir and the Pashtun Northwest so that they can pursue peace and prosperity without colonial intimidation. The diverting away of waters and revenues from Sindh, the barbaric Talibanization of Pashtun Areas, and the demographic invasion of Balochistan, Karachi and Kashmir by majority Punjabis will have to stop. Just as India’s founding fathers wisely organized the Hindi belt into 6 (later 9) different provinces to prevent Hindi domination, Pakistan will have to divide its Punjab province into at least three different provinces along the lines of various Punjabi dialects to prevent ethnic colonialism. Pakistan will also have to stop regarding the growing Indo-Israeli and Indo-U.S. alliances with such deep suspicion.
Finally, Pakistan will need the sudden emergence of an influential visionary such as a Kemal Ataturk or a second Jinnah, who would be able to accomplish this “mission impossible.” This author’s sincere hope is that this will happen, Pakistan will reform, India’s Hindu right will be restrained, and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will converge in a relationship similar to that of US, Canada and Mexico.
However, even with sincere hopes, all this is unlikely to happen. Pakistan will continue to descend into a hyper-Talibanized jihadi vortex throughout the 2010s as minority independence struggles will reach a crescendo. By 2022, Pakistan will be imploding. Its nuclear assets are likely to fall in the hands of jihadis, who will use them to threaten India’s infrastructure and energy supplies from the Middle East and central Asia and eventually, through some miscalculation, launch them to penetrate Indian and possibly Israeli missile-shields, drawing in a massive Indo-American invasion.
The ensuing war will assuredly be traumatic for Indian aubcontinent. India, due to its enormous population and strategic depth will be able to absorb the after-effects of this war, which might include a limited nuclear exchange. Pakistan will dissolve into separate ethnically homogenous nations and by 2030 it is likely that there will be some strategic security, energy and economic partnership agreement between India and the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. North Pakistan might continue as the successor state, but it will be difficult to prevent the ethnic domino effect in Southern Central Asia. Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan might merge by erasing the British era Durand line to form Pashtunistan, while Uzbek and Tajik areas of Afghanistan will merge with their ethno-linguistic cousins in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is difficult to predict the extent of Chinese involvement in this saga, but it will not be insignificant. Russia would probably have minimal involvement.
By 2040, after a transformative reformation of entire power structure in former Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan will formally merge into a United States of India. This union might eventually include Nepal, Sri Lanka, possibly Pashtunistan and other minor political entities. It is difficult to say if Punjab and Bengal will merge just as Germany did and Korea will, but if they do, the Hindi speaking states will also merge to contain any centrifugal tendencies. Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi in that order will be the three most spoken languages in a united India.
By 2050, the USI with its 2.3 billion inhabitants, one fourth of planet’s population, will emerge as the dominant economic, technological, political and cultural power in Eurasia and hence the world. To prevent hyper centralization of power, regional ambitions and colonial parasitism, the federal power structure of the USI will be vested with minimal powers, which will include armed forces, foreign policy, minimal federal taxation, and perhaps a single currency. All other powers will be vested in the various ethno-linguistic provinces, which will chart their own independent course commensurate with their temperament and talents. There will be a high degree of individual freedom. While English might remain the official language, India might see an unexpected and unprecedented revival of ancient Sanskrit language.
Save some divine providence and emergence of an extraordinary personality, like Buddha or Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), the onerous task of solving Hindu-Muslim division will be a long multi-generational process. Just as China and Japan took what was essential and appealing from Buddhism, and assimilated it with their ancient Confucius, Taoist, and Shinto traditions, Hinduism, too, will absorb and assimilate what it can from Islam and this might lead to eventual healing and reconciliation, not just for India, but also for other parts of the world.