In this episode of the New Lines Institute’s Contours podcast series, host Nicholas Heras is joined by two leading experts on the Indian Subcontinent, Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali and Suchitra Vijayan, to analyze the dangerous emerging dynamics on the Indian subcontinent, especially inside India and in the contentious relationship between India and Pakistan. The discussion covers Vijayan’s critically acclaimed book, Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, and assesses how the tortured history of the subcontinent continues to drive India and Pakistan to instability and conflict. The panel also discusses how the United States can approach its policy toward the subcontinent, with a special focus on how the growing Indian-American community is shaping U.S.-India policy in an era of great-power competition.
NH: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this segment of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast series. I’m Nick Heras, and I’m joined today by two globally recognized experts on the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali and Suchitra Vijayan.
Mohammad Ali is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and he teaches at several Washington D.C.-area universities, including Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, and he is a world-recognized expert on the emerging dynamics of the Indian subcontinent. Mohammad Ali is also a frequent guest on the Contours podcast series and a frequent contributor of analysis on the Indian subcontinent and South Asia for the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Suchitra Vijayan was born and raised in Madras, India. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, GQ, the Boston Review, The Nation, and Foreign Policy. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. She’s an award-winning photographer, the founder and executive director of The Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organization based in New York.
Suchitra has recently written a book titled “Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India” based on her seven-year, 9,000-mile journey along India’s many contested borders. Thank you for joining us today, Mohammad Ali and Suchitra. Suchitra, I would like to start by asking you, why do you think the Partition of the Indian subcontinent took place? What are its implications today?
Suchitra Vijayan: Well, you asked a question that has many answers, many disagreements. I don’t think there’s a single scholar of South Asia who actually agrees on why the Partition happened or how it happened, and to a large extent, its effects. But the broader contours is that I think what you really saw after the Second World War was a growing demand for self-determination and freedom from imperial and colonial rule, and often these demands for freedom played out in colonies very differently.
SV: While the South Asian experience resulted in the bloody Partition where 17.8 million people actually lost their homes and traveled across, what you really see is a question where, what was once an undivided land that was united by culture and history and, in so many ways, a struggle for freedom and independence was completely butchered, and butchered without actually asking people on the ground how they felt about it.
SV: And more than what happened during the Partition, I think what really happened, at least certain things that people can agree upon, is that what you really saw was not a march to freedom in so many ways as it was a transfer of power. The whole Partition itself was seen so much as a transition and transfer of power from what was a predominantly British-ruled Imperial India to a transfer of power to local elites. And what you really saw was violence, bloodshed, and so much of that is now being played out even today in the subcontinent.
NH: Thank you very much, Suchitra. Mohammad Ali, I’d like to ask you your perspective on this question of why the Partition happened on the Indian subcontinent and what do you view are its implications today.
Mohammad Ali: So, Nick, I agree with Suchitra concerning the turbulence and the tragedies surrounding partition of the Indian subcontinent. I mean, I would add though that besides local resistance to colonial rule, there was also, of course, the weakening of the British colonial empire as a consequence of the Second World War, which is why we saw that domino effect, and not only with England, but with other European powers. So there was demand and a push for independence, of course, across Africa, across Asia, and other colonies. But simultaneously, the grip on power had also been loosened due to the destruction of the Second World War.
And again, yes, I mean, the reinterpretations of history and the complex layers in which these historical events unfolded, we could spend the rest of today talking about. But in broad strokes, Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, it’s important to note that he and Gandhi, after he came back from South Africa and started increasingly becoming involved in the independence of the Indian subcontinent, they were working together in the Congress very actively till about 1920, I believe, and they were both on the same page when it came to British colonial rule.
Now, it’s understandable that Gandhi astutely started using Hindu mythology and enmeshing that within this kind of demand, the popularization of the demand for independence, and he managed to create a genuine mass civil disobedience movement, what’s so-called satyagraha. That was a tactic that Jinnah, who’d been trained in Lincoln’s Inn, Gandhi was also a lawyer himself, but Jinnah kind of had a different view of how to go about getting independence. So, I mean, he felt that that civil disobedience movement was sort of anarchical, but he also started increasingly feeling, and not only because of Gandhi but other Congress leaders, somewhat sidelined and felt that the Muslim minority in the Indian subcontinent would not get the kind of accommodations that he was looking for in a post-independence India.
And then he started, along with Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, started articulating this two-nation theory. And, yes, this was a theory that was championed in the case of Pakistan, particularly by the Muslim elites, who perhaps preferred to become big fish in a small Pakistani pond rather than being small fish in a bigger united India pond. But in that sense, I agree with Suchitra that this was top-heavy, and particularly in the case of Pakistan, it was the feudal landowners, the industrialists, and they saw the opportunity of displacing the Hindu merchants. Right? And then all these factors sort of exacerbated and catalyzed the kind of carnage that we saw when the Partition occurred.
Now, some scholars feel that Jinnah was perhaps using the idea of partition as a bargaining chip to gain more concessions. And suddenly, in Jinnah’s view, he imagined that Pakistan would be a secular state where there would be freedom of religion. However, and it’s ironic that many Muslim leaders in the Indian subcontinent prior to the Partition, including, for instance, the Jamaat-e-Islami, were very opposed to the idea of a separate nation for the Muslims, because they went back to this idea that Islam is a universal religion that transcends borders. Right? So it’s a message of God for all of humanity and it’s a transnational religion. So they did not particularly see the need for putting their faith in a very obviously secular demand led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
But when Pakistan was created, now, many of the religious political groups and leaders began reinventing themselves and started demanding increasing Islamization of the country. And then we started seeing this kind of myopic vision of nationhood, which lends support to the demand to ostracize minorities, including the Ahmadi sect, for instance. Right? So, I mean, that’s a demand that the religious political parties are coalesced under, and then there’s interaction with the more authoritarian military regimes, kind of increasingly led to this myopic sense of nationhood which digressed from Jinnah’s imagining of it.
However, and of course these are … And we’re going to get into these issues. These are problems that have had many subsequent implications. But, I mean, if we were living in a parallel universe where the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the cleavages between the Muslims and the Hindus of the Indian subcontinent had not occurred, then imagine an Indian subcontinent where you would have 220-plus Muslims in Pakistan now, 200 million-plus Muslims in India, 150 million Muslims in what used to be East Pakistan but now is Bangladesh. Right? That is a sizeable, still perhaps a minority, but a very sizeable minority along with the Sikh and the Jains and the Christians, which are just a sliver of the Indian population. So the kind of ethno-majoritarianism that we’re seeing in India right now would not have been possible.
And of course, the ethno-majoritarianism on perhaps on both sides, I mean, the definitions of it would vary, these kind of hardened positions, and then of course the aggression and the hostility and the militarization that these two nations have now developed against each other has varied challenges, varied implications, ranging from the environment to economic cooperation and these issues we can now jump into.
NH: Thank you both. And there is this very interesting dynamic that emerges from what you both have described, and I want you both to take it head-on, and Suchitra, I’ll start with you. But Pakistan and India seem to have forged very different paths of state formations since the Partition of the Indians subcontinent. And how that process of state-building within these two countries, India and Pakistan, has occurred has led to some sort of emergent similarities as well as differences between the two of them.
And Suchitra, your book, “Midnight’s Borders,” has this haunting description of how people along literally the physical boundaries of India and also, in many cases, the margins of the Indian state formation process interact in their daily lives with the state as well as with the consequences of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the legacy of colonial rule.
And in many ways, as someone, myself, who was a fan of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” I see some echoes or some rhymes of that work in your work in Midnight’s Borders. And I just wanted to ask you, related to this question, in the course of your work and in your journey along India’s 9,000-mile-plus borders, how did you see it interplay in the legacy of the state formation of India with its people?
SV: Thank you so much for the question. It’s a profound question and it’s a question that, again, elicits very different answers depending on who you speak to. And I think what we really have to understand is that soon after the Partition and the independence of both the countries, India went a very different direction as against Pakistan. India produced a constitution very quickly. At least on paper, there were very specific ideas of what were the rights of the nation. What would become the founding principles of a secular democracy was the fundamental rights. That was very clear.
In case of Pakistan, it took about nine years for Pakistan to produce the first constitution. And on the day of the adoption of the constitution, both the main parties rejected, and ultimately, the constitution was abrogated and the country’s first martial law was introduced. And then finally, the current Pakistani Constitution is, in some ways, a third version that was enacted on 1973. So I think that itself, in some very fundamental ways, set the state formation of both these countries in very different ways.
But having said that, I think one of the things that, in some ways, unites both India and Pakistan, and there’s a very profound conversation that appears in the book, where someone that I’m speaking to says that… They quipped, “No one asked who this freedom for,” or how this freedom would translate on the ground. And almost everywhere that I traveled across those 9,000-mile borders, whether it was the West, the East, Kashmir, parts of China, parts that now many claim to belong to, in some ways, three of these countries, the question that people fundamentally felt that their idea of belonging in freedom really did not translate, whether it was the nationalistic histories or how state formation itself played out.
What India had soon after the Partition, because of perhaps of the constitution, at least a robust sense of belief that there was a secular democracy, was a civil society. Again, in the book, there’s this amazing conversation with my friend, Natasha, who talks about how, from the beginning, in Pakistan, people only have their bodies that they had to throw in line. And she says that now, India is going down the path that Pakistan had already gone down where the existing secular constitution is being eroded every single day.
Just as the government of Pakistan targeted civil society activists and went after people who were demanding for a very specific kind of freedom soon after independence in Pakistan, something like that is happening in India right now. Just as you saw dissidents disappear in Pakistan, the same thing is happening in India now. For example, Najeeb Ahmed is a student in JNU in New Delhi who just disappeared, and his mother has been looking for him since 2016. We have the BK-16 political prisoners, some of India’s foremost lawyers, scholars, and activists, now in prison without evidence, all charged with sedition simply for the crime of resisting.
So while these two countries might have taken very different paths in the beginning, and unsurprisingly and very sadly, what you really see is a certain kind of authoritarianism that has been embedded in both these countries, what you really see is a very specific kind of majoritarian politics emerge in India, and you see a very similar kind of anti-people politics emerge in Pakistan. And in terms of my own book, people consistently said one thing, and that was that their idea of freedom was not the idea of freedom that what the nation of Pakistan or nation of India represent. And many of them, the maps that they have does not reflect the maps that we have today.
NH: Thank you very much, Suchitra, for that vivid analysis of the development of India and Pakistan and how there’s development similarities and how that relates to work but also the topic that you pointed to that we have been following closely here at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, which is this rising tide of authoritarianism, in particular, a type of identity-based authoritarianism on the Indian subcontinent in both India and Pakistan. Excellent points. Mohammad Ali, I’d like to ask you to address this question.
MA: I mean, not to flog a dead horse, but one thing that one needs to keep in mind is that both India and Pakistan, of course, are a product of colonial rule, which continues to exert a lingering influence on the institutions of the state within both these countries. Now, I agree that India had learned from the experiences of the 1962 Sino-Indian War when the politicians realized that they should not interfere with the military in operational matters and they allowed the military to be, and the military were paid back in the same coin, decided not to interfere in politics. And there were many factors, right?
And so, Jinnah had passed immediately after partition, whereas Nehru … I mean, we saw Gandhi being assassinated because of his alleged sympathy with the Muslims by the far right. But Nehru, another stalwart of the Indian movement, was there to stay and steer the countries in his vision of social democracy. But those authoritarian strains did remain. So this does not mean … while, of course, there’s been no military coup in India, it does not mean that India has gotten rid of its authoritarian tendencies. And even historically, Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, imposed emergency rule, which was quite authoritarian. So not a military rule, but evoking emergency powers, et cetera.
And these kinds of problems have mutated in India with the rise of the BJP, where Modi is … crafted his ethno … Because we know the democracy, I mean, has been a flawed process from the beginning. Right? I mean, in Greece, yes, democracy emerged, but democracy for whom? Not for women. Only this narrow definition of the Greek city-states where there was democracy. We see the power of lobbies, I mean, even in the most powerful country, so it’s hardly one man, one vote, or one woman, one vote.
And in the case of India, we see this ethno-nationalist majoritarianism having come to the fore, which proves to be a vote-winning strategy. And despite this economic lackluster performance of the BJP government, they managed to win a sweeping victory in the last general elections again, and the Islamophobia or the persecution of Muslims in India does remain to be a problem, but that’s not the only problem. Right? I mean, the encroachment on civil society, the co-option or subordination of key state institutions, including the judiciary, pressure or co-option of the media, lingering problems.
Now, let me turn my attention though to Pakistan on the flip side. Now, the military in Pakistan has, of course, mutated into a very different type of an institution. The oversized role of the military in Pakistan has been justified by the perceived threat of a much more powerful rival nation with whom Pakistan has been fighting wars from 1948 onwards, several major ones and a plethora of skirmishes, some of them quite serious.
Then again, I want to go back to some history again that there is a historical context to the entrenchment of the Pakistani military on the political economy of the country. Right? So this has to do with Western Punjab and the canal colonies that the British … so the British invested in these very impressive irrigation schemes where they brought a lot of land under cultivation, of course, to produce cotton to feed the mills in Manchester and catalyze the Industrial Revolution by appropriation of raw materials from this part of the world.
But this also had consequence where a lot of the military recruitment was also happening from this part of the Punjab, and the British canal colonies set aside themselves large tracts of agricultural land for breeding horses, for putting up dairy farms. Right? And then they began parceling out land to military recruiters, locals. Beneficiaries were given titles, honorary titles, because they were helping recruit their villagers into the army of the British Raj. Some of them went on to serve in World War I and World War II. And then when the servicemen came back, they were also given land grants.
So this set the precedent for the military’s vested interest initially in the agrarian sector, but then subsequently, that had implications that the military also, besides the large landowners, is not interested in addressing the skewed land ownership. So after a couple of very lackluster land reforms, there has been no attempt. I mean, the Supreme Court also declared land reform to be un-Islamic under the General Zia regime. And what the military started doing was it diversified its corporate interest. It is perhaps the largest producer of fertilizer in the country, and it then began also dabbling in urban real estate, the banking sector, even launched an airline.
So this kind of penetration, not only in politics, but also in the economy of the country, is of course troubling. But it’s also important to realize that this kind of reliance on the military becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So you ask an ordinary Pakistani in the times of a crunch or a crisis, the military is the most disciplined, the most well-organized, the most well-funded entity.
So it naturally comes to the fore when, for instance, there was that very serious earthquake back in 2005 which straddled the sensitive border region between India and Pakistan, and the military came out and there was an outpouring of general support from the international community. This is the time where Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. Were not that bad because of what was happening in Afghanistan, but the military put its foot down and it said that, “We will be the conduit for the delivery of this aid.” I mean, this has happened in other places as well, like under the Rajapaksas with the tsunami and they withheld then some of the aid and then used that to undermine the Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula.
But in the case of Pakistan, while the military… I mean, there were problems. There would’ve been problems also with the civil administration trying to disperse aid, but besides those problems then, the fact of the matter is, it enabled the military to get a foot in the door of disaster management. So while subsequently the UNDP has worked to create national disaster management agencies, the military has now moved on from disaster management to contending with the pandemic. So because it has the resources, it kind of makes sense the military comes to the fore in times of crisis. But then ultimately, thinking of creating sustainable institutions, the donors are also in the rush, they conceded to the military’s demand. Right?
And this was also happening in the context where Pakistan was a non-NATO ally and it had to be given money, and the U.S. Was working very well with General Musharraf. While these are problems within Pakistan, the outside actors also have exacerbated this problem. Now, I mean, think to the U.S. And its support to the military regimes going all the way back to Ayub Khan in the late ’50s and ’60s, I mean, this is the time of Cold War alliances, like SEATO and CENTO, when a lot of military and financial aid started pouring into Pakistan, then General Zia, who very Islamized Pakistan, he got immense military and financial aid from the U.S. For his role in helping the U.S.-trained mujahideen to fight the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan.
Similarly, General Musharraf was able to stay in power also for a decade due to American generosity in lieu of Pakistan’s facilitation of American presence in Afghanistan, despite the turbulence and the acrimony experienced by and within both these countries due to varied strategic imperatives. And now more recently, after a decade of civilian quasi-authoritarian rule, the military then decided to throw its weight behind Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-philanthropist and then politician to actually enable him to win the 2018 general elections. And his government has been described by analysts as a kind of a hybrid regime now, but this hybrid regime has also been thrown out of power this past April via a no-confidence motion.
And it’s interesting to note how analysts and strategists in the U.S. Have expressed relief and they were glad to note a few months ago, like in February, March, or so, the Pakistani military … there were visible signs of the Pakistani military parting ways within Imran Khan and his government and his erratic foreign policy choices, his sort of very vocal criticism of the U.S., complaining that the U.S. is turning Pakistan into a scapegoat because of its frustrations with Afghanistan, his ill-timed visit to Russia at the time when the Ukraine invasion was going to take place, which he probably did not know about that it’s exactly going to happen on the day he landed there.
But then Imran Khan has been whipping up this idea based on this exchange between the outgoing Pakistani ambassador and the undersecretary of state, who had expressed his displeasure at the Imran Khan government, but Imran Khan turned this around and has been whipping up anti-American sentiment in Pakistan because of drone strikes and all this acrimony and suspicion over the past two decades. There is precedent of regime change, not in this case of Pakistan, but think to Iran, think to Chile, think then more forcefully to Libya and Iraq. Right? So, I mean, he’s saying that the U.S. Government had worked with the opposition, and this is how he’s been thrown out of power.
And while the US has distanced itself from what’s happening right now, the U.S. Has very recently, after the Muslim Brotherhood emerged, after the democratic process, they had no problems working with the Sisi government. And one suspects that they would be willing to do the same if there’s chaos in Pakistan, outright violence, and the military is compelled to step in. I don’t think that the U.S. government would have any problems doing business to achieve their own strategic aims.
So, once again, while there is this local context, it’s important to think of Pakistan’s regional insecurities and its interactions, I mean historical interactions, with the British and more recent interactions with great powers like the U.S., which explains the prevalence of the Pakistani military in its political economy.
NH: Thank you very much, Mohammad Ali, and I do believe that you are right that we have to trace the history of the political economy of the development of Pakistan as it gained its freedom from the British and in that period before it had its freedom from the British in terms of setting a course in terms of the socioeconomic and sociopolitics of the country.
I’d like to pivot to Suchitra. India and Pakistan are both plagued by internal disgruntlements. In India, in particular, these problems are multiple and range from communal strains to tensions along the Naxalite corridor, and there’s also restiveness within Northeast India. And we’ve already talked about this rise in authoritarianism, identity authoritarianism, in the country. So I wanted to ask you, what are some of the underlying causes of these tensions, and how has the Indian government been trying to contend with these issues?
SV: I think we have to start by understanding that India, the nation-state, or for that matter, and Pakistan, are geopolitical myths. Before the British came, there wasn’t an idea of one singular, united India. The closest one came to uniting these. While culturally they have contaminated each other, the regions are very, very different, and what you really see is that each region has its own sense of history, politics. History and memory is always very, very local in South Asia.
What you see in the state formation of India is also a place where a nation, a people who had just thrown out colonial oppression, trying to make sense of what it means to govern themselves. And sadly, and this is something that I spoke about earlier, is that when freedom arrived, nobody really asked who this freedom is for and how this freedom would translate. Early on, you see a series of disagreements of how India should come to be, what this would mean. And the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution is very important because it really, in some ways, is the First Amendment itself curbs the right to dissent.
And dissent started soon after. Secessionist movements started soon after. Many who were forced into this republic really did not feel that they belonged to the republic. Others were actually fighting for a certain kind of dignity and freedom that they thought that was not given to them. My grandfather and his comrades were independent India’s first political prisoners. They were picked up and arrested in 1949 for resisting or trying to organize workers for better pay and wages.
So what you really see soon after, while India very quickly had a constitution, albeit it was a very revolutionary constitution, promised many, many things. You really see that from the very beginning, there were people within the country who no longer felt that this country belonged to them, or the way that this country was being created was not in principle with the ideas of dignity, freedom, or equality. And all of these instances that you’ve really mentioned, whether it is secessionist movements, whether it is what was happening within the Naxalite corridor, or what was happening in Northeast India, in so many ways, these were people trying to fight for certain kind of rights and self-determination.
In the Northeast, of course, when I was traveling in these parts of the world, I remember when I was trying to get the Inner Line Permit to go to Nagaland. I was in the Naga House waiting because you will still need something called the Inner Line Permit to get access to these parts of India because not everybody still can go to these parts of India. You need an actual written permit. A staff in the Naga House basically said, “Why do Indians want to go? This does not belong to you.” And of course, we know that Nagaland, for all purposes, is part of the Indian Republic.
When you travel to India’s Northeast, you quickly see that the people talk about the first movement for independence against the Indian state. There are cemeteries and graveyards in remote Khiamniungan region in the Northeast where one of the gravestones says that, “India martyred my son.” So what you really see is a group of people across these borderlands communities, and even within the heartland of India, consistently fighting against what they believe is state oppression. And that’s truly what you see play out over and over and over again in all of these spaces.
The Naxalite corridor of course happened in response to what the local communities believe is exploitation of their resources. Of course, this itself then gets co-opted into the language of terrorism and insurgency and Naxalite, where any resistance, especially armed resistance, against the state is very quickly termed as a terrorist act or an act of insurgency. But what really binds all of this is that from 1947, it’s true that people of India can also be traced with a history of resistance, resistance to the idea of state oppression and resistance to the idea of India itself. And I think that history often, in some ways, is lost when we talk about just India or Pakistan as nation-states or post-colonial nation-states.
Thank you very much, Suchitra, with that excellent analysis on India. And I want to turn to Mohammad Ali. Pakistan too has its share of internal discontent with the northern areas as well as in Balochistan. What is the background to these issues and what are their current implications for the country?
MA: Absolutely, Nick. Certainly, Pakistan has also got its share of internal strains. And going back right to the time of the partition, and yes, it was messy and there were contestations and some parts of the country were cajoled together, the contours of the country were strange because East Pakistan and West Pakistan, divided by a thousand miles or so in the middle by India. Right? So it was strange in geographic composition for a country. And these were different ethnic groups, different languages.
In an effort to forge a national identity, Jinnah was also quite… He didn’t accommodate the demand for elevating Bengali for East Pakistan and give it the status of a national language like Urdu. So Urdu was an amalgam of Hindi and Persian and Arabic and it evolved over time, and that became the national language for Pakistan, which many Baloch and Pashtuns, and even go to southern Punjab and they don’t speak the language, but this kind of nation-building happen more organically elsewhere and, I mean, here, the organic formation of nationhood was shattered in this post-colonial creation of these different countries.
But from that time onwards, we’ve seen in a lot of places where the lack of ability to accommodate language becomes a catalyst for subsequent disgruntlement. The Sinhalese and Tamils also had problems like this over the demand of the Tamils to get their language acknowledged in Sri Lanka. So for Bengalis, this was the first problem, and then the increasing economic hegemony of western Pakistan led to increasing disgruntlement of the Bengalis in East Pakistan culminating in the creation of the Mukti Bahini. And when the Pakistani military tried to go and quash them … India also, because there were a lot of ethnic Bengalis in India, and of course Pakistan and India had no love lost for each other, so it was a good moment to intervene and there was a war between them, but in the process, we see the birthing of Bangladesh.
Now, it’s interesting that while the creation of Bangladesh could have negated the two-nation theory, because the two-nation theory was what? The Hindus are a distinct culture, nationality, and they should have their own nation, versus the Muslims who had come there over centuries and had provided a layered notion of sovereignty with those empires. And many times, they were fighting against each other in the process of creating dynasties and then subsequently the Mughal Empire.
But this idea that Islam is the glue that’s going to hold the nation together did not work when Bangladesh separated, Muslim Bangladesh separated, because the other Bengalis had gone into Calcutta and else in West Bengal in India. So rather than rethinking, the Pakistani leadership doubled down on this notion of using religion as a glue to hold the rest of the country together, and they continued to exert top-down and hegemonic policies within the rest of the country.
So the Punjabi dominance of power structures has then continued to cause resentment in the other provinces, including Sindh, the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan. And while this is all true, and one is not trying to deflect blame or criticism, I again do think that there is also need to think of broader dimensions. Otherwise, there’s this convenient tendency of finger-pointing, particularly when we are sitting in the academy or in the think tanks within the West. But I think that there’s a need of reflexivity here, where it’s important to realize that these kind of top-down policies to exert control and extract resources from the populace are, A, of course a post-colonial legacy, but it’s not only a post-colonial legacy which the independent state of Pakistan should have shared over 70 years, because those same top-down policies have subsequently also continued to impinge and influence the manner in which the Pakistani state has envisioned the idea of development.
So consider, for instance, how elite-led growth has continued to work hand in glove with new liberal policies propagated by the IMF and the World Bank, which they think are the recipe for poverty alleviation. And going all the way back to the days of the Green Revolution, which was seen to be the solution to the problems of world hunger articulated in the late ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and the USAID was a big proponent of the Green Revolution, those were largely capital-intensive strategies to boost growth. Right? So mechanization, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and this caused major depeasantization.
So sharecroppers, who were also exploited, but at least they had a parcel of land on which they could grow their crop, were no longer needed when a mid-sized farmer could now, on subsidized rates, get a tractor. So you saw massive displacement of labor. They go then into the urban slums to try and make a living, or they are downgraded within the agrarian sector to work as agri-laborers or seasonal workers.
And subsequent structural adjustment reforms have also not been able to create sustainable models for economic growth. I mean, if you look at a country like Pakistan, it’s been a long-standing client of the IMF and World Bank, but it remains highly indebted. It’s plagued by glaring provincial, regional, urban, rural gender inequalities. Then layered on top of this, and of course the local inefficiencies, but there’s something wrong with these models of governance which enable accumulation on the one hand but exacerbate deprivations on the other.
And alongside that, of course, then we have geo-strategic compulsions like the global war on terror and pressure on Pakistan to do more. And within Pakistan, when it tried to go after the safe havens of militants in the northern areas, the military operations caused massive displacement and a lot of collateral damage, a lot of destruction. And then we saw coming to the fore movements like the Pashtun Tahafuz Mahaz, which was a movement of civil rights, a resistance movement of the ethnic Pashtuns who were being harmed by this massive military campaign. Right?
And while try to remain peaceful and try and talk about protecting rights of the Pashtuns in this context of GWOT, the Pakistani state has unfortunately not accommodated the concerns of this movement, and Pakistan itself has been locked, almost arm-twisted, into the global war on terror. And then on the one hand, the Pakistani state has disdain for movements like this, but on the other hand, it’s shown a lot of accommodation to movements like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which has weaponized the notion of blasphemy. Right?
And these are groups … It’s interesting. I mean, and you have academics here in the U.S. who have also noted this that the context of the global war on terror, there is this very simplistic dichotomy created between these hardcore Salafi, Wahhabi militant extremists. I mean, of course not Wahhabism or Salafism as a whole, but inspired by those ideologies, then these extremist militant groups, and then on the other hand, the Barelvi, the syncretic, the Sufi Muslims.
And even the State Department had been encouraging and supporting some of these groups which were protesting against suicide bombing, etc., in Pakistan, but some of these groups and their offshoots then weaponized this notion of blasphemy. And when they killed the governor of the Punjab and his own bodyguard killed him, that’s I think when people woke up and smelled the coffee and realized that this movement is also now getting out of control … It’s not all about the swirling dervishes.
Now, the Pakistani state has been capitulating to groups like this, which is not good news for tolerance, religious tolerance. And in fact, not only movements like the TLP, but the Pakistani state has also… Now it’s trying to sustain a cease fire with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which was a Taliban faction specifically targeting the Pakistani state and hoping to turn Pakistan into something like the Taliban regime. And a lot of blood has been shed by the TTP within Pakistan schools, parks, bazaars, and markets. But the Pakistani state now feels, because of the instability in Afghanistan, it’s trying to work with the Taliban who seemed reluctant or unwilling or unable to clamp down on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, so it’s working with them who are trying to broker now a cease-fire agreement, at least. So now, let’s see where that goes.
And lastly, on the other hand, when it comes to misgivings, I think the most misgivings one sees are in Balochistan, this lingering sense of marginalization, of denial, of appropriation of its natural resources, which have been compounded by the top-heavy manner in which we are seeing CPEC projects being implemented. And while there’s been talk about bringing true economic prosperity and whatnot, CPEC, like those other tried-and-tested models of development, are also top-heavy. Right? And Balochistan, including Gwadar, have not seen a lot of prosperity within their midst. These are also issues of lingering concerns.
So it’s not only the role of the West per se. It’s also now this geo-economic relationship with China, which is also working in a manner that is not trickling down benefits. And the model of the state remains elite-dominated, and that adds to the frustration on the ground.
NH: So I want to ask you both your view on Kashmir. Kashmir has been called the unfinished business of the Partition and it remains an issue of contention between two of the world’s major nuclear weapons powers, which happen to be India and Pakistan.
SV: Yes. Kashmir is complicated, but also Kashmir is one of the world’s most militarized regions of the world. And often, the conversation about Kashmir is seen as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, and I think that fundamentally changes the conversation about what’s happening on the ground. In reality, Kashmiris have been fighting for freedom for a very, very long time, depending on who you speak to. Some would say that Kashmiris have been fighting an imperial army since the Mughals first walked in.
The reality is that Kashmiris, even within the British imperial state and leading up to the Partition, have been fighting what they see as an imperial imposition on their rights, freedom, and dignity. So what I would really urge people to do is not look at Kashmir as a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India, but a case where over 8 million Kashmiris have, for over 70 years, single-handedly and singularly have asked for one thing and one thing only, right to self-determination, but more specifically, right to freedom, a certain kind of freedom and dignity that they have been denied.
Having said that, Kashmir has been Indian-administered for a very long time, and since the revocation of Article 370, it’s been Indian-occupied. And one has to look at Kashmir now not just as a place of human rights violations that has happened for a very, very long time, one now has to look at Kashmir as a colonial occupation, where you’ve seen complete shutdown of everything. What you really see is taking away the power from people, investing it in forces that have no consideration for the people.
When Article 370 was revoked, what you really saw was the longest digital siege ever imposed by a democracy on people it claims to rule. So Kashmiris were denied a voice. They were violently silenced. But since then, what you’ve seen is arrests of everybody. Khurram Parvez, one of the Valley’s most respected human rights advocates, has been picked up again under terrorism charges. We’ve seen journalists being picked up. Editor of Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, is now arrested and incarcerated again for reporting. He’s not the only one. There are many, many Kashmiri journalists who have been targeted, silenced. Journalists have either been silenced. They’re now doing counterinsurgency-style operations against homes of journalists.
But what you really see is an absolute destruction of a people. And I think one really needs to start speaking about Kashmir, not as a territorial dispute, but as one where Kashmiris have not only been disproportionate victims of state violence. And I think their fear is true, and I think if you speak to Kashmiris on the ground… I spent time between 2013 and my last visit of Kashmir was in 2019, and I haven’t been there since. For those six years, when I did my field work in Kashmir, what you really saw was a fear, fear that the people here could actually be completely destroyed, their culture, their language.
And I think that is something that we are seeing now, the ways in which the BJP government in India has not only revoked Article 370, but now continues to impose various repressive rules and laws. And I think one thing that one really, really needs to understand is the infrastructure of impunity that the Indian state has built in Kashmir. Here, anybody could be picked up, killed, and thrown in mass graves, and this has happened since the ’90s. And we really need to start rethinking the language that one uses for Kashmir. It can no longer be called a human rights violation or abuse. It’s no longer a territorial dispute. What you really have is an absolute and complete colonial domination. I would no longer even call it Indian-administered Kashmir. I would actually call it Indian-occupied Kashmir.
NH: Mohammad Ali, what is your viewpoint on Kashmir?
MA: So I do agree with Suchitra. I also think that both of them do, by the way, occupy parts of Kashmir, which kind of happened right in 1948 when they had that first war. Pakistan still wants to talk about U.N.-administered plebiscite, the conditions of which implied complete demilitarization, which is unlikely. It’s also unlikely that Pakistan, given realpolitik, given nuclearization, given great power configurations, very unlikely that we’ll see the U.S. Trying to mediate the situation. Very unlikely that India is going to relinquish any part of Kashmir or Pakistan is going to do so. We also might not see an independent Kashmir sandwiched between these two rival nations.
So given perhaps this kind of cynicism, one also has to acknowledge that this remains a thorn in the side, not only for these two countries, but for the South Asian region as a whole. I mean, SAARC is largely dysfunctional because of Kashmir being a bone of contention between Pakistan and India. And these issues are also being exacerbated by climate change, because if you look at the Himalayan glacier flows, a lot of them come through Kashmir. Now with CPEC, I mean, it’s coming through Xinjiang, but coming through areas in Gilgit-Baltistan, which if you look more broadly, I mean, these contestations also exist in those areas, also in Ladakh where China and India had the most bloody skirmish where dozens of soldiers died after the ’62 war.
So this issue needs to be resolved. I think one formula… And I wonder what Suchitra would think of this, but during the Musharraf regime, people working with him put forth this four-point formula, which talked about demilitarization or a phased withdrawal of troops. No change in the borders of Kashmir. However, the people of Jammu and Kashmir should be allowed to move freely across the Line of Control, and this idea of self-governance without independence and some kind of a joint supervision mechanism in Jammu and Kashmir involving India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, because this is where the waters flow from. This is where the contention is around dam-building. There’s very little data sharing.
And it seems like, I mean, despite the revocation of Article 370, if there’s a more reasonable attitude … Of course, right now, the situation on the ground is dire. The human security situation is dire and what’s happening there is nothing short of tragedy, but this could be an issue that quiet diplomacy, working behind the scenes, could maybe be, in my opinion, I think it could still be revisited. And it is perhaps the most reasonable… Given realpolitik, the most reasonable way of ensuring that the lives of the Kashmiris become better rather than a territorial gain for either side.
NH: I want to give Suchitra the last question. And your book, “Midnight’s Borders,” is widely considered one of the best history books of 2022. And as you both know, Americans of Indian and Pakistani descent are one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States. In fact, Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant groups in the United States. India is, as popularly known, the world’s second-largest democracy. It will likely soon be the country of the world’s largest population. It is a hub of innovation. It is a geopolitical rising power, a nuclear power, and it’s also a place where a lot of the innovation that occurs in how the human species approaches some of these existential questions such as climate change are addressed.
And so, I want to ask you, Suchitra. If the Biden National Security Council was to read your book and it was to think about how it wants to approach India, which admittedly has been a bit of a black hole for U.S. Foreign policymakers for decades now, what would you want them to take away from your book?
SV: I think one thing the Biden Administration should take away is that American democracy is only as strong as the democracies it gets to deal with. And today, the American democracy is also, some might argue, in some deep crisis. And India was once the world’s largest democracy. I was someone who was born and raised in India. I’m an immigrant to this country and I’ve made America my home, and I’m American now. I’m Indian and then an American.
But what really troubles me is the rising authoritarianism in India, where the country has now consistently waged a war against its own people. At one point in time, India was a rising power. It was a superpower. It was seen as a bulwark against China, but a country can only be effective if it is indeed a democracy that allows for its people to question its government. And increasingly, I don’t see that with India. What Narendra Modi’s government has done is created and put India in a position where it is now consistently, as state policy, targeting the country’s minorities.
It has taken away important economic policies, which means that the country is no longer doing economically well. With the war in Ukraine and its position vis-à-vis in Russia and Ukraine also puts India in a very dire situation. What I would want the Biden Administration to do is have a very honest strategic assessment of what India can offer. India cannot offer anything to the United States as long as India can no longer have the promise of a secular democracy.
And what happens to India with over a billion people and 200 million Muslims will have a dire ramification for the world. What you’ve really seen is a lynching of Muslims. Now you’re seeing churches being demolished. You’re seeing all kinds of minorities being vilified. And Gregory Stanton issued two genocide warnings for India. So I think one really has to take a very pragmatic, honest look back at India to really see if India can fulfill those strategic challenges and obligations to the United States.
SV: But more importantly, I think United States should hold itself accountable the same democratic values it holds the rest of the world accountable, which I feel increasingly is also slipping away from this country. But more importantly, I think we have to understand that the world is changing in ways that we are not ready for. Borders of the world are unraveling across.
The book actually starts with the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with the U.S. presence in the U.S. war in Afghanistan and then goes to India, which means the borders across the world are unraveling. People are not just fleeing violence and war. Climate change will radically remake the borders of our world. And what lines will you enforce with a standing army when water and fire have swallowed them? You already have close to 28 million climate refugees just in South Asia alone. You’re going to have more climate refugees, not only from South Asia, from rest of the world.
So we need to have a comprehensive plan to think about what is the future. And that future is not guaranteed unless we take, as I’ve already said, a very honest, pragmatic look at various regions and formulate policies that not only affect us today, but will have ramifications for the next 10, 20, and 50 years to come.
NH: Thank you, Suchitra, Mohammad Ali, for this excellent, detailed, and nuanced discussion on emerging dynamics on the Indian subcontinent. And we here at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy will continue our deep-dive analyses on these issues and the geopolitics that affect them. Thank you, and all the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.