The pros and cons of partitions

Partition of British India did not begin with a war, but perpetual conflict on Kashmir resulted in nuclear arsenals.

Dr Tariq Rahman August 13, 2011

The partition of countries is generally resented by those who are getting partitioned. Such movements go by the name of separatism, secession, irredentism, treason and so on. But the discourse of the nation-state which opposes any separation of its territory defines national interest as the holding of territory, not the welfare of the people. In my opinion, however, a partition should be judged by the criterion of human happiness, prosperity of the people and whether the cause of peace has been served or not.

The partition of British India did not begin with a war. When the Muslim League finally went to demand for the partition of India, the Congress, after opposing it as was expected, agreed with it. But, while there was no official war, there was actually a civil war between people which could have been avoided. There was also perpetual conflict especially on Kashmir and now both countries possess a nuclear arsenal and could annihilate each other’s cities. In short, unless the two countries solve their disputes and go for nuclear disarmament — which no country ever has — the peace and happiness which one expects from partition is still to be achieved. That is why Faiz said: ‘chale chalo ke vo manzil abhi nahin ayi’ (move on as that destination has not yet arrived). That ‘destination’ is peace and the happiness of the people of South Asia and it still eludes us.

As for the partition of Pakistan, the alternative could have been the acceptance of Sheikh Mujib’s demands (six points), the transfer of power to him, the acceptance of a confederal structure or some other peaceful solution. But Yahya Khan’s regime, almost all political parties, the army and the bureaucracy of West Pakistan chose brutal suppression leading to the creation of Bangladesh through a war. However, now that Bangladesh is an independent country and its people have prospered we can say that the separation had a happy outcome. The lessons for the issue of Balochistan are obvious but whether our leaders will repeat their mistakes or learn from history is to be seen.

Other demands in South Asia have been less lucky. In Kashmir partition was suggested by Owen Dixon along religious lines but it was rejected. India maintains control by the force of the army and draconian lows. Pakistan has tried to wrest Kashmir out of Indian hands by sending in armed fighters in 1965 (operation Gibralter), 1999 (Kargil) and jihad-oriented private groups from 1990 onwards. Both countries have shown themselves more interested in the land than the people. Hence the independence of the vale of Kashmir (or the so-called 'Third option') finds no support in the establishment of both states. But it is only by solving this issue in accordance with the wishes of Kashmiris, to be determined by the UN or some other neutral body, that both countries can prosper and there can be peace.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamils were discriminated against and demanded justice. Then they demanded a state but this was refused. Then the movement became more militant and eventually the Tamil Tigers became so brutal that even their supporters were sickened. The state eventually prevailed by sheer force but if Sri Lanka wants enduring peace it will have to address the problem of discrimination against Tamils sooner than later.

Like Sri Lanka most countries do experience war. On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent state and on July 14 it became a member of the United Nations. But the partition of the Republic of Sudan, formed in 1956, took two civil wars (2.5 million killed) and 55 years. Another African country, Eritrea, declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war. Again, the human cost was tremendous.

In 1991-92 Yugoslavia broke up into Slovenia; Croatia; Macedonia and Bosnia. This divided the Serbs into four countries — Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia — a situation not acceptable to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The situation became desperate in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the Serbs declared their republic of ‘SRpska’ and formed Serbian autonomous regions and the Croats formed the Herzeg-Bosnia. The Bosnian war (1992-1995) followed when these were rejected by the government, costing 100,000-110,000 human lives. Most happened to be Bosnian Muslims. However, it must be noted that it was the Nato which bombed the Serbians in 1999 to force Milosevic to acknowledge the independence of Albanian (Muslims) Kosovars.

The Soviet Union broke up in 15 republics between 1990 and 1991. This happened only because there were armed uprisings and unarmed protests in these republics. The war-weary Soviet Union wisely refrained from wars against all these peoples. But in Chechnya, the Russian leaders chose to fight turning the Chechens into terrorists and causing mayhem within Russia itself.

The outstanding cases of areas which want autonomy or independence apart from those already mentioned are the Palestinians and the Kurds. Unless Gaza and the West Bank do not become an independent two-region state at par, at least as far as rights and human dignity are concerned, with Israel, there can be no peace either for Israel or for the Arabs. The Kurds are divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Only in Iraq the Kurds were given autonomy in 1970, which was reconfirmed in 2005, but even there they have been massacred. Elsewhere they are suppressed without mercy and in Turkey even the Kurdish language was banned.

Independence movements in Tibet, in the south of Thailand and in other parts of Asia linger on with various human rights violations. In Latin America, too, there are several separatist movements in Argentina (Mapuche), Bolivia (Santa Cruz), Brazil (south) etc but there is not enough space to go in details here. Indeed the total number of such movements are too many to record here.

Most states respond to independence movements with force. However, wise decision-makers use the 'carrot' at least to appease the alienated groups of people. In Canada, for instance, they offered all kinds of facilities to the Francophone of Quebec including French being made an official language. In Belgium, they did the same to Flemish speakers. In Spain, too, they conceded the Catalonians the right to use Catalan and gave special privileges to them. Whether our South Asian leaders will use the stick and plunge the region into violence or the carrot and prosper, is for them to decide. But do we, the ordinary people, want human happiness or blood? That is our preference.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2011.