Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Today’s Mistakes Matter More Than Partition

Posted by vmsalama on August 20, 2007

Newsweek/Washington Post — PostGlobal Forum

by Vivian Salama

There is no right or wrong answer to whether the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan was a mistake. Were mistakes made? Sure. Are mistakes still being made? Absolutely.

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The fact remains that for Pakistanis, it is far too dangerous to acknowledge such a question publicly because to question partition is to question the legitimacy of Pakistan (the same goes for Bangladesh). Certainly the younger generations may not have a proper sense of the losses and gains that were suffered by both sides and so any doubts may evaporate with time. It is natural that they feel closer nationalistic ties to modern day Pakistan and not to a greater subcontinent that was bitterly divided over half a century ago. The older generation that witnessed the bloodshed and migration, meanwhile, has good reason to second guess partition given the current political instability.

Like with so many conflicts in history, the partition of India and Pakistan was seen as a way to avoid civil war. Muslims in the now partitioned Punjab, for example, were the most impoverished residents which naturally created a sense of resentment. Many then recognized the opportunity to draw upon the more salient religious identifications as a means of building linkages and drawing distinctions. We mustn’t forget that in much of India prior to 1947, Muslims and Hindus for the most part lived harmoniously (as they do today in most of India) and partition by some was seen more as a precaution to avoid religious marginalization following the colonial exodus.

As for India, one of the headlines in the Times of India last week said it all: “60 and getting sexier.” Three factors contribute to India’s stability: political democracy, military security, and economic development. In fact, there is much that contributes to this ‘sex’ appeal India proudly flaunted as it rang in 60 years of independence from British rule. For one thing, it is by and large one of the most successful secular democracies in the world. The country’s economy is growing at 9% (although poverty and malnutrition remain rampant). Meanwhile, India’s ambitious nuclear program (which has received thumbs up from the United States) is an understandable intimidation to Pakistan and so it is no surprise that its neighbor would look to secure its own borders via nuclear proliferation.

In many ways, partition may be viewed as a failure for Pakistan. The Islamic Republic has stumbled both politically and economically over the last 60 years. It lacks a functional democracy and remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It undertook a path that stunted democratic political development. The influential elite had to be incorporated into the political process, which they then manipulated to their benefit. As a result, Pakistan remains a dictatorship and its domestic situation is growing increasingly volatile.

Something worth considering is a comment made by Pakistan’s exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last week at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. She noted that Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah died “a year after Pakistan was founded,” and so Pakistan lacked “a national leader with the authority, the respect to help [it] develop democratic political institutions,” whereas India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who ruled for 17 years “provided the leadership that could help a new nation strengthen its democratic institutions,” Bhutto said.

It is far too difficult to look back on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as a mistake; just as it is equally difficult to look ahead and envision a partitioned Iraq, for example. There is too much damage control that needs to be done today and looking back will only further delay things. Pakistan must work to establish political and economic stability on the ground, and India should make a genuine effort to assist its neighbor in this time of turmoil. Otherwise, divided or united, the subcontinent will face even greater challenges to come.

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