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South Asia's 70-year itch  

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: August 28, 2017 20:52:15 | Updated: October 22, 2017 17:46:59


Partitioning South Asia was an idea whose time had come in 1947. The formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, Mahatma Gandhi's swadeshi campaign from 1905, the foundation of the All-India Muslim League foundation in 1906, Woodrow Wilson's 14-points emphasising self-determination in 1917 and its simultaneous Khilafat spin-off, Gandhi's 1922-3 non-cooperation movement and his non-violent campaign from 1930, and the 1940 Lahore Resolution, among other developments, made partition the sine qua non of South Asia.

Neither the architecture nor the mindset has survived seventy years. Not that they are supposed to, since progress requires replacements of sorts, with memories capturing the residuals. Yet, something like the 'seven-year-itch' English aphorism, depicting a downward spiralling interpersonal relationship, seems to have multiplied 10-fold or so since 1947 with whatever the 'partition' concept conjures today.

Bangladesh's 1971 emergence, for example, broke the 1947 Radcliffe Partition Line, drawn to extract Pakistan out of India. Sir Cyril, for whom that line was named, retrospectively spoke of 'one heart being cut into two'. Clearly Bangladeshis did not feel that way about Pakistan in 1971: there was no 'heart', nor even 'mind' and 'soul' in common between East and West Pakistan. With Pakistan's trajectory shifting west after 1971, the domestic ripples and gushes that resulted in the 1947 'partition' have also been meshing with global sound-bites and spurts.

Behind Pakistan's symbolic efforts to retain some presence in Bangladesh still, its geopolitical cornerstone has now expanded in the west: in addition to Kashmir, Afghanistan has acquired strategic importance. Given the recently concluded US$46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connection with Gwador (in Baluchistan), seventy-years hence Pakistan cannot but be more of a Central Asian/Persian Gulf power than South Asian.

In turn, four bad-blood streams may flow: with (a) India, this time ready to spill across the Himalayas to Afghanistan from Kashmir; (b) the United States, with which a dramatic about-turn awaits in the wings, largely  over Afghanistan, and also because of Pakistan's new red-herring, the Taleban; (c) Arab countries, as their deepening US attachments and aggressive regional posturing confront Pakistan's brewing commitments to China, Iran, and Russia; and (d) Islam, particularly over its leadership contest in which Pakistan's superior military supplies and trained Taleban-type insurgents could play pivotal roles.

India in 1947 was an avowed secular, socialist, non-aligned, and nationalist country on the ascendancy, far different from the ultra-religious, aggressively capitalist, and ultra-nationalist country seemingly at a self-serving peak today. Its founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, would not only have felt uncomfortable under such labels, in fact, would have opposed such identities. Today's Congress Party is fading so badly, for example, simply because it cannot drift far from its original platform to appeal to today's restless masses. Pushing that point further and wider across South Asia, with a huge majority of Indian (and South Asian country-specific) population born after 1947, it is but natural to expect different, even contradictory, clarion calls, given the increasingly diverse constituencies. Not just the architecture, but the 'partition' mindset must also be modified to suit the tone of a more robust temperament.

Because of its size and far better endowments, India's predicament goes farther. "Seventy years after partition," editor Harish Khare succinctly argued in The Tribune, "India is beginning to look a lot like Pakistan" (The Wire, August 12, 2017).

If 'bad' turns to 'worse', inside India, whose name is derived from River Indus, which just happens to be Pakistan's life-line, the Hindutva ideology that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar proposed in  1923, and which Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party resurrected in 1989,  may make an Indus recapture its ultimate goal. Mixed with India's Afghan friendship, do tectonic geopolitical shifts at par with Kashmir await the subcontinent?

Kashmir should not be taken too lightly today. Too many youths born in the shadow of one of the most intense and intractable global conflicts may extract a mighty price for missing out on the 'innocence' that comes with childhood: they are also set to forego the globalising opportunities the Internet revolution has brought for so many others globally. Kashmiris are seething, to say the least, for reasons non-existent in 1947; and the turmoil to be expected is likely to be more of the intra-state rather than inter-state form. Under those circumstances, 'partition' becomes a hollow reference, unlikely to remain in the local vocabulary for long.

Not that matters have improved at the inter-state level either. Both India and Pakistan now wield nuclear weapons, and though Pakistan has 'eaten grass', as the then Pakistan Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1963-66), who crucially built the China connection, promised Pakistanis would do, if needed, to develop one (in a 1965 Guardian interview), India flamboyantly sitting atop the global economic ladder gives the Hindutva mindset a firmer foothold than Nehru's secular, socialist, non-aligned, and nationalist credentials in the country's 'tryst with destiny'. To meet this challenge, Pakistan must cling to its nuclear weapon, Islamic terror, and China in the rear-view mirror (or even use it as a pacesetting decoy, as the China-India 2017 Doklan/Donglang face-off alongside Bhutan suggested it could do).

Bangladesh may remain, as it was under its East Pakistan identity in 1947, more of a front-seat spectator than a heavyweight slugging it out. Nonetheless, there is mileage to be made even there:  from the 15 million migrants to cross South Asian borders due to the 1947 'partition', only 3.3 millions used the Bengal borders (2.5 million of them going to India). Both Bangalees and 'Biharis' flocked to the border then. We do not have that many accounts of their experiences as other countries may have of those who crossed other borders. Yet, as the 70th 'partition' anniversary grabs more than usual traction, in part to capture as many of those accounts before it is too late, we too must get in on the act. If they are still alive, around, or available, their stories might still be gripping, and particularly placing them alongside those of the 1971 horrors, would be the ideal Bangladesh portrait we would wish to build. Akku Chowdhury's gallantly choreographed Liberation War Museum could make this another mission: to stock them before it is too late, for they may make a difference.

Suffice to say for now, whether a front-seat spectator or a South Asian back-seat passenger, Bangladesh's backwater South Asia status may be misleading. Bengal identity, after all, first drew the East India Company, then paved, as it caved under corporate pressures, the critical pathway to the British Empire's 'crown jewel', India, at Plassey (1757). As the next Scopus article will indicate, Bangladesh may have silently built enough soft-power clout over the years to make 21st Century South Asian waves.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the

newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance

at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

 

 

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