Friday, December 19, 2008

India, Pakistan and Terrorism

The recent terror attacks in Mumbai captured the world's attention as few other events have done in recent years. Here was a ghastly action-filled terrorism drama unfolding live on our TV screens, holding us transfixed, and filling us with horror and revulsion.

The India-Pakistan Angle

In the West, there has been a tendency to portray the Mumbai terror attack as directed against the West and Jews. However, it must be kept in mind that the attacks took place in India and that the vast majority of victims were Indian. It is also evident that the attack originated from Pakistan. This being the case, I believe that one cannot ignore the India-Pakistan angle.

In this essay I explore some historical strands that I believe are key to understanding the India-Pakistan dispute.

Independence and Partition

As two hundred years of British Rule in India came to an end in 1947, it signaled not only independence for India, but also Partition - the splintering away of Pakistan as a separate sovereign state.

The basic thinking behind the demand for Pakistan can be traced back to a reaction among Muslim notables in Muslim-minority areas of North India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who were alarmed that the distinct Perso-Arabic culture of North Indian Muslim nobility, after being dominant in the area for centuries, was losing ground to local vernacular and popular culture, as well modern Western ideas. (Author William Dalrymple gives a masterful description of this cultural loss in The Last Mughal; see my review of the book here).

In reaction to this cultural loss, a theory was born that Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent were "a nation not a minority". Widely labeled the "Two-Nation Theory", this formed the basis for the demand for Pakistan that culminated in Partition in 1947.

A remarkable feature of the Two-Nation Theory and the Pakistan demand was just how vague and ambiguous it was. What exactly did "two-nations" mean for Muslims who were geographically dispersed across the length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent? Did it mean two sovereign territorial states? If so, what would be the territorial boundaries? Would the "Muslim State" be exclusively for Muslims, and the "Non-Muslim State" exclusively for non-Muslims? What would happen to those Muslims and non-Muslims who ended up in the "wrong" state?

Some historians conjecture that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the much-venerated leader of the Pakistan Movement, deliberately kept the Pakistan demand vague and undefined because he saw it primarily as a useful political bargaining chip that he and his Muslim League Party could use as they jockeyed for power in a post-independence India. Thus, for Jinnah, the motivation for the Pakistan demand was primarily oppositional - a useful tool for opposing the politically more powerful Congress Party led by Mahatma Gandhi.

For Jinnah, the Pakistan Demand was just that - a demand. He always thought of "Pakistan" as a demand, never as a sovereign state. Consequently, neither Jinnah, nor any of the other leaders of the the Pakistan movement ever seriously thought through the idea of Pakistan, and had nothing resembling any kind of long-term vision for Pakistan as sovereign state.

Salman Rushdie puts it best in his novel Shame: "Pakistan may be described as a failure of the dreaming mind... Perhaps the place was just insufficiently imagined."

(For more about Jinnah and the Pakistan Demand, see my essay here)

A Homeland for South Asian Muslims?

In the sixty years of its existence, the nearest that Pakistan has come to developing a national vision is the idea that Pakistan is a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia, an idea rooted in the Two-Nation Theory. This idea was weak to begin with, since Pakistan "left behind" many Muslims in India. In 1971 this vision suffered a further blow when Pakistan split in half, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. Today, with the vast majority (about two-thirds) of all Muslims in South Asia living outside Pakistan, this vision has become impossible to reconcile with reality.

Some "secular" Pakistanis, intellectual descendants of Jinnah, have put forth the vision that Pakistan, though not the actual homeland for South Asian Muslims, is the protector and guardian of all Muslims in South Asia. Here is Pakistani scholar Akbar S. Ahmed using this argument to justify Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India.
What stopped the widespread orgy of rioting in India after Ayodhya were the bomb-blasts in Bombay in 1993. The shock effect froze the rioting. ... The Hindus blamed the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence, the ISI. In the end, if the ISI were responsible, then they and they alone were the guardians of Muslims in India.
Apart from being openly hostile towards India, the idea of Pakistan as "the protector of Muslims in the Indian Subcontiment" is wildly delusional.

Pakistan's Identity Crisis and Opposition to India

As with individuals, a strong sense of identity is very important for nation-states as well. India has a strong identity of being an ancient civilization and culture, as well as a modern multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural democratic society. The United States has a strong identity as a land of liberty and opportunity and the "American Dream". Many states, like, say France, have strong cultural, linguistic or geographical identities.

Unfortunately, in the sixty years of its existence, the state of Pakistan has failed to come up with any kind of distinct identity for itself.

Pakistan suffers from a severe identity crisis.

Without any real vision of what it stands for, the Pakistani state has always tended to fall back upon the one idea that Jinnah, the leader of the Pakistan movement, articulated very clearly. Jinnah never explained clearly what Pakistan stood for. But he was very clear about what Pakistan stood against: Pakistan was diametrically opposed to the notion of India as a united but diverse democratic society, as articulated by the Indian nationalist movement.

Pakistan's national identity today, such as it exists, is built around this negative idea: the idea of anti-Indianism.


Everybody has heard about the Kashmir dispute. It is generally viewed as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. But really, it is much more than that.

Pakistan sees Kashmir as the "unfinished business of Partition". Pakistan's claim to Kashmir is based on theory that there is no place for Muslims in India - a theory that is the antithetical to the idea of India as a multi-religious, multi-cultural democratic society.

India has never accepted the basic validity of religious partition. The Partition of 1947 is seen as a "collosal blunder", a result of the "divide and rule" policy of the crafty British. Most Indians believe that any further religious partition of India, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere, must be prevented at any cost.

It is often said that the Kashmir problem is the core issue in the India-Pakistan dispute. Solve the territorial dispute in Kashmir, and terrorism in India - even international terrorism - will cease.

I see it very differently. I see the Kashmir dispute as symptomatic of the larger ideological divide between India and Pakistan. Rather than Kashmir being the core issue in the India-Pakistan dispute, I see the Pakistan problem as the core issue in the Kashmir imbroglio. Fix the Pakistan problem, and there will be peace in Kashmir.

Was the Mumbai Terror Attack Sponsored by Pakistan?

With anti-Indianism being a key component of its national identity, the Pakistani state is on an eternal quest to seek parity with India in matters like military power, diplomatic clout, etc. One strategy has been the systematic use of terrorism an an instrument of state policy against India - the strategy of "bleeding India through a thousand cuts".

Following the Mumbai terror attacks, the question on everybody's minds is: to what extent is the Pakistani state implicated in this terrorist attack? The civilian president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has insisted that the terrorists were "non-state actors", not directly sponsored by the State of Pakistan.

However, there is a larger issue here than just whether or not the State of Pakistan has directly paid and armed the terrorists who attacked Mumbai. The larger issue is that hatred towards India is very much a state sponsored ideology in Pakistan. Indeed, it goes well beyond a state-sponsored ideology. Anti-Indianism is the very definition of the Pakistani state as it exists today. As long as this remains the case, all terrorism originating from Pakistan and directed against India must be seen as having at least the implicit support of the Pakistani State.

What Should Be Done?

By Pakistan

Pakistan has to realize that compulsive hostility towards India cannot be the basis of a viable national identity. An alternative national identity must be developed. One possible candidate: a distinct cultural-geographical identity of Pakistan as the home of the "Indus People".

By India

India sometimes takes the threat from Pakistan far too seriously - sometimes even viewing Pakistan as an existential threat. India needs to realize that Pakistan's hostility towards India constitutes a far greater existential threat to Pakistan itself, than to India. India should also accept that "historical blunder" though it may have been, Partition is irreversible and Pakistan is here to stay. It is in India's interest that Pakistan is transformed into a stable, prosperous state that has shed its compulsive hostility towards India.

By the International Community

The International Community must realize that there are fundamental ideological differences between India and Pakistan, ideological differences that are unlikely to be resolved in the short term. So rather than being fixated on the remote possibility of friendship between the two states, the focus should be on managing a hostile state-to-state relationship in a civilized manner. Basic "rules of the game" should be drawn up, red lines should be clearly established, and so on.

A Shared Cultural and Civilizational Heritage

In the India-Pakistan relationship, one finds a remarkable paradox: while the state-to-state relationship is ideologically hostile, warm personal friendships between Indians and Pakistanis at the individual level are common. This is not surprising, since Indians and Pakistanis have a shared cultural and civilizational heritage, and have much in common. There are limits to how far this can go, since nationality is an important part of individual identity, but still, people-to-people friendships between Indians and Pakistanis offer a ray of hope.

In the end, it may just be the shared cultural and civilizational heritage and people-to-people friendships that will overcome the ideological differences between the two states.