Sumit Ganguly: On India-Pakistan Relations

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University is the author of Fearful Symmetry: India and Pakistan under the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons (Oxford and University of Washington, 2005) and India Since 1980 (Cambridge, forthcoming). This talk was given at the History Institute for Teachers on “Teaching India,” March 11-12, 2006, sponsored by FPRI’s Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education, cosponsored by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Asia Program and the South Asia Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and made possible by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

According to some people, including former president Bill Clinton, South Asia is the most dangerous place on earth. Certainly there is the possibility of conflict, but actually, the region is by no means the most dangerous place on earth. Indeed, during Clinton’s tenure in office, Rwanda was much more dangerous, if one looks at the sheer number of people who were killed (by machetes, not nuclear weapons).

Without understanding the significance of partition, it’s impossible to understand the evolution of Indo-Pakistani relations. The experience of partition has shaped the foreign policy of both India and Pakistan, particularly as far as each other are concerned. W. H. Auden’s poem “Partition” (1947), captures the essence of the madness of partition and the fecklessness with which partition was accomplished that year. Telling of how Sir Cyril Radcliffe was sent to fix the borders of the new countries, it begins:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London,"is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.”

Factors Animating the Conflict

Three closely related factors animate this conflict. First, the conflict is really about competing notions of state-building in South Asia. Pakistan was created as the putative homeland of the Muslims of South Asia when the British left the subcontinent. The leaders of the Pakistani nationalist movement argued that with the departure of the British, despite the secular professions of the Congress Party that had brought India its independence, for all practical purposes this would be a Hindu-dominated state, and consequently Muslims would not be treated as equal citizens of India.

Beyond that, the framers of the Pakistani state had given little thought to precisely what would constitute the state. The question whether it would be an Islamic state or a secular state was not fully addressed or even thought through. In any event, Pakistan was created as this sanctuary for Muslims fearing Hindu domination. And their fears had some basis, because despite Congress’s professed commitment to secularism, it could not always adhere to those commitments. Accordingly, certain fears, misgivings, and anxieties had arisen in the minds of substantial numbers of Muslims. Of course, these were fanned, embellished, and adumbrated upon by the leaders of the Pakistani movement, thereby giving greater strength to the movement.

Despite its many shortcomings and as it has evolved, India was created at least constitutionally as a secular state. Its secularism leaves a great deal to be desired, particularly in the last several years, but there was and remains a constitutional commitment to secularism, which should not be jettisoned even in its present moth-eaten form—the alternatives are far too disturbing. Secularism and democracy in India are inextricably intertwined: one cannot survive without the other. (Of course, the Indian notion of secularism is very different from the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” vision of secularism that accords respect, at least notionally, to every faith.)

So at one level the India-Pakistan conflict is about competing notions of what constitutes a state and what should be the raison d’être for a particular state. People like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistani state, offered a primordial vision of Pakistan, claiming (falsely) that Muslims “neither inter-dine nor intermarry.” He successfully managed to build upon the fears and anxieties of many people, and pushed for this notion of a primordial state where membership in a religious community would be the basis of state-building.

This was dealt a blow in 1971, when Pakistan unraveled. Various structural factors contributed to the secessionist movement that arose in east Pakistan that subsequently became Bangladesh, including fundamental asymmetries in foreign investment, the amount of money spent in east Pakistan, recruitment into the civil service and military, etc. But it was not simply economic exploitation and the asymmetries but also linguistic subnationalism that contributed to the break-up of Pakistan.[1]

The second factor is the memories of partition. As Sisir Gupta, a noted Indian diplomat and scholar, once wrote, the India-Pakistan conflict is animated by the memory that elites created of each other as a consequence of partition. An entire generation was scarred by the memories of partition, when you were forced to leave hearth and home whether you were Muslim or Hindu, even if you were sick. A million people perished, and anywhere up to 6 or 7 million people—some argue that it goes even higher—uprooted. This was one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. And quite frankly, there was no honor on the part of any particular community.

Individuals might have behaved with largesse and shown remarkable courage in protecting Hindu or Muslim neighbors, but not a single community behaved in an exemplary fashion. Manohar Malgaonkar’s novel, Bend in the Ganges, and from the other side, a Penguin collection of short stories, Kingdom’s End, by Sadaat Hasan Manto, capture a sense of the horror of partition. Manto had actually stayed on in Bombay after partition, but then felt that his life was insecure, and very reluctantly after partition went to Pakistan. It was a great personal tragedy. A highly successful screenwriter, he died an absolutely broken man.

These memories of partition led to images of each other as being fundamentally untrustworthy, as did the process of socialization, the writing of textbooks, especially in Pakistan, because at least India had the benefits of democracy and a wider debate about the process and the horrors of partition. That debate has not really taken place in the public domain within Pakistan, and all one needs to do is pick up a social sciences or civics textbook in Pakistan and see that this bears little relation to fact.

Finally, the most vexed issue, which really stems from the first two, is the question of Kashmir. Why did the disposition of this state become so contentious? One might assume there must be vast mineral deposits, that it must a region of great strategic significance. Otherwise, surely states couldn’t go to war three times over that piece of territory and expend so much blood and treasure over this conflict. But alas, there are no great mineral deposits there, and it’s of no great strategic significance.

Kashmir is a highly contested piece of territory for a reason related to the first point. Kashmir at the time of independence was one of 562 princely states. These states had been nominally independent as long as they recognized the paramouncy of the British crown between 1857 and 1947. Under the doctrine of paramouncy, the monarchs could do pretty much what they wanted as long as they deferred to the crown on defense, foreign affairs, and communications. At the time of independence and partition, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, decreed that the states were free to join either India or Pakistan, but three principles would have to be taken into consideration. One was geographic contiguity, so if you were deep in the heart of India or what was going to become India, you couldn’t reasonably expect to join Pakistan. (Or for that matter, as the Nawab of Pakistan’s Khairpur and Sindh found out when he wanted to join India, and Nehru declined, saying “You’re in the heart of Sindh, we’re not going to have a Berlin corridor linking you with India.”) The second principle was demography. Pakistan would be the predominantly Muslim areas. Hence you get this peculiar geographic anomaly of countries separated by about 1500 miles of hostile territory; and third, which was somewhat contradictory, the final decision was that of the monarch. So the principles were not exactly all congruent.

Kashmir posed a peculiar problem. It abutted both of what would become India and Pakistan. It had a Hindu monarch and a predominantly Muslim population. So where do you go? Both Indians and Pakistanis made representations to the maharaja, who entertained visions of independence. But Kashmir was very important for both the Indians and the Pakistanis. As Pakistanis pointed out, Pakistan is incomplete without Kashmir. (The “k” in Pakistan stands for Kashmir.) It was an irredentist plan, in that there are fellow Muslims across the border, and consequently they should be ingathered to create the complete state of Pakistan. For India, at least in the 1950s, it was equally important to get Kashmir as a way of demonstrating its secular credentials. They could then demonstrate to the world that Muslims could thrive within a predominantly Hindu polity.

Tragically, India has committed many a sin in Kashmir, because of the ever-present fear of secession. There was a strand within the Kashmiri populace that was never quite happy with the accession to India. Therefore the government of India engaged in all manner of electoral skullduggery to ensure that secessionists did not come to power through electoral means. Kashmir has a very tragic history. In fact, at one point, when asked by a reporter about what went on in Kashmir, Nehru in a remarkable moment of candor said “Less freedom exists there than in the rest of India, but more freedom exists there than ever before.” A somewhat disingenuous characterization, but he was enough of a democrat to recognize that what he was doing in many ways contradicted his most fundamental values.

Ultimately, the maharaja refused to accede to either India or Pakistan, vacillated on the question of accession, and in late October 1947 a rebellion broke out in the southern reaches of the state. The rebels quickly started to march on Srinagar. Faced with this rebel onslaught, the maharaja panicked and appealed to India for assistance. India promptly sent in troops, but not before one-third of the state had been occupied by the rebels, who were now assisted by Pakistani regular troops dressed as local tribesmen.[2]

After the Indian Army stopped the Pakistani and rebel advance, the maharaja chose to accede to India, but with an important proviso: that at some point a plebiscite would be held to determine the wishes of the Kashmiris. Accordingly, Prime Minister Nehru, on the advice of Lord Mountbatten, sent the Kashmir case to the UN Security Council for adjudication, thinking that it would be a neutral ground where things could be decided along the canons of international law. That’s the last time India’s referred anything to the Security Council or believed in the neutrality of international law.

Very quickly the Kashmir dispute became entrapped in the warp and woof of the Cold War. The U.S., knowing next to nothing about Kashmir, accepted British wisdom on how the case should be handled. There was a profound pro-Pakistan sentiment largely because there was an interest in maintaining a substantial Anglo-American presence in Pakistan. This region at this point is all part of the Soviet empire; consequently there was a profound anticommunist impulse. So the entire discussion about Kashmir became inflected by Cold War concerns and a fairly pro-Pakistani attitude.

The UN decided in a series of resolutions, especially two important ones in 1948-9, that three things have to happen in Kashmir. Pakistan had to vacate its aggression, India then had to reduce troops commensurate to the maintenance of law and order, and third, a plebiscite would be held to determine the wishes of the Kashmiris. None of these three things have happened. After about 1960, the UN basically withdrew from this conflict for all practical purposes. Since then, Pakistan has raised the issue in the UN every fall when the UN opens, and similarly the Indian representative has exercised his or her right of reply. This is the ritualistic incantation that takes place every year.

War Experiences

One can distill five propositions by looking at three of the Indo-Pakistani wars (I deliberately exclude 1999, because that most recent war was markedly different): 1947-48, 1965, and 1971, though the latter really wasn’t about Kashmir but about the rise of Bengali subnationalism. India’s intervention came in the wake of an extraordinarily brutal crackdown on March 26, 1971, by the Pakistani Army, which led to the flight of 9.8 million people into northeastern India and West Bengal. In its wake, a civil war ensued in which India became deeply involved, leading to the creation of Bangladesh. There was some conflict along the Kashmir border, but that was not the principal locus of the conflict in 1971.

The 1999 war, which was about Kashmir, was sui generis. Many of the propositions that I have distilled don’t apply to it. The five propositions are as follows:

Low Levels of Violence. Considering how important this dispute is, and given that you’ve gone to war three times over it, what’s remarkable about the first three wars is that they were characterized by extremely low levels of violence. More people died in the insurgency that broke out in Kashmir in 1989, in which by my calculation about 60,000 people perished—that’s less than the total number of combatants killed in the three Indo-Pakistani wars. And yet we refer to Kashmir as a low-intensity conflict. That’s a form of obfuscation. It’s not particularly low-intensity when you look at combat deaths.

Limited firepower. Such low casualties were possible largely because people had limited firepower. You couldn’t throw enormous numbers of aircraft at Germany like “Bomber Harris” did in WWII, when the Luftwaffe could return the favor. You just didn’t have those kinds of resources available. These are relatively poor countries. In fact, in 1965 the Pakistanis moved their F104 Starfighters, American-supplied weaponry, all the way back into their rear bases for fear the Indians would destroy them on the ground.

Set-piece battle tactics. Also, there were set-piece battle tactics. Who had trained these people? The British. Some of them had belonged to the same regiment. They could almost communicate telepathically. Because these are people who had fought the battles in Alamein and had landed in Sicily. They had been under Montgomery’s command. They had gone to the same schools: Sandhurst, Southhampton, Woolwich. They could predict what each other was going to do. There was very little tactical innovation. Much of this was based upon what they had learned in the British Indian Army.

Intrawar restraints. Related to that—and this is why 1999 is and future wars will be different, and possibly more bloody even just using conventional forces—there were intrawar restraints. For example, in 1965 Air Marshal Asghar Khan, the chief of the Pakistani Air Force, was called up by his counterpart, Air Marshal Arjan Singh, and said “Gentlemen do not bomb each other’s cities.” A tacit agreement was reached. There was a military component to it, too. It was not simply a gentlemen’s agreement. It was simply that you had very vulnerable populations, and if you bomb my city I can do the same. And we can needlessly inflict pain. And both of these gentlemen were smart enough, having read the strategic bombing surveys of WWII, that bombing civilian populations contrary to popular belief does not break their resolve, it does exactly the opposite. It strengthens the resolve of populations, all you end up doing is killing innocent people. If you want to break the morale of people, punch a hole through their artillery or their military formations, leave their civilian populations alone. It doesn’t do much good. Moreover, they knew that half of bombs don’t reach their intended targets. So why bother if you have finite resources? This intra-war restraint actually helped. Cities were not bombed, military bases were.

Adherence to international norms and conventions. Finally, given the passions and stakes involved, what’s remarkable in these wars is that there is adherence to international norms and conventions. All of the wars began with a formal declaration of war, ended with a formal ceasefire, and above all, in 1971, when there were 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, all of them were accorded the rights and privileges enshrined in the Geneva Convention. No one was tortured, no one was intimidated, no one was beaten. Even India’s harshest critics concede that. Pakistan’s Col. Siddiq Salik, author of Witness to Surrender (1977), at no point says that he was in any way tortured, humiliated, threatened, or beaten. Understandably, he doesn’t have particular affection for India, but there is no evidence of malfeasance.

These factors won’t exist in the future. We had a glimpse into the future in 1999. Both sides used much greater firepower, the soldiers and officers on both side had no prior contact with each other, and any contact they might have had was entirely hostile. So the ability to resurrect these intrawar restraints or exercise greater control over firepower is limited. Certainly there will be no set-piece battle tactics, there was much more tactical innovation in the 1999 war. Consequently, even future conventional wars will be much more sanguinary.

Nuclearization of the Subcontinent

Contrary to popular belief, the prospects of full-scale war in the subcontinent are now virtually nonexistent, barring inadvertent or unauthorized usage of nuclear weapons. In 2001, the talk of war that led the State Department to issue an advisory for all Americans to leave India was motivated either by a lack of understanding of the subcontinent’s politics or was part of a broader nonproliferation agenda. We don’t want India and Pakistan to have nuclear weapons, so we have to suggest that nuclear war might be imminent, given that the countries already crossed the nuclear Rubicon in May 1998.

The nonproliferation community started a steady drumbeat about the possibility of nuclear war. They said this was the first conflict between two nuclear-armed adversaries, forgetting the clashes of 1969, about which New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury wrote The Coming War between Russia and China (1969). China had acquired nuclear weapons as early as 1964, which precipitated the Indian nuclear-weapons program, which began in 1966. So this was not the first conventional war between two nuclear-armed adversaries. We now know from declassified documents that Secretary Breszhnev approached President Nixon and said, “Before the Chinese acquire a really substantial nuclear arsenal, why don’t we carry out a joint attack on their facility and decapitate their facility?” Nixon did not think that was a good idea. Meanwhile, Mao was telling Nehru that China could survive a nuclear war, civilization as we know it would continue (this from the individual responsible for the deaths of approximately 7-8 million during the Cultural Revolution and another 20 million during the Great Leap Forward). Whatever the shortcomings might be of Indian and Pakistani decision-makers, none of them can quite compete with Brezhnev or Mao, based on this evidence.

But more important, there’s a very simple structural fact about nuclear weapons. If your adversary possesses nuclear weapons and you do not possess complete intelligence and knowledge of where every last one of those weapons are located, and if you cannot carry out a decapitating first strike, as long as your enemy still possesses one such weapon, that’s all it needs to make your life miserable. No Pakistani or Indian decision-maker can be confident of its ability to make a decapitating first strike. As long as the possibility lurks that the other side would retain even one weapon, deterrence will hold.

Obviously, there is a danger of unauthorized or inadvertent usage or of a breakdown. There are ways of countering these dangers. But the notion that somehow or other the subcontinent is fraught with the imminent possibility of nuclear war is chimerical. This was amply demonstrated during the Kargil war of 1999. In that war, India had two full reserve formations in waiting along the Rajasthan border in the desert but chose not to mobilize them and strike across the border. This was unlike in 1965, when within one week of the attack on Kashmir India had crossed not just the Line of Control in Kashmir (the de facto border) but the international border, and threatened the city of Lahore. In 1999, the BJP’s members understood that you do not attack in the Pakistani heartland for fear of what would happen if that country threatened to resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Which is Pakistan’s stated doctrine should it be fundamentally threatened. Of course, what constitutes a fundamental threat is left to the imagination, but do you really want to provoke your adversary into even threatening the use of nuclear weapons?

Consider, too, that in 1999 the Indian Air Force flew many sorties in Kargil in support of Indian infantry, who were essentially attacking mountain salients from which Pakistanis were shooting down. Nevertheless, they were under the strictest of orders, do not cross the LOC. The IAF knew that if you cross the LOC, you’re entering territory which Pakistan deems to be its own, and you could provoke a response that could spiral out of control. I’ve interviewed pilots who told me that they ran considerable risks to the allies by flying in sorties very low, to avoid crossing the LOC, because there’s no nice banner saying “This is the LOC.” You’re basically relying on a map, at extraordinarily high altitudes and speeds, and your recognition of the terrain. They ran high risks but did not cross the LOC, because unlike in 1965, something had been breached. The war was kept carefully confined to the point of incursion, not because of the sudden moral transformation of the leadership or because they lacked military resources, but because nuclear weapons produce a certain concentration of mind.

Resolving the Kashmir Conflict

There are all manner of proposals for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Many of them are probably morally desirable, ethically admirable, but face one fundamental constraint. Ultimately, none of them are going to work. You are not going to have Kashmiri independence, a plebiscite, or occasional plebiscites, you’re not going to repartition Kashmir—some have tried to resurrect that proposal, notwithstanding the million deaths the last time. But I don’t see any of these proposals having any semblance of connection with political realities.

The insurgency in Kashmir started in 1989. It’s mostly at an ebb now. There is still considerable resentment against the Indian state in Kashmir among significant segments of the Sunni population. India still has an extraordinary task to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris, but the resilience of the Indian-state camp should not be underestimated. I liken it to an elephant. It’s slothful and it moves slowly, but when it sits on you, it hurts. And it can sit on you for a very long time. India fought the Naga and Misal insurgents for 20 years, until it said “Gosh, now that we’ve stopped banging our head against a wall, it feels awfully good.” Yes, there has been a little recrudescence of violence there, the Indian Army will fight it for the next 20 years. But its resilience has to be borne in mind.

Second, after three wars, Pakistan is no closer to its goal of achieving the integration of Kashmir.

Third, Pakistan’s moral claim to Kashmir disappeared in 1971. If Islam alone couldn’t be the basis of state-building, what moral claim does Pakistan have on Kashmir? And yes, Indian malfeasances in Kashmir are writ large. But there have been several free and fair elections since 1977, including the last one, which was certified by international observers. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s transition to democracy leaves a great deal to be desired. So for moral and political reasons, Pakistan’s moral claim to Kashmir is rather dubious.

This does not mean that the Kashmiris under Indian control don’t deserve fair treatment and equal rights. India will have to drain that fundamental reservoir of discontent, which for the most part it was responsible for filling up in the first place. But territorial transformation, particularly when you look at the economic trajectories of the two countries, with sustainable 6-7% growth expected for the foreseeable future, twenty years hence one wonders if it’s even wise for Pakistan to continue on the strategy that it embarked upon in 1947-48 and to continue to this day to try to wrest Kashmir back from India. I think it’s a losing proposition.

So for all these reasons, ultimately my solution is a settlement along the LOC, which has virtually been the unchanged border since 1947-48, with certain provisions, particularly those of federalism and autonomy, and genuine democratic representation for the Kashmiris on the Indian side of the border. For those on the Pakistani side of the border, everything depends on the long-term evolution of Pakistan’s democracy.

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