The India-Pakistan Conflict



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The India-Pakistan Conflict

India and Pakistan together account for one fifth of the world’s population. Their size and influence have made the continued conflict between them a long-standing cause of global concern. Their adversarial relationship has been marked by three major wars, rival allegiances with other powers (including China, the former Soviet Union, and the United States), many military skirmishes and violent incidents, and a nuclear arms buildup. Both nations trade accusations of meddling in each other’s internal affairs and of fomenting violence and civil unrest.

To understand the persistent hostility between these two nations, it is necessary to go back to the circumstances of their modern creation. After centuries in which Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist rulers had held sway over all or parts of the subcontinent, in the nineteenth century the region became British India, a colony of the British empire. Following World War Two, the signs of Great Britain’s retreat from India became all too evident. Colonialism was in decline. It was no longer as profitable as in the past, and was shunned by the global community. World War Two had taken its toll on Great Britain. Recovering from such a devastating war became the ultimate goal. Meanwhile, the Independence movement in India was growing. More and more Indians were demanding self-rule and an independent state. In 1947 Great Britain, weakened by World War II and faced with growing political resistance to British rule, granted independence to its imperial possession. But independence resulted in the birth of not one sovereign nation, but two.

The decision to divide India was made in part because of the insistence of some Muslim leaders within India’s movement for self-rule. They became convinced that the new India would not be safe for Muslims, and that they could not thrive in a nation in which they would be a minority dominated by Hindus. The “two-nation” theory, espoused by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and other leaders of the Muslim League, held that Hindus, who constituted the majority in most of British India, and Muslims, who constituted the majority only in British India’s northeast and northwest corners, should not be forced to live together in one nation, but should each be granted their own country. To safeguard the rights of Muslims, Jinnah and others argued, they must be granted their own state. “Pakistan”—an Urdu-language word meaning “land of the pure”—was coined in the 1930s and became the name of the proposed Muslim nation.

The two-nation theory espoused by the Muslim League was strongly criticized by the Indian National Congress, India’s preeminent independence organization (it later became the Congress Party). Its leadership, dominated by Hindus, argued that religion by itself could not constitute the basis for creating either an Islamic Pakistan or a Hindu India. Critics of the two-nation theory noted that Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side throughout the region for centuries before British rule and could not be readily separated. In addition, they asserted that the two-nation theory painted a too-simplistic picture of the divisions that existed within the realm. Not only was it home to millions of adherents of religions other than Hinduism and Islam, it was also the site of diverse ethnic and linguistic groupings that cut across religious lines. Thus, for example, a Muslim could have much more in common with a Hindu who shared a common language and ethnicity than with another Muslim hundreds of miles away with a different language and ethnicity. Indian National Congress leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned a unified India under a secular state that would enable people of differing religions, languages, and ethnic groups to coexist. However, while Nehru and others were able to win independence from Great Britain in 1947 and eventually create a secular democratic government in India, they did so at the price of agreeing to the formation of Pakistan.

Great Britain, after negotiating with the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, eventually agreed to divide India. The parties agreed to establish borders making the northeast and northwest corners of India into a single country with two territories —East Pakistan and West Pakistan— located one thousand miles apart. The process of division itself, called “partition,” was an extraordinarily disruptive and destructive event. Millions of people found themselves on the “wrong” side of hastily drawn borders between India and Pakistan. Ten million people moved from one new nation to another. Mob violence accompanying the refugee movement and resettlement—caused by religious conflict that was often stoked by politicians spreading stories of atrocities—cost an estimated one million lives.

India and Pakistan immediately went to war in 1947 over the disputed territory of Kashmir, a thinly populated province between the two nations. The local Hindu maharaj (ruler) of Kashmir, given the choice to join either Pakistan or India, chose India despite the fact that its population was mostly Muslim. The war ended with a 1949 cease-fire that left the state of Kashmir split in two, with India ruling the eastern two-thirds of Kashmir while Pakistan gained control of the western third. Kashmir was also the cause of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan; the fighting ended in a military stalemate with the division of Kashmir unchanged.

A third war was sparked not by Kashmir, but by civil conflict within Pakistan itself. East Pakistanis had long complained that Pakistan’s government and economy was domi- nated by West Pakistan. In 1971 India intervened in support of the Aswami League, a political party demanding independence for East Pakistan. The 1971 war resulted in an Indian victory and the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan to create the new nation of Bangladesh. That result left three nations— Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India—each with roughly 150 million Muslims. Many in India viewed the creation of Bangladesh as a definitive repudiation of the two-nation theory, arguing that Islam, the supposed reason for Pakistan’s existence, had failed to hold the country together. Despite some disputes over resources and immigration, India and Bangladesh have shared a cordial existence and mutually beneficial relationship since this time. But the concept’s validity continued to be defended by leaders in Pakistan.

Today, the hostility between India and Pakistan continues to revolve largely around Kashmir. The continuing conflict over which nation should possess Kashmir illustrates how past differences over the two-nation theory continue to underlie current disputes. For Pakistanis (especially its political and military leaders), Kashmir is the “K” in Pakistan—a Muslim-populated territory that by the two-nation theory should be part of the Islamic homeland created in 1947. For many Indians, Kashmir demonstrates that a Muslim majority state can exist in India—making it a key example of how India brings together people of different faiths. Many Indians believe relinquishing Kashmir would endanger Indian unity. As Indian-born international relations professor Mohammed Ayoob puts it, “Another partition on the basis of religion. . .would reopen the issue of the status of Muslims as Indian citizens and refresh the wounds of partition.”

Another legacy of partition and the resulting long-standing hostility between the two nations is the growth and influence of their respective military sectors. Both nations have built up large armies and have developed nuclear weapons primarily to defend themselves from each other. In Pakistan especially, the military has grown so powerful that it has ruled the nation for roughly half of its existence and wielded enormous influence even in times when civilian rulers are nominally in charge. The continued arms race between the two nations has had the unfortunate consequence of impeding the social and economic development of both nations. Many within both countries believe that since both spend great amounts on their military forces; they have underinvested in their people and have committed limited resources to address serious problems such as poverty and pollution.



More than a half century after India and Pakistan gained independence, the ramifications of partition continue to be felt in South Asia. Whether the wounds caused by partition can ever be fully healed is one of many questions facing both nations.

Is Nuclear War Likely Between India and Pakistan? How Should the World Community Treat India and Pakistan? What Lies in the Future for India and Pakistan?... All of these questions are yet to be answered.


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