The United States is making yet another attempt to mediate between the two nations this week as president Obama meets with Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif to discuss potential limits to Pakistan’s nuclear program and long-range missile capabilities. Predictably, Pakistan is expected to reject these proposals, citing the need to defend itself from India. Meanwhile, India recently rejected Sharif’s four-point peace proposal, which he presented in September at a session of the United Nations General Assembly, claiming Pakistan just needs to agree on one point: “Give up terrorism.”
The current generation of both Indian and Pakistani citizens may be unable to remember a time when their two countries were not, in some way or another, engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken. But to truly understand the roots of this conflict, we must look much further back. Because arguably, the seeds of India and Pakistan’s mutual mistrust—religious extremism and political stalemate—were sowed by the very same event that ushered in their independence.
The Great Partition of 1947 was intended to birth two new, pluralistic nations, India and Pakistan, living side by side as safe havens for their majority Hindu and Muslim populations. Instead, the traumatic event created two nuclear-armed nations who have fought three wars in the past 70 years. Adding fuel to the fire, both countries continue to use religious extremism and nationalism to fuel a proxy war over the contested territory of Kashmir, each rationalizing such reckless behavior by citing the other as an existential threat.
In light of so many decades worth of violence and dysfunction, I asked a group of South Asia experts to discuss how the enduring wounds of Partition continue to inspire the hatred and fear that exists between India and Pakistan today.
According to scholar Yasmin Khan, author of The Great Partition, any discussion of the current conflict must first look at the astonishing scale and scope of the violence that erupted all those decades ago. The cleaving of India and Pakistan after over 300 years of British imperialism lead to the largest forced migration in history. The death toll varies, but it’s clear some hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and nearly 14 million refugees were suddenly uprooted, with Hindus traveling east to India, and Muslims headed west to Pakistan.
“This is a really savage, brutal violence against women, children; using pick axes, sticks, stones, weapons but also modern military hardware against innocent civilians,” Khan tells Quartz, noting that Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all bear responsibility. “It was random stabbings in cities, small scale riots. People were living in fear … It was a protracted nature of anxiety which feeds into the tensions that follow on.”
The fact that this violence has never fully been addressed is a rather incredible misstep, according to Raza Rumi, a Pakistani policy analyst. In 2014, Rumi barely escaped an assassination attempt allegedly carried out by members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani Sunni extremist outfit that often targets Shia minorities. “It is festering,” Rumi tells Quartz. Today, the ranks of Hindutvas (Hindu nationalists) and extremists in India continue to increase. Meanwhile in Pakistan, Lashkars (Muslim militants) and violent mullahs rage. Rumi blames the rampage on a “fabricated mythical doctrine” used by both Hindu and Muslim extremists predicated upon a “doctored idea of nationalism based on some religious identity or religious grievance of another religion.”
In India, critics accuse prime minister Narendra Modi of deliberately exploiting this doctrine to garner broad, popular support at the expense of pluralism and religious tolerance. Modi was once a full-time worker for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right, Hindu nationalist outfit with ties to the Bharatiya Janata ruling party (BJP). Indeed, in 2005, Modi was banned from entering the US for nearly a decade due to his failure to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister until his election as prime minister.
According to Khan, the DNA of this modern Hindu extremism can be traced straight back to the Partition. Even today, “there are echoes of 1947 and 1948.” Such echoes were heard just this week in fact when far-right Hindu nationalists of the political party Shiv Sena stormed the Board of Control for Cricket in India offices in Mumbai in an effort to prevent Pakistani Aleem Dar from umpiring an upcoming series. Earlier this month, the group protested a concert by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali and forced its cancellation. Shiv Sena is against any engagement with Pakistan blaming the country for continued terrorist attacks.
Earlier in October, a Muslim man was beaten to death by an Indian mob for allegedly smuggling cows to be slaughtered for meat. And in September, a mob beat a Muslim farmer to death on false allegations he ate beef for dinner, according to The Indian Express. DNA testing later confirmed the meat was in fact mutton.
Across the border in Pakistan, the US is still offering a $10 million bounty for Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a propagandist and leader of the violent extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for attacks in Mumbai that left 168 people dead in 2008. Saeed lives in Lahore, openly holding speeches attended by thousands of supporters. In an affront to India and to criminal justice, Pakistan last spring released Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the suspected mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, on bail.
Pakistan has not been able to sustain a significant anti-extremist campaign within its own borders because it has never been able to resolve the question of its identity. “Is it an Islamic republic? Is it a theocracy? Is it a secular theocracy—a super theocracy?” Rumi explains. “In ’47 and thereafter, Pakistan meant different things to different people. For a businessman it meant a greater market, for a bureaucrat it meant a promotion, for a mullah it meant an Islamic state, for an extremist it meant a theocracy. Nobody dared to mediate it.”
India, not surprisingly, cares little for Pakistan’s internal identity crisis and blames Pakistan for a forked-tongue diplomacy: condemning terrorism while simultaneously using extremist groups to wage a proxy war over Kashmir. The contested area, which has claimed nearly 50,000 lives over the past two decades, remains a Pyrrhic obsession for both countries, prompting the expenditure of billions of dollars and many lives lost. “These are some of the most ridiculous, mind-boggling, surreal conflicts in this region,” Rumi says, reflecting on the staggering numbers.
For its part, Pakistan legitimizes its actions by alleging India’s increasing, hostile influence in Afghanistan and its support of separatists in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Such fears, again, can be traced back to Partition. The “fears of India dismembering Pakistan go back to 1947,” notes Nisid Hajari, author of Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. “When the roots of these anxieties were first created, there’s enough blame to go around. [India] did intend to make Pakistan smaller—‘moth eaten’ in [Muhammad] Jinnah’s words—that they hoped it would it be weaker. [Jawaharlal] Nehru in particular … hoped it would return to India. They weren’t looking to create a strong viable neighbor.”
Hajari adds, however, that “the rhetoric on both sides encouraged lower level officials that spurred this violence and they have to take responsibility for that.”
This is the real tragedy of a conflict with no end in sight: both sides share culpability and both sides have invested so much of their energy in fighting each other they have little left over to invest in the region’s 1.3 billion people.
It remains to be seen if the US can help jumpstart a new dialogue between India and Pakistan that will re-cast the neighboring nations as economic partners and allies instead of monolithic enemies. This is perhaps the only solution that isn’t rooted in mutually assured destruction.
The one thing experts do know for certain is that unless the ghosts and furies of the Partition are pacified, they will continue to haunt the shared destinies of both nations—with bloody consequences.