In Southasia, any discussion about partitions immediately conjures up the Great Partition of 1947, as well as the grand narratives of Independence that came to answer the questions, What is India? and What is Pakistan? Partition drew bloody borders that divided sovereignty, and produced a regional system that pitted one state against the other, steadily ratcheting up to a nuclear standoff. Think ‘Partition’, and it raises the spectre of the ‘de-imperialising’ will to divide and quit, of the ‘guilty men’ who ‘decided the destiny of millions without their mandate’. Mention Partition, and it instantly recalls narratives of suffering and betrayal, of the forcible dislocation and disruption of the lives of millions of individuals caught in the vortex of the violent creation of two historic national destinies. Look at the policies of Partition, and what comes to mind is the unresolved ‘minority’ question, as well as the production of a nation in turmoil, as the Pakistan movement implanted itself in a multinational landscape.
The associated assumption here, then, is that Partition in the collective Southasian memory represents the failure of different communities to live peacefully together. Partition’s anxieties and dynamics defined our past, and continue to shape and threaten our contemporary socio-political relations. Consequently, it can come as a shock when such complacent sets of assumptions about 1947 are overturned, as some Southasian scholars are currently attempting to do. Several such attempts came this past March in Kathmandu, at a regional consultation called “A Human Rights and Peace Audit of Partitions as a Method of Conflict Resolution”.
The suggestion is that perhaps Partition has overly coloured the Southasian imagining of partitions in general – solidifying the idea only of a particular kind of violent and malignant process, and of its extremely negative legacy. One such scholar, the Oxford-based Pritam Singh, shaking off memories of the bloody vivisection of Punjab, has drawn attention to the significance of the essential process of partition – ie, of ‘peaceful’ partitions – and of aftermaths not characterised by pathological anxieties.
Some recent examples of ‘peaceful partitions include the separation of the Czech republic from Slovakia, and Singapore from the Malaysian federation, though these were located within very specific contexts. More of an intellectual teaser is the contra-factual speculation about the secession of East Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. The Pakistani scholar feminist Nighat Said Khan argues that if the Pakistan military establishment had accepted East Pakistan’s separation, this would have had the makings of a ‘peaceful’ partition. Implicit in this proposition, is the assumption of political scientists that partition ‘works’ when territorially focused social units are sufficiently distinct, and populations can be separated.
Generally, and especially, from a perspective of human rights and peace, most Southasian explorations of what partitions do to peoples’ entitlements – of security, basic needs, cultural rights and democratic inclusion – have only taken into account the process’s assumed undemocratic and negative consequences. But could a more thorough look at the Pakistan and Bangladesh partitions reveal opportunities for socio-political empowerment, opportunities that had not earlier been available to the minorities of undivided India?
The international debate on this topic is deeply divided, and the challenge is to avoid the fundamentalism of the steadfastly pro- and anti-partition camps. This means, for instance, bypassing the Delhi-based conflict scholar Radha Kumar’s defining analysis of partitions as inherently leading to new cycles of violence, secessionist struggles and calls for the annexation of territories based on ethnicity. Kumar’s is a thesis animated by a history of partitions that have been imposed as colonial ‘exit strategies’. “The decisions to divide are most commonly impelled by considerations which have little to do with the needs or desires of people who are to be divided,” Kumar has argued. Such is a common perception.
At the same time, could there be another way to look at partition as a rational policy instrument, more in line with Pritam Singh’s suggestion? Balveer Arora, a scholar of federalism, has alluded to India’s national leaders acquiescing to the process of partition in the name of enabling centralised, planned development. Similarly, partition could be a means, to borrow the American political scientist Ian Lustick’s phrase, of ‘right sizing’ the state. A good example of this could be the secession of East Pakistan.
What is necessary in this discussion is an intellectual openness to capturing inherent paradoxes, such as the choice of partition as a policy instrument in the interest of a state’s attempts at integration. Human-rights activist Tapan Bose has argued that the ruling elite of some states, driven by the desire to create strong, integrated states, have incorporated the paradox of partition as a policy instrument to accommodate demands focused on territory, where a certain group could have a degree of self rule. In illustration, Bose alludes to the autonomy arrangements inherent in the 1953 pact on Kashmir between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah, or Zia ul-Haq’s settlement on Balochistan in 1977.
This debate is not a mere theoretical one. According to Ted Robert Gurr, the author of Peoples vs State: Minorities at risk in the New Century , domestic animosities (including those between ethnicities) in which the partition of an existing territory is being considered, can be found in at least a quarter of the world’s countries. Increasingly, though, policy thrusts are not towards self-determination and the partitioning of sovereignty, but rather accommodation through power sharing within existing states. In Southasia, while the ruling establishments of Bangladesh and Pakistan have acquiesced to territorially focused arrangements for various degrees of self-rule, the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state has fiercely resisted efforts at any significant federal arrangements for devolving power sharing, let alone for special autonomy for the north and east.
A last resort
The salience of partition as a rational policy instrument was highlighted in February 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. In response, the US-led international community acquiesced, with just a minority dissenting, including India and Russia. Compare this with the international community’s negative consensus on the splintering ethnic assertions and diffusion into secessionist wars in the former Yugoslavia. Eventually, the international intervention in Bosnia was able to stitch together a volatile federal arrangement. But Radha Kumar has pithily described the 1995 Dayton Accords, which brought an end to the three and a half years of war in Bosnia, as “a peace arrangement that is in reality a partition agreement with an exit clause”. Indeed, the rhetoric of partition is still firmly out of favour at the international level. In 2007, the international response was notably ambivalent towards the proposal by political scientists Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon of a ‘soft partition’ solution for Iraq. This was despite the fact that it came just months before the internationally supervised movement of Kosovo towards independence.
Alongside the confused certainties of current policies opposed to partitioning, sovereignties worldwide are being undermined by a crop of fanciful propositions, in an attempt to draw on history for a way out of current problems. What if colonial Sudan had been partitioned? is one such flight of fancy. What if the partition of Israel-Palestine had been accepted? If the 1905 partition of Bengal had not been undone, would the violence of the 1947 Partition in the east have taken place…? Engaging in such lines of thought offers an alternative way of thinking about partition, which stands in stark contrast to the violence of the unstable partitions of Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Kashmir and Palestine, as well as of the ‘stable’ partitions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The bruising narratives of these experiences have shaped the current intuitive policy recoil regarding exclusive nationalisms and ethnic partitions.
World War II had left a bitter legacy of the destructive impact of the rational of ‘exclusive nationalisms’ which had provided the ideological legitimation for the German war machine. Post-war, the unfinished partitions of Palestine, Ireland and Cyprus have left a trail of continuing conflict, instability and human suffering. Even the ‘finished’ partition of the Subcontinent, resulting in the emergence of two-plus-one states, has imprinted a lasting image of horrific dislocation and violent disruption, not to mention the hostility between two nuclear states.
Historically, the international community has shied away from supporting separatist movements, especially those that involve the partitioning of sovereignty. Separatist movements have, after all, left the world a legacy of unrecognised partitioned states, which Nicolas Sambanis, the author of Partition as a Solution to Ethnic War, has classified as de facto and de jure partitioned states. The former generally follow ceasefires – think Cyprus-Northern Cyprus, Georgia-South Ossetia, Azerbaijan-Karabakh, Iraq-Kurdistan. In the latter, meanwhile, governance is given over to ‘autonomous’ set-ups – India and Kashmir, Pakistan and Balochistan, China and Tibet, Israel and Palestine, Russia and Chechnya, the UK and Northern Ireland.
On the partitions debate, the academic and policy community generally falls into two opposing camps. Defining the conceptual framework for pro-partition theorists, Lehigh University professor Chaim Kaufmann has argued that “to save lives threatened by genocide, the international community must abandon attempts to restore war-torn multi-ethnic states. Instead, it must facilitate and protect population movements to create true national homelands.” Conflict thus can be seen to produce movement towards ethnic homogenisation, as people flee and seek their own kin. By creating separate countries, partition-secession formalises this process, dividing the belligerents and allowing them to live in charge of their own affairs.
Challenging this set of assumptions is the influential critique of Donald Horrowitz, who questions the partitionists’ presumption of creating ethnically ‘homogenous’ homelands. Horrowitz warns that ‘ethnicised’ politics are likely to lead to extremism. Radha Kumar’s work furthers this line of thought. She rejects the idea that partition can be seen as, essentially, the lesser of two evils, and chooses instead to focus on the violence of millions displaced and demographically cleansed.
Both sides in the new wave of partition theorists sidestep altogether the traditional rationale of partition theory – ie, the right of self-determination – and emphasise instead the humanitarian rationale of partitions as ‘a lesser evil’. In Southasia, government approaches to conflict resolution are in line with this subtle shift in the international discussion over partitions. This new way of thinking turns away from the supposed moral content of partition’s roots in self-determination and state formation, and emphasises instead a view of the process as an option of last resort, during times of humanitarian crisis. However, this line of thought is ideologically weighted towards an understanding of ethnic identity as fixed and permanent, and also presumes that reintegration following a brutal conflict is impossible.
There has been much disquiet, however, over the political implications of policy frameworks that move away from the moral legitimacy of self-determination towards an approach that conceptualises partition as a policy option to address humanitarian crisis. This new direction is seen by many as the by-product of a view that takes the state to be essentially unlinked to the people, and which assumes the presence of hard, unchangeable ethnic identities. Instead, many scholars, such as Sumathy Sivamohan and Darini Rajasingham, have increasingly suggested that greater interdisciplinary approaches are necessary, in order to re-capture the social reality of hybrid, blurred identities, particularly in Sri Lanka.
The revival of policy interest in looking at partition as a method of conflict resolution follows a surge in internal conflicts, which academics tend to categorise as ethnic, ethno-nationalist, sub-national or ‘state formation’ conflicts. From the 1980s, international conflict analysis has been dominated by theorising about ethnic and national conflicts as a by-product of the formation of modern nation states, especially in post-colonial, multi-ethnic, multicultural societies. Giving a radical twist to this, the Swiss social scientist Andreas Wimmer, in Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict, argued that in the modernist paradigm of the nation state – the dominant organising formation of society – the production of ethnicity and exclusion is not just a by-product. The modern project itself is founded on exclusion and inclusion, thus producing those who belong to the ‘true nation’ and those who become ‘the other’.
Naturally, understanding the intrinsic nature of a conflict is crucial to developing credible policy options regarding eventual power-sharing arrangements. And the subsequent policy prescription would clearly be quite different if a conflict was to be seen not as a matter of ethnicity but rather as one of democracy deficit. At that point, policymakers would have to expand the democratic agenda, and build a politics of recognition and redistribution rooted in reconciliation and social justice. Such an approach, however, would challenge the current assumption on the part of most partition theorists that ethnic polarisation is the dominant form of political organisation.
In Southasia, the ethno-geographic mosaic should have led the ruling elite to pursue a politics of pluralism and inclusion. Instead, the consolidation of nation states has been by way of majority rule, and structures of governance are by and large those that are centralised, coercive and hegemonic. As a consequence, peoples belonging to minority and indigenous communities are increasingly engaged in struggles against their respective states for recognition of their social and cultural rights, and for redistribution of lands and equality of political participation.
Such struggles have often been articulated (and manipulated) as movements for territorially defined political change, one that is intended to accord an ethnic group or nationality autonomous control over an area in which it resides. The elite have responded with strategies ranging from militarist suppression to constitutionally guaranteed political arrangements for self-rule – in other words, internal partitions. But analysis of four peace accords – in Sri Lanka, Balochistan and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as well as with regard to the Naga peace process – has found a trend of federal arrangements and territorially demarcated special autonomies being set up to accommodate a newly assertive ‘ethnic’ counter-elite. As these examples show, this process has indeed led to constitutional acts of power sharing, but crucially without a change in the basic undemocratic nature of politics or the democratisation of institutions. These settlements, based on internal partitions, thus need to be understood as both flawed in terms of their ability to stop cycles of conflict, and ineffective in enabling peoples’ entitlements to rights.
Borders and belonging
Ultimately, partitions in the Southasian context have shown themselves to be an inadequate means of resolving contemporary ‘ethno-nationalist’ conflicts. The act of partition has indeed devolved power to federal, autonomous and sovereign state units, but these instances have also transferred power and rights from the domain of peoples’ struggles to elite arrangements. In short, partitions have ended up displacing the root causes of conflict.
Moreover, the logic of exclusion underlying partition-based settlements has reinforced ‘insider-outsider’ politics. This can be particularly seen in the Indian Northeast, where the reflexive political call is for autonomy, and the lucrative dividends that can be garnered from engaging in ‘ethnic politics’ have resulted in the relentless reproduction of identity politics. The consequence of this has been more conflict, as well as the production of internally displaced non-dominant communities. Partition and its logic, after all, preclude the possibility of plural cultures.
At the same time, there are significant examples of resistance to the homogenising impact of partitions on the state and society. A good example of this is the Meo, the Muslim Rajput community of North India and Pakistan, which does not fit into rigid categories of religion, caste or territory. Moreover, the lived space of the borderlands challenges our assumptions of the sacredness of borders and of belonging – to states in India or even to national identities of India or Pakistan. Indeed, the very process of engaging in crossborder dialogue has promised to open up new ways of understanding notions of community, state, citizenship and nationality that have long bedevilled the countries of Southasia.
Partition-based settlements to stop ‘ethnic’ conflicts are becoming a dominant approach to peacemaking in the region. Before this is allowed to become entrenched, we need to explore a space between the two current camps in partition theory. Moreover, if we are to avoid the trap of partitions serving the interests of states and not peoples, we need to bring in the perspectives of non-dominant communities and groups, to ensure that the weaknesses inherent in the partition process are shored up. At the core of this attempt needs to be faith in the fact that that conflict is a matter of democracy deficit, not of ethnicity.