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Cut and run

Weary of governing volatile regions, imperial powers redraw borders and go home.

August 12, 2007|Yasmin Khan | Yasmin Khan is author of "The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan," recently published in Britain and due out later this year in the U.S.

In the 20th century, the great powers devised a new method for solving entrenched conflicts in faraway countries The tool kit was simple; it required only maps and pens. It appealed because it could be carried out relatively quickly by departing imperialists from their airy colonial offices, and it could be imposed from above on the peoples they formerly governed.

The method was known as partition, and it was the chosen solution in Ireland in 1922, South Asia in 1947, Palestine in 1948 and Cyprus in 1974. It was revived as a strategy in the Balkans in the 1990s. And today, it is being promoted again in some quarters as a way out of the morass in Iraq. If Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds can't get along, the thinking goes, then why not just cut the country in three?

The potential difficulties are obvious. Determining the natural boundaries of nation-states is always a tricky business. As we learned in the last century -- and are learning again today -- getting out of an imperial commitment is substantially harder than getting into one. All too often, there is no neat fit between those making land claims, those appealing to ideas of nationhood and those calling for ethnic solidarity.

And even after partition, conflict and bloodletting often follow as ethnic or religious groups continue to pit themselves against each other. Think of Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East; Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland.

Nevertheless, the strategy of carving up peoples and land has been applied regularly and with gusto since 1922, for better or worse, generally presented as a way of solving competing claims to land by rival groups when alternative power-sharing ideas have floundered.

The Partition of India was the bloodiest of all of these partitions. Sixty years ago, South Asia was a conglomeration of "princely states" and land directly governed by Britain. But in August 1947, the British Raj was dismantled, and two new nation-states were formed from its debris: India, a state with a majority Hindu population, and Pakistan, which was predominantly Muslim. During the unanticipated mass migrations that followed, perhaps 12 million people crossed the borders on either side of the divided Punjab seeking safety and security, often leaving everything they owned behind.

There had been ethnic violence between some Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the past. But the violence that followed the partition was of a force unlike anything that had preceded it. The scale of the killing was so grave that historians are still uncertain how to quantify the numbers of dead children, women and men; some say a quarter of a million died, some say a million. Chaos and disorder threatened the integrity of the new states themselves -- and left the Kashmir region an unresolved chronic crisis to this day. The province of Bengal, where Calcutta is located, was faced with such calamitous waves of refugees that even today refugee camps exist that date to 1947.

The Partition of 1947 was justified by various arguments. It was a last resort, given the intransigence of the deadlocked political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The situation was likely to end in civil war anyway, so some felt it was better to try to forestall it by carving out a territorial solution. For nationalists in Pakistan, it meant that their campaign for self-determination in South Asia had been successful, and Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah was hailed as a triumphant hero.

So what went so catastrophically wrong?

One problem was the disjunction between the colonial power and its former subjects. To put it simply, the two had different priorities and were working to different goals. For the British in 1947, there was terrible impatience to return home. Both soldiers and civilians were tired and frustrated by nationalist protest and the daily grind of governance and riot control.

The daily life of ordinary Indians was far from the mind of policymakers in London in 1947, who were more concerned about the frosty Cold War climate, the health of British financial balance sheets, the safety of British civilians in India, Britain's international reputation in the global press and the risk of British involvement in civil strife in Palestine and Greece. The last thing that the penurious British government needed -- with a home population racked by rationing and austerity measures at the end of World War II -- was an overstretched army staying on in the subcontinent.

London's priority was to cut British losses, by leaving a united India if possible, a divided India if not, and this was far detached from the intricate community politics of the subcontinent. This meant that safeguards were not put in place and the consequences were ill thought through.

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