Should Pakistan be broken up?

Gul Agha

The 20th century was a time of the collapse of colonialism -- perhaps no event marked the collapse more than the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent in 1947. A large number of new states were created in this period and the concept of international law was conceived. International law represented a compromise between powerful countries and their interests, and the fears of newly decolonized countries. Unfortunately, the idea of protecting existing boundaries between states -- viewed as the principal means to maintain peace -- took primacy over individual human rights as well as the cultural and historic rights of different nations. Since the end of the cold war, fortunately the idea of using international law to promote human rights has been gaining strength.

The borders of many new states were drawn arbitrarily -- ignoring the history, language and culture of the peoples affected. Pakistan is one such state -- created by a colonial power, it is a state devoid of any historical or cultural basis. The current premise of policy makers in many countries is predicated on the notion that the continued existence of Pakistan can contribute to regional stability and promote global security. It is a premise that needs to be carefully examined.

History of Pakistan

In the 1930s, the Indian movement for independence had gained considerable momentum. As a means of postponing their day of departure, British colonialists promoted a Muslim leadership which encouraged religious divisions in the subcontinent. Later the British found it expedient -- and apparently beneficial to their geostrategic interests -- to create an oddly shaped Muslim majority state, separated into two "wings" more than a thousand miles apart.

Pakistan had problems since its inception. One small ethnic group of migrants, Urdu speakers from Northern India who call themselves 'Mohajirs', initially dominated its bureaucracy and government. Another ethnic group, Punjabi speakers representing about 20% of the population, dominated its Military, while a third, Bengali speakers, constituted its majority. Power resided in the first two ethnic groups and their control of the state led to a rebellion among the majority Bengali speakers. After a quarter century of strife and ruthless attempts to suppress the Bengali majority, including a genocide, Bangladesh was created. Thus Pakistan was partitioned into two separate states, one of which retained the name.

Pakistan's Ethnic Groups

The truncated borders of Pakistan consist of four major ethnic groups -- Punjabis, Sindhis, Pushtuns, and Baluchis -- and several other ethnic groups, Mohajirs in southern cities of Karachi and Hyderabad, Kashmiris in the North, and Seraiki speaking groups in the middle.

Pakistan borders four countries, Afghanistan, Iran, China and India. The border with each of these countries is problematic. The border with Afghanistan is based on the so-called Durand Line -- arbitrarily demarcated by the British in the 19th century. Pushtuns, who were historically united, live on both sides of this mountainous border. The border with Iran is mostly populated by Baluch tribes who live in a large sparsely populated desert on both sides of the border. The Baluchis in Pakistan demanded autonomy in the 1970s and thousands were massacred by the Pakistan military.

The border with India runs through three distinct regions. To the north is the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, a focus of much contention and dispute. The division of Kashmiris between India and Pakistan is against their will. The Pakistani-occupied part of Kashmir borders not only India, but also the Chinese occupied region of Uighurs. On the Pakistani side of the Kashmir border, there are also several other ethnic groups besides the Kashmiris, such as the Gilgitis and Baltistanis.

In the middle of Pakistan are Punjabis, who now represent about 40% of the population, and constitute 90% of the military. Punjab was partitioned on the basis of religion, and Punjabis seem quite satisfied with this division. It is an area which saw many massacres on the basis of creed -- and the bloodletting resulted in 'ethnic' cleansing on both sides of the border. South of the Punjabis live Seraiki speaking people, some of whom bear greater affinity to Sindhis.

The southern border with India runs through Sindh. The majority of Sindh's over 30 million people live in the valley carved by the once mighty Indus river. Sindh's western region is part of the Great Indian Desert of Thar, through which a border was drawn more or less arbitrarily. Sindh's southern boundary is marked by the Indian Ocean and Kutch, a region that has close linguistic and cultural affinity to Sindh, but is now a part of India.

The Aspirations of the Sindhis

Sindhis are predominantly sufis who believe in harmony and tolerance in the matter of religion. Before the partition of India, the majority of Sindhis consistently voted against candidates supporting Pakistan. Although the British colonialists used their considerable power and influence to support the pro-Pakistan candidates in 1946, such candidates succeeded in obtaining only about 40% of the popular vote.

By gerrymandering the electorate, the colonialists managed the election of a majority in the Sindh Assembly which favored joining Pakistan. The Sindhi vote for Pakistan was also facilitated by the now famous 'Lahore Resolution' passed by the Muslim League -- this resolution promised "autonomy and sovereignty of constituent units" and "protection of religious minorities". Sindhis have strongly resented Pakistan, whose policies since inception have been the very anti-thesis of both these principles.

The Current Situation

Pakistan today is held together by a powerful military which directly consumes 70% of the its budget after debt payments. The military has gained strength by opportunistically aligning itself with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia. It has directly ruled the country for most of its history and has cultivated relations with the fundamentalist Islamist clergy to strengthen its hold on power. In fact, the military is a bastion of Islamists who are influenced by fundamentalist movements such as Wahabism and Deobandism -- the same movements which hold sway among large numbers of Pakistani Punjabis.

In fact, the Pakistan military is a key source of instability in the region. Internally, it has repeatedly destabilized elected governments. It was the primary supporter of the Taliban in Afghanistan, responsible for bringing them into power. Recently, an American official was quoted as saying that the U.S. did not realize how critical the Pakistanis were in propping up the Taliban -- when that support was finally withdrawn four weeks after the start of the American bombing, the Taliban regime collapsed. ISI, Pakistan military's intelligence service is believed to have been deeply involved in heroin smuggling operations -- with such operations providing the bulk of its operating budget. And the ISI continues to sponsor terrorism against neighboring India.

The Future of Pakistan

Despite the diabolical role of the Pakistan military, it has been an axiom of faith among policy makers in the U.S., and even in arch rival India, that the continuation of Pakistan is desirable, even necessary, for stability in the region. Several reasons are commonly advanced for this position: the dissolution of Pakistan would encourage divisions within India; it would result in an uncertain future for nuclear weapons now in the hands of the stable Pakistan military, and a view among the U.S. policymakers that the Pakistani state can serve as a useful client or proxy in the war against terrorism. None of these reasons stands up to closer scrutiny.

India has largely succeeded in its national integration through democracy, federalism, and building of strong independent institutions such as the judiciary and the media. Its future will depend on the continuing strength of these internal institutions in addressing its needs. No doubt these needs are many, some visible ones such as increased economic growth and improved efficiency in the distribution of goods, and some less visible ones such as cultural and linguistic protection for smaller ethnic groups.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of Pakistan pose a danger to peace, not only in South Asia but elsewhere. Policy makers are lulled into complacency by the experience of the cold war where the doctrine of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' kept the superpowers from directly waging war. In fact, such analogizing fails to appreciate the psychology of the forces at work in the Pakistan military. During the cold war, the superpowers -- fearful of a nuclear holocaust -- avoided direct conflict with each other. On the other hand, emboldened by its possession of nuclear weapons, the Pakistan military not only increased its support for terrorism against India, it directly attacked India in Kargil -- gambling that India will not want to escalate the fight by employing its conventional superiority in new theaters of war.

It may seem far fetched to the rational mind that some Islamist faction within the military could seize and smuggle nuclear weapons or materials for use in 'jihad' against India, Israel or a Western power. In fact, given an understanding of the type of religious fanaticism common in the Pakistan military at all levels, it is likely not a question of 'if' but 'when', left unchecked, such a scenario will unfold. The moral barometer of the military can be appreciated by observing that it is the very same unreconstructed and unrepentant military that massacred millions of people in Bangladesh and provided logistic support to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan.

Those who believe that it is possible to bribe or browbeat Pakistan into a compliant client state have been missing the elaborate game of charade played for long by the Pakistani military. While it is a state that chose to support the international coalition against terrorism when and where it had no choice, in the long run the prejudices of its dominant ethnic group will be reflected in its covert policies. Sure, the Pakistan military provided visible support to the coalition -- but in all likelihood, the military also covertly organized pro-Taliban, anti-U.S. demonstration to exaggerate its own role. And the Pakistani dictator General Musharaf, justifying his decision to support the coalition, implied that it was a tactical compromise on the way to securing an eventual 'victory against the infidels and the Jews.' It should be clear where the real goals of Pakistan lie, despite protestations to get increased aid from the West and strengthen its own institution while continuing to build Islamist proxy forces.

What Replaces Pakistan?

Dissolution of Pakistan will largely bring things back into their natural national and ethnic boundaries. The Pushtun areas of Pakistan belong with the newly liberated Afghanistan. Kashmiris in India already enjoy numerous unique protections, e.g. against encroachment by migration from other parts of India. A unified Kashmir will be able to negotiate ways of maintaining its identity in India. Distinct ethnic regions in the Pakistani occupied part of the former kingdom of Kashmir, such as Baltistan and Gilgit, could enjoy greater autonomy.

A successor Pakistani Punjabi state would be far easier to contain. Bounded within plains that are easy to penetrate and police, stripped of 80% of the resources now consumed by its military, it would be far less menacing. Ironically, freed of its militaristic pretensions, it could enjoy greater economic growth and prosperity in the long run by embracing a more peaceful ideology.

The Future of Sindh

What about the future of Sindh and Pakistan-occupied Baluchistan? Baluchistan is a desert area, though rich in some mineral deposits. The bulk of Baluchi population lives on the border of Sindh and has enjoyed free movement and interchange with the Sindhi people. It is likely that the fate of these two regions is tied together, as it was in older times.

Sindh is rich in agriculture, has deposits of oil, coal and gas, and a well-developed port. It is the most industrialized region in the neighborhood. Shorn of the huge subsidy claimed by Punjab and its military, Sindh is likely to see rapid economic growth. This growth will be aided and abetted by the large number of expatriate Sindhi entrepreneurs and industrialists, including some billionaires. Sindhis have an ancient mercantile tradition, and their emphasis on pragmatism, tolerance and harmony are all useful attributes in a modern economy.

Should Sindh be a Part of India?

There are a number of arguments in favor of Sindh joining the Indian union. India is a secular, democratic country which is well-suited to the psyche of the sufi-minded Sindhis. Four months after the creation of Pakistan, 20% of the population of Sindhis was forced to migrate to India when hordes of refugees were encouraged by the Pakistani government to riot in hitherto peaceful Sindhi cities. Many of these Sindhis have settled in India and, after a long arduous struggle, they have prospered. While the diaspora Sindhis no doubt enjoy the moral and legal right of return, it is unlikely that a majority of them would now opt to migrate back to their ancestral homes. Under the circumstances, the unification of Sindh with India would allow the two groups of Sindhis to easily interact and support each other.

Unfortunately, Sindh cannot afford to unify with India in the near future. The greatest threat to Sindhis is demographic -- up to a quarter of those living in Sindh are Mohajirs, Muslims who migrated from Northern Indian provinces such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The population of areas where they immigrated from continues to increase rapidly while the economic growth of those areas remains stunted. The linguistic, cultural and religious affinity of Mohajirs with their brethren in North India could make Sindh a magnet for further immigration unless Sindh is able to exercise vigorous control of its borders.

An independent Sindh will serve as a natural conduit for oil and gas pipelines from energy rich Central Asia to energy starved South Asia. Without an entrenched bureaucracy, Sindh will rapidly lead the way to economic expansion in South Asia. Most significantly for the rest of the world, given its long peaceful sufi tradition, an independent Sindh will provide a bulwark against fanaticism and promote peace and prosperity.

Policy makers would do well to focus their energy on the unenviable but inevitable task of dismantling Pakistan as expeditiously as possible.

Gul Agha is Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a faculty affiliate of the UIUC Program in South Asian and Middle-Eastern Studies. He is active in Sindhi-American organizations. Copyright Gul A. Agha 2002

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