At Large

Why Do India and Pakistan So Furiously Rage?

The strange legacy of a shared history.

By 6.23.09

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To paraphrase a biblical passage, at times why do India and Pakistan so furiously rage? Since the horrific attacks in Mumbai in November, we have seen much. The historical and structural differences between these two countries may also explain it.

In the eyes of history and their ancient gods, India and Pakistan have been together since the beginning. From the earliest civilizations of the Indus Valley over five thousand years ago until independence from Britain in 1947, they were one. India and Pakistan have been separate entities for only one percent of this recorded history. So why can they not exist in tranquility? As one of my Indian friends has observed, "The Pakistanis speak my language, have my skin color, eat my food and listen to my music. The place looks pretty good to me."

Throughout history, Hindus have been ruled by Muslims, an occupying presence. After the death of the Prophet, the Arabs became well established in Sindh by the early 8th century. Resplendent to some and barbarian to others, the Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni looted north India and ruled from his capital in Ghazni about the year 1000. There followed over eight hundred years of Muslim authority over much of India: Turks, Afghans, and the Mughals made their mark. During this Muslim rule, the Mongol Tamerlane sacked Delhi, like the Persians centuries later. A Muslim aristocracy was imposed upon its subjects, mostly Hindus. Not until Bahadur Shah Zafar was ousted by the British in 1857 did the remnants of Mughal rule officially end.

The memories of civil war and the trauma of partition lingered for decades. But the generation most affected is now passing -- the next ones are more interested in commercial success than in enmity toward Pakistan.

Today the Hindus of India generally accept the contributions of an Islamic past, with pride in the monuments and culture that Muslims brought and left. In the mainstream, the 150 million Muslims of secular India subordinate their faith to their identity as Indians. This is not exactly the case in Pakistan, which became known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1956, in spite of the secular vision of its founder, the anglicized Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who received a law education at the Inns of Court in London.

Besides history, a second factor is the disputed territory of Kashmir, which is of little economic value to either Pakistan or India. By a quirk of history, a Hindu maharaja in a Muslim land opted to join India at the time of partition, asking the federal government for help in repelling Pashtun invaders. Kashmir evokes memories and is emotionally bonded to both countries. Like other hill stations, the aristocracy spent time there to avoid the heat of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Kashmir is an enchanted land of abandoned forts, dark forests, glaciers, and cold lakes, and the Urdu poets there longed for a romantic love beyond reach.

India and Pakistan went to war twice over Kashmir in 1947 and 1965, and there were high altitude hostilities in the Kargil region in 1999, when India charged that insurgents were sponsored by the Pakistan government. The strategic value of Kashmir is also derived from its rugged mountainous border with China.

A third factor is the structural difference between the two. Both countries have traditions of royalty and aristocracy, but India has become a broad-based society, with many thousands of families and domestic and foreign investors controlling the economy. Meritocracy is on the rise, and some privilege and government control have been eliminated, with people more empowered. While the transparency of governance is a major issue in the public and private sectors, this need is nevertheless well recognized as a step toward full economic transformation.

The Indian independence movement was broad based in the society, and the creation of Pakistan was more of a vision of the Muslim establishment. Further, Jawaharlal Nehru and later his daughter, Indira Gandhi were able to end the privileges of the Maharajas and establish some land reform, while in Pakistan wealth remains relatively concentrated.

Pakistan is controlled by comparatively few families in collaboration with an equally elitist army, all seeking to maintain status. Many Pakistanis believe the ruling classes have let down the country, pursuing selfish ends with little appreciation for the society and the vast cleavage between haves and have-nots. To maintain privilege and to feed the apparatus that is the Pakistan army, the elites have vilified India, which as neither pure villain nor innocent bystander, is believed to be asserting itself in Afghanistan and able to effect agitation in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Even with a vibrant press, Pakistan is still a land of shadows, and reform of governance does not rank high on the national agenda.

It is sometimes said that in India, everything is but it isn't: generalizations or ideas that look true can be found to be false -- and the paradox prevails. There are historical and structural differences between India and Pakistan to be sure, but my friend, who was referring to much of the north, is also right.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.