Divide and Misrule

Divide and Misrule

One of the old school of the British colonial service, a man with the irresistible name of Sir Penderel Moon, wrote a book about the end of empire and titled it Divide and Quit. At whose expense was this extremely dry joke? Look around the global scene today, and you will find the landscape pitted with the shards of that very policy.


One of the old school of the British colonial service, a man with the irresistible name of Sir Penderel Moon, wrote a book about the end of empire and titled it Divide and Quit. At whose expense was this extremely dry joke? Look around the global scene today, and you will find the landscape pitted with the shards of that very policy. In Israel/Palestine and in Kashmir, and in both to an astonishing extent, the contours of the fighting are what they were when the Union Jack was hauled down in 1947. In Northern Ireland, despite the lapse of a much longer period of time, the battle lines follow the original map of postcolonial amputation and the problem–how to confect a plausible swath of Ireland with the minimum number of Catholics and the maximum number of Protestants and yet call it British–is still with us. The British decision to carve off Kuwait from the soil of Iraq had obvious repercussions. So does the British separation of the Malvinas/Falklands archipelago from mainland Argentina. Neither NATO nor the European Union has been able to exert sufficient unifying power to undo the consequences of British divide-and-rule in Cyprus, which is another of those apparently peripheral problems that threaten to detonate or implode at any moment.

It was Sir Anthony Eden who proposed to President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles the division of Vietnam into two states in 1954. Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, hoping thereby to preserve a white cantonment, floated the idea of partitioning South Africa just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was he and his successor, Lord Owen, who proposed the calamitous partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the confirmation of ethnic cleansing. It goes on, in other words. And so far, almost every one of these partitions has led either to another partition or to another war or both. I spent some part of last fall on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Kashmir, and was amazed all over again by how much damage my forefathers did by their hasty and opportunistic retreat. One has to bear in mind that partition involves a series of subpartitions and minor mutilations. Thus, in order to create "two" states out of what had been British-ruled India, the last-ditch colonialists had also to partition the ancient states of Punjab and Sind in the west, and Bengal and Assam in the east. (This, incidentally, is why one should always say "Northern Ireland" rather than "Ulster." Ulster is a nine-county province of Ireland. Only six of these counties had a sufficient loyalist population to be hived off in 1921, so Ulster, as well as Ireland, had to be dismembered.)

Pakistan, in its turn, is the demonstration case of a failed partition. Between 1947 and 1971, its territory included the eastern part of Bengal, which was separated from the rest of the country by the distance of the whole subcontinent. This "East Wing-West Wing" state was doomed from its inception. The fact that the two wings had the Muslim religion in common was not enough to outweigh the fact of Bengali resentment at the repression of their language and culture. That is why "East Pakistan" is now Bangladesh, having undergone a terrifying genocidal war, prosecuted by its Islamic co-religionists.

Pakistan is now in the process of falling apart even more drastically, as Pashtuns and others decide that nationality and language are more decisive than faith. But–and this is the origin of the current confrontation with India–the original sectarian and discredited reasoning is still being applied to Kashmir. (The territory has a majority-Muslim population; therefore it should be part of Pakistan.) Every nostrum that failed in 1947 is being applied with redoubled force, using the militants of bin Ladenism as proxy warriors for a confessional state. Never mind the methods for now–though they are the methods you would expect. It is the objective itself that is really dangerous.

On the Kashmiri "Line of Control" between Pakistan and India, on October 20 last, I went to a military briefing given by Brig. Mohammed Yaqub. I’ve since seen his face on the television many times, as he points his swagger stick at a blackboard, so he seems still to be giving out the official line. He began, on the day I saw him, with a fantastically dishonest account of the 1947 partition. In that year, all the provinces of the British Raj were supposed to decide, by a certain deadline, whether they "opted" for Pakistan or India. There was no referendum or plebiscite, because the vast majority of Indians did not want partition in the first place. Local rulers could decide which way they would go. The Maharaja of Muslim Kashmir opted for India.

The princely state of Hyderabad might in theory have done the reverse, in which case an enclave in the middle of India could in practice have become part of Pakistan. In fact, such damage was limited, and today the Muslim population of India is about the same as that of the whole of Pakistan. But let us be quite clear: The demand that religion should determine nationality would, if applied, destroy the whole subcontinent and make it a prey to warring faiths, as well as to wars within faiths. The present Indian government may be Hindu nationalist in temper, but no responsible successor regime could or should be asked to accede to such a fanatical demand. (An independent Kashmir can be whispered about, and a repartitioned Kashmir is already whispered about, but a Pakistani irredentist movement assisted by Al Qaeda is completely unacceptable.)

For decades, the United States has been the armorer and patron of Pakistan, a state that is at least as dangerous to its neighbors and as callous to its citizens as, say, Iraq. (The Pakistani takeover of Afghanistan, via its Taliban surrogate, has troubled our sleep far more than the fate of Kuwait.) One of the many positive results of the war in Afghanistan has been the way in which a reconsideration of one of Washington’s oldest cold war prejudices has been forced upon our political and military elite. A democratic and secularist India is a much better friend (and better bet) than a dictatorial and theocratic rump. In cleaning up (again) after British colonialism, one should be rigorous in avoiding the original mistake of splitting the difference.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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