Sri Lanka soldier

Tamils can have Scouting events again… but ONLY with armed guards there. Image source: National Geographic

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island just off the southeastern coast of India, occupies a peculiar place in the global imagination. For the most part, it evokes positive images: lush jungle, frolicking elephants, picturesque hills covered in tea plantations, glorious beaches, peaceful Buddhist temples, and a laid-back lifestyle. And indeed, it’s thrived as an international tourist hotspot, offering visitors a culture similar to India’s without the crowds, hassles and abject poverty that besmirches its neighbor’s reputation.

But there’s another side to Sri Lanka, and it’s almost as well-known: the terrible civil war that gripped the island for 26 years. This was a large-scale, serious conflict with heavy weaponry and lots of civilian casualties. Although tourism has certainly picked up since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka remained a tourist destination for most of the war, and dire reports of terrorist attacks and fierce battles didn’t do much to dent its image.

The war may be over now, but it’s left a lasting legacy of ethnic estrangement and damage. This blog post will delve into how the war started, how it ended, and where the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka stands now.

Like oh so many wars in the postcolonial world, Sri Lanka’s civil war was an ethnic conflict. Most of Sri Lanka’s people — 75% — are Sinhalas, a Buddhist ethnicity unique to the island. The rest are almost all Tamils, an ethnic group based in the far south of India — unsurprisingly, the part that’s next to Sri Lanka. They are based in the north and along the east coast.

Sri Lanka has an ancient history, but modern conflict has shrouded its nature in some degree of mystery. Both Sinhalas and Tamils originally came from somewhere else: the Tamils, obviously, from neighboring Tamil Nadu, but the Sinhalas from somewhere in north India — they are racially Aryan like the people of north India. Buddhism thrived in India in ancient times (especially under the Maurya dynasty of the 200s BCE), but diminished in popularity during the Middle Ages, so the Sinhalas’ fervent Buddhism points to a migration sometime before then. Whether the Sinhalas were there first, or whether they were mainly responsible for the impressive civilization whose monuments dominate the island’s central plain, is a contentious debate. Suffice it to say that for most of Lanka’s* history, the two ethnic groups coexisted.

Sri Lanka has a strategic location next to India and along the trade route that spans the Indian Ocean, connecting Arabia and Persia in the west with the Malay archipelago (modern Malaysia and Indonesia) in the east. This meant that various foreigners stopped by throughout its history, including possibly Greeks and Romans. Arabs introduced Islam and converted many Tamils, but most of the population stayed Buddhist or Hindu. In modern times, the Portuguese, Dutch and British each conquered part or all of the island (which they called “Ceylon”), with the latter making the deepest, most permanent inroads, seduced by its ideal climate for growing their all-important tea. Ceylon became a colony where Britishers could get a taste of India without having to deal with its complicated religious conflicts, huge population and political unrest.

That’s not to say that Ceylon didn’t have these things, of course. Like their counterparts in India, British colonists in Ceylon sponsored a minority group in the civil service — in this case, the Tamils — to create a loyal cadre of locals to help stymie native opposition to their rule. Thousands of Tamils were also brought in from India to help pick the tea too, creating a pocket of Tamils in the south (today called “Indian Tamils”). Tamils were better-educated and more likely to speak English than the Sinhalas, further creating the sense of a gulf between them and a connection with their masters.

As a result, when a Ceylonese nationalist movement did emerge in the 1920s, it was mostly Sinhala-led. Sinhalas formed the first government of an independent Ceylon in 1948. In 1956, faced with Sinhalas disgruntled that 2/3 of the civil service was represented by Tamils, the prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, introduced a “Sinhalese-only” policy: Sinhalese, and only Sinhalese, was to be Ceylon’s official language. Tamils, who rarely speak Sinhalese, protested, and Bandaranaike tried to conciliate them at first, but when Ceylon’s revered Buddhist monks protested in force in favor of the law, Bandaranaike backed down, which incited riots.

The situation continued to deteriorate into the ’60s and ’70s. Politicians found that discriminatory policies played well with Sinhalas, and since they make up such a big proportion of the country their votes were enough to carry elections. So curbs on civil rights continued. Tamils found themselves passed over for university admissions. The army became Sinhala-dominated. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship and encouraged to head back to India. Links with India — student exchanges, media, trade — were severed on socialist grounds, which hurt Tamils disproportionately due to their cross-strait links. Tamils were marginalized economically. The government encouraged Sinhala migration to Tamil areas.

This all contributed to a tense and edgy atmosphere. Parties were split along ethnic lines, and the main issue for Tamil ones was how to cope with the discrimination. Some wanted to work within the system, others argued for a federal system to protect Tamil autonomy, and by the late ’70s an independence movement had emerged. The burning of a library in Jaffna, the largest Tamil city, in 1981 was provocative, but what really pushed Sri Lanka (which had been renamed in 1972) over the edge was a riot in Colombo, its biggest city, in 1983. Provoked by the massacre of a military patrol, Sinhalas took out their anger on ordinary Tamils all over the city by beating, burning, raping and murdering them. The government turned a blind eye to it and never punished anyone for it. To Tamils, the message was clear — they were not welcome in the country any longer.

Some Tamils reacted by emigrating, but the immediate result was civil war. The group that had carried out the ambush in the first place muscled rival parties out of the political arena, sometimes bloodily. The Tamil regions of Sri Lanka were reorganized as an independent country, Tamil Eelam. It had its own flag, government, courts, bank, radio and TV stations, and most of all, military. This military dominated the ersatz country and shaped its life for the next few decades, and although it was called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the world knew of them as the “Tamil Tigers.”

Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers’ flag made it clear they weren’t anyone to f*** with.

The Tamil Tigers were hardcore. Led by an intense guy called Velupillai Prabhakaran, they knew there was no way of achieving their objectives by being nice. They perfected the art of guerrilla warfare, living in the jungle and pouncing on their prey at opportune moments, only to melt away again before reinforcements arrived. They recruited soldiers from throughout Tamil Eelam and focused on children to indoctrinate them at an early phase. They learned to survive in rough conditions on basic food and to absorb devastating attacks. They targeted Sinhala civilians far away from the war zone with suicide bombs — back in the ’80s, before anyone else did. They tunneled deep underground to withstand air raids. They even developed their own little air force and navy, complete with a homemade submarine. They exulted in a cult of martyrdom, self-sacrifice and martial heroics.

The war raged on, mostly monotonously, for 2 decades. The Tigers were never powerful enough to pose much of a threat to the Sinhalas, but they were too tenacious to be defeated, either. India, eager to play a role as regional hegemon, intervened in 1987 with a peacekeeping force meant to separate the 2 sides long enough for talks to be held. It didn’t work: the Tigers saw the Indians as uninvited interlopers and attacked them, while Sri Lanka stood back and let them die, anxious for their departure as well. After only 3 years and no progress with those talks, the Indians left, and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi paid for the whole episode with his life (he was assassinated in 1991 by a Tiger agent).

The Tigers put up a good fight, and gained fame/infamy internationally for their intensity/cruelty, but they were always on the defensive. Sri Lanka simply had too many resources. After 2005, when a hardline president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected, their fate was sealed. He bulked up the army with a massive recruitment drive until Sri Lanka had a military 30 times bigger than it was in 1983. He attracted military aid from a random mix of friends (China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia) tired of the fighting and waiting to invest in Sri Lanka’s development. He stocked up on ammo, vehicles, and new weapons like multi-barrel rocket launchers.

Norway and Sweden had negotiated a ceasefire in 2002, but it was tense and no one really wanted to stop fighting yet. By 2006, the war was back on, and reached its final phase. The army was ruthless and held the territory it reclaimed from the rebels. Aid from sympathetic Tamils in India was interdicted. Since Sri Lanka is an island, the Tigers had nowhere left to escape. By May 2009, they were cornered on a beach in the northeast with no hope of a comeback. Prabhakaran and his remaining groupies died in a blaze of glory, or after surrendering, or while trying to escape by sea — journalists were barred from the war zone, so once again the true story is unknown. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and many of them died. But with a finality rare among long-running guerrilla wars like this, the Sri Lankan Civil War was over. The Tamil Tigers and their regime passed into the history books.

Tamil Eelam

The territory of Tamil Eelam at its maximum extent.

There was some disgruntlement among the Tamil community about their government’s ignominious trampling, but for the most part the war really did end suddenly. After 26 years of mostly continuous fighting, Tamils were exhausted, and Sri Lanka has undergone a demographic shift that favored more sober 30-somethings and not fiery, violent 20-somethings. Northern Sri Lanka went through the process of rebuilding. Landmines are gradually being removed. IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are being emptied. Shattered infrastructure is being mended or rebuilt.

Peace, and all its attendant blessings, has dawned on Sri Lanka. Tourism has always favored the south, but links with the former Tamil Eelam are now rebuilt. Foreign investment is pouring into the Tamil cities of Jaffna and Trincomalee. Kids are going back to school instead of boot camps in the jungle.

But there’s still an air of disquiet and sadness in the Tamil lands. The war grew out of Tamil disenfranchisement, after all, and little has been done to reverse this since the war ended. The government is still Sinhala-dominated. Sri Lankan society still promotes a Sinhala-dominated national discourse that dismisses minorities and crows over the Sinhalese victory. Buddhist monks, like their counterparts in Myanmar, stoke a siege mentality and a chauvinistic interpretation of Buddhism. The military is still thick on the ground in the north, and valuable properties expropriated from Tamils during the war remain in its hands. The language barrier is still high, and since the government, police, military and courts are so Sinhala-dominated, many Tamils can’t even understand them unless both sides speak English.

The most obvious positive step in terms of reconciliation so far was the 2015 election of Maithripala Sirisena, mostly because Rajapaksa and his brothers were behind the most egregious policies. The military presence in the north has become less stifling, and thousands of Tamils are no longer abducted in the middle of the night. Sri Lanka’s constant denial and protests over any international criticism of its conduct of the war, which by most accounts involved torture, massacres of civilians, bombings of hospitals and rape, have abated, and Sirisena has promised to allow a more impartial accounting of war crimes. Tamils are allowed to talk openly about their problems, and a Tamil press has revived.

But the fundamental problems remain. Sinhalas continue to see Tamils as foreigners and cling to their own self-congratulatory narrative. Riots in March between Sinhalas and Muslim Tamils show that religion remains a flashpoint and source of distrust. Tamils traumatized by years of carnage find it hard to see their southern neighbors as friends. The military still occupies the north, jails dissidents without charges, and gets subsidies in its businesses there that crowd out locals. Sirisena shielded a popular general, Jagath Jayasuriya, from war crimes charges to cater to his Sinhala base. For now, Tamils are too worn out and beaten to raise much protest, but if their grievances are not heard, political conflict and war might erupt again.

Two very different perspectives on the war.





Image source: JACSES

One of the missions of this blog is to introduce readers to obscure corners of the planet and little-known stories the news media usually passes by or scarcely covers. Sometimes, entire countries get overlooked, often in favor of more famous, photogenic, or controversial counterparts nearby. Bangladesh definitely fits this slot: few outside of South Asia have heard much about it, it’s surrounded by giants like India and China, and it has a light footprint on global affairs. But it deserves more attention: it has a rich culture of its own, a stirring history, and a collection of problems familiar to other developing countries. And who knows? It may play a greater role in future Asian geopolitics.

One of the first things that needs to be known about Bangladesh is that, like Pakistan, it does not have a long history as an independent unit. (As we will see, this is not a coincidence.) Until 1947, it was part of the area generally referred to as “India,” now “South Asia” because India refers to a particular country. It is culturally, geographically and historically inseparable from India. But unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh is (mostly) unified culturally: it is the land of the Bengali people. Indeed, that’s what Bangladesh means. The Bengali language binds the country together — but it also binds it with West Bengal, another Bengali region directly to its west in India.

Another thing that needs to be known is that Bangladesh has a lot of people — a LOT of people. 163 million by a recent estimate. With only 147,570 km² of land area, that makes for a population density of 1,100 people per square kilometer — way more than any other country except tiny islands and city-states. If you ever wanted to know what the most crowded part of the world is, this is it — throw in the similarly populous West Bengal, and we’re talking about 260 MILLION people here. As is normally the case in densely populated regions, this is because Bangladesh is very fertile — 2 major rivers, the Ganga (“Podda” in Bengali) and Brahmaputra (“Jomuna” in Bengali) flow down from the Himalayas here and empty into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of minor rivers. Floods and rain are frequent, transport is easy, and the climate is tropical — perfect conditions for farming.

Bangladesh crowd

As such, Bangladesh has been farmed since ancient times. Rice and jute are the staples (in fact, Bengalis probably consume more rice than anyone else), but tea, pearls, silk, fish and fruits drew the attention of various outsiders over Bangladeshi history. Bangladesh’s strategic location near China and Southeast Asia and where the Ganga River meets the sea also made it a prime trading entrepot. As a result, it grew rich and powerful, and was the heartland of the important medieval Pala Empire, whose monuments can still be visited in northwest Bangladesh today.

Like the rest of India, Bangladesh “began” as Hindu*, then went through a Buddhist phase under the Palas, then reverted to Hinduism later in the Middle Ages as Buddhism lost its local appeal. (There was also a significant Jain minority, an Indian religion that strictly venerates all life.) But as India fell under Muslim rule in the 2nd millennium, Bangladesh increasingly converted to Islam as well. (How and why this happened here more than elsewhere in India is a matter of some scholarly debate — if you’re really interested, this goes into it in detail.) As a rich and populous region far away from the North Indian power center in Dilli, Bangladesh was mostly independent for a while, but eventually fell to Mughal rule after repeated attacks in the 1500s. This was arguably Bengal’s Golden Age, and Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, grew huge and wealthy on the profits of textile manufacturing and shipbuilding.

By the 1700s, with Mughal power on the wane, Bangladesh was independent again, but next it was conquered by the British, who used it as their headquarters and primary power base as they swallowed the rest of India. On the one hand, this began a long, slow process of impoverishing Bengal — the British taxed it mercilessly, as their colonial venture started out as a business enterprise led by a multinational corporation, the British East India Company. On the other hand, the 1800s was a “Bengal Renaissance,” with talented Bengalis revitalizing Hinduism, writing beautiful poetry, staging plays, and debating politics. (Still, most of this happened in Calcutta, British India’s capital, which is in West Bengal — Bangladesh got shafted in comparison.)

In 1905, Bangladesh’s modern territory first emerged when the British carved Bengal into 2 units to make it easier to administer — but since this was done along religious lines (West Bengal being mainly Hindu), it was highly unpopular at the time as a blatant example of colonial divide-and-conquer. Nevertheless, this ended up being the main demand of the Pakistan movement, which argued that Muslims couldn’t possibly be governed fairly in an independent, democratic India and so needed their own country — Pakistan. (See this blog post for more details.) The idea was never very popular in Bangladesh, but religious riots broke out in both parts of Bengal in the 1930s and ’40s, convincing Britain that it was the most prudent option to take. Meanwhile, the Brits ensured they wouldn’t be missed by allowing 2 million Bengalis to die in a famine thanks to coercive food policies during World War II.

And so, India was partitioned into 2 countries, with Pakistan getting created on both its northwestern and northeastern flanks. Yep, that’s right, Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan. Most of India lay in between its 2 parts (“wings”), but Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the other founding fathers of Pakistan thought the common bond of Islam would be enough to tie them together.

Partition map

… So this will work with Palestine, right? Right? Image source: pgapworld

It wasn’t. Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is barely spoken in Bengal, and with their own rich literary and musical tradition Bengalis were in no mood to prioritize Urdu. West Pakistanis looked down on East Pakistan as a sweaty, tropical land of rice farmers, merchants and poets, while they prized military service and bureaucracy. Bangladesh’s history of comparative religious tolerance bothered West Pakistanis. The capital, Karachi, was in the west wing. It became abundantly clear in the years after Partition (1947) that the westerners did not care about the east; during a war with India in 1965, for example, Pakistan made no real attempt to defend the east, even though it’s almost surrounded by India.

2 straws in 1970 finally broke the camel’s back. One was a devastating cyclone that wiped out most of East Pakistan’s infrastructure; the west wing was very lethargic in helping out afterward. The other was a parliamentary election, which would’ve put an end to 12 years of military rule, but an exclusively Bengali party, the Awami (People’s) League, won it. The westerners refused to accept this and jailed Sheik Mujibur Rahman, its leader. They then went much, much further, determining to break the will of the restive Bengalis with violence, terror, rape and mass incarcerations. It only provoked an insurgency and a massive refugee crisis, but the Pakistani terror campaign managed to reach genocidal proportions before India invaded and put an end to it. Bangladesh finally had its independence, but at the cost of about a million dead.

Sadly, Bangladesh was not out of the woods yet. Sheikh Mujib’s charismatic rhetoric and populist touch didn’t necessarily mean that he made a good president. He alienated the army, surrounded himself with yes-men, implemented ruinous command economic policies that provoked another famine, and assumed dictatorial powers. He ended up getting assassinated in 1975, and was replaced by a military dictator, Ziaur Rahman (no relation). Zia was in turn assassinated in 1982, and was replaced by another military dictator, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, until 1990. They stabilized Bangladesh’s internal situation, reintroduced Islam as a political force, normalized Bangladeshi relations with Pakistan and decentralized the administration.

Since 1990, Bangladesh has been a parliamentary democracy — albeit a very flawed one. Power swings back and forth between the Awami League, which is more secular and pro-India, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is more religious and pro-Pakistan. Both are headed by women, making Bangladesh unique in the Muslim world in this regard. But lest feminists get too excited, they are both heirs to prominent men: Sheikh Hasina Wajed is Mujib’s daughter, while Khaleda Zia of the BNP was Ziaur Rahman’s wife. They absolutely HATE each other, and Bangladeshi politics in the ’90s and ’00s devolved into endless squabbling between them (they are known as the “battling begums,” begum being a Muslim term for a lady) and their parties, which spilled out into the streets, especially during elections. Bangladesh was periodically paralyzed with violent strikes meant to humiliate the party in power. Caretaker administrations took over the government during elections because the parties didn’t trust each other to manage them fairly. Actual governance just devolved into blatant patronage and corruption. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, to the extent that it featured in international news at all, mostly became known for poverty, squalor and miserable working conditions.

Although it might be too soon to say definitively, it looks like the begum battle is over, and Sheikh Hasina has won. She has ruled the country since 2009, and used the opportunity to throttle the BNP, both by breaking up its base of support and by jailing its leaders. An election in 2014 wasn’t much of one, since the BNP boycotted it. The Jamaat-e-Islami (“Islamic Assembly”), a major Islamic party, has also been wiped out as a political force, since its leaders were collaborators with Pakistan during the Liberation War and Hasina has old scores to settle. The result is that Hasina faces few checks on her power, and the Awami League can dispense patronage and pass legislation without trouble. Investors tired of Bangladesh’s turbulent politics are relieved; democracy advocates and human rights campaigners are nervous.

In general, the Awami League pursues a secular, socialist, Bengali nationalist agenda similar to that of India’s Congress party, while the BNP emphasizes Islam and ties with Pakistan. The League sees itself as the founding party of Bangladesh and dismisses the BNP’s agenda as running contrary to what Sheikh Mujib intended. And indeed, compared to Pakistan and the Arab world Bangladeshi Islam has been moderate and tolerant. But there are signs that this is changing. Saudi influence is on the rise in Bangladesh as in Pakistan. Visible signs of Islamic piety like head coverings are becoming more common. Fanatical vigilantes have been lynching anyone who espouses atheism or even secularism, or who even seem liberal or cosmopolitan, for years, creating a chilling atmosphere for free speech. Terrorist activity has occurred as well — the most spectacular instances were a coordinated series of bombs in 2005 in all but one district (that’s 63!) in the country, and a tense hostage stand-off in 2016 in a bakery in a posh part of Dhaka frequented by infidels. The Awami League has been ambivalent about this; it’s talked about dropping Islam as the state religion, but it’s also pandered to the Hefazat-e-Islam (another Muslim group), introduced changes to textbooks that minimized Hindu writers and emphasized Muslim ones, and blamed the victims of the lynchings for being blasphemous.

Economically, Bangladesh has long been written off as a “basket case,” and it still is dependent on foreign aid. But it’s no longer the dire and malnourished example of poverty it was at its birth. Economic growth has been steady for the past decade at about 6% a year, and infrastructure is booming. Bangladesh has carved out a niche for itself in the global market doing what it’s done best for centuries: textile spinning. It is a common destination for low-wage manufacturing priced out of China. Rural poverty is acute, but Bangladesh has a more robust network of social support than India. NGOs are widespread and very active, and the notion of “microfinance,” or very small loans to enterprising villagers (often women), was pioneered here in the ’70s and ’80s by Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 2006. Using toilets is much more common than in India. But Dhaka is a polluted, overcrowded city, and working conditions in Bangladesh are still grim, as evidenced by a deadly factory collapse in 2013 and the extremely dangerous ship-breaking industry.

On the international stage, Bangladesh has been in India’s shadow since its independence. Except for a narrow linkage with Myanmar in the southeast, Bangladesh is surrounded by India. In general the 2 countries get along well, especially during Awami League governments. But geography and population density combine to push a lot of Bangladeshis out of the country and into India, which has historically been O.K. with other Bengalis but not so much with Assamese, the ethnic group north of Bangladesh. Islam is also unpopular in India these days thanks to the government’s Hindu nationalism. As a result, Bangladesh and India have quarreled occasionally, with India accusing it of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and sponsoring anti-Indian insurgents on its territory. For its part, Bangladesh sees India as an overbearing neighbor, and it has been growing closer to China in the past decade to help counterbalance that — Bangladesh forms a node along China’s Belt and Road Initiative of Chinese-financed infrastructure projects along Asia’s coast. (As for relations with Myanmar… well… as this post should make clear, they could be better.)

Bangladesh flood

Image source: IFRC

For all its violence and poverty, Bangladesh’s biggest problem might be the looming specter of climate change. It’s been ravaged by storms and floods for a long time, as the history section should make clear, but they are becoming worse and more frequent now. During last year’s monsoon season, a third of the country was underwater and over 50,000 people were displaced by the floods. To an extent Bangladeshis are used to dealing with high water levels, since the country is so low-lying and rice farming is partly dependent on regular flooding, but climate change promises to make life in Bangladesh a lot less predictable and probably less pleasant. If sea levels rise as much as current climate models predict, Bangladesh will probably be the biggest single disaster zone; most of the country is under 10 meters above sea level. The government already allocates 6-7% of its budget on climate change adaptation.

Bangladesh may get short shrift in the international media, and it’s definitely got its share of problems. But it deserves more consideration. Its struggle with Islamism and religious violence is emblematic of the wider Muslim world’s struggle. It is a manufacturing powerhouse and rising economy just like its neighbors. It has a cultural and literary heritage its people are fiercely proud of, and natural and historic sites worthy of tourist appreciation. Most of all, it has that massive population to consider — there are more people than Russia here. Bangladesh is probably the country most overlooked in proportion to its population, and if it can harness its people’s energy and talents instead of letting them head off to greener pastures in the Gulf, Britain, America, etc., then it could be a force to be reckoned with.


In reality, Hinduism itself evolved from earlier religions, but what these were isn’t very clear, nor is the point at which “Hinduism” begins and the older religions end.


India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.