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A three-part series, ‘Dangerous Borders: A Journey across India and Pakistan', to mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India.
Journalists Adnan Sarwar and Babita Sharma travel either side of the 2000 mile border, 70 years after the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, to discover the realities of the lives of those living there.
Read more about the series on the BBC's programme pages , or explore borders in more detail below.
Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:
Copyright: October Films
The cause of national identity, or the result of it? Created, or natural and pre-ordained? Our exploration of borders starts here.
Have you ever thought about borders and what they mean? You may have been aware of borders during your travels from one country to another, while going through passport control. You may identify yourself as belonging to a particular country (British, Irish), but how much is this defined by your sense of where in the world you live or originate? If you have travelled in Europe within the Schengen area from one country to another, you might have hardly been aware of crossing a border, yet borders are entities that even in today’s world are surprisingly important and powerful symbols of national identity.
This article series explore borders, by drawing on the historic, political, social psychological and cultural aspects that define, shape, maintain or create borders between countries and between regions within them.
A line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas
So what is a border? The Oxford dictionary defines a border as “A line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas”. The line defining a border is an often invisible geographical boundary that demarcates the territories of political and judicial entities, for example of states, governments, federated states, and other super-national entities. Such boundaries may coincide with particular geographical features, such as rivers, lakes, mountains, or they may appear to be almost completely arbitrarily with arbitrarily straight lines, as were many of the borders in Africa, Asia and the Middle East during the latter stages of European colonialization of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
When looked at linguistically and culturally borders are fuzzy: nation states often contain different sub-regions that are also geographically or culturally defined by boundaries, sometimes with claims for independence from the larger nation state in which they are located (examples of this can be found in the Basque and Catalan regions in Spain and recently in relation to the Scottish referendum). Regions near a border often have very similar history and culture, with dialects that are unique to the border region. In this way borders are transitional – as they move over historic time periods they sweep up or divide communities, displace people and create migration pressures. Depending on the origin and histories involved, such transitions may create areas of tension and conflict, but also blending of cultures and languages. Borders may be permeable or closed. In the more permeable state they allow exchange of people goods and ideas. In the more closed state they prevent the flow of people, ideas and goods. How permeable borders are is the product of politics on both sides of a border and as we shall see this can have wider implications for the cultures on either side of the border. Importantly borders are about political and economic control. They are often established as a result of conflicts over resources, with the victor of a conflict gaining privileged access over such resources (which may become a source for further conflict in the future).
A more critical perspective on borders and the idea of nationhood encompasses a view that suggests that borders are real only by a shared belief in their legitimacy
While borders are historically, socially and culturally fluid the idea of a national border is often represented as being synonymous with national identity. This has its origins in 20th century history, in which the idea of a national border became conflated with the idea of national identity, and in which the separation of countries by a boundary is based on the idea of shared characteristics among the people living within a border (e.g. common language, history, culture, perceived national character). A more critical perspective on borders and the idea of nationhood encompasses a view that suggests that borders are real only by a shared belief in their legitimacy.
The important point here is of course that borders are the cause of national identity rather than the result of national identity.
A social scientific and historic perspective views borders as created rather than as natural or pre-ordained. They are the result of the projections of power by hegemonic political entities, but have a ubiquitous effect on life within their reach. One of the greatest myths about borders and national identities is that they are defined and legitimised through narratives around nationhood in such a way that they construct a shared history and future.
A pen and paper exercise which barely took account of actual geographies: border creation between India and Pakistan brought about chaos, bloodshed and enduring distrust between the two states.
In the previous article, 'What are borders?', we suggested that borders are ‘created’ rather than being ‘natural’ and organic markers of difference between nations and peoples. In particular, European colonisation of African, Asian and Middle Eastern territories often led to the emergence of borders without the consent or participation of the peoples and communities that were subject to foreign rule. Tragedy and violence often followed the establishment of borders that were seen as arbitrary and divisive. The emergence of borderlines between the new nation states of India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947 is a particularly striking illustration of this phenomenon.
Congress claimed to speak for all Indians, irrespective of religion, while the League claimed to speak for all Muslims.
A century and a half of British colonial rule in India gradually aroused political antagonisms which led to the emergence of strong anti-colonial nationalist movements by the early twentieth century. Mass agitation against British rule was led by Congress which advocated the idea of a free, united and plural India, while the Muslim League, which also wished to see the end of colonial rule, sought to protect the interests of the Muslim minority by initially pressing for separate electorates as a means of ensuring their fair political representation. Congress claimed to speak for all Indians, irrespective of religion, while the League claimed to speak for all Muslims.
These fundamentally conflicting and competing aims and claims made political unity increasingly difficult during the final phase of colonial rule. Although close, on many occasions, to reaching a compromise that would have maintained an undivided India with, ironically, borders identical to those established by the colonial state, by the end of the second world war all trust between the Hindu and Muslim elites who respectively dominated Congress and the League had broken down.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Copyright: Fair use
Following the election of a Labour government in Britain in 1945, it became clear that colonial rule was nearing the end. Muslim League leader Jinnah now advocated the idea of ‘Pakistan’ based on a newly formulated view that Muslims and Hindus made up two distinct ‘nations of India’. However, he carefully avoided giving this idea any precise definition, and refused to identify which parts of India would become Pakistan or whether this would even involve permanent borders between the two.
Such vagueness proved an effective strategy in mobilising support for the League amongst Muslims in the Indian ‘General Election’ of 1946, called by the departing colonial rulers (still, under colonial rules, with a severely restricted franchise amounting to just 10% of the population) to ascertain the political will of their Indian subjects before the transfer of power. The result emboldened Jinnah to press ahead with the demand for Pakistan, with the League winning the vast majority of seats reserved for Muslims while Congress emerged by far the largest party, capturing the bulk of non-Muslim seats.
...with soldiers returning from the war and weapons readily available, armed militia groups and extremist organisations rapidly burgeoned, characterised on both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ sides, by a similar exclusive, intolerant, fascistic ideology.
This polarisation was immediately expressed in bitter political strife between the two parties, as the British devolved power to an interim government made up of Congress and League leaders following the election of 1946. At the same time, with soldiers returning from the war and weapons readily available, armed militia groups and extremist organisations rapidly burgeoned, characterised on both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ sides, by a similar exclusive, intolerant, fascistic ideology. When a final effort by a Labour Cabinet delegation to negotiate a settlement that would have preserved a united India failed in June 1946, Partition became inevitable. As unprecedented violence and atrocities engulfed large parts of northern and eastern India, Congress leader Nehru finally accepted partition, initially of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal, as a possible solution in March 1947. But how would actual borders between India and the new Pakistan be established, who would decide where these were to be, and when would these decisions be implemented?
While the British Army had advised that an orderly transfer of power, including the issue of negotiated borders, would take five years to achieve, it was now to be completed in less than 6 weeks.
At this point, with the country in turmoil, the British delivered a final act of imperial folly: the recently arrived last Viceroy, Mountbatten, announced his plan for partition in June 1947: British withdrawal, partition, and independence of the two states would all happen by the middle of August. While the British Army had advised that an orderly transfer of power, including the issue of negotiated borders, would take five years to achieve, it was now to be completed in less than 6 weeks.
Moreover, the borders themselves would only be finalised two days after independence (15th August) and would remain a secret in the hands of an elite group headed by the Viceroy. This meant that power was going to be transferred to two new governments, neither of which knew the exact geographical boundaries of their respective states.
One of the few places on Earth where an international boundary can be seen at night. The winding border between Pakistan and India is lit by security lights that have a distinct orange tone. NASA under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license
The actual borders were devised by a British judge, Cyril Radcliffe, who only arrived in India in July 1947. There was no time or desire to visit the land, villages and communities that were to be divided. Instead, the Boundary Commission he presided over simply used old census maps detailing ethnic and religious population breakdowns. Border creation was largely a pen and paper exercise which barely took account of actual geographies.
The borderline meandered precariously across agricultural land, separated families, cut off communities from their sacred sites, ignored railway lines, cut across rivers, forests, and even irrigation works. The eastern and western provinces of Pakistan were separated by over a thousand miles. The consequences would be tragic.
Indian refugee train. Copyright: Public domain
This secretive and time-compressed partition plan virtually guaranteed the chaos and bloodshed that followed along the borderlands particularly of Punjab and Bengal. Catastrophically, it meant that guarantees of citizenship, property and security rights for all Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs irrespective of where they lived, could not be given in time. Nor was any robust police and military protection for border communities written into the plan.
Profound popular confusion about actual boundaries, and indeed now about the very meaning of ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’, stoked the ethnic violence that followed, leading to the unprecedented mass movement of people. With Hindus, Muslims and (in Punjab) Sikhs living in mixed communities or in close proximity, the impending arrival of borders threatened to make them aliens and minorities in a state ruled by another religious group. Consequently, petrified communities began waging a violent sectarian battle against erstwhile neighbours of a different religion with the aim of purifying and ‘cleansing’ their home areas, of reversing an anticipated borderline or rendering it meaningless.
British decisions about how empire would end in South Asia ensured violent state formation for both India and Pakistan, contested borders, and profound distrust and enmity between the neighbouring states that endures to this day.
What are the impacts of partition on the people affected by it? We examine the fallout of the divide, and consider the glimmers of hope for future peace.
The political partition of British India into the modern nation states of India and Pakistan in 1947 caused one of the great convulsions of history. There are now numerous accounts of the event by academic historians, but there are also many more personal stories from people who experienced its traumas that remain to be told. Moreover, the violence, destruction and human rights abuses that occurred on a vast scale embittered from the outset the relationship between the two neighbouring countries. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, coming dangerously close to nuclear conflict during the Kargil crisis of 1999, while bullets continue to fly between their armies in the disputed region of Kashmir.
For people new to the history and politics of the partition of India and Pakistan questions such as “what are the impacts of partition on the people affected by it?”, “what chances are there for peace between Pakistan and India?”, and “what can be done to improve relations?” may be in the forefront of their mind.
To answer these questions we have two articles. The first, the one you're reading now, deals with trauma, identity politics and escalation of violence. The second article looks at the positive steps that are being taken along the road to peace.
People living through its violence would have experienced a number of traumatic events, ranging from witnessing killings, betrayal by next door neighbours, fleeing their homes under threat of murder, starvation and destitution
The events occurring in the period of the partition in 1947 are now more than 70 years ago. Most of the adults who lived through this this are no longer alive and only few members of the generations born in the years preceding the partition are alive today.
People living through its violence would have experienced a number of traumatic events, ranging from witnessing killings, betrayal by next door neighbours, fleeing their homes under threat of murder, starvation and destitution. 70 years ago concepts such as Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where not part of the understanding of trauma in refugees in the way they are today, however it is likely that large numbers of people fleeing their residences to their respective future countries would have experienced what we now understand as PTSD.
PTSD is defined by a number of adverse psychological impacts on mental health and well-being, including reliving the experience, avoidance and emotional numbing, hyperarousal [see note below] and mental health problems often with long term repercussions on functioning. Children are vulnerable to PTSD too and can be affected more than adults, in particular influencing the way in which their development unfolds following trauma. Historic trauma experiences are also important because of their long term impacts on child-rearing practices, and socialization, and because living through the collective experience of trauma can shape cultural narratives about identity and nationality which potentially contribute to hostility towards the group identified as perpetrators, and a sense in which conflict in future may be seen as ‘justified’.
Trauma is a recurrent aspect of life in the militarized zones of Jammu and Kashmir, where conflict has escalated sporadically since partition. From the time of independence in 1947 Jammu and Kashmir, a multi-ethnic state with a Muslim-majority population has remained a poor region of India, despite being well endowed with natural resources. This lack of economic development, coupled with the Indian’s government’s repeated attempts to dominate local politics, has fuelled resentment against the Indian state and has led to a hardening of view within the Muslim population that they were being discriminated against.
Moreover, the historic failure to enact the promise of a plebiscite (another term for a referendum) has also significantly contributed to political distrust of the Indian government. As Tripathi (2016) outlines, since 1989, conflict in Kashmir has undergone several transformations. The conflict in its present state now embroils the wider pan-Islamic movements in the region that are often aggregated around the threatened identity polarization within Islam. The recent heightened levels of violence have been largely provoked by the continuing human rights abuses perpetrated on the Muslim population by the Indian army (Tripathi, 2016, p15) while Pakistani intelligence services have also been actively supporting some militant separatist groups.
In its annual survey the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, 2015) found 45% of people in Kashmir are impacted by trauma.
While there has been no outbreak of open hostilities between India and Pakistan in recent years, the region is heavily militarized and policed, and 2016 and 2017 has seen a great deal of unrest following the killing of a prominent Jihadist military commander in Kashmir. Over 100 people died and 15000 civilians were injured during the unrest. These figures underestimate the extent of the human consequences of the social unrest.
Unrest resulted in nine months disruption to normal life, including disruption to services (e.g. phone services), an imposition of curfews and a heightened feeling of insecurity, threat and danger. In its annual survey the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, 2015) found 45% of people in Kashmir are impacted by trauma, although this figure may be higher depending on how data are interpreted (see for example this news article which cites a figure of 90% ). A report published by Action Aid India at the beginning of 2017, reports that 12.3% of Kashmiris in their 2015/2016 study had witnessed conflict induced traumatic events in their families (for example, members of the family killed, disappeared, detained, tortured or disabled due to conflict related reasons).
When looking at this group a significantly higher proportion of about 24.3% had developed a mental health disorder, in contrast with the Kashmiri population as a whole (11.3% of Kashmiris have a mental health condition). Only 6% of people suffering mental health conditions have access to mental health services, resulting in the effects of trauma remaining untreated. Considering that the above figures relate to the period just before the unrest, one would expect the percentages to remain high if not also increase since the publication of this report. The impact of violence and unrest may impact a great many more people than the figures above imply, including people who were indirectly affected, and feeling threatened and insecure.
A further complication for the impact of trauma on a population is that mental health impacts can be delayed in the timing of onset after trauma. As a result one would expect a further increase in the percentage of those affected in their mental health after the unrest. With increased demand for such services, many people are unable to pay for mental health support and are becoming excluded. The long term impacts are far reaching:
“The exposure to trauma and mental illness also leads to intergenerational trauma through a cycle of increased stress in families, declining socio-economic conditions, health care burden, anger, breakdown of families (therefore support system), and inability to take care of children, marital issues and so on. In worst case scenarios, it also leads to social isolation, and affects the economic productivity of people suffering from illness and their care takers.” Action Aid India (2017, p.44)
Looking at the severe consequences of unrest given the political dynamics of the region, it is perhaps not surprising that trauma and injustice as experienced by Kashmiris also creates a desire to be free from oppression. In the absence of a clear political change, the continued experience of trauma and injustice and the vulnerable people this creates helps prepare a recruitment ground for violent liberation movements, which in turn escalate violence and further state oppression. Potentially this creates a never-ending cycle of violence and trauma unless the conditions and which feed this cycle can be changed. How these conditions might change is discussed in the second part.
Peace between Pakistan and India is politically complex since the conflict is in part based on identity and questions of nationhood and partly on the exercise of power by India and Pakistan and their respective governments. Given the flashpoint situation in Kashmir, a cycle of distrust, resentment, escalation and further suppression appears to be maintained, with no clear end in sight.
Or is there?
Recognition of a common and shared cultural history means that there has always been a subterranean current of friendship between ordinary people of the two countries
The partition of India resulted in an arbitrary line being drawn through the Indian subcontinent dividing cultural regions arbitrarily to create new homelands for migrating Muslims and Hindus. This largely ignored the shared, interwoven cultures that had developed in the regions of Punjab and Bengal that were divided along purely religious lines in 1947.
Indeed the view that people on the other side of the border ‘are the same’ is often expressed by communities living in those areas. This recognition of a common and shared cultural history means that there has always been a subterranean current of friendship between ordinary people of the two countries. This can be seen in a host of civil society initiatives involving numerous Indian and Pakistani individuals and organizations that have come together to improve relations between their two countries. Through media collaborations, youth exchanges, ‘Track II ’ (i.e. non-state actor & citizen-led, informal, non-governmental) dialogues, literary festivals and theatre productions, capacity-building workshops and other cultural initiatives, Indians and Pakistanis have sought to create meaningful connections and build platforms for peace and reconciliation from the bottom-up. These initiatives reflect a growing belief that the hostile and conflictual relationship between the States of India and Pakistan can be improved faster by cultural than by political diplomacy, led by citizens’ and civil society organizations on both sides.
There are numerous examples of such initiatives. For example, Aman Ki Asha (Hope for Peace), is a joint campaign for peace between the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India Group, the countries’ two leading media companies. Their aim is to change the ways in which Indians and Pakistanis perceive each other. Aman Ki Asha’s campaigns include Milne Do (Let People Meet), an advocacy campaign for an improved visa regime; Water is Life, a regular conference on India-Pakistan water issues; and Dividends, an India-Pakistan business conference. The activist organization, South Asians for Human Rights campaigns on a range of cross-border issues including women’s rights and empowerment, the plight of fishermen who are often punished harshly by both governments for crossing borders they cannot see, and human rights violations by military personnel and other armed groups.
Throughout the last decade, the Exchange for Change programme promoted by Routes 2 Roots (India) and the Citizens Archives of Pakistan has promoted direct contact between the people of India and Pakistan through a variety of cultural activities
Civil society's flexibility and transnational reach can help produce new spaces and opportunities for engagement and trust-building. Throughout the last decade, the Exchange for Change programme promoted by Routes 2 Roots (India) and the Citizens Archives of Pakistan has promoted direct contact between the people of India and Pakistan through a variety of cultural activities. Focusing on school students, they run year-long programmes that connect children of the two countries through letter and postcard writing and the exchange of audio and video recordings, with the aim of eliminating misconceptions about each other’s cultures. This engagement enables the students to ask each other questions about their lives, hobbies, food, histories and festivals, and to discover common interests. At the end of the year, selected children and teachers from each school go on visits to their partner schools across the border, see places of historical interest and directly experience the other country’s culture.
Such civil society initiatives have emerged as a vital arena for cultural engagement, trust building, and even potentially for conflict resolution. Moreover, since the governments of both India and Pakistan are at least theoretically committed to improving relations between the two countries, they have not been able to straightforwardly oppose these initiatives for fear of the adverse publicity that would immediately be generated. This is why the High Commissions (embassies) of both countries have felt compelled to support and facilitate the student exchange programmes. Indispensable in creating meaningful connections between the two peoples, cultural initiatives are also perceived by the governments as less threatening than openly political demands for change.
Moreover, civil society campaigns can directly affect the political arena and help create a momentum for conflict resolution. Of particular significance here are women’s anti-war initiatives involving cross-border interactions during periods of heightened political tension. For instance, following the threat of nuclear war during the Kargil conflict of 1999, women on both sides of the border came together to form the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) and organized a multi-track ‘Women’s bus for peace’ which eventually captured even the politicians’ imagination. This initiative is credited with a vital role in establishing a platform for the de-escalation of the Kargil conflict.
In spite of their reciprocal mistrust and hostile relationship overall, one notable success of India-Pakistan State diplomacy has been the Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960 by their leaders in a deal brokered by the World Bank. Seen as one of the most successful international treaties, it has so far survived all the political tremors and established a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange regarding the use of the rivers intersecting their territories, known as the Permanent Indus Commission. For over half a century, this arrangement has provided a stable framework for resolving disputes over water, as well as for irrigation and hydropower development. During the past year, renewed political tensions coupled with severe water shortages in both countries have put the Treaty under considerable pressure. In India, hardliners launched an attack on the Treaty, attempting to have it declared illegal and unconstitutional. Civil Liberties’ organizations mobilized in its support, and in April 2017, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed the petition.
There is more that unites India and Pakistan than divides them.
Clearly, peace and reconciliation movements in India and Pakistan require further elaboration and empowering. They work by rebuilding trust, and promoting understanding between people helping to break down barriers caused by group polarization. By campaigning for justice an attempt is made to achieve some form of restitution and reparation which is a key element in repairing trust. Issues that are of mutual interest, such as food security and poverty eradication, women’s rights, climate change, environmental and health issues, regional trade facilities recognize interdependence and thus are potential drivers for dialogue and establishing common goals.
The internet also provides a powerful vehicle for developing further dialogue and exchanging information. Civil society and campaign groups have already used digital media with a fair measure of success. An online user-generated information repository for all peace activities between citizens of the two countries would extend individual organizations’ ability to keep each other informed and plan their campaigns with better coordination so as to achieve maximum impact. Convergence based on needs, allied with ongoing reciprocal cultural activities, may in time generate irresistible political momentum for the normalization of the relationship between the two countries. There is more that unites India and Pakistan than divides them.
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