The bloody road to today’s borders in South Asia — and how to move in the direction of peace

Nation-states will likely be with us for some time, but there are ways in which the damage of national borders in South Asia can be reduced.
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From the partition of British India to the civil war in Sri Lanka, attempts to impose national borders in accordance with ethnic, linguistic, or religious identities in South Asia have spawned wars and crimes against humanity. They have also resulted in almost unimaginable suffering and bloodshed from the mid-20th century until today: Hindu nationalists in India launch physical attacks against Christians and especially Muslims, falsely accusing them of carrying out fraudulent conversions, duping Hindu women into marriage, and cow slaughter; in Pakistan, religious minorities, including minority Muslim sects, are accused of blasphemy and often killed; rationalists in Bangladesh have been lynched; and minorities in Sri Lanka are being persecuted in Sri Lanka by Sinhala nationalists, who have forcibly cremated Muslim victims of Covid-19. Such attempts are all the more preposterous in a region where migration and the mixing of peoples and cultures have been occurring from time immemorial. As an activist who comes from Sri Lanka and lives in India, I have been involved in campaigns in both countries against the toxic ideologies and restrictive ethno-religious  identities — Hindu, Muslim, Sinhalese, Tamil — that cultivate much of this violence.

India and Pakistan: The trauma of partition

It is surely paradoxical that a nonviolent independence movement in India against the British empire culminated in the horrific violence of the partition of British India into independent India and independent Pakistan in 1947 (with Pakistan consisting of two non-contiguous regions, West Pakistan to the west of India and East Pakistan consisting of East Bengal). Independence and partition were accompanied by a massive transfer of populations — from what became West and East Pakistan to India and vice versa — the trauma of which persists to this day. In the course of this population exchange, it is estimated that around 15 million people crossed over from West to East and East to West in Punjab and Bengal, the two provinces that were divided. This was, at that time, considered the largest peacetime mass migration in history, while 500,000 to 1,000,000 others perished. The partition was doubly traumatic for women and girls, thousands of whom were abducted, mutilated and raped in the process; others committed suicide or were murdered by members of their own family in order to escape this fate, capturing a narrative of the patriarchal attitudes underlying partition. 

On one side, leader of the Muslim League Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who initially worked with the Indian National Congress for a future secular India, had started arguing in 1940 that Hindus and Muslims in India constituted two separate nations. After independence he became the governor-general of Pakistan and is revered as the father of the nation. On the other side, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha also believed that Hindus and Muslims constituted separate nations; along with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he believed India should be a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu Nation, in which Muslims would have a subordinate status: an agenda that has continued to be pursued by these and other Hindu nationalist organizations in India. Armed militias organized by both sides were already active in deadly riots prior to partition, and were equally responsible for partition atrocities. 

At that time, the ethno-religious ideologies that found expression in the politics of the two-nation ideologues acheived little resonance at a popular level. Yet the reality of separation and lack of contact — along with relentless hate-speech and frequent violence against minorities in both India and Pakistan by the proponents of these ideologies — have created a divide on a society level that now must consciously be bridged by those who seek to undo the damage. Among the most affected are Kashmiris, whose homeland was violently divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. Many have suffered ethnic cleansing, family separation, human rights violations by both states, and injury and death in periodic outbreaks of military conflict along the Line of Control.

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East Pakistan secedes to form Bangladesh

The birth of Bangladesh out of what was formerly East Pakistan was as violent and blood-stained as the birth of India and Pakistan, and again, ethno-religious nationalism played a significant role in creating the conditions for conflict. The people of East Pakistan, who were overwhelmingly Bengali speakers, resisted the imposition of Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan in 1948. A Bengali resistance movement took shape in response, with Bengali nationalists from East Pakistan breaking away from the Muslim League to form the Awami League in 1949. In 1966, they put forward demands for the establishment of a federation in which East Pakistan would have considerable autonomy from West Pakistan, but these demands for self determination were unsuccessful. In 1970, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a landslide victory in the national elections of Pakistan, but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party refused to allow Rahman to become the prime minister. Negotiations between the two sides failed, and on March 7, 1971, Rahman declared that their struggle was now for independence.

The atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani army in its efforts to crush the Bengali independence movement have never been accurately enumerated, but the level of mass rape, murder, and forced displacement that took place in the ensuing Bangladesh war of independence from Pakistan was comparable to that of partition atrocities. Racist attitudes against Bengalis, particularly Hindu Bengalis, prevailed in the Pakistani army, and Urdu-speaking Biharis from East Pakistan also participated in the carnage. But the violence was not completely one-sided; attacks by some members of the Bengali Mukti Bahini against Bihari civilians and the predominantly Buddhist indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts left thousands of civilians dead.

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Ethno-religious nationalism leads to civil war in Sri Lanka

Although Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) was also a British colony, it was never a part of British India. It gained independence from Britain in 1948, but remained a dominion of the British Commonwealth until 1972. The Tamil-speaking minority, like the Sinhala-speaking majority, has inhabited the island for thousands of years and is scattered around it, although historically they were concentrated in the North and East. However during British rule over the whole island from 1815 onwards, Tamils from South India were brought over to work on plantations in the hill-country in the middle of the island, and the vast majority of them settled down there.   Violations of human and democratic rights of Tamil-speaking communities started immediately after independence; the message propagated by Sinhalese nationalist politicians was that Tamils were aliens in a Sinhalese-majority Ceylon, and should either leave or remain under threat of discrimination and persecution if they stayed. In 1948 to 1949, legislation was passed depriving hill-country Tamils, most of whom were the descendants of plantation laborers brought from India to Ceylon by the British, of their citizenship and franchise. These laws contravened the constitution, and the British governor-general could have refused to assent to them, but he allowed them to be enacted. In 1956, Sinhala was imposed as the singular official language, creating conditions of discrimination against Tamils in state employment. There were bouts of violence against Tamils that left displacement, destruction and death in their wake. 

In the Vaddukoddai Resolution adopted by the Tamil United Liberation Front in May 1976, the major Tamil parties responded by declaring that Sinhalese and Tamil people constituted two distinct nations, and the Tamil nation would create a separate state. The civil war that ensued between 1983 and 2009 saw major war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides, resulting in over 100,000 deaths.

Working towards inclusive identities and friendship across borders

All forms of nationalism contain the potential for violence against those excluded by the national identity, such as immigrants and refugees, and the potential for war against people belonging to other nations outside the national borders. But if nations uphold and respect the human rights of all, there is less threat of violence against those defined as aliens within national borders and greater potential for peace that transcends the divisions of borders. However, in contexts where the identity of a nation-state is determined largely along ethnic or religious lines, the ways in which borders include and exclude becomes more poignant. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian philosopher, writer, poet, composer and artist, rightly observed that “The nation has thrived long upon mutilated humanity,” and as such, elevating the significance of national identity above our shared humanity can only result in mutilating the latter.

In India, I was part of a cross-border campaign against nuclear weapons and for the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after India and Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in 1998, making South Asia one of the most dangerous regions of the world. I have also been a member of a group called Insaaniyat — which can mean both “humanity” and “humanitarianism” — and was set up in 2002 in the wake of horrific anti-Muslim pogroms to combat the ideology of Hindu nationalism. We worked with a variety of civil society groups (workers, women, schoolchildren, university and college students, business people, etc.), as well as organized events and festivals to celebrate the richness and diversity of India’s culture. In Sri Lanka, I traveled around in the late 1980s interviewing refugees and displaced people, recording stories of horrifying cruelty but also stories of inspiring courage and compassion, as people risked their lives to protect members of another community.

In 2006 I became a member of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, which had been set up to combat the authoritarianism, sexism and violence of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism, as well as promote human rights and democracy and produce the online publication Dissenting Dialogues. In my work as an activist in the labor rights and feminist movements — along with my writing — I have always tried to promote internationalism and combat militarism. I would describe my novel “Playing Lions and Tigers,” set in Sri Lanka, as an anti-war novel. In both India and Sri Lanka, I have supported campaigns to sign and ratify the Rome Treaty of the International Criminal Court.     

Nation-states are likely to be with us for some time, but there are ways in which the damage of national borders in South Asia can be reduced. Antiwar activists need to persuade citizens of their countries to abandon monoethnic and monocultural definitions of national identity, and to put pressure on political parties and leaders to make their countries as inclusive as they can be within the limits of the nation-state model. We must also work to reestablish a standard of upholding human rights and democracy within all existing nations. Where authoritarian leaders have been ousted and more democratic regimes installed, perpetrators of human rights violations should be prosecuted in courts and legislation should be passed outlawing such violations in future. Where the perpetrators are still in power, popular tribunals can be set up for victims or their families to testify against them, and reports can be provided to international human rights organizations. At the same time, bonds of transnational solidarity, friendship, and understanding that transcend ethno-religious and national identity can be formed, fostering a context in which we negotiate and re-imagine a better way of interacting with borders.

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