Case for a United Indian Subcontinent
Posted on January 27th, 2022

Debidatta Mahapatra Courtesy The Times of India

The prevailing political climate may militate against such an idea, but here I make a case for a united Indian subcontinent. It may appear naïve to make such a case when polarization, identity-based violence, threats of war are looming large the world over. This is a futuristic outlook, but it is not new. The case has been made multiple times since the partition of the subcontinent, and certainly, all the cases are not motivated by political or identity or majoritarian motives.

Mahatma Gandhi certainly comes to mind in this context. Once adamant not to see the partition in his lifetime, Gandhi finally came to terms with the partition and accepted it. But till his end, he believed that despite separation, the countries of the Indian subcontinent can live as brothers. He famously said, We may take it that physical division of the country is now certain. If…our hearts are true we can behave as if they had not been partitioned.” Further, We should not let our hearts be sundered. We must save our hearts from being fragmented.” Ambedkar made a similar argument, (I)sn’t there enough that is common to both Hindus and Musalmans, which if developed, is capable of molding them into one people? Nobody can deny that there are many modes, manners, rites and customs which are common to both. Nobody can deny that there are rites, customs and usages based on religion that do divide Hindus and Musalmans. The question is, which of these should be emphasized.”

Obviously, it does not make pragmatic sense to make the whole Indian subcontinent as one political unit by erasing the borders. But let us consider these realities. Despite India and Pakistan and Bangladesh sharing borders, and despite economic complementarities, their trade potential is least explored. As I went to the cross-LoC trade points in Poonch and Uri a few years ago, I could find out how this cross-border trade was wrapped up with bureaucratic red tape and political apathy. One can also think of common resources, the Himalayas and other mountain ranges and rivers that crisscross the subcontinent, but due to lack of collaboration, most of those resources are underexploited. The countries in the region spend a disproportionate amount of GDP in arms and armaments. Though the historical baggage and the psychology of the need of an enemy to keep national unity helped boost the defense sector, they have not actually helped the region or the people.

One of the reasons why SAARC is failing is the main players seldom prioritize the larger goals of the subcontinent. Political egoism in this case triumphs real issues. External powers see opportunities in these rivalries. During the Cold War era, the major powers used the subcontinent as a pawn in superpower rivalry, and now this rivalry has moved to the East. China has used the rivalry well and used Pakistan as a prop against India.

The India-Pakistan-Bangladesh collaboration will not only help strengthen their economies but also help them against external pressure or aggression. Studies have shown how subcontinental collaboration will have both economic and political dividends. United together, they can emerge as a power bloc in the world. Certainly, cooperation is not an easy task keeping in mind the legacy of mistrust and war, and the conflict over issues like Jammu and Kashmir. But the political willingness and a vision of a united Indian subcontinent can help the countries together to forge unity. Obviously, one does not call for a political merger, not even a kind of federation, but some sort of confederation, in whatever name, will be crucial. All the countries can agree to shelve contentious issues for some time and work in the non-contentious areas. For example, opening religious shrines in the subcontinent (opening of the Kartarpur Shrine is a positive step in this regard) for free flow of religious pilgrimage, fostering easy access for medical treatment, developing common programs to address the pandemics including the Covid-19 pandemic, developing a joint front on climate change and such other steps will help build mutual trust. On a long-term project, they can also work on phasing down tensions on the border by slowly making it demilitarized.

These steps will not be possible if one country follows the rules, and another country violates them. Perhaps as a first step, they can work together to develop some sort of Indian subcontinental charter, like the UN charter, and follow the principles of the charter. They can have a head office in one of the countries and rotate the office every two or three years. The countries will follow the rules voluntarily, and there will be no imposition of force. Force did not resolve the conflict in the past, nor will it resolve the conflict. Gandhi reminds us, there is no path to peace, peace is the path.”

Mechanical arrangements to realize subcontinental unity will not be successful. Superficial dialogues, politicking, and egos will not help realize the goal. The efforts must be genuine and emerge from a deeper psychological understanding of unity and brotherhood in the subcontinent. Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1908, Unity is of the heart and springs from love. The foreign organism (a reference to British rule) which has been living on us, lives by the absence of this love, by division, and it perpetuates the condition of its existence by making us look to it as the centre of our lives…It has set Hindu and Mahomedan at variance by means of this outward outlook; for by regarding it as the fountain of life, however, we are led to look away from our brothers and yearn for what the alien strength can give us.” Though the British left the subcontinent almost eight decades ago, the psychology of othering persists. It must go away towards realizing the vision of a united Indian subcontinent.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra has a doctoral degree from the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, USA. His areas of interest include contemporary Asian politics, peacebuilding, and India. He was a Charles Wallace India Fellow at the Queen’s University at Belfast in 2010. He was a recipient of the Scholar of Peace Award (New Delhi, 2007) and the Kodikara Award (Colombo, 2010). His publications include Conflict Management in Kashmir (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Gandhi and the World (Lexington, 2018), and Conflict and Peace in Eurasia (Routledge, 2013). He is a Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

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