That we live in a world of borders at all is largely an accident of history. For the vast majority of human existence, whether in bands of hunter-gatherers, tribes of agriculturalists, or as subjects of great empires, the link between territory and sovereignty has been tenuous. Only at the Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555 between warring Christian factions within the Holy Roman Empire, did the modern idea of borders begin to emerge. There, in an attempt to end a series of gory religious conflicts that had spread across much of Europe, negotiating parties agreed upon the formula cuius regio, eius religio (“Whose realm, his religion”). This granted princes within the Empire the authority to choose Catholicism or Lutheranism as the religion of those inhabiting the territory under their rule, thus establishing a link between political authority and the division of land.
It was not until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, after another century of European bloodletting, that the principle of Augsburg began to take hold. Under the Westphalian formula, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written, “rulers were entitled to impose laws that would override the choices made individually by their subjects, including the choice of god they ought to believe in and worship.” As Bauman explains, this model provided the foundations for the modern idea of the nation state, which was gradually “naturalized” in Europe, and subsequently imposed on the rest of the world by European colonial powers— often via crudely drawn boundaries dividing traditional tribal structures. Although emerging from the peculiar realities of 16th and 17th century Europe, “this historically composed pattern, chosen from many other conceivable ordering principles,” as Bauman writes, continues to define the contemporary international system.
For India and Pakistan, which were administered together under the British East India Company, and later the British Raj, division among Westphalian lines was never supposed to happen. In his book The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in The Asian Heartland, journalist Karl E. Meyer argues that neither leaders of India’s twin independence movements, the Muslim League and the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, supported the idea of religious-based partition. Despite the subcontinent’s religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity, Congress’ mentor Mahatma Gandhi had said that India was still one nation, born of the great Mughal Empire, of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians “drinking the same water, breathing the same air, and deriving sustenance from the same soil.” Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the secular-minded leader of the Muslim League, envisioned a united, confederal India consisting of Muslim and Hindu “nations,” rather than a separate Muslim Pakistan. With Muslim League and Congress leaders unable to agree on such a formula, however, Jinnah ultimately pushed for partition, fearing subjugation under a Hindu-majority central government.
What followed was a manifestation of the Westphalian model at its worst. Accepting the inevitability of partition, and seeking to get out of India as fast as possible, Britain’s last viceroy to India, Louis, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, set an independence date of August 15, 1947. He hastily established a boundary commission, led by British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to carve out the future Pakistan. Despite never having been to India, Radcliffe was given just 36 days to create not one boundary but two: a western frontier, dividing today’s Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh from the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat; and an eastern frontier, establishing East Pakistan, which would break away as Bangladesh following a 1971 war.
Despite the difficulty of the task—Radcliffe’s private secretary would later admit his boss had been “a bit flummoxed by the whole thing”—Radcliffe got to work, using a pile of maps, a 1943 census, and the assistance of two Hindu and two Muslim judges to best determine which areas should lie on the Muslim and non-Muslim sides of the border.
Although he finished the top-secret work on August 13th, violence caused by rumors and speculation led Mountbatten to delay the release of the final line until two days after rule of the Raj had ended, causing some towns to raise both flags at independence. When all was sorted, and the “Radcliffe Award” released, the uptake of violence was swift, particularly in the region of Punjab, now divided between India and Pakistan. “In and around Amritsar,” the historian Stanley Wolpert writes, “bands of armed Sikhs killed every Muslim they could find, while in and around Lahore, Muslim gangs—many of them ‘police’– sharpened their knives and emptied their guns at Hindus and Sikhs. Entire trainloads of refugees were gutted and turned into rolling coffins, funeral pyres on wheels, food for bloated vultures who darkened the skies over the Punjab.”
In all, ethnic and religious violence following partition left between 200,000 and one million dead, with more than 14 million resettling across Radcliffe’s borders.
During the next sixty-six years, the process of building nations out of the entities spawned by partition unfolded in a highly divergent manner. Today, east of the Wagah border sits a highly imperfect yet vibrantly democratic India; a state of myriad languages, ethnicities, religions, and castes that—for all its problems—has somehow crafted a robust sense of national identity. Although home to stark inequalities, periodic bouts of religious violence, and corruption in its rawest form, India is a country sufficiently cohesive that even the poorest citizens, as Walter Anderson, director of the South Asia Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, told me, “have faith that the system will somehow work to their benefit.” One reason for this, Anderson argues, was the use of democracy by India’s early leaders to unite a potentially fractious population—most notably through the granting of universal suffrage in India’s first constitution. “The leadership of the Congress was convinced it was necessary to unite the country, to give people a role in decision-making,” Anderson said. “I’d say the core reason for the Indian basis of integration is democratic institutions.”
To the west of Wagah sits a Pakistan where both democracy and identity are far more tenuous; a country routinely paralyzed by instability and Islamic extremism, where weak civilian governments have long played second fiddle to the military. This weekend’s election provided some evidence of hope for orderly civilian transitions, but even then millions of Ahmadis, to take one example, were disenfranchised. Many of the country’s woes, as the author Farzana Shaikh argues in her 2009 book Making Sense of Pakistan, can be directly linked to a crisis of identity that emerged following Pakistan’s partition. According to Shaikh, Pakistan’s birth as an entity rooted in opposition to Indian nationalism – and therefore defined by what it was “not” rather than what it was – has forever hindered the Pakistani sense of nation. Ultimately, she writes, this crisis of identity has “deepened the country’s divisions, blighted good governance and tempted political elites to use the language of Islam as a substitute for democratic legitimacy.” Moreover, she argues, Pakistan’s struggle to overcome this “negative identity” is at the core of its quest for military parity with India, a neighbor “almost seven times its size in population and more than four times its land mass.”
The Line of Control is not an official international border, but is nonetheless serious business.
Nowhere is this quest more visible than in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir, the strikingly beautiful Himalayan enclave that remains at the crux of the antagonism between the two states. The struggle over Kashmir, which was administered under the British Raj as a nominally independent Princely State, began at independence, when the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, wavered before joining India or Pakistan, hoping to somehow remain autonomous. In October 1947, however, a rebellion of Pashtun tribesmen forced Singh to seek Indian assistance in defense of the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, which India provided only when the Singh agreed to cede the Muslim-majority territory to it. War broke out over Kashmir soon thereafter, and again in 1965, leading to the creation of another contentious border: the Line of Control dividing Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir state from the Pakistan-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
At 460 miles, 340 of which are paralleled by an India-built electric fence, the Line of Control is not an official international border, but is nonetheless serious business. For much of the 1990s, it effectively demarcated a war zone, as militants armed and trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency regularly launched attacks on Indian-held Kashmir, prompting a brutal Indian counter-insurgency and a conflict that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the exodus for most minority Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. Despite a 2003 ceasefire between the Indian government and Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, the atmosphere in Kashmir, and along the Line of Control, remains tense. Here, along a frontier that splits villages and bisects mountains, there is no attempt at goose-step choreography. Instead, there is periodic violence, including a series of tit-for-tat attacks across the Line of Control that led to the deaths of one Pakistani and two Indian soldiers this January. According to Indian officials, Pakistani agents crossed the Line of Control, mutilated the bodies of the dead Indian soldiers, and carried the severed head of one back into Pakistan.