Subcontinent’s Cycles


“The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”

The classical quote from the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong captures the dynastic cycle: the fall of Han Dynasty, the partition of the empire into three kingdoms, and the eventual reunification of the empire under the Jin dynasty.

If anything is to be learned from history, the quote may also shed light on the geographical trajectory of South Asia: from unity to Partition in 1947, and perhaps, a reunification in decades to come. This doesn’t necessarily mean that India and Pakistan will collapse as nation-states. They won’t. However, both are likely to cease to exist in their current geographical form. After all, it’s the people that make nations, not the other way around.

The glorification of nationhood has narrowed our vision and diminished the ability to look at nation-states holistically as products of historical shifts. The status quo following Partition appears to be permanent, not underscoring that in the 4,000-year-old history of the Indo-Pak region, couple of decades account to only a fleeting ‘moment’ for Pakistan and India.

The rigid ones would tell you that ‘this is it’ — the current geography of the two countries is not only permanent — but also an absolute necessity for the survival of the two. However, a little look into history reveals that the 1947 Partition is not the only the partition that this region witnessed. Just take, for instance, Punjab. This province alone has undergone several boundary shifts in recent history. Under Ranjit Singh, it stretched from Kashmir to modern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, later reduced to pre-Partition Punjab under the British Empire and eventually divided into Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab post-Partition. And let’s not forget East Pakistan’s (now Bangladesh) separation from Pakistan in 1971. Perhaps, partition and integration are the laws of nature that we can only delay, but not avoid.

What does this mean to us at the policymaking level? Firstly, the realisation that geography is in a flux. Hence, policymakers must be prepared to think and plan beyond boundaries and stereotypes.

Given the colonial past of the Indo-Pak region, the geography of the two countries has been poorly crafted, which is why we observe over hundreds of separatist movements across the region, hindering development. If we don’t fix this in time, nature will act itself and bring equilibrium, however, not without violence.

The realisation, in the context of development and growth, also provides an opportunity to enhance the people’s welfare. Just by having a liberal visa regime with India can boost tourism multiple folds, injecting billions of dollars in Pakistan. Providing India a trade route to Central Asia can radically transform our highways, transport, communication and services industry, reducing our foreign debt and dependence on remittances.

Secondly, given that the region will eventually undergo geographical shift, the entire development methodology and vision has to be formulated accordingly in the context of regional connectivity. We have to forecast the next 50 years and plan out our infrastructure, cities and social sectors accordingly. Our nation must be prepared for the future.

Lastly, for us in Third World countries, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can just observe the trend in more advanced Western societies, and predict our next 50 years. For instance, the world today is undergoing integration, be it Europe, Asia Pacific or North America. How long will it take for South Asia to undergo the same development?

When the time comes, there will be winners and losers. But in such a shift, the people will eventually always win. The institutions will see a slash in their power. In pursuit of nationhood, the governments and institutions often forget that it’s not the country that is important; it’s the people who live in that country which matter more and must be served. Only when the love for people surpasses the love for country, we might see a prosperous nation that is prepared to accept change and global shifts.

 -the writer is currently Special Assistant to the Federal Minister at the Ministry of Planning, Development & Reform in the Government of Pakistan

-by arrangement with The Express Tribune

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