December 13, 2019
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Siamese Twins Never Embrace

In the end, any just solution to the conflict over Kashmir must involve asking the people who live there what they want.

Siamese Twins Never Embrace
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The future I dream of for India and Pakistan is in some ways more like our pre-Partition past than like our present. But Partition is itself the key to getting there, and our Partition is not yet done. Imagine what India can be: a secure and prosperous land where the prosperity is shared across more diversity than exists in one nation anywhere else in the world; a global leader in thought and personal freedom, in the development of new technologies, in the export of film and music and novels; a great power distinguished from other great powers by its mix of cultures and its colonial experience and therefore more tolerant and just, more strongly opposed to expansionism and hegemony. I would like to live to see such an India.

I believe in neighbourhoods. I believe a successful India is a good thing for the subcontinent. And I also believe that a successful subcontinent is a good thing for India, because I cannot imagine the land of prosperity and tolerance I hope to see surrounded by impoverished, desperate, nuclear-armed enemies. No, our future is a shared one, like it or not, and the sooner we begin, as Europe is doing, to combine our strength for our common benefit, the better off all of us will be.

It is not impossible. A free-trading subcontinent where the commute from Lahore to Amritsar took 45 minutes and required no visa was something we managed in this part of the world at the time my parents were born. Surely we can manage it again.

(Yes, we also had well laid out cities with underground sewage 4,000 years ago. But let us not be pessimists.)

The problem we face in coming closer is that we are not yet done pushing each other away. Pakistan and India are like Siamese twins cut messily from hip to armpit and left connected at the shoulder. The most dangerous part of the surgery is done, its wounds healed into grotesque scars, but in the decades since then our relationship has been defined by violent conflict over how we tear the piece of flesh that still ties us together.

The time has come to finish the job. Nuclear weapons and self-destructive chauvinism on both sides make it highly likely that any defeat in our stale and senseless competition will become mutual. Kargil and Siachen stand as reminders that the line of control is just that: a front on a battle-map, determined not by law or by principle but by strength. India, with a larger military, controls a bigger chunk of the province. Pakistan, under the great equalising umbrella of the mushroom cloud, is challenging that control. The Kashmiris themselves have yet to be consulted; people who inhabit battlefields rarely are.

Despite all this, the prevailing attitude on both sides (forgetting, as is the custom, the fact that there is a third side) remains what it has always been: "To hell with them. We'll stay our course and take our chances." But in the end, any just solution to the conflict over Kashmir must involve asking the people who live there what they want.

In theory, most Pakistanis I know like this idea, thinking (perhaps incorrectly) that Kashmir would choose to come to Pakistan. But there are other possible outcomes: Kashmir could become independent, or could be partitioned between the two countries based on district majorities, or could become a joint protectorate with open borders on either side. Kashmir could even, if the Kashmiris so choose, go in its entirety to India.

The particulars of the settlement matter far less than the fact that there is a settlement, that Partition is completed with mutually accepted borders and that the people of Kashmir are spared the violence they endure.

Those who believe that letting the Kashmiris have a say in deciding their own fate opens the door to a stampede of other defections underestimate the strength of Indian democracy and mistake the source of its legitimacy. It seems to me that the vast majority of people who inhabit the states of India are not kept together by the fighting men of some Delhi-based Empire. They have chosen to be part of an enormous experiment, an attempt to create the largest country in the world that is ruled by the will of its citizens. They are, by and large, proud of what that experiment has achieved and optimistic of what it will yet do. It is this consent and shared hope that is India's reason for being. Democracy cannot exist without it.

Nor does a compromise over Kashmir undermine India's secular status. More than a hundred million Muslims live willingly in India, as do many Sikhs, Christians, and others. But the fight over Kashmir strengthens chauvinists on both sides. Those of us who oppose this trend ought to realise that our shared goal stretches across our borders. As do so many things: markets, rivers, languages, poems, history. Separate nations need not preclude shared dreams.

Let Kashmir complete partition with a choice. For all of us, it is the first step to regaining the entire subcontinent.

(The author grew up in Lahore and currently lives in New York. He's recently written a novel called Mothsmoke.)
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