What Buddha revived and resurrected on the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago was the message of unity, monotheism, and life after death. Thus, the birthplace of civilization is believed to be the Indian subcontinent. It is also believed that chess has its origins in India. Whereas Moses spoke of the Laws of Yahweh, and while Jesus Christ spoke of divine love, Buddha spoke of “balance” between what he called the “worldly” and “saintly” in an effort to achieve what is known as “Nirvana,” or peace of mind. Buddha’s message was a call for inner peace by remaining steadfast on what he called “The Eightfold Path.” Buddhist society is generally divided into two schools of thought. One is called the Mahayana Buddhist school, and the other is known as the Theravada Buddhist school. One school believes Buddha was a God, whereas the other believes Buddha was a wise man and a prophet.
Aside from being India’s predominant religion, Hinduism is also India’s culture, and it is something that Buddha sought to reform thousands of years ago. One of Hinduism’s features is the caste system, which divides Indian society into four classes or “castes,” thus making inequality an inherent characteristic of Indian society. Since Buddha, there were a series of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms that rose and fell throughout the Indian Subcontinent as well as Afghanistan. The Muslims would invade and spread Islam throughout the Indian Subcontinent sometime after the 7th century AD. The most prominent Muslim Empire of the Indian Subcontinent, known as the Mughal Empire, would collapse as a result of British colonialism and technological superiority, but the decline began well before British preeminence on the subcontinent due to the gradual rise of intercommunal strife.
What brought about the demise of European and British control of the Indian Subcontinent in the late 19th to early 20th centuries was a cultural and religious awakening in various parts of the Indian Subcontinent that happened to coincide with the groundbreaking political movement of a British-trained and South African born lawyer by the name of Mohandas K. Gandhi, otherwise known as Mahatma Gandhi. What Gandhi did was “seize the opportunity” along revolutionary lines by assuming leadership of a nation-wide movement that needed direction. Gandhi did much to cultivate the movement from the bottom-up. Gandhi’s genius was the result of his fusion of Buddhist and Islamic philosophy, for he asserted that he was both Hindu and Muslim. Gandhi’s philosophy reflected the basic message of both Buddhism and Islam, which was to strike a perfect balance between elite and popular interests and a middle path for all people.
The tragedy of Gandhi and what ultimately led to his assassination in 1948 was the division of the Indian Subcontinent along Hindu and Muslim lines by both Jinnah and Nehru, both of whom ironically were secular and areligious. Nehru was anything but your traditional Hindu. Nehru, at the pinnacle of his political career, was essentially hypnotized by his love for the wife of a British statesman, and he shared very little in cultural terms with the masses. Jinnah was a secular Shia Muslim, and his intransigence towards Gandhi was largely to blame for the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent. For personal gain, both Jinnah and Nehru partitioned the Indian Subcontinent and both caused the massacre of millions of Hindus and Muslims during this very dark and bloody era of the subcontinent’s history. Britain transplanted the European concept of a nation-state into South Asia and the consequences of that action have been dire.
Immediately after the partitioning of the Indian Subcontinent, Pakistan joined the NATO bloc, and Pakistan’s choice of aligning with NATO left India with no choice but to join the Soviet Bloc, given that the partitioning of the Indian Subcontinent coincided with the origins of the infamous Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, given that both India and Pakistan were in a constant state of insecurity since the partition, Pakistan has essentially been under military rule since its birth despite its initial vision of being a multiethnic and multi-religious democracy. Although India takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy, India’s basic economic structure was based on a Soviet model that led to economic stagnation throughout the country during the Cold War. The reason why India today is still about 20 years behind China in terms of economic progress is because India fell under the Soviet Bloc and thus inherited a command economy, which was inherently different than the capitalist model that led to rapid growth and productivity in places like China, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia.
The Cold War intensified the hostilities between Pakistan and India by spurring the nuclearization of both nations. Pakistan went nuclear in the late 1970’s under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Westernized father of the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan’s decision to go nuclear was largely in response to the nuclearization of India under Indira Gandhi in the early 1970’s. President Richard Nixon is known to have called Indira Gandhi a “bitch” for developing her country’s nuclear program. Both India and Pakistan remain nuclear powers to this day, and there is no sign of either country letting up and engaging one another in an effort towards denuclearization.
Pakistan continues to live under the thumb of its military and intelligence apparatus, despite the rise of Imran Khan and what appears to be a referendum towards the status quo. And as far as India is concerned, cultural stagnation resulting from the Cold War’s command economy triggered a severe backlash in 2014 with the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. Modi is the leader of the BJP, an ultranationalist Hindu political party. Also, during his youth, Modi belonged to the military wing of the BJP known as the “RSS,” which carried out the massacre of Muslims in India. In the early 2000’s, Modi was the governor of Gujarat Province, and it was under Modi’s watch that thousands of Muslims were killed there and as a result the Bush Administration refused to issue Modi a visa to visit the United States.
The Pakistani-Indian conflict is perhaps the deadliest conflict in the world, on par with the Israeli-Muslim conflict and the Korean conflict. This conflict has also had spillover effects in Afghanistan, which is the nexus between Central and South Asia. Pakistan seeks “strategic depth” in Afghanistan through the Taliban as well as other proxies in order to avoid encirclement by India. In turn, India has initiated the expansion of its consulates in Afghanistan, and it is believed that India has more consulates in Afghanistan than any other country. As a result, Afghanistan is sandwiched by the Pakistani-Indian conflict.
The instability in Afghanistan is also exacerbated by Afghanistan’s history of having weak central governments that have often ended up being overthrown by rural power brokers. Peace in Afghanistan will ultimately rest on Pakistan and India’s decision to bring both Northern and Southern power brokers in Afghanistan to the table and forge a power-sharing agreement between both sides. The British, Soviet, and American experience of propping up a technocratic central government in Kabul has been a failure, and ultimately it will be rural power brokers backed by Pakistan and India who will become major political players in Afghanistan.
There is also the issue of the Afghan drug trade, which is the largest in the entire world. Afghanistan’s drug trade grew as a result of America’s regime change policy during the Cold War, just as it did in Latin America during that same period of history. America’s attempts at social engineering in Afghanistan during the 21st century was also a failure due to the historic ethnic tensions in Afghanistan between North and South. Instead of fostering a power equilibrium between North and South, recent Afghan leaders such as Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have sought to impose the will of the South upon the North, thus aggravating long-standing ethnic tensions that have only increased since the 1990’s when Afghan factions engaged in a brutal four-year civil war in Kabul.
Historic vendettas that have started over petty things are passed on from generation to generation in South Asia, and these vendettas have only grown over the past few decades. When Southern militias in Afghanistan overthrew King Amanullah in 1929 and installed Nadir Khan, they first had to remove a Northern militia led by Habibullah Kalakani that had taken over Kabul. The Southern militias eventually overwhelmed the Northern militias who were in retreat. Kalakani was surrounded by Nadir Khan’s forces, and Nadir Khan asked Kalakani to surrender in return for amnesty. However, when Kalakani turned himself in, Nadir Khan ordered the execution of Kalakani, and to this day the animosity between the North and South has been high.
The social fabric in Afghanistan has also been fractured by the marginalization of Hazaras and their relegation to second-class status throughout Afghanistan’s history. Relations between Pashtuns and Uzbeks have also severed due to the mass killings of mostly Pashtun Taliban fighters in 2001 at the hands of Abdur Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek and notorious militia leader. South Asian culture is largely homogenous and permeates through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India despite ethnic and linguistic differences between and within the three countries.
The culture in South Asia is homogenous due largely to the fact that it is a warrior culture at its roots, which in turn adds to the instability of the region. Adding to the morass is the issue of hyper-religiosity as a result of poverty and lack of education. Afghanistan’s poverty rate is considered by some to be below Sub-Saharan African levels. As a result, the problems in Afghanistan and South Asia are too complicated for Western countries to comprehend and solve, which is why the United States has gradually withdrawn its troops and personnel over the past decade from this particular region of the world.
The United States is bound to focus more on Latin America and Africa because the future of competition between the United States, Russia, and China will be in Latin America and to a greater extent in Africa. On balance, Africa has a higher growth potential than any other region of the world by some estimates. In February 2020, the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban and the Trump Administration announced a 14-month withdrawal period that began immediately after the signing of the peace deal, which only further signals America’s loss of interest in South Asia.
Much of Afghanistan’s problems stem from the fact that its leaders have not been able to attain political independence, nor have they been able to do much in the way of preserving the territorial integrity and economic viability of their country. Afghanistan’s leaders are to an extent pawns of Pakistan and India, and as a result there is instability in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future given that the instability in Afghanistan is to a certain degree an extension of the instability between Pakistan and India.
Afghanistan has thus had a history of poor leadership, unlike other Asian countries who have had extraordinary leaders with visions that led to the development of their respective countries based on native culture. In sum, Afghanistan is a highly fractured society that may never come together again as in the case of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Worse yet, there is no one to bring Afghans out of the vicious karmic cycle that has been recurring for decades. Also, there is a 50 percent chance that a relapse into war can occur in a society that has already gone through a civil war.
When Modi became the Indian Prime Minister in 2014, the Obama Administration sought to mend fences with India largely due to the problems the United States had been facing in Afghanistan as a result of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Modi was the recipient of both Western endearment and major state visits to both the United States and the United Kingdom soon after his election in 2014. Major weapons deals have also been forged between the United States and India during Modi’s tenure. In response, Pakistan forged closer ties with China, which happens to be the world’s fastest growing power and has a bitter history of its own with India.
Thus, in 2014 as a result of Modi’s election, the lines were essentially drawn. Pakistan sided with China, and India seemed to have joined the U.S. orbit. But India retained its ties with China through its membership in what is known as the “BRICS” Organization. Thus, despite forging closer ties with both the United States and the United Kingdom, India’s essential and most basic policy position today is one of hedging between the United States and China. Modi’s pragmatic policy approach has given hope to investors seeking to do business in India, which is why India’s annual economic growth rate exceeds that of China at the moment. International order, according to Michael Mazaar, is based on two principles: the balance of power as well as shared norms and values. Both are evolving due to China’s rise, and as a result the world is sandwiched by an emerging Cold War between the United States and China.
Nevertheless, as mentioned before, India is still about 20 years behind China in terms of overall economic development. Why India is 20 years behind China can only be explained by when and how both countries decided to adopt a policy of openness to the Western world. China decided to open up to the West in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping, whereas India decided to open up to the West in 2014 under Modi. But Modi’s BJP is socially and culturally conservative, despite being open to Western economic investment in India. The unintended consequences of greater Western economic involvement in India will be the evolution of Indian social and cultural norms along Western lines. Despite winning a majority in 2014 and in 2019, Modi does face a backlash from the youth and intellectuals in Indian society. Ultimately, as Machiavelli once said, there is no virtue in neutrality. After reaping the benefits of the Western economic model in the short-term, Modi and Indian society in the long-run will have to decide between either East or West. Hugh White, an Australian political strategist and theorist, wrote in 2010 that the ultimate choice for individuals and nations will be between aligning with Washington or with Beijing.
Hannah Arendt coined a concept known as “Voluntary Separatism,” which suggests that due to the strict monotheism of Eastern religions like Judaism and Islam, Eastern peoples will voluntarily separate themselves from Western societies in order to adhere to strict monotheism. Moderates are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As a globalist whose discourse compels one to have the best of both worlds, it would be ideal to reap the best of both the East and the West.
However, the ability to do so is becoming increasingly difficult due to the zero-sum paradigm of international relations and the game being played by both Washington and Beijing. Although one cannot hold two watermelons in one hand, with enough education and willpower it is possible to hold one watermelon in one hand and another watermelon with the other hand. To feel complete and to discover one’s true identity, it would require one to live a life of happiness and satisfaction that can only be made possible by going global and bridging the social gaps that exist between East and West through constructive dialogue and engagement. In turn, the aim of such dialogue and engagement should be the creation of economic opportunity for as many people as possible in addition to fostering the free exchange of knowledge and information which in turn would acclimate minds to a reality of modernity and globalization that is still new for many people around the world.
2 thoughts on “South Asia: History and Conflict”
Salam ! you are great man , Your father was my classflow in Habibia High school in kabul . all the best -important things you writhe some articals about trajidi in afghanistan
Thank you Sir! I tried my best to be as neutral and objective as possible. You’re right. It is a tragedy. The most we can do is hope for the best.