Jun 3, 2002
At one time, the Indian subcontinent fed itself, and it had a thriving textile industry which produced enough for the country and for export. While the area contained more than 500 little mini-states, with millions of people practicing various religions other than the majority one of Hinduism, wars between groups were not the norm. But Britain’s century and a half of colonial domination over the entire Indian subcontinent depended on its ability to pit one group against another.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, British control and laws ruined the local weavers in order to make a market for the expanding English textile manufacturers. For the next century, British colonial rule assured that profit would go to British landowners, companies and administrators in their Indian empire. The population would remain – outside the palaces – poor, uneducated, with no rights.
World War II broke the bonds of the British empire around the world. In the Indian subcontinent, which had seen a real movement for independence, Britain feared that it could be tossed out. So Britain set out to grant independence, but in a fashion that could only favor British political and economic interests, even when colonial rule disappeared.
Britain, which had long encouraged and manipulated ethnic and religious divisions, moved to exacerbate this situation. It reinforced the organizations, both Muslim and Hindu, which were carrying out a kind of “ethnic cleansing” against other people. And, in 1947, Britain split the country in two: one part was to be Muslim, and one Hindu.
Muslims were to live in Pakistan, whose two chunks were carved out of India. Millions of Muslims who had been living in other parts of the Indian subcontinent, were forced at gunpoint to flee to the new Pakistan, and millions of Hindus living in what became Pakistan were forced to relocate within the new borders of India. Almost immediately after the 1948 declaration that established two separate countries, bloodshed broke out over this policy, costing as many as half a million lives immediately, while millions more were displaced to live in desperately poor refugee camps.
Even worse, the British fixed the borders of Pakistan as a country split in two from its origins. A huge piece of India separated the east and west portions of what was supposedly one country by over a thousand miles. Subsequently, the leaders of East Pakistan and West Pakistan were encouraged to fight a low-level war throughout the first decades of their country’s existence, with Indian aid going to East Pakistan. In bloody warfare, another new country was created by December, 1971. East Pakistan, which had few resources and no industry to speak of, became Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth.
In the decades after independence, both India’s and Pakistan’s leaders – no matter which political parties were in power – encouraged a policy of hatred and murder based on religious differences – a policy which today would be called “ethnic cleansing.”
Certainly, the respective rulers of India and Pakistan have long made use of these divisions to line up their own impoverished populations behind them – and in the most despicable fashion. But they were simply acting on the ground British colonialism had prepared.
The populations of both countries has paid the price.