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75 years since India and Pakistan’s independence and still there is far more room for soul searching and problem-solving than there is for jubilation. The trauma of Partition—while not discussed much in the public discourse—still haunts national memories. Like a wound that was never addressed it festers still. Was Partition a natural outcome of the two-nation theory or could the wills of the so-called two nations have been addressed with some other organizing format beyond the partition of borders? In the 75 years since India and Pakistan’s independence, there has been no shortage of thoughtful and well-meaning identification of the challenges South Asia faces ranging from poverty, hunger, militancy, extremism, lack of consolidated democratic institutions, nuclear weapons, and so on and so forth. Adding another obstacle to the motley of arguments on the political and security perils of South Asia is the “territorial trap,” which has posed the main roadblock to India and Pakistan peace and hindered creative policymaking.

India, Pakistan, and the “Territorial Trap”

Proposed by John Agnew, the “territorial trap” is a theory based on three geographical assumptions. The first is that states are “fixed units of sovereign space,” second, that there is a division between domestic and foreign affairs, and finally that “states are ‘containers’ of societies.” The territorial trap is also the repeated insistence and perpetuation of the idea that a sovereign state has total and exclusive rights to its territory and that a sovereign state is a vessel of society rather than vice versa. Some may argue, and rightly so, that this “trap” also brought in a form of “territorial peace”, which is protected by international normative institutions as states move away from recurrent fighting to renegotiate their territorial borders—as was prevalent before 1945. However, it is a trap because it has created and frozen in time and space so many territorial disputes in the world. Not resolved, but frozen—which means that the conflict and bargaining continue to occur in other arenas. In South Asia, for instance, the absence of trade between India and Pakistan does not have any valid economic reasons. It is the strategic rivalry whose root cause is the territorial dispute on Kashmir that has shaped any and every policy these two countries have towards each other. The issues of terrorism, conventional, and sub-conventional warfare revolves around this dispute. The rivalry India and Pakistan have in Afghanistan is also an offshoot of the territorial mode of thinking.

The idea of fixed borders privileges territory over people. Elites at the political center thus never developed a human-centric border security approach and instead created and relied on institutions and security apparatus that were meant to keep people out.

In South Asia, there are two parts of this idea that have created perhaps unintended long-term consequences. First, the point that sovereign territorial control is absolute and unchanging and, second, the idea that states are the only possible platform for identity formation in the international arena. Both concepts are challenged daily by real-world events, yet have substantial normative power. The fluidity of the Bangladesh-India and Afghanistan-Pakistan borders is a case in point. Mere entitlement of sovereignty has not changed the flow of people, migration, as well as cross-border challenges such as black markets and criminal networks. These regions have over time become way more caustic and conflict-ridden. The idea of fixed borders privileges territory over people. Elites at the political center thus never developed a human-centric border security approach and instead created and relied on institutions and security apparatus that were meant to keep people out. These borders are the sites of some of the worst human rights violations.

The colonial government of Great Britain is blamed, and rightly so, for a divide and rule policy and for leaving South Asia with a multigenerational trauma of hatred and war by creating political institutions which pitted religious communities against each other. But the successor governments in both India and Pakistan have also followed in the footsteps of the Raj by arbitrarily partitioning Kashmir, and then claiming and defending just the territory without any regard for the people inhabiting that territory.

A Pakistani soldier stands guard at the Line of Control at the village of Chilliana in Neelum Valley, January 14, 2004. FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images)

Even though absolute territorial sovereignty of states is more theoretical than real the idea of exclusive sovereign control comes with costs. The first is that it does not leave room for imaginative ways of governance that could have been developed for regions of the world with cross-cutting cleavages that do not lend themselves to categorical territorial demarcation or division.

Thinking Beyond the Territorial Trap

The only time in the last 75 years that the region came close to a (prospective) solution to its territorial disputes was when leaders were pushed to “think out of the box.” One can love or hate Musharraf’s four-point agenda on the Kashmir dispute, but it was the only take on the conflict that did not create an all or nothing binary for each party. In the words of former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one way out of the impasse on Kashmir was working towards making borders irrelevant—“just lines on a map.” This could be done by allowing self-governance and maintaining the special status of the Kashmir region on both sides of the border; through (gradual) demilitarization; opening trade and allowing free movement of people within the region and across the border; and, finally, creating joint institutional mechanisms to oversee less sensitive but important bilateral issues like the environment, water management, and tourism. Ideas like these demonstrate that territorial conflicts might not actually be as zero-sum as the “territorial trap” mindset would have many believe.

The second problem with the territorial trap mindset is that it does not allow for the emergence of cross-cutting international identities that could open avenues for cooperation and development. Within this framework, alternative forms of identity are subservient to national identity which is of greatest priority to the state—however arbitrary and blurred this may be. In practice, however, there is no shortage of international affinity and identity groups based on political ideologies both on the left and right side of the political spectrum, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, religious rights, environmental groups, and other civil society organizations. Ultimately, however, geographical claims depend on bringing that territory into the national myth and identity, which involves otherizing anything that competes with that narrative. Sovereign states with active territorial disputes do not have the incentive structure to embrace international identities that compete with hyper-rationalistic agendas.

One way to overcome this dilemma would be to learn from alternative ways of political organization that have worked in the past. South Asia survived for centuries without a large-scale Hindu-Muslim conflict for communal hegemony. This should not be an empty revivalist agenda aimed at getting back to our “original” roots but can involve an active effort at thinking through what it takes to weaponize communal and religious identities. It will be close to impossible to do away with the majoritarian democratic institutions—but would it be possible to shift the mode of competition from these identities to economic development and service provision? It may not be possible to go back to pre-linear borders era in South Asia that allowed for different kinds of property rights, the intermingling of populations, and the existence of enclaves, but remembering that would help us understand that the sharp segregation that exists today can be more fluid.

It is not possible to forget all the bloodshed during and since Partition. It will also not be easy to overcome the political incentive structure created by colonization and perpetuated by the ruling elites in both countries. Nor will it be easy to reverse the weaponization of religion and right-wing populism in the two countries. But it is necessary to remember what could have been. Not to romanticize the past but remember for the inspiration to move forward. There has been a growing realization Pakistan needs a new start to its hyper-security-driven foreign policy priorities—which will likely require revisiting its bilateral relationship with India. However, the security of religious minorities in India has also deteriorated in recent years with recent warning of mounting risk indicators of Muslim genocide in parts of India. These parallel trends show just how difficult it will be to move past territorial trap mindsets with religious polarization as an easy tool for political elites to reach for. 

With the multidimensional security issues that the masses of these two countries face ranging from climate change to poverty to public health disasters, it might not be as impossible to create alternative national narratives as it seems.

There probably is a need for a fresh start and new thinking on international relations. But that fresh start might not come from the most obvious source. Rather than starting from the ruling elites, it will come from the civil society and the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia in the subcontinent must come to terms with the fact that they are constrained by the local and international political ideas concepts, narratives, and policies—but they nonetheless have agency. Their role will be to start thinking of innovative ways to organize social relations that help create better platforms and agendas for the political elites to compete over. They have both the social and “antisocial” capital to shape national agendas. But it is up to them to decide if they will keep consuming and then churning out narratives of hurt, enmity, and victimhood or they will choose to empathize with the other side and create room for dialogue. With the multidimensional security issues that the masses of these two countries face ranging from climate change to poverty to public health disasters, it might not be as impossible to create alternative national narratives as it seems.


Image 1: Visual News via Getty Images

Image 2: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images

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