Reflections on Punjab: Seventy Years on from Partition

August 1947 marked the end of India as a single state and saw the emergence of today’s Pakistan and India. Partition caused unprecedented communal conflict, bloodshed and the mass movement of peoples across the border as Sikhs and Hindus became concentrated in India, whilst Muslims crossed over into new Pakistan. The hastily established border split existing communities, villages and homes in the northern state of Punjab. The state is the birthplace and homeland of Sikhism as well as being home to a Muslim majority and a number of special Islamic sites. Today, Punjab continues to experience tension and trouble as a direct result of partition whether that be in violent clashes at the India-Pakistan Punjab border, disagreements between different communal factions and government, or the involvement of the Indian or Pakistan diaspora in Punjab affairs.

The border itself is a particular focus for violence. In 2014 a suicide bomber killed some sixty people at the border and in 2016 a military confrontation at the border resulted in further casualties. This violence keeps negative feelings surrounding partition very much alive across the Punjab. The mistrust between the nations is highlighted by the difficulties that a Pakistan or Indian national may face when trying to get a visa for the neighbouring state. There are many hoops to jump through. The process itself takes at least 35 days and requires a multitude of letters, documents and the appropriate signature. Even upon arrival, there is the potential for further checks that are neither uniform nor predictable. This mistrust is a shame, for many people in Punjab have memories, friends, belongings or even ancestral homes on the other side of the border. They are denied the ability to travel back and to visit and as a result are denied the opportunity to grieve the trauma of partition.

Seventy years on from the violence of 1947, there are a some Sikh activist groups that persist in calls for ‘Khalistan’ – an independent, Sikh majority state. Their reasons are born out of the insecurity they feel as a religious minority in a Hindu nationalist nation, insecurities that have also of course been echoed by other minorities. In 1984, Sikhs were the subject of pogroms in so much as many were massacred in retaliation for Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Even the diaspora overseas that hail from Punjab remain invested in their state of origin and the issues of the past. In late September 2017, Times Square in New York City saw protests from thousands of Sikhs and their supporters expressing their hope for Khalistan and dissatisfaction with Modi’s oppressive India. Those calling for Khalistan may lack strength in numbers but the very existence of these secessionist claims represent the wound of communal difference that partition opened. The collective memories of events such as these ensures that the relationship between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims remains scarred post-partition.

However, the situation in Punjab is not wholly negative. The Punjab border stands not just as a symbol of hostility and tension, it also highlights the sense of camaraderie that is felt by Punjab and the two nations. Every day, at sundown, the two nations unite in an elaborate and long-standing ceremony in Wagah, Punjab where there is dancing and hand-shakes as the border is closed for the night. It echoes the reality of a shared history, collective memories and an intertwined present and future. Punjab’s future is one that is still hopeful as the state, the country and the diaspora reflect on the past and move into the future. A series of events, radio and television shows, literature and stories emerged in 2017, the 70th anniversary of independence, as younger generations began a dialogue concerning partition. Many of those who had lived in Punjab at that time came forward and shared their experiences; and in Amritsar, Punjab, the Partition Museum was founded by the Punjab government, inaugurated as a memorial to those who had experienced partition.

Unsocial Media: How Twitter Diplomacy Is Undermining US-Pakistan Relations

Twitter diplomacy has become a defining feature of Donald Trump’s administration. In the past two months alone he has tweeted about Iran, North Korea, Israel and Palestine. More recently, he used his first tweet of 2018 to accuse Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and called past US presidents “fools” for handing over $33 billion in aid to the country over the past 15 years. In yet another example of the Trump administration turning tweets into policies, US officials then announced a decision to suspend $2 billion in military assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad took decisive action against terrorist groups that have found safe haven in the region. This has fueled anger and resentment in an already uneasy ally that is gradually pivoting towards China and has led to anti-US protests and flag burning in the streets of Karachi and Lahore.

Needless to say, this is perhaps one of the lowest points in the relationship between the two countries.

But US-Pakistan relations have always been uncomfortable. Although it was one of the first countries to establish ties with a newly formed Pakistani state, the US has always harbored mistrust and suspicion towards Pakistan’s military, particularly in view of its bitter relationship with India. It goes without saying then that Trump’s tweets were a cause of celebration in India.

The new policy feeds into the existing narrative in Pakistan that the US simply uses Pakistan for its own convenience and abandons it at will. History has proven this to be true. In the 1980s, Pakistan proved a pivotal ally against the Soviets in the Afghanistan war and was funded by the US to train the Mujahideen that fought Soviet forces. Once the war ended however, the US withdrew from the region. The Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI, has long been regarded as funding terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Haqqani network and was itself likened to a terrorist group by US authorities in Wikileaks documents in 2011. In that same year, the Obama administration similarly withheld aid, accusing Islamabad of harbouring terrorist organizations; and subsequently conducted a raid on Pakistani soil where Osama Bin Laden had been hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, raising concerns about violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Throughout all this however Pakistan has remained a key ally in the region and holds access to the main routes for US military aid and assistance to Afghanistan, without which the US military mission there could not be sustained. More importantly, Pakistan is a geopolitically significant country sharing borders with Iran and Afghanistan and acting as a bridge between the Middle East and Asia. So while Trump’s tweet is nothing new in terms of the direction of US foreign policy, it has provided Pakistanis with a fresh reason to be angry at the US.

So what is the future of US-Pakistan relations? The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been gaining significant traction in recent years and antagonism with the US could drive the two countries closer together. While the US has been a fair-weather friend to the region, Beijing has proven to be an all-weather friend to Islamabad. If the US wants to foster closer ties with Pakistan and maintain a strategic ally in Asia and the Middle East, twitter diplomacy will, as Trump’s twitter sagas have shown, do more damage than good. It is clear that now more than ever, good old-fashioned diplomacy matters.


God made this universe from love,
For Him to be the father of,
What duty more exquisite is,
Than loving with a love like His?
A better task no one can ever ask.

Rahman Baba, Peshawar

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

Jinnah’s Vision 70 Years On


This month Pakistan celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule. Since the foundation of Pakistan, the state has been ruled by various military dictatorships and corrupt ruling elites, a vision far from the ideals of its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The latest celebrations take place amidst yet another political change – the removal of Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Following the Panama Papers case, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz Sharif should be disqualified from his position on the grounds of dishonesty and corruption, and ordered a criminal probe into his family’s wealth. Sharif resigned shortly after.

The current interim prime minister is Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a known Nawaz Sharif loyalist. Since his disqualification, Nawaz Sharif has filed three appeals in the Supreme Court to review its Panama Papers verdict.

The cycle of corruption will continue. The only way for Pakistan to move forward is to look back at Jinnah’s vision of a democratic state – one that is free from the corruption that he described as ‘poison’. Prime Minister Abbasi alluded to the difficulty of this in his Independence Day address, saying that, while Jinnah had envisioned Pakistan as a modern democratic entity, “This dream faces myriad of challenges.”

Charles Bennett on the Indo-Pakistani Nuclear War, Somaliland and Yemen.

Charles Bennett, Director of the European Atlantic Group, argues that there is a serious risk of nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. He also believes that the absence of recognition of Somaliland exasperates the situation and its relationships, especially with Britain. Finally, Mr Bennett urges the international community to focus its attention on Yemen, what appears to be the world’s forgotten war.

Afghanistan: the good war or the lost war?

Afghan Flag

Almost exactly a year after the ISAF mission ended, British troops were redeployed to Sangin, bringing the continuing war in Afghanistan back into the spotlight. The war in Afghanistan is slowly slipping in importance in the news cycle. Attention given to Afghanistan in the last year has been predominantly in relation to ISIS, when headlines touted the creation of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). ISKP are a growing problem, but ISKP face the same problems that Al Qaeda faced in gaining large numbers of ideological recruits. This is because Afghanistan and the Pashtun population follows an ideologically different branch of Sunni Islam to that of ISIS. The threat of ISIS expansion has helped the President of Afghanistan’s appeal for extra support, and therefore Obama’s justification of the continued presence of US troops; but it has changed little on the ground.

So what is happening in Afghanistan? There are two different narratives that present different pictures of the state of the country. The first is a continuation of the idea of the “good war:” in short, that the war in Afghanistan has gone well. As evidence, the “good war” narrative points to the democratic transition of power in 2014, the improvement in human rights and women’s rights, and in standards of education. It also emphasises the fact that the Taliban have not taken any urban centres. In contrast to the “good war” narrative, there are pessimists who point to the total cost of the war in achieving limited success. The democratic transition of power was beset with problems: accusations of fraud, Abdullah Abdullah’s establishment of a parallel administration, and the ensuing negotiated settlement; it took seven months to appoint a cabinet, and Hamid Karzai has far from yielded all his influence on Afghan politics. While human rights and women’s rights have improved, corruption is still rampant; Ashraf Ghani was elected on a promise to resolve this issue, but has been handicapped by the deals he has had to make with ex-warlords to secure his power. While no urban center has fallen fully to the Taliban, the majority of Kunduz did briefly fall to the Taliban before they were pushed back. The Taliban have taken large swathes of the countryside, and are increasingly breaching the security cordon around cities. This threatens the advancements in civil rights and security. The Afghan Security Forces have also taken large casualties and suffered increased desertions, with some estimates suggesting that a third of their forces need replacing this year.

Ashraf Ghani has been less successful than many hoped in his first year, but it has not been a disaster. Just as Afghan National Forces are hurting, so are the Taliban. The Taliban’s leadership has gone through a painful transition after the passing of Mullah Omar. Mullah Mansour has taken on the leadership, but his right is contested within the Taliban, resulting in open conflict. Jalaluddin Haqqani also passed away; although the transition of power to his son Sirajuddin has been smoother, Sirajuddin lacks some of the prowess and unifying features of his “fountain of jihad” father. This suggests that 2016 may be the year of the Zartman’s Mutually Hurting Stalemate, and the beginning of a peace process.

Something Ashraf Ghani certainly achieved was vastly improving relations with Pakistan, widely acknowledged as key to the peace process. There has been discussion over the TAPI natural gas pipeline, and there are currently trilateral talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan attempting to bring the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. Pakistan has always been a difficult partner, with many within its security establishment viewing the Taliban as more natural allies than a government with a large Northern Alliance/Tajik presence supported by India and the West. If, and it is a big if, Pakistan can be persuaded to endorse and actively pursue a settlement, there is still the problem of getting the Taliban to accept it. The power structure of the Taliban and control the current leadership has over the insurgency in Afghanistan is not clear. Mullah Mansour may not be able to force the Taliban to accept a peace agreement, which risks undermining his leadership. This increases the likelihood that, with momentum in the Taliban’s favour, the insurgency’s leadership will continue to resist a peace process.

With a peace-process that appears unlikely to succeed – even if it does, it would likely take a long time to negotiate and implement – the situation looks likely to deteriorate in 2016. The government will struggle to maintain security and will likely lose more ground to the Taliban. A complete collapse is unlikely, since foreign powers prop up the government just as they did Najibullah’s from 1989-92; but the government may be forced to rely on private militias that are rumoured to be reconstituting already. (This presents a possible nightmare scenario of the civil war of 1992-96, where Najibullah’s forces and supporting militia fractured and splintered into smaller groups along with the Mujahidden, causing crippling conflict that allowed the Taliban to sweep to power). The reconstitution of private militias will mean the creation of more armed groups outside the government’s chain of command, risking further lawlessness. Afghanistan needs continued help and attention from the West, not abandonment in its hour of need.

India and Pakistan on the road to peace at last?

Afghan National Army soldiers graduating whilst Afghanistan slides into civil war. Photo: Xinhua Press/Corbis

Maybe it’s too much to hope for. Maybe we read too much into this. But there are new moves towards peace between India and Pakistan which are, in their little way, quite astounding. And who will reap the benefit? Afghanistan of course where these two countries have been stoking their own vicious and nasty proxy war for decades. Poor Afghanistan has many issues to contend with but if India and Pakistan at least begin to stop playing the nasty little game they have been indulging in this wretched country there will be a chance, however slim, of a better future for the Afghans.

See this article by Umair Jamal in the Diplomat which is on the button