THE pins have been removed from live grenades held by both India and Pakistan. Only experts know when they will explode. None of us innocents knows where.
The spectre of war has remained a permanent resident in the subcontinent since 1947. It has bunkered itself so deep in our sub-consciousness that now confrontation comes more naturally to us than conciliation, argument before agreement.
On both sides of the border that connects Himalayan heights to Sindh’s shores, jingoists demand armed conflict while peaceniks want an ‘uninterrupted, uninterruptible’ dialogue. Both are unaware that national belligerence and pacifism are in fact conditioned by topography.
Roads can be halted at the border, but who owns flowing water?
The Westphalian concept of nation states is tested whenever territorial boundaries have to contend with nature. Who owns a mountain that straddles an international border? Who owns a river that flows through one or more countries? Who has the right to use that water, and more vexatiously, should one upper riparian country have the power of denial over a lower riparian one?
In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe did not apply his mind to such niggling questions. So when Viceroy Mountbatten suggested he should continue as governor general of both India and Pakistan as a conciliator, Quaid-i-Azam refused. He did not want Mountbatten acting the guilt-ridden surgeon, offering to rectify a botched amputation. Mountbatten did remain in New Delhi as India’s G-G until June 1948, but he did little to prevent sores from festering — contentious issues such as Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir, Junagadh, and most critically, the ownership and the use of the waters of the Punjab.
Within two years of Independence of each other, the new countries came near to blows over water. Our foreign minister, Chaudhry Zafrulla, warned India that any “diminution in that flow or even a threat of interruption would have the effect of converting millions of acres of fertile lands into arid wastes”. Pakistan, he hinted, would be prepared to go to war to protect its right to water.
A recent scholar Daniel Haines in his book Indus Divided (2017) has drawn a distinction between sovereign territory and sovereignty over resources that pass through that territory. Roads and railways can be halted at the border, but who owns flowing water? It recognises no check-post or customs barriers, only dams and canals.
It took India and Pakistan 13 years of raucous recrimination over the sharing of the Indus rivers before they agreed to mediation by the World Bank. An experienced US water manager David E. Lilienthal was put to rectify the damage caused by Radcliffe. The resultant Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, in working order even today, never resolved the basic conundrum: “The dispute was not simply an engineering question with a technical answer [.] Access to, and the ability to manipulate river water formed a key plank of state power in the region.”
Sixty years later, the Indian government still clings to its position that, under the IWT, it can allow water to flow into Pakistan but refuse to relinquish its claim to sovereignty over the Indus basin rivers.
In 1960, China was on the far, inaccessible side of the Himalayas. Today, China’s declared interest in the modernisation of agriculture in Pakistan has brought China into the Indus basin. Access to river water is a sine qua non for the success of the CPEC’s agricultural projects. An arid Pakistan is of no use to China. The malevolent twist of an upstream valve by India could well be viewed by China as an unacceptable provocation.
China’s seed-pearl port Gwadar gives it more than a view of the Indian Ocean. It is a lighthouse of China’s maritime ambitions. President Xi Jinping has declared China will take an “interest in the sea, understand the sea, and strategically manage the sea, and continually do more to promote China’s efforts to become a maritime power”.
To achieve this, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intends by 2030 to commission “ninety-nine submarines, four aircraft carriers, 102 destroyers and frigates, twenty-six corvettes, seventy-three amphibious ships and 111 missile craft”. Ten years from now, China with 415 ships will have the world’s largest navy. It will do more than patrol the Indian Ocean. It might rename it.
For centuries, India has luxuriated in a landlocked mentality. Only now has it realised that in addition to its 3,323-kilometre north-western border, it has an equally vulnerable 7,516-km. coastline. The Indian Navy’s recent Exercise Sea Vigil — the ‘first ever’ on such a large scale — boasts of India’s preparedness to defend any assault by sea. India has cause to be vigilant. It has a pendulous peninsula of states south of Mumbai to defend.
Will the next war be over access to water from the Himalayas? And will its outcome be decided by nuclear missile-bearing submarines lurking below the surface of the Sino-Indian Ocean?