Defusing Durand Line Dispute

America threw the cat among the pigeons when its special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Mr. Marc Grossman stated that the Durand Line constituted the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This raised Kabul’s hackles because all Afghans ranging from President Hamid Karzai to the most extreme Taliban refuse to recognize the Durand Line as a legitimate border. Islamabad on the other hand swears by the Durand Line as the international boundary. The dispute is rooted in history.
By the provisions of the Durand Line Treaty the Pashtun-inhabited areas of Pakistan’s Northwest were to revert to Afghanistan a hundred years after the Treaty had been signed. The British had seized the area from Afghanistan in 1893. Since 1993 Kabul has ceased to recognize the Durand Line as the legitimate border.

The Afghans rightly draw a parallel with the British annexation of Hong Kong which in pursuance of a similar treaty had to be returned to China after a hundred years.

International borders determine the spheres of governments. Cultural empathy determines the spheres of people. Cultural boundaries and international borders are not necessarily contiguous.
This unresolved dispute lies at the heart of the instability and violence that afflict the Af-Pak region. Islamabad insists recognition of the Durand Line as the international border but continuously violates it to dabble in Afghanistan in the pursuit of its policy to acquire strategic depth. It is emboldened to do this because there are thrice as many Pashtuns in Pakistan as there are in entire Afghanistan. The Afghans continue to resent their inability to rule over their brother Pashtuns living across a border which they consider illegal. The Pashtun inhabitants of the region across borders vacillate between the desire to create an independent Pashtunistan and a Greater Afghanistan. Meanwhile terrorism, separatism and insurgency across borders fuelled by disparate elements continue to fester. This is how the situation stands today. How might the dispute be resolved? To achieve that some basic ground realities must be recognized.

International borders determine the spheres of governments. Cultural empathy determines the spheres of people. Cultural boundaries and international borders are not necessarily contiguous. Especially after an imperial power created a colonial empire in this region and arbitrarily drew international borders ignoring cultural nationalism when it departed. The Radcliff Award dividing India and Pakistan as well as the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan violate the most basic norms of nationhood. Thus is that Bengalis have cultural empathy across borders of India and Bangladesh, Punjabis enjoy empathy across borders of India and Pakistan and Tamils enjoy empathy across the sea separating India and Sri Lanka. But the governments in many cases exhibit conflict of interests. This situation is aggravated by the quirk of history by which the institution of the modern nation state is modeled on the European experience. In Europe sharply divided linguistic groups of peoples evolved from feuding kingdoms into easily demarcated nation states.

The problem arose when the European model of the nation state was superimposed on societies that were organized differently from Europe. Thus east of Suez pluralist societies are divided by guilds, castes and communities. Perhaps that is why noted historian Arnold Toynbee when he delivered the famous Reith lectures over BBC on ‘The World and the West’ in 1952 was so critical of the nation state and advocated instead national identity based upon civilization. As a visionary Toynbee foresaw the compelling need for a global order more than fifty years ago. He said:
“A world-wide political and social unity is necessary for us men and for our salvation today far more urgently than it has been in the past. After all, we are now in an atomic age, and that means an age in which man is like a child armed with the most tremendous edged tools.”
It was left to Charles De Gaulle to give political expression to the concept of a European identity that had motivated both Napoleon and later, with a distorted vision, Adolph Hitler. Unfortunately the European Union (EU) that De Gaulle helped create got on the wrong track after corporate business interests prevailed over political common sense by expanding its sphere without considerations of cultural nationalism. The original fifteen founding member states that had shared experience and cultural empathy were swamped by new alien entrants that increased the membership of the EU manifold. For this reason the requisite institutional political bonding necessary for consolidating the EU never took place. That is why EU is facing an identity crisis today. Nevertheless the EU has indicated the way ahead for the rest of the world. Other nations and other regions have to learn from its experience and avoid the errors committed by EU while creating their own communities based upon cultural nationalism.
Undoubtedly it is the Af-Pak region in South Asia that has become the most critical crisis point for the whole world. To restore global as well as South Asian stability it offers the obvious starting point for achieving any meaningful solution. Given the dichotomy between international borders and cultural nationalism existing in this region there seems no credible solution available except to establish a South Asian Union modeled on the original EU which may allow cultural nationalism to flourish without disturbing existing sovereignties. And it is for achieving this that the key rests in the hands of the Indian government. A South Asian Union cannot emerge without trust among the governments concerned that allows them to effectively tackle terrorism and elements hostile to the region’s consolidation. Such trust cannot be created unless the armies of the region fully cooperate with each other. The armies cannot cooperate unless the civilian governments initiate steps leading towards eventual joint defence in the region. India is best placed to take that initiative. Especially since this solution would apply equally to Kashmir. Will New Delhi act? 


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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