Could the EU be a hopeful model for the Subcontinent?

NEW DELHI, India — I’ve discovered to my surprise that there are no direct flights between India’s capital of New Delhi where I am now, and my next destination, Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. I reasoned to myself that the Indo-Pak border is always tense, and there is the ongoing dispute over Kashmir, but perhaps there might be other reasons.

Both countries are poor and trade between them is minimal, yet they commit good percentage of their budgets to defense. Both have nuclear weapons capability to use against the other. To date, three major military clashes have occurred between them, with the U.S., Russia, China, and even Israel, all using the enmity of these troubled subcontinent neighbors to further their own agendas. Then, in the summer of 2002 — perhaps it was all but inevitable — India and Pakistan brought the world as close as it has ever been to a nuclear war.

Against that frightening scenario, is there any hope that all three states sharing the Indian subcontinent — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — might co-operate in forming a European Union-like association?

The answer is Yes, but only if three key conditions are met:

1. A process of healing and reconciliation must start soon to put to rest the deeply ingrained bitterness that followed the 1947 partition.

2. A sincerely productive interfaith trialogue must begin among the religious leaders of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in all three countries and, just as importantly, among the political leaders governing them.

3. The question of the fate and identity of Kashmir and its peoples must be settled.

According to Indian historian Ambedkar, for some 25 years before the 1947 partition, civil war raged between Hindus and Muslims, interrupted only by brief intervals of armed peace.

The act of partitioning itself was accompanied by wholesale killing, maiming, raping, burning, looting and expelling — a tragic time of atrocities in which Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were all aggressors, as well as victims of the violence. In 1948, peace activist and social reformer Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu who saw him as a betrayer of Hindu honor. Three years later, Pakistan Prime Minister Ali Khan was shot at for being too pro-India.

India today has a population of more than 1 billion, of which 80% are Hindus, while Muslims and Sikhs make up sizable minorities at 13% (some 130 million) and 2% (some 20 million) respectively.

Pakistan, with a population of 162 million, is 97% Muslim but has a small Hindu minority of about 1 million. Bangladesh, poorest of the three, has a population of 144 million, of which some 83% are Muslim and 16% are Hindu.

The volatile Kashmiri problem is a creation of history. At the time of the 1947 partition, the Maharajah Hair Singh ruled the states of Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistanis feared that Singh, being a Hindu, might join India. But Singh himself wanted to negotiate for independence and instead signed a Standstill Agreement with both India and Pakistan.

Kashmiris are proud of their national identity, which they uphold irrespective of their religion, for not all are Muslims. Rather, it has been the mighty Himalayas that shaped the distinctive character of Kashmiris. Sadly, these proud people have been both politically and economically exploited over the years and today they seek a way out of their poverty and isolation. They do not believe in violence, and their culture has had no need of it. In the past, the fierce Himalayas protected them better than any standing army. History records, for example, that in both 1015 and 1021 AD, the Himalayan snow and cold stopped the Afghani military leader Mahmud of Ghazni.

Islam spread in Kashmir mainly because of a beloved ruler, Balbul Shah, who governed during the first quarter of the 14th century. In 1585, the Mughal Emperor of northern India brought Kashmir under the political administration of Delhi. Then in 1750, the Afghans seized the province from its weak Mughal governors and ruled with an iron fist for the next 70 years. When Maharajah Ranjit Singh finally overthrew and defeated the Afghans, both the Muslims and Hindus of Kashmir were overjoyed.

But their joy was short-lived, for Singh’s heirs exploited the people. And later the British "rewarded" Raja Gulab Singh for his support in their wars against the Sikhs by giving him the kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir.

Beautiful Kashmir is 80% Muslim. But Jawaharlal Nehru, a Hindu and India’s first prime minister, was proud to be descended from Kashmiri Brahmins.

On October 24, 1947 a tribal force of 5,000 crossed the Pakistan-Kashmir border. India alleged that Pakistan had planned the attack, but Pakistan denied it. Hari Singh asked India for help and Indian troops pushed back the tribesmen. But in April 1948, Pakistan sent regular troops into Kashmir.

Today, in defiance of longstanding United Nations orders, India continues to reject any notation of self-determination for the Kashmiris. The Kashmiri people themselves want both India and Pakistan to leave them alone politically and militarily and instead are asking their testy neighbors to offer them the economic help they so desperately need, and which could be of mutual benefit to all. And perhaps that’s where an EU-like solution could be found, but the world may have to be patient. It took some 50 years from the birth of the idea to the fledgling union we have now. If such a union were to emerge for these three countries (and Kashmir) sharing the same subcontinent, the best and most enlightened thinkers and leaders from all sides must set aside their fears and differences to create a workable blueprint for their future. As the old saying goes, "if you build it, they will come" — people and rulers alike.