By: David J. Karl 

Midnight’s Furies, Nisid Hajari’s new book about the violent division of the British Raj in India, has garnered much praise for its focus on how the decisions taken by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1946-1948 period embittered India-Pakistan relations right from the very start.  But one of the book’s under-noticed contributions is highlighting how bilateral security issues with plenty of modern-day resonance were also present in spades at the creation.

A central example concerns the peril of catalytic war instigated by rogue non-state actors.  In recent years, U.S. officials have warned about the danger of freebooting jihadi groups mounting operations aimed at provoking inadvertent conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way of advancing their own interests.  A number of militant attacks since then have underscored the menace, and according to a new media report Islamic State terrorists are planning to attack India for the purpose of bringing about an “end of the world” Armageddon. 

Indeed, an Indian security official acknowledged last fall that “It has been clear for some time that there is no [jihadi] group that is fully within [Pakistan’s] control. They are all itching for independent action, some want to have a go at us immediately.” 

But the machinations of non-state actors are nothing new – in fact, they were a key feature of the Partition’s drama.  Hajari relates that Nehru suspected [with reason, as it turns out] that much of the communal blood-letting occurring in eastern Punjab was part of a militant Sikh effort to spark a war between the newly-born Indian and Pakistani states in the hope that an independent Sikh homeland could then be carved out in the ensuing chaos.

The use of safe havens by covert actors is likewise a major problem in South Asia, an issue that was highlighted once again by India’s cross-border raid against ethno-nationalist separatists sheltering in Myanmar two months ago.  This too also has a parallel in the Partition’s saga, as the mayhem in eastern Punjab was exacerbated by the existence of the so-called princely states, legally sovereign territories that then dotted the subcontinent. 

The Sikh militias committing atrocities against Muslim refugees journeying toward Pakistan were given refuge in the patchwork of Sikh kingdoms in the area.  British-led security forces, already stretched thin in Punjab, thus faced another encumbrance in keeping the communal peace, as they were not permitted to pursue marauders across the borders of erstwhile states like Faridkot and Patiala.

Following the Myanmar raid, Indian ministers proclaimed that New Delhi could well undertake similar action against jihadi targets based in Pakistan, with The Times of India reporting that “the government made it clear that [the Myanmar action] was not a one-off operation but symbolized its decision not to be constrained by borders and to be pre-emptive in dealing with terror threats.”  

But Nehru and his colleagues were delivering a similar message seven decades ago.  In late 1947, as fighting escalated between the Indian army and Pakistan-supported Pashtun tribesmen in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, leaders in New Delhi thought seriously about carpet-bombing Kashmir’s border with Pakistan in order to create a 10-mile-wide cordon sanitaire.  Even more, Nehru was giving real consideration to launching military strikes into Pakistan’s half of Punjab and destroying the insurgents’ rear bases located there.

The use of non-state proxies has since become a central instrument of Pakistani statecraft, but the newly-minted Indian government likewise resorted to this strategy during the Partition tug of war over the fate of the princely states of Junagadh and Hyderabad.  Both were Hindu-majority entities with Muslim rulers inclined toward Jinnah’s Pakistan, a prospect that Indian leaders sought to head off by employing armed irregulars operating from neighboring Indian territory. 

Junagadh was a small princely state on the Kathiawar peninsula in Gujarat.  The state’s Muslim ruler had opted to join Pakistan and by late September 1947 Indian leaders were considering military action to reverse the decision.  But Nehru thought that a covert operation offered a better solution and in short order an “internal” uprising was concocted, with one of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephews at its head.  As Hajari puts it, “Quite unnoticed amid the rapid-fire events in Kashmir, Delhi had been fomenting its own little lashkar on the Kathiawar Peninsula…”  The maneuver had its desired effect, causing Junagadh’s ruler to flee to Karachi and paving the way for an armed takeover by India.

The same tactic was tried in Hyderabad, one of the largest of the princely states and located in the heart of the subcontinent.  Hoping to coerce accession into the newly-formed Indian state, armed irregulars began launching raids into Hyderabad from camps in the surrounding Indian territory.  And an on-going communist insurrection in the southern part of the state suddenly found itself welcome in India’s Madras province.  In the end, Hyderabad proved stouter than much smaller Junagadh, leading India to forcibly annex it a year after the Raj’s formal partition.  

As Hajari amply demonstrates, the tragedy of India-Pakistan relations is that nothing is ever really new.  So much so that today’s headlines seem to be echoes of seven decades ago.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm, and heads its South Asia practice group.  He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.