Why is there no peace dividend on the Indian subcontinent?

At peace: Army commandos contingent marches at Rajpath during the full dress rehearsal for the upcoming Republic Day Parade. PTI
Here’s a puzzle: when was the last time the Indian subcontinent saw two very large armies fight on it for more than a year, causing massive devastation? Believe it or not it was 200 years ago. More accurately, 202 years ago, in 1818. 

On the one side was the Indian-manned army of the East India Company. On the other was the mighty Maratha army. 

The Marathas lost and from then till 1860 a bankrupt English private company became the sovereign power. In 1860 sovereignty passed to the British crown. 

In between there was the first Afghan war between 1839-42. But that was hardly the Indian subcontinent. 

In contrast, America had its civil war in the mid-1860s. More than 500,000 men fought each other. Europe, of course, is on a different scale altogether. In these 200 years it has seen more than over 50 million men fight each other in a series of wars. 

China was an exception until the mid-1930s when the Japanese invasion disturbed the long peace. Throughout the 1940s there was a civil was between the Mao Zedong led communists and the government. 

In the early 1950s the Korean Peninsula saw a war between two large armies. In the 1960s there was the war in Vietnam. Since the 1990s the war zone has shifted to west Asia. 

It is a quibble to say the Indian subcontinent has seen wars: in 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999. In comparison to the others, these were mere skirmishes. None lasted more than 70 days and they were fought in a limited area with only a fraction of the respective armies fighting. 

This great Indian peace is unique. No other well-populated continent has managed to avoid wars between two or more large armies for such a long period. It is an extraordinary feat. 

However, that’s where the good news stops. The bad news is that while every country mentioned above has done extremely well in terms of economic and social progress, the Indian subcontinent hasn’t. In other words, there has been virtually no peace dividend or very little.  

This is something that needs further analysis to see why the subcontinent hasn’t been able to put peace, especially after 1947 when the British left, to greater use. 

It’s not just India that has failed to do so. Pakistan is now a basket case. Bangladesh is just beginning to use peace properly, as is Sri Lanka. Bhutan is too small and Nepal has nothing much going in its favour.

I have a tentative answer to this puzzle that while peace is necessary, it is not sufficient. Along with it you need to get your economic and political arrangements right. 

India has got its political arrangements right but not its economic ones. It has political freedom but not economic.

Pakistan has got its political arrangements absolutely wrong—military domination—but it’s economic system is better than India’s, overall.

Bangladesh is getting both arrangements right, as is Sri Lanka but Nepal and Afghanistan have got neither right. And Bhutan is simply too tiny to draw conclusions from or about. 

The other question that needs answering is why countries that have seen huge devastation seen such rapid economic and social progress. Since hugely devastating wars cannot be a precondition to economic growth, what explains the difference?

It would be a useful exercise because we are talking of nearly two billion people who have been left behind despite the prolonged peace their countries have enjoyed.




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