Of all the legacies the British Empire left behind in South Asia nothing may have such a lasting impact as the arbitrary borders they drew on maps during their two centuries of colonisation. These troubled borders have divided communities, united disparate groups, and forever spelt trouble for all the countries in the region. India seems to be carrying the heaviest burden of the white man's whims in South Asia, the brutal killing of two of its soldiers along the Line of Control being the latest example of it.
Not just Pakistan, those strokes across maps have been a key factor for wars or tension between India and China, Bangladesh and India, Pakistan and Afghanistan etc. Along the India-China border world's biggest conventional military build-up is quietly happening, while the Pakistan-India borders remain perpetually tense, and occasionally turn into conflict zones.
Between Afghanistan and Pakistan the unifying aspects of a single religion pale before the troubles brought about by Durand Line, the 2,640-km border between the two countries that cuts through Pashtun land. Named after the then foreign secretary of undivided India Henry Mortimer Durand , the boundary was the product of negotiations between British Empire and the Afghan ruler Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, with scant regard for the fact that they were cutting through Pashtun territories and splitting tribes. In the Amir's defence, some say the single-page agreement that he signed was in English, a language he could neither read nor write. The process of physically transferring the frontier line on the ground was quite complex and very brutal, given the fact that one line can translate into a four-mile stretch on the ground. And with its many topographical errors, it is a challenge that continues to haunt the region. Pashtun people remain divided, and Pakistan and Afghanistan remain locked in the dispute.
India's security fortunes are intrinsically linked to the fate of the porous Durand Line since the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a dramatic impact on India for decades. At the height of the Cold War this porous border was exploited by the US and Pakistan to supply arms to the mujahideen ag ainst Soviets, it created the template for the armed Kashmir insurgency that would begin in the late 80s. In the 90s, this porous border helped Pakistan to create Taliban , effectively ending India's influence in Kabul.
The latest round of ceasefire violations, the beheading of Indian soldier and the resultant escalation of tension between the two sides is only the latest in a series of angry stand-offs between India and Pakistan that draw its genesis mostly on the haphazard way the British drew up boundaries of the two nations.
Though the Line of Control itself is not a British product, its boundaries of Kashmir have hugely contributed to the tension over the region between India, Pakistan and China. While China occupies Aksai Chin, India stakes claim to it. Both have different maps prepared by British to validate their claims. China also occupies the trans-Karakoram tract, gifted to it by Pakistan in 1963. By Indian claims that too is part of undivided Jammu and Kashmir which belongs to India.
The story is not very different in the northeast, where most of the 4,057-kilometer Line of Actual Control exists. The McMahon Line — named after Henry McMahon, yet another foreign secretary of the government of India whose name has been given to a boundary — was drawn up in 1914 between the British Empire and Tibet. China, which was not represented at the Simla conference, doesn't recognise this boundary officially, though most parts of it are now the de facto Line of Actual Control.
Along the Line of Actual Control, as two of the world's fastest economies grow in a quick pace their military preparedness is also scaling up. Today, this border is witnessing an unusual military build-up , which is visible nowhere else in the world. The temporary peace of the border is not a guarantee of perpetual peace for the future.
The curse of the British-drawn boundaries is most visible in the continuing bitterness between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most of their borders were drawn in a matter of few weeks by a man who had never been to the region until then. Sir Cyril Radcliffe chaired the border commissions that drew lines over maps hastily to create India and Pakistan, which later also gave birth to Bangladesh, and decided destinies of their people. These boundaries , in many instances, were haphazard and occasionally cut through villages , and all three countries continue to live through the complications thrown up by Radcliffe's lines.
Burying the past
The latest round of tension along the LoC between India and Pakistan raises a very troubling question. Do the south Asian countries have the political willpower to free themselves from the tyrannies of British boundaries to create a more peaceful future? How much more time and how many more lives will be necessary to create a political consensus across the region to readjust boundaries, make compromises and divert their energies away from the continuing militarisation of their boundaries.