October 13, 2023
NEW DELHI – One geopolitical phenomenon that has kept repeating during recent history is the separation of a country into multiple smaller countries, mainly for political or religious reasons.
The examples that come to mind are:
a) separation of British India into India and Pakistan and subsequent cessation of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh;
b) separation of Germany into West and East Germany;
c) Separation of Vietnam into North and South Vietnam;
d) separation of Korea into North and South Korea;
e) breakup of Yugoslavia into seven different countries; f ) breakup of USSR into fifteen republics;
g) creation of Israel by separating it from Palestine;
h) the expansion of the USA after the 1848 US-Mexico War by incorporating many states that belonged to Mexico. Germany and Vietnam have subsequently reunited.
If we look for hotspots in this world where military conflicts and other disturbances have been going on for years, they are precisely in those regions where territories were split. It seems that dividing a region did not end the conflicts; mutual hatred continued. These countries spend enormous amounts of money to protect themselves from their neighbours who are just like them, and the general population crave the good old days.
A reunification might offer an opportunity to find the root causes of conflicts and alternative ways to settle differences. It is like a couple divorcing after years of heated arguments but still bickering afterwards and perhaps regretting the decision. They should reconcile and think through their situation with cool heads.
When two neighbouring nations share a common language, history, culture, physical appearance, and emotional frame of mind it does not make sense to keep them separated. Leaders who initiate these breakups are motivated by political power and belief that they can take better care of their people based on their ideology. It is inevitable that there will always be an emotional hankering for reunification.
Let us look at some specific situations. Let me start with the India-Pakistan conflicts. There were three full-scale India-Pakistan military conflicts with huge casualties in my lifetime; the first one in 1947-48, the second in 1965 and the third in 1971. The first two were over Jammu and Kashmir and the third one was the “liberation war” to free Bangladesh from Pakistan.
I have been biased from childhood with an anti-Pakistani sentiment based on horror stories from my parents, both of whom were originally from East Bengal (Pakistan), about the torture and looting by the Pakistani Muslims. However, I never understood why there have been no subsequent serious efforts by any political group to reunify the countries.
Frankly, I am tired of reports of endless military skirmishes between the two countries and gleeful opinion pieces in newspapers describing the demise of Pakistan. I look like any Pakistani and have utmost admiration for Pakistanis like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, Hanif Mohammad, Abdus Salam and Malala Yousefzai just to name a few and have been mesmerized by the beauty of Pakistani actresses. I feel for Pakistanis during natural disasters like floods or eco- nomic hardship. I personally met Benazir Bhutto and admired her.
I bet that if the India-Pakistan border were to disappear, a seamless reunification would occur just by migration of people. There will be no further need to fight over Kashmir. If India can exist more than 75 years as a secular country, so can the combined country.
I will even vote for an “Akhand Bharat” concept which unifies not just India and Pakistan but also Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan together. Bangladeshis may not like Pakistanis but would love to reunite with Bengalis from West Bengal.
Similarly, Afghans will find many commonalities with Pakistanis and Sri Lankans with South Indians. Although the USA and Mexico have not fought in recent years over the border, illegal immigration of Mexicans across the southern border of the US has reached a crisis level in recent years. It is not just the inflow of migrants but also drugs, crimes and human trafficking that is burdening the social, legal and criminal systems in the US.
One unlikely solution is to unify the US and Mexico into one country.
Then the border disappears and so do all the border-related problems and expenses. Mexico has a rich culture and compliments the USA in almost everything that the latter needs to import including natural gas, minerals, agricultural products and labour
I will call this a reunification because a large chunk of the US including the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and Utah were part of Mexico before the US-Mexico war of 1848. Mexico is the most popular destination for Americans living outside the US and Mexican food is very popular in the US. Mexico has abundant lands that can be improved for both residential and commercial purposes.
The Korean people in both North and South Korea crave a reunification and the combined Korea will be a major force both militarily and eco- nomically. However, this is a pipe dream if a ruthless and unpredictable person like Kim Jong Un is in power.
Yugoslavia went through many internal wars before it started to break up and the final territorial boundaries were not determined until many years later. However, there is a strong grassroot “Yugonostalgia” across the region and especially among people who migrated to other countries before the division. Most believe reunification is certainly possible, but it must be initiated and led by external forces such as NATO.
The collapse of the USSR was an implosion resulting from ethnic con- flicts. The USSR was probably too large to sustain its existence as a sovereign country. Out of the resulting fifteen republics, some have chosen to maintain close ties with Russia while others prefer to be associated with the European Union.
If the USSR had not split, the current Ukrainian war and all the associated consequences including disruption of global supply chains would not have happened, not to mention hundreds of thousands of people getting killed. While a complete reunification is highly unlikely, a partial reunification where some countries join hands under communist rule and others join the EU and NATO is not out of the question.
The case of Israel and Palestine is different and more complex. Techni- cally, Palestine is not a separate country, and the entire Israel-Palestine region is controlled by Israel. However, deeply rooted differences and mutual hatred between the Arabs and Jews have prevented the region from becoming a peaceful democratic nation. The current war between Israel and Hamas is likely to lead Israel to impose stricter military controls to create such a nation and ensure an end to meaningless bloodshed.
Reunification of Germany and Vietnam has proven that reunification of divided countries is not only possible, but people also live happier and more prosperous lives.
It is easy for me to advocate reunification, but it is more difficult than division. The German reunification was achieved through a peaceful revolution and negotiation with international support as well as a substantial money transaction from Germany to the Soviets. The Vietnam reunification came after a decade of brutal warfare and only after the US realized that it was an unwinnable war.
Nixon’s peace overture to China and the USSR and dissolution of the militant Viet Cong group paved the way for reunification.
Reunification will not happen from diplomatic discussions because the existing political leaders have most to lose in terms of their power in such actions. It will only happen by either military involvement where one country simply takes over another or massive demonstrations by people mobilized by charismatic leaders.
(The writer, a physicist who worked in industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)