The Cold War history of South Asia is a story of incompleteness. Bitter grievances have been fought over with no decisive result, and enormous human and natural resources remain largely untapped. The Indian subcontinent did not prove to be as volcanic a juncture between the Eastern and Western blocs as, say, neighboring Southeast Asia, but the vacuum of power left by the retreating British attracted at various times the attentions of the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Soviet Union, all of which vied unsuccessfully to secure a monopoly of influence.
The partition of the British Raj remains the starting point for any discussion of modern South Asia. Contrary to popular assumption, the British were never enthusiastic about the breakup of their Indian empire—divide and conquer played no part in British calculations in 1947. On the contrary, Prime Minister Clement Attlee's Labour government wanted a strong and united postcolonial India that (so it believed at the time) could still serve British interests through informal Commonwealth ties. But this preference for unity was less important than a bloodless exit from the theater. After it became clear that India's Islamic minority, led by Mohamed Ali Jinnah's Muslim League, would not accept a single-state solution without violence, British Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten resigned himself to partition.
In fact, Attlee's secretary of state for India, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, had come close to brokering a one-India solution in 1946. His proposal for a three-tier federal state received tentative consent from Jinnah (whose cautious pragmatism is mostly forgotten today) and the Hindu-dominated Congress Party, but the plan was scotched when Congress's President Jawaharlal Nehru made a public statement appearing to renounce Pethick-Lawrence's constitutional assumptions. The result was a wave of sectarian bloodshed that left cross-party cooperation impossible. It must be said that even the most conciliatory behavior by Jinnah and Nehru would have still left unsolved the problem of India's large and restless Sikh population, which had separatist ambitions unaddressed by the Pethick-Lawrence plan. Partition may have been a historical inevitability, at least by the end of World War II.
The ethnic cleansing of the India-Pakistan frontier following independence in August 1947 was the legacy of this political failure, a South Asian trauma that had vast psychological as well as material consequences for the future of the region. At least 1 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims died in what can only be described as spontaneous cross-border genocide. Between 10 million and 15 million more found themselves unwelcome foreigners in a state now hostile to their faith and were forced into permanent exile.
The inhumane exchange of population did not resolve the problem of religious minorities for either of the new nations, for 40 million Muslims still remained in India, and 10 million Hindus remained in Pakistan. Nor did it provide for a stable or mutually acknowledged border. The new Pakistani state was strung awkwardly across India's northern perimeter, with roughly equal numbers to east and west. This arrangement would ultimately prove untenable. And a number of the historic princely states with populations of mixed confession were hard to incorporate into the partition. Among these, Kashmir proved so intractable a problem that it set off a series of informal Wars of the British Succession among India, Pakistan, and, to a lesser degree, China.
The postcolonial order proved unsatisfactory to a number of South Asian constituencies who believed that they were inadequately represented by the terms of 1947. India's untidy internal borders, a legacy of the ad hoc development of British imperial rule, were reorganized several times from the 1950s onward to try to appease the particularistic claims of language groups. Thus, the old province of Madras was broken up into Tamil and Telugu districts, and Bombay was partitioned between Marathi and Gujarati speakers. These reforms were, however, straightforward compared to the problem of postindependence Punjab and its Sikh minority. The traditional province of Punjab was carved up in the partition, and its namesake successor within post-1947 India went through a number of contortions before an agreeable all-Punjabi speaking unit was demarcated in 1966. But this concession failed to assuage the passions of secessionist Sikh radicals of the Shiromani Akali Dal Party, who sought the establishment of a free Khalistan state and, from the early 1980s onward, demonstrated an increasing willingness to use terrorist methods of political persuasion. The violent occupation of the Golden Temple of Amritsar by Sikh zealots in 1984 and the equally ferocious counterresponse by the Indian Army not only led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that same year but also brought a round of depressingly familiar retaliatory pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi.
Independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972) was dogged by internecine conflict on a similar model, making stable postcolonial rule just as difficult. The genteel paternalism of the country's first Westernized elite was rejected after 1956, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party achieved parliamentary power, and its strident peasant-based Sinhalese nationalism became the characteristic motif of Ceylon's politics. Educational and religious laws brazenly favoring the Sinhalese language, culture, and Buddhist faith alienated the Tamil minority, leading to the vicious response of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the 1970s. The Tamil Tigers seized de facto control of much of the island's forested northern and eastern regions, but their success eventually triggered intervention by the Indian government, which with a large and politically turbulent Tamil community of its own had no desire to see Sri Lanka's civil war spill across the Laccadive Sea.
India's three-year military expedition to the wartorn LTTE homeland, beginning in 1987, was an attempt to enforce a shaky peace deal that ultimately failed. The price that India paid for its interference was the murder of Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv (prime minister during 1984–1989) by Tamil extremists, continuing the subcontinent's wretched tradition of political assassination.
Perhaps the best illustration of the irreducible nature of the problem is Bangladesh. The former East Pakistan emerged as a breakaway region seeking autonomy from its distant and imperious central government, but after independence in 1971, its own army engaged in sporadic campaigns across the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts, trying to suppress Buddhist tribes who themselves objected to Dhaka's over-bearing style.
The subcontinent's internal disputes did not, of course, go unnoticed by the Cold War powers. The Soviet Union inherited from tsarist Russia a desire to break out of its landlocked Central Asian hinterland and expand its influence southward, a continuation of the Victorian era's Great Game. For its part, the United States had no desire to allow for a Soviet presence on the shores of the Indian Ocean, which would threaten Western lines of communication to the oil-rich Middle East. India, by far the largest and most populous state, was the key to regional hegemony, but neither side was able to secure its patronage for long, partly because successive Indian governments were able to play one side against another and partly because of the vague but cyclical appeal in New Delhi of the so-called Asian Resurgence, by which India, perhaps in partnership with the PRC, would reject the bipolarity of the Cold War and forge a third way.
Nehru, who acted as his own foreign minister during his premiership (1947–1964), brought the moral glamour of his long anticolonial career to the conference table and was something of a diplomatic celebrity during the first decade of India's independence. His commitment to self-determination and nonalignment policies had a fashionable cachet in the 1950s, encapsulated in the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" drawn up with the PRC in 1954 and later the foundation of the Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement. However, Nehru's high-mindedness was called into question when his government publicly supported the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956, a decision that cynics not unreasonably connected to the contemporaneous expansion of Soviet development aid to India.
Pakistan, meanwhile, smarting from the disappointing result of the First Kashmir War, sought and received military and economic support from Great Britain and the United States. It confirmed this Western tilt with founding memberships in the Manila Pact (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO) in 1954 and the Anglo-Iranian Middle East Treaty Organization (later the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO) the following year.
The dream of Sino-Indian fraternal leadership in Asia was abruptly brought to an end in 1962 when Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army (PLA) hammered Indian border positions in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin at the Himalayan extremes of their long and imperfectly mapped frontier. Tensions with China had been more or less inevitable since 1950, when the traditional buffer region of Tibet was swallowed up by the PRC, but India's military drubbing that year and its reliance on hastily deployed American and British armaments was a stark reminder that rhetorical disengagement from the Cold War and pious appeals to nonviolence could not guarantee national security. The Sino-Indian War brought about a regional shift in allegiances. The PRC made successful approaches to Pakistan (which still enjoyed Western support), while India took advantage of the split within the international communist movement to forge closer ties with the Soviet Union. The second round of major Indo-Pakistani fighting in 1965 underwrote this diplomatic realignment but bogged down in stalemate, with both sides having to rely on the bittersweet consolation that their opposition's war effort had been as badly managed as their own.
Until 1971 the balance of power in South Asia was still roughly divided between India and Pakistan, despite the large differences in size and population between the two. But the successful Bengali revolt that year and Pakistan's clear defeat by Indian forces in the field demonstrated the latter's resurgence under the virtuoso leadership of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. India's victory in 1971 was far more than military, for Pakistan's genocidal atrocities in Bangladesh had been so embarrassing to the West that Britain and France had broken ranks with President Richard Nixon's administration in supporting their habitual ally in the region. Gandhi meanwhile secured a twenty-year Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's regime that provided conventional Warsaw Pact hardware as well as the technical support to launch an independent nuclear weapons program. The underground detonation of India's first atomic bomb in 1974 was the confirmation, if anyone still needed it, that India was now the preeminent power in the subcontinent. As the rapport between New Delhi and Moscow continued to improve throughout the 1970s and as Pakistan languished in despotic chaos, it looked as though the West had backed the wrong horse in South Asia.
The Soviet Union's temporary advantage was squandered, however, by its ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which uselessly soaked up prestige and resources. The war placed South Asia in the front line of the Cold War for the first time and proved particularly important for Pakistan, which the United States viewed as a vital logistical support base for anti-Soviet Afghani insurgents. The Afghan conflict proved at best a mixed blessing for the Islamabad regime, which was also under pressure from neighboring Iranian fundamentalists after the 1979 revolution. The United States poured arms and money into the country, but the influx of Afghan refugees and mujahideen guerrilla fighters in its northern provinces placed social and economic strains on an already fragile state. At the same time, Indira Gandhi's 1984 assassination and the political emergence of her much less Russophile son Rajiv opened the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and India. The younger Gandhi was unenthused by India's traditional socialist practices and sought American ideas and capital to reinvigorate his country's economy in the computer age.
The weakening of India's entente with the Soviet Union also led to some improvement in its relationship with the PRC. While little concrete progress was made on the serious disputes over the Line of Actual Control along the Himalayan border or the ongoing occupation of Tibet (the Dalai Lama had operated a government-in-exile in Dharamsala since 1959), there was at least some symbolic economic and technological assistance, and the Chinese took a less emphatically pro-Pakistani line at the conference table. The creation of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 was a welcome cross-border initiative that proposed cooperative efforts to tackle the region's social and environmental problems—overpopulation, poverty, rural and urban squalor, and illiteracy—but a dialogue could only begin by avoiding any mention of ongoing political differences. Indeed, the Cold War ended without any major breakthroughs in key South Asian diplomatic problems. Kashmir, for instance, remained as much an Indo-Pakistani flash point as it had been in 1947.
Britain's withdrawal after World War II left the Indian subcontinent's smaller states without their traditional patron. Nepal, one of the most isolated polities in the world, still lingered in a premodern atmosphere of court intrigue, its domestic affairs dominated by the rivalry between the Shah dynasty and a number of feuding noble houses. After the dominant Rana clan was deposed in 1950, the Crown reasserted its authority, and the country thereafter went through cycles of royal authoritarianism interspersed with failed experiments in constitutional government. The smaller Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim were left in an even more exposed position after the British retreat, particularly once the invasion of Tibet raised the specter of frontier conflict with the PRC. Both accepted Indian client status as they emerged unsteadily into the modern world, with Sikkim ultimately proving untenable as an independent nation and choosing complete absorption into its giant southern neighbor in 1975. Aside from feudal microstates of this type, the end of the Raj also left South Asia with a scattering of colonial anachronisms. Most significant were the so-called princely states that had never been formally administered by British India, Kashmir being the most notorious of these. Most of the others voluntarily became Indian provinces at independence, but the large landlocked kingdom of Hyderabad refused to cooperate despite the hopelessness of its position, and a year-long standoff ensued that ended only when India sent in troops in 1948.
There were also lingering remnants of European colonization, notably the French Indian territories on the Coromandel Coast and Portugal's old factory concession at Goa. The former were painlessly integrated into India proper in 1954. The latter resisted decolonization until 1961, when Indian forces again moved in and unilaterally annexed the territory—another move difficult to reconcile with Nehru's much-touted renunciation of political force.
Chaturvedi, Gyaneshwar. India-China Relations: 1947 to Present Day. Agra: M.G. Publishers, 1991.; Dixit, J. N. India-Pakistan in War and Peace. London: Routledge, 2002.; McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War on the Periphery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.; Naik, J. A. Russia's Policy towards India: From Stalin to Yeltsin. New Delhi: MD Publications, 1995.; Norton, James K. Global Studies: India and South Asia. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1993.