Water wars.


Byline: F.S. Aijazuddin

THE pins have been removed from live grenades held by both India and Pakistan. Only experts know when they will explode. None of us innocents knows where.

The spectre of war has remained a permanent resident in the subcontinent since 1947. It has bunkered itself so deep in our sub-consciousness that now confrontation comes more naturally to us than conciliation, argument before agreement.

On both sides of the border that connects Himalayan heights to Sindh's shores, jingoists demand armed conflict while peaceniks want an 'uninterrupted, uninterruptible' dialogue. Both are unaware that national belligerence and pacifism are in fact conditioned by topography.

Roads can be halted at the border, but who owns flowing water?

The Westphalian concept of nation states is tested whenever territorial boundaries have to contend with nature. Who owns a mountain that straddles an international border? Who owns a river that flows through one or more countries? Who has the right to use that water, and more vexatiously, should one upper riparian country have the power of denial over a lower riparian one?

In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe did not apply his mind to such niggling questions. So when Viceroy Mountbatten suggested he should continue as governor general of both India and Pakistan as a conciliator, Quaid-i-Azam refused. He did not want Mountbatten acting the guilt-ridden surgeon, offering to rectify a botched amputation. Mountbatten did remain in New Delhi as India's G-G until June 1948, but he did little to prevent sores from festering contentious issues such as Hyderabad, Jammu and Kashmir, Junagadh, and most critically, the ownership and the use of the waters of the Punjab.

Within two years of Independence of each other, the new countries came near to blows over water. Our foreign minister, Chaudhry Zafrulla, warned India that any 'diminution in that flow or even a threat of interruption would have the effect of converting millions of acres of fertile lands into arid wastes'. Pakistan, he hinted, would be prepared to go to war to protect its right to water.

A recent scholar Daniel Haines in his book Indus Divided (2017) has drawn a distinction between sovereign territory and sovereignty over resources that pass through that territory. Roads and railways can be halted at the border, but who owns flowing water? It recognises no check-post or customs barriers, only dams and canals.

It took India and Pakistan 13 years of raucous...

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