Center for Strategic Communication

 Patricia Lee Sharpe

With its unsettled population facing East and West a la Dr. Doolittle’s pushmipullyu, how’s one to predict what’s going to happen in Ukraine over the next few weeks? Will Ukranian and Russian speakers find a way to cooperate within existing borders? Will the country disintegrate? Will it descend into civil war? Will it find constitutional coherence by way of federalism? Will an emergent authoritarian type try to hold it together by force? Will Russia respect Ukraine’s sovereignty over all its territory, including the Crimea? Will the West accept a Georgia-style Russian intervention? Will Europe or Russia come up with the best financial bid (aka bribe) for Ukraine’s loyalty?

But Ukraine isn’t the only country in the world crosscut by sharp linguistic, religious, historic and/or cultural differences. Czechoslovakia—a rare case, admittedly—managed an amicable divorce into two independent countries. On the other end of the spectrum, when India became independent in 1947 and its founders built a federal system with 14 states, “expert” observers and “respected” analysts predicted the country would never hold together. 

Indeed, serious separatist threats did occur over the years. Yet the India-hands proved wrong. India did not fall apart, developing instead a repeatedly successful solution to its fissiparous (a favorite Indian word in the early days) tendencies. Result: India is about to acquire its 29th state.

After years of argument and agitation, Andhra Pradesh is being divided into land-locked Telangana and coastal, rice-growing Seemandra. They will share the greatly contested capital Hyderabad for at least ten years. And, by the way, Telegu-speaking Andhra Pradesh itself was once part of the hulking original state of Madras, whose Tamil-speaking remainder is now called Tamilnadu. And so on.

There’s even a precedent for capital-sharing in India. When politics in the original, post-partition state of Punjab (already divided between India and Pakistan, to Pakistan’s never-ending disgust) got so hot that a Sikh movement had turned terrorist in order to achieve a separate country, New Delhi sliced Punjab in two, a Sikh majority Punjab state and a largely Hindu Haryana. Chandigarh, the capital of the old single state, famous for having been designed by the French architect Le Corbusier, remains the capital of both new states.

Other examples of state-splitting to keep India whole? The British-run Bombay presidency became the Indian state of Bombay, but its two major linguistic groups were not happily wed. After much debate over the danger of setting a precedent for states based on linguistic identity, Delhi split Bombay into Gujarat, with a capital in Ahmedabad, and Maharashtra. The city of Bombay, now known as Mumbai, went to the latter. These days, no one argues that the decision was a mistake.

Plus—well, you get the point. It took many more political divorces to turn 14 into 29.

Given all the above, it is perhaps not surprising that India has always been ready to split Kashmir down the Line of Control. The West, more or less, would go to Pakistan. The East, roughly speaking, would go to India, which would give India a state with a whopping Muslim majority, especially after the ethnic cleansing that drove most of the Kashmiri pandits out of the Jammu area. Pakistan thinks a Muslim majority state in India would be an aberration, even though India has nearly as many (if not more) Muslims all told than Pakistan. Anyway why not a Muslim state? Punjab was bifurcated to make the Sikhs happy.

This half-a-loaf solution to the long festering dispute between India and Pakistan has never appealed to Pakistan, mostly because Islamabad has always believed it would win a referendum for total control (if the choice didn’t include an option for Kashmiri independence), whereas India would happily settle for the part it already controls, a part which, admittedly contains the plums: the fabled vale of Kashmir, the capital Shrinigar, Dal lake with its houseboats and flower market, the pilgrimage/resort sites in Pahalgam, the famous Shalimar gardens.

So, yes, Ukraine has a problem. Its two halves don’t get along very well, but the nation-building toolkit holds many ways of decentralizing and federalizing to make everyone happy without splitting up a country. The problem for Ukraine—aside from that pesky Russian naval base at Sevastapol—is that Vladimir Putin really wants an old-style Soviet satellite, not a cooperative neighbor on equally good terms with Europe. Even if Ukrainians themselves were able to find a federalist solution to their mutual lack of trust, Russia might still apply a bear hug powerful enough to stifle any reformulated polity.

And yet, the bottom line is this: India has maintained its territorial integrity because, at base, that’s what nearly all Indians want. Can one say the same of Ukraine?  I don’t see it, at the moment.