Stephen Cohen's The South Asia Papers

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 22.02.17

India’s future is hopeful whereas Pakistan’s future is perilous. This is the central idea of
Stephen Philip Cohen’s book,
The South Asia Papers: a critical anthology of writings,
published by Harper Collins Publishers India in 2016. Cohen became the only first full-time
South Asia specialist at a Washington think tank in 1998. This opinion piece intends to
discuss Cohen’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

Despite having educational background in political science, Cohen declares himself a
historian-turned-commentator: from studying the Raj’s military history and “Hindoostan” to
commenting on South Asia. The switch was less because of his expertise on South Asia
and more because of the dearth of political commentators on South Asian affairs. The book
lays bare the way the switch shackles Cohen.

Cohen claims that his journey to South Asia was to find answers to two questions, as
mentioned on pages 2 and 3: “How do states manage their armed forces, rather than being
managed by them? … [and] How did a poor state manage its international politics?” Here,
Cohen addresses to Pakistan without mentioning its name. To extend this idea further,
Cohen writes on page 305: “Pakistan inherited the Raj’s military-dominant side, while India
inherited the civilian-dominant pattern.” Here, Cohen overlooks two points. First, it was India
that instilled insecurity in Pakistan by denying Pakistan its due share after partition under
the ruse that the financial share would be used against India after Pakistan got stronger
militarily. In fact, the formula of division of assets was not contingent upon any such
presumptive condition. Second, the bureaucracy Pakistan inherited was stronger than the
military. It was a civil servant from the Audit and Accounts department, Malik Ghulam
Muhammad, who, in the capacity of the third Governor General of Pakistan (October 1951-
August 1955) sacked Pakistan’s second and third prime ministers, Khwaja Nazimuddin in
April 1953 and Muhammad Ali Bogra in October 1954. The latter was sent home by
dissolving Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly (August 1947 – October 1954), when the
Assembly curtailed the assembly dissolving powers of the Governor General. By doing the
first intervention in the political affairs, Malik Muhammad heralded the possibilities for
introducing a martial law through the doctrine of necessity, sacking elected assemblies and
weakening the institution of the prime minister, under one subterfuge or the other.

Cohen thinks that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, multi-ethnicity offers a major
challenge to the integrity of a state. Cohen writes on pages 151 and 152: “With separatist
movements cropping up throughout the Middle East, Southern and Central Asia, and parts
of Europe [in 1992], it is important to understand that … the crisis of the multiethnic state,
not the disappearance of communism, will be the most profound political event of our
generation.” Here, Cohen overlooks the fact that multi-ethnicity was extant before the Cold
War, even during the colonial era. Apparently, Cohen has tried to equate ethnicity with
political distinctiveness, which is not the case. Even the former Soviet Union was not a multi-
ethnic state that faltered; instead, whether a component state was ethnic or not, the Union
was just multi-state in nature the disappearance of which made ethnic minorities wary of
their survival and conscious of their identities. The co-habitation of ethnic minorities shoves
them into taking refuge in Western-style democracy that also caters to their psychological
need for the projection of their otherwise suppressed identities. The same is true for South
Asian countries. In Pakistan, not only the idea of democracy but also the idea of federation
keep ethnic minorities mollified.

Cohen also claims to have been US trained in arms control and the logic of nuclear
deterrence. Cohen writes on page 255: “[I]t has been argued that even the suspicion of
[nuclear] escalation might lead to a nuclear strike, presumably by the weaker or more
vulnerable of the two countries (in this case, Pakistan) since it would not want to risk having
its small nuclear forces destroyed in an Indian preemptive attack.” Here, Cohen is oblivious
of the fact that, in the 1990s, Pakistan remained infatuated with the idea of having a
strategic depth in Afghanistan. The obsession had two implications. First, the strategic
depth embodied the second nuclear strike possibility, thereby meaning that Pakistan’s
preference was not using the first nuclear strike against India. Second, the strategic depth
ruled out the suspicion factor from nuclear escalation, thereby meaning that Pakistan toned
down its nuclear initiative unilaterally. Now, Pakistan has achieved the maritime strategic
depth, though less feasible than its predecessor.

About Kashmir, Cohen writes on page 258: “Ironically, we can now [in 1995] see that
Kashmir was less a Cold War problem than some in the region had thought.” Here, Cohen
does not give any reference who told him that Kashmir was a Cold War problem. In fact, the
Cold War papered over the problem of Kashmir and let it fester. On page 264, Cohen
writes: “Nowhere in the Constitution of India does the term federal appear. But …India
already has a hierarchy of federalism, with some Union territories directly ruled from Delhi,
and with some variation in the nature of the Indian states. Kashmir itself is the biggest
variation; it has its own constitutional status in the form of Article 370.” Here, Cohen has
failed to appreciate the paradox in India’s relations with Kashmir. That is, on the one hand,
India offers its part of Kashmir a special status through Article 370, guaranteeing autonomy
and self-rule while, on the other hand, India deals with its part of Kashmir as one of the
“disturbed areas” to be handled by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1990,
empowering the Indian forces (both army and police) to shoot and kill anyone with impunity
on mere suspicion.

Cohen writes on page 287: “2016: I would now say that formal alliance [of the US] with
either [India or Pakistan] is unlikely, but that engagement or partnership on specific issues
is happening despite each state [India or Pakistan] regarding the other as a prime threat.”
Here, Cohen has shied away from stating the future role of India in South China Sea as a
strategic partner of the US, besides the repercussions of that role once the US decides to
minimize its presence in the sea. Though Pakistan may be helpful in the western flank of
South Asia and India may be helpful in the eastern flank of South Asia, the strategic
partnership of either India or Pakistan with the US is not without cost, both explicit and

In short, the book exposes ignorance of Cohen towards South Asian politics, especially
related to Pakistan, besides flaws in his analysis.

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