Terminus For Lasting Peace

From the Roman god of boundaries, lessons in solving border disputes.

A terminus reminds us these days of a bus service, but the word has a slightly more glorious ancestry. Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries. His shrine could never be moved.

The Romans knew something about stability.

India has six land boundaries, in three dimensions. The Tibet/China frontier was drawn on the shifting sands of colonial reach. China’s invasion in 1962 moved some stones, but long-term consequences have been more mature than sceptics imagined. In 1988 India and China, recognising that it is too dangerous for Asia’s pivot powers to raise confrontation to conflict, signed a pact to ensure “peace and stability” along the Himalayan line of danger. Despite the periodic politics of provocation, not a single shot has been fired in anger for 36 years. Since then, both countries have set a course for economic development as their first priority. War and prosperity do not mix.

India and China have established “stable instability” on their border. It is not ideal, but better than any alternative.

Pakistan, in contrast, chose relentless war against India as its only option, with the result that the border is either electric with tension or toxic with terrorism. In retrospect, it is almost unbelievable that the very first decision made by the Karachi government in 1947 was to go to war over Kashmir despite the fact that a peaceful resolution of this state was on India’s and Britain’s agenda and talks were meant to begin in the spring of 1948. But Pakistan’s genetic obsession with war was undeterred by the chaos of mutilated birth, an infirm government structure, a tenuous treasury and a volatile refugee crisis. That spirit of crude hostility now finds expression even in a hockey game.

The confrontation over Kashmir is not about geography but ideology. For Indians, Kashmir is an integral part of their country because India belongs equally to every faith. Pakistan is a nation fashioned out of a faith-supremacy theory. It demands Kashmir because Pakistan is the first Islamic state in the post-colonial dispensation (Taliban Afghanistan was the second; ISIS in the Levant is the third). The ceasefire line is a misnomer; war has paused but never stopped.

Bangladesh was once, demographically, 52 per cent of Pakistan. In 1971, Bengalis rejected religion as a basis of nationalism, and turned to language as the basis of political identity. And so Bangladesh’s national anthem is written by Rabindranath Tagore. If Bangladesh had still been the eastern wing of Pakistan, theocratic terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, with active assistance from military authorities, would have sought to expand “Islamic space” in both Assam and West Bengal. Instead, today, Delhi and Dhaka cooperate on terrorism.

Burma, strangely, has become a distant neighbour, despite the fact that there is minimal acrimony over border claims. The one serious problem has been sanctuaries in Burma for northeast militants, but that is an insufficient explanation. For a long while, Delhi treated our North-east as remote; Burma was one remove further from remote. Psychological neglect bred diplomatic indifference. But we are on the cusp of significant change. As North-east youth find jobs across their country, alienation has reduced. And as relations with Bangladesh improve, the whole region from Bengal to Burma is poised for economic harmony.

You can judge the quality of any neighbourhood by checking the strength of fences; whether they are absent, notional or virulent. India, Nepal and Bhutan have few fences, either in a physical or regulatory sense. This is the confidence of nations not only at peace with one another, but also at peace with themselves. Nor should one imagine that the story from Bangladesh is very grim. The Indian mission in Dhaka issues the largest number of visas.


Peace does not mean absence of disputes. There were, if you recall, one or two problems even in paradise. But peace does mean that differences can be resolved through discourse. This is what India and Bangladesh have done over the land dispute on the eastern border. India and Sri Lanka continue to find a way out of problems through engagement. Sri Lanka is Buddhist; Bangladesh is Muslim; Nepal is Hindu: India is in step with all three. The trouble with Pakistan is not that it is a Muslim country but that it has become a terrorist sanctuary.

Each year on February 23, Romans honoured their god Terminus with a celebration. That might be a very good day for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangla counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, to sign the agreement that will end a dispute that began in 1947. Once there is demarcation, and a line drawn where none exists, Terminus will not be moved.

When Terminus is stable, the dividend is high. Investment discovers confidence; the economy acquires a growth engine. The sun just might begin to rise from the east again.



MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar is Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt of India, apart from being the editor of The Sunday Guardian (published in Delhi, India, on Sundays). He was the Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.