What if the British had divided Cyprus, like India?



Ishtiaq Ahmad  

After a long struggle against the British empire, which had many twists and turns along the way, the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. This led to the emergence of India and Pakistan as two separate states.  In the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, however, the British colonial administration opted for a different course: the establishment in 1960 of a Partnership Republic between the majority Greek and minority Turkish communities. But it collapsed within three years, as the Greek side refused to comply with its founding principle of political equality.

These contrasting solutions of Partition in British India and Partnership in Cyprus offer interesting parallels, in both pre-and post-colonial periods. India and Pakistan have evolved as independent states, though in different trajectories, in the past 76 years. The Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, on the other hand, have lived separately since the breakup of the Partnership Republic in 1963. This division has reinforced since the 1974 intervention by Turkiye in the island and the subsequent establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983.  

In the past half century, consistent international efforts have failed to amicably resolve the Cyprus conflict, which has reinforced the island’s division. The only aberration during this period is that the Greek side has monopolized the status of the Republic of Cyprus and solely enjoyed the fruits of EU membership since 2004. Despite this injustice, however, the TRNC continues to survive, with a functioning democratic state but under dire economic conditions.

The current division in Cyprus, with little prospect for a unified solution, begs the question as to why the British did not divide the island into two separate states along the lines of the preceding partition of India. To answer this question, let us review the run-up to the Partition of British India and its co-relation with the events that led to the establishment of the Partnership Republic in Cyprus.

To start with, British colonialism in both India and Cyprus was preceded by centuries of Muslim rule, including the Sultans/Mughals (1206-1858) and the Ottomans (1571-1878), respectively. The majority communities in both cases, the Hindus in India and the Greeks in Cyprus, were the subjects of the minority rule. The Orthodox Christian Greeks were the subjects before as well under the Catholic Venetians. The Ottomans, in fact, liberated them from centuries of religious persecution.

Like elsewhere, British colonialism thrived on divide and rule. In order to sustain its control over India and Cyprus, the colonial administration victimized the former minority rulers, the Turks, and favored the former majority subjects, the Greeks. This paved the way for Hindu revivalism in India and Greek Hellenism in Cyprus, which, in turn, contributed to the demise of the colonial rule.

The majority Greeks and Hindus turned against their benefactor, including in violent ways, even while the minority Indian Muslims and Turkish Cypriots sought a peaceful transition from the colonial rule. Having ruled for centuries, their respective demand for separate electorates and political equality in the post-colonial constitutional structures in India and Cyprus made perfect sense.

The Indian National Congress, instead, sought Hindu domination of Indian politics after the end of colonial rule, rejecting successive British offers to accommodate the Muslim demand for separate electorates. It even refused to accept the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan, which proposed a loose federation between the Hindu- and Muslim-majority states sharing foreign, defense and communication affairs. Consequently, the Indian Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah was left with no option but to translate the Pakistan Resolution of 1940 into action.

In Cyprus, the colonial administration was able to address the Turkish Cypriot demand for equal political and constitutional rights. The Zurich and London accords, which established the Republic of Cyprus, were deliberately structured to establish and maintain “a delicate but immutable equilibrium between the rights and interests” of the Greek and Turkish communities. The international agreements of Alliance and Guarantee helped accommodate another unique aspect of the Cyprus situation, which was absent in India’s case: that of the existence of two motherlands for the two Cypriot nations, Turkey and Greece, and their influence in Cyprus.

In addition to Great Britain, which was allowed to retain two sovereign military bases on the island under the Treaty of Establishment, Turkey and Greece became the security guarantors of Cyprus. However, despite such extensive political and security arrangements, the Republic collapsed within three years due to Greek Cypriot unwillingness to share power. The 13 amendments to the Constitution proposed by then-Greek Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios in 1963 sought to create a unitary state in Cyprus. In fact, the Greek Cypriot paramilitary, EOKA, had already waged a decade-long Hellenic campaign for uniting Cyprus with Greece against the colonial administration. Its successor, EOKA-B, continued this deadly mission against the Turkish Cypriot people until the 1974 Turkish intervention.

On the basis of above discussion, we can argue that it was the fear of Hindu domination that forced the Indian Muslim League to demand Pakistan as a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. On the other hand, the Partnership Republic collapsed due to the Hellenic ambition of Greek Cypriots for Enosis, the island’s union with motherland Greece.  

It is clear that the establishment of two separate republics for its Greek and Turkish communities right at the start could have prevented communal hostilities after the breakup of the Partnership Republic in 1963 and the perpetuation of the conflict over the last several decades. These two republics would have progressed smoothly with security guarantees provided by their respective motherlands, Greece and Turkey.

While the blame for the collapse of the Partnership Republic falls squarely on the shoulders of the Greek Cypriot leadership, the UK is also at least partly responsible for not doing enough afterwards. After all, as a former colonial power and guarantor state, it was legally and morally bound to intervene on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot minority to prevent inter-communal violence till 1974 and conflict resolution thereafter.

Why did the colonial administration not realize before withdrawing from Cyprus and establishing a federation there that the Greek side, with the paramilitary EOKA in its midst, would not allow the Turkish Cypriots to exercise their right of political equality in a federal republic? It was but natural for this precarious constitutional arrangement to collapse instantly, which it did in 1963.

However, since then, it seems the UK has been more interested in the survival of its two sovereign military bases in Cyprus than any political settlement of the issue. Perhaps, given the strategic location of the island and British interests in the Middle East, the political stalemate in Cyprus suits the UK, notwithstanding the gravity of its political and economic costs for the Turkish Cypriots. Meanwhile, the Greek side continues to unfairly draw political and economic benefits on behalf of the entire island internationally, especially as EU member.

Last but not least, that the British empire sowed the seeds of conflict in post-colonial states across Asia and Africa is a common belief. Kashmir and Cyprus remain its two bitter legacies. The UN is also to blame here. In the case of Kashmir, it has failed to implement the Security Council resolutions that call for the holding of a plebiscite to determine the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people. The issue of Cyprus remains unsettled because the UN Security Council in its resolution of March 4, 1964 unfairly gave only the Greek Cypriots the right to represent the whole of the island as the ‘Government of Cyprus.’

To be continued.

The writer is an international relations expert.