Features | Politics | South Asia

Indo-Pak Ties a Lost Cause?

Not yet, says Mustafa Qadri. But it’s the Kashmir issue, not terrorism or Afghanistan, that’s still the biggest bar to a breakthrough.

By Mustafa Qadri for

Both nuclear armed, and with one of the most militarised borders in the world between them, India and Pakistan have one of the most entrenched of modern rivalries. But as high-level diplomacy recommences, there’s hope now that the subcontinent’s two largest nations may just be back on the long road to normalised relations.

Yet while few question the necessity of normalisation, the road ahead is riven with obstacles to lasting peace between two nations that have fought four wars and countless indirect skirmishes.

India’s main gripe has long been that Pakistan is not, in its view, doing enough to remove a jihadist infrastructure that it says is used to target Indian interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan. According to Indian Defence Minister AK Antony, Pakistan has yet to close 42 ‘terrorist training camps’ that it says fuel attacks against India in both regions. Senior Pakistani officials, for their part, have responded with vocal public claims of an Indian hand in the recent spate of bombings that have rocked major cities (India vehemently denies this, and the claims are treated sceptically outside Pakistan).

With such a climate, it has become easy for politicians in both countries, particularly those on the right, to score easy political points with jingoistic diatribes against their neighbour—hardliners and political opportunists are eager to ‘remind’ a frustrated populace that their neighbour is the root of all evil.

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It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s strong anecdotal evidence to suggest India and Pakistan have supported violent insurgencies in each other’s territory. Although militancy in India emanating from Pakistan is what hit the headlines again following the Mumbai attacks, several Indian commentators speaking off the record to The Diplomat claimed Pakistan had anyway also been supporting a widespread Maoist insurgency in India’s rural heartland.

Pakistan, too, is insecure over India’s alleged involvement in recent bombings, and its long time support for indigenous separatist militancy in the restive province of Balochistan, a large and resource rich area that borders Iran and southern Afghanistan. In an apparent admission of sorts, Indian authorities agreed to a reference to Balochistan in a joint statement issued by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari at Sharm el Shaikh. The reference was condemned by many sections of the Indian press and right-wing opposition parties as a costly ‘blunder.’ In neighbouring Pakistan, in contrast, the reference to Balochistan was celebrated as a welcome admission.

‘[Indian Prime Minister] Singh wanted to give something to [the civilian government of Prime Minister] Gilani,’ says Indian analyst Kanti Bajpai, who believes Singh’s acknowledgment over Balochistan was an attempt to build confidence with Pakistan’s democratically elected government, rather than an admission.

Singh’s approach has been widely heralded by less impassioned observers like Bajpai and journalist Kamran Shafi, himself a trenchant critic of Pakistan’s military excesses who routinely receives death threats. ‘Dialogue must remain spearheaded by the elected governments of both nations,’ Shafi says.

One perennial problem with this is the subservience of Pakistan’s elected government to military planners in Rawalpindi. Sadly, Pakistani President Asif Zardari has proved incapable of breaking this imbalance. As a result, even if bilateral dialogue continues to improve, it’s difficult for Indian officials to know precisely how solid the promises are. But Shafi says it would help Pakistan’s civilian leaders if India were to ‘draw down its [troop levels] in Kashmir’ and maintain government-to-government dialogue as it has done.

As the cause of three conventional wars and a continuous Islamist insurgency linked with groups based in Pakistan, Kashmir still looms large over ties between the two, and resolving the competing claims is vital if a lasting peace is to be secured.

But it’s still a prickly subject. Many in Pakistan view Kashmir as a rightful part of the nation owing to its majority-Muslim population. And, although the flow of militants into the mountainous area has greatly reduced in recent years, decades of state patronage of jihadists to fight Indian forces in Kashmir make it difficult for Pakistani authorities to brand them enemies of the state like the Taliban because they come from the Punjabi heartland, not the remote tribal areas.

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Meanwhile, despite reducing troop levels in Kashmir, India remains sensitive to foreign interventions over Kashmir, something US President Barack Obama learned himself when, owing to Indian pressure, he back-peddled on an election campaign reference to US intervention to resolve the dispute.

All this is complicated by an impasse over Pakistan’s access to water supplies from India. The Indus Basin Water Treaty, a bilateral agreement signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, is meant to regulate water usage. But India effectively controls water flows into Pakistan that begin in Jammu and Kashmir. As India commences a string of ambitious water projects experts say disputes over water allocation are likely to rise, adding further impediments to a resolution of the Kashmir dispute in the foreseeable future.

But it’s not just terrorism that is holding back closer ties—both countries are also vying for US support. A recent high level Pakistani delegation implored Washington to develop and normalise ties over the country’s nuclear power programme, citing the double standard that sees India recognised as a nuclear power despite its earlier breaches of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Indian lobbyists, for their part, complain that the United States is far too reliant on Pakistan for its strategy in Afghanistan, effectively sidelining India’s successful trade and development programmes in the country. They also argue that Pakistan has in the past used US military aid earmarked for the war on terror to fight India instead.

‘[Indian decision makers] don’t trust Obama,’ says Harsh Pant of Kings College London, because of a perception of ‘US alignment with Pakistan going back to the Cold War.’ As the United States looks primarily to Pakistan to stabilise its strategic interests in neighbouring Afghanistan, Indian leaders feel increasingly left out of a key part of Central Asia’s great game.

It’s possible, however, that one of the region’s major flashpoints could ultimately act to calm tensions between the two.

So far, India and Pakistan have competed for influence over Afghanistan, with India backing the former Northern Alliance and Pakistan the Taliban and other predominantly Pashtun Islamist groups. This rivalry has, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States has said, been costly for the country’s stability.

But analysts say there are signs that both sides may be re-thinking their approach to Afghanistan. ‘I think there’s been a gradual realisation that they [India and Pakistan] must stop competing in Afghanistan,’ says Shuja Nawaz, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.

There’s no doubting that realism has quietly permeated Indo-Pak diplomacy. The strong calls for unilateral attacks on Pakistan following Mumbai have been followed not with military posturing but quiet diplomacy. ‘Everything else India has tried,’ says Bajpai, including the threat of war following the 2001 Indian parliament attack, ‘has failed to change the dynamic.’ India has accepted that Mumbai could not have occurred without involvement from Indian nationals and that Pakistan can’t be entirely blamed for an Islamist menace that it has also fallen victim to. And while Pakistan has not arrested Lashkar-e-Tayaba leader Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, many of his cadres are facing prosecution in its courts.

The difference now, says Nawaz, ‘is that Pakistan is now facing the spectre of [Islamist terrorism] at home. The immediate enemy is internal now, not India.’ In the past 2 years, about 5000 civilians and 1700 soldiers have been killed.

‘A destabilised Pakistan is not good for India,’ says Shafi, who points to the strong informal trade and social links that have survived despite the tensions. Indeed, normalising relations would be a boon for business. When Pakistan recently signed a gas pipeline deal with Iran, the world’s second largest supplier, India was notable by its absence. India was originally part of the venture, only to withdraw owing to its present frosty relationship with Pakistan. But if trade links can be improved, access to each other’s huge consumer base and faster, easier access to the rich prize of Central Asian and Middle Eastern resources awaits.

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Yet despite the signs of hope, observers on both sides of the border are virtually unanimous in their pessimism over whether there’ll be a breakthrough soon. And the reason for that remains Kashmir.

It’s not clear who can ‘sell’ peace in Kashmir, says Pant. Only an Indian government led by the rightwing BJP, Pant argues, could accept the kind of overture from Pakistan that in 2007 nearly saw the commencement of concrete steps toward resolving the dispute because voters trust it more on national security issues. In opposition, however, the BJP has been happy to score political points against the current Congress-led government, claiming its overtures to Pakistan represent appeasement of the enemy.

In politics as with everything else, however, the benefits of cooperation may end up compelling India and Pakistan to normalise relations.