Although India and Pakistan will celebrate their 67th Independence Day this week, they still seem to be prisoners of the past. More than six decades since both nations were granted independent existence, paranoia persists in their relations. This hatred is particularly entrenched in India, which considers itself a mature democracy and an emerging power.
The recent reactions among members of parliament and the public in the aftermath of the killing of five Indian soldiers at the Line of Control were telling.
It all started with a statement made by Defence Minister A. K. Antony. The Hindu wrote that Antony “maintained that the killing of five jawans of the Bihar regiment on the Line of Control in the Poonch sector on Tuesday was the handiwork of armed terrorists dressed in Pakistani Army uniform.” The article went on to note that, in response, the Opposition was up in arms, saying the government “bailed out” the Pakistani army by not blaming it directly.
The government’s argument that this was a “proper response in the present juncture” did not sway the Opposition. As a result, BJP leaders continued to disrupt parliament proceedings for the entire day asking the government to directly blame the Pakistani army for the incident.
Outside the parliament, BJP workers went berserk while demonstrating near the Defence minister’s official residence. The situation became such that a cautious government in Delhi eager to initiate dialogue with the new government in Islamabad was being forced to alter a larger foreign policy strategy to satisfy the jingoistic urge of the Opposition and the media.
A revised statement, in which Antony blamed special troops from the Pakistan army for the killings, restored order in the House. The statement reads: “It is now clear that specialist troops of the Pakistan Army were involved in the attack when a group from Pakistan occupied Kashmir crossed the LoC and killed our brave jawans…We all know that nothing happens from Pakistan side of LoC without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army.”
Though this pronouncement has satisfied the inflated ego of the Opposition, uncertainty now surrounds the proposed meeting between the Indian Prime Minister and his Pakistani counterpart scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York next month.
Reacting to the development, Manoj Joshi of Delhi-based think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), writes that “Mr. Antony’s original statement was factual and pragmatic…It was also realistic, because it gave New Delhi the space to continue with the recent warming trend in relations with Pakistan.”
He continued: “This is not a one-way street; though much weaker, there is a Pakistani constituency which seeks peace. Now with political parties and the media inflaming the situation, we are reaching a point where India and Pakistan are matching each other in adopting belligerent postures.”
Lamenting the politicization of the whole issue by the BJP, Joshi says that the party’s shrill campaign is aimed at the upcoming general elections. He also rues the fact that “large sections of the media and a community of professional chicken hawks have played a role in amplifying the noise.”
Pakistani writer and director of an Islamabad-based think tank the Jinnah Institute, Raza Rumi wrote in The Indian Express that he also feels that whole issue has become trapped in “jingoistic interpretations” and our reactions “speak of limited imagination.”
Rumi continued: “Giving Sharif a chance should be part of India's new Pakistan policy, of which stabilizing and supporting Pakistan's democracy should be the central plank. The transition from a bureaucratic model to a new way of imagining Pakistan would require some fresh thinking and bold leadership in India.” He further says that “India has to show greater strategic empathy and take a long-term view of its Pakistan policy.”
As Rumi’s comments suggest, the cry for peace has never been as loud in both the countries as it is now.
Some see designs to disrupt peace, noting that such incidents seem to happen only when the countries start normalizing their relationship.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn writes: “It is not unusual for terror attacks to come at a moment when mutual bonhomie looks high in South Asia. Is Pakistan’s deep state the only beneficiary of these disruptions? Or is there someone rejoicing in the Indian establishment too when militarism, buoyed by terrorism, is accorded the front row in our daily lives regardless of the prohibitive costs?”
Another Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, writes: “The vitriol by the Indian media and the Opposition is a sad reflection that Pakistan bashing is big business in India, and also demonstrated the hold that many radicals enjoy over the media.”
Indeed, at a time when there is a general consensus among all political parties in Pakistan to improve relations with India, anti-Pakistan rhetoric in New Delhi only strengthens the hands of those who thrive on war and animosity.
“We must continue with the process of trust and dialogue.Peace initiatives should not stop at any cost”, Dr. Aman Ullah, a Pakistani professor teaching at the New Delhi-based South Asian University (SAU), a joint venture of the SAARC nations, told The Diplomat.
Ullah lamented the role played by the media in stoking tensions and emphasized the “need for maturity in handling the issue.” He further urged the Indian government “to grab the opportunity to stabilize peace in the region by strengthening the hand of the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif.”
Similar feelings were expressed by Anwar-ul Haq, another Pakistani working at SAU as a Deputy Registrar. He told The Diplomat that “common people in Pakistan feel so let down when such jingoism and tension escalates in the region. Those who stoke tensions are cut off from the realities on the ground and are keen to serve their egos and vested interests rather than advance the larger cause of peace on the subcontinent.”
In his latest book, Shooting for a Century, Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on India-Pakistan relations and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes: “It seems extremists on both sides are united in their desire to prevent normal dialogue between their respective countries.”
When both countries celebrate their Independence Day on August 14 (Pakistan) and 15 (India) it is an appropriate time to renew the pledge to shed the political parochialism that has gripped the subcontinent. The time is ripe to give the people of the subcontinent an opportunity to live in peace and prosperity.