Features | Diplomacy | South Asia

Rethinking India-Pakistan Relations

Together with growing trade ties, incremental advances like the recent talks in New York are significant.

Ram Mashru
Rethinking India-Pakistan Relations
Credit: REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The story of an enduring Indo-Pakistan rivalry is a familiar one, in which the neighboring states, born of a bloody partition, are trapped in an endless cycle of conflict. But this narrative perpetuates two false habits. The first is a static understanding of Indo-Pakistan relations, pessimistic in its fixation on their violent history. The second is a reductive understanding, in which the emphasis on security obscures the long and successful record of cooperation. In the context of increasingly adverse domestic political environments – with India’s jingoistic right wing and Pakistan’s irredentist military hindering the diplomatic process – there is an even greater need to re-think India- Pakistan relations.

The (in)Security Complex

The two countries have maintained a patchy ceasefire over the de facto border in Kashmir – the “Line of Control” – since 2003. This year’s ceasefire violations began in January with the beheading of an Indian soldier, with a further 150 breaches since then, far exceeding last year’s total of 117. Things came to a head last month when, on the eve of high-profile talks between Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh in New York, militants who had secretly crossed the Pakistani border killed eight Indian security personnel and a civilian. The attack was deliberately timed, and follows a pattern of attempts by terrorists to frustrate the bilateral peace process.

These latest attacks prompted uncompromising statements by Manmohan Singh who chose his speech at the UN General Assembly to denounce Pakistan as the “epicenter of terrorism.” India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, on a foreign trip to Belgium, echoed these words, condemning Pakistan for failing to apprehend terrorists operating on its soil. These warring words were fodder to journalists keen to report on “growing tensions.” But the timing and venues are significant: international visits, far removed from governmental roundtables, are opportunities for leaders to send policy-free signals. Singh and Mukherjee’s bold declarations were aimed therefore not at their Pakistani counterparts, but were placatory statements calculated to appease increasingly hawkish elements in India’s domestic politics.

Both sides face powerful obstacles to bilateral talks. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif must wrestle control over foreign policy from the army, the institution that toppled him in a coup in 1999, and his ability to tame militant groups, who threaten to jeopardize Pakistan’s security policy, remains in doubt. Across the border, there is a sense of stasis. Singh can do little between now and next year’s national election, when his term as prime minister will end. The ascendant BJP – India’s ultra-nationalist party – advocates a zero-tolerance approach to (alleged) Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Though the foreign policy of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, remains unclear, many fear he betrayed his position after his vociferous criticism of Singh’s decision to go ahead with talks.

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But this preoccupation with cross-border terrorism masks a number of important facts. First, the emphasis on low intensity conflict is the result of Indo-Pakistan relations being largely peaceful. Second, attributing militant attacks to Pakistan is almost impossible. Pakistan is experiencing a “sorcerer’s apprentice problem”: having once funded and trained combatants, militant groups have turned renegade and now act according to their own interests. Third, as recent bomb blasts in Peshawar prove, of the two it is Pakistan is acutely vulnerable to sectarian, extremist and terrorist violence. Lastly, though low intensity conflict persists, figures show a consistent decline in violence between India and Pakistan since the 1990s.

Some insist that the theater of war has moved from Kashmir to Afghanistan. In a provocative essay for Brookings, “A Deadly Triangle,” William Dalrymple argued that Afghanistan had become the site of an Indo-Pakistan proxy war. Pakistan’s attitude to India, he explained, is shaped by its fear of being caught in an Indian “nutcracker”: trapped between an age-old enemy to the south and a war-ridden, pro-Delhi state to the north. But such analyses quickly collapse under scrutiny.

India has many interests in Afghanistan, none of which pose existential threats to Pakistan. First, stability in Afghanistan is necessary for regional stability and so preventing the establishment of terror networks in Afghanistan is India’s security priority. Second, in addition to many historical and cultural links, India and Afghanistan’s social and economic ties run deep. They have signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which commits India to a host of post-conflict nation-building efforts. It is for this reason that India is among Afghanistan’s largest aid donors. For India, Afghanistan also represents a prestige project: India takes on the role of a generous ally, assumes the mantle of a democracy promoter and wins credit for its assistance with institution building. India’s activities are not entirely benign – Afghanistan’s mineral deposits are worth trillions of dollars and the country serves as a market for Indian goods and services – but nor are they an attempt to encircle Pakistan.

Water, Trade & Talks

Most problematic however, is the tendency to observe the region through Anglo-American spectacles, a distorting lens that emphasizes conflict, militarism and terrorism. This reductive understanding obscures a successful record of co-operation on, among other things, trade, resources and post-conflict strategies.

India and Pakistan have cooperated, long and successfully, over rights to the crucial water-flow from the Indus river system, a treaty that has remained intact since 1960. The two countries have also maintained ties through SAARC, a regional body that encourages interaction in relation to commerce, culture and technology. People-to-people contact is facilitated by India’s granting of ten thousand visas per month. And in the past decade bilateral trade has increased almost six-fold, from $370 million per year to $2.4 billion. Most importantly, the two continue to cooperate on confidence building measures (CBMs) in Kashmir. Singh and Sharif reaffirmed their commitment to CBMs and also agreed, for the first time, to bring senior military officials to the table in the effort to restore the ceasefire.

Cooperation over water, trade and talks has survived changes in government, of various political stripes, on both sides of the border. Analysts are therefore confident of resource and trade-led rapprochement. Economic ties are underpinned by India’s granting of most favored nation status to Pakistan – a conferral of trade benefits – and though unimplemented, Pakistan has pledged to do the same. Conflict risks severing these economic ties, something Pakistan’s economy can ill afford.

Points of contention remain: India and Pakistan persist in a foolish territorial war over the uninhabitable Siachen Glacier and Pakistan’s failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks leaves many in doubt about its willingness or ability to combat home-grown terrorists. But these aside, the recent Singh-Sharif talks in New York are a significant achievement. The talks represented a return on the vast political capital both leaders have invested in making Indo-Pakistan relations durable, the two met in the face of shrill domestic opposition and the inclusion of senior military officials in the Kashmir peace process marks major strategic progress. Underpinned by strengthening trade ties, these incremental advances promise the long-awaited return to good relations.

Ram Mashru is a South Asia analyst and freelance journalist published in a range of leading publications on Indian politics, social affairs, human development and international relations. Follow him on Twitter@RamMashru.