Competitive Coexistence: Managing India-Pakistan Tensions

Pakistan and India are at each other’s throat. The killing of at least forty-two Central Reserve Police Force troops through suicide bombing at Pulwama district, Kashmir (Indian side) on 14 February has proven a spark as India sees Pakistan’s hand in the deadly attack. The incident has created uproar across India, leading to strong calls for attacking Pakistan. Pertinently, the attack has come as yet another grim reminder of their seven-decade-long animosity, threatening to destabilize the two South Asian neighbors.

The two countries have called back their respective high commissioners from each other’s countries. India has withdrawn the ‘Most Favored Nation’ status it had given to Pakistan in 1996 which has subsequently raised tariff on Pakistani goods by 200 percent. Besides, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rejected any talks with Islamabad and has insinuated action against Pakistan in his political speeches. His Pakistan counterpart has threatened to retaliate if attacked. Tensions are high amid warmongering in both the countries.

India has received condolences from across the world. Yet the international community has once again failed to evince interest and concern for resolving the Kashmir conflict. Both India and Pakistan claim the entire region of Kashmir and have been fighting over it for decades. While both India and Pakistan have sought international mediation in the dispute in the past, India has strictly sought a bilateral resolution. The United States and Russia have strongly condemned the act while China has called for ‘restraint’ to defuse tensions.

The stand taken by the United Nations is not encouraging for resolving the conflict. The global institution has asked both sides to defuse tension and offered its good offices to resolve the issue. This is a time-tested line of the UN and has lost relevance in conflict resolution. Never has this stance by the UN helped resolve the Kashmir conflict.

Meanwhile, the situation that has arisen across India and Pakistan after the Pulwama Fedayeen attack is horrible. There have been reports of assaults on the people of Kashmir studying or working in various states of India. Most of these Kashmiris have returned home under extremely dangerous conditions. Pakistani nationals have been asked to immediately leave India where large demonstrations have been taking place against Pakistan.

Consequently, a Hindu-Muslim polarization gradually emerges in India. The Hindu dominated Jammu region is pitted against the Muslim dominated Kashmir region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Many parts of Jammu were put under curfew for several days in order to maintain law and order while the security of the Kashmir based separatist leadership has been withdrawn. Traders’ bodies called for a shutdown in Kashmir Valley against mob attacks on Kashmiris across India.

The emerging scenario can well be politicized given the all- India level national elections due in April/ May. The governing Bharatiya Janata Party, a predominantly Hindu right-wing party, can take full advantage of the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiment that has gripped much of the Hindu electorate. Such a situation can prove risky in the long run because India is a multi-cultured and multi-religious country and all people are equal before the law of the land.

Pitting people against one another on the basis of religion may win political mileage but it will fragment Indian society along religious lines, create psychological distances among various religious communities and fuel communal tensions. That will hurt India at the global level and raise questions over the country’s religious freedom and tolerance which its constitution claims for all the communities living in it.

A few months ago, the two South Asian neighbors took a good diplomatic step when they agreed to build Kartarpur corridor for the Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the Gurdwara in Kartarpur, Pakistan. From the religious point of view, the step was welcomed across the globe as it showed India’s commitment to treating religious minorities equally. Besides, the move kindled the hope of good relations between the two countries caught in strained ties over several issues for many decades.

As Kashmir is a central issue in India-Pakistan relations, a solution to it is a precondition for peace and stability. Though both the countries have tried several formulae from diplomacy, to talks, and to war for settling the issue – nothing has worked.  Yet, talks remain the best option to settle the issue.

On Dec. 4, 2018, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said that “Kashmir can’t be resolved through a war”. He added that Pakistan was serious to develop peaceful ties with all its neighbors. This was a significant statement because it has come at a time when Pakistan is passing through a critical phase – politically and economically.

Politically, Pakistan is in dire need of stability so that its social sectors like education, sports, and anti-corruption institutions could get suitable conditions to operate. The political stability will help Islamabad to improve its ties with other nations which are not in good terms with it for its purported sympathy for non-state actors.

Economically, Pakistan desperately needs a boost to improve its private sector, reduce unemployment and pay foreign debt. Loans and aids from foreign countries and global institutions are needed to boost its economy. Recently, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia visited Pakistan to sign a $20 billion deal with Prime Minister Imran Khan- led government.

Pakistan’s bad relations with its immediate neighbors – Afghanistan and India can never help it. America is mounting pressure on Islamabad so that Pakistan supports the peace process in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s unwillingness to support the Afghan peace process has enraged Washington. In reaction, the US has not only cut military aid to Pakistan but also inched closer to India and made the sought IMF loan difficult to procure. To ease the US pressure, Islamabad for the last few months has been leading the peace talks between the US and the Taliban on various platforms.

Meanwhile, the Financial Action Task Forces’ (FATF) listing of Pakistan in the ‘grey-list’ over the charges of global terror financing, has offered a strong rationale to Islamabad’s rival neighbors to isolate it regionally and globally. In 2016, India refused to participate in the SAARC summit held in Pakistan. Some other SAARC countries followed suit.

Perhaps, the prevailing situation in Pakistan led PM Khan to say that “a war cannot resolve the Kashmir issue”. But, he stopped short of saying that good ties are essential for talks to begin. To establish good ties, Indian and Pakistani leadership must act wisely and consistently. Domestically, both must gain public support and bring on board their respective stakeholders to improve the relations.

Also, there is a need for Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) before talks can begin. High-level visits from both the countries at the political, military and diplomatic level can prove good CBMs. Sports, trade and cultural programmes can also do a good job.

The Pulwama attack on Indian forces has plummeted the Indo-Pak ties to an alarming level. Though Islamabad has denied its hand in the attack, New Delhi is not convinced. There is resentment within public and political circles in India and amid anti-Pakistan sloganeering, a chorus has developed that India should go for a war against Pakistan.

However, such an action can lead to a full-scale war between the two countries, involving their nuclear weapons. Its immediate casualties will be the poor people of both sides and the economies of both the countries. Further, foreign debt will rise and the prices of basic essentials will mount. Neither country can escape the devastating impact of a nuclear war.

Moreover, Pakistan has about five hundred thousand military personnel, a strong air force, powerful missiles and possibly more nuclear warheads. Hence, India cannot have a cake walk exercise to force Pakistan into submission. Pakistan can muster courage from its capacity of retaliation to counter-attack that will lead New Delhi to a tight corner, leaving it with no other option but to step up the conflict. Thus, a catastrophe can result in the region only to consume both men and material regionally and globally.

Therefore, India cannot afford a war. She has other options to use and get rich dividends. For example, she can use diplomacy, watchfulness and talks as the best ways to deal with Islamabad. India’s policy of “no talks unless insurgency stops” needs a review.

Dialogue is the best option to solve all the bilateral issues including Kashmir. In a futile effort, both the nuclear powers have been using their respective media to attack and undermine each other and to score political points with their electorate through rumors, war threats and blame games. Afghanistan-US talks is a good example of the utility of dialogue to resolve issues. In the interest of peace and regional stability, the bloodshed and war rhetoric should stop and the two sides should opt for negotiations to resolve their bilateral issues.

The global community is just watching the Indo-Pak animosity with indifference and simply asking them to refrain from the war. However, the unresolved Kashmir issue has been sabotaging peace and stability in both the countries and an armed conflict may flare up anytime as well as the multi-religious structure of their societies can make it even worse. Pulwama like episodes are enough to push the two countries towards communal tensions and a potential war- a war that is likely to turn global; possibly involving China, US, Russia and other players.

Image: PIB [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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