By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
For more than 70 years, India and Pakistan, born out of a blood-spattered partition in 1947, have failed to reconcile with each other. The sad memories of the split, massive transmigration of populations on communal grounds, three wars and the Kashmir dispute have continued to act as an albatross on the minds of major political, religious and state actors from both states. Wounds of the division could have healed provided we had a bold, visionary and empathetic leadership that was willing to make compromises. However, the event itself and the ensuing 1948 war — over the disputed Kashmir region – has instead created an everlasting ‘enemy’ image which is now deeply ingrained in several layers in both countries. It will be unfortunate if this historical burden is passed on to future generations.
In such situations, staying hostage to one’s history is never a prudent choice. Rather, leaders looking to alter the political climate need to accept and resolve conditions responsible for the disputes arising from a hostile, conflictive environment and a perception of bad faith that has prevailed for far too long.
It is not that the leaders of India and Pakistan haven’t addressed the bilateral problems in the past or engaged in political discourse to seek resolutions, indulge in confidence-building measures or engage in trade and people-to-people dialogue — they have, but they have also failed to succeed in establishing a sound, durable and sustainable foundation to continue the process.
India and Pakistan’s attempts at dialogue have yielded mixed results: there have been remarkable successes and equally remarkable failures. The major problem with India and Pakistan agreeing to a conversation is that all such efforts in the past have been riddled with inconsistencies, abrupt ruptures and a failure to seize any moment that could bring the two countries closer. With Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan assuming office in August and India PM Narendra Modi congratulating him for the same, some thought that the gesture would help thaw frosty relations between the two countries and restart dialogue that had remained suspended for almost a decade.
Khan, on his part, suggested that Pakistan would take two steps forward if India took one. It immediately raised a question: would the new PM succeed where ex-premier Muhammad Nawaz Sharif had failed? It was evident that Sharif was open to addressing India’s concerns about Pakistan, including reigning in what India claims are ‘terrorist groups’ operating from within the country. It also expressed a willingness to allow New Delhi to gain access to the Wagha-Peshawar trade corridor for the expansion of its trade ties with Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Relations between any two countries is a two-way street that depends on protecting and furthering national interests. Even among mutually-perceived adversaries, there are common interests that can be explored and the right atmosphere can be created to realize them. India and Pakistan have a lot of common ground— in terms of heritage, culture, old affinities and more importantly concrete economic benefits – to improve their bilateral relations.
An often-debated question is who stands to gain more should India and Pakistan choose to reconcile: both need peace, security, stability and restoration of multi-faceted ties, for individual reasons. India’s reconciliation with Pakistan, if not a prerequisite, may bring it several notches up on its way to acquire a global power status.
Additionally, improvement of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, and India in particular, will not only free up its resources, it would also help divert much-needed political attention and energy to national reconstruction, reforms and economic progress, while also opening up several windows of opportunity to advance at the global stage.
Analyzing the international developments solely on the basis of polarity, rivalry or resurrection of old-fashioned economic alliances is not the ideal way to understand history or the role of invisible economic forces. China and India, for instance, have had a border dispute for several decades but continue to contribute to each other’s progress by way of massive trade volume and investments. Similarly, Pakistan’s disputes with India should never hold it back from reciprocating to India’s gesture and according it with the most-favored-nation treatment, specifically in the trading sector. Unfortunately, India has imposed a lot of non-tariff barriers against Pakistani goods. If allowed in good faith, trade can creative an environment that is mutually-beneficial for both, create interdependence and generate supportive social and political constituencies for peace and reconciliation. This approach has brought about peace dividends elsewhere and could achieve similar results in the sub-continent, too.
The big question is will India’s leaders, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, move away from the traditionally emotive, conflictive issues and embrace a sustainable framework for peace and reconciliation with Pakistan? There are not too many positive signs to bank on.
Khan’s maiden speech after taking the oath of office, if read correctly, indicates that Pakistan wants to set its priorities right. Most important among them, as he had emphasized at the time, was to work toward better relationships with Pakistan’s neighbors. On September 14, he took the initiative of writing a letter to PM Modi, proposing a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, being held in New York, this week.
After agreeing to participate in the talks, India called off the meeting on Friday. The move was disappointing for everyone hoping that the meeting would be the ideal platform for the two countries to resolve their issues. It was intended to be an icebreaker — an initial, exploratory meeting. However, India’s refusal to hold talks suggests that the Modi government may continue with its anti-Pakistan policies.
With that in focus, it is imperative for the civil-military relationship to work together, especially since launching civilian initiatives without taking all stakeholders on board — through an institutionalized consultative process — hasn’t helped move things forward. There appears to be a consensus between the civilian and military leadership on getting the talks started if India can do the same.
However, Pakistan has yet to make up its mind. Resuming a conversation and its progress will depend on several factors, specifically on measures that help overcome the trust deficit and build confidence in each other.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais. Article courtesy Arab News)