India-Pakistan relations: is there a happy future?


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India-Pakistan relations have been on a roller coaster for all of 67 years. The high points are always short-lived followed by sharp declines into troughs that extend for quite a while. The cycle is repeated periodically when hope becomes policy in Indian circles every time a government changes in Pakistan. The road ahead remains uncertain and there is no infrastructure that can help construct this road. There are just too many obstacles where the Pakistan establishment has boxed itself into a corner on Kashmir and any pullback on this is considered a defeat against the Hindu infidel.

India is finally starting to realize that unless it takes itself seriously on the issue of terrorism, no other country will. The Indian argument increasingly is that Pakistan must control anti-Indian terrorism from its soil and show evidence before it can make serious moves towards talks to resolve outstanding issues. Before we discuss the possible directions of an India-Pakistan relationship, it is also necessary to see where Pakistan stands in the international world and its view of itself and the neighbourhood. Possibly this might explain why future hopes for cordial India-Pakistan relations might remain misplaced.

Perhaps it is beginning to dawn on Indian policy makers that there is a certain rationality arising from Pakistan’s paranoia that makes it behave irrationally and threaten the world that it would commit suicide – even nuclear suicide – unless it is liberated from the Indian ogre. The desire to be equal to India is an obsession that transcends all regimes in Pakistan. On the other hand, there has been irrationality in our attempts to act rationally with Pakistan, which has led us to make and offer concessions which Pakistan assumes is appeasement and a vindication of its policy of sub-conventional warfare under a nuclear umbrella.


The western world may at the moment be far too busy sorting out its problems in the Ukraine or West Asia to pay sufficient attention to the subcontinent, except when Pakistan is required to assist in the furtherance of western policies, be it helping conduct a war on terror in the region or facilitate withdrawal. Pakistan sees the evolving situation, when the US moves out from Afghanistan, as an opportunity to reassert itself there while wanting to keep India on the back foot in Kashmir. Pakistan’s fear psychosis about being encircled by India and an India-friendly Afghanistan makes it necessary for Islamabad-Rawalpindi to keep its assets like the Taliban’s Quetta shura, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and even the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in reserve for duty. These are luxuries few countries can afford these days and Pakistan does not appear equipped to either manage the game plan or handle the fallout of these activities.

Pakistan right from the start faced existential identity problems. It had to evolve a ‘non-India’ Muslim identity which unfortunately became Islamist with each setback against India, in particular after the break-up in 1971. Pakistan was defeated not because of what it did, but because it was not Islamic enough; so argued the Islamic purists with General Zia ul Haq to push the country and its armed forces towards puritan Islam. While Pakistan’s present Constitution of 1973 was put together by Zulfiqar Bhutto, a liberal, it is useful to not forget that even this version was more Islamic than the previous two abortive attempts at constitution making.


Enmity with India was described in increasingly Islamic terms in school textbooks. The Afghan jihad was a heaven sent opportunity for Pakistan to sharpen its claws and develop a well organized machinery to take on India in the 1990s and beyond. Jihad became a lucrative way of life and shortcut to heaven for jihad foot soldiers, and the Pakistan Army thought it had found a valuable force multiplier against the Indian armed forces until, inevitably, blowback happened.

After four ill-conceived and unnecessary wars with India which have weakened Pakistan’s economy, forcing it to bear the burden of a demanding army without providing security, the country has seen its democracy become a farce with four military coups that consumed more than half its independent existence. The loss of close to half of its territory in 1971 may have caused a dent in the two-nation theory but the facade of Pakistan’s ideology has remained intact. The army has managed to retain a firm grip on politicians and politics of the country even when seemingly out of power and positioned itself as the guarantor of the country’s Islamic credentials and strategic security.

Insurgencies in Balochistan, which began almost since the independence of Pakistan, have persisted. This prolonged battle, one of the world’s longest, has seen ruthless suppression by successive regimes; it is also, like the Kurdish struggle, among the world’s most ignored battles. East Pakistan broke away and FATA is currently embroiled in one of the most brutal and deadly insurgencies.

The Afghan jihad, once thought to be a golden opportunity, has over time become an albatross. Pakistan has remained involved in Afghanistan’s 30-year war, which was initially taken to be a continuation and embellishment of a policy that civilian leaders like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had encouraged in the 1970s. The Afghan jihad of the 1980s was followed by the Taliban terror and the Kashmir terror of the 1990s as Pakistan, flush with ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, was now waging a two-front terror campaign against India and Afghanistan. The American minders had gone home and Pakistan could now finalize the making of the nuclear bomb as it increasingly indulged in nuclear weapons and material retail.


The Afghan jihad had its downside that Pakistan discovered only much later. The five million-odd refugees were not only an economic burden, and a socially demographically disrupting force, they served as a fertile fishing ground for recruiting newer jihadis when the Americans returned to the region in October 2001. The Afghan refugees had brought with them their means of livelihood – narcotics export, Taliban extremist culture – which over time led to fundamentalism, terror and suicide bombers. The Pakistani groups were ready to imbibe this and add some of their own sectarianism and intolerance. One need look no further than organizations like the Sunni Sipaha-e-Sahaba which has repeatedly exhibited its violent and rabidly anti-Shia beliefs. The upsurge of religious intolerance in Pakistan is worrying and the few politicians or bureaucrats who had the courage to stand up to this, like Salman Taseer or Shaheed Bhatti, were shot dead even as their assassins were lionized by the society.

Thus, the geo-political interests of global powers and Pakistani willingness to either participate in them or later become a reluctant and dubious ally in the war on terror, aided by the generosity of foreign funding from Wahhabi sources and others, has led to policy choices that seemed winnable then but were never quite thought through. The result has been a proliferation of deadly organizations in Pakistan designed to serve different purposes.


The Haqqani Network is a pro-Pakistan Afghan terror group that has long been faithful to Pakistan; the Quetta Shura of the Taliban led by Mullah Omar is ostensibly under Pakistan’s control, but no one is sure of its attitude once they return to Afghanistan; the anti-India Lashkar-e-Tayyaba which can be deployed in Afghanistan as well; the anti-minority but primarily anti-Shia Sipaha-e-Sahaba and the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are among the more notable of them. The inability or unwillingness of the authorities to curb the activities of these groups inside Pakistan has only encouraged the growth of a ‘restrictive and fundamentalist’ Islam that is unwilling to tolerate alternative opinions and beliefs. This has pushed Pakistani society towards a closed mindset that makes it more amenable to serving as a hub for international jihad. The situation has now possibly worsened in that Pakistan is becoming the playground for international jihad with groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS competing for support and control.

Pakistan’s attitude of hostility towards India began at the very beginning. Both Aqil Shah in his recent book The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, and C. Christine Fair in, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War highlight this and comment on the mindset of the Pakistan Army which continues to be the country’s main driving force for all its policies. Shah writes about how the Pakistan military quickly moved beyond the control of politicians in Pakistan and has remained so since. Fair argues that for the Pakistan Army to accept Indian supremacy in the subcontinent is tantamount to accepting defeat. Further, for the Pakistan Army to just be engaging India, even if losing to it, is constructed as victory – for having stood up to the Hindu is a vindication of the two nation theory and the ideology of Pakistan – both of which needed shoring up after Bangladesh broke away in 1971.

The Pakistan Army does not fear the Indian armed forces, confident it can deal with them with its nuclear weapons. It also assumes that the rest of the world would eventually come to Pakistan’s rescue, fearing a nuclear holocaust. What the Pakistan Army fears most is that peace between India and Pakistan might prevail and that the Pakistan Army would lose its corporate and security primacy. This may explain why the jihadis have to be nurtured and kept safe or new ones created, defunct outfits rejuvenated or renamed to bolster mutual antagonism.


There has been an enormous economic cost to all this that few in Pakistan seem to realize. Increasingly, Pakistan has become an inhospitable destination for travel or investment. The country is likely to be left out of the race for economic revival in a world already struggling against a global downturn. Shuja Nawaz and Mohan Guruswamy in their Atlantic Council Paper of April 2014 entitled ‘India and Pakistan: The Opportunity Cost of Conflict’, bring out the stark reality of the cost to both countries, especially Pakistan. They cite Shahid Javed Burki’s study of the Kashmir dispute for the US Institute of Peace where he argues that had Pakistan spent 2.5 per cent of its GDP (equivalent to what India was spending) on its armed forces, the country could have saved as much as three per cent of its GDP. Compounded over the period of the conflict with India, this would have been equivalent to four times the country’s GDP in 2007. At one stage in the 1980s, Pakistan was spending as much as seven per cent of its GDP on defence. While both countries have invested heavily in defence, India has had other regional responsibilities while Pakistan, with its single country fixation, has ended up paying a much higher socio-economic price for its political military policies.


South Asia is home to 375 million of the world’s poorest, making the region the largest such concentration. While India has succeeded in bringing down the numbers below the poverty line (US$ 1.25 per day) from 41.6 per cent to 22.5 per cent between 2005 and 2013, Pakistan is still stuck at its 2005 figure of 21 per cent. The authors recommend economic cooperation and trade to break out of this poverty trap and hope for better relations between the two countries. They also recommend the India-China model, where despite political and boundary disputes, the two countries have progressed on trade and economic cooperation.

Pakistan’s DNA will not easily allow a change of policy, only a change of tactics. It will thus retain its terror option under a nuclear umbrella that today consists of 200 nuclear weapons and based on a close military and nuclear relationship with China aimed at India.

In contrast, the Indian policy towards Pakistan has been marked by four misconceptions based on false hopes and inadequate understanding of Pakistan. It is very often heard in India and conveyed to us by many Pakistanis that while the civilian politicians favour a normal relationship with India it is the military leaders who are opposed to this. That claim does not stand scrutiny. Remember it was Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto who swore that Pakistan would make the Islamic bomb even if Pakistanis had to eat grass. Zulfiqar Bhutto, fresh from the 1971 debacle, enthusiastically assisted the Islamic Afghans who had taken shelter in Pakistan after having been pushed out by the Mohammad Daud Khan regime from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth against India began in earnest at that stage.


Zulfiqar’s daughter, Benazir, both inaugurated the Kashmir jihad and later propped up the Taliban. And Nawaz Sharif followed suit, supporting the Taliban and anti-India groups, most of them sheltered and recruited in Punjab, his stronghold. The Mumbai bomb blasts in 1993 and later Kargil, happened during Sharif’s watch. Likewise, the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 happened during Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency. Consequently, there will be no significant change in the threats faced by India from Pakistan regardless of whether there is a dictator in command or an ostensibly civilian ruler. There is no way India can strengthen the politicians in Pakistan and it is highly unlikely that their attitude will be any different from those of their military leaders. In fact, in the present conjuncture in Pakistan where radicalism is rampant and religious intolerance on the rise, no political leader in Pakistan can even grant India the largely symbolic most favoured nation (MFN) status.

The second argument commonly advanced is that by engaging Pakistan in a sustained dialogue and granting some concessions, we would strengthen the hands of Pakistan’s politicians and weaken the military’s stranglehold. Further, that this might earn India the gratitude of the people of Pakistan as the military is disliked there. This is not so. Pakistanis may not be too fond of their generals as presidents but the military is seen as the only institution that is keeping the country together. Its political and economic role in Pakistan cannot be undermined or contained by any civilian dispensation.

The third flaw in this argument is the misplaced belief that we (India) are influential enough to bring about changes in the manner and in accordance with the way Pakistanis want to be governed. This is not possible and other powerful countries like the US have attempted this with little or no success or with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, the people of the country have to decide for themselves that India does not have the ability or intention to bring about political changes in Pakistan.


Finally, as Pakistan gets caught up in a fierce blowback to its policy of sponsoring jihad in the neighbourhood and having become the epicentre of terrorism, the favoured story is that Pakistan, like India, is also a victim of terrorism. This formulation warms the cockles of some hearts in India who feel sympathetic to Pakistan’s plight. Even the latest attack in Wagah is seen as an opportunity for India to offer Pakistan assistance and cooperation and demonstrate leadership in the region. In my assessment though, Pakistan will never accept this status for India. It has evolved into a far more radicalized state than many of us are willing to accept or the Pakistanis would care to admit. The latest incident of the burning of a Christian couple in Lahore, merely on the suspicion that they had desecrated the Koran, is an example of the rising intolerance. More troops are deployed in Pakistan to protect Shias during Moharram than in India.

While undoubtedly sympathizing with those innocents who have lost their lives in Pakistan, and no one more than Indians can empathize with this, let us not lose sight of the reality – that Pakistan is a victim of its own policies and India is a victim of Pakistan’s policies. That is where the similarity ends. There is little chance of Pakistan cooperating with India in curbing terrorism when both the jihadis and the Pakistan Army have the same motto – jihad fi’isbilllah – jihad in the name of God. Both cite nuclear weapons as their ultimate weapon.


As this author wrote earlier in another context, ‘The time has come for India to move away from its Pakistan-centric policy orientation. India and Pakistan hardly trade with each other; Pakistan will not give India transit to Afghanistan even though it stands to earn money; there are few tourists to each other’s countries; Pakistan’s hate India machinery is vocal and active; the two countries never get to see each other’s media except for those who surf on the Internet and Pakistan no longer tolerates Indian journalists on its soil. It will not surrender its terror option as a force equalizer and India has no cure for Pakistan’s paranoia.’

The reality is that having made Kashmir its single point agenda for enmity against India, there is now no one in Pakistan who can dare to take a U-turn on this. All bilateral issues with Pakistan – political, military and economic – will simply have to be placed on the back-burner till Pakistan decides it wants to live as a good neighbour. Given our relationship with Pakistan, we need to keep our security apparatus in a state of alert with state of the art equipment.

It is not always possible or compulsory to have cordial relations with ones neighbours; a nodding acquaintance and staying out of each other’s way is perfectly acceptable. So with nations.