Recent incidents on the Line of Control (LoC)—the frontier between India and Pakistan in the state of Jammu and Kashmir—have again raised fundamental questions about the nuclear-armed neighbours’ fraught relationship. Early this month, India’s army foiled an attempted incursion by a group of 30 to 40 militants from Pakistani territory, leading Indian critics to decry official peace overtures. Indeed, barely two weeks before the latest incident, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
Pakistan was hacked off the stooped shoulders of India by the departing British in 1947 as a homeland for India’s Muslims; but, until recently (as Pakistan’s population continues to grow at a higher rate than India’s), more Muslims remained in India than lived in Pakistan. Bilateral relations have been bedevilled ever since by a festering dispute over the divided territory of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state (but home to only three per cent of India’s Muslims, who are scattered in larger numbers throughout the country).
For decades, open conflict and simmering hostility have been punctuated by periods of short-lived bonhomie. The principal obstacle to peace has been Pakistan’s sponsorship of militancy and terrorism within India, culminating in the horrific attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, in which terrorist commandos killed almost 200 people.
In the late 1980s, Pakistan backed an insurrection by some Kashmiri Muslims and supplied arms, training, and funds to militants who infiltrated across the LoC. The insurrection, which continues to this day, and Indian security forces’ response to it have caused great loss of life and property, and have all but wrecked the state’s economy, which is largely dependent on tourism.
In the process, both countries have suffered grievously. Indian citizens have been killed in large numbers, while the government has had to deploy more than a half-million soldiers to keep the peace. And Pakistan’s strategy of “bleeding India to death by a thousand cuts” through insurgency and terrorism has accomplished little, while making its military an enormously powerful domestic player and spawning terror outfits (some of which have turned against their sponsors).
In June, when Sharif became the first prime minister in Pakistan’s chequered political history to succeed a democratically elected prime minister through another democratic election, there was hope in India that the balance of power might shift from the military to the civilian government. During his election campaign, and after his victory, Sharif expressed a determination to make peace with India. Despite the historical pattern of Pakistani civilian leaders talking peace while armed men slip across the border, many in India believe that this time might be different.
But many also remain sceptical. Singh sat down with Sharif after a series of incidents on the LoC led his critics to urge him not to proceed with the meeting. India, the government’s critics argue, has taken upon itself the enormous burden of talking peace with a government that, when it comes to addressing the real threats emanating from its territory and institutions, has proved to be ineffective at best and duplicitous at worst. The latest attempted infiltration – which Indian military leaders say could not have occurred without the Pakistani army’s complicity – has added to the outcry against the government for its alleged naiveté.
In pursuing peace with Pakistan, India’s government is indeed rolling the dice. As the Mumbai attack five years ago and the recent LoC incidents have shown, the gap between Pakistan’s official statements and its military’s actions suggests that the civilian government, even if sincere, is too weak to control its own security apparatus. So long as Pakistan’s government remains either unable or unwilling to push back against the so-called “non-state actors” that are said to be out of its control, why should India pursue the dialogue that it called off in 2008?
Yet India’s peaceniks are not wrong. A country that seeks to focus on its own enormous development challenges should do everything it can to defuse hostility on its borders. Not talking to Pakistan is not much of a policy; it has been tried for years, yielding no significant benefit. If India’s pursuit of peace strengthens like-minded Pakistani politicians who are struggling against their own hawks, it is worth attempting. The benefits of peace, for both sides, would be enormous.
But it has always been India, a status quo power, that wishes to live in peace, while Pakistan, craving Kashmir, uses every means at its disposal to alter the status quo. For this reason, India’s army must be well prepared and vigilant in defense of the country’s borders. But, unlike in Pakistan, the army in India does not make foreign policy. That is the prerogative of an elected civilian government that is determined to engage in dialogue with its eyes open (and its weapons at the ready).
It would help if Pakistan’s government – facing home-grown terrorists even as it exports terror to its neighbours – showed a little more willingness to join the quest for peace. The moment the Pakistani establishment genuinely disavows terrorism as an instrument of state policy, the prospect of peace will dawn on the subcontinent. Alas, that prospect is not yet even a glimmer on the horizon.