Pakistan-India Relations

Why they are unlikely to improve and may become worse

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan and India continue to flounder in a relationship marked by a frustrating low-level equilibrium trap. Almost everyone concedes there are gains to making up but no one seems able to transcend the impasse. From time to time there is the promise of a breakout dissipated quickly by a sharp downturn.  A flurry of advisories follows on the importance of maintaining the relationship and much posturing later things work themselves back to the annoying status quo.

The sequence has now been repeated often enough to suggest the combination of method and madness that might be at play. The mix of rationality and irrationality is not all that curious. People talk about its various elements but for reasons not hard to decipher refrain from assembling them all in one narrative.

I believe it is worth spelling out the factors that stand in the way of better relations if only to point to the major hurdles that remain to be negotiated. Acknowledging the unpleasant realities is a necessary step to understanding the challenges that lie ahead.

Pakistan is home to groups that gain from a state of tension in the region without which their dominant position in the country’s polity might weaken. Over the years they have evolved an all-encompassing narrative that rationalizes their positions and have invested considerable resources in convincing the rest of the country of the validity of that rhetoric.

These efforts have not been in vain – a number of zealous and proactive sub-groups have been recruited to the cause and the judgment of many others has been clouded. But the depth of this success has not really been tested. Citizens confronted point-blank with a choice between continued conflicts and improving their children’s lives are quite likely to vote for the latter. This is simply because the majority has suffered to the point of impoverishment as a consequence of the diversion of resources to non-economic goals whose logic is embedded in the confrontational rhetoric.

The basis for this seemingly contrarian claim is the fact that even after many decades there is no slackening in the intensity of the indoctrination presumably because its impact remains shallow. Allow a few visitors from across the border and people forget the cultivated enmity in about the time it takes to complete their introductions. No surprise then that the indoctrination is accompanied by strenuous choking of opportunities for people to meet.

Actions in India are more difficult to explain because of the absence of a well-entrenched group with a similar direct interest in continued conflict. Much of the belligerence is driven by considerations of short-term electoral gains whenever the opportunity is offered by a provocation from across the border which is just the reaction the protagonists in Pakistan hope to evoke. Rejecting the entrapment by persisting with steps aimed at improving relations exacts too high an electoral cost or so it seems to be perceived. On many issues a tit-for-tat stalemate ensues with actions aimed to demonstrate the intent of punishing Pakistan even at the cost of benefits foregone for India.

While none of the political actors in India seem to have a real interest in provoking confrontation and engulfing the country in conflict, each is hostage to the tyranny of an electoral calculus that thrives on a wellspring of negative feelings. The principal repositories of negative feelings are the upper and middle income classes that have the luxury to hate and punish without suffering real consequences. The trenchant observation of the late Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer comes to mind. When asked why the educated middle class was more bigoted than the illiterate masses, his reply was short and simple: “Because it is educated.”

The middle class being larger in India than in Pakistan, both in proportion to the total population and in absolute numbers, the former has a bigger pool of latent hostility. The feelings of this pool are inflamed in particular by the recent one-sided provocations from Pakistan that have caused real, visible damage in India. What makes the two countries very different is that, unlike Pakistan, India is home to a sizable population that shares a religion with the majority across the border. This adds a dimension to the electoral calculus whose implications are difficult to appreciate fully in Pakistan. Adding yet more complexity to the situation is the fact that the minority also carries the baggage and burden of a history that some political forces, egged on by a media vying for the attention of the middle class, are more than ready to distort for electoral gains.

The exploitation of communal sentiments, not to unite ‘us’ against ‘them’ as in Pakistan, but for divisive purposes as in India, has a bearing on choices and outcomes in the latter. Asides from the race to the bottom in electoral invective and competitive symbolic posturing, it spills over into unrelated domains. For example, with India’s business houses becoming global players, many expected their rational self-interest to coalesce in a constituency pushing for collaboration to leverage market opportunities in Pakistan. But the attraction of material gain seems not yet strong enough to over-ride the reluctance to engage with the ‘other’ in the mutually beneficial exchange suggested by the textbook definition of rationality stripped of emotions.

The bottom line is that the material interest of numerically small groups drives the hostility from Pakistan while the imperatives of electoral politics exacerbating communal sentiments forestall a measured response from India.

In Pakistan the challenge remains to neutralize the groups with a stake in keeping the conflict alive, a seemingly impossible task given the imbalance of coercive power. A rational response from India, in a world devoid of emotions, might be the one recommended by most opinion makers – to not let provocations from Pakistan derail progress and to isolate the provocateurs by remaining engaged with and strengthening constituencies favoring improved relations. Emotions, however, wield more power than reason. People act on emotions, then take selective recourse to reason to justify their actions. And when there are parties that gain by playing strategically on those emotions, rationality has very little chance to come to the rescue.

Citizens in the two countries are very much alike as individuals but the terrains they inhabit now are vastly different. In Pakistan there is fear and helplessness in confronting the material interests; In India, there is inability to overcome the communal prejudices that are kept alive for short-term gains. It is these very distinct particularities that underlie the persistence of poor relations.

There is nothing on the horizon that signals a change in the short run and all one can hope is that the brinksmanship on the two sides does not spiral out of control of those playing chicken at the expense of citizens. In the longer term, one of the countries is likely to collapse under the burden. How much collective damage the dynamics of that collapse would inflict on South Asia remains impossible to predict.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This article appeared in The Friday Times on December 16, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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  • Ishtiaq Ahmed
    Posted at 06:16h, 19 December Reply

    I have read this very well-argued article with great interest. It confirms my own experiences of interacting with counterparts in India in the academia as well as in other walks of life. The Indian policy is reactive to the blunt anti-Indianism which is nurtured in some quarters in Pakistan. I would particularly draw attention to the collective punishment which Indian politicians and bureaucrats mete out to all Pakistanis – many with known commitment to peace with India and solidarity with the Indian people – through the draconian visa policy. While in Pakistan the anti-India interests and forces are easily identified in India it must be the bureaucracy where the worst type of decision makers are ensconced.

    I share the author’s pessimism about any improvement in the sordid climate that prevails over India-Pakistan relations.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:57h, 23 December

      Ishtiaq Sahib: My guess is you are right in your diagnosis. The Pakistani policy of restricting visitors can be easily understood, the Indian retaliation is hard to fathom. Kuldip Nayyar is a key member of the People’s Initative for Peace. I once asked him this question from the audience. His response was that I did not understand the mind of the Indian bureaucrat. That, in my opinion, is only a partial explanation. It is not obvious why the Indian state does not give clear instructions to its bureacrats to promote interaction. It could be selective, as you suggest, but the more Pakistanis that visit India the more the false narrative of the Pakistani state would be eroded. It should seemingly be in the interest of the Indian state to move in that direction.

      A companion to this article is an earlier piece puzzling over the same questions:

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:02h, 19 December Reply

    I think your reading of reason for India’s belligerence towards Pakistan rooted in electoral politics is not true. Pakistan hardly matters in Indian elections but the Muslims do in some of the heavy duty states. Hindu votes are more or less divided on the basis of castes and party loyalty but Muslims it appears vote strategically (how true I don’t know, but political parties believe this to be true) to defeat BJP in these states viz. UP, Bihar, MP, Maharashtra etc. It is believed that Muslims in these states vote for anyone who has the best chance to defeat BJP candidate, therefore they sometimes side with Mayawati’s BSP, Sometimes with Mulayam Singh’s SP and sometimes even with Congress.

    India’s growing middle class too has no in interest in Pakistan; it is too self-absorbed in seeking opportunities for itself therefore hates Pakistan for its nuisance value as instigator of violence through terrorist activity and off and on incursions in Indian territories by proxy.

    I think Pakistan is talked about in India for its perceived nuisance value and for no other reason. In fact no SAARC country is talked about in India and Indian people have no interest in them. But these opinions are not hardened, given a convincing alternative view they will dump this hatred. It is for this reason outside of India most Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians bond well.

    Just my views.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:30h, 23 December

      Anil: The fact that most academics can’t visit across the borders severely limits the analysis and therefore I could be entirley mistaken in my hypotheses. One of the objectives of writing in such constrained circumstances is to achieve through conversations what one cannot by personal observations or research.

      My sense is that we could separate the involvement of Pakistan and Indian Muslims in the electoral calculus. The latter have an importance quite independent of Pakistan which I suppose is what explains incidents like Muzaffarnagar.

      On Pakistan, my comments are based on the kinds of responses I see to provocations from the Pakistani side. There are some immediate extremely belligerent remarks by the likes of Sushma Swaraj (I am not sure to what extent these reflect fake anger) followed by similar but more half-hearted remarks from Dr. Manmohan Singh and his ministers. These are then followed by concrete measures undoing hard-won progress in trade and travel policies. It is not clear to me why all these would be needed if the Indian electorate was unconcerned about Pakistan.

      I also have doubts about the lack of interest of India’s middle class in Pakistan. The evidence is literally the hundreds of virulent postings on Pakistn websites from Indian commentators. Add to that the rhetoric on the talk shows. If the Indian middle class is self-absorbed in seeking opportunities for itself, as it should be, I would think it would see that the opportunities would greatly expand by promoting good relations in the region. That is the point I made in the article – the middle and business classes are willing to give up those potential gains for some reason. What those reasons might be is what I am trying to understand.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:49h, 20 December Reply

    I think the point that Anjum is making is that if any party in India makes conciliatory gestures towards pakistan that is not going to be taken very well by the Indian public. A chance for conciliation may appear once in 5 years and parties usually take a stance based on the effect it will have in the coming elections.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 04:25h, 21 December

      I dont think the reaction will be as simple as that, Most of the public wants some kind of settlement with Pakistan, and is not averse to concillatory gestures. India gave Pakistan MFN status a long time ago, and there was no reaction barring the Shiv Sena types. It is India who was all set to implement a liberal visa regime until the beheadings of Indian soldiers.

      If Indians were so ‘prejudiced’, our public would not accept Pakistani artists like Ali Zafar and Atif Aslam, and Pakistani sports persons so warmly. And all this has absolutely nothing to do with Indian Muslims, the link to Indian Muslims has not been demonstrated convincingly at all. If India’s reservations about Pakistan had anything to do with communalism, then we would not have deep relations (including a liberal visa regime) with Bangladesh, there are multiple daily direct flights from Dhaka to all the major cities of India.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 12:02h, 23 December

      Vikram: You have put your finger on the dilemma. Both sides had agreed to a liberal visa regime (issuing visas for senior citizens at the border) and there was no reaction from the citizens on either side. But there was one incident and the arrangement was cancelled. The groups in Pakistan know that all agreements are hostage to such incidents and the Indian side proves them right every time. The only way to make the groups ineffective is to call their bluff but for that the Indian government has to over-ride the negative sentiment that is aroused by the incidents. It is not able to do so which leads to the conclusion that the electoral implications remain significant for individual political parties.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 04:29h, 21 December Reply

    The major requirement for peace and stability in South Asia is the continuation and growth of democratic government in Pakistan. As democracy deepens in Pakistan, more and more groups beyond those organized on ethnic and religious lines will mobilize for their demands, and compel the government to extinguish the fruitless and costly confrontation with India.

    What India needs to think about is how it can promote the cause of deep democracy in Pakistan without being intrusive.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:37h, 24 December

      Vikram: I have my doubts about this general proposition. The link between democracy and peace and stability is not absolute. India has had democratic governance from the beginning yet is racked with a Naxalite revolt in a significant belt and has had continuous religious and ethnic unrest on its peripheries. Democracy has not compelled the Indian government to extinguish many of these fruitless and costly internal confrontations.

      Also, it would be a huge leap for India to promote the cause of deep democracy in Pakistan. How would that be done? Many smaller concrete actions might be more effective in creating the incentives for better relations.

  • Ashish Shukla
    Posted at 13:52h, 21 December Reply

    What a wonderful piece of writing. I would like to add something here. Like Pakistan, there are some groups in India that want to prolong the tension between the two neighbours. Members of these groups are very vocal, one may find them screaming over Pakistan on private television channels, yet marginalised. These groups don’t have a say in policy making. However, in recent past, I’ve realised that their influence is growing. It was their growing influence that forced Youth Wing of Indian National Congress to protest at the gates of Pakistan High Commission and to stop the India-Pakistan Dosti Bus in Punjab.

    There is one such group which is of the view that Pakistan understands only one language–the language of brute military force. The group advocates to defeat Pakistan militarily and humiliate the most powerful institution of the state.

  • kabir
    Posted at 15:46h, 22 December Reply

    There are vested interests in both India and Pakistan that have kept the people of both nations hostage and prevented the development of better relations. In Pakistan, the main culprit is the military, which persists in viewing India as the “enemy” (though even they have admitted that terrorism is currently the main threat). In India, right wing political parties are quite stridently anti-Pakistan. In an election year, if Congress makes any conciliatory gestures, it will be accused of being “soft on terrorism”. There was recently a bit of a flareup where Nawaz Sharif supposedly said that if the Kashmir issue is not resolved it could trigger a fourth Indo-Pak war (Sharif later said he was misquoted). Manmohan Singh responded by issuing a statement that Pakistan could not win any war against India in his lifetime. Such rhetoric from both sides is not conducive to better relations between the two countries.

    I agree with Vikram that the Indian public in general is not “prejudiced”. Pakistani artists are indeed accepted warmly in India. However, when tensions over the LOC were high earlier this year, an art exhibition in Gujrat that was showing the works of Pakistani artists was attacked. There is latent hostility that is exploited by the media and politicians.

    I feel that civil society in both countries must play a role to encourage both our governments to resolve all the underlying issues in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. Greater people-to-people contacts should be encouraged to break down stereotypes. India should engage with Pakistan’s civilian government (which has repeatedly emphasized the importance of good relations with India) and not allow the actions of militants and “non-state actors” to succeed in pushing the dialogue process in a negative direction.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:49h, 23 December Reply

    Vikram, for the avoidance of doubt, India’s anger against Pakistan is not misplaced. There are good reasons for that. I am not saying that Indians are wrong in feeling angry. I was just saying that is the fact about the sentiments in India. You are right in correcting me that this sentiment may not be historical. It is only recent.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 04:21h, 23 January Reply

    SA, I am quite bewildered at whats happening in Pakistan. Clearly there are violent groups targeting innocent civilians, now even in the heart of Pakistan. And yet there seems to be this great reluctance to act against these enemies of the state. Perhaps the army still feels that some of these anti-state actors can give them strategic leverage vis-a-vis India, although one would have though they would have learnt their lesson by now.

    But I am completely befuddled by the attitude of the major political leaders. It doesnt seem that the TTP enjoys any kind of popularity in the general population, so what exactly is stopping Nawaz Sharif from going after these guys lock, stock and barrel ? I think it is incorrect to say that Pakistan is at war with itself, I think Pakistan’s politicians are deluded thinking that this violence will somehow run itself it out. Perhaps it will, but not without leaving severe sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis.

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