The Peculiar Nature of India-Pakistan Relations

After Mumbai, the raw emotions underlying relations between India and Pakistan are on public display. It is not a pretty picture. What can one make of it?

India-Pakistan relations can be analyzed at two levels: the political and the psychological. At the political level, the argument is simple and familiar. It is argued that governing groups in the two countries have vested interests, to differing degrees, in maintaining the status quo and therefore a breakthrough is unlikely unless some dramatic change occurs in either the external environment or the cost-benefit calculus of the key players. Just the boldness of one leader or the sincerity of another is not sufficient to overcome the deep-rooted vested interests. Kargil goes a long way to support this argument.

However, can a political position exist in a vacuum? Can it be completely out of tune with the underlying psychology of the people? Can ‘Mumbai” help us understand what lies at the deepest roots of the emotional being of Indian and Pakistani citizens?

We had begun to explore these issues before Mumbai in two posts. In the first (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) we asked if the absence of political parties advocating peace in the two countries was an accurate indicator of the fact that citizens were not in favor of peace. In the second (Why are Political Parties Not Issue Oriented?) we answered the question by making the case that the political process in the two countries was such that political parties were not responsive to the wishes of the majority of their citizens. Surely, the mass of citizens desired clean water but that too was not on the agenda of any political party.

So the fact that the majority of citizens may not seem to want peace could be a deceptive conclusion and, even if true, may not suggest that they want war — whenever the two countries have been ‘eyeball to eyeball’ the general feeling has been a fear of war breaking out.

We can get a better sense of this puzzle if we look separately at different segments of the population. We have already addressed the political imperatives of the ruling groups. Their emotions are derivative in support of, and as a rationalization for, their political interests.

We have also spoken of the fact that the voice of the poor (who in both countries constitute more that two-thirds of the population) is seldom heard and whose true feelings are little known. It is a fact that virtually all Indian visitors to Pakistan who write about their experiences make it a point to comment, with surprise, on the overwhelming love with which they are received by the person in the street – the taxi driver refuses to accept his fare, the shopkeeper is indignant at being forced to accept a price for his goods. This is anecdotal but the best indicator we have of the sentiments of the mass of citizens. At the very least, we have no basis to generalize about how this group feels about the ‘other’.

The educated urban middle class and the professionals of all types (doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, teachers, journalists, etc.) are another story. This is where we find the concentrations of hatred and bigotry that we have witnessed again spewing out of television sets, newspaper columns, and blog commentary. In this group, the voices of sanity are drowned out by the screams of those who wish to bomb the ‘enemy’ into the Stone Age.

This is the segment that Ashis Nandy holds responsible for the tragedy of Gujarat. And this is the segment whose bigotry Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer attributes to their education.

It is a fact that the majority of our educational institutions have become factories producing very highly trained professionals with equally closed minds. As the age of information and technology has overwhelmed us and as the job market has become fiercely competitive, liberal arts and social sciences have become luxuries to be dispensed with. And yet these were the only subjects that taught us there could be more than one answer to a given question, that there could be more than one way to look at any given issue.

This growing segment of the population does not portend well for the future of peace in South Asia. We have explored the issue in a guest post on this blog (Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?). The conclusion is that we need to focus our attention on the content of early childhood education. At the same time, after Mumbai, we have realized the importance of finding ways of linking school-age students in South Asia with each other. The other side of the technological revolution provides us the opportunity to do so via social networking vehicles like Facebook. This is an opportunity we would squander at a very great cost to our society.

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  • Kabir
    Posted at 03:22h, 10 December Reply

    I think you have correctly emphasized that much of the problem lies in the education recieved by the middle classes. Not enough attention is given to the liberal arts, and what history and social studies courses there are are incredibly biased. I can vouch for this on the Pakistani side, but I assume it’s probably the same on the Indian side. It serves the interests of the Pakistani establishment to focus on the differences between Hindus and Muslims and reinforce the “two nation theory”. This process of “othering” is detrimental to all concerned, esp. because most people don’t have either the luxury or don’t want to expend the effort to do their own research.

    If instead of emphasizing our differences, we instead emphasized our cultural similarities, I think we would all be in better shape.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 06:53h, 10 December Reply

    My reading is slightly different and I can only give an Indian’s perspective. There is, it appears a deep suspicion in Paksitani people’s mind that Indians are not reconciled to creation of Pakistan whereas the fact is that Indians are toally indifferent to existence of Pakistan if not bothered with constatnt irrit. With the robust rebound in Indian economy India aspire to become a developed nation and not something competition with Pakistan.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 15:39h, 10 December Reply

    Hi Anil,

    Well, I don’t know if Indians are or are not reconciled to the creation of Pakistan, but I do know that there is a huge tendency to constantly lay blame on the other country (both countries do this, btw). Immediately in the response to events such as the attack on Mumbai, even otherwise liberal people become more communal and nationalistic. In my personal discussions with Indian friends and my participation in the blogosphere (Sepia Mutiny is an example), there is a strong tendency in a lot of Indians to be anti-Pakistan. Some of that is understandably related to Mumbai but I would venture a guess that some of that feeling exists even in the best of times. I assume Indian history/ social sciences textbooks give an Indian bias to partition, etc, just as Pakistani books constantly focus on the “two nation theory”. Also the fact that indian muslims have an extra onus to condemn terrorist acts so they can prove they are not “pakistani” is very telling.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:47h, 10 December Reply


    Sorry that post was incomplete, hit the send button by mistake and now I have lost the thread of thought.

    Well educated are not only being nationalistic but extremely foolish. They want war and have another 2000 people killed. You are right about our split nature regarding attitudes towards each other. We are very accommodating in mixed groups and hateful in the company of hate mongers but this has nothing to do with education. My early education was in sixties and I don’t remember coming across any textbook that encouraged hatred towards Pakistan or Muslims except perhaps Aurangzeb painted a villain in history book. And I had my education in Hindi in UP.

    What then makes us hateful? I think this is because we are in competition.

  • Nag
    Posted at 05:51h, 11 December Reply

    Kabir –

    While there is a lot of bile on both sides, given the nature of Indian society (large Muslim population) there is a lot less overt stereotyping of Muslims.
    On the question of distrust of Pakistan – here’s an example:

    Almost ALL the major terrorist attacks in the WORLD have Pak connections/origins.
    Should you be surprised if incidents in India are linked/traced to Pakistan. After all India is a country hated with a history of almost 60 years whereas the other countries where terrorist incidents are traced are having much less history of conflict with Pak?
    Something to think over…no?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:07h, 12 December Reply


    You are right. Many of the recent terrorist attacks have connections to Pakistan. But that statement can contain a question as much as an answer.

    Let us accept the claim that “India is a country hated with a history of almost 60 years.” In that case, one should have witnessed a continuous series of terrorist attempts since 1947. On the contrary, Pakistan became a base for terrorism only in the late 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The ‘free world’ chose to combat this invasion by turning it into a war of religion and a jihad against atheism. American organization and weapons, Saudi money, and Pakistani training camps were the three nodes of this strategy.

    Read this excerpt from an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski (complete interview at:

    Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

    Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

    Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

    Brzezinski: Nonsense!

    The point is that terrorism is not something inherent in the Pakistani psyche or soil but emerged out of concrete political circumstances and choices. Terrorism has a long history of a similar nature – Palestinian terrorists struck in Munich, Irish terrorists struck in London, Chechen terrorists struck in Moscow, Tamil terrorists brought down Rajiv Gandhi, Sikh terrorists laid low Indira Gandhi and an Air India plane over the Atlantic, Hindu terrorists put an end to Mahatma Gandhi and are now targeting Christians; the list is long.

    So yes, there is much to think over. One thought is that for the victims of the terrorism, those who are no more, the nationality of the terrorists is of little consequence. And therefore, every kind of terrorism is equally to be condemned. If we are really serious about eliminating terrorism, we have to begin by raising our voice against the terrorism inside our own countries.

    This was the message in an earlier post on this blog (Terrorism – 3: Turning In–-3-turning-in/) and I still feel this is a good place for us to start. Together, we have a chance; separately, we are in for a long period of chaos.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 13:22h, 12 December Reply

    I think it is not correct to balance one kind of terrorism with another, it dilutes monstrosity of both.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:52h, 12 December Reply


    I had anticipated this response which is why I had mentioned that from the perspective of the dead, the difference is of little consequence.

    Personally, I feel we would be better off and more effective if we treat terrorism as terrorism. If we treat all terrorism with equal seriousness we would make better progress than if we deal with it selectively. Selectivity invariably introduces a bias and we will be back to the futile “your terrorists are worse than ours” syndrome.

    If we are seen as doing nothing about terrorism at home but clamoring for the blood of terrorists abroad, we lose credibility in our claim that we are against terrorism. Rather, what seems to be driving us is the emotion of revenge. Revenge will salve our feelings but do little to eliminate terrorism.

    But to further this discussion, why don’t you classify terrorism according to a criterion that is more useful.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:36h, 12 December Reply

    I don’t know, I am no expert. But for me anything that kills and hurts innocent people is terrorism. Bad governance is also terrorism as I had mentioned earlier and what could be worst terrorism than mental and physical enslavement of a defenseless class of people under the garb untouchability for more than five thousand years!

    The problem is that we are more influenced by graphical severity of terror and not the over all impact of the act.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:07h, 12 December Reply


    We need to make these distinctions because the remedies for each of these various actions that kill and hurt innocent people are different. It would be impossible to deal with terrorism and bad governance in the same way.

    Terrorism is defined as the use of violence by non-state actors. On this blog we have argued that it is helpful to further distinguish two sub-types: terrorism practiced by groups like the LeT and Bajrang Dal; and terrorism that has substantial local support of people suffereing from real or percieved oppression like that of the Tamil Tigers or the Naxalites. Dealing with these two sub-types requires different approaches.

    The use of official agencies to hurt others has been termed State Violence. This has to be tackled in a completely different fashion – state agencies cannot be wiped out by force nor can the state negotiate with itself.

    You are right that bad governance kills many more people than all the terrorisms combined but the remedy is not the same. Bad governance has to be tackled by strengthening the processes of accountability.

    Social oppression has historically been lessened through revolutions (or conversions as symbolized by Dr. Ambedkar). In that spirit, the struggle of women for equal rights has been labeled as a ‘sexual revolution.’ In India, which has never had a social revolution, the democratic process is very slowly creating more space for the heretofore oppressed and marginalized groups.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:52h, 14 December Reply

    My objection is not on tackling different terror groups differently but discussing them on the same board. If we are discussing Bajrang Dal then it must entirely be focussed on Bajrang Dal.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:34h, 14 December Reply


    That caught me by surprise. It is a perspective that had not crossed my mind. I guess, it just shows that people can think in very different ways. Let us see if other people have some views on this.

    From a practical perspective, to be able to speak with knowledge on any specific group requires the kind of expertise that we don’t have on this blog although I would love to have someone volunteer. For the moment, we are limited to broad generalities.

    Another aspect I consider important is to place a specific in the context of its relative importance to the whole. For example, if we are discussing three diseases (A,B and C), I like to tell students or readers that we are going to discuss C at this time but that C is rare disease and contributes only, say, 2 percent to total mortality. And, if relevant, that C belongs to a bigger class of diseases that also includes X, Y and Z.

    I guess, I am too influenced by having been a teacher.

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