India-Pakistan relations: Time for an icebreaker

India-Pakistan relations: Time for an icebreaker
Hand in hand: Sharif receives Modi in Lahore.


New Delhi and Islamabad must stop the “intellectual partition” and re-engage in a world where connectivity is the new currency and multiple alignments are replacing polar geopolitics

By Suhasini Haider

By Suhasini Haider

In the late 1960s, the new Pakistan High Commissioner to India requested India’s Ministry of External Affairs to “deal with Pakistan as a foreign country”. Indian officials’ familiarity with Pakistan’s language and culture, he explained, ran counter to Pakistan’s desire to build an identity as a newly sovereign nation. That was when borders and check-posts controlled cross-border travel but India and Pakistan’s ‘intellectual partition’ had yet to take place.

Today, it would be hard for a Pakistani envoy to make such a request. India and Pakistan are not just foreign countries for each other, they are practically alien, with little to engage on in various spheres.

The “intellectual and emotional partition” of the two countries is even more stark today, exactly two years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Lahore to attend his then counterpart, Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding. Indian and Pakistani societies have learnt to look away from each other culturally. This partition, began in the 1950s when poets and historians began to construct separate histories.

Today, Pakistani students learn a language more Arabic than Urdu, of a polity that begins in 1947, and about an ancient history that relates to foreign invaders from the country’s west more than the shared history with its east. In India, Abida Parveen and Ghulam Ali are no longer able to perform in India, Pakistani actors have been barred from work in Indian films, and a television network has stopped the very popular telecast of Pakistani soap operas.

Sporting events are fewer, and there is little “healthy rivalry” when Indian and Pakistani teams do meet: instead a defeat becomes a national disgrace, while a victory is celebrated as a quasi-military conquest. Visas are still granted for pilgrimages on both sides, but for all other travel they are tightly controlled and granted as exceptions to the rule. Seldom have two countries which share language, idiom, music and religion been this closed to each other, including in times of war.

Bilateral trade, which had developed a low but steady normal, could be reduced even further now: as Indian development of Chabahar port in Iran circumvents Pakistan by sea, and an air cargo corridor to Afghanistan replaces land cargo entirely. India is willing to double its trade costs and spend billions of dollars extra in order block out Pakistan. Pakistan is willing to risk its trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, but won’t allow Indian trade to Afghanistan come through Wagah.

The only increased ‘trade’ is that of ‘trading fire’ at the Line of Control (LoC). Both sides blame the other for initiating fire. Civilians on both sides suffer. After the 2003 ceasefire, villagers on either side of the LoC had returned to their homes and rebuilt schools. Most of that peace has been undone by the past few years of ceasefire violations.

The United States Institute of Peace report “A Line on Fire” notes that from 12 ceasefire violations on both sides combined and one civilian casualty in 2006, 2016 saw 51 dead in about 900 such incidents. The data for 2017 has surpassed those numbers. Neither side gives credence to claims of the other.

The discourse on terrorism is even more divided. After the Mumbai attacks of 2008, Pakistan promised to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. Yet in the past three years, the Mumbai trial in Rawalpindi has all but ground to a halt. The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi is out on bail, while 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, out of custody last month, plans to stand for elections in 2018.

In Pakistan, there’s growing belief that India funds groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as well as insurgent groups in Balochistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public support for the Baloch insurgency during his Independence Day speech last year did not help. The fate of Kulbushan Jadhav, whose release from Pakistani custody in other times may have been decided by mutual negotiation and a possible exchange of personnel, is now in the hands of the International Court of Justice.

Both India and Pakistan have recently appointed new High Commissioners to each other’s capitals but there no signs of any fresh initiative at this point. Pakistan heads into its electoral process in a few months, after the Senate elections in March, with a caretaker government is put in place. By the time a new Prime Minister is in place there, the Indian general election campaign will begin to roll out. Given Mr. Modi’s recent attack on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for meeting the new Pakistani envoy at a dinner during the Gujarat campaign, and suggesting collusion between the two, it is unlikely that the political atmosphere will allow for even diplomatic niceties to be maintained.

Yet it is even more necessary for both sides to stem this intellectual partition today. India has long opposed “third-party interventions”, but the lack of dialogue with Pakistan is imposing just that. Every dispute between the two countries is now being taken up at global forums — United Nations, Financial Action Task Force, International Court of Justice, and World Bank for the Indus Waters Treaty.

Second, with the U.S. drawing India into its Afghanistan policy, and China’s stakes in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the subcontinent is becoming an area of contestation by players bigger than both India and Pakistan. Even in Afghanistan, the coalitional arcs being drawn are increasingly defining their interests.

India’s decision to stay out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meet in Pakistan has complicated its standing as a regional leader. While alternative arrangements such as The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal initiative and the Indian Ocean Rim Association represent some parts of the region, they cannot replace the whole. The region becomes easier to fragment, as China has managed to do by making inroads into Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

At some point, re-engagement must inevitably follow disengagement. Both governments need to work to bridge the divide rather than allowing it to grow. Even without bilateral talks, the two sides can explore simple engagements on the environment, medical tourism, energy pipelines and electric grids.

In a world where connectivity is the new currency, and multiple alignments are replacing polar geopolitics, it is hard to justify the disconnected space that New Delhi and Islamabad are hurtling into.

Suhasini Haidar has covered South Asia for more than two decades. This article is an abridged version of her article originally published in The Hindu, where she is the Diplomatic Editor. She has previously worked as Foreign Editor at CNN-IBN and correspondent for CNN International. She tweets @suhasinih.

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