Possibilities of Peace: Unpacking India and Pakistan’s Bilateral Relations

As tensions escalate, is it possible for India and Pakistan to find a peaceful resolution? 


Ever since the attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama, tensions between India and Pakistan have been steadily rising. On 27 February, following India’s “non-military preemptive strike” on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp in Balakot district across the Line of Control, the Indian and Pakistani air force were engaged in a dogfight over the LoC. An Indian air force pilot wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot at and arrested by Pakistani officials.

Amidst growing tension, world leaders have been pleading for calm in the subcontinent.

How should we de-escalate from this point and return to the table to find a diplomatic solution for peace? Here, we survey the problems that have characterised bilateral relations between India and Pakistan in the past.

1) The Enduring Stalemate

Pratap Bhanu Mehta​ has referred to the relations between India and Pakistan as an “enduring-stalemate”, because it has remained stuck between “a perpetual acknowledgement that they need to talk to each other and, on the other, the realisation that when they get down to talking neither country has much to offer that can break the stalemate between them”.

What will India and Pakistan talk about? What can they offer each other? These questions cast shadows that darken the horizons of any space for dialogue created by the recognition of necessity or a revival of good sentiment. Certainly we can restore diplomatic relations, free all those innocent imprisoned citizens from both sides, victims of a border that cannot ever be made as firm as both sides pretend it to be and perhaps clear the way for greater cultural relations and exchanges between citizens. But the culture of suspicion that afflicts the governments of both countries makes any meaningful openness only a very distant prospect.

2) The Revenge Rhetoric

India’s primary concern is the cessation of cross-border terrorism. But the need for “befitting replies” in the form of military action to appease public demands for revenge has often been used by politicians to justify the use of force in retaliation to acts of terror. For instance, after the attack on Parliament in December 2001, the then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh had said that the military mobilisation that had followed was “to contain the national mood of ‘teach Pak a lesson.’” But can we arrive at a long-term solution militarily? Srinath Raghavan explores the role that force and diplomacy can play in containing cross border terrorism.

In evaluating the utility of force, two issues need to be addressed. First, how exactly do we expect military means to achieve the desired ends? Second, what is the wider political context in which the use of force is being contemplated? A military strike against terrorist infrastructure is expected to present the Pakistan government with two choices: face the prospect of continuing military pressure from India, or accede to its demands and clamp down on the anti-India terrorist groups. It is jejune to suppose that a symbolic strike will suffice to serve notice to Islamabad.

3) People’s Demand for Peace

Despite what governments in both India and Pakistan have insinuated, a 2010 poll from six major cities in India and in eight cities and 36 villages in Pakistan found that members of civil society were insisting on building peace. Peace between the two countries, reflected Zia Mian, could look a lot like it did in the early days after independence when “There was active commerce. Books, magazines, and newspapers from the other country were freely available. People could easily travel to the other side of the new border, with regular train and ferry services. Some people even lived in one country and worked in the other. Families sprawled across the border.” But in order to achieve this scenario, governments will have to stop listening to their generals and listen to their people instead.  

While they plan for war and pour billions of dollars into their arms race, the governments of Pakistan and India are expending little effort to try to peacefully resolve their disputes. This is despite their many promises to make peace. In 1948, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan’s Liaquat Ali Khan committed that future disputes “shall always be solved through recognised peaceful methods”. Following the 1965 war, the Tashkent Agreement declared the two countries would “restore normal and peaceful relations... and promote understanding and friendly relations”. After the 1971 war, the Simla Agreement bound the two countries to put “an end to the conflict and confrontation that have hitherto marred their relations and work for the promotion of a friendly and harmonious relationship and the establishment of durable peace”. All to no avail. The dispute over Kashmir has triggered several of these wars, and the most recent one, in 1999. The futility of the Kargil War, the very real danger of it escalating into the use of nuclear weapons, and the rise of an Islamist militancy that threatens both Pakistan and India led General Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee in 2003 to try to find a settlement.

4) Futility of Military Action

The problem with our responses to terrorism has been that we have failed to ask important questions that can help us understand terrorism as a phenomenon. Can military action provide a long-term solution? In his article, J V Deshpande has emphasised the need for clarity as to what the minimum expectations of the Indian government are before talks between the two countries can commence. He wrote that there has been a lot of confusion and obfuscation in terms of what India is prepared to offer and what India is prepared to compromise on, which needs to be addressed first.  

... it is very unlikely that a military solution to the problem is being actively considered by anyone. The informal bits of information and writings and the occasional hints lead one to surmise that, the Indian government is keen to regularise the present position and turn present 'line of control' into the permanent boundary between the two countries.


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