Citizens on either side of the highly militarized, 2,192 kilometer border wave their flags, don their colors, scream their anthems, cheer their cricket teams, and pray for their camouflage-garbed militaries. Such is life in Pakistan and India: twin products of Britain’s 1947 departure from the Indian subcontinent, which led to the violent partition of the region between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Since then, the two countries have officially gone to war on four occasions and have sparred numerous times, most famously over the control of the region of Kashmir. Even now, this province is disputed between these two states, with Pakistan effectively administering the western third, and India the remaining two-thirds. Kashmir continues to be a locus of tension between the two nations—a potentially grave situation seeing as both states are nuclear powers, a status they attained in the 1990s. And though they have not formally gone to war since becoming nuclear states, all is still not well on the subcontinent. Despite the recent Kashmir Floods, which along with the recent joint presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Pakistani and an Indian, presented an opportunity for collaboration and rapprochement, tensions fly at an all-time high. Old rivalries continue to fester between Pakistan and India, as military skirmishes mar the relationship between the two turbulent neighbors.
In September of 2014, severe flooding in Kashmir led to the death of hundreds and the displacement of thousands on both sides of the line of control in the bitterly disputed region, with a total of 80,000 people having to evacuate their homes, and another 600 losing their lives in the natural calamity. In wake of distress, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi reached out to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a letter offering assistance. However, this has been seen as a simple formality, as no actual cooperation occurred between the two countries. Each nation’s respective military carried out most of the aid. It is true that border skirmishing did stop briefly while the armies and other non-state actors contributed to the rescue effort, but despite mutual disaster linking these two rivals, renewed border fights marked the subsiding of the floods, culminating in some of the worst fire the border has seen in recent memory. Scores of civilians were left dead and hundreds around the border were forced to flee their homes.
With shared tragedy also came shared success. Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl and activist for women education, and Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian man and critic of child labor, were declared joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 10. Though the prize decision conveys a strong political message that the subcontinent can rise above animosity for the common good, the governments of the two nations have failed so far to utilize this event to ease tensions. Yousafzai reached out to leaders of both nations to come to the award assembly but both failed to respond. Thus it becomes clear that discord between Pakistan and India runs as deeply as ever, despite recent opportunities for détente.
To understand the underpinnings of the current iciness, we must analyze several political factors affecting the relationship of these two nations. First, Pakistan is threatened by India’s increasingly close relationship with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s northwestern neighbor. Pakistan’s military is already spread thin, having engaged in a fierce northern campaign against the Taliban, as well as firefights in Kashmir. This puts Pakistan in a vulnerable position if it comes to blows with Afghanistan in the near future. On the other side, India wants Pakistan to stop funding pro-Pakistan militias in Indian Kashmir, as India claims it does. Pakistan often cites India’s brutal police repression of Indian Kashmir, which it claims drives many Kashmiris to militancy. According to an Amnesty International report, an estimated 20,000 Kashmiri protestors have been arbitrarily detained by the Indian government in the past two decades alone. Another issue is that Pakistan’s civilian government is weak compared to the military, which exists as an independent institution and has overthrown civilian governments many times in the past. Thus any real effort by Pakistan for dialogue with India is often curtailed by the military, because it uses the threat of India to derive legitimacy for martial law. On the other hand, Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been seen as a promoter of radical Hindu Nationalism. Modi himself has been accused of being complicit in ethnic cleansing when he governed the state of Gujarat, as critics say his government did very little to protect Muslims in the bloody 2002 riots, horrifying India’s Muslim majority neighbor and provoking intense criticism and outrage from Pakistan.
Border fights have become the norm and neither shared tragedy nor shared achievement has cooled the historic rivalry.
Despite the plethora of problems, there are steps both Pakistan and India can take to facilitate a friendlier future. Now in a position of national executive power, Modi must moderate the BJP and pacify growing Hindu nationalism spreading in India before it leads to ethnic violence against Muslims, which would bring relations with Pakistan to new lows. Pakistan meanwhile needs to consolidate power away from the military and start effective negotiations with India on Kashmir and India’s reach into Afghanistan. Both nations can implement a liberalized visa program so that Pakistanis and Indians can visit each other and understand how similar they really are, considering Muslims and Hindus across the subcontinent lived side-by-side for over a millennium prior to 1947, and share several cultural similarities. This will put civilian pressure on the government to shy away from belligerent policies. As for the Kashmir issue, the United Nations Security Council actually passed a resolution in 1948 calling for a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir, but the resolution was never implemented as neither nation was willing to pull troops out of the region. Ideally, after pursuing a path of reconciliation, the two nations could eventually cooperate in conducting such a plebiscite and have the Kashmiri people choose whether to join either nation or even become an independent entity, but today’s discord between Pakistan and India prevents such a resolution from becoming a reality now.
Overall, the current state of the subcontinent looks grim. Border fights have become the norm and neither shared tragedy nor shared achievement has cooled the historic rivalry.All is not lost however, and there are several things the neighbors can do. In summary, India must halt police repression in Kashmir, moderate Hindu nationalism, and keep ties with Afghanistan strictly non-military. Pakistan must not encourage Kashmiri militias and needs to take a firm stance against its own military. These approaches can be supported by the international community, especially the United States, which has historically acted a mediator between the two. However, it is difficult to predict the future of the subcontinent. Pakistan is currently in a precarious situation amidst political turbulence in the capital with some analysts even fearing that the army may consider staging another coup. India, meanwhile, is radiating jingoism with the BJP’s ascent to power and is heading to a militant policy towards Pakistan. In the face of tension, the masses on both sides of the two-thousand kilometer border continue to look to their leaders to secure a brighter future, and it will fall very much on the agencies of these elites to pursue a path for the next few years. Leaders can either choose to stoke the fires of the raging rivalry first kindled in 1947 and ride the tides of extreme nationalism to power and might, or they can stamp out the embers of conflict and show the world that Pakistan and India indeed can forge a path of peace and prosperity for the troubled subcontinent.