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March 11, 2019

From warfare to welfare

Opinion

March 11, 2019

The stand-off between nuclear nations Pakistan and India, set off by a terrorism incident in the disputed territory of Kashmir, points two two things: that the South Asian region is sitting on a heap of explosives, which can go off any moment; and that the two largest countries of the region need to get around the Kashmir question, which can’t be just swept under the carpet.

South Asia has some singular characteristics. Comprising 1.8 billion people, it accounts for 24 percent of the world population of 7.5 billion; however, its share ($3.2 trillion) in the global gross domestic product (GDP) of $78.1 trillion is only 3 percent. The region is home to the world’s 33 percent of the people who live below the poverty line of $1.9 a day. Five of the eight nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan – are counted among the least developed countries (LDCs) of the world.

South Asia’s trade performance is also disappointing. The combined trade of all South Asia countries ($596 billion) accounts for nearly 3 percent of the total world trade of $17.54 trillion. Not only that, intra South Asian trade accounts for less than 5 percent of the global trade of the region.

At the same time, the region, which turned nuclear in the late 1990s, has remained mired in inter-state strife and mistrust. It is also by and large characterised by ethnic conflict, political instability and polarisation, and fragility of democratic institutions. In a word, volatility and backwardness are South Asia’s twin problems.

South Asia is clearly dominated by India. Home to 1.3 billion people, India accounts for 72 percent of the region’s population. With a GDP of $2.6 trillion and exports of $296 billion, India makes up 81 percent of South Asia’s economic output and 79 percent of its trade. In recent years, the Indian economy has grown on average at more than 7 percent, surpassing even China in terms of expansion. In addition, India is the largest military power in the region and maintains the biggest defence budget. On the flip side, among South Asian countries, India has the highest percentage of population – 22 percent – living below the poverty line. On the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) for 2018, India is ranked 130 among 189 countries. The low ranking makes a mockery of Indian ambitions to become an economic powerhouse.

It is customary for Indians to do some chest-thumping about being a secular state and the globe’s largest democracy. Yet the same India stubbornly refuses to respect the right to self-determination of the Kashmiris and for years has been relying on brute force to put down the insurgency in the disputed state. From time to time, Indian secularism also comes under question. Of late, the growing religious intolerance advocated by the exponents of Hindutva has brought a bad name to the country. If left unchecked, it may turn out to be the foremost destabilising factor in the enormous, multiethnic Indian society.

Because of its formidable position in South Asia, India bears the responsibility, more than any other country, for peace and prosperity in the region. Not only that, being a fast-growing economy, war is the last thing India can afford, as such an adventure would put a damper on the country’s growth momentum.

It is one thing to be a regional power but quite another to be a regional leader. India has since long had the status of a South Asian power, but does it have the credentials of a regional leader? For the latter, a country needs to command the trust and respect of its smaller neighbours and not their fear. However, most other South Asian nations feel that India, swelled with pride, is out to bully them, especially when they have had bilateral disputes (territorial, sharing of river waters, etc) with it. This has caused shafts of distrust run through them and made them look outside for mediation.

After India, Pakistan is the largest country and economy in South Asia. For the last several years, Pakistan is facing an existential threat in the shape of religious extremism and militancy. Its human and economic cost has been simply horrendous, with thousands perished and billions washed away. Undergirded by high fiscal and current account deficits and a massive domestic and external debt, the Pakistan economy is up the creek. At 150, Pakistan’s HDI ranking is even worse than that of India.

The problem in both India and Pakistan is that not only are their resources scarce, they are also misallocated. The vicious cycle of poverty and debt in the two countries can end only if the meagre resources are optimally utilised – for capital formation and human resource and social sector development. This would also beef up their attractiveness as markets for foreign direct investment.

Since its birth, Pakistan has faced a perennial security question: how to face up to a much bigger and far more powerful adversary in India? All along, India has been way ahead of Pakistan on all quantifiable indicators of conventional military strength: number of military personnel, fighter aircraft fleet, tanks and submarines. At present, India’s defence spending is at least five times greater than Pakistan’s. It’s one of the largest importers of arms across the globe.

Pakistan began by concluding the 1954 mutual defence assistance agreement with the US during what’s known as the cold-war era. That was followed by Pakistan’s admission to the Washington-sponsored South East Asia Treaty Organization (Seato) and the Baghdad pact subsequently renamed the Central Treaty Organization (Cento). However, when war broke out with India in 1965, and later in 1971, those alliances turned out to be good for nothing for Islamabad. It was in the wake of such developments that Pakistan decided to go nuclear as the only credible form of détente against the arch rival.

The nuclearisation of Pakistan and India made it even more important for the two countries to resolve contentious issues, with the Kashmir question at the top. It was on the sidelines of the 2004 Saarc summit that Pakistan and India expressed their willingness to resume a dialogue to thrash out all contentious issues. India agreed to discussing the Kashmir issue in a substantive manner, while Islamabad assured New Delhi of checking infiltration across the LoC. The subsequent resumption of the dialogue was accompanied with the restoration of rail, road and air transport between the two countries.

The composite dialogue came to a halt after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India alleges was done by non-state actors from Pakistan. Since then on almost every international forum, New Delhi has branded Islamabad as a nurturer and exporter of terrorism with a view to isolating the latter and having it placed under international sanctions. It has also tried, with a lot of success, to paint the Kashmir insurgency as an expression of religious militancy.

Terrorism has thus come to occupy the centre-stage in Pak-India relations. Each side points a finger at the other for sponsoring terrorism on its soil. The ongoing unrest in Indian-controlled Kashmir, racked up by the strong-arm tactics employed by the Indian regime, remains a continuing issue for New Delhi. When the Uri base, located in Indian-controlled Kashmir came under attack in September 2016, in which nearly a score of soldiers were killed, it was instantly pinned on Pakistan by New Delhi. The Indians pointed the finger at Pakistan in the wake of the Pulwama attack as well. However, with his eye on the upcoming national elections, Prime Minister Modi deemed it expedient to stick the knife into Pakistan.

As the recent events bring out, it’s not maintaining the status quo but making an earnest effort to thrash out the contentious issues that holds the key to durable peace in South Asia. The equilibrium in Indo-Pak relations is an unstable one. If the problems are left unresolved, something nasty crops up, antagonism escalates and any confidence-building measures taken come to naught.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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