India and Pakistan: past and present tensions

October 24, 2021

It seems that the past is hovering over the present in both India and Pakistan and the two are unable to break through

India and Pakistan: past and present tensions

The guiding principles of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the formative phase were solidarity with the Islamic world, peaceful relations with the neighbouring countries and, by extension, other countries of the world. However, before Pakistan could develop good relations with its neighbours, it found itself entangled in a war with India over Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48. Though the then political leadership of both the countries tried to normalise relations in the post-war period, Partition-informed misgivings and mistrust prevailed over the voices calling for bilateral cooperation. The ‘realist’ thought, centred around the centrality of the state and its survival amid severe security challenges, seems to have guided the foreign policy of Pakistan since then. For its part, India, in the wake of 1962 war with China, also started to act in a similar fashion, getting closer to the USSR. Perhaps to Pakistan’s surprise, India and the USSR entered into a treaty of friendship, in 1970, which became a precursor to Pakistan’s breakup a year later.

In the post-breakup period, the then Pakistani civil and military leadership, despite being demoralised, constantly kept India in mind, and strove to find ways and means to counterbalance India, militarily if not economically. Such preoccupation with a much larger enemy in terms of area, population, military capability and human resources resulted in covert efforts to make nuclear weapons after India tested its nuclear capability at Pokhran in 1974. In the late 1980s, Pakistan informally communicated to India that it had attained nuclear capability and in the case of any eventuality in the future largescale destruction will be assured. The nuclear tests in the late 1990s only corroborated the claims.

Nuclear experts argue that owing to its hard-earned nuclear capability Pakistan, despite being a small state, has effectively safeguarded itself against a strong Indian state. Of course, the production and possession of nuclear weapons has not led to the end of armed conflict and/ or conventional warfare between the two states. However, the Kargil War was localised. If India and Pakistan expand the conflict zone and escalate the conflict to a ‘total war’, it will no longer be possible to rule out use of nuclear weapons.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that India and Pakistan have kept the armed conflict confined to Jammu and Kashmir which has come to be factored into the foreign and defence policy discourses of both India and Pakistan. India does not want to lose Jammu and Kashmir for it may set a precedent for secession for other regions. Pakistan, for its part, feels ontologically insecure if the Jammu and Kashmir is lost or abandoned. Such a development might also encourage secessionist elements in the country.

India carries extra-regional designs in terms of projecting itself as a major power. To effectively become one, it has to counterbalance not just Pakistan but also China which is larger and stronger than India in terms of area, population, economy and military capability. Both China and Pakistan are India’s neighbours with a history of territorial disputes, armed clashes and wars. India-China relations took a turn towards cooperation in the post-Cold War period, mutual mistrust and military misgivings have persisted. Under the Modi government, antagonism, jingoism and populism have trumped rational thinking. Operationally, groupthink has been manifest in India’s foreign and defence policy towards both Pakistan and China. With the latter, Indian military has clashed twice in the five years. Though the degree of violence and casualties remained low, it has badly affected bilateral confidence and might have long-term implications for even economic cooperation.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Modi government has tried to set new (military) thresholds by crossing into Pakistan’s territory in February 2019. Pakistan shot down a couple of Indian jets and captured a pilot who was later handed over to India as a goodwill gesture. Five months later, India mounted another attack. It unilaterally revoked Article 370 and 35A of its constitution that had accorded a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Since August 2019, Pakistan-India relations have further deteriorated. Though Pakistan did not prefer military means due to constraints like the FATF, it has tried to project India as a terrorist state for its gross human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has repeatedly urged the international community and organisations like the UNO to help resolve the conflict. India has been adamant, not moving an inch from its new position since 2019. The prospects of a Modi-led India reversing the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A are grim.

Another tension between India and Pakistan pertains to the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. India had become quite close to the Kabul government under Karzai and Ghani. However, it seems clueless on how to deal with the current developments in that country. Pakistan and China are playing a lead role, meanwhile, in terms of generating a regional consensus to recognise the Taliban rule. Not finding any role in Afghanistan presently, New Delhi may use other means to distract Pakistan if not China. The other day, Pakistani authorities reportedly “detected and blocked” an Indian submarine from entering Pakistani territorial waters. This was the third reported incursion by an Indian submersible vessel since 2016. A section of Indian media and some politicians have been urging Modi to withdraw from the T-20 cricket match with Pakistan.

It seems that the past is hovering over the present in both India and Pakistan and the two are unable to break the mental barriers to think and act innovatively. Until that happens, confrontational discourse and ontological dilemmas will gain further currency not just in Pakistan but also India.

The writer teaches at Iqra University, Islamabad. He is also an Invited Researcher, Fudan   Development Institute (FDDI), Fudan University,    Shanghai, China.   He tweets @ejazbhatty

India and Pakistan: past and present tensions